A Tiny Piece of Pittsburgh History

In the time of the French Revolution there was a positive mania in France for descriptions of the newly independent United States, and it occurred to Father Pitt that some of those books might contain valuable and hitherto undiscovered descriptions of late-eighteenth-century Pittsburgh. Here is a curious little story from a footnote in one of those books, a Nouveau voyage dans les Etats-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale, fait en 1788, par J.-P. Brissot (Warville), Citoyen Français; that is, New Voyage in the United States of North America, Made in 1788, by J.-P. Brissot (Warville), French Citizen. It describes a mixed-race family who became one of the leading households in the young city, and no other apology is necessary for the dated language used to describe the races of the characters. Father Pitt provides a new translation below—the first time, as far as he knows, this passage has ever appeared in English. Note, by the way, that the book manages to spell the name of the place two different ways.

“There exists at Pittsbourg on the Ohio a white woman of French origin, brought up in London, and taken, at the age of twelve years, by pirates who made a living by taking children and selling them in America to work for a fixed time. —Certain singular circumstances caused her to marry a negro who bought her freedom, and who took her out of the hands of a white man, a barbarous and libidinous master, who had done everything he could to seduce her. —A mulatta produced by that union married a surgeon from Nantes who had established himself in Pittsburgh. —This family is one of the most respectable in that city; the negro runs a very good business, and the mistress of the house makes it her duty to receive and give good treatment to foreigners, and especially to French people whom chance has brought that way.”

A much longer excerpt, including this footnote, is at Dr. Boli’s Random Translations.

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