Chapter • 1 •
In the spring of 1754 a regiment of Virginia militia set off from Alexandria for the Ohio River, under the command of a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant colonel named George Washington. The Washington family name was well known on the Potomac River, but chiefly for its connection to a more distinguished name: Fairfax. Thomas Fairfax was the sixth and current Lord Fairfax of Cameron, in England; besides the title he had inherited five million acres in western Virginia, from which he hoped to derive an income to support his lordly manner of living. His cousin William Fairfax headed the family’s American wing, with a plantation, Belvoir, on the Potomac that anchored Virginia’s Tidewater aristocracy.
George Washington was no aristocrat, but he had come to know the Fairfaxes through proximity and marriage. The Fairfaxes lived a few miles from Mount Vernon, the Washington family home, and George Washington grew up playing with the Fairfax boys. Washington’s elder half-brother Lawrence married into the Fairfax clan, making Washington an in-law. After Augustine Washington, the father of Lawrence and George, died, when George was eleven, William Fairfax took a paternal interest in the lad. George Fairfax, eight years older than Washington, stood in as an elder brother.
At the age of sixteen, Washington made a journey with George Fairfax across the mountains into western Virginia. The purpose of the journey was to scout the Fairfax holdings, in particular a parcel George Fairfax had his eye on. Although the death of his father had kept Washington from receiving much formal education, brother Lawrence saw that he got practical training in surveying and the mathematical and topographic arts that underlay it, and when George Fairfax sought a companion for his scouting journey, Washington was a natural to invite along.
The expedition lasted several weeks and required all the resourcefulness and stamina the two young men could summon. They endured the snow and rain of late winter and early spring, high water in the numerous streams athwart their path, short rations and miserable camping conditions, rugged and unmapped terrain, and threatening if not downright hostile Indians and white frontiersmen. Washington loved every minute, and George Fairfax marked him as someone who could find his way around the wilderness. He shared the opinion with his family and friends.
Among the latter was Robert Dinwiddie, the acting governor of Virginia. Dinwiddie was an appointee of the British crown, and his chief assignment in the early 1750s was securing the Ohio Valley for Britain. During the previous century, while the British were establishing footholds on North America’s eastern seaboard, French explorers and soldiers had probed the heartland of the continent. They traveled by water, from the north along the St. Lawrence River, from the south via the Mississippi. In the grandiose manner of the age, French explorers claimed for the French crown all the lands drained by the two great rivers. The English, for their part, were no more restrained: Virginia’s charter gave its proprietors title to a swath of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The inevitable result, once reality caught up with the claims, was a clash between Britain and France for control of the parts of North America where their claims overlapped.
Indians and occasional western travelers brought tales of increasing French activity in the Ohio Valley. At this point the Virginians had little active presence that far west; their settlements, aside from a few trading posts, were confined to the lands that sloped toward the Atlantic. But the Virginians were looking to the future.
For an influential few of them, the future included the Ohio Valley in a special way. The Ohio Company of Virginia had been created in the 1740s by investors engaged in what was becoming a signature enterprise of the American economy: land speculation. The Ohio Company pulled strings in London to receive a royal grant of 500,000 acres in the Ohio Valley. The investors, who included George Washington’s elder brothers Lawrence and Augustine Washington, and Robert Dinwiddie, were eager to lay hold of the lands, that they might begin the process of selling parcels to actual settlers and thereby grow rich.
The French expansion into the Ohio country put their plans in jeopardy. Not only did the French reject the right of the British crown to grant lands in Ohio to the Ohio Company or anyone else, but a French presence in Ohio would render the region insecure for Anglo-American settlers. The French themselves would be hostile; more threateningly, they would turn the Indians of the region hostile. The various tribes there understood the competition between the two European empires, and they played one against the other, to their own benefit. Part of the benefit consisted of trade goods that made the lives of the Indians easier—firearms, steel knives and the like; another part entailed military support in the rivalries of the tribes against one another. The sum of the interplay of empires and tribes was a welter of intrigues and conflicts on the frontier: British against French, British against France’s Indian allies, Britain’s Indian allies against the French and the French Indians, Indians against Indians. There was even competition between Virginians and residents of other British colonies, notably Pennsylvania and New York, who had their own claims to the Ohio country.
In 1753 Governor Dinwiddie summoned Washington to Williamsburg, the Virginia capital, and handed him a letter, to be conveyed to the commandant of French forces in Ohio. The drafting of the letter was beyond Washington’s purview, but its gist was evident from the public attitude of Dinwiddie and the British government toward the French in Ohio—namely, that they had no right to be there and must depart at once.
There was more to Washington’s assignment. While seeking out the French commandant, he was to conduct a reconnaissance of Ohio, identifying and describing French forts and trading posts, and locating likely spots for British positions. With another war looming, Washington was to scout the western theater with an eye toward bolstering Britain’s prospects there.
Finally, Washington was to cultivate the Indian tribes of the region, and especially their leaders. He was to gauge the attitudes of the Indians he encountered, and with modest presents and larger promises persuade them to side with Britain in the event of war with France.
The journey to the Ohio proved an even sterner test of Washington’s mettle than his trip with George Fairfax. This time he rode into the teeth of winter, carrying an unwelcome message across contested ground to a military officer of his country’s historic foe. He had to recruit guides, translators and baggage handlers; he had to find friends among the Indians of the region and dodge Indian enemies. He had to gather intelligence about the French and the Indians, which they would be reluctant to reveal to the envoy of their enemy.
He succeeded even better than before. He delivered Dinwiddie’s letter and brought back the reply from the French commandant. Its essence wasn’t unexpected: that the British were the ones who had no business in Ohio, and they must abandon any claims to the region.
Yet Dinwiddie was mightily impressed with the young man’s work, and the more so on reading the journal Washington had kept of the trip. The governor all but snatched the journal from Washington’s hand and rushed it into print. When it was reproduced in newspapers around the other American colonies, the name George Washington acquired a sudden currency. People asked about this resourceful, intrepid fellow—diplomat, spy, Indian agent—and many marveled to learn that he was barely twenty-two years old. If the future of Britain in North America lay in hands like his, most thought, it was a bright future indeed.
Washington had little time to relish his new distinction before Dinwiddie put him back to work. The intelligence Washington brought home regarding French initiatives in the Ohio country was alarming; the French threat was greater than Dinwiddie or other British officials had realized. French forts in Ohio endangered Britain’s American frontier, and they bid fair to block the efforts of the Ohio Company to make Dinwiddie, the Washington brothers (now including George) and its other investors rich. The French must be rooted out of Ohio.
To this end, Dinwiddie in March 1754 named Washington a lieutenant colonel and ordered him to lead a regiment of Virginia militia to Ohio to counter the French presence by building forts of Virginia’s own, in preparation for driving the French from the region. Dinwiddie understood that Virginia’s volunteers by themselves couldn’t oust the French, but they could make a stand, perhaps bloody the French, and engage the interests of the British empire as a whole.
How much of this thinking Dinwiddie shared with Washington is unclear. Quite possibly he recognized in Washington one who didn’t need to have things spelled out. In any event, Washington understood his orders as being to march his regiment to the Ohio, there “to build forts, and to defend the possessions of His Majesty against the attempts and hostilities of the French,” as he subsequently put it.
They set off from Alexandria in early April. As a military column they traveled more slowly than Washington had five months earlier, and they were still far from the Ohio when a messenger brought word that a thousand French troops had arrived at the Forks of the Ohio—the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, which there form the Ohio—and taken possession of that strategic site.
Washington wondered if he was already too late. Additional reports told of the sixty bateaus—flat-bottomed rivercraft—and three hundred canoes of the French expedition, and the eighteen cannons they had carried to the Forks.
The French invasion alarmed many of the Indians of the Ohio country. Even tribes allied with the French grew worried at this large increase in French troops, which could only bode ill for Indian control of the region. Washington encountered Indians who had fled before the French and now urged the British to beat them back. The Indians didn’t love the British, nor did they want the British to drive the French entirely out of Ohio. Instead they sought a restoration of the previous balance.
A runner from Tanacharison, a Seneca chief the British called the Half King, brought a message. It took the form of a speech, which Washington was supposed to imagine the Half King giving to Governor Dinwiddie. The chief promised the aid of his people in a campaign against the French. “We are now ready to fall upon them, waiting only for your succor,” he said. “Have good courage, and come as soon as possible; you will find us as ready to encounter with them as you are yourselves.” The runner had instructions to deliver the chief’s message to the governor of Pennsylvania as well; the Half King hoped to ally with the two British colonies against the French. But whatever action was taken must be taken soon. “If you do not come to our assistance now, we are entirely undone, and imagine we shall never meet together again. I speak it with a heart full of grief.”
Washington weighed his options. Against the French force of a thousand, he commanded but 150 men. More might be coming, but they weren’t available yet. It would be suicide to challenge the French directly, and the destruction of his regiment would render the French position all but impregnable.
On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore the plea of the Half King, which gained credence from similar calls by other Indian leaders. To leave friendly Indians exposed might result in their destruction and likely would cause other Indians to yield to the inevitable and ally with the French.
Washington split the difference. He ordered his men to push forward, building a road as they went. The road would speed the arrival of any reinforcements that might be dispatched. Washington would approach the Forks but stop well short of the French post under construction there. His presence would signal that Britain wasn’t surrendering its claim to Ohio, but it needn’t provoke the French to a pitched battle, which Washington’s smaller force would certainly lose.
He held a council of war, at which he let representatives of the various tribes air their views. A speech of his own told the Half King, through the runner, that Washington had heard his plea and was coming. “This young man will inform you where he found a small part of our army making towards you, clearing the roads for a great number of our warriors, who are ready to follow us with our great guns, our ammunition and provisions,” Washington said. “We know the character of the treacherous French, and our conduct shall plainly shew you how much we have it at heart.” He sent along the currency of alliance on the frontier. “I present you with these bunches of wampum, to assure you of the sincerity of my speech, and that you may remember how much I am your friend and brother.”
Washington’s column advanced steadily. By the middle of May he was issuing orders to be on the lookout for French troops. His men should not initiate a battle without further orders; if they made contact with the French they should withdraw. Yet they might capture stragglers. “If they should find any Frenchman apart from the rest, seize him and bring him to us,” Washington directed. Such a prisoner would be interrogated about French dispositions and plans.
New reports from the Ohio elaborated on the earlier ones. Two Indians had just been at the Forks. “They relate that the French forces are all employed in building their fort, that it is already breast-high, and the thickness of twelve feet, and filled up with earth and stone, etc.,” Washington noted. “They have cut down and burnt up all the trees which were about it, and sown grain instead.” More French soldiers were en route to the Forks. “They expect a greater number in a few days, which may amount to 1600. Then, they say, they can defy the English.”
Some fifty miles from the Forks, Washington found a promising spot for his own fort. A large meadow spared him the labor of clearing the ground, and it allowed sightlines for observing any advance by the enemy. He put his men to work.
A report of French troops in the vicinity prompted Washington to investigate. “Detached a party to go along the roads, and other small parties to the woods, to see if they could make any discovery,” Washington wrote on May 25. “I gave the horsemen orders to examine the country well, and endeavor to get some news of the French, of their forces, and of their motions, etc.” The search was futile. “At night all these parties returned without having discovered anything, though they had been a great way towards the place from whence it was said the party was coming.”
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