The history of Pittsburgh’s 240-year-old Treaty of Fort Pitt will come to life this weekend

Descendants of the Delaware Nation will return to mark the occasion.

The Treaty of Fort Pitt

The Treaty of Fort Pitt

Courtesy of the Fort Pitt Museum
Rossilynne Culgan

On this month 240 years ago, representatives of the newly formed United States and leaders of the Delaware Nation met near Pittsburgh’s Point to negotiate a historic treaty.

Known as the Treaty of Fort Pitt, the September 1778 agreement promised the U.S. government military access to the Ohio Country, and it assured the Delaware Nation their own state and their own representation in Congress. It was intended to create peace.

“Both could see the benefit of this treaty,” said Justin Meinert, living history program coordinator at the Fort Pitt Museum, part of the Heinz History Center. “It’s important because it’s considered the first official treaty between an American Indian Nation and the U.S. government.”

The Fort Pitt Musuem, in partnership with descendants of the Delaware Nation, will host an event this weekend to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the landmark treaty.

The Treaty of Fort Pitt: 240th Anniversary Commemoration will feature reenactments of treaty negotiations, performances of traditional Delaware social dances, and the chance to interact with historical interpreters to learn about 18th-century life and diplomacy at Fort Pitt. Activities are free to the public, with the exception of an evening lecture titled “First in Peace: The Delaware Indian Nation and its 1778 Treaty with the United States.”

Despite weeks of negotiation, the treaty didn’t stick.

“It didn’t work out very well,” Meinert said. “Most of the treaty actually collapses within just a few months of its signing.”

When Chief White Eyes, who helped to negotiate the treaty, died in Nov. 1778, it marked a turning point for the agreement’s fate as the American Revolution continued.

“With his death you start to see things take a turn and collapse and fail,” Meinert said.

But it was never determined what — or who — actually killed him. At first, it was said that he died of smallpox, though later it was revealed that he was killed, Meinert said.

During the negotiation process, leaders from each side would discuss part of the treaty, take a break, then talk some more, he explained. The discussions were closed to the public, but news travels, so people would have known what was happening, Meinert added.

There was a language barrier, but it wasn’t too hard for leaders to surmount.

“We know American Indians in the 18th century speak several different languages, not (just) their own language but French and English as well,” Meinert said.

Military leaders around Pittsburgh would have understood the Delaware language, as well. White Eyes gave his speech in the Delaware language, with an interpreter nearby, he said.

The exact location of the meetings isn’t known, but they certainly would have signed the document somewhere near the Point, Meinert said.

“This was probably done in some house here in Pittsburgh at Fort Pitt,” he said.

Houses in the area at that time ranged from rough one-room cabins to fancier homes with siding, glass windows, and trim.

“Pittsburgh would have been starting to really develop during this time,” he said. “In the Golden Triangle, there would have been houses and warehouses — mainly people living here to support Fort Pitt and to support the fur trade.”

Congress sent representatives from the colonies to attend the meetings, while “most of the people from the Delaware Nation would have been coming from Ohio and other towns,” Meinert said.

Descendants of the Delaware Nation, who now live in Oklahoma, will travel to Pittsburgh to participate in the event.

“Not only are they descendants and members of the Delaware Nation, they are descendants from other Nations that lived in the Pittsburgh area,” Meinert said. “This might be a lot of people’s chance to meet people that were at one time indigenous to this area of Pittsburgh. They can learn about the culture of the Delaware Nation not only in the 18th century but in the 21st century today — it’s still a living breathing culture.”