The following article is from a series for a local newspaper done by one of the site directors of the Association. It is not a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the War, but is concerned mainly with causes related to the Virginia frontier.

Prelude to the
French and Indian War

Part 2: Scheming
Developers and Traders


The 1752 attack on the Indian town of Pickawillany and the boiling of Old Briton, the Indian chief, was a gruesome assertion of power by the French, but it was not enough. There was too much at stake for the British to return across the mountains and for their Indian supporters to ally with the French.

As the British became more populated to the east of the mountains and as tobacco cultivation depleted the tidewater soil and as immigrants continued to stream to America, several efforts arose to develop lands west of the mountain barrier. Carlisle.jpgIn 1749 a group of influential Virginians and several London merchants had formed the Ohio Company and received a grant for 200,00 acres on the Ohio River far across the mountains with provision for an additional 300,000 if they built a fort and brought settlers. This group included some of the richest and most powerful men in the Colony of Virginia including Thomas Lee (ancestor of Light Horse Harry Lee and Robert E. Lee), George Mason of Gunston Hall, John Carlyle (a rich merchant of Alexandria, Virginia), John Mercer and Lawrence Washington, George’s older half-brother. Later the Company would include Robert Dinwiddie, Lt. Governor of Virginia from November 1751 to January 1758. Although he was not of the tidewater gentry, Thomas Cresap, a prosperous frontier merchant and trader living at Oldtown, Maryland, was the member who was the frontier contact for the company. Several London merchants served as members looking out for the company’s interests at Whitehall and before the Crown.

The Ohio Company was not the only group interested in westward expansion. In the same year the Ohio Company got its royal charter, Virginia granted 800,000 acres to the Loyal Company. John Robinson, president of the colony’s council was an officer of that company.

There was little actual knowledge of the Ohio area, so the Ohio Company commissioned Christopher Gist, a frontiersman and surveyor, to explore the region and seek out the most fertile land. Gist had an interesting background and was then living out west on the Yadkin River in North Carolina. He made two extensive journeys for the Ohio Company to the Ohio River area. Like the two explorers America sent to the Pacific over a century later, Gist collected samples of the flora and fauna and kept a journal of his trip.


Gist left on his first trip from Thomas Cresap’s at Oldtown, Maryland, on Wednesday Oct. 31, 1750. On this trip he crossed the Juniatta River, a large branch of the Susquehannah, and visited the following places: Loylhannan (later site of Ft. Ligonier), Logstown, Muskingum, the site of present Cincinnati at the little and big Miamee Rivers (“fine rich level land well timbered with large Walnut, Ash, Sugar Trees, Cherry Trees… covered with wile Rye, blue Grass and Clover, and abounds with Turkeys, Deer, Elks, and most sorts of game particularly Buffaloes…”), and the falls of the Ohio (at present Louisville, KY). Finally he traveled to his home on the Yadkin River in North Carolina before returning by way of the site of present Roanoke, Virginia in May of 1751.

On his second trip in 1752 he traveled down the south side of the Ohio River from the Forks (present Pittsburgh) to the Little and Great Kanawha Rivers. Gist kept detailed notes on the country, so the Ohio Company learned a great deal about the area and knew its suitability for settlement. On the trips Gist spoke with many Indians assuring them of the British intention to trade with them and treat them fairly. This diplomacy was a shield for the Company’s intention of settling Indian lands.

It is interesting that Gist met several other frontiersmen engaged in both diplomacy and trade including George Croghan, Andrew Montour, Hugh Crawford, Barny Curran, Thomas Burney . Some of these men had established trading posts as far as Pickawillany and present Cincinnati, Ohio. trader.jpgMost of these men were Pennsylvania traders seeking to better their own business with the Native Americans although several would later find themselves in the employ of Virginia. Gist also met some Indians who would later be of help. He met Nemacolin who would help lay out Nemacolin’s Trail from Cumberland to the west.

At one point on his first trip Gist visited White Woman’s Creek; it was named for a white woman who had been captured forty years before from New England when she was ten years old. This seeming “wilderness” was not without many, varied British influences. But there was a French presence also. Most ominously, Gist also learned the French had captured several British traders and confiscated their merchandise.

After his return, the Ohio Company gave Gist orders to begin construction of a road from Cumberland to the Forks of the Ohio. With the help of the Indian scout, Nemacolin, Gist began the road that would eventually lead by the location Gist had planned for his own settlement near present Connelsville.

In June of 1752 a major conference was held by Virginia with the Native Americans. The Logstown Conference was devised as a way of getting the Indians to reassert having at Lancaster in 1744 given the British the right to settle on the southern bank of the Ohio River. The Conference was attended by the Virginia representatives, Joshua Fry, Lunsford Lomax and Col. James Patton. Other whites present were Christopher Gist, William Trent, Conrad Wiser, George Croghan, Thomas McKee, and Michael Teaffe. Andrew Montour, a half-breed with French ancestry, was the interpreter. Again we see many men with strong commercial interests. The Indians were eventually persuaded to sign an agreement, but they were still not interested in having white settlers west of the Alleghanies on the south bank of the Ohio River. The Viginians would try again to get more whole-hearted agreement from the Indians at a conference in Winchester in 1753.

1753 would turn out to be a very active and important year in the politics of the western frontier. We must stress that although we detail here mostly the activities in the Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio River areas, there were other provocations in North America. England and France were pushing the limits of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which guided British-French relations in North America. The problems in Acadian Nova Scotia (eastern Canada) were heating up as Frenchmen in the British controlled area pushed for independence. Also, the French were adamant in tying New Canada to the Illinois country and French Louisiana. When the new Governor of Canada arrived in Quebec in 1753 he immediately set about a plan to build a chain of forts from the eastern great lakes (Lake Erie) through the Ohio River area to the Mississippi River. In August, 1753 Chevalier de Marin was sent to complete Fort Presque Isle on Lake Erie and to build a road across the portage to French Creek, a tributary of the Ohio; there he would begin to construct Fort Le Boeuf.

The Indians were aggressively pursuing their own plans. At the end of August, 1753, Half King and group of Indians made a special diplomatic trip to tell the French to leave the Ohio region. Because of this trip the Half King could not be present at the conference in Winchester, Virginia, where the British would try to confirm the Indians’ permission for a British fort and trading post at the Forks of the Ohio River.

Virginia gathered an impressive delegation for the Winchester Conference in September, 1753. It included Lord Fairfax, Col. William Fairfax, Capt. William Trent, George Croghan, Fairfax.jpgChristopher Gist, John Carlyle, interpreter Andrew Montour, Col. James Wood of Winchester, Capt. Thomas Bryan Martin (nephew and agent for Lord Fairfax), Capt. William Gilpin and William Cocke. Gov. Dinwiddie did not appear because Half King was not able to come due to his trip to the French. On the other side was the chief, Monacatoocha (Scarroyadda), sachems Shingis, Neuchyconer, Tomenebuck, Big Kettle, Raccoon and the warrior, Turtle, and about 90 other Indians including women and children. The Virginians did get the Indians to agree to have the colony build a stronghouse or storehouse at the Forks of the Ohio to supply the Indians with trade goods and deter the French with a show of force. However, the Virginians failed to get permission for settlements around the fort; the Indians did not want white settlers moving beyond the mountains.

The most far-reaching event of the month would take several weeks to make it across the Atlantic to effect the players in this drama. In a complex chain of political maneuverings the British policy of trying to keep out of a costly war with France was changing as London realized the significance of the French moves in America. This was partly because of the Duke of Cumberland’s hardline approach as his perspective gained greater priority. On August 28, 1753, a letter was signed in London giving instructions to Virginia Governor Dinwiddie and other colonial governors that, if necessary, they were to repel force with force and evict the French from British domains.

It took until October for the letter to make its way to the desk of Gov. Dinwiddie in Williamsburg.   It would now be up to the aggressive Scotsman to find a way to implement the letter and confront the French.   It was just the kind of moment in history for which someone special was waiting.   Stay tuned for the story of a young Virginia officer’s trip to the Ohio country.


For further reading:

Christopher Gist’s Journal gists-j.jpgwith Historical, Geographical and Ethnological Notes and Biographies of his Contemporaries, by William M. Darlington; a facsimile reprint by Heritage Books, Bowie, Maryland, 2002 [The biographies, notes and appendix are as valuable as the journal itself.]

George Croghan and the Westward Movement, 1741-1782 by Albert T. Volwiler; The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, 1926. Reprint available from Wennawoods Publishing:

William Trent and the West by Swell E. Slick; Archives Publishing Company of Pennsylvania, Inc., Harrisburg, PA, 1947

Forgotten Heroes of the Maryland Frontier: Christopher Gist, Evan Shelby, Jr., Thomas Cresap by Allan Powell; Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, 2001

Go to Part III


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© 2003 Charles C. Hall
updated: July 6, 2003-11/8/12