Stories from PA History
The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania
The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania
Chapter One: The Anglo-French Contest for the Ohio Country

Its name has an Indian root. The French called it La Belle Rivière, the Beautiful River. Today we know it as the Ohio. A part of the vast Mississippi Valley watershed, it was a strategic link that connected the Arctic winds of Canada to the semi-tropical humidity of New Orleans. In 1754, the Ohio Valley was still populated mostly by Indians and few intrepid French and British fur traders, but it was the key to the North American interior, a prize over which Great Britain and France would fight a long and bloody world war.
Washington returned to the Pennsylvania frontier in the spring of 1754 to again request, this time more forcefully, that the French give up their claim to the territory. This etching illustrates his first skirmish against the French, who were under the command of Ensign Jumonville. Washington defeated the French in this battle, only to surrender to a superior French force at Fort Necessity a few days later.
Washington returned to the Pennsylvania frontier in the spring of 1754 to again...

Anglo-French wars in Europe had been spilling over into North America since 1689, but the outbreak of the Seven Years' War was different. As French, British, and Native American interests collided in the Ohio Valley between 1748 and 1754, events on this isolated frontier outpaced the ability of European monarchs and diplomats to command them. Reconnaissance missions turned into unplanned skirmishes, and Indians, traders, and land speculators acted as free agents, oblivious to whatever agendas were planned for them in London or Paris. Very quickly, competing claims to dominion over the Ohio Country turned into a war that threatened to upset the European balance of power. This time, the tail was wagging the dog.

The unfolding of this historical drama can be traced through the intertwined fates of three individuals: markerGeorge Washington, the Seneca Indian Tanacharisson, and a French officer named Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville. Of the three, Washington is the most familiar to us because of his subsequent career as general of the Continental Army and first President of the United States, but in 1754, he was a twenty-two-year-old Virginia tobacco planter, who like many of his peers, was deeply involved in speculating in western lands.

The Ohio Company of Virginia was a syndicate of wealthy Virginia investors, many of them powerful figures within the colony's government, hoping to capitalize on the settlement of the Ohio Country. The nucleus of their scheme was already taking place at markerGist's Plantation between the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers, where the Company was developing a settlement that would supply colonists moving into the Ohio Country. In February 1754, the Company would begin construction of markerFort Prince George, a post intended to secure its possession of the Forks of the Ohio, not only from rival claims by the French but also Pennsylvania, whose fur traders had been doing business there since the late 1740s.

Tanacharisson, or "the Half King" as he was sometimes known among the British, was born a Catawba Indian in the Carolina backcountry, but he was raised as a Seneca after being taken captive by that nation. He lived among other transplanted Senecas in the village of markerLogstown near "the Forks," where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers joined to form the Ohio. The Iroquois Confederacy of modern central New York claimed dominion over this region because it had dispersed most of its native inhabitants in wars during the seventeenth century. After 1720, however, Indians began resettling the Upper Ohio Valley. Wanting to maintain their influence in the region, the Iroquois appointed envoys such as Tanacharisson to represent them there (hence his name and reputation as "the Half King").
In this modern rendition of the arrival of the French military  expedition at Logstown in 1749, painter Robert Griffing placed Father Joseph Pierre Bonnecamp, a Jesuit missionary, in the company of Shawnee warriors.  The distinctive cassocks worn by the Jesuits earned them the nickname "Black Robes" among the Indians
Robert Griffing, Welcome to Logstown. 1999.

Like Tanacharisson, most of the Indians who lived in the Ohio Country in the mid-eighteenth century came from somewhere else. Delawares from eastern Pennsylvania moved there when the Penn family became too aggressive in their pursuit of Indian land. Shawnee Indians, who had originally inhabited the Ohio Valley but were displaced by wars with the Iroquois in the 1670s, left homes they had made among the eastern Delawares to return to their ancestral homelands. Senecas from western New York also moved into the Ohio Country, to take advantage of its supply of beaver and deer for the fur trade.

These Indians formed new communities with mixed cultures and languages, such as Tanacharisson's village of Logstown. Their desire to keep their new homelands free from European domination formed a common bond between them. In the 1740s, when Scots-Irish colonists began building homesteads west of the Susquehanna River, the Indians protested loudly to colonial officials. At locations such as markerBurnt Cabins, the Pennsylvania government tried to dislodge the trespassers, but the tide of immigration into the Pennsylvania backcountry continued unabated.

While it is true that some Ohio Indians had cultural and kinship ties to the Iroquois of New York, neither Tanacharisson nor anyone else associated with the Iroquois Confederacy could compel their obedience. As for the French and British, the Ohio Indians relied on the fur trade with both to supply their material needs, but each Indian community in the Ohio Country acted as it saw fit when weighing the potential costs and benefits of allying with either European power against the other.

Washington and his fellow Virginian land speculators were not natural allies of Tanacharisson, but the two were forced into an uneasy partnership when the French began building forts in the Ohio Country. The French colonial population in North America was tiny when compared to the British, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in commerce, missionary work, and diplomacy among the Indians. French explorers, traders, priests, and soldiers ventured far into the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley regions, building posts at key passageways or portages along these inland water routes, where they traded with Indians and pre-empted occupation by their British rivals.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, the French and their Algonquian Indian allies in the Great Lakes region had worked out a "middle ground" of mutual accommodation, in which the French played the diplomatic role of "father," making presents of trade goods and mediating disputes, while the Indians reciprocated by supplying animal pelts for French traders and warriors for military campaigns.
The defeat of Washington's forces at Fort Necessity allowed the French to continue fortifying the area. This plan shows the design of the French outpost of Fort Machault.
The defeat of Washington's forces at Fort Necessity allowed the French to...

This diplomatic relationship deteriorated in the Ohio Country in 1753, when the French asserted dominion over the region without consent from the Ohio Indians. The Delawares, Shawnee, and Senecas living there faced a choice: accept the military presence of the French "father" in their homelands or resist it. For those who chose the latter option, the British would become a necessary ally, because their trade would supply the arms and ammunition necessary to send the French back to Canada. When Tanacharisson used his influence at Logstown to get its inhabitants to approve the Ohio Company's post at the Forks of the Ohio, he was consciously casting his lot with the British.

In late 1753, Tanacharisson accompanied Washington on a diplomatic mission to tell the French they were trespassing. They traveled the markerVenango Path from the Forks of the Ohio to markerFort LeBoeuf, where the French commander politely rebuffed Washington's entreaty and made his own diplomatic overtures to Tanacharisson.

Washington returned to the Pennsylvania frontier in spring 1754 with a larger force, intent on getting better cooperation from the French this time. Tanacharisson once again aided the young Virginian, leading him to a small encampment of French soldiers commanded by Ensign Jumonville. In the ensuing firefight, markerJumonville was wounded, and as he attempted to explain his reasons for being in the vicinity of Washington's troops, Tanacharisson interrupted him. He asked Jumonville if he was English; the wounded man replied that he was French. "You are not yet dead, my father," Tanacharisson said, and then he killed Jumonville with a blow to the head. By this act, he repudiated the French presence in the Ohio Country and made clear his intention to see it removed.

The engagement left Washington badly shaken. As Tanacharisson's actions indicated, the Indians would fight to defend their homelands on their own terms and for their own reasons; the British and French might be able to ally with them, but neither side would be able to control them. Washington retreated to the aptly named markerFort Necessity, but surrendered to a superior French force led by Jumonville's brother a few days later. With Washington's expedition vanquished, the French continued fortifying the Ohio Country, building markerFort Machault and markerFort Duquesne. As the British presence in the region evaporated, so too did Tanacharisson's influence over the Ohio Indians, many of whom accepted presents and supplies from the French to war against the British.

By the end of 1754, the fate of the Ohio Country and its inhabitants seemed sealed. Tanacharisson had gambled on the Virginians and lost; he fell ill and died a few months later. His death weakened further the pro-British sentiment among the Ohio Indians; while many of them still resented the French intrusion into the Ohio Country, they also recognized that the French would be the chief supplier of the trade goods they needed to survive for the foreseeable future.

Washington, confused, shaken, and humiliated by his introduction to frontier warfare, personified the plight of the British colonists. To make matters worse, those colonists showed no sign of cooperating in meeting the French advance. The Albany Congress, an intercolonial treaty conference with the Iroquois that had convened in June 1754, had failed to secure any degree of colonial unity in coordinating Indian affairs or frontier defenses. Indeed, the only thing it did seem to accomplish was another land purchase by agents for the Penn family that threatened to alienate more Indians in western Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in the drawing rooms and council chambers of Europe, ministers of state read anxious dispatches, studied long-neglected maps, and wondered what to do about the crisis unfolding in an obscure corner of America.

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