by Helen Wilson
(using information from “The Neill Log House Fact Sheet”)
On September 9, members of the SHHS executive board had a chance to do what few people can nowadays—go into the Neill log house in Schenley Park. We met there with two Pittsburgh Department of Public Works officials to assess the house’s condition and discuss ways to restore and preserve the historic landmark. The house was brought to our attention by a National Park Service contractor working on a project to connect historical sites associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition to communities along the route to highlight their historic sites. More information about the project is in Tony Indovina’s article following this one. The Neill house is the oldest extant domestic structure in Pittsburgh and one of the last few buildings left from the eighteenth century. It is owned by the City of Pittsburgh and was designated a City Historic Landmark in 1977. We found the house in relatively good condition except for the roof. I was surprised to see the period furniture that had been put in the house after its 1969 restoration still there, covered with dust and cobwebs. The First Occupants of the Neill Log HouseThe house is believed to have been built and occupied by Ambrose Newton, a soldier at Fort Pitt, who laid claim to 262 acres in what is now Schenley Park. The house appears on a 1790 road survey. It is still on its original site. Today it is known as the “Neill Log House” after the family who lived in it from about 1774 to 1795—Robert Neill, his wife Elizabeth, and their five daughters, Nancy, Mary, Elizabeth, Jean and Marthew (or Martha). Records show that Robert Neill bought the house and tract in 1787 for 34 pounds, 8 shillings. It was common back then for people to name their property, so Neill called his tract “Highlands.” The land was patented to him by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. However, it is likely the Neills were living on the property before 1783, even as early as 1774-1775. Since the Neills didn’t pay for the land until 1787 they were undoubtedly squatters, as were most of the people to frontier Pennsylvania. Squatters are people looking for cheap land who settle on unoccupied land without paying for it, sometimes for years. This practice was condoned by both colonial and state authorities despite claims by absentee owners. Most properties in the Greenfield-Squirrel Hill area have deeds dated 1787 or 1788, probably because that was when the state caught up with the squatters and made them pay for the land they lived on. Squatters were usually allowed to assume ownership of a property (after paying for it) if they lived on it, farmed it, and built on it. Neill seems to have done just that—develop the land into a farm. Tax records show he owned the land, two horses, and three cows and probably had some sheep, hogs, and hens. Not much else is known about him except that he also bought land in what is now Downtown. Neill was probably attracted to the site because water was available. An 1872 map shows a creek flowing past the house down the hill into a stream that runs into Panther Hollow. The creek is now culverted, but water seeping out around the nearby Catahecassa monument is supposedly from the creek. The property is about four miles from Fort Pitt, where the family could go for protection in case of an Indian attack or to get supplies from merchants and traders around the fort. A 1915 article tells a possibly apocryphal story of an Indian attack in Squirrel Hill, when Neill, driver Jack Andrews, and two passengers were returning home one summer evening a few years before the Revolutionary War. They were riding in a Conestoga wagon pulled by six horses somewhere near present-day Forbes and Murray Avenues. The story goes that an Indian emerged from the bushes and threw a wasp’s nest at the wagon, hitting a horse and breaking the nest. The wasps stung the horse and Andrews. The horses panicked and stampeded down Murray Avenue. The passengers were nearly tossed from the back of the wagon and lost their rifles because of the horses’ sudden start. Andrews got the horses under control, but about six Indians chased them to Neill’s home, firing rifles at them, and wounding some of the passengers. When they got to the house, Neill and the passengers ran inside while Andrews went on to Fort Pitt for help. Neill and his family fired at the Indians through the windows, and after an hour’s siege, the Indians left. This story is problematical because the roads over the mountains to the east were bad before 1800 and not wide enough for large wagons such as Conestogas, so Neill may have been a wagon driver only later in his life. Early on, he probably was a trader with packhorses, carrying goods over the mountains to trade and sell, making the family fairly prosperous and able to invest in real estate.