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.


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French and Indian War

Part 4: The Spark that Sets
the World Ablaze


The journal that Major Washington wrote for Gov. Dinwiddie in January 1754 about his trip to deliver the Governor’s letter would bring the young Adjutant greater fame than he could imagine. It was published in the colonies and in London for a public eager for news about British-French relations in North America. But the events that would unfold in the aftermath of this diplomatic mission to the French at Ft. LeBoeuf would bring Washington even greater fame and affect the future of the world.

Gov. Dinwiddie realized from the French reply to his demands, and from Washington’s description of the progress of the forts the French were building toward the Ohio River, that Virginia must act quickly if its interests in the Ohio region were to be safeguarded. Dinwiddie had already sent William Trent to build a storehouse for the Ohio Company on the Monongohela River. He now moved quickly to expand these orders.

Building a British Fort

map4a.gifWilliam Trent was given a Captain's commission by Gov. Dinwiddie although the resourceful Indian trader stipulated that he would be free to continue to conduct his trading business in the region despite his being in the employ of the colony of Virginia. Edward Ward, George Croghan’s half brother, was made Ensign and John Fraser was commissioned Lieutenant. Although it was winter, Dinwiddie ordered Trent, following the completion of the storehouse on the Monongohela, to take his men and begin to build a fortification at the important Forks of the Ohio River (now Pittsburgh, PA). This move would check the French advance into the territory claimed by Britain which the Ohio Company was in the process of developing.

However, things did not progress as Gov. Dinwiddie hoped. Not only was he unsuccessful in getting his own Virginia legislature to appreciate the situation and the need to appropriate money for defense, he could not get the other colonial governors to act either. He was also disappointed at the pace of recruitment of men for a Virginia military force to send west.

The French, on the other hand, were enjoying greater success. Having completed forts at Presque Isle and LeBoeuf in the fall and having taken over William Trent’s trading post at Venango, they hastened to continue their advance toward the Forks of the Ohio as soon as the ice broke in early spring. On April 17, 1754, they arrived with a large force at the Forks just as Ensign Ward was hanging the gate on the small, hastily constructed British fort. Trent had left the site to go for more supplies for his men and had left Ward in charge. In the face of a much stronger enemy force armed with cannon, Ward was forced to surrender and evacuate the site. The French immediately began the construction of a much larger fortification named Fort Duquesne.

In May the French took further steps to secure the Ohio River area. Around May 10th a party of French arrived at Gist’s plantation supposedly searching for French deserters; Col. Washington dispatched Capt. Stephen to scout for this French party. On May 24th Washington received news from the Half King that a French force had left Fort Duquesne in search of the British. Actually, on the preceding day Ensign Joseph de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville had been dispatched from Fort Duquesne by Contrecoeur, the post commander, with orders to find any British in the area and demand that they leave the lands of the French King. A few days later Christopher Gist told Washington that a French force had arrived at his plantation and tried to burn it; the French were restrained by two Indian friends of Gist’s. Tensions were definitely running high as parties from the two competing sides wondered through the woods with different agendas.

A Warning of Danger

On the evening of May 27, 1754, Tanacharison, the Half King, came to Col. Washington with some of his warriors and revealed that a party of French were camped not far away and were intent on attaching the British. Deciding to strike the first blow, Washington took forty soldiers and marched through the night with the Indians as guides to find the French camp. Just after sunrise, the British found the French encamped in a remote glen a half mile off the main path.

Wooded glen where Washington attacked the French.

Exactly what happened next is still open to conjecture, but the effect would reverberate around the world. Apparently, Washington ordered an attack on the French before they could organize. Supposedly, the British called for the French to surrender, but in the ensuing melee someone fired and the battle began. When the firing stopped, one Virginian was dead, 10 or so Fench soldiers lay dead and the rest were wounded or captured except for one French soldier who escaped to take the news to Fort Duquesne.

A Decisive Blow

To this day, the details of the death of Jumonville are conjectured, but according to one account the French officer had only been wounded in the initial encounter. After firing ceased and the Virginians were rounding up the surrendering French, the Half King, who had been trying for some months to effect a British show of force against the French, stepped forward and addressing Jumonville said, “You are not yet dead, my father.” With that the Indian chief tomahawked the officer and washed his hands in the man’s brains. It was a definitive action from which there would be no going back. For Tanacharison it was just revenge for the death of his father, Old Britain, at Picawillany. The Indian had effectively made a major incident out of what could have been considered a simple skirmish between scouting parties.

Col. Washington knew that there would be repercussions from this incident. He could not envision the far-reaching effects of this early morning encounter, but he knew that he should move back to safer ground and await reinforcements and further developments. Eventually, he returned to Great Meadow and constructed Fort Necessity. It was now up to the French to make the next move.



  • Late Winter-Spring 1754 Colonial Virginia troops under Capt. William Trent and Ensign Ward build a fort at the forks of the Ohio, present-day Pittsburgh.
  • April 2, 1754 Lt. Col. Washington marches west out of Alexandria, Virginia, with 150 soldiers and orders to build a wagon road over the Alleghenies; he marches past Joseph Edwards's home on the Cacapon River.
  • April 17, 1754 A large French force under Contrecoeur arrives at the Forks of the Ohio and expels the Virginians from their just completed fort. The French immediately begin the construction of Fort Duquesne.
  • May 24, 1754 After several weeks of hard labor, Washington and his Virginians reach the Great Meadow from Alexandria.
  • May 27-28, 1754 Learning of a French patrol only six miles from his camp, Col. Washington with 40 soldiers and some Indian allies marches to the French camp site and attacks Jumonville’s party killing the officer.
  • Early June 1754 Col. Washington completes his Fort Necessity at Great Meadows. By late June, having knowledge of a French expedition being sent to attack him, Col. Washington attempts to retreat east of the Alleghenies.
  • June 1754 Albany Conference. Benjamin Franklin puts forth first plan for a union among the Colonies ("Join or Die"); it is rejected.


Further Reading

Young George Washington and the French and Indian War, 1753-1758; by Robert M. McClung; Linnet Books, North Haven, CT, 2002forking.jpg

For King and Country, George Washington, the Early Years; by Thomas A. Lewis; John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1993.

The Jumonville Affair: The French perspective on the Jumonville skirmish and the prelude to the Battle of Fort Necessity; by Marcel Trudel; Eastern National, 1989 [reprinted from Pennsylvania History, Vol. XXI, No. 4, October, 1954].


A good source of books on the French and Indian War is the Fort Necessity Bookstore.


© Charles C. Hall 2004

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