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Re: “Whenever I pass the plaque on Smithfield Street, claiming the University of Pittsburgh was founded there in 1787 (in a log cabin, no less), I see red. I believe that plaque is a big corporate lie. Is it?

While what you write in your answer is factual, your insinuation that Pitt's early history is a foundation of lies is misleading, if not outright untrue. As you noted, a charter was awarded in 1787 for creation of the Pittsburgh Academy. This charter date is, compared to events used to establish founding dates by other colleges and universities, a conservative and documented date of establishment. If you'd like an example of a less conservative one, compare it to the multiple founding dates used by the University of Pennsylvania (originally named, you guessed it, Philadelphia Academy) throughout its history. Their current officially stated 1740 founding date points to the construction of a building that Penn eventually acquired, but was meant for a seminary that never opened. This is quite a stretch compared to Pitt's founding date, as classes at Philadelphia Academy did not begin until 1751 and it was not actually chartered until 1755. Throughout its history, Pittsburgh Academy/Western University/Univ of Pitt has consistently referred to 1787 as its founding year. However, there is tantalizing evidence that school(s), non-chartered but perhaps a forerunner of Pittsburgh Academy, could have been operating prior to the 1787 charter date (and as early as 1760)...this according to both Starrett and the "The history of Pittsburgh : its rise and progress" by Sarah H. Killikelly (1906). It could be argued that this information could be used in a manner similar to Penn's justification of their establishment date, but Pitt does not attempt such liberties (and supporting documentation is shaky due to fires which destroyed most of Pitt's early records). As noted above, Pittsburgh Academy was a preparatory school, teaching the "rudiments of the 'sacred six' of the Scottish universities (founder Hugh Henry Brackenridge was Scottish). This is not unusual as many universities and colleges started as such and even maintained preparatory schools (as Pitt did following the 1819 charter alteration). Similar to Pitt, Penn State started as Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania in 1855 (the founding date they list). However, Pittsburgh Academy's 1787 charter is still the backbone of the one under which Pitt operates today. In 1819, the original 1787 charter was modified to turn Pittsburgh Academy into the Western University of Pennsylvania. The charter was again modified in 1908 when its name was changed from to the University of Pittsburgh, and modified once more in 1966 when Pitt became part of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education. Bottom line, as an educational entity, Pitt can trace its founding back along one continuously operating charter since it was granted by the state assembly on February 28th, 1787. Doubt about the tradition of Pitt's log cabin origins can be blamed on the fires of 1845 and 1849 that wiped out most of downtown Pittsburgh. For this reason, very few records about Pitt's early days exist. This is why no one has definitive proof about a log cabin. According to Starrett, a gathering of individuals discussing the need for a new school, which was to become Pitt Academy, occurred in a log house near the Point (this meeting was known to take place but the records from the meeting were lost). In fact, Starrett goes on to state that there is "plenty of evidence that classes were held in a log building, even before the charter was granted". Most structures in 1787 Pittsburgh, then the frontier of America, were wooden structures or log cabins (and it appears other schools in the area operated out of log cabins...W&J's first building was one), it is a good conjecture this was also the case for Pitt. It is true though, that by 1790s, a two-story, three-room, brick building was erected for Pitt Academy on the south side of Third Street and Cherry Alley. It is also known, that the school owned both its brick building and a log house next to it that served as the home to its principal (this also according to Starrett). However, it is impossible to definitively say that Pitt first operated out of log cabin unless unlikely new documents/letters from the period are found, but it is an excellent conjecture that it began life in a log cabin, or at least it can be inferred that Pitt Academy had an early log building in its possession. Even if this story is factually inaccurate, it has at least been a traditional tale told within the university for over 100 years, and there is no doubt Pitt's log cabin at least represents the era of Pitt's founding (if not the actual 1st meeting in a log cabin to discuss its creation). (By the way, the log cabin put on Pitt’s campus in 1987 to celebrate Pitt’s bicentennial is a restored cabin from Yatesborough, Pa. that was purchased at an auction for $1,000 by Charles Fagan III, who donated it to the University). By the way, for anyone researching the early history of Pittsburgh or Pitt, Starrett's work from 1937 is much more authoritative and well researched on Pitt's early history than Albert's 1987 book. In fact, while Albert's work is well done and a great source of information for information on Pitt in the 20th Century, I've found some factual errors in Albert's book. For instance, his list of Pitt Academy principals is wrong. So to answer the question more fairly, I'm sorry, but there is no corporate lie on that plaque. That plaque does indeed mark the general original location of Pitt. The best guess, from the best historical sources available, suggest Pitt probably started in a log structure. And, compared to establishment dates employed by other institutions of higher learning, the 1787 founding date is legitimate, definitive, and actually conservative.

Posted by Mike on 08/19/2007 at 7:44 PM

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