Copyright © 2018 John F. Oyler
June 28, 2018
The Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s June “Second Tuesday” workshop focused on George Washington’s adventures in western Pennsylvania in 1754. It was the second of a series of seven workshops dedicated to Washington’s seven visits to this area, in support of the Society’s proposed permanent exhibit on that subject.
As we get deeper into this project its potential as a resource opportunity becomes even more obvious. The history of this area in the latter half of the eighteenth century is as exciting as the Harry Potter or Stars Wars epics and in addition is based on things that actually occurred.
One of our challenges is to present this information in a multi-tiered format so that it can be attractive to the full spectrum of potential users, from elementary school students to adult history buffs. One concept proposed to meet this challenge is to subdivide the exhibit into a a series of seven individual exhibits, one for each of Washington’s visits.
To exemplify this approach the facilitator showed a four-minute video dealing with the first visit, the Mission to Fort LeBoeuf, the subject of our April workshop. It consisted of a series of relevant pictures, maps, and bulleted text, with a voice-over summarizing the adventure. It also set the scene for this month’s workshop.
When we ended our previous workshop, it was the middle of January, 1754, and Washington was back in Williamsburg reporting to Governor Dinwiddie. The governor had already dispatched Captain William Trent and a small force to the Forks of the Ohio to build Fort Prince George as a deterrent to further French aggression. Half King (Tanarichison) demonstrated his loyalty to the Virginians by laying the first log in the construction of the fort.
Governor Dinwiddie authorized the organization of the Virginia Regiment, about 750 men organized into eight companies, with Colonel Joshua Fry as its commander. Washington had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel as his second-in-command and instructed to return to the Ohio Country with two of the companies.
In April the long anticipated French invasion began. A force of about one thousand French, Canadian, and Indian warriors came down the Allegheny River in three hundred canoes and eighty bateaux. Captain Trent left Ensign Edward Ward in command at Fort Prince George and hurried back to Winchester to inform Washington.
When the French armada reached the Forks, Ensign Ward wisely surrendered and was allowed to retreat to Wills Creek (Cumberland, Maryland) with his three dozen troops. Led by Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the French began the construction of a significant fortification which they named Fort DuQuesne in honor of the Governor of New France.
On April 19 Washington left Winchester with about 200 men and proceeded west, confident that the remainder of the regiment would soon reinforce him. From Wills Creek they followed the Nemacolin Trail, building a crude wagon road as they progressed. They found a good camp site at Great Meadows, close to the location where the village of Farmington is located today.
Learning of Washington’s advance, on May 23 Contrecoeur ordered Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville to take thirty French soldiers and locate the enemy, and (according to the French version) to deliver a summons to them to withdraw. When Washington learned they were coming, he dispatched Christopher Gist with a small force to determine their whereabouts.
Shortly after Gist left, Tanarichison showed up and told Washington he knew where Jumonville’s troop was camped. Accompanied by forty Virginians and twelve Mingos, led by Tanarichison, Washington surprised them on the morning of May 28. After a short skirmish that left ten of the French contingent dead, including Jumonville, the remainder surrendered.
Washington’s journal merely reports that Jumonville was killed; the French version said that he was wounded and that Tanarichison tomahawked and scalped him while he was trying to give Washington the summons. Washington later told his brother, "I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound”.
The French prisoners were taken back to Virginia. Washington returned to Great Meadows where he was pleased to find another company of soldiers had arrived. His forces continued to move westward, continuing their road-building mission. By the time they reached Gist’s Plantation (halfway between Uniontown and Connellsville) his small army had grown to nearly four hundred, thanks to the arrival of an independent company of British soldiers led by Captain James Mackay.
More significantly, Washington learned that Colonel Fry had died at Wills Creek, the result of a fall from a horse, and that he had been promoted to Colonel and commander of the full Virginia Regiment. In less than a year he had gone from private citizen applying for a job in the military to its highest rank.
He made a decision to fortify Gist’s Plantation, a decision that he reconsidered when he learned that Contrecoeur had sent a massive force of French, Canadians, and Indians east, to take revenge for the death of Jumonville. Their commander was Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville’s half-brother. Washington’s scouts estimated the force to be one thousand men; it turned out to be about six hundred, still far too many for the poorly supplied Virginians.
After a council with his officers, Washington decided it would be judicious for his army to fall back to Wills Creek where they could be properly supplied. On July1 he learned that Villiers was at Redstone Creek (Brownsville) and moving so quickly his forces would soon overtake the Virginians. Washington determined to make a stand at Great Meadows, where he had erected a modest stockade which was dubbed “Fort Necessity”.
Two days later the French and Indians arrived. According to one account there was a conventional encounter in the open field. The Virginians fled back to the fort when the Indians came pouring out of the woods. Mackay’s regulars held their ground and allowed the entire contingent to retreat to their embattlements. When the enemy realized that the fort was within musket range of their position in the woods, they also fell back and maintained a heavy fire on Fort Necessity despite a heavy rainstorm in the afternoon.
The rain was disastrous to Washington’s troops. Their fortification became a swamp, their gunpowder became too damp to fire, and most of their remaining food supplies were destroyed. By evening thirty of them were dead and another seventy severely wounded.
Unbeknownst to them, Villiers also had problems. His Indian allies, easily his most effective warriors, announced that they were leaving in the morning. They greatly enjoyed a fight, but had no interest in a siege. There were rumors that a huge Virginian army was en route, sufficient to turn the tide of battle.
Villiers sent envoys under a flag of truce, offering conditions for surrender. Washington sent his translator, Captain Jacob van Braam, to meet with them. After several hours he decided to accept their terms. He and his troops could march out in the morning and return to Wills Creek without a battle. The Virginians would release the twenty one French captives from the battle with Jumonville; in return van Braam and Captain Robert Stobo would be held as French hostages until the exchange was made.
The surrender document was in French and Washington had to rely on van Braam to translate it. It acknowledged that the Virginians had been responsible for Jumonville’s death, as translated by van Braam. The word he translated as “death” was “assassinat”, which the French meant to mean “murder” or “assassination”. In effect Washington’s signature on the document amounted to a confession of responsibility for a totally dishonorable act.
The next morning the defeated Virginians staggered out of the fort and began the trek back to Wills Creek on foot, abandoning their baggage and carrying the wounded. The Indians scalped the dead soldiers and disappeared into the forest with all the loot they could carry. Villiers returned to Fort DuQuesne with proof he had avenged the death of Jumonville.
Washington’s return to Williamsburg was a stark contrast to his previous triumphal entry. Dinwiddie dissolved the Virginia Regiment and replaced it with ten independent companies. Washington was offered a commission as a Captain in command of one of them, an opportunity he turned down in favor of a resignation. The cycle was complete; he was back where he was a year earlier – an out-of-work surveyor.
During the presentation several members of the audience made constructive comments. Paul Katrincik reported that half breed Peter Chartier, the namesake for Chartiers Creek, was among the Indians fighting on the French side at Fort Necessity. He also said that McKees Rocks had been a potential site for what eventually became Fort Pitt. Our sources confirmed this and credited Gist with that suggestion.
Our next workshop, on August 14, 2018, will focus on an even more disastrous campaign, General Braddock’s Expedition in 1755, one that will give Washington an opportunity to redeem himself.