During the French and Indian War, British soldiers seized Fort Duquesne and renamed it in honor of William Pitt the Elder, first earl of Chatham. When Pittsburgh was chartered as a city in 1816, it adopted William Pitt’s family coat of arms.
Set against a black background, the shield features three eagle-emblazoned gold coins and a checkerboard of blue and white, which were the colors Pitt’s family wore on their Parliament robes.
The checkerboard itself symbolizes finance and commerce, industries for which Pitt was known throughout his career. The board is colored blue to signify Pitt’s status as an earl and white to symbolize purity.
The coins are called “bezants” in English heraldry, after a Byzantine coin. A designer misheard this word as “pheasant” and emblazoned the coins with eagles, believing them eagles to be more majestic than pheasants, when restoring the coat of arms in the 1840s.
The University’s seal first incorporated Pitt’s coat of arms in 1908. The seal was revised to include a candle in 1937, but in 1974 reintegrated a version of the shield. Since then, some elements have been refined, added or dropped, but the overall design has remained consistent.