Young George Washington and the Ohio Company

The Ohio Company sent out surveyors to explore the country, make definite boundaries and prepare for settlements. English traders penetrated the Ohio country to the domain of the Miamis and beyond, and the Indians found profit by their friendly relations with them. The jealousy of the French was aroused. They regarded the English as intruders. They saw with alarm the waning French influence among the tribes of the upper Ohio Valley, and presaged the ultimate destruction of their fortified line of communication between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, in 1753, they seized and imprisoned some of the surveyors and traders; and about twelve hundred French soldiers were employed to erect forts in the wilderness between the upper waters of the Alleghany River and Lake Erie. One of these was erected at Presq'-isle, now Erie, on the southern shore of the lake of that name. Another was reared at Le Boeuf, on French Creek, now Waterford; and a third was constructed at the junction of French Creek and the Alleghany River, on the site of the village of Franklin.

The Ohio Company complained of these hostile demonstrations. Their lands lay within the chartered limits of Virginia, and the authorities of that colony felt it their duty to interfere in defence of the rights of the Company. Already the governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania had received instructions from England to repel the French by force of arms, if necessary. Robert Dinwiddie, one of the Company, and now governor of Virginia, determined to first send a letter of remonstrance to M. de St. Pierre, the French commander. Now, George Washington, who was destined to occupy a conspicuous place in the history of our country and of the world, first appeared on the theatre of public action, at the very opening of that illustrious drama whose closing scene was the founding of a mighty nation.

Young Washington was then a little more than twenty-one years of age. He was of an excellent and honorable family, whose roots lay far back in English history. He was a sort of foster-son of old Lord Fairfax; and as a public surveyor and skillful hunter, had traversed the forests of Virginia far and near, in the direction of the Ohio. At the age of nineteen years he had been commissioned a major of militia, charged with defending the colony against incursions of the Indians, and had entered upon the duties of his office with alacrity and zeal. Fraternal affection had called him from them to attend upon a dying brother, but he had evinced, during his short service, such an aptitude for military pursuits, and such faithfulness in performance, that he was marked for promotion.

Dinwiddie sent for Major Washington. He appeared promptly at the room of the governor (more exactly the lieutenant-governor) in the old state-house at Williamsburg, late in October, 1753. Dinwiddie was a bald-headed Scotchman, sixty-three years of age, with thin sandy hair, stout built, and so extremely nervous that his writing bore the marks of a trembling hand. Young Washington was full six feet in height, strongly built, with a florid complexion and every indication of high health and physical strength. The governor then first revealed to the major the object of his summons, and received his cheerful agreement to perform whatever duty might be required of him. The governor gave him a commission and instructions to proceed to the quarters of the French commander, and present to him in person a letter from Dinwiddie, in which the governor inquired by what authority French troops had presumed to intrude upon the territory of the British monarch, and what were his designs. It was a mission of great delicacy, and was accompanied by not a little peril. Discretion, ability, courage, physical endurance, experience in wood-craft and a knowledge of Indian manners, were requisite. Believing young Washington to be possessed of all of these, in an eminent degree, the governor chose him to be his ambassador, out of hundreds of the more pretentious aristocracy of Virginia. The result was creditable alike to the character of Major Washington and the sagacity of Governor Dinwiddie.

Washington was directed to proceed to Logstown (on the right bank of the Ohio, about fourteen miles below the site of Pittsburgh); convene influential Indian chiefs there; tell them the object of his visit, and request them to furnish him a competent escort as a safeguard to the headquarters of the French commander. There he was to demand an answer to Dinwiddie's letter in the name of his king; to observe, with caution, the number of troops that had crossed the lake; perceive the strength and number of their forts, and their distance from each other, and gain all information possible concerning the French on the English frontier. With these instructions Washington left Williamsburg, the Virginia capital, on the thirty-first of October, and was joined by John Davidson as Indian interpreter, and Jacob Van Braam, a Hollander by birth, and acquainted with the French language, to assist him in his intercourse with the people he was going to see. On his way he was joined by Mr. Gist, who acted as guide. With these, and four other men (two of them Indian traders), with horses, tents and baggage, they left the borders of civilization at the mouth of Will's Creek (now Cumberland, Maryland), and made their way over the Alleghany Mountains, then covered with snow. They endured every hardship incident to a dreary wilderness and the rigors of winter. The streams in the valleys were full to their brims. Over the large ones they passed upon frail and rudely constructed rafts, wading and swimming their horses through the floods of the smaller streams. Late in November they reached the forks of the Ohio, on the site of Pittsburgh, where they rested a few days, and then proceeded to Logstown, accompanied by an influential sachem of the Delawares.

The headquarters of M. de St. Pierre was one hundred and twenty miles from Logstown. A bold and patriotic chief named Half-King, who, when the French came with arms and built forts in his country, had vehemently protested against the invasion of the rights of the Indians, and had been treated with disdain, volunteered, with two other chiefs and a skillful hunter, to escort the English company of eight to the headquarters of the French. In the simplicity of his heart he thought the English were only seeking to establish a trade with the tribes for mutual benefit. He and his people soon found that the French and English were equally governed by the ethics of the mailed hand--"Might makes Right," and came to deprive them of their domain and liberty.

After braving perils and hardships, the little company found themselves, early in December, at Fort Venango(now Franklin), the French outpost commanded by M. Joncaire. He received the English with civility, but tried to detach and detain the Indians. He remembered the patriotic speech of Half-King at a previous meeting, when the chief said: "The Great-King above allowed the land to be a place of residence for us, so I desire you to withdraw, as I have done our brothers, the English; for I will keep you at arm's length. I lay this down as a trial for both, to see which will have the greatest regard to it and make equal sharers with us." Joncaire hoped to gain his confidence by shaking his faith in the English, but did not succeed.

Further up the French Creek, Washington found St. Pierre, at Fort Le Boeuf. Here was the end of the Virginia ambassador's journey of forty-one days. The French commandant received him and his companions with great politeness. He was an elderly and courtly knight of St. Louis who, in his early years, had served in the army of Louis the Great, and had escaped the corruptions of the licentious court of his successor. He received the governor's letter with thanks; entertained the bearer and his friends four days, and then delivered into the hands of Major Washington a sealed letter in reply to Dinwiddie's. With this letter and much useful information respecting the forts and forces of the French, gathered by himself and his associates, Washington returned to Williamsburgh at the middle of January.

The return journey was more perilous and fatiguing than the first. A greater portion of it was performed by Washington and Gist alone and on foot. At one time they were fired at by Indians supposed to have been incited to the deed by Joncaire. On another occasion, after working a whole day in constructing a raft, they attempted to cross the swift and swollen current of the Alleghany River upon it. The stream was filled with floating ice. They embarked at twilight, each with a pack on his back and gun strapped to it. They soon found themselves buffeting great perils. Washington, with a setting pole, was trying to hold the frail structure that the ice might pass by, when he was jerked off into water ten feet deep, and saved himself from drowning by catching hold of a raft-log. The raft was crushed, and the travelers, thoroughly drenched, were cast upon a desert island, where they lay upon the snow all night, hungry and half-frozen. Mr. Gist had all of his fingers and some of his toes frozen. Fortunately the ice was so thick over the channel in the morning that they crossed to the main, and toward evening, suffering with cold, they reached the cabin of a Scotch settler, near the spot where, a year and a half afterward, Braddock fought the French and Indians in the battle of the Monongahela. The island on which the travelers were wrecked is directly opposite the United States Arsenal, at Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, and is known as Washington's Island.

After this adventure, Major Washington and his companion rested two or three days for their own refreshment and to procure horses. During that time the major paid a complimentary visit to the Indian Queen Aliquippa, who resided at the confluence of the Monongahela and Youghiogany rivers, in the southeastern part of Alleghany county. She had complained of his neglect in not calling upon her when on his outward journey. Young Washington explained the circumstances that prevented him, and with an apology he gave her a coat and a bottle of rum. The latter, Washington wrote, "was thought the much better present of the two," and harmony of feeling was restored. Aliquippa, who was a woman of great energy, and had performed some brave deeds, was held in respect amounting almost to reverence by the Indians in Western Pennsylvania.

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