South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

Who was John Ormsby, founder of Mt. Oliver Borough?


August 22, 2017

The following is from Mt. Oliver’s 100th Anniversary celebration Founder’s Day program.

The few people that know of the founding of Mt. Oliver know this fact: The original certificate of land survey of our land was issued to John Ormsby on April 10, 1769 in the name of his son, Oliver Ormsby. This occurred while the colonies were under British rule, seven years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence which formed our United States of America.

The story behind John Ormsby and why he was in our area is one that should be told to every Mt. Oliver resident and taught to our children. One of the main goals of the Mt. Oliver Founder’s Day Committee is to share this untold story, we are sure you will be as proud and surprised as our committee was to learn of our special founding.

The Ormsby Family can be traced back to 1040 with a long line of noble heritage in Knights and Lords. One of these noble Knights was Lord Barrymore, Commander of the English forces during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. During the War of the Flanders, Lord Barrymore was in hand to hand combat with the enemy and the enemy cut off Barrymore’s leg by sword. Lord Barrymore was so outraged at such in indignity that he picked up his severed leg and beat the enemy to death with it. Thus we have the Ormsby Family crest which shows an arm holding a leg in triumph.

The Ormsby Family became known as the most famous of all pioneering families and is documented as the oldest family of distinguished lineage in Pittsburgh.

Our founder, John Ormsby, was born in Ireland in February of 1720. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1744 and followed the noble course of his forefathers and joined the British Military. John longed to travel to the “New World” where his country was involved in a conflict against the French and Indians for possession of the Ohio Valley.

In 1753 John arrived in Philadelphia and quickly opened a school of dance and swordsmanship and within a year, opened two more schools. By 1755 he saved enough money to plan a trip to Virginia.

While in Virginia, John contracted malaria and was bedridden. His doctor and the innkeeper took advantage of his vulnerable position and stole all of his money and most of his belongings. The only items left were his sword and valuable clothing. A note about his sword and clothing: In 1786 Mrs. Barbara Negley wrote of John, “He was a fine looking man of aristocratic and military bearing, a gentleman of the old school, noted for his immaculate breast and sleeve ruffles, the brightness of his shoe and knee buckles, and especially for his dress sword always at his side.” After he recovered from his fever he was hired as a math teacher in Virginia.

In February of 1755, General Braddock, commander of all British forces in North America, was making his plans to lead an expedition into forces into the Ohio Valley. Braddock heard of John’s prior military service and offered john a position as Captain of Commissions. As John later wrote, “I cheerfully agreed, as a military life best suited my inclinations… but alas, man appoints and God does as he thinks fit.” Little did John know at the time, but perhaps the good Lord saw to save his life. As history records, John relapsed into malaria fever and could not join in the expedition. He was very disappointed until he learned of the outcome of the expedition… out of 1,200 men, 456 died, 421 were wounded and General Braddock himself died in the battle.

By 1758 a 38-year-old John had fully recovered and in March of that year General Forbes prepared for his expedition to Fort Duquesne (later renamed Fort Pitt) which was occupied by the French. Once again, John was offered a Captain’s Commission as head of provisions for the army. He gratefully accepted and in February started north with a force of 5,000 men, who were directed by a very young and inexperienced colonel. They did not reach Bedford until September because they were making the road as they went. On the march to Fort Duquesne, Indians attacked several times and stole most of the food supplies and a good amount of the blankets and spare clothing. The weather was a constant pouring of rain and snow and the roads were muddy. Finally, in November the force reached within five miles of the fort and the men spoke of turning back. When General Forbes heard of this talk, he stated, “I will sleep in the fort tonight, or be in Hell!” needless to say, the force continued to the fort.

When the men were within one mile of the fort, loud explosions were heard. An Indian scout was sent out to survey the area. John wrote of the Indian’s report, “When the French heard that there were more white men approaching than there were trees in the forest, they set the fort afire, set off their own ammunition barracks and ran!”

That evening the general and his men arrived at the fort to find nothing left. Remember this is late November, with no shelter, few blankets and as John wrote, “There was such little food, only bear meat and venison, no slat or bread, I barely had enough to supply the General’s table.” One attempt to bring 14,000 pounds of pork from Bedford failed 4 miles outside of the fort, Indians attacked and 40 men were killed, horses shot and the food stolen.

This was an extremely trying time in John’s life. He had the overwhelming duty of providing for the men with no provisions. The men were ill from lack of food and shelter. An already ill General Forbes was thought to be on his deathbed but for over a week refused to leave the fort.

It was at this time that John met another young Colonel who offered the men much encouragement. He admired this colonel’s ability to raise the spirits of the men in such difficult circumstances. John and the colonel spent many hours talking, looking across the river and dreaming of their futures. It was at this time that John began to make his plans of settling on the banks across the river and establishing trading posts.

On December 3 the decision was made to take General Forbes back to Philadelphia and that afternoon he was carried out on a stretcher, with the force led by the young colonel. John bid a good farewell to the colonel and at the time had no idea that this young man was a 26-year-old George Washington, who would later become “The Father of Our Country.”

John was left behind with 249 men to hold the fort until re-enforcement arrived. The men filled their days by hunting food and scouting the area for the constant threat of Indians. John wrote, “I don’t despair if we can maintain our post for a short time but we will have our day in mowing down the vandals.”

It was at this time that John began traveling across the river and scouting an old Indian trail that led from the river to the top of the mountain (later to be known as 18th Street and Brownsville Road). He found himself attracted to this mountaintop. It seemed to soothe his soul of the worries of his men and offered moments of peace in the beautiful surroundings. The mountaintop offered him the chance to gaze down on the river bank and the land that he dreamed of settling.

In August of 1759 General Stanwix and his men arrived at the fort and began rebuilding Fort Pitt. John was given his discharge from the military and in return for his service was granted much of his river bank land (now known as the South Side). He built a log house on the hill overlooking the fort (now downtown Pittsburgh) and established a trading post by the fort and one further up the river (South Side). In March of 1763 Indian Chief Pontiac attacked the fort and burned all of the surrounding cabins including John’s. John rebuilt a brick home at the same location.

In 1764 a 44-year-old John married 17-year-0ld Jane McAllister at Fort Pitt. When John’s trading posts were attacked by Indians and his employees killed, Jane became uneasy about living in this uncivilized area. She was pregnant and feared for her child so John decided to move to Bedford and hire employees to run his business here. In 1765 John and Jane made the move to Bedford knowing thy would return as soon as the area was rid of the Indians.

In 1765 Jane gave birth to John Jr. and in 1767 Oliver was born. Oliver became very ill and nearly died at 2 months of age. John was very thankful for the move to Bedford because of the advanced medical care available there. In 1769 their first daughter, Jane, was born.

Four years had gone by since John left Pittsburgh and upon hearing of the Indians being driven west, began his plans of returning. He purchased more land (on the South Side) consisting of what we know as the Smithfield Street Bridge to Homestead.

John began to remember the mountaintop that had comforted him and the many hours spent on that mountain. He heard of the many immigrants coming to the area in search of a peaceful life away from the oppression in their homelands and thought the mountaintop would be the perfect place for them to settle. He purchased the land and offered low cost plots for lease. This land was special and would eventually have something that none of his other vast landholdings would have, his family name.

Later in 1789 a reporter asked John why he named his land what he did and his answer was, “I gave the name of my dear Father, who taught well the lesson of pride in family past, and the name of my young son who in infancy taught well the lesson of faith and hope for the future. May the good Lord bless this land and all those who find their way there in generations to come. May the families find solace and prosper. Perhaps it will be my good fortune that this name will be remembered after I am long in my grave.”

On April 10, 1769 John was award a certificate of land survey for 294 acres of land for the price of $1.00 an acre, in the name of: “Mt. Oliver.”


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