French connections abound in Southwestern Pennsylvania
On Sunday, when France celebrates its day of independence, Bastille Day, it’s a good time to acknowledge the strong influence that country and its people have had on Westmoreland, Allegheny and surrounding counties — beginning before the United States existed.
A number of Southwestern Pennsylvania communities have names that reflect either a French connection in their founding or a tribute paid to a notable French figure.
Some names were left on the landscape by colonial French military forces that contended with British subjects for control of the region during the French and Indian War. Most well-known is Duquesne, the name of the fort that French soldiers burned and abandoned to an approaching British army in 1758 and was renamed Fort Pitt, later Pittsburgh.
Now the name of a city along the Monongahela River and a Pittsburgh university, Duquesne was the handle of France’s colonial leader in America.
“The Marquis Duquesne was the governor general of New France,” notes Erica Nuckles, director of history and collections at Fort Ligonier, a reconstructed British outpost from the same conflict. “It was his order for the French to establish forts along the route from Lake Erie to the Allegheny River.
“They had cod fisheries and were involved in the fur trade with the Native Americans, and they ended up clashing with the British over this area. Even prior to that, they were encouraging the Shawnee to come down here and settle to expand French influence.”
Ironically, Ligonier — the British fort, and the Westmoreland County borough and township that followed it — are named for a French native who, as a member of that Catholic country’s persecuted Protestant minority, fled to England in 1698.
Jean-Louis Ligonier became a naturalized British citizen and rose through the military ranks to serve as field marshal of the nation’s Army at the time the namesake fort was built, in 1758.
As Lord Ligonier, he became a member of the British peerage until his death in 1770.
Jumonville Glen, east of present-day Uniontown, is the site of an early battle of the French and Indian War, between forces led by a young George Washington and those of French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who was killed in the 1754 encounter.
The French and Indian War was part of the larger Seven Years’ War that expanded to Europe and “set the trajectory for a whole revolutionary era,” Nuckles said. “It was the most expensive war to that date, and it put both Britain and France heavily in debt.”
The economic fallout for each empire’s citizens helped fuel the American and French revolutions. France’s Marquis de La Fayette, a strong supporter of the American Revolution and a key figure in his own country’s, “had such love and admiration for the ideas of freedom and liberty that he came over as a volunteer officer to support the American cause,” Nuckles said.
He is remembered through place names across the region — including Fayette County, where a statue of his likeness graces the county courthouse, the municipalities of Fayette City and South Fayette Township, and a number of Fayette streets and avenues.
Other area communities that reflect a French influence:
• Charleroi, Washington County — incorporated in 1891, with a focus on glass-making, named after a city centered around a similar industry in the French-speaking region of Belgium.
• Chartiers Township, Washington County — formed in 1790, named for the French-American Pierre Chartiers, who established a trading post in the area in 1743.
• DuBois, Clearfield County — incorporated as a borough in 1881, named for lumber magnate John DuBois. The surname translates as “of the woods.”
• North Versailles and South Versailles townships, Allegheny County — divided in 1869 from Versailles Township, named after France’s Palace of Versailles.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .