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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
By now both white men were becoming suspicious. Washington asked the Indian how far they were from his cabin. “Two whoops,” was the answer—twice the distance that the whoop of a warrior could be heard. That did not seem far, but they tramped at least another two miles without a sign of a shelter. The disgusted Washington called out to their guide, who was about fifteen paces ahead of them, that when they reached the next water, they would camp.
A moment later they began crossing a wide meadow. They had barely entered it when the Indian turned, threw up his musket, and fired straight at them.
“Are you shot?” Washington cried to Gist.
“No,” gasped Gist.
For a few seconds both men stood there, staring in astonishment, while the Indian ran ahead, ducked behind a big white oak, and began to reload his gun. Then Washington and Gist charged after him. At point-blank range Gist raised his gun, ready to shoot without another word, but Washington struck up Gist’s weapon, unwilling to kill a defenseless man. The Indian, meanwhile, went on with the laborious process of loading his musket, as if nothing had happened. But when he began to ram home the ball, Washington and Gist instantly disarmed him.
They marched their treacherous guide ahead of them across the meadow and into the shadowy security of the forest. In a little gully nearby, Washington ordered the Indian to make a fire. While the man obeyed, Gist and Washington held a hurried conference.
“As you will not have him killed,” Gist whispered, “we must get him away and then we must travel all night.”
Weary though he was, Washington agreed. Gist proceeded to arrange packs and blankets around the fire as if they planned to spend the night. Then he said to the Indian: “I suppose you were lost and fired your gun.”
The Indian only mumbled his lie about leading them to his cabin.
“Well,” said Gist, “do you go home and as we are much tired we will follow your track in the morning.” The savage was more than happy to get away alive and fled without asking any questions. Washington and Gist promptly broke camp and, traveling by compass, kept going all night and most of the next day.
Not until the morning of December 29 did the two exhausted men reach the shore of the Allegheny, at a point now within the city limits of Pittsburgh. But the great river was not the solid sheet of ice which they had expected. Instead, there was a vast expanse of black, angry water, with broken ice driving crazily down the center.
The only solution was a raft, but they had just one small axe. They had to take turns hacking down young trees all through the freezing day and did not finish their craft until “just after sunsetting.” They shoved it across about fifty yards of ice to the water’s edge, and then, each armed with long poles, they leaped aboard and instantly discovered they had embarked on a wild voyage. Huge blocks of ice smashed against the flimsy craft, sometimes throwing them back toward shore, sometimes swirling them downstream. “Before we were half way over,” Washington says, “we were jammed in the ice in such a manner that we expected every moment our raft to sink and ourselves to perish.” At this point Washington was struck by what seemed to be a good idea. He would shove his pole down into the river bottom, and hold the raft steady while the ice ran past it. But he underestimated the strength of the Allegheny. The instant his pole touched bottom, the current flung the raft against the pole with terrific violence, and Washington was catapulted head first into the freezing river. Only his long arms saved him. As the raft spun by, he flung his hand out and caught one of the projecting logs.
Grimly he climbed back on the raft and went back to battling the ice. But it soon became obvious that they were never going to reach the other side. The raft swung in close to a little island in the middle of the river, and the two men waded ashore. Washington was literally frozen stiff: his wet clothes were sheeted in ice. All through the long, bitter night the two men crouched there in the darkness, wondering if they could do any better against the river the next day, beating their arms and pounding their feet to keep from freezing to death. By morning Gist’s fingers and toes were badly frostbitten. But in spite of his soaking, Washington’s youth and immense physical vitality saved him from this agonizing affliction.
In the first pale light of dawn, the young major peered out at the Allegheny—and shouted with joy. Where the day before there had been raging water, there was now, thanks to the night’s fierce cold, a solid sheet of ice gleaming dully in the half-light. Quickly, he roused Gist; they slung on their packs and tramped across. By the end of the day they were in the trading post, where horses were at their service.
From here the journey was nothing but hard riding. On January 16, 1754, precisely one month from the day he had left Fort Le Boeuf, Washington delivered St. Pierre’s answer to Governor Dinwiddie and reported all he had seen of French preparations for war.