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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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George Washington at Fort Necessity 
By Judy Leithe

During the 1740s, the early British colonists had 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 of 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 intensifying as 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 been in and out of wars in Europe for years, and competition for dominance of the New World was beginning to heat up. By the early 1750s, the French took the initiative to send two-thousand French soldiers to build a series of strategically located forts in the Ohio Valley.

Governor Robert Dinwiddie, continued to take an interest in young George Washington, and gave him the title of Lt. Colonel. He then sent the twenty-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, and then served tea to the polite, but serious, Lt. Colonel Washington before he headed back to 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 to take command of the all-important forks of the Ohio River. Washington’s militia, including some Iroquois tribesmen, were surprised to meet up with Trent and his men as they were retreating back to Williamsburg, having been soundly routed by five-hundred French troops. Washington decided to proceed on to engage the French.

When Washington’s troops came upon a smaller contingent of French scouts, they 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, named Half-King, approached saying to de Jumonville, “Thou are not yet dead!” To Washington’s shock, Half-King then proceeded to split the French commander’s head open with his tomahawk. There are a few accounts of this story, but there is no doubt about de Jumonville’s demise. There was also no doubt that de Jumonville’s half-brother, Captain Louis Coulon de Villeirs, would return with a sizable army to seek revenge for de Jumonville’s death.

Washington’s militia were beginning to suffer from a shortage of food on their long journey. A number of their horses had died, leaving the men to carry many of their supplies on their backs. Washington’s advance guard reported seeing de Villeirs, with his promised French force, gaining ground on them, so Washington directed his men to hastily build a rudimentary fort, 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 de Villeirs 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 only limited French. As he attempted to read the terms of the document aloud to Washington, he did not understand that it personally charged Washington with the assassination of Commander de Jumonville! This assassination charge was one of the sparks that ignited the French and Indian War.

By July of 1754, Washington, now at the rank of Major, had returned to Williamsburg after his arduous nine-hundred-mile journey to the Ohio Valley, crossing the Allegheny Mountains twice in winter. Stressing the importance of defending this western frontier against French expansion, Washington presented Governor Dinwiddie with what is now considered an 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.

However, Dinwiddie decided to reorganize his militias into separate companies, each to be led by a Captain, which would have meant a demotion for Washington. This did not sit well with him, so Washington resigned his commission as Major, 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);