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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
The following day, Washington and his men stood by while Half King and his friends received their presents—guns, blankets, trinkets, and finery. Washington had already extracted a solemn promise from Half King to depart the moment the presents were delivered. As the Virginians and Indians turned to go, however, the French played a favorite last card. Liquor jugs were produced, and the French lieutenant in charge asked the great chiefs if they would enjoy a drink of good French brandy to warm them on their long cold journey.
This was too much for Washington. He did what few white men would have dared with a chief as powerful as Half King. He planted himself between the Indians and the liquor and reminded the sachem that he had solemnly promised to begin their journey today .
There was an ominous silence while Half King looked from the jugs of brandy to the stern face of the young Virginian. Would the chief regard this order from a white man less than half his age as an insult almost as grievous as the one he had received from the French? Washington stood there, fighting to keep his fears under control. Then Half King, with a last, longing look at the brandy, nodded stoically and began loading his canoe. “I can’t say that ever in my life I suffered so much anxiety as I did in this affair,” Washington said later.
Within the hour the two canoes were gliding swiftly down the winding creek to Venango. There Washington said good-by to Half King. The old chief embraced him and swore that no matter how much liquor or how many presents the French gave him, his loyalty would still be with England. Nor had Washington’s firmness hurt the sachem’s feelings. On the contrary, it made him respect the young man enough to christen him a brother of the Seneca tribe. For his Indian name, Half King’s choice was more than a little prophetic: Caunotaucarius, or “Towntaker.”
Washington had sent his horses overland to Venango, and he had his men in the saddle and on the trail the same day they arrived at the trading post. But they had covered barely five miles when it became evident that the poor beasts were worn out. Washington ordered the men to quit riding and divide among all the horses the loads that the pack animals were carrying. But this was at best a stopgap measure. Snow began to fall, making the going more and more difficult.
On Christmas Day the snow became a blinding blizzard. Grimly Washington slogged forward, but their pace was reduced to a crawl. By the morning of the twenty-sixth, three of the men were badly frostbitten. The horses were in a state of collapse.
Washington conferred with Christopher Gist. Obviously the frostbitten men would have to stay in their tents until the weather became milder. Even if the rest of the group tried to push forward, with the worn-out horses it would take the better part of two months to reach Virginia. Washington studied his map, consulted his compass, and made his biggest decision. He and Gist would leave the rest of the expedition where they were, with the horses. The young major and the veteran frontiersman would go forward on foot and quit the trail for a short cut across the Allegheny River, which would undoubtedly be frozen. This would bring them to a trading post, where they could buy fresh horses.
Gist warned Washington that it was a dangerous idea. The young Virginian was a superb horseman, able to spend hours in the saddle. But he was not used to tramping long distances through the woods on foot. Washington waved aside the warnings. Getting the news to Virginia was too important to risk a month’s delay. Gist finally agreed, and by noon they were ready for the trail. In his journal Washington tells how “I pulled off my cloaths; and tied myself up in a match Coat”—a long cloth coat used by Indians on winter journeys—“Then with gun in hand and pack at my back, I set out with Mr. Gist fitted in the same manner.”
They covered eighteen miles before nightfall—a respectable pace with snow on the ground. But Washington found Gist’s grim warning close to the truth. He was completely exhausted, and called a halt at an empty Indian cabin. They slept about five hours and at 2 A.M. on the morning of December 27 pushed forward again through cold that was, in Washington’s own words, “scarcely supportable.” The small streams were so tightly frozen that it was difficult to get drinking water.
Toward the end of the day they reached an Indian village called “Murdering Town”—a name which almost turned out to be more than a memory of some old crime. There they met an Indian who professed to know Gist. The guide in turn thought he had seen the savage among some French Indians at Venango. The two Americans asked him if he could show them the shortest route to the nearest crossing of the Allegheny. The Indian said he would be happy to do them this favor.
They made good speed for eight or ten miles. Then Washington began to tire again, and suggested a halt. The Indian, who was already carrying the Major’s pack, offered to carry his musket as well. Washington refused. The Indian became sulky and warned them that the woods were full of Ottawas on the warpath. If they stopped and lit a fire they would almost certainly be killed. He told them he had a cabin nearby where they would be much safer.