Tanacharisson returned, wounded at heart, both by the language and the
haughty manner of the French commandant. He saw the ruin impending over his
race, but looked with hope and trust to the English as the power least
disposed to wrong the red man.
French influence was successful in other quarters. Some of the Indians who
had been friendly to the English showed signs of alienation. Others menaced
hostilities. There were reports that the French were ascending the
Mississippi from Louisiana. France, it was said, intended to connect
Louisiana and Canada by a chain of military posts, and hem the English
within the Allegany Mountains.
The Ohio Company complained loudly to the Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia,
the Hon. Robert Dinwiddie, of the hostile conduct of the French and their
Indian allies. They found in Dinwiddie a ready listener; he was a
stockholder in the company.
A commissioner, Captain William Trent, was sent to expostulate with the
French commander on the Ohio for his aggressions on the territory of his
Britannic majesty; he bore presents also of guns, powder, shot, and
clothing for the friendly Indians.
Trent was not a man of the true spirit for a mission to the frontier. He
stopped a short time at Logstown, though the French were one hundred and
fifty miles further up the river, and directed his course to Piqua, the
great town of the Twightwees, where Gist and Croghan had been so well
received by the Miamis, and the French flag struck in the council house.
All now was reversed. The place had been attacked by the French and
Indians; the Miamis defeated with great loss; the English traders taken
prisoners; the Piankesha chief, who had so proudly turned his back upon the
Ottawa ambassadors, had been sacrificed by the hostile savages, and the
French flag hoisted in triumph on the ruins of the town. The whole aspect
of affairs was so threatening on the frontier, that Trent lost heart, and
returned home without accomplishing his errand.
Governor Dinwiddie now looked round for a person more fitted to fulfil a
mission which required physical strength and moral energy; a courage to
cope with savages, and a sagacity to negotiate with white men. Washington
was pointed out as possessed of those requisites. It is true he was not yet
twenty-two years of age, but public confidence in his judgment and
abilities had been manifested a second time, by renewing his appointment of
adjutant-general, and assigning him the northern division. He was
acquainted too with the matters in litigation, having been in the bosom
councils of his deceased brother. His woodland experience fitted him for an
expedition through the wilderness; and his great discretion and
self-command for a negotiation with wily commanders and fickle savages. He
was accordingly chosen for the expedition.
By his letter of instructions he was directed to repair to Logstown, and
hold a communication with Tanacharisson, Monacatoocha, alias Scarooyadi,
the next in command, and the other sachems of the mixed tribes friendly to
the English; inform them of the purport of his errand, and request an
escort to the head-quarters of the French commander. To that commander he
was to deliver his credentials, and the letter of Governor Dinwiddie, and
demand an answer in the name of his Britannic majesty; but not to wait for
it beyond a week. On receiving it, he was to request a sufficient escort to
protect him on his return.
He was, moreover, to acquaint himself with the numbers and force of the
French stationed on the Ohio and in its vicinity; their capability of being
reinforced from Canada; the forts they had erected; where situated, how
garrisoned; the object of their advancing into those parts, and how they
were likely to be supported.
Washington set off from Williamsburg on the 30th of October (1753), the
very day on which he received his credentials. At Fredericksburg he engaged
his old “master of fence,” Jacob Van Braam, to accompany him as
interpreter; though it would appear from subsequent circumstances, that the
veteran swordsman was but indifferently versed either in French or English.
Having provided himself at Alexandria with necessaries for the journey, he
proceeded to Winchester, then on the frontier, where he procured horses,
tents, and other travelling equipments, and then pushed on by a road newly
opened to Wills’ Creek (town of Cumberland), where he arrived on the 14th
Here he met with Mr. Gist, the intrepid pioneer, who had explored the Ohio
in the employ of the company, and whom he engaged to accompany and pilot
him in the present expedition. He secured the services also of one John
Davidson as Indian interpreter, and of four frontiersmen, two of whom were
Indian traders. With this little band, and his swordsman and interpreter,
Jacob Van Braam, he set forth on the 15th of November, through a wild
country, rendered almost impassable by recent storms of rain and snow.
At the mouth of Turtle Creek, on the Monongahela, he found John Frazier the
Indian trader, some of whose people, as heretofore stated, had been sent
off prisoners to Canada. Frazier himself had recently been ejected by the
French from the Indian village of Venango, where he had a gunsmith’s
establishment. According to his account the French general who had
commanded on this frontier was dead, and the greater part of the forces
were retired into winter quarters.
As the rivers were all swollen so that the horses had to swim them,
Washington sent all the baggage down the Monongahela in a canoe under care
of two of the men, who had orders to meet him at the confluence of that
river with the Allegany, where their united waters form the Ohio.
“As I got down before the canoe,” writes he in his journal, “I spent some
time in viewing the rivers, and the land at the Fork, which I think
extremely well situated for a fort, as it has the absolute command of both
rivers. The land at the point is twenty or twenty-five feet above the
common surface of the water, and a considerable bottom of flat, well
timbered land all around it, very convenient for building. The rivers are
each a quarter of a mile or more across, and run here very nearly at right
angles; Allegany bearing north-east, and Monongahela south-east. The former
of these two is a very rapid and swift-running water, the other deep and
still, without any perceptible fall.” The Ohio company had intended to
build a fort about two miles from this place, on the south-east side of the
river; but Washington gave the fork the decided preference. French
engineers of experience proved the accuracy of his military eye, by
subsequently choosing it for the site of Fort Duquesne, noted in frontier
In this neighborhood lived Shingiss, the king or chief sachem of the
Delawares. Washington visited him at his village, to invite him to the
council at Logstown. He was one of the greatest warriors of his tribe, and
subsequently took up the hatchet at various times against the English,
though now he seemed favorably disposed, and readily accepted the
They arrived at Logstown after sunset on the 24th of November. The
half-king was absent at his hunting lodge on Beaver Creek, about fifteen
miles distant; but Washington had runners sent out to invite him and all
the other chiefs to a grand talk on the following day.
In the morning four French deserters came into the village. They had
deserted from a company of one hundred men, sent up from New Orleans with
eight canoes laden with provisions. Washington drew from them an account of
the French force at New Orleans, and of the forts along the Mississippi,
and at the mouth of the Wabash, by which they kept up a communication with
the lakes; all which he carefully noted down. The deserters were on their
way to Philadelphia, conducted by a Pennsylvania trader.
About three o’clock the half-king arrived. Washington had a private
conversation with him in his tent, through Davidson, the interpreter. He
found him intelligent, patriotic, and proudly tenacious of his territorial
rights. We have already cited from Washington’s papers, the account given
by this chief in this conversation, of his interview with the late French
commander. He stated, moreover, that the French had built two forts,
differing in size, but on the same model, a plan of which he gave, of his
own drawing. The largest was on Lake Erie, the other on French Creek,
fifteen miles apart, with a waggon road between them. The nearest and
levellest way to them was now impassable, lying through large and miry
savannas; they would have, therefore, to go by Venango, and it would take
five or six sleeps (or days) of good travelling to reach the nearest fort.
On the following morning at nine o’clock, the chiefs assembled at the
council house; where Washington, according to his instructions, informed
them that he was sent by their brother, the Governor of Virginia, to
deliver to the French commandant a letter of great importance, both to
their brothers the English and to themselves; and that he was to ask their
advice and assistance, and some of their young men to accompany and provide
for him on the way, and be his safeguard against the “French Indians” who
had taken up the hatchet. He concluded by presenting the indispensable
document in Indian diplomacy a string of wampum.
The chiefs, according to etiquette, sat for some moments silent after he
had concluded, as if ruminating on what had been said, or to give him time
for further remark.
The half-king then rose and spoke in behalf of the tribes, assuring him
that they considered the English and themselves brothers, and one people;
and that they intended to return the French the “speech-belts,” or wampums,
which the latter had sent them. This, in Indian diplomacy, is a
renunciation of all friendly relations. An escort would be furnished to
Washington composed of Mingoes, Shannoahs, and Delawares, in token of the
love and loyalty of those several tribes; but three days would be required
to prepare for the journey.
Washington remonstrated against such delay; but was informed, that an
affair of such moment, where three speech-belts were to be given up, was
not to be entered into without due consideration. Besides, the young men
who were to form the escort were absent hunting, and the half-king could
not suffer the party to go without sufficient protection. His own French
speech-belt, also, was at his hunting lodge, where he must go in quest of
it. Moreover, the Shannoah chiefs were yet absent and must be waited for.
In short, Washington had his first lesson in Indian diplomacy, which for
punctilio, ceremonial, and secret manoeuvring, is equal at least to that of
civilized life. He soon found that to urge a more speedy departure would be
offensive to Indian dignity and decorum, so he was fain to await the
gathering together of the different chiefs with their speech-belts.
In fact there was some reason for all this caution. Tidings had reached the
sachems that Captain Joncaire had called a meeting at Venango, of the
Mingoes, Delawares, and other tribes, and made them a speech, informing
them that the French, for the present, had gone into winter quarters, but
intended to descend the river in great force, and fight the English in the
spring. He had advised them, therefore, to stand aloof, for should they
interfere, the French and English would join, cut them all off, and divide
their land between them.
With these rumors preying on their minds, the half-king and three other
chiefs waited on Washington in his tent in the evening, and after
representing that they had complied with all the requisitions of the
Governor of Virginia, endeavored to draw from the youthful ambassador the
true purport of his mission to the French commandant. Washington had
anticipated an inquiry of the kind, knowing how natural it was that these
poor people should regard, with anxiety and distrust, every movement of two
formidable powers thus pressing upon them from opposite sides, he managed,
however, to answer them in such a manner as to allay their solicitude
without transcending the bounds of diplomatic secrecy.
After a day or two more of delay and further consultations in the council
house, the chiefs determined that but three of their number should
accompany the mission, as a greater number might awaken the suspicions of
the French. Accordingly, on the 30th of November, Washington set out for
the French post, having his usual party augmented by an Indian hunter, and
being accompanied by the half-king, an old Shannoah sachem named Jeskakake,
and another chief, sometimes called Belt of Wampum, from being the keeper
of the speech-belts, but generally bearing the sounding appellation of
ARRIVAL AT VENANGO–CAPTAIN JONCAIRE–FRONTIER REVELRY–DISCUSSIONS OVER
THE BOTTLE–THE OLD DIPLOMATIST AND THE YOUNG–THE HALF-KING, JESKAKAKE,
AND WHITE THUNDER STAGGERED–THE SPEECH-BELT–DEPARTURE–LA FORCE, THE WILY
COMMISSARY–FORT AT FRENCH CREEK–THE CHEVALIER LEGARDEUR DE ST. PIERRE,
KNIGHT OF ST. LOUIS–CAPTAIN REPARTI–TRANSACTIONS AT THE FORT–ATTEMPTS
TO SEDUCE THE SACHEMS–MISCHIEF BREWING ON THE FRONTIER–DIFFICULTIES AND
DELAYS IN PARTING–DESCENT OF FRENCH CREEK–ARRIVAL AT VENANGO.
Although the distance to Venango, by the route taken, was not above seventy
miles, yet such was the inclemency of the weather and the difficulty of
travelling, that Washington and his party did not arrive there until the
4th of December. The French colors were flying at a house whence John
Frazier, the English trader, had been driven. Washington repaired thither,
and inquired of three French officers whom he saw there where the
commandant resided. One of them promptly replied that he “had the command
of the Ohio.” It was, in fact, the redoubtable Captain Joncaire, the
veteran intriguer of the frontier. On being apprised, however, of the
nature of Washington’s errand, he informed him that there was a general
officer at the next fort, where he advised him to apply for an answer to
the letter of which he was the bearer.
In the mean time, he invited Washington and his party to a supper at head
quarters. It proved a jovial one, for Joncaire appears to have been
somewhat of a boon companion, and there is always ready though rough
hospitality in the wilderness. It is true, Washington, for so young a man,
may not have had the most convivial air, but there may have been a moist
look of promise in the old soldier Van Braam.
Joncaire and his brother officers pushed the bottle briskly. “The wine,”
says Washington, “as they dosed themselves pretty plentifully with it, soon
banished the restraint which at first appeared in their conversation, and
gave a license to their tongues to reveal their sentiments more freely.
They told me that it was their absolute design to take possession of the
Ohio, and by G– they would do it; for that although they were sensible the
English could raise two men for their one, yet they knew their motions were
too slow and dilatory to prevent any undertaking. They pretend to have an
undoubted right to the river from a discovery made by one La Salle sixty
years ago, and the rise of this expedition is to prevent our settling on
the river or the waters of it, as they heard of some families moving out in
Washington retained his sobriety and his composure throughout all the
rodomontade and bacchanalian outbreak of the mercurial Frenchmen; leaving
the task of pledging them to his master of fence, Van Braam, who was not a
man to flinch from potations. He took careful note, however, of all their
revelations, and collected a variety of information concerning the French
forces; how and where they were distributed; the situations and distances
of their forts, and their means and mode of obtaining supplies. If the
veteran diplomatist of the wilderness had intended this revel for a snare,
he was completely foiled by his youthful competitor.