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

The Lands upon the River Ohio, in the Western Parts of the Colony of Virginia, are so notoriously known to be the Property of the Crown of Great-Britain; that it is a Matter of equal Concern and Surprize to me, to hear that a Body of French Forces are erecting For­tresses, and making Settlements upon that River, within his Majesty’s Dominions ….

If these Facts are true, and you shalt think fit to justify your Proceedings, I must desire you to acquaint me, by whose Authority and Instructions you have lately marched from Canada, with an armed Force; and invaded the King of Great-Britain’s Territories, in the Manner complained of? …

I persuade myself you will receive and entertain Major Washington with the Candour and Politeness natural to your Nation; and it will give me the greatest Satisfaction, if you return him with an Answer suitable to my Wishes for a very long and lasting Peace between us ….

Robert Dinwiddie

 

The French commander of Fort LeBoeuf (at present-day Waterford, Pennsylvania) did not send Major George Washington back to Virginia with an answer suitable to the British. The polite meeting between Legardeur de St. Pierre and Washington marked the first formal confrontation between France and England in colonial America. Both nations wanted possession of the Ohio Valley, and less than one year later, in 1754, the two nations would fight for it in the French and Indian War.

The French based their claim to the land on the treaties of Utrecht, Ryswick, and Aix-la-Chapelle. In addition, they maintained that because the explorers LaSalle and Marquette had discovered the Mississippi River and claimed it for France a century before, the French had a right to all of the country through which the Mississippi and its tributaries flowed. This idea particularly irritated the British, who claimed ownership of the land through treaties made with Indian leaders of the Six Nations. However, neither side forced the issue, so an uneasy lull existed in the Ohio Valley.

This situation could not and did not last for long. In 1753, the English heard rumors that the French had crossed the Great Lakes from Canada and were planning to build a series of forts from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. In fact, the Canadian Governor, Marquis Duquesne, had begun to build such a string of forts. Forts Presque Isle and LeBoeuf were erected in 1753, and Duquesne intended to build forts at Venango (Franklin, Pa.) and at the forks of the Ohio.

Robert Dinwiddie, the Governor of Virginia, was concerned about these developments. King George II had given this territory to the Ohio Company as part of Virginia, and Dinwiddie, along with other Virginians, owned stock in that enterprise. All things considered, he wrote to King George about the situation and received a gratifying response. The King wrote back that “the Europeans not our subjects” should first be requested to leave the territory. If they refused, the British colonists were to force them out.

Some historians claim that Dinwiddie selected Major George Washington to serve as messenger to the French, while others (notably Douglas Southall Freeman) maintain that Washington volunteered for the job. At any rate, Washington left Williamsburg for Fort LeBoeuf on October 31, 1753.

The twenty-one-year-old Washington had some experience in the Virginia wilderness as a surveyor, but he had never been forced to cope with anything as bleak and as wild as western Pennsylvania in the winter. This mission would serve as an excellent initiation for Washington, especially considering his later experiences in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution

Washington stopped at Fredericksburg on November 1 where he was joined by Jacob Van Braam who would serve as his French interpreter. They arrived at Wills Creek (Cumberland, Md.) thirteen days later. Here Christopher Gist was added to the group as a guide. Douglas Southall Freeman writes of Gist:

… No frontiersman understood the Indians better or had greater patience in dealing with them. Gist was a good shot, a fine hunter who seldom went hungry if there was any game in the woods, and he had a quick eye for good land ….

Gist was to be George’s teacher in the art of the frontiersman who had to deal with the uncertain savages. George scarcely could have had a better instructor….

John MacQuire, Barnaby Currin, William Jenkins, and Henry Steward also joined the party at Wills Creek. This settlement marked the fringe of civilized territory and from this point on, the trip would be more dangerous.

The party reached Logstown on November 23 where they met with Delaware Indians and their leader, Tanacharison (the “Half-King”). The Indians presented Washington with a speech belt, or wampum, which symbolized alliance or friendship in Indian diplomacy. The Half-King and three of his warriors joined the group, and they all left for Venango on the last day of November.

Four days later they arrived at that intermediate destination and met with the French at John Frazer’s trading camp. (Frazer was an English trader and gunsmith whom the French had earlier driven from the home in which he had lived for twelve years.) Captain Joncaire gave Washington the directions to Fort Le Boeuf and invited the Major and his men to dinner. Washington described the dinner in his journal:

The Wine, as they dosed themselves pretty plentifully, soon banished the Restraint which at first appeared in their Conversation; and gave a Licence to their Tongues to reveal their Sentiments more freely.

They told me, That it was their absolute Design to take Possession of the Ohio, and by G – they would do it …

Throughout the group’s stay at Venango, the French tried to win the Indians’ favor and lure them into staying behind. The Indians wavered, but on the seventh of No­vember they continued with Washington.

Washington and his men reached Fort Le Boeuf on December 11, 1753. The party had made the 560-mile journey in forty-one days, struggling through snow, rain, mires and swamps. Washington noted in his journal that Fort Le Boeuf

… is situated on the South, or West Fork of French Creek, near the Water; and is almost surrounded by the Creek, and a small Branch of it which forms a Kind of Island. Four Houses compose the sides. The Bastions are made of Piles driven into the Ground, standing more than 12 Feet above it, and sharp at Top: With Port-Holes cut for Cannon, and Loop-Holes for the small Arms to fire through. There are eight 6 lb. Pieces mounted, in each Bastion; and one Piece of four Pound before the Gate. In the Bastions are a Guard House, Chapel, Doctor’s Lodging, and the Commander’s private Store: Round which are laid Plat-Forms for the Cannon and Men to stand on. There are several Barracks without the Fort, for the Soldiers’ Dwelling; covered, some with Bark, and some with Boards, made chiefly of Loggs. There are also several other Houses, such as Stables, Smiths Shop, etc.

The French treated Washington and his men courteously. However, they wanted to wait for the arrival of another officer, Captain Repentigny, before they made any reply to Dinwiddie’s message. Meanwhile, the English took note of the fort’s interior and its defenses. Washington drew up a plan of Fort Le Boeuf, which he later sent to the British government. He had his men also count the French canoes along the creek which numbered fifty made of birch and one hundred seventy of pine, with more under con­struction.

While the English sized up the fort, the French continued in their attempts to win the Indians’ friendship through promises and gifts. The Half-King wanted to return a speech belt to the French, indicating that their alliance was broken, but the French Commandant, knowing the chief’s plans and hoping to delay his return, would not grant him a meeting.

Three days after Washington’s arrival, the French had their answer to Dinwiddie ready. Legardeur de St. Pierre had written:

As to the Summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it. What­ever may be your Instructions, I am here by Virtue of the Orders of my General; and I intreat you, Sir, not to doubt one Moment, but that I am determin’d to conform myself to them with all the Exactness and Resolution which can be expected from the best Officer. …

I made it my particular Care to receive Mr. Washington, with a Distinction suitable to your Dignity, as well as his own Quality and great Merit ….

Washington planned to leave Fort Le Boeuf on Decem­ber 15, but the French kept trying to detain the Indians with guns and liquor. Washington wrote in his journal that “I can’t say that ever in my Life I suffered so much Anx­iety as I did in this Affair: I saw that every Strategam which the most fruitful Brain could invent, was practiced to win the Half-King to their Interest; and that leaving him here was giving them the Opportunity they aimed at …. ” The party finally left on December 16.

At Venango, the group split. The horses were exhausted, and they slowed down the men’s progress. So, anxious to report back to Dinwiddie, Washington and Gist set out on foot while the others took charge of the horses.

Washington and Gist’s trip back to Williamsburg included a number of unsettling incidents. At Murdering Town an Indian offered to guide them through the wilderness to Shannopins Town, and after misleading them, shot at them. As if that were not enough, at the Allegheny River Gist and Washington had to build a raft in order to cross, and on the trip across the ice-filled river, Washington fell in.

Undaunted by these misfortunes, the two men arrived at Gist’s settlement sixteen miles from the Monongahela River, on January 2nd. Here the two men parted company and Washington hurried on to Williamsburg.

He delivered St. Pierre’s message to Dinwiddie on January 16, 1754. The Governor also reviewed Washington’s journal account of the venture and was greatly impressed. In order to convince the English government of the serious­ness of the French activities, he had it printed and sent to London.

Less than six months later, on July 3, 1754, the first battle of the French and Indian War was fought, and twenty-two year old Major Washington was leading British troops.

The Fort Le Boeuf mission taught Washington some valuable lessons in wilderness survival, Indian diplomacy and the art of leadership. The Pennsylvania rain and snow would be a foretaste of a harsher winter in Valley Forge. Besides preparing him, the mission launched Washington’s public career, a career that would be long, sometimes filled with troubles, but inseparable from America’s birth.

 

An Afterword

In 1759, the French burned Fort Le Boeuf after the British had captured Fort Duquesne (at Pittsburgh) forcing the French northward. In October 1760, the British built another fort at the same site. It was also burned-this time, however, by the Indians. Thirty years later, settlers came to Waterford and rebuilt the area. Nothing remains of these blockhouses today, but visitors can tour the Fort Le Boeuf Museum built at the site of the three forts.

On Sunday, December 10 [1978], the Fort Le Boeuf Museum and the Fort Le Boeuf Historical Society observed the 225th anniversary of Washington’s mission to warn the French from the Ohio Valley. Additional information concerning this commemoration or the museum may be obtained by writing to Ms. Patricia Leiphart, Historic Site Manager, Fort Le Boeuf Museum, 123 High Street, Water­ford 16441.

The museum is administered by the Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission and is open to the public on a regular schedule, 10-4:30 on weekdays, except Mon­day. Sunday hours are 1-4:30.

 

Charlene M. Stull is an English major at Edinboro State College. She currently does publicity for the Fort Le Boeuf Historical Society in Waterford.