Standing Where Independence Began

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jul 03, 2011 12:01 AM
UNIONTOWN – On July 4, 1776, Henry Beeson put up a sign on what was part of the ancient Indian trail known as Nemacolin's Path: He had laid out a two-street town, humbly referred to as Beesontown, and had 54 plots for sale.

The grist mill operator had no idea what was happening that day in Philadelphia, 300 miles east.

Walk along Main Street in this county seat and you may cast your shadow where George Washington, another mill operator in the county, once did.

You can walk into the majestic courthouse, sign the guest log, and look at the deed book recording Washington’s purchase of a couple thousand acres of Fayette County land on June 17, 1795.

How interesting that the Pittsburgh theme in history never goes away. Whether it is her people or the surrounding region, this one-time edge of the wild west threads itself over and over into our country’s founding.

"My sister-in-law once said, 'I think it's just great the way you always work Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania into your books,' " recalls David McCullough, distinguished journalist, historian and author of 1776. "I said, 'I don't work Pittsburgh into my books, history works Pittsburgh into my books.' "

George Washington did sleep here. He also bought land here and, as a young colonel, surrendered his only battle right up the road from here, ironically signing the surrender note on July 4, 1754.

His surrender led to the French and Indian War, the first all-out world war. Afterward, the Brits needed to pay down the debt of their victory, so they issued a direct tax on the colonists called the Stamp Act.

Americans didn't much like that but their reaction – which eventually led to the American Revolution – was never about waging another war.

It was more about challenging the conventional thinking of the day with a masterful display of words in newspapers and pamphlets from all corners of the colonies, all tantalizing people with the idea that liberty and freedom were rights worth pursuing.

People who lived here at the time had no idea they were going to do anything of consequence for the country. Yet when word reached the backwoods frontiersman, they felt obliged to form militias and head east to do battle.

Washington loved the backcountry. He spent years surveying the plunging valleys, rolling meadows and rushing rivers; he shared pipes with Indian chiefs. He felt a great kinship with the soil – but with the people, not so much.

In his continental army, those backwoods folk gave him the most grief. Mostly of Scots-Irish decent, they were rougher, more belligerent, lacked discipline or common manners, and were impossible to manage; more than once, he wrote in his diary about how their behavior drove him to the brink.

After the revolution, that "rabble" tested the young republic by inciting the Whiskey Rebellion, causing then-President Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to lead an army here to put down their violent opposition to a tax on whiskey.

Washington didn't mix well with frontier folk. He once referred to farmers as “the grazing multitude.”

And the “grazing multitude” that populated this area considered him to be an elitist.

Before becoming president, he hired lawyer Thomas Smith, whose office was on Elbow Street here, to settle a squatter problem on the 1,600-plus acres he owned – unflatteringly known as Washington’s Bottoms – in what is now Perryopolis.

Washington prevailed but his resentment of frontier folk was reinforced.

History books do this region a disservice by neglecting the incredible significance of its geography and people in shaping our country.

Here, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington as he initiated the conflict that started the fight for independence. Here, America’s direction was forever changed.

The past never predicts the future but it is the soul of where we come from and where we are going.

As people go about their day in Uniontown, most walk unknowingly along Nemacolin Path. Lining that ancient trail, now Main Street, an endless blaze of American flags juts out every 12 feet, from one end of the street to the other.

Think of them as a tribute to Washington's ability to prevail despite his setbacks here, or perhaps because of them.