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225 years later, anthropologist reveals attackers of Hanna’s Town

by Ramit Plushnick-Masti
Hanna’s Town, Pennslyvania (AP) 9-07

Tucked away in the rolling green hills southeast of Pittsburgh are a few log cabins and a fort, a recreation of what the colonial Hanna’s Town would have looked like before it was burned down in a post-Revolutionary War attack.

On the eve of the attack in June 1782, Hanna’s Town had more than 30 log cabins, three taverns and a courthouse. It was the first county seat west of the Allegheny Mountains and was considered a rival to Pittsburgh on the western frontier.

Now, 225 years after the town’s demise in an attack by more than 300 American Indian warriors and two dozen British troops, anthropologist Jim Richardson has uncovered who conceived and led the assault.

Richardson, curator emeritus of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s anthropology department, has concluded Seneca chief Sayenqueraghta planned the attack. The conclusion breaks with long-standing belief that the British had riled up their allies to make a last attempt at victory after their 1781 surrender in Yorktown.

“It was the biggest attack that occurred during the Revolutionary War in western Pennsylvania. It was also in some ways a nonevent and historically it never got into literature,” said Richardson, who is publishing the findings in the summer and fall issues of Western Pennsylvania History magazine.

“Yorktown had already occurred, the British had already surrendered and the British in Fort Niagara were trying to hold back any more attacks,” Richardson said. “They were doomed. The war was over.”

But Sayenqueraghta had different ideas. An Indian chief better known as Old Smoke, he was revered by his people and respected by the British because he commanded a contingent of at least 3,000 men.

Hanna’s Town – the only true example of civilian government in the western Pennsylvania frontier – was a prime target for Sayenqueraghta.

“At the time the town was burned down, people were beginning to get established here,” said Joanna Moyar, educational coordinator of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, pointing to pieces of Chinese porcelain and other artifacts that archeologists have found at the site.

The chief was bent on revenge after members of a Westmoreland County militia burned his town, forcing his displaced tribe to establish a new village near Fort Niagara. Sayenqueraghta long had his eye on both Hanna’s Town and Fort Pitt, the military encampment about 30 miles away in what is now Pittsburgh.

Correspondence that Richardson has examined shows the British opposed such an attack, knowing that if they captured Fort Pitt they would not be able to resupply the stronghold in the middle of territory controlled by the enemy.

“(The British) kept holding him back,” said Richardson, who has been studying the attack for 37 years. “In June 1782 he had enough and took off to go down and attack Hanna’s Town.”

Realizing they could not stop him, the British commanders at Fort Niagara attached to Sayenqueraghta’s contingent of 300 warriors another 20 or so of their own men, Richardson said. The motley crew of fighters, the Indians apparently dressed in castoff uniforms from the King’s Eighth Regiment, made for Hanna’s Town.

Reapers spotted the attackers and alerted the settlers, but they were ill-prepared for a siege.

“Everybody got in this crummy little stockade and held out with nine guns,” Richardson said.

Lisa Hays, executive director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, points at the log fort that has been rebuilt, noting how little protection the flimsy structure would have afforded.

“It was more of a foot race than a battle. ... There was probably just enough of a battle to keep them from burning the fort down,” said Hays, who had surmised, along with other scholars, that the British were the instigators behind the attack.

By the end of the attack, Hays said only two buildings were left standing, one of them the fort. Letters written in the days after the ambush talk about the capture of the wife of the town’s founder, Robert Hanna, and the suffering of the residents who had nothing left but the clothes on their backs.

Two of the town’s residents were killed.

The warriors continued to nearby Miller’s Station, where residents were even less prepared. In total, about a dozen were killed and another 12 captured in the two towns.

The attack, Richardson said, “disrupted the whole political system of western Pennsylvania because of the destruction of the courthouse.” Hanna’s Town reverted to farmland, and Westmoreland County’s seat moved to Greensburg in 1786.

However, newspaper accounts from the 19th century show that the attack on Hanna’s Town was very much a part of people’s lives. Annually they held memorial services at the site. The Steele family that owned the property was aware of its historical significance and eventually sold it to the county.

Today, several log structures depict the town’s two-story homes, the fort and Hanna’s Tavern, which also served as the court house. There’s also a jail, complete with a pillory and whipping post.

Moyar said Richardson’s findings will help provide visitors with a more accurate depiction of the devastating attack.

“One of the things that we have really tried to do is give kids a sense of what life was like on the frontier,” Moyar said.

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