Young George Washington

Posted on February 4, 2020

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Young George Washington Edited

YOUNG GEORGE WASHINGTON

Doing some research on all that is being written to celebrate his birthday, I found some information that is all new to me on Washington’s part in the French and Indian War.  Clay’s future territory was very much involved in this war.

On the night of May 27, 1754, a 22 year old Lt. Col. George Washington, with all his teeth, led a party of Virginia soldiers out of an encampment in the Ohio Valley on an assignment from Gov. Robert Dinwiddie to finish building a fort.  This would anchor Britain’s control of the Ohio Valley. Only 40 soldiers and eight Ohio Iroquois allies participated because Tanaghrisson. an Ohio Iroquois known as “Half King” had informed him that the French were coming to attack them; he saw their tracks near the fort and sent some of his best men to find them.  Locating their camp in the rainy night, they waited until the sun rose and attacked.  The battle lasted only 15 minutes, with many dead Frenchmen including their commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonvile.  Historians have declared that this little skirmish ignited the French and Indian War.  This and future evidence suggests that George Washington may have been to blame for starting a seven-year global war.

As stated in a previous article, it was actually a conflict between the British and French colonists with Indian nations as allies on both sides.  The Ohio natives were still independent and both sides needed them as military and trading partners.  The French had cultivated a broad network of Indian alliances.  The British had named Tanaghrisson “Half King” to try to make him the Ohio Iroquois leader.  In the summer of 1753, the French sent 2,600 soldiers into the region to build forts on Lake Erie shore and at LeBoeuf Creek.  Gov. Dimwiddie asked Washington to lead a diplomatic expedition to warn the French to leave their forts.  Being in the Militia less than a year, but a surveyor since the age of 16, he set out and arrived at Fort LeBoeuf on December 11, 1853 with Half King and other Ohio Indians.  The French commandant was very civil to the party, even sending them home with supplies, but rebuffed the governor’s demands.Washington did, however, gather intelligence information and his journal was published in Williamsburg and London.  The French had another story.  Jumonville was preparing to deliver a diplomatic summons to the British, not take up arms.

A few years ago, David Preston* was researching at the British National Archives in Kea and located a volume called the Colonial office papers where he found a document called  “A Treaty with the Indians at Camp Mount Pleasant October 18, 1754.”  In it was a word-for-word -speech by a “chief warrior” of the Ohio Iroquois.  The treaty minutes only said he was known “to have a true heart” to the British alliance.  First, he said he was suspicious that the King of France and King of England were conspiring to divide and conquer the Indians and that Washington wasn’t very good at cultivating allies as he was more interested in making his report to Governor Dinwiddie.  Chief warrior was witness to the French takeover of Trent’s Fort in 1754 and that the British had surrendered meekly in the face of 600 French marines and militia.  But he noted that “Half King” had tried to stir up conflict during the surrender and warned the French not to trespass on Ohio Indian lands where he had given the British permission to build a fort.  He even pushed a French officer which started a “scuffle” which could have led to a massacre.  “Half King” was humiliated.  The three parties involved met amid a perfect storm of misunderstanding.  The Ohio Iroquois band believed they were being pursued by the French; the French considered themselves diplomats delivering a summons to the British to leave French lands; and the British were advancing with the information from “Half King” that the French were coming for them with violent intentions.

Chief warrior’s eyewitness accounts provide much more detail than others of the actual battle.  One in particular was how the Indian warriors guided young Washington in his first combat action--an ambush.  The Indians directed him to go up the hill straight to where the French were but the French Camp was below them.  The Indians descended into the hollow:  “Half King” went to the left and Cherokee Jack went to the right.  Washington always took responsibility for  ordering his company to open fire, but chief warrior’s account says, “Col. Washington begun himself and fired and then his people.”  This claims that Washington literally fired the first shot.  Perhaps it was a signal to his soldiers and Indian allies to commence the attack or he was aiming at a French adversary.  Either way, if true, Washington’s moral responsibility is heightened.

Chief warrior contends that the French and English traded a few volleys before the French fled, running into “Half King.”  Several met their destiny by Indian Tomayhawks.  The survivors turned and ran into Cherokee Jack, who turned them over to Washington.  His speech ended with the fact that Washington eventually returned to the Great Meadows and began building a fort.

*Information from an article - THE TRIGGER by David Preston in Smithsonian, October 2019

Dorothy Heller, Historian

 

 

 

 

 

 

Illustration by Tim O’Brien

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