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19 Mar 2021

Made of Pittsburgh steel – Margaret Fay Shaw’s Pennsylvanian roots

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist
A black and white photograph of a young Margaret Fay Shaw sitting in a field. She looks directly to the camera with a rather stern expression. On the ground beside her lies a string bag, a waterproof coat and a walking stick.
Pittsburgh-born Margaret Fay Shaw on the moors of South Uist, 1930
To celebrate Women’s History Month, Canna Archivist Fiona Mackenzie uses archival material to piece together the early history of the family of folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Margaret Fay Shaw of Canna – the prominent photographer, folklorist and musician who died in 2004 – may have spent the vast majority of her life in Scotland but she was Pittsburgh-born, through and through! Until the day she died, she professed her ‘American-ism’, although she also professed her love for Scotland, the country which had taken her to its heart over the course of 80-odd years. Although we’ve become more acquainted with her life and work here in Scotland, we’re perhaps not so aware of her origins, her family and where she came from. Her name ‘Shaw’ is well known here in relation to folklore, but the name ‘Shaw’ is famous in Pittsburgh for entirely different reasons.

A black and white postcard illustration of the city of Pittsburgh in 1902. It shows a rather industrial-looking city sandwiched into the fork of two wide rivers. A large number of bridges cross the rivers.
Pittsburgh as it appeared the year before Margaret was born

Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, three young Scots – John, Alexander and Peter, sons of George Shaw of Craigtown, parish of Kilmadock, near Stirling – left their employment at the Carron ironworks, near Falkirk and emigrated to America. They were accompanied by their two sisters, Elizabeth and Grizzel. They proceeded to the Forks of the Ohio (where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh) and in 1787 took up residence in Pittsburgh, which was at that time a village of 700 inhabitants. This was to be the beginning of the Shaw steel-making family dynasty.

Peter became a tanner and in 1790 purchased 400 acres on the French Creek near Meadville. John and Alexander remained in Pittsburgh and established a trade as iron founders. They began by making farm and kitchen utensils, and in 1792 John and Alexander purchased land on the place where Colonel George Woods (who laid out the original plans for the building of Pittsburgh) had lived.

A black and white plan of early Pittsburgh, dating from 31 May 1784. It shows a grid of streets, sandwiched between the fork of three major rivers.
The original plan of Pittsburgh, drawn by George Woods

The Shaw brothers proceeded to build their respective homes there and bring up their families, who became Margaret Fay Shaw’s ancestors.

In 1795, John married Elizabeth Wilson, daughter of Thomas and Agnes Murray Wilson who in about 1773 had emigrated to America from Inniskillen, Ireland. Their first son, Thomas Wilson Shaw, was Margaret’s great-grandfather, born in Pittsburgh on 1 May 1796. The family story goes that John was the founder who iron-cast the first cannon west of the Alleghenies. He was to pass his skills onto his son Thomas.

As an adult, Thomas opened three coal mines, to supply coal not only to the Pittsburgh & Western Railroad but also for a little railroad he built himself, on which he conveyed coal to the Spang’s Mill in Etna by mule-drawn cars.

A composite image showing a black and white photograph of an old industrial mill alongside a long advert for the new railroad from Erie to Pittsburgh. The headline proclaims it takes only 36 hours!
Spang’​s Mill and an advert for the railroad

Thomas also built a machine shop near his house on Pine Creek. There he machined sickles from Russian steel for the settlers who were opening up the ‘new land’. The sickles fashioned in the factory became famous and were sold down the rivers on rafts or barges, as far as New Orleans. Margaret was to later recount that the sickles must have been Thomas’s own design as there was never another one of the same design found anywhere in either the USA or Scotland. Known for generations as the Sickle Factory, the building later became the church, or ‘Meeting Room’ as it was called. The Shaw family continued to be closely involved with the succeeding Glenshaw churches from then on. It was even used as a polling place for local and national elections.

Following Thomas Wilson Shaw’s marriage to Sarah Scott (1799–1879), daughter of Colonel Samuel Scott of nearby Perrysville, in 1824, he had built a substantial brick house on his property in which he raised a large family. This was to become the Shaw family home, Glenshaw, which gave its name to the Glenshaw township of Allegheny County today, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Stone for the house was hauled from a local quarry, and interestingly the stonemason for the construction was the nephew of iconic American frontiersman Daniel Boone. The house’s location became known as ‘the Plank Road’ because it was originally built from thick wooden planks and was only cobblestoned in 1925.

Thomas Wilson died on 21 January 1890 at the age of 96. His first child was Thomas Wilson Shaw (1826–99), Margaret’s grandfather and a leading physician who attended the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 as a surgeon. He would later become well-known for the invention of his Dr Shaw’s Little Black Devils purge pills! He was also a much-loved doctor for the immigrants who came to work in the steel mills. He was known for never sending out his bills as well as for his determination and ‘true Pittsburgh grit’.

Thomas married Catharine Wolfe Stoner and they had six daughters: Elizabeth, Margaret, Sarah, Mary, Martha, Ellen; and 5 sons: George, Harry, Thomas, Woodward and the eldest, Henry Clay Shaw, born in 1854. Henry was Margaret’s father.

A Rensselaer Institute graduate, Henry married Fanny Maria Patchin on 1 October 1889 in Manhattan, New York and built a house for their family, on ground close to the ‘big house’, gifted to him by his grandfather. Henry had first worked in steel in Joliet, Illinois, before coming to Pittsburgh where he was to become the vice-president of the Garrison Foundry machine company. He also worked on the construction of the Panama Canal in 1911. The mill made steel rollers which were used in the manufacture of items such as the silver paper for wrapping chocolate and Kellogg’s cornflakes. Margaret remembered being taken up to the mill at the age of seven to watch the molten steel being poured. However, she was more interested, even at that early age, in the animals around her; she was entranced by the velvety nosed mules who pulled the heavy loads.

In her autobiography From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, Margaret described her mother as ‘a New England Yankee from Vermont, where breeding and mental ability were what mattered’. She was of English stock, her maternal ancestor Joseph Patchin having come over as a servant from England in 1640. The Patchins gradually married into wealthy families and became an established New England ‘family’ themselves.

Henry and Fanny had five children in 13 years, all girls. The photo below shows four of them, with their parents.

Margaret describes her early childhood years spent between the two houses as very happy ones, and some of her earliest memories are closely bound to the family’s steel and society connections. Her cats were an eternal source of pleasure and companionship for her, although her mother was not fond of them. They were all given Old Testament names; her favourite was Tiglath-Pilezar. Tiglath was to become a traditional name for some of the cats who presided over Canna in Margaret’s adult life.

Margaret’s great-aunt Ellen, who lived at Glenshaw, was also very fond of cats and took great pride in explaining to Margaret that the reason her toms grew to be such an extraordinary size was because she always heated their milk in a tin cup on the stove. She also had a much-loved dog called Rip; when he died, he was buried at the edge of the ‘Crick’ in a lovely spot. Ellen said that when she died, she wanted to be buried there with him, with the headstone inscription: ‘Here lies Aunt Ellen, doggone her, let her Rip!’

A sepia-tinged photograph of an older woman standing in a park, on a wooden boardwalk. She is dressed very smartly in a long black dress and carries a leather handbag in front of her. Another, younger, woman can be seen in the background, with her hands on her hips.
Great-Aunt Ellen

Margaret remembered making apple butter from the small red-striped apples from the orchard, in a huge cauldron placed on a wood fire outdoors. The cauldron was filled with the apples, cinnamon, spices and sugar and cooked for hours until it was a ‘dark ruddy brown’. She never was able to find a recipe in a cookery book. One of her mother’s copper cauldrons is in Canna House today and has an intriguing story attached to it, which may or may not be true! Margaret recounts that the Shaws’ next-door neighbour, Mrs Heinz, had a glut of tomatoes and asked to borrow one of the Shaw’s cauldrons to boil up the first batch of ketchup …

Margaret’s mother died at the early age of 48 in 1911, as the result of a tragic accident at home. Her clothing caught fire on the gas grate and she died due to ‘burns of the lower parts of her body’. Margaret, aged 7, was devastated as were all the girls and their father, who never really recovered fully from Fanny’s death. Henry decided to move the family away from Glenshaw to Sewickley on the Ohio River, where he had sisters and brothers to help him with the girls. Margaret’s father died suddenly ‘due to an attack of acute indigestion’ (the death certificate lists cause of death as angina) on 26 September 1915 in Sewickley, at the age of 60, and was buried in Glenshaw.

Henry’s house in Sewickley was sold, and the girls moved to an apartment close by with Margaret’s older sister Martha taking on the role of parent to the younger Biddy and Margaret. Katharine was by this time working as a bacteriologist, and Caroline fled back to live at Glenshaw, away from the ‘scrutiny of relatives’.

In the ensuing years, Margaret became a ‘difficult child’ (as described by her aunts), finding it hard to fit in with other children and suffering the early loss of her parents badly. She had no interest in education apart from her piano (which she taught herself to play at the age of 6), so it was decided in 1918, at the age of 14, that Margaret should go to boarding school. She was sent to the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, near Philadelphia, where she was happy but not particularly gifted at her studies, apart from music. In 1920, it was decided that she should be sent back to ‘The Old Country’ – Scotland – to see if it could ‘sort her out’. She came to Scotland to attend St Bride’s school in Helensburgh for a year, and this year was to prove the most pivotal year in her life: the year she discovered where her life was to take her.

Read more about Margaret’s time at school in Helensburgh

A group of around 40 schoolchildren (girls and boys aged between 5 and 10) stand on some steps outside a stone building. Their teacher stands on the top step. Deep snow lies at the base of the steps and the children all wear boots and coats.
Miss Sanders’ School in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania – Margaret Fay Shaw is 3rd from the left, front row.

And so Pennsylvania’s loss became Scotland’s gain. Margaret went on to become one of the world’s most important folklore collectors as well as one of the earliest female photographers in the Outer Hebrides. Her life with husband John Lorne Campbell is now curated in the archives of Canna House on the Isle of Canna, where she lived from 1938 until her death in 2004 at the ripe old age of 101. The house at Glenshaw only passed out of the Shaw family in 1990. It was then resold in 2012 and is now a house of ‘historic interest’.

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