- 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
Washington’s maiden venture into diplomacy seemed, at first, to produce astonishing results. The presiding chief at Logstown was a fifty-three-year-old Seneca known as Half King. Washington, bearing the traditional gifts of wampum and tobacco, entered the sachem’s cabin with John Davison, an English trader he had hired as interpreter. He had barely outlined his mission when Half King leaped to his feet and delivered an hour-long oration. “I have just come from this French fort you seek,” he thundered. “I went to the leader of the French bearing a warning from my people. I said to them, be it known to you, fathers, that this is our land and not yours. If you had come in a peaceable manner, like our brothers the English, we should not be against your trading with us, as they do. But to come, fathers, and build houses upon our lands and take it by force, this we cannot submit to.”
The French commandant, Sieur de Marin, had received this warning with utter contempt. “Child,” he had said, “you talk foolish. You say this land belongs to you, but there is not the black of my nails yours.…I am not afraid of flies, or mosquitoes, for Indians are such as those.”
In response to this unendurable insult, Half King not only would give Washington guides to Lake Erie, he would go himself, with an escort of warriors, and return all the treaty wampum his tribe and their allies had exchanged with the French, thus declaring a complete rupture of friendly relations.
Washington eagerly accepted the fiery offer. Half King was the most powerful chief on the Middle Atlantic frontier, and as a Seneca was also a member of the even more powerful iroquois Confederacy to the north. To arrive at the French fort with the defiant Half King and his warriors would be a great diplomatic victory.
The next day Washington discovered that the rest of the tribe was not quite as enthusiastically anti-French as Half King; in fact they flatly declined to send an escort of warriors, lest it be interpreted by the French as a hostile gesture. But Half King and two senior chiefs would come with the Virginians, and this seemed more than enough to the fledgling diplomat. They took to the trail again, through weather that continued to be abominable. Early in December they reached the English trading post of Venango, site of present-day Franklin, Pennsylvania.
Above the crude log cabins danced the fleur-de-lis, flag of imperial France. The sight must have shocked Washington and his party. They knew that the English trader John Frazier had recently been driven out of Venango by French threats, but they hardly expected to find the French flag flying over the post. They were even less prepared to be greeted by three French officers, backed by a sizable detachment of troops. Young Washington’s heart must have pounded a little. Was it obvious that their mission was half spying and half: diplomacy? What was to prevent these professional soldiers from murdering them on the spot, to make sure they did not spread the word of French troops deep in English territory? Speaking through his none-too-expert French interpreter, Dutch-born Jacob van Braam, Washington explained his mission. Instead of threatening or denouncing the agents of England, the Frenchmen proved to be models of courtesy. Their forty-six-year-old leader, Captain Philippe Thomas Joincare, even invited Washington and his party to dinner.
Wine was served in abundance, but Washington made it a point to stay sober. In this department the French were careless. “The wine, as they dosed themselves pretty plentifully with it,” Washington wrote in his journal, “soon banished Restraint … They told me that it was their absolute design to take Possession of the Ohio and by G— they would do it.” Washington pretended complete bewilderment at this announcement. But he was perfectly aware of what it meant. The French were claiming all the lands watered by the Ohio River and its tributaries. This was nothing less than the heartland of the continent. Washington continued to play dumb as the wine flowed, and he soon had the French answering detailed questions about troops, forts, lines of supply. All the figures were carefully noted in his journal later that night.
The following day the French showed Washington a few tricks of their own. He had sent Half King to confer with his allies the Delawares while he drank with the French. Now Captain Joincare heard the Seneca chief was in the vicinity and asked to see him. Joincare was a half-breed, and spoke the Indian tongue perfectly. He embraced Half King as an old friend, and with shrewdness born of long experience in Indian affairs, he set out jugs of brandy for the chiefs.
Washington stood by, eagerly waiting for Half King to thunder his contempt of all things French. But Joincare kept talking about friendship and trade, and the sachem and his friends kept reaching for the brandy. In a half hour they were so drunk that Half King was incapable of uttering a single defiant word.
It took a day of desperate remonstrating to tear Half King away from the pleasures of Joincare’s company and resume the march. For the next week they struggled forward through more snow and rain, across more swollen creeks, while Washington wrestled with a mounting worry. If Captain Joincare could flatter Half King into supine submission with the aid of a little brandy, what was going to happen at French headquarters, where presents and liquor were more plentiful and flattery more impressive? The young major’s diplomatic victory could easily turn into a resounding defeat that would echo up and down the frontier and affect the delicate loyalties of thousands of other Indians.