You Had to Ask.Who was Duquesne, and why was Duquesne University named after him?
-- Josh Foster, South Side
Maybe it's not surprising that so many bright young people leave Pittsburgh after attending college here. After all, one of our universities is itself named after a man who never actually set foot here, and the people who first introduced the name to Pittsburgh – like many college students today – stuck around four years, trashed the place and left.
In 1754, the Marquis Duquesne, governor-general of New France (or, as we know it today, Canada) sought to curtail the westward advance of the hated English. So in April, he sent 500 French troops down the Allegheny to the Point, where an English garrison manned a tiny fort named Fort Prince George, after the heir to the English throne.
According to Laura L. Frey's history The Land in the Fork, when the French arrived the English commander was on an expedition, and the second-in-command was too busy operating a trading post to worry about military matters. The only officer minding the fort was a young ensign named Edward Ward. As Frey tells it, with only 40-odd troops surrounded by hundreds of French, "Ward chose the least line of resistance" – outright surrender. In a gesture both symbolic and practical, the French tore town the English fort and used the wood to build their own, which they named after the Marquis Duquesne. From Montreal, a pleased Duquesne boasted, "the English have withdrawn, looking foolish, and in less than an hour's time [we] have become master of the battlefield."
By 1758, however, the troops at Fort Duquesne had lost many of their Native American allies and were nearly starving. When English forces led by General John Forbes arrived at their doorstep, the French gave up the Point the way they'd taken it: without a shot. They burned down Fort Duquesne and fled into the night, gone but not forgotten.
In fact, considering the short time the French were here, Pittsburgh has kept the Duquesne name alive a long time. In his book The Spirit that Gives Life: The History of Duquesne University, Joseph Rishel notes that a local song once noted, "No one knows the reason, no one can explain; but everything you look at is named Duquesne."
In its first incarnation -- the Pittsburgh Catholic College of the Holy Ghost -- Duquesne University was founded in 1878 by a clerical order known as the Holy Ghost Fathers. In 1911 it became a full-fledged university chartered as the "University of the Holy Ghost." But according to Rishel, some faculty feared "the vulgarity … of associating, especially in newspaper language, the sacred name of the 'Holy Ghost'" with the mundane world. One can understand the fathers shying from headlines like "Holy Ghost to seek additional funding." Even worse would be sports headlines; Christians mindful of their early history would likely be disheartened at news stating, "Nittany Lions maul Holy Ghost."
Concerned collegians circulated a petition seeking a "more distinctive name which will … indicate the locality in which the [school] is situated," and the school was renamed just two months after being chartered. The petition recommended the Duquesne name on the erroneous basis that it was "the name of the first settlement made on ... the present City of Pittsburgh and was derived from the name of the Catholic governor of the Province of Canada at the time." But the school didn't give up the ghost entirely; its full name became "Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost."
As Rishel points out, the Duquesne name was already well established. There was the Duquesne Club, which borrowed not only the French aristocracy's names but also its let-'em-eat-cake insouciance. There was the Duquesne Incline, Duquesne Brewing, and the Duquesne Works, a steel mill located in the Mon Valley town of Duquesne.
Still, it's a mystery why the name should be so common. Perhaps it's because French words suggest Old World sophistication -- you know, the kind we exhibit whenever we pronounce "North Versailles."
• Sacre bleu! Last week, I wrongly identified Terry McVerry as a candidate for Ron Klink's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Terry I meant was state Rep. Terry Van Horne.
-- Chris Potter
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