I recently described our road trip into the western Maryland mountains over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. There is still more to that story, and this time around I am putting on my historian’s cap. The final day of our visit began with bright and sunny skies and it looked like our first taste of winter was going to be short lived as the temperatures began to climb above the freezing mark and the winds continued to buffet the Appalachian Plateau; the fields that were white the previous day were turning green again. After a country breakfast along the banks of the Casselman River, we set off along U.S. Route 40 to follow the route that George Washington and General Edward Braddock followed over 250 years earlier during the waning years of colonial America. What happened here were the earliest chapters of what would become a monumental clash between two European empires that would eventually spread across the globe and involve all the major Europeans states in a world war. We know this conflict as the French and Indian War, which began in 1754, but in fact, this conflict in North America provided the opening salvos in what would become the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
A few miles west of Grantsville, Route 40 and the National Road turn toward the northwest and traverse the ridges and valleys of the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. There are a few small towns here, but this is mostly rural country. Just a couple miles past the village of Farmington we came to Fort Necessity where the first major confrontation of the French and Indian War was fought in July 1754. This expanse of the Appalachian Plateau, which prior to the mid 18th century was the bastion of trappers and mountain men - mostly French - and Native American woodland tribes, was just one region of North America where the colonial British and French spheres of influence overlapped. Great Britain and Colonial Virginia found these new lands alluring and potentially rich, and they believed this territory rightfully belonged to them. France, on the other hand, saw it as a key link between its holdings in what is now eastern Canada, and its Louisiana territory which extended from the Gulf Coast to the western Great Lakes. The British and the French also sought advantage over trade with the indigenous Native American tribes, predominantly the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, inhabiting this region.
Colonial Virginia interests established the Ohio Company in 1749 to facilitate the settlement of these western lands by surveying and constructing a road from Virginia, across the Appalachian Mountains, to the Forks of the Ohio where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River joined to form the Ohio River. At the same time the French were attempting to consolidate their control over this strategic area by building forts and outpost along the rivers. The Iroquois, on the other hand, traded with both while trying to stem the tide of British and French encroachment. Thomas Cresap, a Marylander who lived near the confluence of the South Branch with the main stem of the Potomac River, was well acquainted with the lands west of the Appalachians, and he and a young Virginian by the name of George Washington, conducted the survey up to Wills Creek, the site of the present-day city of Cumberland, Maryland, while Christopher Gist surveyed the old Amerindian trail known as the Nemocolin Path west of Wills Creek to Red Stone Creek, where it flows into the Monongahela River, in southwestern Pennsylvania.
By 1753 the French had fortified the Forks of the Ohio, mostly with militia from New France (Canada) and the Louisiana territory along with a few French regulars, while pressuring British settlers to leave. That autumn Colonial Virginia sent a delegation lead by George Washington and guided by Gist into the French-held region beyond the Allegheny Mountains to strengthen the British claim by constructing a fort near the Forks of the Ohio while asking the French to leave. They also met with the Seneca chief Tanaghrisson to gain the support of the Iroquois Confederacy for the British claim. The French rebuffed this appeal in December 1753 and instead constructed Fort Duquesne at the Forks (at the site of the present day city of Pittsburgh). Washington returned to Williamsburg to make his report.
The French continued to consolidate their control of the lands west of the Allegheny Mountains with a series of fortifications and outposts. The following spring the colonial governor of Virginia appointed George Washington, then only 22 years of age, to command a small contingent of the colonial militia, and they set off from Alexandria in April 1754 with 132 men to cut a road through a hundred miles of wilderness from Wills Creek to the Monongahela River and there construct a fortification to counter the French presence at Fort Duquesne. In late May, Washington and his men pushed beyond the Youghiogeny along the Nemacolin Path and arrived in an area then referred to as Great Meadows, lying in a valley between Chestnut and Laurel ridges, in the vicinity of present-day Farmington, Pennsylvania and 50 miles from Fort Duquesne. It was here Washington met again with Tanagharisson who detested the French and who pledged his and his followers’ continuing loyalty to the British.
At Great Meadows Washington also learned from Native American scouts that a French patrol sent to confront the British intruders was located seven miles to the northwest. On May 28, Washington led forty men along with Tanaghrisson and a band of Native Americans against the French patrol. There remains to this day some debate as to who fired the first shot, but after a short yet intense skirmish, 10 French soldiers lay dead, including their commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, who was killed by Tanagharisson. An additional 21 Frenchmen were taken prisoner and sent back to Wills Creek. Washington and his men returned to Great Meadows having lost only one man in the fray, and they set about constructing a palisaded stockade roughly 50 feet in diameter which they christened Fort Necessity . . . necessary because Washington knew the French retaliation would be swift and deadly.
Reinforcements of Virginia militia and British regulars from South Carolina arrived at Wills Creek, bringing British troop levels up to 400 men, and on June 8, 1754 and they began to move westward toward Great Meadows to support Washington. In the meantime, his militia continued to cut their road toward the Monongahela while using Tanaghrisson in an attempt to cultivate their own Native American allies in the face of the French threat. By late June, Washington learned that a sizeable French force with Native American support and commanded by François Coulon de Villiers, the late Jumonville’s brother, was advancing on the British position at Great Meadows. He assembled his troops at Fort Necessity to prepare for its defense.
The French expeditionary force from Fort Duquesne numbered almost 700 strong and outnumbered Washington by nearly two to one. It arrived in the vicinity of Great Meadows on the morning of July 3 and both sides prepared for battle. Attempts by Washington to draw the French into a confrontation on open ground failed, and unable halt the French frontal assault from the surrounding woods, Washington ordered his men to retreat to the stockade and the defensive trenches surrounding it. De Villiers laid siege to Fort Necessity for the rest of the day and into the night as a heavy rain fell. British casualties mounted as the trenches flooded and conditions inside the stockade became untenable. As darkness fell, a quarter of the British troops laid dead or wounded and de Villiers invited Washington to send a emissary to his camp to discuss a cease fire and surrender; a rather ironic situation considering that a state of war did not yet exist between their two countries. The British were forced to capitulate, abandoning their position and returning from whence they came while promising they would remain east of the Allegheny Mountains for at least a year. French prisoners taken during the skirmish in late May were released. Washington also had to take personal responsibility for the "assassination" of Jumonville although this was not his clear understanding when he signed the terms of surrender (a fact that would haunt him for many years). The British quit Fort Necessity the following day, July 4, 1754, and began their five day march back to Wills Creek. The French burned the stockade before returning to Fort Duquesne. After reporting to Williamsburg, Washington returned to his newly-acquired farm at Mount Vernon. As a result of this early confrontation at Great Meadows, there was no effective British presence west of the Allegheny Mountains.
But our story does not end here. After Washington’s retreat, colonial settlers in the area were defenseless against French and Native American raiding parties and many began to move east. A year after the defeat at Great Meadows, and in the midst of ever growing tension between two great colonial empires in North America and elsewhere, the British would return to the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland and Pennsylvania in force to capture Fort Duquesne and drive the French out once and for all.
NEXT: Along the Edge of Two Empires: A Road Trip Into the Past - Part 2
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