During the 18th Century the British began making efforts to establish settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains in the fertile land of the Ohio River Valley. Forts and trading posts were constructed and connected by roads that stretched across Western Pennsylvania. Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War and the negotiation of several treaties with the American Indian groups who inhabited the Ohio River Valley, the British were able to further settle the frontier, establishing farms and villages across the region (Carlisle 2005). Despite these treaties, however, the relationship between the native groups and incoming settlers remained tense. A division of land along the Ohio River was established to separate Colonial and American Indian territories, but settlers repeatedly violated this boundary, resulting in a hostile atmosphere at the northwestern border of the English colonies. As such, numerous military fortifications were established in Western Pennsylvania in order to combat these hostilities and protect the colonies (Carlisle 2005).
Among the new communities that were forming in Western Pennsylvania during the 18th Century was a small settlement established in 1769 by Robert Hanna. The settlement, which was named Hanna’s Town, was situated between Fort Pitt and Fort Ligonier along Forbes Road, the primary route from the eastern colonies to the western frontier in Pennsylvania (Carlisle 2005). In 1773, Westmoreland County was established in response to further western expansion. This county encompassed a large portion of southwestern Pennsylvania, and included the growing communities of Hanna’s Town, and Pittsburgh (Carlisle 2005). Hanna’s Town was shortly thereafter selected as the county seat, making it the first English county seat west of the Alleghenies. This promoted new business and increased travel to the community, which allowed Hanna’s Town to grow and thrive. By 1775, the town rivaled Pittsburgh in size, boasting over 30 domestic structures including a blockhouse, jail, three taverns, numerous log houses and outbuildings, and a stockade called Fort Reed (Ford 2014).
Hanna’s Town developed during a critical period in our nation’s history. Tensions between American colonists and the British government were rapidly rising, and small militias began to form across the colonies in preparation for conflict. On April 19, 1775, a small group of barely trained men faced an army of British soldiers at Lexington, and the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired. This “shot heard ‘round the world” marked the beginning of an eight year battle for independence, in which the western frontier would play a significant role (Richardson 2007).
Less than one month after the events at Lexington and Concord, the people of Hanna’s Town gathered at Hanna’s Tavern to prepare a document that declared their unanimous resolve against the tyranny and oppression that had been exhibited by English Parliament. The document, known as the Hanna’s Town Resolves, declared that should further tyrannical acts take place, the people of Hanna’s Town were prepared to form a military body to oppose them. The Resolves were written and signed on May 16, 1775, more than a year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence (Westmoreland County Historical Society 2011).
The western frontier was the stage for numerous battles during the Revolutionary War. New weapons and fighting styles were implemented by the militiamen who fought in the region as they battled to protect the colonies from both the British troops and their American Indian allies, many of whom were invading from Fort Niagara. The British gained the loyalty of the American Indians in the region by taking advantage of the already tense relationship they had with the settlers and guaranteeing the protection of their territory should the British win the war. Hundreds of men from Hanna’s Town and other small frontier communities in Western Pennsylvania joined the militias, while others back home struggled to cope with the various hardships of war that struck their communities, such as the scarcity of goods and supplies reaching the region (Carlisle 2005).
The militiamen of the western frontier continued to defend the region throughout the war, which came to a close in 1781 with the battle of Yorktown. The fighting in the north did not immediately cease, however, and in one of the final acts of the Revolutionary War, Hanna’s Town became the target of an attack by a group of Seneca and their British allies from Fort Niagara.
On July 13, 1782, approximately 250-300 Seneca and a small group of their British allies raided Hanna’s Town, killing most of the livestock, and burning all but two houses to the ground (Richardson 2007). The majority of the townspeople quickly took refuge in Fort Reed, which minimized the number of human casualties suffered in the attack. The town, however, was completely lost. Accounts written by townspeople describe the attack and the great devastation left behind. Approximately seven to eight miles of countryside surrounding Hanna’s Town were also burned, and in total 15 people were killed and 10 were taken prisoner, including Robert Hanna’s wife and daughter (Carlisle 2005). Hanna’s Town never recovered from the devastation it experienced, and in 1786 the county seat was moved to Greensburg, and the once thriving village of Hanna’s Town became farmland (Carlisle 2005).
The relatively short occupation of Hanna’s Town and the role it played in Western Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War make it a unique site that began to attract the attention of historians and archaeologists in the mid-20th Century. Westmoreland County acquired the property in 1969, and in 1972 the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Several archaeological projects were conducted in the decades that followed by both professional and avocational archaeologists and numerous volunteers.
The efforts of these archaeologists resulted in the excavation of a large portion of the site and the identification of several features, including Fort Reed, which have helped researchers gain a better understanding of how the town was organized. In 2011, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) began contributing to these efforts by conducting their bi-annual historical archaeological field school at the site under the direction of Dr. Ben Ford.
The story of Hanna’s Town provides a unique glimpse into the lives of Colonial Americans on the western frontier. The town was founded in a newly colonized part of the world, and very swiftly became the heart of the region when it gained the title of Westmoreland County seat. When conflict began to rise in the east, the people of Hanna’s Town were quick to challenge the tyranny of the British with the Hanna’s Town Resolves, promising to take up arms should the oppression continue. Throughout the war, citizens of Hanna’s Town fought to protect the colonies against the British troops who were invading from the north, as well as their American Indian allies. In the end, Hanna’s Town was destroyed in an attack that was fueled not only by years of war with the British, but by the intense hostility that had been building between colonists and American Indians since settlers first began to occupy Western Pennsylvania.
Archaeology has allowed us to bring the story of Hanna’s Town to life by introducing new information on the site and the people who once inhabited it. By sharing this information and continuing to conduct further research, archaeologists can continue to contribute to our understanding of the history of Hanna’s Town and the Revolutionary War on the western frontier.
To learn more about Hanna’s Town, please visit the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s website:
Carlisle, Ronald C.
2005 An Overview of Prior Historical Research on Hanna’s Town, the First County Seat of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Historic Research Consultants. Submitted to Westmoreland County Historical Society.
Ford, Benjamin L.
2014 Preliminary Analysis of the Hanna’s Town Collection and how it can Help Us Present the Site to the Public. Paper presented at the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology Annual Meeting.
Richardson III, James B.
2007 Destruction. Western Pennsylvania History. 17-23.
Westmoreland County Historical Society
2011 Today in History: Hanna’s Town Resolves. Electronic document, http://www.westmorelandhistory.org/news/gethistory.cfm?ID=18, accessed June 29, 2015.