The twenty-one-year-old phenom: George Washington
"There was no way for getting over [the Allegheny River] but on a Raft, which we set about, with but one poor Hatchet...after a whole day's work. Half Way over, we were jammed in the Ice in such a Manner that we expected every moment our Raft to sink...the Rapidity of the stream threw it with so much violence that it jerked me out into ten Feet Water, but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the Raft Logs."
—The Journal of Major George Washington, 1754.
So much has been written about George Washington regarding his character and steadfastness during the American Revolution, and his full support of the Constitution of 1787, that his young manhood is often forgotten. On this February 22, the anniversary of his birth, think of what he did in 1753, age twenty-one, on a long and arduous 1,000-mile journey through the wilderness from Williamsburg, Virginia all the way to Waterford, Pennsylvania, just south of Lake Erie, to what was known then as the French-controlled Fort Le Boeuf.
Anything past the Blue Ridge Mountains that run north and south between the original thirteen British colonies and the Atlantic Ocean was wilderness in the 1750s, and very dangerous to those who ventured into the area. People were routinely scalped and left to be eaten by wild hogs. The French, British, and Spanish competed for part of North America at this time, but the crucial Ohio Valley was of especial interest to the French and the British.
In a line of four forts from Lake Erie down what was called French Creek, to the Allegheny River, to the Forks of the Ohio where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River split (current-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the French took their stand against the British. They were also heavily fortified at New Orleans and envisioned a French trade route from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and then to the Atlantic.
So dangerous was this wilderness that one of the French forts, later converted by the British to Fort Venango, was invaded by the Seneca in 1763. All were killed, and the fort's leader, Lt. Francis Gordon, was tortured and then burned to death on a spit over the embers of what was left.
In this environment, George Washington, a young major in the Virginia militia, volunteered to deliver a letter from the British lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, to the French commandant at Ft. Le Boeuf, demanding that the French evacuate the Ohio territory. He was to return with the French reply.
Washington left Williamsburg, Virginia on October 31, 1753; picked up Native American and French interpreters, two baggage handlers, a guide, and two Traders; and then crossed the Allegheny mountains from Cumberland, Maryland (then called Wills Creek) in late November. "[E]xcessive Rains and vast Quantities of Snow... had fallen," he tells us.
From "civilized" Williamsburg on the East Coast through two ridges of mountains, swamps, soggy marsh and mires, heavy forest, major rivers, and tributaries, the party went into the Indian villages of western Pennsylvania. Washington was instructed to counsel with the Six Nations living there and to ascertain the strength of the French presence and the loyalty of the tribes to French ambitions.
Image: George Washington as a young surveyor by Henry Hintermeister, painted in 1948. Public domain.
Within the Indian trade center, Loggs-town, Washington explained his mission, and various sachems and other warriors agreed to escort him to Ft. Le Boeuf, six full days away. It was unclear where loyalties really lay for these wily leaders — between the British and the French — and, all of a sudden, a twenty-one-year-old was in the middle of both a fact-finding and a diplomatic mission of some complexity and danger. As he would do the rest of his life in difficult circumstances, he kept his intelligence, his cool, and his reserve.
I had Orders to make all possible Dispatch. ... He [a Seneca called Half-King] was not well pleased that I should go before the Time he [Half-King] had appointed. ... As I found it was impossible to get off without affronting ... I consented to stay. ... [T]he French had called all the Mingos, Delawares, etc together and told them they intended to be Masters of the Ohio. ... When they [the Native Americans accompanying Washington] came in [to Ft. Le Boeuf] they were applied Liquor so fast that they were soon render'd incapable of the Business they came about. ... As I found Plots to prevent [his escorts] returning with me I endeavour'd all that lay in my Power to frustrate their schemes. ... The Commandant was exerting every Artifice that he could invent to set our own Indians at Variance with us.
So here he is, delivering a letter from his British superior to a French commander who is in no way inclined to be pleased with its contents, in the escort of tribesmen who are being bribed to let him make the dangerous return journey without protection. Washington left with only one escort, whom he soon had to abandon with all others in the party because of the weather. Then, with his one guide, Christopher Gist; a backpack; and a gun, the two proceeded to walk. French Indians lay in wait in the thick forest to assassinate them.
What an adventure. Trekking all night and then a day to avoid being killed, the two finally reached the dangerous and ice-filled Allegheny River and built their raft to try to cross. Without Christopher Gist hauling him out of the water, George Washington would have drowned. "The cold was so extremely severe, that [Gist] had all his Fingers, and some of his Toes frozen." Finally making it to a Trader's cabin near Pittsburgh, the pair at last reached safety.
George Washington had survived a very dangerous assignment by Lt. Governor Dinwiddie. He still had the presence of mind, before leaving the Forks of the Ohio for home, to visit Queen Alliquippa of the Seneca. "[She] expressed great concern that we passed her in going to the Fort. I made her a present of a Matchcoat and a Bottle of Rum, which later was thought the better Present of the two." His journal of this trip to the Ohio territory became widely printed and launched an enduring fame centered on courage, dignity, duty, savvy, and good judgment. All this at age twenty-one.
The great chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, wrote this about Washington, 1838:
Among the many valuable traits in the character of Washington, was that of unyielding firmness. ... [H]e did not appear to despair ... a serene unembarrassed countenance ... inspiring others with confidence ... no distress could weaken their affection nor impair the respect and veneration in which they held him ... to this perfect self-possession ... is America, in a great degree, indebted for her independence.
All Americans, indebted forever, to this great man.