In the 1750s, when nearly all of the colonists lived along the Atlantic seaboard, the Ohio River lands were a bone of contention between the French in Canada, the British held colonies and the Native American tribes. It was truly a frontier, with widely separated trading posts and settlements of just a few crude cabins. The Indians were very certain that they should not let the British or French encroach any further and after many letters, and meetings between the parties the Indians made it clear that they expected withdrawals by both parties. As a means of learning more about the fortifications being built by the French, Gov. Dinwiddie of Virginia informed, by letter, Gov.James Hamilton of PA. on Nov. 24 1753, “ I have sent a Person of Distinction to the Commander of the French forces on the Ohio to know his Reasons for this unjustifiable step... and demanding their immediate withdrawal. The Messenger has been gone three weeks,” (Col.Rec. V, 710)
That “Person of Distinction” was a twenty-one year old Major in the Forces of the Virginia Colony who was well fitted to take on an arduous trip into the wilderness to the northwest. And indeed, he became one of the most beloved Americans of all time. We, of course, refer to George Washington.
The trip across the ridges, valleys and streams took from the day he was commissioned 30 October 1753 until he reported to the Governor on 16 January 1754. Washington moved swiftly to collect the needed party and supplies and by the 24th of November. He had met with Indians under the leadership of Half King, who had already insisted that the French leave, and who now agreed to accompany Washington to the French . Venango was reached on Dec.4th and Washington had a chance to learn valuable information while he dined and wined with some French officers stationed there. Another week of travel brought them to Fort LeBouef, which is present day Waterford in Erie County. The next day the letters from Gov. Dinwiddie were presented to the highest ranking officer. While these were studied and a reply prepared, Washington made sure he learned all that was possible about the fort, even down to the number of canoes available.
By the 16th of Dec.,with snow getting deeper daily, Washington had received the French reply and departed by canoe down French Creek. Ice and low water made it a tiring trip as many portages were necessary. Fingers and toes were suffering and clothing frozen. Venango was reached on Dec. 22nd.1753. From the Journal of Christopher Gist, a woodsman Washington had hired as “pilot”, we quote parts of a passage that show the dangers faced as they continued their return and a party of “French Indians“ appeared.
“We asked them to go with us and show us the way to the nearest fork of the Allegheny... we traveled very brisk for eight or ten miles when the Major’s feet grew very sore and he was very weary... The Major desired to encamp, to which the Indian (guide) asked to carry his gun. But he refused that and then the Indian became churlish and pressed us to keep on, telling us there were Ottawa Indians in these woods and they would scalp us if we lay out; but to go to his cabin and we would be safe. The Major soon mistrusted him as much as I....We went two miles further....we came to a clear meadow; it was very light and snow on the ground. The Indian made a stop, turned about; the Major saw him point his gun towards us and fire. Said the Major,"Are you shot?" "No," I said. Upon which the Indian ran forward to a big standing white oak, and to load his gun; but we were soon with him. I would have killed him; but the Major would not suffer me to kill him. We let him charge his gun; we found he had put in a ball; then we took care of him. ....We made him make a fire for us by a little run, as if we intended to sleep there. I said to the Major: ’As you will not have him killed, we must get away, and then we must travel all night. Upon which I said to the Indian,’ I suppose you were lost and fired your gun’ He said he knew the way to his cabin and ‘twas but a little way’. ‘Well,’ I said ‘do you go home and as we are much tired, we will follow your track in the morning, here is a cake of bread for you. You must give us meat in the morning’. He was glad to get away. I followed him and listened until he was fairly out of the way, and then we set out about half a mile, when we made a fire, set our compass and fixed our course and traveled all night. In the morning we were on the head of Pine Creek.”
One of Washington’s Journal notes is that “From the first of December until the fifteenth there was but one day on which it did not snow or rain incessantly; and though out the whole journey we met nothing but one continued series of cold, wet weather.”
Safety was reached on January 6th. After a day of rest Washington continued to Virginia, arriving at Williamsburg on Jan.16, 1754 where he submitted his report and delivered the French reply.
Edward Everett said of this event: “Such was the journey undertaken by Washington, at a season of the year when the soldier goes to quarters, in a state of weather when the huntsman shrinks from the inclemency of the skies, amidst perils from which his escape was almost miraculous; and this too, not by a penniless adventurer fighting his way through desperate risks to promotion and bread, but by a young man already known most advantageously in the community, who by his own honorable industry and the bequests of a deceased brother, was already possessed of a fortune. In this, his first official step, taken at the age of twenty-one , he displayed a courage, resolution, prudence, disinterestedness and fortitude which never afterwards failed to mark his conduct." (Edward Everett, in “Orations and Speeches” I .588)
This record speaks for itself. Today we need to renew this Nation with the recollection of the perils faced and brave actions of our founding fathers. Let us hold strongly to our heritage and require the best of our leaders.
Until our Notebook is opened once again, we leave you with Washington wearing a British uniform.