Teach PA History
George Washington and the Beginnings of the French and Indian War
Background Information for Teachers

From early 1749 through 1764, the British, the French and Native American nations engaged in a war to see who would control the Ohio River Valley. Two great European powers, Britain and France, claimed to own the same land in North America as did the Native Americans. The French had settled in Canada, the "Illinois country" and New Orleans. The British settled east of the Allegheny Mountains along the eastern seaboard. By the middle of the 18th century, traders from eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia were establishing posts there and had begun to take over the profitable Indian trade. Companies of land speculators were preparing to open the Ohio Valley to British settlers.

The French viewed this westward push of British traders and settlers a threat to their position in North America. It would result in a loss of trade and a weakening of friendship and alliances with the Indians. French communication could be cut between Canada in the north and Louisiana in the south. France decided to act.

On June 15, 1749, Celeron de Blainville, Captain of Infantry, left Montreal with 213 men and a flotilla of canoes. The men consisted of French regulars, Canadian militia and a small number of Indians. They traveled across Lake Erie, over a portage to Lake Chautauqua, and down the Allegheny River. They nailed the royal coat of arms to a tree and claimed possession of the surrounding lands "of the said river Oyo and of all the lands on both sides as far as the kings of France have enjoyed…"

Traveling south on the Allegheny, Celeron met a group of British traders and ordered them back beyond the mountains. At the Indian village of Logstown, which is Ambridge today, he was treated with hostility by the Shawnee, Seneca, and Miami tribes. He traveled a distance of 3,000 miles in 5 months and 18 days before returning to Montreal. He reported that France would lose the Ohio Valley to the British if it did not act decisively.

The year was 1752. The French began to build a chain of forts in the north, one of which was Fort LeBoeuf, between Lake Erie and French Creek. They would next move to fortify the forks of the Ohio where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio, which is present-day Pittsburgh.

In Virginia, Governor Dinwiddie heard about the forts. He wanted Virginia to control this territory and the vast wilderness. Governor Dinwiddie needed someone to deliver a message to the French at Fort LeBoeuf asking them to leave.

The year was 1753. George Washington, a major of one of the military districts of Virginia, was twenty-one years old. He could not speak French, but he had spent time in the wilderness as a surveyor. The governor selected Washington to deliver the message to the French. He was to ride to the Forks of the Ohio, make contact with friendly Indians and obtain a guide and protection from them. They were to go north to meet the French at a fort they were building. Here, they were to deliver a polite order to the French to leave English territory, return with their answer, and with any other secret information that he could gather about French intentions, strengths, intentions, and equipment.

Washington had seven men in his party when he came to the forks of the Ohio in late November. Christopher Gist, his guide, Jacob van Braam, his French interpreter, John Davidson, a trader, his Indian interpreter, and four "servitors." He went first to the house of John Fraser in Turtle Creek where he stayed eight days near the Forks. Fraser operated a trading post and a shop for repairing guns. He visited McKees Rocks Hill on the left bank of the Ohio at Chartiers Creek, which had been chosen as the site to build an English fort. He inspected the triangle of land at the confluence of the three rivers and decided that this was a better place to build a fort. "A fort at the forks would have the entire command of the Monongahela; which runs up to our settlements and is extremely well designed for water carriage, as it is of a deep, still nature," he writes in his journal.

Washington visited Shingas, chief of the Delawares, and Tanacharison, vice regent of the Iroquois. He met with them and lesser chiefs in a four-day conference at Logstown. The Iroquois leader and three braves decided to accompany him.

On November 30, Washington departed with his guide, two interpreters, his servitors, and the four Indians to call on the French. On December 11, the group reached Fort LeBoeuf. Washington had written in his journal that "there was much rain and snow." The travel had been hard.

The French commander, Saint-Pierre, read the letter. He was polite but responded very clearly. "As to the summons you sent me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it. He stated that the country belonged to the French and "no Englishman had the right to trade upon those waters," and that he "had orders to make every person prisoner who attempted it on the Ohio, or the waters of it."

Washington wanted to get back to Virginia. The weather was getting worse, the horses were tired, and they had to carry their canoes. On the third day, his horses gave out and three of his men were so frostbitten that they could scarcely walk. "As I was uneasy to get back, I determined to prosecute my journey the nearest way through the woods on foot," he wrote in his journal. Washington knew he could get fresh horses at Fraser's trading post in Turtle Creek. He left Van Braam in charge of his men, horses and baggage with orders to "take temporary shelter until the weather moderated." He set off on foot down the Venango Trail with Gist, his gun, and his pack on his back. They arrived at the Allegheny River three days later, after 40 miles of walking. Washington and Gist reached the north bank of the Allegheny on a bitter-cold day in late December (December 29).

Standing on the north shore of the Allegheny, which today is the Washington Crossing Bridge at 40th street, they saw that the river was only partly frozen. They needed to build a raft to cross it. They had "one poor hatchet" between them. They spent all the next day chopping down trees and trimming them. They finished the raft by sundown. They slid it across the ice to unfrozen water, launched it, and stepped aboard with long poles to guide and push it. "Before we were half way over, we were jammed in the ice in such a manner that we expected every minute to perish…" Washington wrote in his journal. "I put out my setting pole to stop the raft, and the rapidity of the stream jerked me out into 10 feet of water, but I saved myself by catching hold of one of the raft logs. With all our efforts, we could not get to either shore, but I was obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make it." This was Wainright's Island.

They spent the night on the island without a fire. Gist's fingers were frostbitten. The next morning they found the Allegheny frozen solid. They crossed it and walked the eight miles to Fraser's where they received food, drink, and warmth.

As he continued on to Virginia, he met a pack train of 17 horses carrying materials and stores for the fort that was to be built on the Ohio at his recommendation. They reached Williamsburg, Virginia on January 16, 1754, after eleven weeks and a journey of nearly 1000 miles.

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