Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

The Key to the Ohio Valley

I. Legardeur de St. Pierre

Legardeur de St. Pierre was a great-grandson of Jean Nicolet, the discoverer of Lake Michigan. He had been educated in France, and had the refined manners and cultured habits of a French gentleman. But he inherited from his roving ancestor a love of the woods and a passion for adventure. Much the greater part of his life was spent in the wilderness of Canada and the forests of the Northwest.

A dozen years before Celoron's famous expedition down the Ohio, St. Pierre was in command of a fort at Lake Pepin on the upper Mississippi. This was the most western, save one, of all the French outposts in the Old Northwest. It had been built for the purpose of gaining the confidence and the trade of the Sioux. The French had not yet ceased to dream of a waterway across the continent to the Pacific; and it was hoped that by winning the friendship of the wild tribes of the far West the discovery of that waterway would be made easier.

To the frontier outpost on Lake Pepin wonderful stories were brought of a great lake in the region of the setting sun, from which three rivers poured, one toward the Mississippi, one toward Hudson Bay, and one toward the western ocean. Near this westward flowing river there were said to be walled towns in which white people lived who did not know the use of firearms; and tales were told of strange forests of dyewood near the western coast, and of wonderful black fish that sported in the waters of the sea.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


St. Pierre believed these stories, as did everybody else, even to the governor of Canada. Various expeditions were sent out under a certain Canadian officer, the Sieur de Verendrye, and his sons; and to aid in this enterprise a temporary fort was built on the banks of the distant Assiniboine. Ten years and more were spent in a vain search for the great lake and the westward flowing river. Verendrye explored the country bordering upon the Upper Missouri, and his sons went so far west that, first of Frenchmen, they saw some of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

In the meanwhile the fort on Lake Pepin had suffered disaster. It was submerged and partly destroyed by a great freshet. The Sioux Indians looked upon the outpost with distrust and refused to trade there. Hostile Indians from the Green Bay region lay in ambush around it, and even attempted to scale its palisades. And at length St. Pierre found it wisest to burn the fort and make his way, as best he could, to the nearest port on the lakes.

In the very year of Celoron's expedition down the Ohio, Verendrye, old and broken down with disappointments, returned to Canada to die; and Legardeur de St. Pierre was chosen to carry on the work which that determined hero had begun. In the following summer two expeditions started westward from Green Bay—one under St. Pierre himself, the other under a brave French officer named Marin. It was arranged that after they had crossed the continent they were to meet at some point on the shore of the Pacific.

French explorers in Old Northwest


I need not say that they never reached the Pacific. Marin soon returned; but St. Pierre was absent three years, exploring the Saskatchewan, and strengthening the fort on the Assiniboine. It was he, or some member of his party, who first applied the name "Montagnes des Roches" to the great range of western highlands—a name which with the English became the familiar "Rocky Mountains."

St. Pierre found the Indians very troublesome, making further explorations impossible. "It is evident," he said, "that so long as these people trade with the English there is no hope of succeeding in finding a western sea. If there were no English settlements at Hudson's Bay, all would be well." And so, at last, in the autumn of 1753, he returned to Canada, disheartened because of his failure, but laying all the blame for it upon the English.

II. Fort Le Boeuf

St. Pierre found the governor of Canada fully alive to the danger that was likely to follow the English encroachments in the Ohio Valley. Marin, upon his return from the distant West, had been sent out to fortify the route which Celoron had followed three years before. At Presque Isle, where now stands the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, he had put up a fort of squared chestnut logs, and there he had stored a great quantity of both necessary and unnecessary supplies. Then he had cut a broad road southward, twenty-one miles through the forest. At the end of that road, on the banks of French Creek, he had built a strong stockade which he called Fort le Boeuf, the first fortified post on the head waters of the Ohio. Canoes launched in the creek there could float down to the Allegheny and thence to any point on the disputed river. The place where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio, and where now the city of Pittsburg stands, was recognized as the key to the valley of the Ohio, if not to the entire Northwest. For, from the English colonies there were but two available routes to that country—one from western New York down the Allegheny, one from Virginia by way of the Potomac and Monongahela—and both met at the forks of the Ohio.

No sooner had Marin established himself at Fort le Boeuf than he began to think of the next link in the chain of fortifications that he was expected to build. At the point where French Creek enters the Allegheny there was an Indian town called Venango, and a Virginian trader whose name was Fraser had built a trading post there. Marin sent young Joncaire forward with sixty men to take possession of this place. Joncaire seized the trading house, and turned it into a French fortification.

The Indians who had treated Celoron so coolly and had made such fine promises to Croghan and Gist, began now to be thoroughly alarmed. Mingoes, Delawares, Shawnees, and even Miamis sent their head men to Fort le Boeuf to make matters right with Marin. The fickle savages who had been so eager to welcome the English now declared that they had always loved the French as brothers, and that nothing could turn them away from that love. The Iroquois, too, hastened to offer their friendship, and many of them lent their aid in carrying from Presque Isle to Le Boeuf the baggage and supplies that were required for the new fort. There was scarcely a tribe in the entire Ohio Valley that was not suddenly won over to the cause of the French.

In the meanwhile, however, the English were not idle. George Croghan, from the Indian towns on the Ohio, had hastened to warn the governor of Pennsylvania of the danger that threatened. "The point to be aimed at," said he, "is the forks of the Ohio. Whoever fortifies that place first will win control of the whole valley." Benjamin Franklin and other commissioners from Pennsylvania thereupon held a council with some Ohio Indians who met them at Carlisle. These Indians declared that if the English wished to protect their trade in the Northwest they must fortify their posts on the river before the French were in a condition to prevent them.

And now an unexpected enemy put a check to the movements of the French. The woods and marshes through which Marin's men had toiled bravely from Presque Isle to Venango were full of malaria. The soldiers grew sick, and numbers of them died. As winter began to approach it was deemed best to send most of them back to Montreal, and to postpone all further movements until the following spring. Governor Duquesne, when he saw the emaciated figures of those who returned, was greatly shocked. "Past all doubt," said he, "if they had gone down the Ohio, as intended, the river would have been strewn with corpses."

It was just at this juncture that Legardeur de St. Pierre arrived in Canada from his three years' adventures in the distant West. A fortnight later, news came from Fort le Boeuf that his old friend Marin had also succumbed to disease, and had died bravely at his post in the wilderness.

"You are the only man in Canada who can carry on the work which your former comrade has so well begun," said Governor Duquesne; and he immediately appointed St. Pierre to be commandant of the projected line of military posts, with his headquarters at Fort le Boeuf.

It was the first of December when St. Pierre arrived at his new place of duty. He was at that time a man past the prime of life, white-haired and dignified, with the air of a soldier and the manners of a gentleman. Winter had already set in. A drizzling rain was falling. The ground was partly covered with snow, and the water courses were full of mushy ice. The lonely fort in the midst of a dreary clearing, with the wild forest on every side, was a picture of desolation. But to St. Pierre, so lately returned from regions still more solitary and remote, the place seemed reasonably comfortable and not at all lonely.

III. Unexpected Visitors

At about sunset on the tenth day after St. Pierre's arrival at Le Boeuf, the sentinel at the gate cried out that strangers were approaching the fort. Out of the woods on the south, St. Pierre saw two horsemen coming. One was a tall young man, of very noble bearing; the other was an elderly backwoodsman, clad in buckskin and armed with gun and knife. Behind these two came half a dozen Indians and three or four white men with pack horses all wading slowly through the deep slush and snow.

St. Pierre sent two of his officers out to meet the strangers. They proved to be Virginians, but were nevertheless welcomed to whatever comforts the little garrison was able, to offer. The younger of the two horsemen said that he had business of importance with the commandant; but after they had warmed themselves and supped at the officers' tables, it was too late to speak of it that night.

Indians and Traders


The next morning the young stranger was led into the presence of St. Pierre. The commandant received him very politely indeed, and very kindly. Little did he suppose that the person to whom he was offering these civilities was destined to become the most famous man in American history, if not in the history of the world. The young stranger did not understand French, and hence had to speak through an interpreter. He introduced himself as Major George Washington, adjutant general of the Virginian militia, and handed to St. Pierre a letter which he had brought from Robert Dinwiddie, the governor of the colony.

The commandant took the letter and went into the next room to read it. It was not the kind of letter to awaken pleasant feelings. It ran in substance somewhat in this way: "I must desire you to acquaint me by whose authority and instructions you have lately marched from Canada with an armed force, and invaded the king of Great Britain's territories. It becomes my duty to require your peaceable departure, and to demand that you shall forbear carrying out a purpose which is so likely to destroy the harmony and good feeling now existing between my king and yours. I persuade myself that you will receive and entertain Major Washington with the candor and politeness natural to your nation; and it will give me the greatest satisfaction if you will return with him an answer suitable to my wishes for a very long and lasting peace between us."

St. Pierre read the letter at his leisure, and delayed his answer for three days. In the meanwhile he entertained young Washington with the same hospitality and kindness that he would have given an honored friend and guest. On the fourth day his reply was ready. In the letter which he then handed to Washington he gave Governor Dinwiddie to understand that he expected to hold the posts over which he had been given command, and that no threats or demands on the part of Englishmen or Virginians would cause him to withdraw from the territory which he had been directed to defend. The whole matter, he said, would be referred to Governor Duquesne at Quebec.

Major Washington took the letter and at once made ready to return homeward. You may imagine the scene as he bade the French commandant good-by, and rode out from the little fort of Le Boeuf. The weather has grown colder; the soft slush has frozen into ice; snow is falling; a sharp northwest wind is roaring through the treetops and heaping up drifts in the valleys and among the fallen timber; it is not a promising morning for beginning a journey of five hundred miles through a pathless wilderness. The stately, white-haired commandant, standing in the doorway, salutes his departing guest.

"My best wishes go with you, Major Washington; but I fear that your horses will not be able to carry you far over this rough, snow-covered country."

"If they fail us, sir, we shall then get forward on foot. Adieu."

"Adieu! and may God preserve you."

And the little company files slowly across the clearing, their backs to the wind, their feet slipping on the treacherous ice, their eyes blinded by the eddying snow. They enter the woods, and are seen no more by Legardeur St. Pierre and the garrison at Fort le Boeuf.