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“A Colony Sprung From Hell”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pennsylvania’s second largest city might well have ended up in Virginia, and the struggle between colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia over what would become Pittsburgh is the focus of the latest book by Dan Barr, university professor of history at Robert Morris University.

A Colony Sprung From Hell: Pittsburgh and the Struggle for Authority on the Western Frontier, 1744-1794 is Barr’s third book and examines the dispute over political control over southwestern Pennsylvania. Barr shows how this fight between Pennsylvania and Virginia created a chaotic, undisciplined region that struggled for security and stability for the better part of 50 years.

“Both had a legitimate claim because the southwestern part of Pennsylvania had never been measured and the Virginia charter gave it claim to pretty much everything it wanted,” said Barr.

 A southwestern Pennsylvania native, Barr has always had a fascination for Fort Pitt and the Revolutionary War, specifically with Native Americans in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh region. His original plans were to publish a book about the military aspect of the Revolutionary War in western Pennsylvania until he began unraveling compelling facts about how the war actually began. His book became less about the history of the war and more about the struggle for who was going to be in control of the Forks of the Ohio.

“The contested jurisdiction between Pennsylvania and Virginia really permeated everything I wanted to write about, so I started to go back and find out where everything started and it took me 40 years prior to the war,” says Barr.

The title of the book comes from a recovered letter from British Colonel Henry Bouquet, writing about the unruly and chaotic population outside the walls of Fort Pitt, describing it as “a Colony sprung from Hell for the scourge of mankind.”

This book evolved from his doctoral dissertation and took the professor 10 years to write and publish. He now uses it to teach his courses “Pennsylvania History” and “Pittsburgh History” and says his teaching style changed after completing it.

“The events that went on here affected the whole colony and state, so knowing this changes the way I look at and teach about Pennsylvania history,” he says.

Although Robert Morris the man does not figure in Barr’s book, he notes that the university’s proximity to Pittsburgh definitely helps this information resonate with his students.

Barr has authored two other books, Unconquered, the Iroquois League at War in Colonial America and The Boundaries Between Us: Natives and Newcomers along the Frontiers of the Old Northwest Territory 1750-1850.