- Historic Sites
G. Washington Meets A Test
What were the French up to in the Ohio Valley in 1753? Setting out in search of an answer, a bold young major from Virginia soon found himself skirting catastrophe
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
The year was 1753, the month November. Through bone-chilling rain and sleety snow, seven horsemen plodded slowly up the jagged slopes of the Allegheny Mountains. Around the narrow trail were miles upon miles of giant black walnut, cherry, oak, and locust trees, heavy with moss and knitted together by tangled Virginia creeper. It was a primeval forest, and in its shadowy depths Indian war parties were on the prowl. The seven men were taking a desperate gamble, and no one knew it better than the rugged six-footer who rode at the head of the little expedition.
George Washington, a twenty-one-year-old major in the Virginia militia, was attempting what more than one veteran frontiersman had denounced as insanity: a winter journey through the unmapped wilderness between his native Virginia and the shores of Lake Erie. The purpose: to deliver a message that might start a war.
For five years an uneasy truce had existed between the civilized world’s greatest powers, France and England. Each knew it was little more than a breathing space before a final death grapple for the supremacy of North America. Like today’s cold war, it was a truce marred by deadly incidents. Throughout the summer of 1753, Indians from French Canada had once again been unleashed on isolated English settlers along the frontier, with the usual ghastly results. The French motive was obvious: to discourage the ceaseless westward expansion of these restless colonials, who already called themselves “Americans.”
Trappers had brought in alarming stories of French activity at a fort on the southern shores of Lake Erie, in territory clearly claimed by England. From here flowed the guns and hatchets and gifts that fired Indian enthusiasm for their cruel guerrilla warfare. Plump Robert Dinwidclie, the vigilant Royal governor of Virginia, asked for volunteers to carry an ultimatum to the French commander of this fort. In private instructions Dinwiddie made it clear that the messenger was to combine some discreet spying with his diplomacy. The Governor was burning to obtain factual evidence of French plans for aggressive war in order to arouse the complacent Virginia legislature, which had let the colony’s defenses deteriorate to the vanishing point. It was a huge responsibility to place on the shoulders of a green militia officer without a shred of diplomatic experience. But Dinwiddie had no choice; in all Virginia, this “raw laddie,” as Dinwiddie described him, was the only volunteer.
The old Scot was, of course, unaware of the deep personal motive for Washington’s offer. The lonely son of a second marriage, left fatherless at ten, George had been raised by his half brother, Lawrence, some fourteen years his senior. George worshipped this generous, understanding man who had taken him into his house and treated him more like a son than a brother. The year before, Lawrence had succumbed to tuberculosis. His death had been a shattering experience for George. Lawrence had been the family’s leader, the man who seemed almost certain to distinguish himself and the name Washington. Now George felt keenly that the future of the family’s name rested on his untried, less gifted shoulders. The daring mission into the wilderness was his first attempt to measure up to this selfimposed challenge.
From the day the expedition started, the weather was foul. It snowed or rained almost continuously, turning the trail into a treacherous quagmire one day and a glaze of ice the next. Night after night the seven men slept in wet clothes, shivering under crude bearskin capes. Each day they were up at dawn for another twelve sodden hours on the trail, pausing occasionally just long enough to rest the horses and bolt some cold meat and biscuits. Speed was essential.
Washington bore the brutal climate with amazing equanimity. The four years he had spent riding and working in the open as a surveyor had made his big frame lean and sinewy as an Indian’s. In his journal he simply noted that they proceeded “without anything remarkable happening but a continued series of bad weather.” Christopher Gist, the forty-four-year-old veteran frontiersman who was Washington’s second in command, was more impressed by their difficulties. “Everywhere,” he lamented, “there were swollen creeks where we were obliged to carry all our baggage over on trees and swim our horses.” Often this meant getting soaked to the waist, not a pleasant experience when the thermometer is close to freezing.
Washington’s first stop was the Indian village of Logstown, eighteen miles northwest of present-day Pittsburgh. Here the young major hoped to hire guides and play some mild politics. Dinwiddie had ordered him to shower gifts and pleas for support on friendly tribes along the route, and Logstown’s red men were considered reliable allies. Each Indian tribe was completely independent, and the French and English contended for their allegiance with the same fervor America and Russia now display in the battle for the world’s so-called neutrals.