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The Controversial Spelling of “Pittsburgh”, or Why The “H”?

by James Van Trump

Nowadays problems and uncertain prospects abound in the city of Man, to say nothing of our particular city here where the rivers join. There is scarcely a day when the most pressing of questions are not asked, questions having to do with our life and our survival, many of which seem to have no easy answers.

Sometimes it is a relief to turn from these large riddles to smaller, more genteel queries-relative to the shortest route to downtown or the park, or “Why is Pittsburgh – in a country where ‘burgs’ abound – so uniquely spelled? Why the h?”

Perhaps no question in the city is asked more often. Local libraries are familiar with it; the present writer has been besieged with it at his office and at dinner parties. The never-ceasing recurrence of the query has induced me to write an account in final answer, at least in the interest of sparing myself constant verbal repetition. Printed accounts already exist, but everyone questioned is entitled to his own answer and this is mine.

There are Pittsburgs in California and Kansas, Illinois and Texas – a tribute to the distances to which the Pennsylvania Pittsburghers have wandered. But none of these distant followers has the “h”. A Pittsboro occurs in North Carolina and one in Indiana – a name which follows the original Scottish pronunciation. In Ohio, there is a Pitsburg, another interesting variation of spelling.

Of course, many questioners remember that there was a time when our Pittsburgh did not have the “h”, but when did it and when did it not? There are still many non-Pittsburghers who in addressing letters leave the name “h” – less, but they are obviously not in the know. Even after everything is said and written, many will still eschew the “h”, but at least I have done my bit to set the record straight.

I must begin straight off by saying that the name of Pittsburgh has always had the “h” since the very beginning, and the “h” was official. Therefore it was always “received opinion” locally, except for a time at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries when officially the “h” was dropped.

“Except for that brief period,” as George Swetnam’s Press article points out, (Oct. 17, 1971)” ‘Pittsburgh’ was always the official spelling – even before Pittsburgh was founded. The name was given to Fort Ligonier for a period of several weeks in 1758 when General John Forbes didn’t think he was going to be able to capture Fort Duquesne.” (Every writer on Pittsburgh is indebted to George Swetnam, and the present article is a case in point.)

This, of course, refers to the chief actor in the climactic and crucial event in the bitter struggle of the French and English for control of the land beyond the mountains – the expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1758. General John Forbes, a Scot, had been appointed by the Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, as leader of the British and Colonial forces against the French.

Forbes was mortally ill and much beset by dissension within his ranks, but by early autumn of that year his army had reached Raystown and Loyalhanna and was preparing to advance on Fort Duquesne. The French, apparently alarmed by reports of the superior English forces, abandoned and burned the fort leaving the English to assume control of the land at the Forks without a struggle on 26 November.

In his letter to William Pitt dated “Pittsbourgh, 27th November, 1758”, acquainting the Prime Minister with his conquest of the area, Forbes says in part – “I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne, as I hope it was in some measure the being actuated by your spirits that makes us Masters of the place . . . “. The letter is not in Forbes’ own hand, but in that of one of his clerks; but the General would have been cognizant of this form.

“Burgh” and “bourgh”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are variants of “borough”, obsolete in ordinary English use since the 17th century but continued in Scotland – for example, Edinburgh. Forbes being a Scot would have used this form, probably pronouncing it “Pittsburro”, just as Edinburgh is “Edin-burro”.

In 1768, the descendants of William Penn purchased from the Indian tribes known as the Six Nations, lands situated in the western part of the province and including the land on which Pittsburgh now stands. In 1769 a survey was made of the site of the future city, which the Penns had reserved for their own use, and which they called their “Manor of Pittsburgh”.

In 1784, the laying out of the “Town of Pittsburgh” was completed by Thomas Vickroy and John Woods and approved by the attorney of the Penns in Philadelphia.

The Act of 5 March, 1804, which amended the old charter of the Borough of Pittsburgh in 1794, refers throughout to the “Borough of Pittsburgh.” The terminal “h” was thus continued from the earlier document.

Pittsburgh was incorporated as a city by an Act of Legislature of 18 March, 1816. Through a printer’s error the ‘h” was omitted from the name, but the original charter included it. Unfortunately the original was burned when the second Allegheny County Court House was destroyed by fire in 1882.

Throughout the 19th century, in directories and newspapers an occasional use of “Pittsburg” will be found but the predominant usage was “Pittsburgh”. Municipal documents always used the latter spelling.

Consonant with the rise of the modern technological age, a gradual tendency toward standardization appeared. In accordance with this trend, the United States Board of Geographic Names was appointed in an effort to standardize the orthography of American place names. Pittsburgh officially lost its “h” when the Board’s report was approved by President Benjamin Harrison on 23 December, 1891.

To quote Swetnam again – “The decision was two-fold: the Board ruled that in general, place names pronounced ‘berg’ should be spelled ‘burg’ and those with the sound of ‘thorough’ should be written ‘boro’. ”

Perhaps because some Pittsburghers may have objected to the change, or to forestall such objections, the Board caused a special listing to be inserted on page 34 of the Report – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The city was chartered in 1816, its name being spelled without the ‘h’and its official form is still ‘Pittsburg’. The ‘h’ appears to have been added by the Post Office Department and through that action, local usage appears to have become divided. While the majority of local newspapers print it without the ‘h’, certain others use the final ‘h’.

Thus was error compounded from the original printer’s error. The Board’s research was certainly faulty to say the least. The ordinance for the organization of the city of Pittsburgh after the passage of the Act of 1816, and recorded in Ordinance Book, with the seat of the city of Pittsburgh attached, is uniform in the use of the “h “.

So did Pittsburgh lose the “h”, but there were local citizens who desired that justice be done.

According to Swetnam, “One of the most determined of these was William Hamilton Davis, a young man at the time of the decision, but later a prominent leader in National Guard affairs. He won the rank of major in the Spanish American War and was appointed Postmaster in 1906.

“He immediately began a campaign for the restoration of the missing letter, being strongly backed by the Education Committee of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Senator George T. Oliver joined in the fight and finally secured a special meeting of the Board (whose name had been changed) at which complete evidence was presented.”

At the conclusion of the meeting a brief announcement was made that was embodied in a letter to Senator Oliver and which was printed in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times of 22 July, 1911.

Hon. George T. Oliver
United States Senate

At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911 the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without the final H was reconsidered and the form below was adopted:
Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).
Very respectfully,
G.S. Sloan, Secretary

Swetnam again has the final word in the story. “Although the decision was effective immediately, it took time for it to be completely implemented. And it was on October 1, 1911 that canceling machines in the main office and branches here were changed to include the new-old spelling.”

There were some diehards like the Pittsburgh Press that held out for almost twenty years against the restored letter, and there will continue to be those who, through either ignorance or carelessness will leave us “h” less, but generally Pittsburghers rejoice in the “h”. It symbolizes our individuality, our special quality as a city.

This article originally appeared as an article in QED Renaissance, the journal of WQED educational television, and was printed in “The Stones of Pittsburgh, Number 8”.

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