History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

From William Pitt to American football

Published: October 14, 2009 at 10:54 am

The street was full of fans. They were doing what fans do: shouting, laughing, drinking as much beer as possible before it was confiscated at the gates of the stadium. The University of Pittsburgh were playing Connecticut State and the home fans were out in force. It was a typical Saturday afternoon and could have been any town in the English speaking world. But one thing made this crowd stand out from others – nearly all of them had the name of one of Britain’s most influential statesmen emblazoned across T-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps and even painted on their faces: PITT.


It was a lovely example of how history, in this case decisions made in distant London and the desperate skirmishes of soldiers in the wilderness of the Ohio valley 250 years ago, is such a massive presence in the lives of us all, even if we don’t realise it.

Pittsburgh in fact began life as Fort Duquesne, one of a chain of French forts which asserted their control over the Ohio valley, a vital strategic corridor that joined the two chunks of France’s North American empire together: Canada in the north and Louisiana in the south. Louisiana was a huge colony that ran up the Mississippi and out along the tendrils of its tributaries. Today the lines of the walls of the original French fort are marked out on the ground in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh.

The site is flanked by the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers which join to become the Ohio. From here there is an uninterrupted, navigable waterway, which flows through towns like Louisville, Kentucky, for two thousand miles until it reaches the port of New Orleans. It was an artery of a great empire, yet now the only clues in these parts to its existence are the curious names and ghostly outlines of long destroyed forts.

William Pitt galvanised the British political nation during the Seven Years War, convincing King George’s subjects on both sides of the Atlantic to make an all-out effort to drive the French from North America. At enormous cost and despite initial set-backs, the huge obstacles of terrain, climate and enemy tenacity were overcome. One expedition captured Fort Duquesne and renamed it Fort Pitt, a name which quickly became Pittsburgh.

With its heavy industry, love of organised sports and one-dimensional cuisine, Pittsburgh epitomises the triumph of the English-speaking world. Even the name is literally an assertion of Anglo Saxon values: ‘Pitt,’ the prominent Englishman who helped shape the strategy which led to its capture, and ‘burgh,’ the Anglo-Saxon suffix meaning ‘fortified town.’

Yet this city could have remained Duquesne; the French language and political and economic systems could have been dominant through the centre of North America, which means that the United States of America could not have existed in its present form. Student football fans would have had to wrestle with longer French names which are harder to paint on faces: Pompadour perhaps, powerful mistress of Louis XV, or Choiseul, his leading minister.


After seeing history in the faces of drunken football fans I decided it was time to join them. Pittsburgh won a crushing victory, after a stunning comeback.


Sponsored content