Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Every summer numerous va­cationers from both within and beyond Pennsylvania’s borders come to the northwest comer of the state to use the recreational facilities of Presque Isle State Park. Probably few of the summer visitors sunning themselves along the state park’s beaches, or swimming in Lake Erie, pause to ask themselves how the park and peninsula came to bear a French name. It all began with a sudden, al­most capricious decision made in the spring of 1753 by the great French proconsul. Ange Duquesne de Menne­ville, Marquis Duquesne, who was then the Governor-General of New France, or Canada. Ever since the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, negotiated in 1748, had failed to define clearly the bound­aries between British and French ter­ritories in North America, the situa­tion along the Great Lakes border region had been growing strained. While Anglo-French boundary com­missioners wrangled in Europe, pres­sure was building on the western frontiers of Canada and British North America. A great prize was up for grabs, available to whoever could seize it – the Ohio River valley. This area exercised an almost magnetic attraction upon French officials at Quebec and upon the land-hungry colonists of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

For the French, the Ohio River valley was a valuable route from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and thence to the French colony of Louisiana. The Ohio also gave con­venient access to French settlements in the Illinois country, which ambitious French imperialists envisaged as the granary of a greater French North American empire. But perhaps most important to the French was to deny the Forks of the Ohio to the British.

The sluggish waters of the Monon­gahela River. moving northward just west of the main ridges of the Appala­chians, and the swifter current of the Allegheny River, plunging southward after rising in northern Pennsylvania and arching through upstate New York near the coastal plain of Lake Erie, join together to form the Ohio River at present-day Pittsburgh. The Forks of the Ohio, as this junction was called, was one of the great strategic points of the North American continent in the eighteenth century. By ascending the Potomac and portaging to the Monon­gahela, the land-hungry population of the middle American colonies could breach the Appalachian barrier and utilize the Ohio as a broad highway to vast new lands suitable for farming. American traders had been active in the area of the Forks throughout the 1740s, reaching there not only by way of the Potomac-Monongahela route but also by way of a longer portage from the Susquehanna River over the last ridges of the Alleghenies. Such notable Pennsylvania traders as Conrad Weiser and George Croghan had used this route in the 1740s. Further, by the year of the Treaty of Aix-la­-Chapelle, a group of Virginia entrepre­neurs were in the process of forming the Ohio Company, which had as its purpose settlement of land in the vicinity of the Forks of the Ohio.

Such British-American activity did not go unnoticed by French authorities at Quebec and to them such activities posed an ominous threat. The tiny population of New France, seventy­-five thousand by generous estimate, was no match for the million-plus inhabitants of British North America. It did not require great powers of imagination to grasp the fact that if large numbers of settlers successfully crossed the Appalachians and became entrenched in the Ohio River valley it would be quite beyond the resources of Canada to dislodge them. Such a development would sound the death­-knell of French ambitions southwest of the Great Lakes.

Only a preemptive action on the part of the French could serve to deny the Forks of the Ohio to British­American occupation. Accordingly, in 1749 a force of some 230 Canadians and Indians commanded by Pierre­Joseph Celoron de Blainville was dis­patched to assert France’s formal claim to the upper Ohio region and to expel any British traders encountered there. Celoron crossed from the Great Lakes watershed to that of the Ohio system by stopping along the shore of Lake Erie near present-day Barcelona, N.Y., portaging to Lake Chautauqua and Conewango Creek, and thence into the Allegheny River.

Celoron’s report upon his return to Montreal was discouraging. He had encountered British-American traders along the lower Allegheny and at Indian settlements on both the Ohio and Miami rivers. Their influence was steadily winning the allegiance of the Indians of the region. Also, Celoron complained about the difficulties of the Chautauqua portage route, es­pecially low water in Conewango Creek. This was the situation when Duquesne arrived in Canada in 1752. A dynamic and ambitious man, Duquesne was determined not to for­feit the strategic Forks of the Ohio without a major effort to secure that position for France.

Consequently, in the early spring of 1753, the largest expedition Canada ever launched west of Niagara, consist­ing of 2,300 French, Canadians and Indians organized into a series of units, began to depart Montreal for the Ohio Country. Duquesne’s instructions for Paul Marin, leader of the expedition, specified that the Chautauqua portage route would be used. But before Marin himself reached the portage, Duquesne would issue a remarkable change of instructions which would bring the French into northwest Pennsylvania with dramatic and far-reaching conse­quences.

In March of 1753, Duquesne ordered that the expedition use not the Chautauqua portage route to reach the Allegheny, but rather should pro­ceed some thirty miles further west. They were to travel along the southern shore of Lake Erie until reaching a peninsula which formed a splendid natural harbor, an ideal anchorage for unwieldy lakes bateaux, where they could rest secure from the sudden, violent squalls which blow up so quickly on the shallowest of the Great Lakes. From this secure harbor, the expedition would make its way south over a crude Indian trail of some fifteen miles until the trail met the riviere aux boeufs, modern-day French Creek.

It was hoped that French Creek would provide a more adequate flow of water to transport Marin’s forces into the Allegheny River than Cone­wango Creek had furnished Celoron. This hope, in the event, was to be dis­appointed. But what most commended this portage route to Duquesne was the secure harbor on Lake Erie pro­vided by the peninsula at what is to­day the city of Erie.

Thus this rather abrupt order – a sudden change of plan for an expedi­tion already under way, issued by a man himself distant from and un­familiar with the region-both brought the French into northwest Pennsyl­vania and brought northwest Pennsyl­vania onto the stage of history. We know remarkably little about this unusual and significant change of plan. Duquesne simply ascribed it to advice he had received from a voyageur who was familiar with the region; the man is never named. Yet, upon the advice of this unnamed frontiersman, the Governor-General of New France was staking the success of an expedition of great importance to the future of the French in North America.

Further, some time later, Duquesne would instruct Marin that if he did not like the newly-proposed portage route, he could revert to the original one. Duquesne’s apparent casualness, or his equivocations, about so important a matter leaves us pondering his state of mind in the spring of 1753. Unfor­tunately, Duquesne reveals so Little of his mind to us that we are driven to speculation. Was Duquesne, a naval officer and new to the North Ameri­can continent, so ignorant that he failed to appreciate how critical a decision he was making? This seems unlikely; surely experienced hands in Canada would have enlightened the Governor-General to the vital nature of a dependable portage route from the Great Lakes watershed to the Alleghe­ny-Ohio watershed. Why, then, Duquesne’s vagueness concerning the origin of his new route and why his later indecision about adhering to it? We cannot say.

Certainly Duquesne’s perception about the value of the peninsula was sound; it did indeed form the best natural harbor along the southern shore of Lake Erie. But both the water level in French Creek and, far worse, the condition of the fifteen-mile trail, would pose serious problems. So crip­pling did these two impediments prove, when combined with Indian hostility and sickness among his men, that Marin fell we11 short of the ambitious goals set for his expedition. The best he could manage was to erect forts at either end of the portage (Fort de la Presqu’ile at Erie and Fort Le Boeuf at Waterford), and an outpost­camp at Venango (Franklin), where French Creek emptied into the Alle­gheny River. (In 1755, the French would erect a proper fort here, named after the then Minister of Marine, Machault.) The vital portage road itself was in far from satisfactory shape when Marin died at Fort Le Boeuf on October 29, 1753.

Where Duquesne had hoped to confront the British with a fait ac­compli, the 1753 expedition served only to alert and arouse them. So concerned was Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia that he sent young George Washington hurrying north on a winter visit to Fort Le Boeuf both to seek out the lay of the land and to invite the French to withdraw. (See: Charlene M. Stull, “Washington’s Mission to Fort Le Boeuf,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Dec. 1978.) Washington, an Ohio Company investor, was himself sufficiently con­cerned to volunteer for the difficult mission. The portage in northwest Pennsylvania, and the forts guarding it, had thus become a vital concern to both the French and British. It was viewed as a major passageway between the two great strategic choke-points at Niagara and the Forks of the Ohio.

As the French managed to secure the Forks of the Ohio and to erect Fort Duquesne there, in 1754, it was essential to them to keep open the portage in northwest Pennsylvania which tied Fort Duquesne to Fort Niagara, and thence to the Canadian heartland, the St. Lawrence valley. The British were determined to dis­lodge the French from both Forts Duquesne and Niagara. Much, then, would depend upon the adequacy of the Presqu’ile-Le Boeuf road and the mobility it could furnish or deny to the French forces who had to defend Canada’s vital frontier bastions.

The process of developing the crude Indian trail which crossed a series of low ridge lines between Erie and Water­ford had proven too great a task for the forces at Marin’s disposal in 1753; yet his force was the largest ever to enter the area. It was not the high ground but rather the low-lying valleys between the ridge lines, which were so ill-drained that the soil would not sup­port heavy loads and sustained traffic, which frustrated Marin’s road-building efforts. These unhealthy lowlands combined with traditional eighteenth­-century neglect of sanitary precautions and inadequate diet to more than deci­mate Marin’s manpower. The imper­fect evidence suggests that some­where between 400 and 600 of Marin’s force suffered debilitating illness from their labor on the portage, with per­haps slightly more than half of these, including Marin himself, dying. Du­quesne admitted to shock upon viewing the condition of the sur­vivors who straggled back into Mon­treal in the early winter of 1753. His grand strategy had literally bogged down on the portage road and Canada could never again afford to send so large a force into northwest Pennsyl­vania.

In the frantic Anglo-French race for the Forks of the Ohio in the spring of 1754, the small British garrison estab­lished there was inadequate to resist the French force of 500 men who ar­rived in April of 1754. But it was British dilatoriness in mustering rein­forcements which gave the Forks to the French and not the superiority of French communications. To improve the weakest link in those communica­tions, in 1754 the French re-routed part of the portage road, which made some improvement, but not enough, as events in 1755 would demonstrate.

When Duquesne discovered that a full-scale British expedition under Major General Edward Braddock was to march upon the Forks of the Ohio, the Governor-General responded by rushing men west to bolster the gar­rison at Fort Duquesne. The Presqu’ile-Le Boeuf portage road was judged so inadequate to accommodate this heavy influx that several French detachments used the old Chautauqua portage. Such expedients were unequal to the emergency and when Braddock began his final approach march upon Fort Duquesne, its defense forces were in­sufficient to meet the threat. Only a highly risky attack with inferior forces, which produced quite unforeseen re­sults, saved the fort. The fickle goddess of battle, and not efficient communica­tions, gave the French victory in west­ern Pennsylvania in 1755.

The portage road continued to curse French movement. As the com­plete British plan of campaign, cap­tured in Braddock’s baggage, revealed a major British assault pending on the Lake Champlain front, the reinforce­ments laboriously dispatched west now had to retrace their steps back east, again placing a heavy strain on the portage road. The newly-arrived French commandant for Fort de la Presqu’ile, Lieutenant Antoine-Gabriel­-Francois Benoist of the Canadian Marine Regiment, had the good sense to recognize the vital nature of the portage road and rushed off a plea to Montreal that he be allocated suffi­cient manpower to put the road into adequate repair. Benoist got one junior officer and forty-four men, a force pathetically inadequate to this task.

If the road left much to be de­sired, so too did the two forts guard­ing it. Both were the products of Marin’s military engineer, Captain Le Mercier, whose work was subject to much contemporary criticism. While Fort de la Presqu’ile was well-sited (not by Le Mercier) on rising ground overlooking the harbor entrance with a creek forming a defensive barrier along its eastern side, Le Mercier had chosen the laborious and time-consuming method of constructing it log upon log, rather than sinking a palisade of Jogs upright into the ground. Du­quesne rightly criticized this waste of precious time. While Fort Le Boeuf had the typical frontier palisade of up­right logs, it was poorly sited on low, unhealthy ground. (The blame for this rests with Marin as well as Le Mercier.) Neither fort could have withstood a siege of any seriousness and they were useful only for protection against attack by Indians or lightly-armed British mobile units such as rangers. Th is was all that was required of them, sandwiched as they were between the major defensive positions of Forts Niagara and Duquesne. Fort Machault, constructed two years after the north­ern two forts, followed the ground plan of Fort de la Presqu’ile but with its palisade’s logs sunk upright into the ground.

Command of one of these forts was no joy. Benoist, who served as com­mandant of Fort de La Presqu’ile from mid-1755 until mid-1757 (and was by a generous margin the fort’s best com­mander), has left graphic portraits of his problems in his correspondence. Not least was that created by one of Duquesne’s last actions as Govemor­General of New France. Frustrated by the task of getting supplies west, Duquesne in 1755 leased out the carrying work on the Niagara and Presqu’ile-Le Boeuf portages to private contractors. As a result, exorbitant fees were charged, with the Erie por­tage costing fully 20 percent more than that at Niagara. Even considering the high prices though, Duquesne did not expect the contractors to be able to show much, if any, profit because of the high wastage of horses and other expenses associated with working the portages.

This decision of Duquesne’s added to Benoist’s problems for it brought to Presqu’ile a congregation of the Jess desirable types who could always be found along the restless eighteenth­-century American frontier. The private contractors, themselves none-too-scru­pulous men primarily interested in turning a quick livre, would hire whom they could for the portage work. This meant, in effect, voyageurs of less than roman tic character, homeless half­-breeds, Indians who had little contact with the white man, and, of course, their women (in most cases, it would be more flattery than fact to say, their wives). Such types were bound to give problems and Benoist was especially plagued by an illicit liquor traffic to Indians of the region flourishing at Presqu’ile.

There was nothing unusual about this illicit traffic. Although both French and British authorities had strict regulations concerning sale of alcoholic beverages to the Native Americans (primarily French brandy and British rum), such regulations were generally most honored in the breach. What is remarkable is that Benoist tried to halt the traffic, un­like many commandants who were happy to take a cut from the profits of the trade in return for turning a blind eye to the enterprise. And some commandants went further, virtually operating the traffic them­selves. Benoist, whose correspondence reveals him as a conscientious and rather highly-strung personality, was a happy exception to the rule of frontier commanders whose chief ambition was often to line their pockets at their government’s expense.

No one would have chosen the French forts in northwest Pennsyl­vania as the site for building one’s personal fortune. They were chroni­cally short of all requirements and most commandants asked to be re­lieved of their duties. Neither Fort de la Presqu’ile nor Fort Le Boeuf had any sizable nearby Indian popu­lation and thus offered no opportuni­ties for profits through operating a trading post (which also required government authorization, not that this was much of an impediment to a determined and unscrupulous com­mandant).

The root cause of the unsatisfac­tory state of affairs in northwest Pennsylvania was that when Duquesne launched his “ambitious and costly strategy” (the phrase is Gustave Lanctot’s) to block British-American access to the Ohio River valley, he embarked upon an undertaking be­yond Canada’s resources. It is hardly surprising, then. that after the crisis occasioned by Braddock’s expedition of 1755, the exigencies of the French and Indian War left the authorities at Quebec with no margin to support western positions which were not directly threatened by the British.

After the abandonment of Fort Duquesne in November 1758, in the face of the steady advance of the troops of Brigadier General John Forbes, the French commander in the region, Francois-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery, fell back upon Fort Machault and hoped to regain the Forks in the spring of 1759. However, the relentless British pressure, now against Fort Niagara, left Lignery no option but to abandon his intended attack and to rush to the aid of Fort Niagara in the early summer of 1759.

The last French expedition to de­part from Fort de la Presqu’ile was overtaken by disaster on July 24, 1759, and this defeat was followed by the surrender of Fort Niagara on the next day. This signaled the doom of the French position in northwest Pennsylvania. In August, Forts Machault, Le Boeuf and Presqu’ile were in turn abandoned and burned to the ground with the remaining French and western Indians withdrawing to Detroit where they were swept up in the general surrender of New France in 1760. So fragile a position as that which the French perilously maintained from 1753 to 1759 in northwest Pennsylvania, primarily in sup­port of Fort Duquesne, had no in­trinsic strength of its own and pos­sessed little chance of establishing roots in the soil of the area. All the French settlements were seasonal and an attempt to domicile western Indians (Mississaguas, a branch of the Ojibwa nation) at Presqu’ile failed to take hold. Minimal winter garrisons were maintained at the French forts, a policy dictated both by a shortage of trained manpower and the diffi­culty of supplying such garrisons.

The whole character of the French occupation of northwest Pennsylvania, then, was transitory and with the collapse of 1758-1760, the French presence in the region vanished, vir­tually without a trace. The record of the French occupation is a somber testimony of the soaring ambitions of Ange Duquesne whose policies far overreached the resources necessary to support them. It is ironic that his is today the French name best re­membered and most commemorated in the region. Of the valiant men who died in the pursuit of the masterful Governor-General’s ambitions in west­ern Pennsylvania, none has achieved the dignity accorded to the man who, in effect, had signed their death-war­rants.


Maxwell P. Schoenfeld teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and is a former Director of the Erie County Historical Society. He has authored several books on British history and is presently researching the great Anglo­ French contest for empire in North America during the mid-eighteenth century.