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Pitt's Historic Impact

Founding an Academy in a Wilderness

By 1787, Hugh Henry Brackenridge—not yet 40 years old—had risen from poverty to earn success in Western Pennsylvania as an attorney, author, Continental Army chaplain, editor, and educator.

That year, newly elected to Pennsylvania’s state assembly, the Scottish-born Brackenridge made his boldest move yet: He entered a petition in the assembly to charter an academy of learning in (of all places) Pittsburgh, at the time a promising but rough-hewn town in the North American wilderness.

“I do not know that the legislature could do a more acceptable service to the commonwealth than by endowing a school at this place,” the petition read, in part. “We well know that the strength of a state greatly consists in the superior mental powers of the inhabitants.”

The bill was passed on February 28, 1787, six and a half months before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted the U.S. Constitution. With Brackenridge as its founding principal, the Pittsburgh Academy became what is widely believed to have been the first institution of learning west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Capping a controversial career that included attempting to mitigate the Whiskey Rebellion (Brackenridge briefly considered fleeing East to avoid rebels who suspected his motives) and penning Modern Chivalry, a satiric novel thought to be the first literary work produced west of the Alleghenies, Brackenridge was appointed as a justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. He died in Carlisle, Pa., in 1816.

Meanwhile, the humble academy that Brackenridge helped to found in Pittsburgh took root. In the 225 years since its birth, it has evolved into an internationally renowned center of learning and research—the University of Pittsburgh—with its own legacy of bold pioneering and brilliant victories.