How George Washington Helped Start the French and Indian War

By 1753, the French and British rivalry in North America had reached a breaking point, and both sides prepared for conflict. The spark that set it off was struck by a young Virginia militia officer named George Washington. Yes, THAT George Washington.


The death of Jumonville photo from WikiCommons

As tensions rose between France and England over their colonies in North America, Marquis de Duquesne was dispatched from Paris to serve as the Governor of New France, and he immediately began construction of a ring of four new forts, extending from the St Lawrence River and down into the Ohio Valley, to defend the area from the British in New England. And one of these was planned to be built on the promontory where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers joined to form the Ohio—right on the most strategic military spot in the entire Valley.

When the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, heard about the French actions, he in turn sent a message to the Privy Council in London, telling them that the French were encroaching upon “British territory”. In response, the Royal Government authorized Dinwiddie to raise a militia and build forts to defend the area. As his representative, Dinwiddie chose an ambitious and wealthy 21-year old land-owner named George Washington, who had traveled to Williamsburg to volunteer for the assignment. 

The Governor appointed Washington as a major in the militia, ordered him to hire porters for an expedition, obtain the Ohio Company’s Christopher Gist as a guide, and make his way to the French commander at Fort LeBoeuf. Here, he was to present a sealed letter from Dinwiddie (demanding that the French dismantle the fort and withdraw) and wait for the French response, then request that they send troops to escort him back to Virginia. Dinwiddie also instructed Washington to examine the strength of any French forts and blockhouses that he saw along the way. Washington and Gist set out on October 31, 1753, reaching western Pennsylvania towards the end of November.

On their way, Washington’s group stopped in Logstown in the Pennsylvania colony to see Tanaghrisson, the representative from the Iroquois League who was known as the “Half King” (he had authority to speak for the Iroquois, but his decisions had to be approved by the Iroquois council). The Iroquois had their own agenda, hoping to gain the British as an ally to support their own expansion into the Ohio River Valley, and Tanaghrisson had already gone to visit the French at Fort Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, to ask them to withdraw from the Ohio Valley, and had been rebuffed.

Now, Tanaghrisson wanted to accompany Washington and Gist to Fort LeBoeuf to ask again. He was accompanied only by three elderly chiefs and a few hunters. The young Washington, who was inexperienced and naïve about Native customs, did not understand the significance of this, but Gist, who had grown up among the Iroquois, did: it meant that the Half King had very little actual support among the Lenape and Shawnee that he was supposedly speaking for.

In December, the party reached the French at Fort LeBeouf. Here, Captain Jacques de Saint-Pierre, the French regional commander, was in charge, though he had only arrived seven days before. He at first refused to accept the diplomatic message, telling Washington that he should deliver it to the Governor in Quebec. When Washington insisted, though, Saint-Pierre took the message, read it, and responded simply that he was only a Captain and that he followed orders from above, and could not leave the fort without instructions. Meanwhile, while examining the site’s strength and defenses, Washington noticed a large number of bateaux riverboats gathered nearby, and concluded that the French were preparing to send troops further along the river, perhaps to build another fort.
On their return, Washington and Gist ran into fierce winter snowstorms, and the young militia major nearly drowned when he fell into the icy Allegheny River while poling across on a raft. They did not get back to Williamsburg until January 16, 1754.

Dinwiddie concluded that the French were about to launch another war, and called the militia out. A professor at William and Mary College, Joshua Fry, was appointed to command.

At the same time, a small force of 36 Virginia militiamen was dispatched under Captain William Trent (a newly-commissioned employee of the Ohio Company) with the specific task of constructing a British fort to defend against the French and to assert English title to the area. The chosen spot was known as “The Point”, the triangular bit of land right where the two rivers met to form the Ohio. It was to be called Fort Prince George. And it was on a location that the French were already planning to fortify.

Trent, accompanied by the Iroquois Half King, arrived at the place in February 1754 and began constructing a stockade and blockhouse. The next month, Dinwiddie promoted George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel, told him to raise a new unit of militia, and ordered him to go reinforce Trent. When Washington set off for Pennsylvania on April 2, he had only 160 men. Since there was no suitable road through the area leading to the fort, Washington had to build his own as he went. In two weeks, Washington had gotten as far as Cumberland MD.

A short time later, he received the startling news that the fort he was going to reinforce no longer existed. The French Governor had heard about the British fort, and had dispatched a group of 1,000 troops under Captain Claude-Pierre de Contrecoeur to drive the British out. When the French reached the site on April 17, they took the English completely by surprise, and captured them all without firing a shot. Released, Trent’s men made their way back to Virginia. The French, meanwhile, burned down the British fort and built a bigger one of their own. It was christened Fort Duquesne.

With the object of his mission now gone, Washington reached an area of Pennsylvania known as the “Great Meadows”, about 40 miles south of Fort Duquesne, and waited for information or orders. Here, he received a message from the Half King offering Iroquois warriors, and also got a visit from Christopher Gist, his partner in his previous Fort LeBoeuf mission, warning him that French militiamen had just passed by Gist’s nearby farmstead. These were 35 men led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. They were not actually a military force, but were on a diplomatic mission, having been assigned by the Governor to find Washington and issue him a warning to stay out of French territory.

On the evening of May 27, Tanaghrisson sent another message, informing Washington that he had found the French, camped not far away. Washington took along 40 men to meet him. When he got there, he found that the Half King was only accompanied by a handful of warriors—once again an ominous sign that the Six Nations had lost most of its control over the local Natives, though Washington did not at the time understand this.

Tanaghrisson and Washington then planned their attack. The French were camped in a hollow surrounded by trees and large boulders. Washington would approach them, while the Iroquois would circle around the rocks and cut off their escape.

When the French saw the English approaching, they reached for their muskets, and each side fired one or two volleys, killing and wounding several on both sides before Jumonville, himself wounded, was able to stop them by shouting that he was on a diplomatic mission. He then had an aide step forward and read his written message from the French Governor ordering the British to leave French territory.

Things may have ended there, but now the Half King took what could only be seen as a desperate step. With the Iroquois grip on the area loosening and the Lenape and Shawnee moving closer to the French orbit, and with his own political position within the Iroquois League now in serious danger, Tanaghrisson had apparently decided that the only solution to all of this was war with the French and an alliance between the Iroquois and the British, which would increase the influence and importance of the Six Nations.

And so, as Washington was questioning the wounded Jumonville, the Half King went up to him, declared in French, “Tu n’es pas encore morte, mon pere” (“You are not yet dead, my Father”), and with one blow caved in the Frenchman’s skull with his tomahawk.

The words had a ritual significance that Washington likely did not understand. In their dealings with the Native Nations, both the French and the British pictured them as “children” who needed to be guided and provided for, and to emphasize that role the Europeans usually referred to themselves as “your Father”. By ritually acknowledging the French as his “father” and then killing him, the Half King was making a clear intentional statement that the former relationship with them was over, the Iroquois were now no longer subservient, and war was being deliberately chosen. And when he sent messengers bearing the French scalps to other tribes in the area, the message was unmistakable.

His mission accomplished, the Half King then left. He would die of pneumonia just five months later, and would not live to see the war he had just started.

Washington, meanwhile, retreated back to the Great Meadows to prepare for the French response that would now certainly come. He hastily put up a small palisaded enclosure that he dubbed “Fort Necessity”. And here the French and Indian War would begin.


2 thoughts on “How George Washington Helped Start the French and Indian War”

  1. Seems to me one could argue that it was really the Half King then who set off the war, though it was probably inevitable anyway. In those days, France and Britain went to war at the drop of a hat. 🙂

    1. Yes, Tanaghrisson fully calculated the costs and benefits, and chose war. But Washington gets the blame because he was the guy in command. And he was itching for a fight anyway.

      With France and Britain, “war” was sort of a fulltime occupation. 😉

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