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Hanna's Town colonists took own path to independence

| Tuesday, July 3, 2012, 11:10 p.m.

On a spring day 237 years ago, as news of the battles of Lexington and Concord spread, men gathered at Robert Hanna's tavern north of Greensburg to lay the groundwork for breaking from Great Britain and establish the underpinnings of a new country.

Another gathering in Pittsburgh that day — May 16, 1775 — produced similar results.

“Some people might look at these documents as precursors to the Declaration of Independence, but their differences are what make the Declaration of Independence such an incredible document,” said Andrew Gaerte, education manager at Fort Pitt Museum.

When their differences with the British government were resolved, colonists in Pittsburgh and Hanna's Town planned to dissolve their militias and return to the British nest, experts said.

“They wanted to be full-fledged members of what they had once known as the freest country in the world,” said Pauline Maier, professor of American history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They eventually accepted independence only because they thought they had no alternative.”

The British sent 700 soldiers in April to destroy guns and ammunition the colonists stored in Concord, and colonists here feared the British could extend the “same system of tyranny and oppression” to other parts of America.

They voted to take up arms against the British two weeks before North Carolina adopted resolves declaring all laws originating from the British king or Parliament to be null and void — almost a year before the Declaration of Independence.

“We will immediately form ourselves into a military body, to consist of companies to be made up out of the several townships under the ... Association of Westmoreland County,” the Hanna's Town resolves state.

The Fort Pitt Museum displays the Rattlesnake Flag of that unit, Col. John Proctor's 1st Battalion.

The Hanna's Town document stopped short of declaring independence, probably because of input from Arthur St. Clair, a loyal British subject who worked for William Penn, said Lisa Hayes, executive director of Westmoreland County Historical Society.

“Pennsylvania was more on the moderate side ... not like the radicals Samuel Adams and John Adams in Boston,” said Alexander Tsesis, a professor at Loyola University School of Law.

The resolves approved in Pittsburgh authorized the collection of enough money from constituents “to purchase half a pound of gunpowder, one pound of lead, flints and cartridge paper.”

Colonists issued as many as 90 other “declarations” of independence, or resolves, between April and early July 1776 in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

The earliest declarations came from Worcester, Mass., in October 1774, so the “Hanna's Town resolutions are quite remarkable,” Maier said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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