A Short Account of the Family of Ormsby of Pittsburgh/Introduction

A Short Account of the Family of Ormsby of Pittsburgh  (1892)  by Oliver Ormsby Page
Pen Picture of John Ormsby by Thomas Alexander Mellon
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Pen Picture of John Ormsby.

By the Hon. Thomas Mellon.

AS no portrait of John Ormsby of Pittsburgh is in existence, the following graphic pen picture of him will be appreciated. It is contributed by the Hon. Thomas Mellon of Pittsburgh, ex-judge of the court of common pleas of Allegheny county:

"In reply to your note requesting my reminiscences of your great great grandfather, John Ormsby, I regret to say that I had no personal acquaintance with him as he died several years before I came to Pittsburgh, yet I have been in a position to hear so much about him from a reliable source that I feel constrained to give you such information as I have.

"My informant was my mother-in-law, Mrs. Anna B. Negley, née Winebiddle. She spent the last years of her life in my family and delighted, as most clear-headed old people do, in telling about events and neighbors and friends of her youth. The Ormsby family were her neighbors and intimate friends when she was in her 'teens,' as she related, and according to her narrative John Ormsby, the head of the family, was quite a character. He was among the leading men of the town and was looked up to with deference, but was rather too aristocratic to be a favorite with the rough and ready inhabitants of the frontier. The town was of small dimensions then, as she described it. All east of Wood street and north of 10th street would have been assessed as rural and agricultural if the present law of taxation had been in force then.

"In regard to Mr. Ormsby and his peculiarities I have heard her describe them so often that I can almost fancy I see him: a fine-looking man of medium size with a military air, rather haughty of manner but exceedingly kind and obliging to his neighbors and friends. He was always addressed as 'Colonel,' not out of mere courtesy but because he had held that office in the British army prior to the Revolutionary war. He was regarded as a high-toned gentleman of the old school even then, about the beginning of the present century. As a military man he was very particular about his dress, whether in citizen's clothes or with any of the insignia of his profession about him. His military taste appeared in the fashion of his hat and otherwise when he appeared in full dress at parades or on other public occasions. He would then have his dress sword in his belt and was noted for his immaculate breast and sleeve ruffles and the brightness of his shoe and knee buckles; but excepting elegance in quality and texture there was nothing peculiar about this for such was the fashion of dress at that time among those who were able to afford it and wished to be regarded as gentlemen, and even the dress sword at his side was not regarded as for display. The fighting spirit was then still in the ascendant and it was well understood that Mr. Ormsby was quite willing and ready to meet an antagonist with a similar weapon if occasion required it, but according to her account of him he was too much of a gentleman to give an insult and his opponents in politics or otherwise had too much respect for 'Sweet Lips,' as they called his sword, to provoke a quarrel.

"Whilst he lived in town, his landed interests here lay mainly on the south side of the Monongahela. He had several plantations over there, comprising between two thousand and three thousand acres, lying between the south end of the present Smithfield street bridge and Six Mile ferry, and extending southward over the hills, in some places two miles, covering, in part, the whole of the former boroughs of South Pittsburgh, Birmingham, East Birmingham and Ormsby, and the greater portion of the township of Lower St. Clair, and, as we know, a good deal of this property yet remains in the possession of his descendants. He procured a portion of the bottom land to be cleared and cultivated as his landed estate,[1] and was regarded at the same time as a large landowner east of the mountains, on the Juniata.[2] He considered landed possessions essential to the position of a gentleman, as was then, and still is, the sentiment of the English aristocracy. Such was the way he appeared to one who saw him frequently at home and in public and fully knew the estimation in which he was held by his fellow citizens; for, in a town of moderate size, such as Pittsburgh then was, its prominent citizens are always well known to one another."

  1. Homestead Farm.
  2. Originally limited to the farm of three hundred acres near Bedford, where he lived immediately after his marriage, but later comprehending many hundred acres; one recorded transfer alone being for twelve hundred acres.

    The Ormsby estates were largely augmented in the time of Oliver Ormsby, who owned, besides, large tracts in Beaver, Mercer, Venango, Crawford and Erie counties, Pennsylvania; in the towns of Cincinnati, Chillicothe and Hamilton, Ohio; in Greene county near Yellow Springs, Ohio, and between Circlesville and Columbus, same state; in Lawrenceburg and near Madison, Indiana; and about fifteen hundred acres nearly opposite Big Bone lick in Indiana, twenty-two miles by land from Cincinnati.