February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The answer was a blunt refusal of all English claims to the Ohio country and a bold statement of French counterclaims. The issues were now clearly drawn. Four months later, when the French invasion came, Virginia was ready to meet it with a regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington. Their guns began the war which was to break French power in North America forever.
But none of the participants in the drama were aware that something much more significant for America’s history had already taken place. Governor Dinwiddie’s “raw laddie” had conquered a thousand miles of wilderness, proved himself the equal of veteran frontiersmen, and held his own with suave Europeans in the give-andtake of intricate diplomacy. George Washington, the fatherless boy, the worshipping younger brother, had become a man.