The French and Indian War (1754-1763)
Early Battles and Fort Necessity
In 1753, French forces began to build a series of Forts along the Allegheny River in Ohio territory, impinging upon land claimed by Virginia in its charter of 1609. Robert Dinwiddie, the Virginia's Lieutenant Governor, sent George Washington, a 21-year-old major, to warn the French captain Legareur de Saint-Pierre of his troops' trespass. On his way to deliver Dinwiddie's message, Washington attempted to enlist the help of a large group of Ohio Indians, with no success. Once he did arrive, the message was ignored; the French refused to recognize the Virginia charter. Though he returned to Virginia with nothing to show for his trip, Washington was nonetheless promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and, in the spring of 1754, given the mission of removing the French from the Ohio region.
Because of the powerful presence of the French, who had completed their string of forts along the Allegheny, Washington was unsuccessful in is attempt to build a fort near Pittsburgh. Then, at dawn on May 28, 1754, a Mingo Indian named Tanaghrisson who had agreed to scout for Washington spotted a French patrol stalking Washington's men. Tanaghrisson showed Washington how to surprise the French; in the ensuing attack the French commander Jumonville was killed. That the French would retaliate was obvious, and Washington's men retreated to Great Meadows, PA, where, against the advice of their Indian guides, they hastily threw up a stockade, nicknamed Necessity. The Indians, disgusted, abandoned Washington and his small contingent of Virginia militiamen. Sure enough, the French outnumbered him and took the fort easily on July 4, 1754.
This battle proved a catalyst in the deteriorating relationship between the English and the French. In a famous affadivit, the French claimed that Jumonville had been "assassinated." The English insisted that this word be translated as Jumonville's "defeat." The battle thus precipitated a war of propaganda right along with the physical battles that were to follow.
Washington returned to Virginia on July 17 and gave an account of the battle at Great Meadows to the Virginia council. The council blamed him for most of the failure. Humiliated, Washington resigned his position, though he later returned to battle as a volunteer under General Edward Braddock.
In the years leading up to 1753, the English had far less territory than the French. English settlements clustered between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coast, though many colonies had charters granting them land west of the mountains. French settlements, though more sparsely populated covered far more land, originating out of fur-trading outposts, extended through the interior of the continent, as far north as Quebec, as far south as New Orleans, and all the way to St. Louis in the west. The French hoped to keep the British pinned between the mountains and the ocean. The British, alternatively, desperately wanted to expand westward, as a speculative outlet for their growing population and because they wanted further access to the profitable fur trade. Competing land claims and disputes over encroachment had been going on between the French and the English for almost a hundred years and through three minor wars, by the early 1750s, tensions had begun to swell once more.
Virginia was a particularly crowded territory and could not expand, since it was hemmed in on all three sides by French territory and natural obstacles. Robert Dinwiddie had no illusions about the circumstances his colony faced: he expected his message to the French to meet with the failure that it did. He did not, however, anticipate Washington's tremendous miscalculation the following spring.
Though George Washington later gained fame as a war hero, he cut his teeth during the French and Indian War—and, like most newcomers, he failed miserably. It was his difficult experience during the French and Indian, some argue, that helped to make him the general he eventually became. Interestingly enough, though, even Washington's early failures have come to take on a heroic cast in American history. After Washington's great success in the Revolutionary War, Fort Necessity came to stand as a metaphor for the rugged colonial spirit. That metaphor persists even today, although historians have proven that the fort was little more than a few logs lashed together to surround Washington's hapless army.