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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
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.
Washington’s feelings must have been mixed when, at dusk on December 11, he stood on the shore of French Creek, about eleven miles south of present-day Erie, Pennsylvania, and looked across the turbulent water at the palisades of the fort which the French called Le Boeuf. He had completed the first half of his supposedly impossible journey, but had he, in his inexperience, overreached himself? Would his feat be ruined by the childish instability of his Indian ally and by these smooth Frenchmen with their bland courtesies and European deceptions? Grimly, Washington promised himself that it would not happen without a fight.
Hoping a grave face and a proud manner would make him look much older than twenty-one, the Major strode through the gates of Fort Le Boeuf at the head of his party and presented himself to the French commander, Legardeur de St. Pierre, Knight of St. Louis. This was not the same man who had insulted Half King. That blunderer, it was explained, had died. Washington was now confronted by a far more impressive man. St. Pierre was a veteran of a dozen European campaigns; he had lost an eye in the service of his King. He received Washington with suave courtesy, acknowledged Governor Dinwiddie’s ultimatum, and said he would answer it with all possible speed.
Meanwhile Washington was permitted to wander about the fort, and he wasted no time getting to work on the espionage side of his mission. He counted the cannon and the number of barracks within the enclosure, and carefully estimated the size and strength of the stockade. Outside along the creek he noticed a large number of canoes, and he ordered Christopher Gist and the others to make an exact count. A few hours later they returned to whisper that they had totaled up no less than 50 birch canoes and 170 pine, with many others under construction. In the logistics of forest warfare, which depended heavily on rivers for transporting men and supplies, this was an invasion fleet.
Washington instantly saw that it was up to him and him alone to get the news to Virginia and the other colonies with all possible speed. But first there was the problem of Half King. The sachem strutted about the fort, still proclaiming that he wanted to deliver his wampum and message of defiance to the French commandant. But St. Pierre persistently refused to see him. Finally, late in the evening of December 14, the Frenchman saw the chief in private—a maneuver which took most of the steam out of the Indian’s oration. When Half King tried to return the treaty wampum, St. Pierre refused to accept it and protested his friendship and desire to trade with Half King’s tribe.
That same evening, Washington received St. Pierre’s written reply to Dinwiddie, and the French commander offered him two canoes to facilitate his return trip. Washington accepted them without wondering why the Frenchman should be so anxious to speed his homeward journey. The next morning he found the canoes loaded with liquor and food, put aboard with the compliments of the commandant. The Virginians were ready to go, but Half King was nowhere to be found. A French officer blandly informed Washington that his Indian friends had decided to stay a few more days.
What should he do? Wrangle with Half King, and delay his warning to Virginia? Or leave the chief at the mercy of French wiles and jeopardize the entire balance of power on the frontier? Reluctantly Washington made his decision. He ordered his men out of the canoes and announced they would stay another day.
He found Half King and asked the chief why he was lingering. For the first time, the Indian became evasive in his dealings with Washington. He protested that the French commandant would not let him depart until the following day. The reason, Washington quickly discovered, was a promise of lavish presents.
Now thoroughly angry, Washington stormed into the quarters of St. Pierre. He bluntly accused the Frenchman of committing a serious breach of diplomatic etiquette. By preventing the Indians’ departure, he was delaying Washington’s journey as well.
The accusation caught the Chevalier of St. Louis where he was most vulnerable. He was not going to have an upstart provincial from Virginia outdo him in the game of international courtesy. He assured Washington that he knew nothing about the entire matter and guaranteed that he would do all in his power to speed the journey of the English gentlemen and their allies.