Copyright © 2018 John F. Oyler
April 26, 2018
Mission to Fort LeBoeuf
The Bridgeville Area Historical Society interrupted its series of “Second Tuesday” workshops dealing with the history of Bridgeville High School this month and focused instead on significant events that occurred in this area over two and a half centuries ago.
The Society recently submitted a proposal to the Robert R. Banks Foundation for funding required for establishment of a significant permanent exhibit dedicated to George Washington’s seven visits to Western Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century and the impact they had on this area.
This is an extremely ambitious endeavor, but one that would be of great benefit to the local historical community, complementing Woodville Plantation, the Walker-Ewing Log House, Old St. Luke’s Church, and the Oliver Miller Homestead, among others.
It is anticipated as consisting of historical artifacts, maps, and prints of relevant paintings supplementing interactive narrated videos dedicated to each of the seven visits.
In support of this proposal we have decided to dedicate a series of the “Second Tuesdays” to the preparation of the aforementioned videos. Since Washington’s first visit, in 1753, was his well-known mission to Fort LeBoeuf, the April workshop was a discussion of it.
The facilitator began with a brief summary of the proposal and the purpose for this workshop. He explained that the exhibit would have about ten individual sub-exhibits, seven of which would be devoted to specific visits. Each sub-exhibit would have a four-minute video overviewing the visit and a thirty-minute video providing detail on it.
As an example, he had put together a four-minute video with voice-over recounting Washington’s brief (three years) career as a surveyor. He then showed a chronological series of slides depicting the mission to Fort LeBoeuf.
In the mid 1750s both France and England laid claim to the Ohio Country – the wilderness north and west of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. The French claim was based on an expedition by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1669. LaSalle reached the headwaters of the Allegheny in what is now New York, followed it to its confluence with the Monongahela River, and then went down the Ohio as far as the falls at Louisville.
Eighty years later Celeron de Blainville led a small force of French soldiers along the same route, this time confirming France’s claim by burying lead plates and nailing sheet metal signs on trees at six different locations, including Warren and Franklin in northwestern Pennsylvania.
The French quickly followed up this expedition with a major invasion, involving 2200 soldiers and an equally large number of Indians. They established three major forts --- Presq Isle (Erie), Le Boeuf (Waterford), and Machault (Franklin). The fort (Du Quesne) at the forks of the Ohio was scheduled for construction and occupation in 1754.
Their move into Machault forced English trader John Frazier to leave his trading post there and re-locate to the spot where Turtle Creek enters the Monongahela River. His report on the French invasion prompted the English to react.
The reaction was headed by the Ohio Company, a group of Virginia gentry with ambitions for land acquisition in the Ohio country. Prominent among them was Laurence Washington, George’s beloved half-brother. They persuaded Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie to send troops to the forks of the Ohio and build a fort there.
Dinwiddie initially dispatched twenty one year-old Major George Washington to the Ohio Country to deliver an ultimatum to the French advising them that England (Virginia) had sovereignty over that land.
Washington proceeded to Wills Creek (now Cumberland, Maryland) and engaged experienced scout and frontiersman Christopher Gist to accompany him.
Gist and Washington then travelled on horseback along the Nemacolin Trail through a gap in Laurel Ridge and then across Chestnut Ridge, eventually reaching Frazier’s cabin at Turtle Creek. This route would eventually be improved during Braddock’s ill-fated campaign and named for him.
Their immediate destination was Logstown (now Ambridge) where a major Indian village existed. En route they passed through two other Indian settlements – Shannopin’s Town (now Lawrenceville) and Shingiss’ (McKees Rocks). The latter location was the site where the Ohio Company planned to build its fort. Washington concluded that the area at what is now Pittsburgh’s Point would be a much preferable location.
They spent several days at Logstown, meeting Indian leaders and gathering information on the French and their presence in the region. One of the leaders was Tanarachison, also known as the Half-King, an extremely interesting character who would show up again in Washington’s second visit to this area.
The Half-King had the English convinced that he was the viceroy or governor of the Ohio Country on behalf of the Iroquois Nation who actually were the sovereigns of the region. He talked Washington into allowing him to accompany the expedition on to meet the French.
They eventually headed north, picking up the Venango Path, another well-established Indian trail. When they reached Fort Machault they met the French commander, Captain Joncaire, who promptly advised them that he was too insignificant to receive their message. He suggested they continue on to Fort LeBoeuf by following French Creek (and an extension of the Venango Path).
The trip to LeBoeuf was difficult; Washington’s Journal mentions swamps, rain and snow, and an impassable French Creek. At the fort they met the commandant, Legardeur de St. Pierre, an elderly gentleman who apparently impressed Washington because he was a Knight of the military Order of St. Lewis. At this point Washington seemed more like an English nobleman than a rough-and-ready American frontiersman.
Washington presented Governor Dinwiddie’s letter to St. Pierre, then waited three days before he got a formal reply. He spent the time profitably, generating a detailed report on the layout of the fort, the number and location of artillery pieces, and the disposition of the troops manning it. During this period the French made a serious effort to influence Half-King to transfer his loyalty (and that of the Iroquois) to their side.
Eventually the French presented their response, a courteous but arrogant statement that the combination of their might, La Salle’s original claim, and de Blainville’s recent expedition made it obvious that the Ohio Country was an inherent part of New France. They strongly advised the English to be satisfied to stay east of the Allegheny mountains.
Washington, Gist, and a reluctant Half-King then returned to Fort Machault by canoe, another difficult trip. At this point Half-King elected to leave the party, claiming he would return to the forks of the Ohio by canoe rather than travelling overland. Washington was skeptical and begged him to not defect to the French.
The trip down the Venango Path went very slowly. The horses were worn out and had great difficulty in the deep snow they were encountering. Because Washington recognized the urgency of getting back to Williamsburg with his report, he decided that he and Gist should continue on, on foot.
At a place called “Murthering-Town” (now Harmony) they encountered a party of “French” Indians, one of whom took a shot at them from about fifteen paces. Fortunately, he missed his mark and they were able to make their getaway in the darkness.
The next night found them on the north shore of the Allegheny, which was in flood and filled with ice floes. They spent a day constructing a raft of logs and set out to cross the river. The ice turned out to be a major deterrent.
When Washington tried to fend off a floe with his pole, he was thrown into the river. Fortunately, he was able to get back to the raft. They eventually washed up on an island, which has been immortalized as “Washington Crossing”.
The next morning the river had frozen over solid and they were able to get across safely and find their way to Frazier’s cabin. There they were able to thaw out and to acquire horses that made the return trip to Virginia much easier.
On the way back they encountered a pack train of horses “loaded with materials and stores to build a fort at the Forks”. One wonders who decided on that location rather than at McKees Rocks and when the decision was made.
Back in Williamsburg Washington was received as a hero, and the Virginians’ resolve to resist the French invasion was intensified. The stage was set for the young major to make his second trip to this area and to kick off the “first World War”.
This is indeed a remarkable story, reading like something out of J. R. R. Tolkein; its sequel will be investigated in June. The May “Second Tuesday” workshop will return to our review of the history of Bridgeville High School, this time focusing on the 1950 and 1951 classes. May 8, 2018 is its date.