GEORGE WASHINGTON AT TWENTY-ONE
Do you remember when you were twenty-one? When you thought you were so incredibly strong. You soon enough began to feel the power in your future begin to weaken, as you prepared yourself for the long run.
George Washington of the monument was once twenty-one, and a provincial officer set to fight both French and Indian, with experience in fighting none. But soon enough, stumbling through such opportunity, Washington would come to lead stubbornly in the Revolutionary War that he won.
Okay. The French had a big play in that victory. But isn’t it ironic that when he was twenty-two, it would be a Frenchman that he killed that started the earlier war? The French and Indian one?
Or so they would say. Assassinated actually. A French diplomat, as Washington’s articles of capitulation clearly stated. But it was in French. And he denied it. But it was probably necessary to sign, if Washington and his men were to be allowed to escape! We will see how it developed that way. But his experience is still one year away!
An absent father always away on his business. A mother to whom he was never quite sufficient. An older brother, a military hero. Well, that’s a start worthy of beginning!
With only an elementary education, and not enough of that, Washington became adept at mathematics, a reader, and an energetic study of everything else. And he was ambitious. He was just too young and too inexperienced in his aspirations. But tall, ruggedly handsome, and eager to account for something. So he walked right into Virginia Governor Dinwiddie’s office in Williamsburg.
“I can deliver your message!” he said. Why not, thought Dinwiddie. He’s expendable.
So Washington did. And it didn’t go well. But not as bad as the next trip out there. So let’s look now at this first trip out west. The one that would establish his mystique back east.
Where was he headed? Into that mysterious Ohio country. That was a Native American name for the major inland river that the French called “La Belle Riviere.” The Beautiful River. And it ran through a wonderfully wooded valley. Hard to get to, however.
The French claimed it through LaSalle’s possible float down to the Falls [now Louisville, Kentucky] in 1669. He came through the Seneca lands from Lake Ontario.
The English thought they owned it through the Crown Colony grants of Virginia and Pennsylvania. And it was the traders from Pennsylvania who were doing most of the business there.
But there was another economic force that was also in movement. An English corporation, which had been granted concessions of land to penetrate and settle further within. The “Ohio Company of Virginia.” Governor Dinwiddie was a shareholder. Lawrence Washington, too. And ownership soon came to his younger brother, George. A vested interest? Surely not every western incursion was purely political!
The treaty settling King George’s War in 1748, did not set the borders of this backcountry story. And the French weren’t going away or giving it up. They sent in Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Bienville, with 250 French troops crossing into the Ohio country tributaries from Lake Erie. There, at the mouth of major rivers discharging into the Ohio River, he buried six lead plates to demonstrate French ownership. Then he tacked up a metal sign on a nearby tree. “No Hunting,” I suppose, would be a modern day version of its intent!
But that would not be enough. Too many British traders around. Time to exercise French muscle and demonstrate dominion on the land.
So in 1753, the French built Fort Presque Isle at their portage point on Lake Erie. Now Erie, Pennsylvania, it was at the end of a Native American path to the interior, the Venango Trail. That’s the path that George Washington would travel to the next fort that the French built inland, Fort Le Boeuf, at the headwaters of French Creek. A third fort, Fort Machault, was built by the French at the junction of that creek and the Alleghany River. And the Alleghany would form the Ohio River when it met the Monongahela at what is now Pittsburg, but then would soon be known as Fort Duquesne!
Those were the lands into which George Washington was headed with Dinwiddie’s message in December 1753.
December? In Western Pennsylvania? Are you crazy? Kind of foolish, if you ask me.
But remember, foolish is power in the young and the strong. And Washington was just beginning, in the hard way, to learn! Dinwiddie just wanted the French to leave. So Washington carried a polite message, asking accordingly.
But how to get there? Up the Potomac River, if you’re coming through Virginia. It will take you to Fort Cumberland, far up along that river. And from there, head northwest into the mountains. But not alone. Washington was too young.
In Pennsylvania, he teamed up with frontiersman Christopher Gist. Gist was a true pioneer and, in 1750, had explored all the way down to the Falls of that Beautiful River [now at Louisville] for the Ohio Company. Get the picture? Real estate interests figured prominently in this venture.
And Gist was the real thing, as pioneer exploring goes. And, if you are religious and support Washington’s heavenly destiny, then maybe Gist was an angel of the Lord. For he will surely save Washington’s life twice on this trip.
Suffice it to say that Washington’s diplomatic play was a bust. The French were also polite, but not going away. Washington went to the Indian village of Logstown, however, and met the Seneca “Half King,” Tanacharison. Tanacharison would lead Washington to disaster in the very next summer!
On the way in, Washington observed the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers forming the mighty Ohio River. At Pittsburg, if you would. A good place for a fort, he would tell Governor Dinwiddie. But he had to get back home to Virginia to say it.
Fearing betrayal, Washington and Gist left the Venango Trail to head cross-country. They took a single guide, who took a single shot at Washington, and was singly subdued by Gist as a result. A better aim might have changed our nation. And here is an interesting development in character and history. Washington set that assassin free to go home.
Well, they then found the cold Alleghany River on their own. Wind and snow tore through the land. Ice chunks blocked their crossing over the frigid river. What did they do? Built a raft. Wouldn’t you? No, of course not!
Well, they got in the water and Washington soon fell over. Credit Gist for a second save in dragging Washington back in. It must have been cold, standing naked on the shore, drying clothing and skin against a hard-to-make fire.
The next morning, the river froze solid. And that’s how they got home. Walking over it. Not swimming.
Walking back into the history that Washington was making.