The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)

BOOK ONE. Colliding Empires (1748–1756)

2. BEAUTIFUL OHIO

After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the map of North America still showed the English colonies heavily encircled by a French empire stretching from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence to the Mississippi delta. A closer look at the map, however, revealed a startling chink in the French armor. Quite logically, France had established its outposts along the major rivers between the Great Lakes and New Orleans to afford the easiest avenues of transportation and communication. This line ran roughly between the western Great Lakes and the Mississippi River via either the Lake Michigan–Illinois River portage or the Lake Erie–Maumee River–Wabash River portage, the latter of which was scarcely a dozen miles long, just south of present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Between this line of French forts and the crest of the Appalachians 300 to 400 miles to the east, however, was a tremendous expanse of territory drained principally by the Ohio River and its tributaries. It was not a no-man’s-land. The English were beginning to overflow the Appalachians, which had once dammed their expansion and kept it in check. France might claim vast territory, but the English colonies had one thing that New France did not—the population to fill the land. The census of 1754 showed about 55,000 white inhabitants in Canada, plus perhaps another 25,000 in Acadia and Louisiana. By comparison, the English colonies boasted an estimated 1,160,000 white inhabitants, plus some 300,000 black slaves.

In large part this disparity in population was because the English colonies were already somewhat of a western European melting pot. France, on the other hand, kept a close check on immigration up the Saint Lawrence, rigidly controlling the numbers politically and restricting them religiously to French Catholics. Even Protestant Huguenots, banished from Catholic France by the hundreds of thousands, found their way to the middle and southern English colonies rather than New France.

As Francis Parkman summed it up: “France built its best colony on a principle of exclusion, and failed; England reversed the system, and succeeded.” No wonder, then, that traders and trappers and even a settler or two from the English colonies were crossing the Appalachians in increasing numbers and making themselves quite at home along the valleys and tributaries of what the French called the Belle-Rivière, “beautiful river.”1

The Iroquois called the river the Ohio, meaning “something big.” If relations between the French and English were complex and the rivalries of Europe convoluted, the status of Native Americans along the upper Ohio River was even more so. The dominant power in the region was the Iroquois Confederacy, a union of five nations—the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga—that coordinated external relations with other tribes as well as with the French and the English. When these five were joined by the Tuscarora, the empire of the Six Nations stretched from the upper Hudson River westward to the Ohio and was an immense buffer between the French and English frontiers.

As the power of the Iroquois Confederacy grew, it exerted what in European terms might be called a feudal domination over other tribes, including the Mingo, Shawnee, and Delaware. These tribes—some historians have simply lumped them together as the “Ohio Indians”—had generally been pushed westward by European settlements.

Despite numerous pronouncements of neutrality, the Six Nations were constantly wooed by both the French and the English. Historically, the Mohawk along the New York frontier were more likely to trade with and be influenced by the English, while the Seneca along lakes Ontario and Erie were more likely to look north to the French. Neutrality aside, the Six Nations referred to its commercial and strategic relationship with the English as the “Covenant Chain” and maintained a similar relationship with the French.2

While generally agreeable to advantageous trading relations, the Iroquois Confederacy, like most Native Americans, came to resist European encroachments that had an air of permanency. Passing coureurs de bois (trappers) in canoes were one thing; fresh-cut log cabins and planted fields were quite another. Of course, the French, whose empire was based largely on a transitory fur trade anchored at a few key points, were of a similar mind. Thus as the dust of Aix-la-Chapelle settled, the French determined to do something about these English incursions into the Ohio Valley and strengthen their relations with the Ohio Indians before it was too late.

In the spring of 1749, the governor of New France, the marquis de la Galissonière—who had already pleaded in vain with Louis XV for more colonists—dispatched Captain Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville to reassert French claims to the upper Ohio River country. At age fifty-six, Céloron was no stranger to the Great Lakes and the French frontier. He had commanded posts at Michilimackinac, Pontchartrain, and Niagara and had most recently been commandant at Fort Saint Frédéric on Lake Champlain. On June 15, Céloron departed Montreal with a Jesuit chaplain, Father Bonnecamps, fourteen officers, and some 200 soldiers and Indian allies. His entourage ascended the rapids of the Saint Lawrence in twenty-three birch-bark canoes and three weeks later reached Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. After a week portaging around Niagara Falls, the flotilla paddled along choppy Lake Erie until just west of present-day Dunkirk, New York, where it portaged again, this time south to placid Lake Chautauqua.

The idyllic waters of Chautauqua were short-lived, however, and despite heavy rains that had pelted them during the portage, the Frenchmen found its outflow stream to be but a trickle. “In certain places, which were only too frequent,” recorded Father Bonnecamps in his journal, “there were barely two or three inches of water …Z [and] we were reduced to the sad necessity of dragging our canoes over the stones—whose sharp edges, in spite of our care and precautions, took off large splinters.” Finally, on July 29, 1749, Céloron and his company reached the deeper waters of the Allegheny.3

Here, at the confluence of Conewango Creek and the Allegheny (present-day Warren, Pennsylvania), Céloron undertook his first official act. With his troops duly assembled before him, the captain nailed a sheet of metal bearing the coat of arms of Louis XV to a tree. At its base, Céloron buried a lead plate with an inscription proclaiming that this act was done “for a monument of renewal of possession which we have taken of the said river Ohio, and of all those [rivers] which fall into it, and of all those territories on both sides as far as the source of the said rivers.”4 Noble words, but not much of a deterrent to trespassers—particularly when covered by a few shovels of dirt.

Céloron’s birch-bark fleet floated down the Allegheny, and he buried a second lead plate below its confluence with French Creek. This was near the village of Venango, where a long-established English trader named John Fraser and the town’s inhabitants took to the woods at the approach of French arms. Another Indian village, Attiqué (near present-day Kittanning, Pennsylvania), was similarly deserted.

When the French overtook six English traders—Céloron called them “soldiers” in his journal—at yet another abandoned Indian village, Céloron expressed surprise, feigned or not, to find them trespassing on French soil and admonished them to leave the country or face unpleasant consequences. Céloron sent a letter with them to Governor James Hamilton of Pennsylvania asserting that “our Governor-General [Galissonière] would be very sorry to have to resort to violent measures, but he has positive orders not to allow foreign merchants or traders in his government.”5

On down the Allegheny Céloron’s flotilla went. When a huge, slow-moving river joined the Allegheny from the south, Céloron floated past without comment. This was the Monongahela, the Allegheny’s mighty twin; and the narrow point of land at their confluence was empty. If Céloron was of a mind to bury plates, what could have been a more perfect location than this? The site would not remain empty for long.

Perhaps Céloron’s nonchalance at the true beginning of the Ohio was a result of his haste to reach the Indian village of Chiningué, which the English called Logstown (near present-day Economy, Pennsylvania). Here, Céloron spent three days in council with its inhabitants, including ten English traders. Again, he delivered Galissonière’s message: this was French land; the English traders must leave; and the Ohio Indians must have nothing further to do with them. But Céloron was fighting an uphill battle. It was really a matter of simple economics. Given their proximity to Virginia, the English traders were able to sell goods to the Indians for about one-quarter of the French price.6

Paddling down the Ohio, Céloron and his men buried lead plates at the mouths of Wheeling Creek, the Muskingum River, and the Kanawha River. By the time the expedition reached a large Shawnee village at the mouth of the Scioto River, Céloron was feeling rather outnumbered. He warned the village against the English, but in front of the assembled Shawnee he stopped short of claiming that their land belonged to France.

Finally, on August 31, 1749, at the mouth of the Great Miami River just west of present-day Cincinnati, Céloron buried his sixth and final plate. The last line asserted that France’s right to this ground had been “maintained therein by arms and by treaties, and especially by those of Rijswijk, Utrecht, and Aix-la-Chapelle.” But that meant little here. It had become painfully obvious in the course of their journey that the Ohio country, as Father Bonnecamps shrewdly observed, was “so little known to the French and, unfortunately, too well known to the English.”7

From the mouth of the Great Miami, Céloron and his expedition followed the river north to the Miami village of Pickawillany (present-day Piqua, Ohio). Its chief was known as La Demoiselle by the French but was nicknamed Old Briton by the English, because of his close friendship with English traders. It was another painful reminder that while the French were busy burying lead plates, the English were sending an increasing stream of commerce into the Ohio country.

Céloron and his men abandoned their canoes at Pickawillany and marched overland to the principal Miami village at the headwaters of the Maumee River (present-day Fort Wayne). Here, they procured new canoes and floated down the Maumee to Lake Erie, eventually completing the circle back to Montreal. “All I can say,” Céloron concluded in his journal on his return, “is that the nations of these countries are very ill disposed toward the French, and devoted entirely to the English.”8

And the English certainly had designs on the country. By a variety of overlapping royal land grants and other claims, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia each coveted parts of the Ohio Valley. Virginia was the most aggressive. Even as Céloron was burying his plates, Virginia was granting 200,000 acres of land west of the Appalachians to the Ohio Land Company on the condition that 100 families settle on it within seven years. Here was another difference between English and French colonial policies. England—just as it had done since the ill-fated Roanoke adventure—was pushing its frontiers with commercial settlements, a force that in the end proved far more unstoppable than banners and lead plates.

The Ohio Company quickly hired a surveyor, Christopher Gist, to peruse the Ohio Valley for the best lands. Gist was the original Daniel Boone—pathfinder, hunter, trader, and land developer. The end result of Gist’s subsequent work was that between 1750 and 1754 the English strengthened their presence in the upper Ohio Valley and even received permission from the Ohio Indians to fortify the trading post at Logstown. That greater inroads were not made was due in part to incessant bickering among New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia over which colony had the right to negotiate with the Six Nations and claim these western lands.9

However jumbled and disjointed these English advances, they continued to arouse great alarm in the French. In 1753, the new French governor, the marquis de Duquesne, recalled Paul Marin de la Malgue from his post at Baie-des-Puants (present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin) and ordered him to build a new string of forts that would serve to tighten New France’s frontier along the upper Ohio.

Forsaking Céloron’s route to the Ohio via Lake Chautauqua and its steeper portage, Duquesne ordered Marin to construct a fort on Lake Erie at Presque Isle (present-day Erie, Pennsylvania) and another about a dozen miles south of there at the head of French Creek. The latter post, called Fort Le Boeuf, was hardly more than an enclosed square of crude pickets, but here Marin’s troops built boats and then floated down French Creek. On August 28, 1753, they seized the trading post at Venango on the Allegheny River that Englishman John Fraser had quietly reoccupied following Céloron’s visit four years before. This time, Fraser retreated down the Allegheny.

If the English were indignant at these French advances, the Iroquois were even more so. “We don’t know what you Christians, English and French together, intend,” the Iroquois told the English Indian agent William Johnson; “we are so hemmed in by both that we have hardly a hunting place left. In a little while, if we find a bear in a tree, there will immediately appear an owner of the land to challenge the property, and hinder us from killing it, which is our livelihood.”

But it was neither indignation nor force of arms that halted the French advance down the Allegheny. Rather, a general malady of assorted fevers, scurvy, and exhaustion combined with the approach of winter. By fall, of the more than 2,000 men who had begun the campaign, only 800 were fit for duty. Marin sent most back to Montreal and went into winter quarters at Fort Le Boeuf, where he abruptly died on October 29, 1753.10

If the remaining French at Fort Le Boeuf thought they were settling in for a quiet winter, they were mistaken. Just after the early sunset of December 11, 1753, a gangling young man appeared out of the woods accompanied by a grizzled old-timer and half a dozen others leading packhorses. The older man was Christopher Gist, by now no stranger along the tributaries of the Ohio. The younger man was unknown to the French. He spoke no French but managed to convey that he had come from Virginia with an important message. His name, he said, was George Washington. It meant nothing to them.

It is difficult to get a mental picture of George Washington at this age and in this environment. He was two decades away from leadership in the Revolution and even further from being called the father of his country. Rather, he was a tall and solid youth of twenty-one, a man by colonial standards, to be sure, but as yet untried in just about everything. What schooling he had received was marginal. It had been augmented by practical experience in the field as a surveyor and service as a major in the Virginia militia—the latter influenced by his half-brother Lawrence’s military exploits during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Lawrence Washington named his estate in Virginia after the English admiral he served under; and shortly after Lawrence died in 1752, twenty-year-old George became the master of Mount Vernon.

While Marin had been marching toward the forks of the Ohio, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie—by no small coincidence a shareholder in the Ohio Company—had been badgering the crown to build its own chain of forts in the region. In the fall of 1753, Dinwiddie received permission to do so at the colony’s expense, provided he first proclaim to the French “our undoubted rights to such parts of the said river Ohio, as are within the limits of our province of Virginia, or any other.” Should such diplomatic entreaties fail, Dinwiddie was authorized to “repel force by force.”11

Despite the lateness of the season, Dinwiddie chose young Major Washington to deliver a message to the French as soon as possible. Leaving Williamsburg, Virginia, on October 31, 1753, Washington went via Fredericksburg and Alexandria to the Ohio Company’s trading post at Wills Creek (present-day Cumberland, Maryland) on the upper reaches of the Potomac River. Here, Washington retained the services of the indomitable Gist as his guide. Heavy rain and an early snow hampered them as they plodded onward to John Fraser’s new trading post at the mouth of Turtle Creek on the Monongahela about ten miles upstream from its confluence with the Allegheny.

The swollen waters of the Allegheny forced Washington and Gist to borrow a canoe from Fraser to effect the crossing; and while they waited at the confluence for its arrival, Washington “spent some time in viewing the rivers and the land in the fork.” The site, the young major noted, was “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-timbered land all around it, very convenient for building.”12

Once across the Allegheny, Washington and Gist continued two miles down the north bank of the Ohio to the location that the Ohio Company intended for a fort. Washington was not impressed. “As I had taken a good deal of notice yesterday of the situation at the forks,” he recorded, “my curiosity led me to examine this more particularly, and I think it greatly inferior, either for defense or advantages; especially the latter; for a fort at the forks would be equally well situated on [the] Ohio and have the entire command of [the] Monongahela, which runs up to our settlements.”13

Next, there was a stop at Logstown for a council with the Seneca chief Tanaghrisson, called Half King by the English. In addition to asking the French to leave the Ohio, Washington was charged with winning the Indians’ support for England’s claims, or at the very least denying such support to the French. Washington heard reports of the French presence on the Allegheny and exchanged wampum, the part-mystical, part-monetary strings of beads that were the recognized medium of trade and diplomacy among many Native Americans. Tanaghrisson proved a gracious host, and it was all that Washington could do to take leave without offending him. Expressing concerns for the young officer’s safety, Tanaghrisson agreed to accompany him to meet the French.

Arriving at Venango on December 4, “without anything remarkable happening but a continued series of bad weather,” Washington found the French flag flying from Fraser’s old house. Captain Philippe de Joncaire politely said that while “he had the command of the Ohio,” Washington’s missive was best directed to a general officer at Fort Le Boeuf. Joncaire, too, proved a gracious host and Washington observed that over the course of dinner, “the wine, as they dosed themselves pretty plentifully with it, soon banished the restraint which at first appeared in their conversation, and gave a license to their tongues to reveal their sentiments more freely. They told me, that it was their absolute design to take possession of the Ohio, and, by G—, they would do it.”14

The following morning, heavy rain prevented Washington’s departure for Fort Le Boeuf, but Joncaire took advantage of it by wining and dining Tanaghrisson, a situation that made Washington quite nervous. He was supposed to be winning Indian allies, not affording the French an occasion to do so. When on the morning of December 7, Washington was able at last to head north for Fort Le Boeuf, the journey took four days. It was slowed, reported Washington, by “excessive rains, snows, and bad traveling, through many mires and swamps, which we were obliged to pass, to avoid crossing the creek, which was impossible, either by fording or rafting.”15

Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf after dusk on December 11 and was conducted the next morning into the presence of Marin’s newly arrived replacement, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint Pierre. The fifty-two-year-old captain had been at his post for only a week. Washington described him as an “elderly gentleman” with “much the air of a soldier.” After waiting for the arrival of another officer from Fort Presque Isle, Legardeur accepted Dinwiddie’s letter and adjourned into a private room to study it.

Washington’s Marches, 1753–1754

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Dinwiddie’s letter charged that “the lands upon the River Ohio, in the western parts of the Colony of Virginia, are so notoriously known to be the property of the Crown of Great-Britain, that it is a matter of equal concern and surprise to me, to hear that a body of French forces are erecting fortresses, and making settlements upon that river, within his Majesty’s dominions.” The governor was sending Washington, the letter continued, “to complain to you of the encroachments” and “require your peaceable departure.” The latter was, of course, wishful thinking at best, naïveté at worst. But in the manner of the times, Dinwiddie could not help hoping that the French would “receive and entertain Major Washington with the candor and politeness natural to your nation” and “return him with an answer suitable to my wishes for a very long and lasting peace between us.”16

Legardeur took a day to consult with his officers before crafting a diplomatic but equally firm rebuttal. Noting that he was but a subordinate and wishing that Washington’s orders had required him to “proceed to Canada, to see our General [Duquesne],” Legardeur nonetheless assured Dinwiddie that he would transmit the letter to Duquesne. Meanwhile, of course, the Frenchman was hardly inclined to honor Dinwiddie’s request that he withdraw. “I do not think myself obliged to obey it;” Legardeur replied in a letter to Dinwiddie, and “whatever may be your instructions, I am here by virtue of the orders of my general; and I entreat you, sir, not to doubt one moment, but that I am determined to conform myself to them.”17

That didn’t leave much for Washington to say. He hurriedly departed Fort Le Boeuf for Virginia before the vagaries of the weather and the hospitality of the French toward his Indian companions could delay him any longer. Having already sent the packers and their horses ahead, Washington and Gist floated down French Creek in a canoe to Venango, plagued by shoals and ice most of the way. From there, they struck overland for the forks, expecting to find the Allegheny frozen solid. It wasn’t. After a full day spent building a raft with “but one poor hatchet,” Washington and Gist pushed off from shore only to be immediately caught in a morass of floating ice.

Washington attempted to fend off some of the larger floes with a pole, but the current was moving so swiftly that it snatched the staff and jerked Washington into the frigid water. He managed to save himself by grabbing one of the protruding logs of the raft, but despite all their subsequent efforts, the two men could not steer the improvised vessel to the opposite shore. As the river swept by an island, Washington and Gist jumped for it and splashed to soggy ground. A bitter and most unpleasant night followed, but in the morning the river was frozen enough to permit them to reach the opposite shore. By noon they were safe at Fraser’s Monongahela trading post. After that sort of adventure, the remainder of their journey was decidedly anticlimactic.

On his return to Williamsburg, Washington hurriedly wrote a report for Governor Dinwiddie from notes that he had kept. He had but one day to do so, because Dinwiddie immediately summoned the general assembly to hear the latest news from the Ohio and ordered Washington’s report printed for distribution. Apologizing for “numberless imperfections” in what he thought was only for Dinwiddie’s perusal, Washington expressed surprise that his journal “would ever be published, or even have more than a cursory reading.”18

Little did Washington know at the time that his own role in another conflict would give his account a huge audience and that subsequent events would mark his journey to the waters of the beautiful Ohio as the beginning of the ultimate contest for a continent.