October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
On October 31 Robert Dinwiddie, royal lieutenant governor of Virginia, dispatched the 21-year-old George Washington into the wilds of the Ohio territory on a delicate diplomatic mission. The French had begun building forts in the Ohio River Valley, which Virginia claimed for its own and was trying to settle. Washington’s mission was threefold: try to persuade the French to withdraw; gain the favor of the local Indians; and assess the military situation in the region.
The dispute had repercussions that extended well beyond Virginia. By the 1750s Britain had established settlements along most of the habitable portion of the Atlantic Coast. Yet they were hemmed in by the French, whose long, thin arc of settlements stretched from Quebec through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans. The Ohio territory was one of the few remaining places where the British had room to expand westward.
Washington was already known as an excellent horseman and a skillful surveyor, and these talents had led to his appointment as one of four adjutants of militia for the colony, with the rank of major. To assist him on his mission, he brought along Indian and French interpreters, a pioneer named Christopher Gist who had explored the region, and four other men. The winter journey would call on all of Washington’s talents as an out-doorsman, as the expedition overcame such perils as hostile Indians, swamps, steep mountain passes, chilling rain and snow, and a thorough soaking in an icy stream (which Washington survived, though Gist lost several toes to frostbite).
As a diplomat Washington was unsuccessful. The French dismissed his protests, telling him after a few glasses of wine “that it was their absolute Design to take possession of the Ohio, and by G– they would do it.” He did manage to secure a promise of friendship from a local Indian chief, and he gave Dinwiddie an account of his journey that the governor published to rally support. Word of Washington’s exploits reached as far as London, and his fame increased the following spring, when he bravely led a doomed expedition to establish a fort near present-day Pittsburgh.
George Washington’s first military career continued with a series of dreary frontier assignments commanding raw militia until an inability to gain favor with his superiors led to his resignation in 1758. From then on, he concentrated on being a Virginia gentleman until the political situation impelled him to take up his old profession once again.