The Clash Of Empires

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When a young George Washington surveyed the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, forming the Ohio, in 1753, he observed that the land there was “extreamly well situated for a Fort; as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers.” After the English finally wrested control from the French in 1758, they christened the surrounding area “Pittsbourgh.”

For the exhibit, a modelmaker works on a likeness of John Bush, a celebrated maker of powder horns.
 
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When a young George Washington surveyed the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, forming the Ohio, in 1753, he observed that the land there was “extreamly well situated for a Fort; as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers.” After the English finally wrested control from the French in 1758, they christened the surrounding area “Pittsbourgh.”

The 250th anniversary of this struggle is being commemorated by events and exhibits throughout the country, ( www.frenchandindianwar250.org ). But the center of the fighting then, and the commemoration now, can be found in the place where Washington made his assessment. The celebration includes a voluminous exhibition at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center ( www.pghhistory.org ). “Clash of Empires: The British, French & Indian War” will be on view there through April 15, 2006, when it will travel to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. With nearly 300 artifacts painstakingly culled from more than 100 lenders in 12 countries, it is the largest exhibit ever on the conflict.

Even though the French and Indian War doesn’t have the blockbuster appeal of many other conflicts, the story, as Andy Masich, president and CEO of the center, points out, is gripping. “It’s the story of a young, red-haired George Washington who fired the first shot that set the world ablaze,” he says, referring to the volley Washington exchanged with the ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville outside what is now Uniontown in May 1754. Washington, allied with the Seneca warrior Tanaghrisson, surrounded the French and defeated them handily in just 15 minutes. Then he watched in horror as Tanaghrisson split the wounded Jumonville’s skull with an ax. The French retaliated for this brutal act two months later, surrounding Washington’s forces at Fort Necessity. Washington signed a surrender document in French—a language he could not read—that was, in essence, a confession to the assassination of Jumonville.

That document will be on display as part of “Clash of Empires.” “It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” says Masich. “To hold it, to see his signature, to see the rain spatters. To see the words that are the smoking gun that triggered a global war.”

Other artifacts include remains of the wagons Benjamin Franklin secured for Gen. Edward Braddock, who suffered one of the worst defeats in British history on the Monongahela; a lead plate the French used to mark their territory; and ornate swords from both sides. These objects are complemented with paintings, dioramas, videos, and lifelike sculptures of period characters.

For many Americans, history begins in 1776, but as this exhibit shows, the Revolution was born of the French and Indian War. After the fighting had drained Britain’s coffers, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the first of the unacceptable taxes that spurred the colonists to rebellion. They would be led by Washington, who reported to the Continental Congress in his French and Indian War uniform.

—Elizabeth Hoover