LATROBE, PA – Saint Vincent College professor of history Dr. Susan Sommers will present “Arthur St. Clair: Myth and History” at the 2019 Westmoreland County Historical Society St. Clair Lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, in the Ferguson Theater at the University of Pittsburgh – Greensburg.
The event is free and open to the public. Reservations are requested by Feb. 1 by contacting 724-836-7980.
A native of Scotland, St. Clair was the first prothonotary and clerk of courts of Westmoreland County in 1773, before advancing to the rank of major-general for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. A close friend of George Washington, he would go on to serve as president of the Continental Congress in 1787 and then governor of the Northwest Territory (present day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota), before his fortunes turned after his army was routed by Native Americans in the 1791 Battle of Wabash. St. Clair returned to Westmoreland County and the Ligonier area before dying in August 1818. He was buried in Greensburg, in what is now St. Clair Park.
While his historical and governmental achievements and exploits were well-documented, many questions remain about St. Clair’s younger years, particularly of his origins in Scotland and his activity upon first arriving in America in 1757. In the first official biography written on Sinclair in the 1880s, author William Henry Smith was unable to find much information on St. Clair before coming to the United States and his 1760 marriage to Phoebe Bayard of Boston.
“So Smith did what many other biographers have done over the centuries,” said Sommers. “He invented an appropriately noble early life story for a man whose later life certainly seemed heroic. Since then, no one has seriously questioned Smith’s account. Surely he would have done due diligence with the records at hand, and produced the most truthful account possible, wouldn’t he? Alas, the answer to that rather rhetorical question is ‘no.’”
In Sommers’ discussion, she will present the information that she has uncovered in her exhaustive research on St. Clair’s younger days and compare it to the myth-laden account written by Smith.
“Smith’s work was a powerful piece of mythology,” said Sommers, “and one which speaks to the needs of the 1880s audience. Americans at that time were less concerned with factual evidence than with setting a heroic example. The nation needed sterling examples to emulate, even if their stories were not, strictly speaking, true.
“More than a century has passed since Smith faced his biographical dilemma, and both the nation and science of history have changed,” Sommers continued. “We ask different questions, use newer and better tools to investigate and answer them, and, importantly, we have a more sophisticated view of what it means to be a hero.”
The outgoing chair of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, Sommers is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (UK) and an affiliate with King’s College in London. She is the recipient of the 2008 Arthur St. Clair Historic Preservation Award and the 2002 Saint Vincent College Thoburn Excellence in Teaching Award. She has authored numerous articles for academic journals and publications, while presenting at a variety of academic conferences.
Photo: Saint Vincent College professor of history Dr. Susan Sommers
YouTube: Saint Vincent College