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Mr. Washington Goes to Pittsburgh

An abridged summary of
The Journal of Major George Washington
A Most Merry and Illustrated Edition

(Available from Amazon)

George and Robert

George and Robert

Picture this. In the mid-18th century, a politician named Dinwiddie sends a young eager-beaver weekend soldier full of enthusiasm but with no experience on a mission of international importance. In the course of the journey, the young man meets a bunch of Frenchmen who not only drink to excess but take brandy and wine wherever they go and then loose it in a river. Then he bumps into an Indian warrior who tries to shoot him, and when he tries to cross an ice choked river on an improvised raft, he falls in.

Sounds like fodder for a comedy sketch, doesn't it?

Nope, you're reading about George Washington and his first mission as a military officer. And at that time the governor of Colonial Virginia really was named Dinwiddie.

Robert was, we should emphasize, the lieutenant governor. The actual governor of the colony was Willem Anne van Keppel. Despite his name, Willem was a native-born Englishman and the 2nd Earl of Albemarle. He held his office from 1737 to 1754 and never set foot in America. The 18th century was the time when a colonial governor could remain in England, reap the benefits of his office, and leave the day-to-day running of the colony to a deputy. The deputy was, as we said, the Honorable Robert Dinwiddie, Esq.

Ostensibly, the reason for George's mission was to deliver a letter from Robert to the French military that they had been encroaching on the land claimed by His Majesty King George II (yes, the II - we are not yet dealing with Big George III). The land was the Ohio Country which included the area of today's western Pennsylvania. The fact that Robert and others (including two of George's half-brothers) were also setting up a land speculation company to settle the Ohio Country was, of course, a minor, very minor detail.

Why would a governor of Virginia be interested in buying land in western Pennsylvania? Well, at that time western Pennsylvania was Virginia. In fact when it was first established, Virginia included - or at least claimed - all of present day Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, western and northern New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, western Pennsylvania, and on west to include all or parts of the modern states of Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California. Not everybody bought on to all of these claims. The French certainly didn't but then neither did the governor of Pennsylvania.

And of course it wasn't too hot an idea with the Indian tribes. At that time, what had been a large chunk of the Iroquois Nation had relocated from their original homelands along the Atlantic Seaboard and New England to settle in the regions west of the Allegheny Mountains. That was because the Europeans had been settling on their land and - we must admit it - driving the natives out.

In fact, one of the Englishmen living in Virginia in the mid-1600's had been dubbed "Destroyers of Towns" - Conotocarius in the native language. He was none other than John Washington. Yes, this was George's great-granddaddy. The name is often today rendered as "Town-Taker", reflecting that John preferred to destroy the native villages by simply appropriating their land and forcing the inhabitants off without an all-out massacre. On the other hand there is a story that once a group of warriors had surrendered to John and then he killed them all.

But back to George.

There is no real mystery as to why Robert selected George for the mission. By 1753 George was a major in the Virginia militia and had established a reputation as an able and enthusiastic if not particularly experienced officer. In fact, when he learned of the proposed expedition, George had volunteered. Even at his relatively young age, George was an experienced outdoorsman and expert horseman. Besides, this trip seemed simple enough.

George and the Frenchmen

Four out of ten.

Except it was during the dead of winter. Worse, climatologists have found that the 18th century was during the "Little Ice Age", and the winters were particularly cold. Usually such a trip would have been postponed until summer. On the other hand, historians have pointed out that the timing may have been a deliberate part of Governor Dinwiddie's plan. Neither George nor Robert could be so naïve as to think the French would pull out of the Ohio Country because they received a letter from a colonial governor delivered by a not terribly senior militia officer. By delivering an ultimatum in winter (and receiving a refusal), Robert would have plenty of time to organize a serious military expedition for the spring.

So on October 31, 1753, George set out. The usual route would have been for George to go north from Williamsburg on King's Highway, which is essentially US 17. He would then have gone from Fredericksburg on to Alexandria which is across the Potomac from modern Washington, D. C., which wasn't there yet.

George picked up supplies and hired three "servitors" - that is, three guys to help with the baggage. Since it was a trip of indefinite duration, he decided to buy some horses rather than rent or borrow them.

Next, George and his group would have left Alexandria and gone more or less along VA-7, passing through the area of Leesburg (which was not yet built). Then they would have moved on to Winchester, which even then was a town of some size (George's office is still there). The next stage would have been to take what is US-50 out of Winchester for a few miles and then pass along what are now back roads to Wills Creek near modern Cumberland, Maryland. From that point George would have to travel on trails established by the Native Americans or the European traders.

At Cumberland, then called Wills Creek, George followed a more or less straight line to Christopher Gist's settlement which is now marked by a highway sign between Uniontown and Connellsville. Then they all moved along the east side of the Monongahela River until they reached an Indian settlement called Shannopin's Town. This was a couple of miles north of Three River's point near 40th street in downtown Pittsburgh.

OK. George got to Pittsburgh. But to no one's real surprise, there weren't any French military officers there to deliver a letter that they would ignore. So George knew that they needed some guides that 1) knew the land and 2) knew the French. George - or probably Christopher - realized that the man they needed to talk to was a Lenape - i. e., Delaware - Indian leader named Tanacharison. He was what we call a "chief", but because he was not in charge of a whole tribe, the Europeans dubbed him the "Half King", a title which Tanacharison didn't mind.

George and Christopher had one of the local natives ask Tanacharison to join them. He was living in a cabin about 30 miles a way, and while waiting for Tanacharison, George looked around. He decided that downtown Pittsburgh looked like a great place for the English to build a fort.

George and Christopher moved on about 20 miles down river from Pittsburgh to a small village called Logstown. Tanacharison showed up the next day and told them the French had occupied the site of an old native settlement called Venango. This is about 60 miles north and a little east of Pittsburgh. Normally they would take a path - called the Venango Path - that ran almost due north from Pittsburgh. But because of the snow and rain, the land was too boggy, and they had to swing to the west. This, though, was another well trodden Indian path called the Kuskusky Path.

But before George and Christopher set out, they had some visitors. Four Frenchmen - a group out of a total of ten - had deserted from the French army and were heading to Philadelphia. They had been sent from New Orleans to join their Gallic brethren at the new forts that the French had been building north of Pittsburgh. But having forsworn the military life, they spilled the beans about where the forts were and how many were planned.

Not so much to carry

Not much to carry.

Two forts had already been constructed. One was Fort Presque Isle at what is now Erie, Pennsylvania. The other was about 15 miles further south at modern Waterford.

The Frenchmen also told George that their army already had plans to build two more forts. One was to be at Venango itself, and a fourth where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio. That, of course, is modern Pittsburgh - and exactly where George said was a great place for the English to build their fort. George listened attentively and then the Frenchmen headed on to Philadelphia.

So George moved north. This leg of the journey was fairly uneventful and after about a week, George ended up at Venango. Venango - today Franklin, Pennsylvania - had first been settled by the Seneca tribe. An Englishman named John Fraser had established a settlement there as well (with the approval of the Indians), but the French had booted him out and now John had been living about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. In fact, George and Christopher had borrowed a canoe from John so they could send their baggage to Pittsburgh and not have to carry so much on their horses.

George couldn't have been surprised to find that when they got to Venango, sure enough, there was a French flag flying. George sent a message that they wished to speak to the French commander. Unfortunately, the French officer in charge - Philippe-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire - declined to accept George's letter, saying George needed to speak to the big boss of the region, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. Jacques, though, was up at Fort Presque Isle on the banks of Lake Erie.

But military courtesy did mandate the Frenchmen would invite George and his buddies to dinner. Being Frenchmen, the officers assured the wine flowed freely, and soon they were pretty much spilling their guts to George as to their plans (to take control of the whole region), the number of soldiers at each fort (about 100 or more), and where the current forts were located and where they were going to build new ones (Venango and Pittsburgh). But so as not to make everyone too chummy, the Frenchmen also tried to get Tanacharison and the other Indians on the French side by giving them plenty of liquor. Tanacharison, though, did not trust the French and kept his head.

They spilled their guts.

They spilled their guts.

The French tactics worked a bit, but really only delayed George about a day. Then he and the rest - the frontiersmen, the Indian guides, some of the French soldiers, and the horses - headed north. They more or less followed the line of French Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny that flows from the north and a bit west. The creek finally turns northeast at the spot where the French had built what they called Fort Le Boeuf.

Once more an officer commanding the fort - a Lieutenant Louis Legardeur de Repentigny - greeted George with courtesy and once more told him that he himself had no authority to accept George's letter. Only Jacques could do that. But if George was willing to stick around he was sure to show up. In fact, Jacques was already on his way from Fort Presque Isle.

Finally Jacques showed up and accepted the letter. He and his own officers told George they would look over the letter and draft a reply. This gave George a chance to look over the fort, count how many canoes they had (and were making), and the type of cannons they had behind the palisade.

In his reply Jacques pointed out that neither he nor any of the French soldiers at the forts could evacuate their posts without orders from the really big boss, General Michel Ange, Marquis du Quesne de Menneville. But Duquesne (as everyone called Michel) was in Montreal, and since in any case he'd tell the English to take a hike, Jacques went ahead and gave the written reply that the French owned the land, they were going to stick around, and if the English didn't like it, well, that was just tough tiddy.

At this point Jacques did the usual trick of getting the Indians to join the French by giving them guns and liquor. This irritated George who said the Indians were part of his party, and Jacques was hindering his mission. Jacques was shocked! shocked! at such an accusation, and denied it most emphatically. So George and his guides - again accompanied by some French soldiers - headed back toward Venango. One problem, though, was that the horses, who had been traveling for a couple of months with inadequate food and water, were on the verge of collapse. So George sent them back to Venango. He and the rest of the party - which now included some of the French soldiers - went down the creek by canoe.

After a week they got back to Venango. There they found the horses were still in sad shape and not fit to carry any riders. So the "servitors" were sent on ahead to lead the animals back to Pittsburgh, leaving Christopher and George by themselves.

George said they should head back to Pittsburgh on foot rather than take the excess time to find fresh mounts. Christopher, though, didn't think that was a good idea because, to be frank, he thought that although George was too much of a tenderfoot and couldn't handle actually walking. It turns out that Christopher was pretty much correct. Soon Tenderfoot George became - in Christopher's words - "very much fatigued" and footsore. But by that time they didn't have any choice but to keep going. Fortunately, they were able to spend the night in a cabin owned by one of the local Indians.

The next day they set out and soon bumped into either a band of Indians according to George or one Indian according to Christopher. Later some of the bigwigs thought George may have stretched the blanket on the hazards of his journal, and we have to admit that Christopher's account is probably the most accurate. He said that they asked the Indian to show them the way to Pittsburgh. Sure, he said, no problem.

Soon Christopher noted the Indian was heading northeast although Pittsburgh was almost due south. Before they could ask where they were going, the Indian turned around, pointed his gun at George and Christopher, and fired. But since he was using a smoothbore musket, he missed.

Christopher wanted to kill the Indian, but George said no, and more or less gave the Indian the excuse that his firing the gun was an accident. George then told him to head to his cabin where they would come along later and spend the night. As soon as the Indian was gone, George and Christopher turned the opposite direction and headed south.

Crossing the Allegheny

Crossing the Allegheny.

Finally George and Christopher reached the head of Pine Creek, a small tributary that runs into the Allegheny about four miles north of the Three Rivers Point and just where the river turns east toward Sharpsburgh. It took them about a day to follow the creek to the Allegheny. Then instead of the river being frozen solid - which would have allowed them to walk across - it was flowing fast and blocked with chunks of ice.

Well, there was no choice but to build a raft. With only a cheap hatchet available, the task took them all day. What they built was nothing fancy. Just a bunch of logs roped together with a couple of cross ties to give the craft some rigidity. All went well until they got about halfway across. Then George attempted to push away a block of ice and slipped and fell in. Thankfully (for the American Revolution), he managed to scramble back on board. But the river was flowing so strongly and choked with ice that George and Christopher decided to spend the night on an island that was conveniently in the middle of the river.

Of course, the problem now was how to get the rest of the way over. We don't even know if they still had their raft. But when daylight came, it was a moot question. Overnight the river had frozen solid and so they just walked across.

George had no intention of walking back to Williamsburg. Fortunately, they were back close to the cabin of John Fraser. He lent them horses to get back to Christopher's own home between Connellsville and Uniontown. There George bought a horse and managed to get back home after what he called "as fatiguing a journey as possible to conceive.

George wrote up his report - in a single day, he said - and it was published both as a pamphlet and as articles in newspapers. The small volume brought George his first fame but not necessarily fortune. That came after he married Martha.

Of course, Robert didn't like the answer he got from the French. So in March he sent George out again. This time it was with a troop of armed militiamen, all with orders to protect the English settlers and - if necessary - to capture and kill any French soldiers who resisted.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Fatiguing Journey

As fatiguing a journey as possible to conceive.