Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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During the 1740s, the early British colonists enjoyed successful trade with the native people along the Ohio River, especially the Iroquois Tribe.  They clearly saw this river valley as the gateway to the West, so they formed the Ohio Company and obtained land grants for more than a half-million acres in what is now the State of Pennsylvania.  However, the French Government’s interest in this area was also beginning to intensify because they deemed the Ohio River as important for their trade routes between Canada and the French-held Port of New Orleans.  England and France had engaged each other in battles in Europe for centuries.  Now that both monarchies had interests in the New World, the competition for dominance was beginning to escalate between the two regimes.  By the early 1750s, the French took the initiative and sent two-thousand French soldiers to build a series of strategically located forts along the Ohio Valley.

The British Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, recognized George Washington’s potential and enlisted him in the British Army as a Lt. Colonel.  He sent the 21-year-old on his first commission, which was to deliver a letter of protest to the French officer in charge of the recently built Fort Le Boeuf, near the Ohio River.  Dinwiddie’s letter stated, “By what authority do you presume to make encroachments on His Majesty’s Lands on the Ohio?”  It continued, “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.  He then served tea to the polite, but serious, Lt. Colonel Washington before he departed for Virginia.

Informed that the French refused to leave, Dinwiddie ordered Captain William Trent to raise a militia of thirty-six men to build a British fort near the Ohio River.  Washington was later ordered to raise another militia of four hundred men, including some Iroquois tribesmen, to take command of the all-important forks of the Ohio River.  Washington’s militia was surprised to meet up with Captain Trent and his men making a hasty retreat back to Williamsburg after they had been soundly routed by French troops.  Washington decided to proceed to engage the French.

Washington’s troops came upon a small contingent of French scouts and surrounded them.  After a few short rounds of gunfire were exchanged, the French surrendered.  When the French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville approached Washington to work out the customary terms of surrender, the head of the Iroquois tribe, named Half-King, approached Jumonville saying, “Thou are not yet dead!”  To Washington’s shock, Half-King then proceeded to split the French commander’s head open with his tomahawk.  What would have been an unimportant skirmish became an act of retaliation when Jumonville’s half-brother, Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, swore to return with a sizable army to defend Jumonville’s death. 

Having been on the march for many months, Washington’s militia was beginning to suffer from a shortage of food and exhaustion.  A number of their horses had died, leaving the men to carry their supplies on their backs.  Washington’s advance guard reported seeing Villiers and his promised French force gaining ground on them.  Washington directed his men to hastily build a rudimentary fort, which he called Fort Necessity, for protection against the approaching army.  Since there wasn’t time to build a substantial structure, after a few days of repeated attacks, their fort fell to the French army.  Consequently, Captain Villiers holds a place in history as the only military commander to force George Washington to surrender.  However, what followed was even worse.  De Villiers wrote a surrender document on the spot, which he made Washington sign before letting them return to Virginia.  Of course, the document was written in French, and only one of Washington’s men spoke limited French.  As the soldier attempted to read the terms of the rain-soaked document aloud to Washington, he did not understand that it personally charged Washington with the assassination of Ensign Jumonville!  This assassination charge was one of the sparks that ignited the French and Indian War.

By July of 1754, after having completed his arduous nine-hundred-mile journey to the Ohio Valley, crossing the Allegheny Mountains twice in winter, Washington returned to Williamsburg.  Stressing the importance of defending this western frontier against French expansion, Washington presented Governor Dinwiddie with what is now considered a historic document entitled, The Journal of Major George Washington.  Impressed with the accuracy of Washington’s descriptions and carefully drawn maps, Dinwiddie immediately had the document printed and distributed to British officers.

At this time, Dinwiddie decided to reorganize his militias into separate companies, each to be led by a captain.  This would have meant a demotion for Major Washington, which did not sit well with him so he resigned from his commission stating, “I think the disparity between the present offer [from Major to Captain] … too great to expect any real satisfaction.”  Washington then returned to Mount Vernon in October of 1754 and resumed his life as a private citizen and farmer.

    Ron Chernow, Washington, A Life (Penguin Random House, 1998);