Monday, May 28, 2012

A Skirmish that Set the World on Fire 258 Years Ago Today

Jumonville Glen is in a remote corner of southwestern Pennsylvania, among the outcroppings of Chestnut Ridge, covered by a forest of oak and maple. The skirmish there on May 28, 1754, led to the beginning of the French and Indian War, which extended into the Seven Years War in Europe, and ultimately the American Revolution.  It was the first battle test of a twenty-two year old lieutenant named George Washington.

In 1754, Jumonville Glen was in the important North American region, west of the Allegheny Mountains and south of the Great Lakes, into which the British and French wanted to expand. Both countries claimed this area and it was considered to be of great importance due to its location, both for settlement and trade. The third great power claiming the area was the Iroquois League, an alliance of six nations (the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora). 

The British traded in the area early in the 1740s, when they established a trading post at the forks of the rivers, currently Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1745 to lay further claim to this area, the British organized the Ohio Company, a for-profit venture of land speculators. This alarmed the French, who wanted to protect their trading potential and also to ultimately connect their territories of Canada and Louisiana. In the early 1750s the French began expanding south by constructing a series of forts south of Lake Erie.  

In the autumn of 1753, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, sent George Washington into the area to determine the strength and intentions of the French forces, and to request that the French commander, Saint-Pierre, abandon the area. Washington was politely told at Fort Le Boeuf that the request would have to be sent on to a higher authority. He left there in December and returned to Williamsburg, Virginia by January 1754. On his way back, he noted that the river fork location would be a good for a fort, an opinion that he later shared with Dinwiddie.

By February 1754, Dinwiddie sent Virginians to establish the first fort in the area, Fort Prince George, at the river fork location. He again dispatched Washington, this time to reinforce the construction crew. The fort survived under British command only until April, when a large French contingent forced the British to surrender. The French replaced it with Fort Duquesne. Washington, who had not yet arrived, received new orders to begin construction of a road going from Wills Creek (Cumberland, MD) into the frontier.

By May, Washington had progressed as far as a wide, marshy clearing he called the Great Meadows (nearby current Farmington, Pennsylvania). His commander, Joshua Fry, died on May 25 where upon Washington took command of the expedition. Two days later, he was alerted that there was a French scouting party of 35 soldiers nearby. In the middle of the night, aided by Tanacharison, an Indian allied with the British, he found the French contingent camped at Jumonville Glen.

There are two sides to every battle story and the history of the incident at Jumonville Glen is controversial. The French indicated that they were on their way east to warn Washington to not encroach into their territory, turning the table on what he had done just a year before. They recorded that the British ambushed their diplomatic delegation. The British recorded that they were fired upon and returned fire. Both sides agree that the skirmish lasted only about 15 minutes after which Washington’s men subdued the French. After the French’s surrender, the French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville was killed by Tanacharison, who took his scalp. Nine others of the French contingent were scalped before Washington could intercede.  

Washington returned to the Great Meadows where he constructed a fort, Fort Necessity, and awaited retaliation from the French. By July 1, a series of protective mounds and trenches were built around the fort. On July 3, 1754, the French led by Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville's half-brother, surrounded the fort. After fighting all day, they sent word to Washington that they would accept surrender. Being outnumbered, hampered by rain, and defending a hopeless location, Washington surrendered. In the surrender agreement, since there had not been a declaration of war, he was permitted to withdraw with his life and his troops back to Cumberland. However, he additionally took responsibility for the assassination of Jumonville. Later, Washington indicated that this admission was due to the lack of an interpreter and that he did not fully understand the language of what he was signing. After his surrender at Fort Necessity, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his family plantation in Virginia.

The French and Indian War had begun.