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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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George Washington at Fort Necessity - Part III 
By Judy Leithe

As a teenager, George Washington spent as much time as possible with Lawrence, his elder step-brother and mentor.  Lawrence was well educated, served in the British military in wartime, had distinguished himself in Virginia society, and lived with his wife, Anne Fairfax, on the Mount Vernon plantation.  He was everything George aspired to be.

Ever intent on self-improvement, young George studied fencing, read numerous books on military strategy, and studied geometry.  Lawrence’s father-in-law, Colonel William Fairfax, who had George accompany him on many forages into the Virginia wilderness, taught him the trade of land surveillance, as well as the value of owning land.  (At his death, George owned 60,000 acres of land in Virginia.)  In 1752, Virginia’s Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie, also took an interest in George, then 20 years old, and made him Virginia adjutant with the title of Lt. Colonel.

In the 1740’s, the early British colonists had enjoyed successful trade with the native people, especially the Iroquois Tribe, along the Ohio River, and saw this river valley as the gateway to the West.  They formed the Ohio Company and obtained land grants of more than a half-million acres in the Ohio Valley (now Pennsylvania).  However, the French Government’s interest in this area was also intensifying. They saw the Ohio River as strategically important for their trade routes between Canada, the Mississippi River, and the French-held Port of New Orleans.  In 1753, 2000 French and Canadian soldiers were commissioned to build a series of forts to control the Ohio Valley.

Upon learning of French intent to commandeer this valuable land, Governor Dinwiddie gave Lt. Colonel George Washington his first commission, that of delivering a letter to the French army’s Fort Le Boeuf, stating, “By what authority do you presume to make encroachments on his Majesty’s Lands on the Ohio?” “… You are required to peaceably depart, & not persist in such unlawful Proceedings.”  Not surprisingly, the Commandant of the French Forces, Jaques Le Gardeur, sieur de Sainte-Pierre, declined the invitation.

Informed of the French refusal to leave, Governor Dinwiddie told Washington to raise a militia to hold the forks of the Ohio.  At the same time, he ordered Captain William Trent to raise a small force to build a British fort on the Ohio River.  In the meantime, the French added 800 Canadian troops to defend their forts, and sent 500 men to the British fort where they easily routed Trent’s 36-man contingent.  Washington’s militia, including some Iroquois tribesmen, met up with Trent and his men as they were retreating back to Williamsburg, Washington decided to proceed on to engage the French.

They came upon what turned out to be a small contingent of French scouts, surrounded them and, after a few short rounds of gunfire, the French surrendered.  When the French-Canadian Commander, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville approached Washington to work out the customary terms of surrender, the head of the Iroquois Tribe, Half-King, approached saying to de Jumonville, “Thou are not yet dead!” He then split the commander’s head open with his tomahawk.  There are a few accounts of this story, but there is no doubt about Jumonville’s demise.  His half-brother, Captain Louis Coulon de Villeirs’ sought revenge for de Jumonville’s death.

Washington’s militia was badly outnumbered, and the exhausted troupes were half-starved.  A number of their horses had died, leaving the men to carry their supplies on their backs.  It became clear to Washington that they needed to hastily build a fort to hold off the French troops.   The rudimentary Fort Necessity was not sufficient to fend off the French troops.  Consequently,  Captain de Villeirs holds a place in history as the only military commander to force George Washington to surrender.  But what followed was even worse.  de Villiers had Washington sign a surrender document, which de Villiers wrote on site.  The document was in French, and only one of Washington’s men could speak limited French.  As he attempted to read the terms of the document aloud to Washington, he did not understand that it charged Washington, personally, with the assassination of Commander de Jumonville.  This assassination charge was one of the sparks that ignited the seven-year long French and Indian War.

 Next week, Major George Washington.