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November 13 - 19, 1753
Young George Washington Sets Out on a Diplomatic Mission — Through the Wilderness

November 2011

George Washington

On Nov. 15, 1753 George Washington and a small party of scouts and woodsmen left Wills Creek (now Cumberland, Maryland) for Fort LeBoeuf, a French wilderness post just 12 miles south of Lake Erie. The 21-year-old Washington had been entrusted with a diplomatic mission by Robert Dinwiddie, the colonial Governor of Virginia. He was to establish good relations with the Ohio Valley Indians, scout out possible fort sites for future Ohio Company settlements, try to discover French military intentions, and carry a message to the French, politely informing them that they were trespassing on Virginia territory.

The Ohio Company had been formed in 1747 by American patriots and London sympathizers, to colonize the area beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Lawrence Washington, George's older brother, had been one of the prime movers in the effort to break through the mountains. George Washington had become a surveyor at the age of 16, and had charted much of the Fairfax Grant which lay to the west of the Blue Ridge. Upon the death of Lawrence, he had assumed some of the responsibility for continuing the project, and Governor Dinwiddie was also a member of the Ohio Company. In 1750, the Company had sent Christopher Gist, an experienced scout, into Ohio and Kentucky to win the Ohio Valley Indians to the English side and to evaluate the fertility and resources of the land. A warehouse and arsenal were subsequently set up on the Monongahela, and settlers were brought across the mountains.

The French, meanwhile, who often acted as a surrogate for Britain by sending their Indians against the American frontiers, had been moving into the Ohio Valley in order to link up their settlements in Canada with those on the Mississippi in the Illinois Country and Louisiana. They seized any Englishmen whom their Indians hadn't killed and sent them to Canada. When Governor Dinwiddie received news of these French incursions, he sent a Captain Trent to parley with the French, but he was so terrified by tales of Indian depredations that he failed to complete his mission. George Washington, as an adjutant general in the Virginia Militia, volunteered to carry Dinwiddie's message through the wilderness. He chose the experienced Christopher Gist as his guide, and gathered a small group of scouts and translators at Wills Creek.

On the way to the meeting with Indian chiefs at Logstown on the Ohio River, Washington passed the future site of Pittsburgh. The Ohio Company had planned to build a fort two miles down the river from the Forks of the Ohio, but with the eye of a practiced surveyor, Washington saw that the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers was the more important location. He wrote that "As I got down before the Canoe, I spent some Time in viewing the Rivers, and the Land in the Fork, which I Think extremely well situated for a Fort; as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers. The Land at the Point is 20 or 25 Feet above the common Surface of the Water; and a considerable Bottom of flat well timber'd Land all around it, very convenient for Building." Although the Ohio Company workers went ahead with building the fort down the river, the French military engineers who later sent them packing back to Virginia chose Washington's site at the Forks for France's new Fort Duquesne.

When Washington and his party reached Logstown, they met with leaders of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Seneca Indians. The most important of these chiefs was called the Half-King, and he pledged his loyalty to the English. Much of the Indians' discontent stemmed from the fact that the Miami Indians, who had earlier sided with the English, had been massacred and had their villages burned by Indians loyal to the French.

Also at Logstown, Washington had the opportunity to speak with French deserters who had just come up the Ohio River from the French settlements in the Illinois Country. Because the French pronunciation of "Illinois" is similar to "Isles Noires," Washington wrote in his journal that he had been given a description of the French forts at the "Black Islands" further west.

The Half-King and several of his braves escorted Washington's party on the difficult journey through rain and snow to Venango. There, Washington had to deal with Captain Joncaire, a skilled French Indian agent who had no intention of allowing an alliance between Virginia and the Ohio Valley Indians. Joncaire plied the Indians with gifts and liquor and used every strategem to prevent them from accompanying Washington any further.

At a dinner with Washington, wine loosened the French officers' tongues, and they claimed France would take over the whole Ohio Valley in the spring with a large military force. They anticipated that the English would outnumber them militarily two to one, but that the English moved so slowly that the French would have already conquered the valley before the English could reach it.

After this alarming news, Washington pushed north as quickly as possible to deliver Governor Dinwiddie's letter to the French commander at Fort LeBoeuf. Commander Le Gardeur de St. Pierre was polite, but said that he obeyed orders only from the French Governor General in Canada, and did not feel compelled to abandon French territory. He and his officers conferred, and presented Washington with a letter for Governor Dinwiddie. But, again, the French attempted to keep Washington's Indian escort from accompanying him on the return trip. Washington wrote that "I can't say that ever in my Life I suffered so much anxiety as I did in this affair...."

Finally, only one of the Half-King's braves accompanied Washington's party southward down the river. Washington wrote in his journal that

"Our Horses were now so weak and feeble, and the Baggage heavy; as we were oblig'd to provide all the Necessaries the Journey wou'd require, that we doubted much their performing it; therefore my Self and others (except the Drivers which were oblig'd to ride) gave up our Horses for Packs, to assist along with the Baggage; and put my Self into an Indian walking Dress, and continue'd with them three Day's, 'till I found there was no Probability of their getting in, in any reasonable Time; the Horses grew less able to travel every Day. The Cold increas'd very fast, and the Roads were getting much worse by a deep Snow continually Freezing; And as I was uneasy to get back to make a report of my Proceedings to his Honour the Governor; I determin'd to prosecute my Journey the nearest way through the Woods on Foot.

"Accordingly I left Mr. Vanbraam in Charge of our Baggage, with Money and Directions to provide Necessaries from Place to Place for themselves and Horses and to make the most convenient Dispatch in. I took my necessary Papers, pull'd off my Cloths; tied My Self up in a Match Coat; and with my pack at my back, with my Papers and Provisions in it, and a Gun, set out with Mr. Gist, fitted in the same Manner, on Wednesday the 26th.

"The Day following, just after we had pass'd a Place call'd the Murdering Town where we intended to quit the Path and steer across the Country for Shanapins Town, we fell in with a Party of French Indians, which had laid in wait for us, one of them fired at Mr. Gist or me, not 15 steps, but fortunately missed. We took this Fellow into Custody, and kept him 'till about 9 o'clock at Night, and then let him go, and then walked all the remaining Part of the Night without making any Stop; that we might get the start, so far as to be out of the reach of their Pursuit next Day, as were well assur'd they wou'd follow upon our Tract as soon as it was Light...."

After another day's travel, the two reached the river above Shanapin Town, but they were not able to cross it because the ice had broken up and was being driven downriver by a fast current. After a day's work with one hatchet, Washington and Gist managed to build a raft, but when they got halfway across, it jammed in the ice. When Washington attempted to free it by pushing on a pole, he was jerked into 10 feet of water. He saved himself by grabbing one of the raft's logs, but he and Gist had to wade to an island. They spent a freezing night, but were able to walk across the ice in the morning and reach safety.

With some difficulty, the two obtained horses, and by hard riding, Washington succeeded in reaching Williamsburg on Jan. 16, 1754. He had travelled almost a thousand miles in 11 weeks. Governor Dinwiddie forwarded the French reply to London, and had Washington's 6,000-word journal of his mission published as a pamphlet for circulation around the colonies. Thus George Washington, at age 22, became well known both in England and America. The British government, after it was informed so publicly of French intentions in the Ohio Valley, was forced to authorize the American colonies to mount a joint program to hold back the French along the western and northern frontiers. This was just what the American patriots had been planning for, and Washington's second expedition to the West in the spring of 1754 would set the stage for the American Revolution to come.  

 

The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.