Hey, what's the origin of the names of McKeesport and McKees Rocks? Who was this Mr. McKee? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hey, what's the origin of the names of McKeesport and McKees Rocks? Who was this Mr. McKee?

Question submitted by: David Branning

Just think: Even William Pitt had to settle for having only one post-industrial Rust Belt community named after him. Hard to believe one man could be responsible for creating two such communities, isn't it?


And there's a reason it's hard to believe: One man wasn't responsible for creating the thriving communities of McKeesport and McKees Rocks. They were two different McKees entirely. They weren't even related, except perhaps by bad circumstance.


McKeesport was originally settled by the family of one David McKee, who bought much of its land between the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers in the late 1760s. The area was first known as McKees Ferry, thanks to a pre-Revolutionary water taxi that McKee began running to carry travelers from the south to Pittsburgh. (The Mon-Fayette Expressway was centuries away from completion back then, just as it is today.) But the name McKeesport wouldn't be born for another few decades.


Appropriately enough, given its recent economic history, when the town was founded, it was out of a desperate attempt to pay off a debt.


One of David McKee's sons, John, had agreed to insure a military contract taken out by his wife's brother. The deal fell through -- proving that it's a bad idea to put yourself out for an in-law -- and John McKee was on the hook to pay for the missing goods. But he didn't have the money, because much of his wealth was tied up in land. So with nowhere else to turn, in 1795 he laid out a town on his land and began selling lots in McKee's Ferry. He advertised the place as being "near several grist and saw mills" and also "nearer Philadelphia than Pittsburgh is." (As far as I know, that's all Monroeville has going for it too.)


Sadly, McKee's stratagem didn't work. Legal questions were raised about his title to the land, and the sales never brought in enough money. As Walter Riggs writes in a 1930 Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine account of McKeesport's early days, "It is difficult to scan the deeds [McKee did sell] without being conscious of the supreme, but futile, efforts made by the Founder of McKeesport to save his home from the wreckage of his blighted hopes and blasted fortunes." But hey, if it weren't for blasted fortunes, McKeesport wouldn't have any fortune at all.


Incidentally, Riggs notes that sometime in 1795 the name of the abortive town changed from McKee's Ferry to McKee's Port: "This no doubt became necessary [because] a small settlement near the present site of McKee's Rocks had meanwhile assumed the name of McKee's Ferry," Riggs writes. "[T]he change was decided upon to avoid confusion." You can see how well that worked.


But in fact McKees Rocks was named after the family of Alexander McKee, who bought his land in the 1760s as well. McKee was an Indian agent, who carried out trade and acted as a sort of diplomat between the English colonists and the Native Americans. In those days, McKee was a man of considerable renown, having hosted George Washington at a dinner party in 1770. But when the Revolutionary War began, McKee came under a cloud of suspicion. As George Swetnam writes in The McKees Rocks Story, some suspected McKee of being a British spy, and he was called in for questioning. "Instead," Swetnam writes, McKee "fled to ... Indian country, spreading slander against the Americans wherever he went."


Swetnam doesn't dwell on what these slanders might have been -- maybe that treaties signed by Americans weren't worth the paper they were printed on. McKee himself probably had some first-hand knowledge of the more shameful dealings. McKee acted as the translator for the garrison stationed at Fort Pitt, and persuaded a band of warring Indians to take a peace offering -- blankets which had been used in the fort's smallpox ward, "hoping, no doubt, for the best," as historian Leland Baldwin put it. Thus McKee had a small part in establishing one of the first deliberate uses of biological warfare in the new world.


Perhaps understandably, McKees Rocks residents often prefer to claim that their city was named after Alexander McKee's brother, James. They may be right, though it's hard to be sure. But what the heck -- at least people don't think it was named after some deadbeat who couldn't pay his bills.


Correction: Two weeks ago, I identified notorious political boss Christopher Magee as a mayor of Pittsburgh. Not so; Magee served as a state Senator and a city treasurer, but was never made mayor.

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