Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

George Washington

I. The Wilderness Journey

The backwoodsman who rode with Major Washington to Fort le Boeuf, and who broke the path before him on his departure homeward, was none other than our old acquaintance Christopher Gist. His practiced eye could distinguish the easiest path where any other could see only an untracked waste of forest and bog and snow-covered marshes. Close behind him rode Washington, silent but alert; and following at a short distance were the white men with the pack horses. The Indians who had guided them to the fort straggled sulkily in the rear, and seemed in no mind to be of further service to the party. The French soldiers had shown them great kindness during their four days' stay at Le Boeuf, giving them presents, and dosing them with brandy, and making them fine promises in case they should desert the English. Before they had gone a mile half their number had turned back to the cozy shelter of the fort.

Through the dense woods and tangled thickets, now wading in deep snowdrifts, now floundering in half-frozen mud, now stumbling in pitfalls or struggling through broken ice, Washington and his companions made their slow way back to the village of Venango. They had stopped at this place on their way up, and had been royally entertained by young Joncaire who told Washington that the French were going to hold the Ohio Valley in spite of all that the English could do. They were now received a second time, and Joncaire, with the politeness which he had learned from his French kinsfolk, did all that he could to make them comfortable for the night.

In the morning Washington discovered that his horses were really unfit to be taken farther. The hard journey through the wintry woods had utterly broken them down. He therefore left them at Venango with their drivers, and with Gist as his only companion, pushed forward on foot.

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


Of Washington's perilous midwinter journey among the snow-covered hills and frozen streams of western Pennsylvania, the story has often been told, and I need not repeat it here. Suffering from the intense cold, and in constant danger from the Indians, the brave young officer and the sturdy backwoodsman tramped through the desolate forest, their course being toward the south. They passed the forks of the Ohio, and, stumbling through the snow for yet seven miles, safely reached the house of the trader Fraser, who, after leaving Venango, had established himself here, near the banks of the Monongahela. Late in January, Washington was back in Virginia telling Governor Dinwiddie of his adventures and of his reception by Legardeur de St. Pierre.

II. The First Encounter

The governor now saw plainly that if the English expected to hold the Ohio Country they must fight for it. He began at once to prepare for the struggle. "It will be easier to keep the French out at the beginning than to dislodge them after they have gotten in," he said. He "sent messages to the governors of the other English colonies asking them to help him. But these messages were not received with the favor which he expected. The colonists of Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland seemed to care but little who possessed the Ohio Valley. "The whole trouble," said they; "is on account of the Ohio Company. Shall we risk entering into a bloody war, merely to help a few rich Virginians who want to speculate in western lands?" Pennsylvania was ready to protect her own traders in the West, and so was New York; but all dreaded to provoke a border war.

Within a month after Washington's return, a small body of Virginians pushed on to the forks of the Ohio and began to build a stockade there; but hardly had the first logs been put in place when word came that a party of French and Indians were marching upon them from Fort le Boeuf. The officer in command of the Virginians now suddenly remembered that his family needed him at home; and the unfinished stockade was left in charge of a young ensign. When the enemy appeared with eighteen small cannon and a great host of yelling Indians, what could the ensign do but surrender on the best terms he could get?

The prisoners marched out of the stockade, laid down their arms, and were allowed to go back to Virginia unharmed. The French began at once to complete the fort, naming it Fort Duquesne, in honor of the governor of Canada.

While these things were going on, Major George Washington at the head of a hundred and fifty militiamen was hastening to the succor of the little stockade. He heard of its surrender while he was still on the farther side of the mountains. "How dare these Frenchmen attack a fort protected by the flag of Great Britain!" cried Dinwiddie, when the news was carried back to Virginia. "The war has already begun, and it is they who have been the aggressors."

Washington immediately set to work to clear a road through the wilderness and over the mountains. It was to extend from the upper waters of the Potomac to a point on the Monongahela where the Ohio Company had lately set up a storehouse; and it was designed to aid communication between the Virginia settlements and the western frontier, and especially the transit of the militia to the disputed territory. For several days the soldiers were more accustomed to the ax than to the rifle, and soon a long passageway was cleared through the woods. It is worth remembering that this road was the first wagon-way ever made from the Atlantic slope to the borders of the Old Northwest. It was in use for more than sixty years, and a part of its course may still be traced among the mountains.

Major Washington with his raw recruits pushed forward, closely following the road-makers. Before the middle of May he reached a place called Great Meadows, near the Youghiogheny, a tributary of the Monongahela. He there met Christopher Gist, who told him that fifty French soldiers, with perhaps a larger body of Indians, were lurking in the forest not far away. A chief of the Mingoes, who was called Half-King and who still remained friendly to the English, also sent him word that a strong force of the enemy was in the neighborhood. Washington therefore brought all his supplies together in a level, open space, and threw up some slight entrenchments about them. He then cleared away the bushes for some distance around and made what he called "a charming field for an encounter."

He was only twenty-two years old, and was naturally impetuous and anxious for a fight. The next day he went out in search of the enemy. He soon came upon a company of thirty-three Frenchmen who were resting in fancied security in a rocky ravine. The Frenchmen, taken by surprise, sprang to their feet and tried to escape; but the Virginians were too quick for them. Washington ordered his men to fire upon the fleeing enemy. Jumonville, the leader of the party, and nine of his followers fell dead. Twenty-two others were captured, and only one escaped.

Such was the beginning of the long war for the possession of the Ohio Valley, and in the end for the entire Northwest—a war which was to involve the leading nations of Europe, change the geography of our continent, and determine in a large measure the destiny of the American people. It is interesting to remember that the man who directed the first action in the great struggle was George Washington.

III. Fort Necessity

The news of the fight, if fight it can be called, was carried quickly to Fort Duquesne and thence by way of the French posts to Canada. Frenchmen everywhere were horrified and indignant when they heard of this cold-blooded massacre, as they called it. The Chevalier de Villiers, a brother of Jumonville, hastened to Fort Duquesne, having a large following of Indians from all the friendly tribes of Canada and the Northwest. There he found five hundred Frenchmen and many Ohio Indians, all eager to march against the invading Virginians.

A great council was called, and the commandant made a stirring speech to the savage chiefs. "The English nave murdered my children," he said; "my heart is sick; to-morrow I shall send my French soldiers to take revenge. By this belt of wampum, I invite you all to join your French father and help him crush the assassins." The Indians yelled their approval; and Villiers with a motley army of nearly a thousand men was soon on the march.

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


In the meanwhile, Washington's force had been increased to about three hundred men; and hearing that the French were coming, he fell back to Great Meadows and began to strengthen the entrenchments he had made. He called the place Fort Necessity, and determined to wait there for the coming of the enemy. The fort was a flimsy affair, built of logs and earth, and little fitted to withstand any determined attack.

On the 3rd of July the French and Indians under Villiers came up and surrounded the fort. All day long, in the midst of a drizzling rain, there was sharp fighting. The men in the fort defended themselves as well as they could, but the odds were against them. The earthworks were soon nothing but heaps of soft mud, and the riflemen in the ditches stood knee deep in water. Before night the Virginians had lost in killed and wounded about eighty men.

At eight o'clock Villiers sent an officer to propose a parley. Washington was glad of this, for he felt that he could not hold out much longer. He was willing to surrender on the best terms that he could get; and the French, who were none too sure of their Indian helpers, were anxious to end the siege as quickly as possible. Under these circumstances the commanders were not long in coming to an agreement. The fort was to be surrendered, and Villiers was to protect the Virginians from the vengeance of his savage allies. Washington was to give hostages for the safe return of the prisoners he had taken in the former fight, and he with his men were then to be permitted to return home with the honors of war."

It was on the 4th of July, just twenty-two years before the Declaration of Independence was made at Philadelphia, that Major Washington and his Virginia militia-men marched out of Fort Necessity and abandoned the defense of the Ohio Valley. Although repulsed, the young commander did not feel that he had been defeated, and he was determined to find some opportunity to retrieve his losses. As for the British government, it began at once to prepare for the war which was now no longer to be postponed.

IV. Fort Duquesne

After their victory over the Virginia militiamen at Great Meadows, the French and Indians under Villiers returned in triumph to Fort Duquesne.

"This is but the beginning of the contest," said Contrecoeur, the newly arrived commandant of the post. "We hold the key to the Ohio Valley and the West. We must strengthen it, and not be driven out by the English when they return in greater force, as they surely will."

Fortress in the Old Northwest


And he put every Frenchman to work, cutting down trees, hewing logs, digging ditches, building walls, clearing the ground. In a few weeks the little stockade was transformed into a small but sturdy fortress equal in strength to any other on the frontier. It was flanked on two sides by the river and on the other by a wide ditch. Its ramparts were of hewed logs and earthworks of great thickness; and at each of its four corners was a strong bastion with brass cannon peeping out at the loopholes. The only entrance was by a drawbridge and narrow gateway on the landward side. The river side was protected by high palisades of tree trunks set close together, with loopholes so arranged as to cover every approach. All the trees and underbrush within rifle shot of the fort were cleared away, and in the open space some log huts were built for such of the troops as could not be quartered in the barracks inside the walls.

At the edge of the woods the Indians pitched their bark wigwams; and within easy call from the fort eight hundred warriors waited impatiently for the coming of the English. Among these Indians were fighting men from all the large western tribes—Hurons, Ottawas, Pottawattomies, and Chippewas from the region of the lakes, and Shawnees, Delawares, and Mingoes from the valley of the Ohio. The Ottawas were led by a young chief of great daring whose name was Pontiac; while their neighbors, the Chippewas, followed the lead of Charles Langlade, a half-breed woods ranger and trader from Mackinac. In the fort were several French officers who had spent years of service in the wilderness—St. Ange, who was to be the last commandant of Fort Chartres, Beaujeu, a captain of known courage, and others whose names are now forgotten.

The autumn passed, and the French soldiers at Fort Duquesne had nothing to do but to strengthen their defenses and wait. The long, cold winter was followed by an early spring, and the clearings about the fort were planted with corn and pumpkins. The Indians, growing tired of inaction, began to talk of returning to their homes. Contrecoeur and his officers could scarcely persuade them to wait a little longer for the great affray that would surely take place before the ending of the summer.

V. Braddock

At last, in June, some scouts of the Delawares arrived from the Potomac, and brought news that a grand army of real English soldiers commanded by a real English general was marching slowly from the Virginia frontier toward Fort Duquesne. The name of the English general was Edward Braddock, and he had gained renown on more than one battlefield in Europe; but, with all his bravery, he was overbearing, obstinate, and some say brutal. He knew nothing at all about Indian methods of fighting. He had boasted that with his two regiments of regulars he would vanquish any force that the French and Indians could bring against him, and he had refused to listen to Dr. Franklin and Major Washington when they ventured to hint that the Indians had certain ways of fighting that were different from those practiced by Europeans.

The Delaware scouts reported to Contrecoeur that the English soldiers made a fine show, dressed in bright red and moving in a long, solid column through the woods. How easy it would be to skulk in the thickets and, from safe hiding places, pick off these redcoats one at a time like pigeons from a flock! But there were other men in the army more to be feared than Braddock's soldiers from beyond the sea. These were the nine companies of Virginia militiamen, dressed in dull blue or brown, who marched wherever they were allowed, and were plainly looked down upon and despised by the pompous general.

The progress of the army was very slow. In front went a company of woodsmen with their axes, clearing a narrow roadway for the wagons and horses. The grand army followed, with its baggage train and camp equipments, stretching out in a narrow line three or four miles in length. Like a great red snake creeping among the trees, it moved cautiously but confidently onward. At the rate it was going it would not reach the Monongahela before the middle of summer.

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


Slowly as the army marched, the news of its coming caused great alarm at Fort Duquesne. What could a handful of Frenchmen and a thousand wild Indians do to oppose so large a force of trained soldiers? Should they wait for Braddock to besiege the fort, and then trust to fortune for the result? Or should they fall back to Fort le Boeuf and leave the key to the Ohio Valley in the hands of the English? The officers were still debating these questions when, on the 8th of July, the scouts brought word that the army was within less than twenty miles of the fort.

"We must go out and meet it!" cried Captain Beaujeu. "These English know nothing about our way of fighting. We must lay a trap for them."

And then he explained his plan of forming an ambuscade, in some well-chosen spot, and shooting the redcoats as they marched unwittingly into it. The French officers and soldiers applauded, but the Indians hung back and made excuses. "Does our father want to die?" they said; "and does he want to see us slain also?"

That night all the Indian chiefs sat in council and talked over the matter for a long time. In the morning they went into the fort and told the officers that they had decided to return to their hunting grounds in the West.

What!" cried Beaujeu. "Will you leave your father here to die by the hands of the English? I have made up my mind to go out and meet them. Will you let me go alone?"

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


He knew how to touch their savage pride. He came before them dressed as an Indian brave; his words roused their courage and shamed their cowardly fears. Before he had ended his speech every chief was ready to follow him. Kegs of powder and a plentiful supply of bullets were set outside of the gate, and six hundred and thirty five Indians, now wild with excitement, crowded forward and helped themselves to ammunition. Then, hooting and yelling, they marched off into the woods, with Beaujeu and two hundred and fifty Frenchmen and Canadians. The commandant, Contrecoeur, with a few French soldiers and some Indians, remained in the fort.

At about the middle of the afternoon there came out of the woods a runner, all breathless and covered with dust and blood. And when he was brought before Contrecoeur he told a story which at once changed all dread into joy. He said that at a spot about seven miles from the fort, and near the right bank of the Monongahela, the English had fallen into the ambush, which Beaujeu had set for them, and that they had been terribly defeated.

The details of the bloody battle were learned afterward. As Braddock and his army were moving through a narrow pass in the forest, they were suddenly fired upon by unseen foes lying hidden among the trees and in the tangled thickets. They could not return the fire, because no foe could be seen. The Virginia militiamen intrenched themselves behind logs and rocks and fought like very Indians. But the red-coated regulars, unused to this manner of warfare, huddled together like frightened sheep and were shot down without mercy. Braddock dashed hither and thither, vainly trying to rally his troops. Four horses were shot under him, and then he himself was mortally wounded. The young major from Virginia, George Washington, was the most conspicuous figure on the field of carnage. He was the mark for more than one Indian rifle, his coat was pierced with bullets, and yet, strange to say, he was unhurt.

After the uneven fight had been kept up for nearly three hours, such of the English soldiers as were still alive fled in wild panic across the river and were followed by the Virginians. The French, having lost their leader Beaujeu, made no attempt to pursue them, but hastened back to the fort. The Indians, eager for plunder and the scalps of the dead and dying, tarried on the field of battle and made no effort to prevent the escape of their foes.

At about sunset they began to return in straggling bands to the fort. They carried with them about a dozen prisoners, whom they tortured and burned to death that same night on the bank of the Allegheny within plain sight of Fort Duquesne.



Of nearly fifteen hundred officers and men who had marched through the mountains with Braddock, only four hundred and fifty returned unharmed to Virginia. The attempt to win the Northwest by direct seizure was given up. The remainder of the conflict was to be carried on in places far remote from the territory in dispute. The war was to involve other questions and issues, and in the end it would lead to results more far reaching and decisive than either French or English could have foreseen.

It is not for us to follow the progress of that war with its varying fortunes. Now and then the French seemed to gain some advantage, but in truth it was a losing game to them from the beginning. Three years after Braddock's memorable defeat another body of British soldiers and Virginia regulars marched over the Alleghanies to attempt the conquest of the key to the Ohio Valley. The expedition was conducted by General Forbes, a British officer of known ability and courage; and he was supported by Colonel Bouquet of the English army and by Colonel George Washington in command of two thousand Virginians. The army was four months in marching from Philadelphia to the Monongahela.

At length, after passing the field where the bones of Braddock's men still lay unburied, it arrived within sight of Fort Duquesne late in November. The blockhouses and the stockade were in ruins. They had been blown up and abandoned by the French garrison who, having been deserted by their Indian allies, had fled in boats down the Ohio. Washington and his men took possession of the place and began to rebuild the works; and General Forbes renamed the post, calling it Fort Pitt in honor of Sir William Pitt who had planned the campaign. The valley of the Ohio was at last in the grasp of the English.