The Ohio Country was the gateway to the Northwest Territory—a vast expanse of seemingly boundless natural resources spanning from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River—and the seed of contention between Great Britain and France during the mid-18th Century. The British saw opportunity for westward expansion and economic prosperity while the French sought to utilize the Ohio’s extensive waterways as commercial and defensive links between their Canadian and Louisiana provinces. Despite differing intentions, both nations recognized that possession of the Ohio Country was crucial to colonial dominance, and neither was ready to cede control without a fight.
In 1748, several prominent British investors formed the Ohio Company to preserve and financially-support British interests in the highly-disputed territory. The Company acquired 200,000 acres of the Upper Ohio Valley the following year and devised plans to spur commercial development and colonization in the region. The Governor-General of New France, Marquis de Duquesne, was wary of these endeavors and feared that, if British settlers were to establish a permanent presence in the Ohio, the Native Americans would abandon French alliances in favor of Britain’s numerical and economic superiority. In preemptive fashion, the French commander dispatched colonial troops into the Ohio territory to drive out English colonists and fortify strategic areas along the region’s major waterways.
In the autumn of 1753, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie (a founding member of the Ohio Company) received word that the French had constructed two forts on lands claimed by Virginia in the Ohio Country: Fort Presque Isle along the coast of Lake Erie and Fort Le Boeuf just to the southeast. Dinwiddie responded to this perceived intrusion by sending Major George Washington and seven emissaries on an expedition to Fort Le Boeuf to deliver a message that demanded the French withdraw from their positions. After several weeks of perilous travel through the Ohio wilderness, Washington’s expedition arrived at Fort Le Boeuf on December 11, 1753. The envoy was well-received by Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, commander of French forces at the fort; however, he ultimately declined Dinwiddie’s request to vacate. Washington’s expedition returned to Williamsburg on January 16, 1754.
Shortly before Washington’s return, Governor Dinwiddie, anticipating the French refusal, sent a squadron of Virginia militia commanded by Captain William Trent to the forks of the Ohio River with orders to fortify the position and prevent further French interference. Trent’s men arrived at the forks later that February and began to work on a log fortification. However, the fort was only partially-completed when five hundred French troops under command of Captain Pierre de Contrecoeur surrounded the British militia and forced their surrender on April 17. The French demolished the British works and replaced it with Fort Duquesne.
Ironically, around the time of Trent’s surrender, Governor Dinwiddie felt that it was necessary to further strengthen the British military presence in Ohio. He tasked Colonel Joshua Fry to lead three hundred Virginia militiamen into the disputed territory with orders to assist Trent’s fortification efforts and “restrain any French interlopers and, if necessary, kill and destroy them.” Dinwiddie also promoted Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and placed him in Fry’s regiment as second-in-command, hoping that his leadership and experience in the Ohio Country would contribute to the mission’s success.
The Virginia Regiment was passing through Wills Creek (present-day Cumberland, Maryland) when they encountered Trent’s expelled garrison. The retreating soldiers relayed their experiences to Fry and Washington who concluded that the French had committed an act of war. Washington proceeded ahead with 160 men while Fry stayed back with the rest of his regiment to tend to Trent’s weary militia.
The Battle of Jumonville Glen (May 28, 1754)
Washington’s men established camp at the Great Meadows—a forest clearing fifty miles south of the Ohio River—later that May. Shortly thereafter, Washington was notified by frontiersman Christopher Gist that several dozen French-Canadian troops (possibly spies) were positioned nearly seven miles away at Chestnut Ridge. Washington decided to investigate the claim and potentially capture the French reconnaissance party by surprise.
On the evening of May 27, Washington was approached by several friendly Seneca Indians who claimed they had located the French camp and that their leader, Tanacharison (also known as Half King), wanted to meet for a council of war. Washington, eager to neutralize the French threat, assembled forty men and set out towards the Seneca village that night. After a brief discussion, both Tanacharison and Washington agreed to ambush the enemy at dawn. The Seneca leader and twelve of his warriors led British forces to a secluded, rocky cliff side where they proceeded to surround the unassuming French encampment positioned in the ravine below.
Musket fire erupted at dawn—who fired first remains the subject of great historical debate—and the French camp was thrown into disarray. The British unleashed several volleys from their advantageous positions while the French scrambled to return a few inaccurate rounds. Realizing the futility of their situation, the French attempted to escape down the ravine, only to be blocked by Tanacharison and his awaiting Indian warriors. The fifteen-minute firefight resulted in three British casualties and the deaths of thirteen Frenchmen, including Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville. The manner of Jumonville’s death is highly disputed, but the prevailing account describes Tanacharison taking a tomahawk to the wounded French officer’s head as he was reading his diplomatic orders of surveillance aloud. Twenty-one French-Canadians were taken prisoner; however, one man escaped back to Fort Duquesne and informed French command of the attack.
Washington feared French retaliation for ambushing their diplomatic envoy and the brutality of Jumonville’s death. The young commander returned to the Great Meadows and ordered his men to construct a “fort of necessity” in preparation for the French assault.
The Battle of Fort Necessity (July 3, 1754)
On June 9, the rest of the Virginia Regiment arrived at Great Meadows, but in the absence of Colonel Fry who had died ten days earlier in a horseback riding accident. Fry’s tragic and untimely death promoted Washington to colonel and placed him in command of the 293-man British militia. Three days later, one hundred troops from Captain James Mackay’s Independent South Carolina Company arrived at the British camp, but tensions quickly arose between Washington and Mackay. Mackay, a commissioned officer in the King’s army, refused to take orders from Washington, who outranked Mackay but was a noncommissioned officer in the colonial militia. To avoid conflict, Mackay established a separate camp in the Meadow and prohibited his men from assisting with Washington’s fort without additional compensation.
By mid-June, British supplies were running severely low. Washington could hardly feed his own troops, let alone offer a dower to his Indian allies. Disheartened by the lack of resources, Seneca leaders ultimately decided to part ways with the British, fearing they did not stand a chance against the better-equipped French forces. Washington was repeatedly promised resupply shipments, but they never arrived.
Following the completion of Fort Necessity, Washington decided to build a military road that would assist with troop movement and supply transportation further into the interior. On June 15, the young commander left Fort Necessity in the hands of Mackay and led his men towards Gist’s Mill—the western-most British settlement in the Ohio—about twenty miles away. The journey was laborious from the start. The mountainous terrain, inclement weather, and limited supplies made construction of the road extremely difficult. Wagons frequently broke and horses regularly died of exhaustion. The expedition to Gist’s Mill took two grueling weeks.
When Washington arrived at the homestead on June 29, he was informed by Native American spies that a large French-and-Indian force had amassed at Fort Duquesne and was mobilizing towards Fort Necessity. Washington ordered his troops to abandon any nonessential supplies (including several swivel guns) and hastily withdraw back to the Great Meadows. Thanks to the newly constructed road and lightened loads, the British retreat took only three days. Upon returning to Fort Necessity, Washington directed his already exhausted troops to cut back the forest line, dig trenches, strengthen the stockade’s defenses, and make ready for battle.
On the morning of July 3, 1754, decades of territorial tensions and competing colonial enterprises erupted as the imperial powers of Great Britain and France violently clashed at Fort Necessity. While the British tirelessly toiled to improve their defenses, seven hundred French and Indian soldiers under the command of Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers (Jumonville’s brother) emerged from the woods and descended upon Washington's small wooden fortress. British pickets sounded the alarm and quickly fled. Coulon ordered his troops to pursue the retreating sentries and charge directly at Washington’s breastworks. Washington, seeing the enemy advance, instructed his men to hold their fire until the French were close enough to inflict a devastating volley. The tactic worked as the attacking columns withered and fled back into the thickets. The British troops also withdrew from their trenches into the fort as a steady rain began to fall on the battlefield.
In their hurried preparations, the British were unable to clear enough of the tree line to take Fort Necessity out of musket range, which left the crowded troops inside exposed to accurate small arms fire. The steady rain turned into a downpour, soaking the British weapons and gunpowder kegs, rendering them useless. Sporadic fighting continued throughout the day as neither belligerent was willing to expose their troops in an open field of battle. The French resorted to killing British livestock as the day drew on.
Inside Fort Necessity, morale was incredibly low. The British defenders, surrounded on all sides and severely low on ammunition, realized their situation was hopeless. In their despair, several dozen troops broke into the supply house, uncorked the rum barrels, and started to drink.
Though the French clearly had the upper hand, Coulon’s Indian allies were threatening to leave after daylong fighting, which would significantly reduce the strength of his attacking force. Additionally, rumors of an advancing British regiment were swirling around the French camp. If they were true, the French would soon be outnumbered. Coulon knew he had to act quickly while he still had the advantage or risk losing control of the situation. At 8 p.m., the French commander requested a truce to discuss surrender options with Washington.
Washington sent Captains Jacob Van Braam and William Peyroine to the French camp to begin talks. After several hours of negotiations, terms were put to writing. The British were allowed to withdraw with honors of war and retain their weapons but surrender the swivel guns. Washington could not return to the Ohio Territory for one year and he had to leave two officers in Coulon’s ward to guarantee the deal. He also had to release the French prisoners captured during the Jumonville Affair.
The British officers returned to Fort Necessity with a copy of the French manuscript. Van Braam read the articles of capitulation aloud to Washington (who did not understand French); however, the rains had smudged the ink, making it difficult to translate. According to Van Braam’s interpretation, Washington had to accept responsibility for “killing” Jumonville. But under French vernacular, Washington was accepting responsibility for “assassinating” Jumonville, which had far broader political implications. Unaware of the oversight, Washington and Mackay signed the document.
The Battle of Fort Necessity saw thirty British troops killed and another seventy wounded, while the French incurred only twenty total casualties. The French burned down Fort Necessity as the remaining British troops evacuated the Great Meadows on July 4, 1754. Van Braam and Captain Robert Stobo stayed behind as the terms required. Washington’s first major military engagement of his career ended in a demoralizing surrender.
The British defeat at Fort Necessity had wide-reaching impacts across Europe and North America. The French publicized Washington’s admission to Jumonville’s murder (albeit unwittingly) and used it as an indoctrination against Britain’s moral claim to the Americas. The French also spread propaganda about British aggression across Europe, hoping to augment their alliances as the inevitability of war grew more and more apparent.
The Braddock Campaign (May – July 1755)
Stubbornly, the British refused to accept defeat and continued to probe the Ohio Country with provincial troops. In 1755, Britain prepared to launch attacks on several French strongholds in Ohio, starting with Fort Duquesne. Major General Edward Braddock, a 45-year veteran of royal service, was tasked to lead this endeavor with 2,400 troops—the largest European military force assembled in North America at the time. Washington was selected to be Braddock’s aide-de-camp.
Braddock’s Campaign was set to begin April 1755, but logistical delays with colonial militias postponed the offensive until May 29. Already behind schedule, the expedition was further hindered by nearly impassible frontier trails. Braddock ordered his men to widen the roads as they marched, which only slowed down the British army’s movements to an exceedingly sluggish pace. Frustrated by the near stagnation of his army, Braddock decided to divide his force in two at Fort Cumberland. One contingent under Colonel Thomas Dunbar would continue to clear and widen the frontier roads. The rest of Braddock’s troops (about 1,400) would march ahead towards Fort Duquesne.
On July 9, Braddock’s column collided with eight hundred French and Indian combatants under the command of Captain Claude-Pierre Contrecoeur at the Battle of the Monongahela, just eight miles from Fort Duquesne. Although the British had the numerical advantage, most of Braddock’s troops were new recruits with little-to-no combat experience. The majority of the opposing French force were hardened frontier veterans who possessed a crucial tactical advantage under the camouflage of the woods.
The French surprise attack descended the once-orderly British regiments into a torrent of confusion. Braddock’s men fired aimlessly into the woods with profound ineffectiveness. The bright red uniforms made the British easy targets for the concealed French and Indian forces. Most of the British officers were picked off from their horses in battle—including Braddock, himself, who was mortally wounded—which only fueled the disorientation of the British troops. Finally, after nearly three hours of chaos and catastrophe, Washington organized a retreat. Of the nearly 1,400 men under Braddock’s command, 977 were casualties. The French suffered fewer than one hundred total casualties, making the Battle of the Monongahela one of the most lopsided defeats in British colonial history.
It took another three years for the British to successfully dislodge the French from the Forks of the Ohio. In September 1758, General John Forbes led an army of 6,000 British troops towards Fort Duquesne, which was ultimately abandoned by the French who faced overwhelming odds. The French works were captured, demolished, and rebuilt as Fort Pitt.
The National Road
Following the Revolutionary War, increasing numbers of settlers moved into the Ohio Country (George Washington, himself, purchased the old Fort Necessity land tract in 1771 and owned the property until his death in 1799). The existing roads that crossed the Appalachian Mountains and Pennsylvania Highlands were in poor condition, making travel and commerce exceedingly difficult and expensive. Americans feared that frontier merchants would seek business with British-Canadians to the north or Spanish settlers to the southwest rather than risk crossing the mountains towards eastern markets. If European interests gained control of western trade, the future of the United States would be in jeopardy.
In 1805, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, devised a plan for a National Road—the nation’s first federally-funded highway—to connect frontier settlements to coastal communities. The proposal was approved by Congress and signed by Jefferson on March 29, 1806. Thirty thousand dollars (roughly $636,000 today) were set aside to fund the construction, which didn’t commence until 1811 due to disagreements regarding future fundraising, route direction, and maintenance. The road officially opened in 1818, spanning 137 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, Virginia. By 1839, the road’s western terminus reached Vandalia, Illinois, nearly six hundred miles away from Cumberland.
Congress originally allocated federal funding to maintain the road during the 1820s, but turned the financial burden over to the states the following decade. Repairs were frequent and costly as the original loose gravel paving did not hold up well against heavy traffic. Engineers began to rely on the McAdam Method to repair the road, which involved layering uniform stone fragments to create a smoother, more durable road surface.
The National Road was incredibly prosperous and an economic stimulus to the communities it ran through. Thousands of travelers utilized the thoroughfare on a daily basis. The road also encouraged political participation, as presidential hopefuls frequently campaigned along its route to garner the frontier vote. However, by the mid-1800s, railroads were becoming the preferred method of travel, and the economic luster of the National Road slowly faded.
The National Road was revived at the turn of the century with the mass production of automobiles. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 introduced a revolutionary highway system that promoted interstate travel and commerce. The modern-day U.S. Route 40 follows much of the original National Road route and runs adjacent to Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
Fort Necessity is actually a network of three parks strung into one amazing experience. Tourists wishing to learn more about colonial America should start out at the Visitor Center at the main battlefield site. The center has several educational audio-visual exhibits about Franco-British colonial affairs, frontier lifestyles, and Indian relations. There’s also plenty of information on the prelude to battle, the fort’s construction and archaeological discovery, the immediate aftermath of Washington’s surrender, and the history of the National Road.
A short footpath from the museum leads visitors to the battlefield. The 53-foot-diameter, wood palisade fort and surrounding earthworks folks see today are obviously reconstructions, but these structures are placed in their original locations and built to the same dimensions as they were in 1754.
Overlooking Fort Necessity is the Mount Washington Tavern. Built in the late 1820s by Nathaniel Ewing, the tavern served as a rest stop along the National Road. Here, weary travelers would indulge in pleasant conversation, lively entertainment, and a hearty family-style dinner. The business was in operation until 1855. The tavern is open to visitors who would like to learn more about 19th-century interstate travel.
About a mile northwest from the battlefield is Braddock’s Grave. Major General Edward Braddock died of his wounds sustained at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 13, 1755. His body was buried in the middle of a carriage road his troops had built during the expedition. George Washington presided over the funeral services. In 1804, workmen repairing the old Braddock Road uncovered the remains of the slain colonial general and reinterred them on a knoll overlooking the road. Today, his gravesite is marked by a stately granite monument.
The final historic site in the Fort Necessity network is Jumonville Glen, located about eight miles away from the Visitor Center. This secluded ravine was the site of Washington’s skirmish with Sieur de Jumonville’s French troops on May 28, 1754. Visitors can explore Jumonville Glen along a half-mile loop hiking trail immersed in the isolated terrain.
The events at Fort Necessity were incredibly pivotal to America’s colonial history. The illustrious battle sparked the French and Indian War—which later ignited the global powder keg known as the Seven Years’ War—and permanently altered colonial power dynamics in North America. Also, the infrastructural efforts put forth by British troops during Fort Necessity's construction and the subsequent years following laid the groundwork for westward development, travel, and commerce. The Fort Necessity National Battlefield Site provides great historical perspective on complex colonial issues and offers visitors a wealth of knowledge for an unforgettable experience.
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