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The Steelers Weren't the First to Make History at Heinz Field

You see them on Sundays, the savages with their faces painted, screaming full force, taunting their enemies. They are the Steelers fans of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, watching their team make "history." But we bet they don't know of another kind of history that was made on the site of Heinz Field, on the north shore of the Allegheny River at the spot known as the Forks of the Ohio, where the Allegheny intersects the Monongahela to form the mighty Ohio River. Here in 1758 sat the French military base of Fort Duquesne. And here on the evening of September 14, during the French & Indian War, savages with faces painted screamed full force, taunting their enemies. Enemies they were about to torture to death.

Flash back to a few days earlier at the British base camp at Loyalhanna Creek, 60 miles east of the Forks. (This camp would soon be renamed Fort Ligonier.) Here amidst the bustle of a powerful army, a very sensible British officer named Col. Henry Bouquet was having a private conversation with Major James Grant of the Highland Regiment. Grant was convincing Bouquet to release 800 troops for a reconnaissance-in-force on Fort Duquesne. Why level-headed Bouquet agreed to this raid no one quite knows. Up to this point, he had steered the army of his superior, Gen. John Forbes, with consummate skill, leaving nothing to chance. They had cut a road west across Pennsylvania clear from Philadelphia, and it seemed inevitable that they would soon lay careful siege to Fort Duquesne without a risky recon mission.

But Bouquet did approve Grant's plan, and the Major set out for the Forks with a combined force of Highlanders and colonials from Virginia and Pennsylvania, and reached it undetected on the evening of September 13, 1758. Grant was a veteran Scottish officer and should have commanded better that night. As depicted in the Paladin production, George Washington's First War, Grant issued a series of confusing orders, argued with his officers, and soon called attention to his troops before they could be placed. What followed was a wild melee in the forested heights above Fort Duquesne. It would be known to history as "Grant's Defeat," one of the bloodiest victories ever won by Native American forces in North America. Hundreds of Highlanders, Virginians, and Pennsylvanians died that day as French-allied tribes spilled out of Fort Duquesne and swept over their British foes.

Grant was captured in the battle, along with other senior officers. The dead on the field were looted and scalped, and some common soldiers--those not seen as prisoners of value to be traded later--were marched back to the fort, and then taken across to the north shore of the Allegheny (just as they had been after Braddock's Defeat, as witnessed by British prisoner James Smith). Here historian Ed Gaudelli, a Pittsburgh-based authority on Grant's Defeat, picked up the story during on-camera interviews for George Washington's First War:

Prisoners were taken across the Allegheny River to Smoky Island, where executions took place. That's how this little island got its name, because of the burnings at the stake. It was one of two islands opposite Fort Duquesne, and since they were easily defended in case of attack, this is where the Indians camped while they conducted business at the fort. Here, after Grant's Defeat, the Indians began the process of marking captured soldiers for death. They had already made Grant's men run the gauntlet over by the fort. Now they burned several at the stake.

Until, that is, an unexpected turn of events:

One Highland soldier from the 77th Regiment by the name of Allen McPherson saw several of his comrades tortured to death, and he decided that just wasn't for him. He appealed to the Indians' superstitious nature, telling them that he knew how to make a magic ointment that would prohibit the Indians from cutting off his head. The Indians wanted him to prove this, so they let him go into the woods under guard to gather ingredients for his ointment. He made the concoction, slathered it on his neck and put his head on a log. He dared the biggest, strongest warrior with the sharpest tomahawk to try to kill him. An Indian obliged, and as the head of Allen McPherson rolled on the ground, the Indians were amazed that McPherson had been so ingenious in escaping torture and burning at the stake; so amazed in fact that they spared the rest of the Highland soldiers who had been marked for execution.

As history tells us, the French withdrew from the Forks of the Ohio two months later and destroyed Fort Duquesne rather than let it fall into the hands of Forbes' army. But that isn't the end of this grisly chapter in the history of the Forks of the Ohio. As Gaudelli described:

When Gen. Forbes and Col. Bouquet arrived with their forces on the 25th of November, Fort Duquesne was a smoking ruin. As they approached the entrance to the fort, along the path that the Indians used to make their captives run the gauntlet, they saw saw several wooden spikes on either side of the path. On each spike was mounted the head of a Highland soldier with their kilts tied mockingly underneath.

In the nineteenth century, the islands were dredged to make way for commercial river navigation, and 150 years later, Heinz Field was erected on the spot where Indian villages once stood. So the next time you see Heinz Field on television with its cheering Steelers fans waving terrible towels and performing other rituals, remember the darker rituals performed there in earlier times, and remember also the brave souls of Grant's doomed army who met their fate on the bank of the Allegheny on September 14, 1758.




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