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A High Wind Rising
Mounting antagonisms among French, English, and Native Constituencies
By May of 1754 the critical situation on the Ohio-Alleghenia frontier was quickly reaching denouement. The month before an advance force of French Troupes de la Marine and auxiliaries arrived at the Virginia Colony's Fort Trent on the forks of the Ohio River. And with the fleur de lis unfurled and gracefully flowing in the evening air the French required the youthful Ensign Edward Ward to surrender his command of thirty-three militiamen1. Under the able leadership of Captain Claude Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the confrontation with these Virginia Provincials did not culminate in bloodshed. However, it did signify an act of provocation, if not war2.
Contrecoeur's orders were to construct his own fort at this place, an establishment that would complete the chain of forts built the previous year at Venago, Le Boeuf, and Presquisle linking the Ohio River to Lake Erie. Contrecoeur began at once to tear down Fort Trent and begin construction of Fort Duquesne, named in honor of the Governor-General, Ange Duquesne de Menneville, marquis Duquesne3.
The race between France and England to control the Ohio frontier had been won by the French, but off to the southeast a colonial force, though few in number, marched with an aplomb that denied their lack of experience, training, and station in life. Under the leadership of twenty-two year old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, the Virginia advance force counted among its meager ranks two companies of Virginia militia under Captain Peter Hogg and Lieutenant Jacob Van Braam, a man destined to suffer the imputations of his comrades-in-arms4. By April 23, Washington's command, enlarged by the arrival of Captain Adam Stephen's company, reached the Wills Creek station owned by the Ohio Company, a business venture initiated by eleven of Virginia's leading citizens - including Lt. Col. Washington's older brother, Lawrence - whose primary purpose was the acquisition of land west of the Allegheny Mountains. As a result of their machinations and duplicitous treatment of the Ohio-Alleghenia nations at the Loggs Town council two years earlier in 1752, the French had received word of the Virginians' efforts to obtain a 500,000-acre tract of land southeast of the Ohio River. This intelligence prompted the French authorities to act with alacrity5.
Upon Washington's arrival at Wills Creek, Ensign Ward reported the loss of the fort. News also reached the camp that Tanaghrisson - the Half King, one of two headmen at Loggs Town - had sent along a message for Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. The message declared Tanaghrisson's willingness to lead the Ohio-Alleghenia nations into battle against the French alongside his English allies6. Fearing French reprisals against his Loggs Town allies the young commander decided to push his force of some 180 effectives into the interior. Further, the command would advance as far as Captain William Trent's Ohio Company storehouse at Redstone Creek and stockpile their ammunition, victuals, and cannon7. While they awaited the arrival of reinforcements, they would execute the second element of their orders, to cut a road through the forest wide enough to allow the baggage and artillery trains to pass.
But all of these plans came to nought. When Washington's file debouched the forest southeast of the Great Meadows, a pleasant valley several hundred yards wide and a couple of miles long located between the Laurel Mountain and Chestnut Ridge, a place he visited during his journey to Venago, he determined to encamp and fortify8.
The Virginia Provincials built an entrenchment and started work on what would become "Fort Necessity." Meanwhile, Washington received numerous reports from Tanaghrisson, his Mingo scouts, and colonial traders skedaddling out of the Ohio country, indicating the presence of French detachments scouting well to the southeast of Fort Duquesne. A voluminous correspondence flew from the Great Meadows to Williamsburg with Lt. Col. Washington spending a great deal of time grousing about the paucity of food, reductions in pay, and difficult "...duty that is almost inconsistent with that of a Soldier9."
On the morning of May 27 Christopher Gist9a came into camp reporting that a significant French force of fifty coureurs de bois under M. LaForce had visited his station thirteen miles northwest of the Great Meadows. The enemy's tracks led to within five miles of the provincials' camp, and Washington responded by sending Captain Hogg and 75 militia on a scout towards the northwest. The following day Tanaghrisson signaled Washington that the enemy's tracks had been located in an "obscure retreat," prompting the Virginia commander and a detachment of militia to journey through a pitch-black, rainy night to Tanaghrisson's camp. They parlayed early the next morning and determined to take the Frenchmen.
By 7:00 a.m. Tanaghrisson led the provincials to the Frenchmen's enclave, and while Captain Stephen took the left of the ravine (Jumonville's Glen), Washington posted his troops on the exposed right, as Tanaghrisson and his Mingos worked themselves around to the rear. Washington's movement was detected by the French, some of whom were only partially dressed, and they ran for their muskets. Washington gave the order to volley into the enemy, and that was immediately followed by return fire. In their exposed position the French were easy targets for the provincials, who continued to pour a devastating musketry into their midst. The French fell back directly into the path of Tanaghrisson and his Mingos. After fifteen minutes the fire fight was over and the French threw down their arms. The Mingos quickly raced to Jumonville's wounded, cut their throats, and lifted their scalp locks in a victory coup. The dead, as well, were scalped10.
The French detachment, under the command of Ensign Coulon de Jumonville de Villiers, carried two sets of orders from Contrecoeur, the commandant at Fort Duquesne. The first stated that the objective of the detachment was to warn Englishmen peaceably away from the country; the second declared Jumonville's obligation to scout the area and send back to the fort any intelligence the party gathered.
The next day, Scarouady, Tanaghrisson's co-counsel at Loggs Town, left with the scalps and belts of black wampum for the Ohio Country. His mission was to call on the Shawnee and Delaware and invite them to war on the French. But he failed and upon his return, later in the month, to put the torch to Loggs Town10a.
On May 30, 1754 Colonel Fry died as the result of a fall and temporary command of the Virginia Provincial Regiment devolved onto young Lt. Col. Washington. He was now back at the Great Meadows, expanding the entrenchments, erecting palisades, and constructing a small cabin11. Two days later Tanaghrisson arrived at the Great Meadows with the Mingo remnant from Loggs Town: about a hundred souls in all, men, women, and children. Washington suggested that the women, children, and old men unable to fight continue on to the Virginia towns, but Tanaghrisson would not hear of separating his people. On June 9th Adjutant (Major) George Muse led two companies of provincials under the commands of Andrew Lewis and Robert Stobo, counting 110 effectives and five officers, to the Great Meadows. Accompanying the militia were the traders and Indian interpreters George Croghan, who had failed to keep his contract for supplying the expedition, and his half-breed associate Andrew Montour, with wampum for Tanaghrisson from the Virginia governor. Muse also carried orders from Dinwiddie promoting Washington to Colonel and overall command of the Virginia Regiment; Muse was upgraded to Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Stephen to Major. However, command of the expedition was given to Col. James Innes of North Carolina, who at this time was moving his force of three hundred British Regulars to the Virginia theater12.
On June 10th an independent company numbering a hundred riflemen from South Carolina and Georgia marched smartly into the camp at the Great Meadows under the command of an officer of the British Army. Upon formal introductions, the company commander, Captain James Mackey, informed Col. Washington that a royal commission superseded any commission signed by a colonial governor. Nevertheless, given the delicate nature of the occasion, there developed a certain alliance between the two men13.
With the arrival of these reinforcements Washington felt emboldened to act. Leaving Captain Mackey's regulars behind - with the captain's approval - to guard the camp at the Great Meadows, Washington, on June 16th, loaded the swivel guns on wagons and marched the regiment northwest to Gist's Station. While Washington set up his base, he sent a work detail off to expand the road to Redstone while he awaited the arrival of "forty Indians from the Ohio14." The parlay, a three-day affair, was not fruitful, and the Indians left, undoubtedly stopping at Fort Duquesne to report on Washington's force and receive their "gifts." Ominously, Tanaghrisson and his Mingos returned to the Great Meadows.
Work continued on the road for ten more days under arduous conditions, while the men were supplied with the poorest quality of victuals. On June 27th a runner brought the news of Scarouady's decision to burn his village of Loggs Town and move his two hundred people under English protection. However, the wily Mingo headman stopped at Fort Duquesne and received information that the French were ready to move on Washington's Virginia Regiment, news he quickly relayed to the colonel. Washington ordered the road builders back to Gist's Station and sent word to Captain Mackey asking for his assistance15.
Mackey's command arrived two days later, and the officers immediately went into council. It was determined that due to the fact that the "neighboring heights" commanded Gist's Station, the Virginians and the Independent Company would fall back on their Great Meadows camp. Washington had only two wagons remaining after earlier sending back the others for supplies at the Great Meadows; consequently he impressed Croghan's two wagons to help carry his stores. Because of the paucity of transportation the Virginians were required to carry the swivel guns by hand. Captain Mackey, continuing to adhere to army policy, refused to permit his men to participate in the labor, which under army regulations required extra pay.
The thirteen-mile journey to the Great Meadows required two grueling days of forced marching. The soldiers arrived exhausted and famished only to discover that the prayed-for provisions had not arrived. Any further retreat was out of the question; the Virginia Regiment and the Independent Company simply did not have the strength to continue on to Wills Creek.
By the middle of June, Fort Duquesne had the look of a significant outpost. Indians from Canada, Detroit, and the Ohio country had gathered at that place rallying under the aegis of the fleur de lis. Abnakis, Algonquins, Hurons, Nipissings, Ottawa, Potawatomies, Chippewas, Mississaugi, Wyandot, Shawnee, Delaware, and even some of the Mingo now supported the French. The Delaware and Mingo contingent that a few days earlier treated with Washington returned and reported the condition of the provincial forces. In the meantime, Captain Contrecoeur's considerable force of Troupes de la Marine, coureurs de bois, and Indians at Fort Duquesne was augmented on June 27 with reinforcements from Montreal under the command of Captain Coulon de Villiers. Contrecoeur had already issued orders to strike the provincials the next day with 500 auxiliaries under the command of Chevalier Le Mercier, but de Villiers' seniority and the fact that the "martyred" M. Jumonville was his brother17, Contrecoeur gave the command to him.
On June 28th de Villier's legion of 600 Troupes de la Marine and coureurs de bois supplemented by a hundred Indians representing nine nations17a pushed off the shore line in large canoes and paddled swiftly up the Monongahela River, reaching Redstone Station two days later. The French commander immediately dispatched his Indian scouts to the southwest. Quickly they returned, reporting the news that the English were entrenching at Gist's Station. Villiers piled his supplies nearby and ordered the advance; he would fight the English at Gist's.
Not until July 2nd did the French make Gist's Station; but they found the post almost abandoned, managing to capture a young lady named Elizabeth Williams and three traders: Andrew McBriar, John Kennedy, and Nehemiah Stevens18.
Villiers determined to continue the pursuit, spurred on by a report from a traitor named John Ramsey, who voluntarily detailed the deteriorated condition of young Colonel Washington's command. The French contingent swiftly filed through the cut in the Laurel Mountain in a dismal rain as scouts came in reporting the good news that the English were entrenching at the Great Meadows a few miles southeast.
Villers ordered a halt and allowed his men a brief respite while he and a small party journeyed to the ravine a few miles away, where his kin de Jumonville and his men had been ambushed. M. Villiers noted in his report "Here I saw some bodies still remaining19."
At Fort Necessity Tanaghrisson and Queen Allaquippa, disheartened by the inept preparations being made to meet the enemy, abandoned their allies.
No sooner had daylight begun to break on July 3rd than a scouting party came in carrying a wounded sentinel. The alarm was sounded as the various companies abandoned their work on what was now dubbed "Fort Necessity," fell in, and prepared to meet the French.
Villiers moved his command southwest of the fort, debouched the wooded hillside in three columns, kicked out a skirmish line, and advanced at regular time across the open field. Washington and Mackey moved the majority of their 284 effectives out of the works, dressed their ranks, and awaited the pleasure of their enemy. But Villiers saw no reason to uselessly expose "... the lives of the King's subjects20."
The Provincials and Captain Mackey's regulars held formation in the face of the French advance, waiting patiently for the order to fire. To their rear Major Stephen ordered several of the swivel guns rammed with shot and fired across the open meadow. But the effect was limited, though the French halted two hundred yards from the fort and with admirable precision fired a volley toward the English. The distance was too great to do any damage, and following the dictums of the musket drill they reloaded, advanced, and fired again with similar ineffectual results21.
Washington and Mackey then ordered their soldiers to retire onto the entrenchments. The French closed smartly to within sixty yards of the English line, then swung about to the southeast and two hillocks that commanded the fort and lay within easy musket range.
The French had the advantage of concealment in the woods and were able first, to knock down the cattle and horses, and second, to deliver a steady "galling" fire on the trenches, palisades, and cabin. It was as Washington later reported, "an unequal fight." Any return fire on the part of the English, was at an unseen enemy.
Then, to complicate matters it rained profusely. The trenches began to fill, the already soft earth quickly turned to mud, and the soldiers sank in. The rain fouled their muskets, and the regiment had only two mechanical screw-rods to clear the damp charges. By late afternoon, a paucity of powder and ball forced the English to slacken their fire.
But action was not lacking in all this. Col. Muse committed some indiscretion - the allegation was cowardice - that has not come down to us fully explained. Then a goodly number of the regiment broke into the rum supply in the cabin and got blindly inebriated, no doubt placing young Col. Washington in a state of high dudgeon22.
Just after dark, following a sharp increase in musketry, the French called for a parley. Captain Villiers later wrote, "As we had been wet all day by the rain, as the soldiers were very tired, as the savages said that they would leave us the next morning, as there was a report that drums and the firing of cannon had been heard in the distance, I proposed to M. Le Mercier to offer the English a conference23."
Villiers signaled the fort that he wished to discuss terms, but Washington, worried that it might be a French artifice, declined. For a time there were shouts across the line from both sides until a compromise had been reached: the French would treat with an English officer at their position and they would guarantee his safety.
Because of their bilingual skills, the colonel sent Captain Jacob Van Braam and Chevalier de Peyrouny, an ensign, who was "dangerously wounded24." After receiving the colonel's instructions, they slogged across the muddy field to treat with Captain Villiers and his second M. LeMercier.
In a short time the two returned to Fort Necessity with Villiers's verbal offer: the French would show mercy and allow the English to retire with the honors of war, leaving only their cannon - less one piece, signifying a tribute to the courage of the enemy. However, if they offered any "obstinate resistance" he could very easily lose control of his Indian allies and a massacre might ensue.
Col. Washington's command was in dire straits; over a hundred soldiers were sick, and casualties had been significant. His only hope lay in a frontal assault on the fort by the enemy, and M. Villiers was much too smart for that. The terms provided must have elated the provincial colonel, and he sent Van Braam back to the French requesting that the conditions of surrender be written. It took a great deal of time for this to transpire in the rain, and when the Dutchman came back to the fort he read aloud to the officers the smeared, somewhat indiscernible document25.
Captain Van Braam's reading of the surrender document has come under some scrutiny and appears as a blot on his reputation. When he came to the sentence, in the opening paragraph of the document, which referenced the demise of the unfortunate Jumonville party, the word Villiers used was assassin. However, either through haste, a singular lack of knowledge of the written word, or guile, Van Braam mistranslated, using a less offensive etymon26.
His reading of the remaining conditions was flawless, though there was some question concerning the final point when the French required that "they...must give their word of honor that they will not work on any establishment either in the surrounding country or beyond the mountains during one year beginning from this day." This final condition and the situation regarding Van Braam's mistranslation would cause Col. Washington no little embarrassment in the near future27.
Villiers provided munificent terms; the English would surrender all but one cannon and be allowed to leave the fort with their colors uncased and their drums beating. Washington, however, balked at the requirement of delivering up his munitions of war; without ball and powder they would be easy prey for the Indians. Van Braam went slogging across the field to see the French commander, who quickly deleted the offending term, thus permitting the English to leave armed.
Villiers did require that two hostages be turned over to him until such time as the English released the prisoners taken at Jumonville's Glen. Since Captain Van Braam was without familial obligations and spoke some French, he and Captain Stobo, who was also unmarried, were chosen (volunteered?). They gathered up some personal belongings and walked together across the muddy field to their captors.
As the sun rose the next morning, July 4, 1754, the Virginia Regiment and Independent Company were engaged in the morbid duty of burying the dead; thirty souls entrusted to their Savior, properly prayed over, with their courage recounted ever so briefly. Baggage was quickly packed, and a heap piled with the debris of battle. They took what care they could of their seventy wounded, preparing them for the journey. The Indians broke into the cabin at the fort, plundered a large medicine chest, and then demanded their right to pillage and captives. Villiers refused, according to the terms of capitulation, and released a number of Virginians the Indians had taken.
The sun was well up by the time the remnant of the Virginia Regiment and the Independent Company marched out of the Great Meadows. They made three miles the first day, pestered and pressed hard by the Indians. The next day they left the seriously wounded under guard, sent two men ahead to bring back wagons for them, then continued to Wills Creek.
Captain Villiers ordered Fort Necessity burnt, the guns spiked, and everything that couldn't be carried destroyed. He then ordered his command back to Fort Duquesne. The French stopped at Gist's Station, destroyed the entrenchments, and burned the buildings; then they ministered in the same manner to the Ohio Company's cabin at Redstone Station. They arrived victorious at Fort Duquesne on July 7th. In the engagement they lost three killed and 17 wounded.
Washington's defeat at the Great Meadows would have profound repercussions in the colonies. No English establishment now existed west of the Alleghenies; the French had unfettered control of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Canada to Louisiana; and most importantly, the Ohio Nations - the Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, and even some Mingo - were eventually to understand that the covenant chain with the English was nearly broken. For the time being they adhered to the dictums of the Six Nations at Onondaga and remained neutral, though the French had already begun to cajole them with black wampum.
Tanaghrisson and Scarouady, the Mingo headmen at Loggs Town, traveled to George Croghan's station at Aughwick, and there they made their town. In September, 1754, three months after the unpleasantness at the Great Meadows King Beaver27 and other distinguished Ohio country headmen came to seek the Tanaghrisson's counsel. "We have hitherto," King Beaver said, "followed your directions and lived very easy under your Protection, and no high Wind did blow to make Us uneasy; but now Things seem to take another turn, and a high Wind is rising...(28)."
Alberts, Robert C., A Charming Field for an Encounter, National Parks Service, 1975.
Downes, Randolph, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, reprint 1989.
Eckert, Allan, Wilderness Empire, Little, Brown and Co. 1969.
Hanna, Charles, The Wilderness Trail, Vol. 1, Wennawoods Publishing, reprint 1995.
Jennings, Francis, Empire of Fortune, W.W. Norton, 1988.
McConnel, Michael N., A Country Between, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Sipe, Hale, The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania, Wennawoods Publishing, reprint 1995.
Tanner, Helen, Atlas of the Great Lakes Indian History, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Thwaites, R. G., Early Western Journals, Wennawoods Publishing, reprint 1998.
Trudel, Marcel, The Jumonville Affair, (pamphlet) Eastern National Parks and Monument Association, (Article first appeared in Pennsylvania History, Vol. XXI, No. 4, 1954.
Washington, George, Writings, Library of America, reprint 1997.
1Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Library of America, reprint 1983, pp. 941-2.
Downes, Randolph, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio, Univ. of Pittsburgh, reprint 1983. pp. 63-5.
Sipe, Hale, The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania, Wennawoods Publishing, reprint 1995, p. 153. Sipe gives the number of troops as 70.
2Sipe, op. cit. p. 153; The author declares, "This was the first act of the war..."
3Parkman, op. cit.
Downes, op. cit. pp. 63-65.
4Alberts, Robert C., A Charming Field for an Encounter, National Parks Service, 1975, pp. 34-37.
5McConnel, Michael, N., A Country Between, Univ. of Nebraska, 1992, p. 52.
6Downes, op. cit.
Tanaghrisson and Scarouady shared headmen duties at Loggs Town, a village located a few miles above Fort Duquesne on the Ohio River. The year before Tanaghrisson accompanied Mr. Washington on his journey to Venango to warn the French away, and a bond was established between these men.
7Trent's Station at Redstone was 37 miles southeast of Fort Duquesne on the Monongahela River.
8Alberts, op. cit.
Sipe, op. cit. p. 156. In a letter to Lt. Gov. Dinwiddie Washington presciently described the Great Meadow as a "...charming field for and encounter."
9Washington, George, Writings,
The Library of America, 1997, p. 42.
Alberts, op. cit. p. 16.
9aChristopher Gist was a surveyor, frontiersman, and an employee of the Ohio Company. He too accompanied Washington on his adventure to Venango and saved his life on two occasions during the journey.
10Alberts, op. cit.
Washington, op. cit. p. 43.
Sipe, op. cit. pp. 157-158.
Sipe relates the testimony of the trader, John Davidson, who participated in the fire fight at Jumonville's Glen; "There were but eight Indians who did most of the execution that was done. Col. Washington and the Half King differed much in judgment, and on the Colonel's refusing to take his advice, the English and Indians separated. After the Indians discovered the French in a hollow and hid themselves, lying on their bellies behind a hill; afterwards they discovered Col. Washington on the opposite side of the hollow, in the gray morning, and when the English fired, which they did in great confusion, the Indians came out of the cover and closed with the French and killed them with their tomahawks, on which the French surrendered." French casualties were ten killed and twenty-one prisoners; provincial casualties were one killed and two wounded.
10aHanna, Charles, The Wilderness Trail, Vol. 1, Wennawoods Publishing, reprint 1995, pp. 376-377. "About 200 of the Six Nations (Mingos), Shawnee, and Delaware living there removed, after the defeat of Washington at the Great Meadows, to Fort Cumberland, thence to Aughwick where they were cared for during the winter of 1754-5 by George Croghan."
11Sipe, op. cit.
Alberts, op. cit. p. 21. The author provides an excellent description of the fort and its poor location.
12Alberts, op. cit.
Sipe, op. cit. pp. 159-160.
13Alberts, op. cit.
Sipe, op. cit. p. 160.
14Parkman, op. cit. p. 948.
15Alberts, op. cit.
Sipe, op. cit. pp. 160-161.
Parkman, op. cit. pp. 948-949.
16Eckert, Allan, Wilderness Empires, Little, Brown, and Co., 1969, pp. 240-243.
17Eckert refers to Jumonville as Villiers's brother (op. cit. p. 241), while Sipe (op. cit. p. 161) refers to him as his "half-brother."
17aEckert, op. cit.
p. 246: "...700 soldiers and just over 350 Indians."
Sipe,op. cit. p. 161: "...a force of 500 French and some Indians augmented to about 400."
Alberts, op. cit. p. 30: "...a force of 600 French and Canadian soldiers and some 100 Indians."
18Sipe, op. cit. p. 161.
19Alberts, op. cit.
Eckert, op. cit. p. 247, "...as he stared through the rain at the bloated and scalpless remains of the bodies, including that of Jumonville de Villiers."
20Parkman, op. cit. p. 951.
21Alberts, op. cit. p. 31.
22Ibid., p. 32.
23Parkman, op. cit. p. 951.
24Sipe, op. cit., p. 163.
25Alberts, op. cit. p. 35. "...he (Van Braam) probably translated the French words into Dutch and then into English."
26etymon; A foreign word from which a particular loan-word is derived; American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985.
27Alberts, op. cit.
Parkman, op. cit. p. 952.
Eckert, op. cit. p. 250.
27aKing Beaver, also known as Tamaqua, was the brother of the illustrious Shingas. While Shingas was a warrior king of the western Delaware, Tamaqua was the "Peace" king, the highest tribal authority. The Indian reference to the Delawares as "women" may connote "peacekeepers."
28Downes, op. cit. p. 72. Tanaghrisson died a few weeks later, on October 4, 1754.