By Henry Howe, 1855
By the middle of the 18th Century, the power of France had been extended over a great part of North America. The first efforts toward the settlement of the Mississippi Valley were made by the French at several of its remotest points on the Great Lakes; on the Wabash River; at Kaskaskia, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, where their settlements extended across the Mississippi River to St. Genevieve, and St. Louis in present-day Missouri; on the Mexican Gulf, at Biloxi, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama; and on the Lower Mississippi River, at New Orleans, Louisiana.
In pursuit of their great plan of occupying the whole valley and connecting their settlements from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico by a line of posts, with water communications, like the chord of an immense semicircle, they stretched along the whole rear of the English settlements. Gradually, they extended their fortifications to the south side of Lake Erie; erecting one at Presque Isle, near present-day Erie, Pennsylvania, and another at Le Boeuf, on the French Creek, in northwest Pennsylvania, and a third on the Duquesne River, at the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers, on the site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The advantages of that admirable position did not escape the eyes of a people remarkably acute to discern the advantages of military posts. By it, they proposed to command the trade, and awe the obedience of the Indians of the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, and connect the southern Canadian posts, by the long and unrivaled communication of the Ohio River with the settlements of the Wabash, Illinois and lower Mississippi Rivers.
The English could not regard these proceedings of their rivals without alarm, seeing that the French were monopolizing the vast and fertile country of Upper Louisiana. They desired to share the advantages, especially as they considered themselves possessing-an equal claim to them. In consequence of the discovery of the Cabots, they asserted the right of extending their settlements as far as the Pacific Ocean. The French, on the other hand, maintained their claim to the Mississippi Valley, on the grounds of having been the first to explore and colonize it, and insisted that the English should confine themselves to the country east of the Alleghany Mountains. Amid these conflicting pretensions, neither party seems to have imagined that there might be prior rights, which equally barred the claims of both. An Indian chief remarked, on the occasion of this dispute, “The French claim all the country to the west, and the English all to the east and west; where, then, is the country of the Indians?” This was an embarrassing question, that was never satisfactorily answered.
At this time, however, the Indians did not seem to think of asserting their own rights, but, took part in the quarrels of the two nations, which were both equally regardless of them: a very fortunate circumstance for the French, as Canada then contained only 45,000 inhabitants, and the whole of Louisiana no more than 7,000 whites, while the English colonies had a population of over a million.
The rival nations now only waited for an occasion of commencing the contest, and it soon arrived. Before long, several individuals in Virginia and England associated together under the name of the Ohio Company, and obtained a grant from the crown of 600,000 acres of land, lying in the country claimed by both England and France. The objectives of this company were commercial as well as territorial, and measures were taken for securing all the advantages which could be derived from their charter by establishing trading-houses and employing persons to survey the country.
The governor of Canada, on receiving information of what he considered an encroachment on the French dominions, wrote to the governors of New York and Pennsylvania, stating that the English traders had trespassed upon French territory, and that, if they were not made to desist, he should be under the necessity of seizing them. Finding his threats disregarded, he proceeded to put them in execution; and, arresting the company’s servants, had them conveyed as prisoners to Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, where he was engaged in erecting a strong fort. At about the same time, communication was opened from Presque Isle, along French Creek and the Alleghany River, to the Ohio River. This communication was kept up by detachments of troops posted at proper distances, in works capable of protecting them against an attack made with small arms alone.
This military line passing through the territory granted to the Ohio Company, as a part of Virginia, the lieutenant-governor of that province laid the matter before the Assembly and dispatched George Washington, then a young officer of only 21 years, with a letter to Monsieur de St. Pierre, commander of the French forces on the Ohio River, requiring him to withdraw from the dominions of his Britannic majesty. St. Pierre replied with politeness, but, in decided terms, that he had taken possession of the country by order of his superior officer, Governor Duquesne, to whom he would transmit the letter, but, the summons to retire he could not comply with.
In 1754, preparations were immediately made in Virginia to assert the rights of the British crown, and a regiment was sent to the defense of the frontier. Advancing with a small detachment, George Washington fell in with a party of French and Indians, who approached with every appearance of hostile intentions. A skirmish ensued, in which the commander of the party, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, and ten of his men were killed.
Washington’s objective had been to anticipate the French occupying a post at the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers, where a party of militia and workmen had been sent by the Ohio Company. However, Washington and his men found that the French had already driven the men of the Ohio Company away, and erected a strong fort on the spot. Foreseeing that, on hearing of the affair of Jumonville, the French would at once send a detachment against him, he hastily completed a small stockade he had commenced at a place called Great Meadows, near the site of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and gave to it the name of Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania. Here, he was soon attacked, and, after a gallant defense, capitulated on honorable terms.
This action, being considered by the British government as the commencement of hostilities by the French, troops were immediately sent from England. Among the different expeditions planned was one under General Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne, on the site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Battle of the Monongahela
British Major General Edward Braddock arrived in this country early in 1755 with two regiments of veteran English troops. He was joined at Fort Cumberland, Maryland by a large number of provincial troops to aid in the contemplated reduction of Fort Duquesne, Pennsylvania. Dividing his force, he pushed onward with about 1,200 chosen men through dark forests, and over pathless mountains. Colonel George Washington, who was a volunteer aid of Braddock, but, had been left behind on account of illness, overtook the General on the evening of the July 8th, at the mouth of the Youghiogheny River, 15 miles from Fort Duquesne, the day before the battle.
The officers and soldiers were now in the highest spirits, and firm in the conviction that they should, within a few hours, victoriously enter within the walls of Fort Duquesne. Early on the morning of the July 9th, the army passed through the river a little below the mouth of the Youghiogheny River and proceeded in perfect order along the southern margin of the Monongahela River.
Washington was often heard to say, during his lifetime, that the most beautiful spectacle he had ever beheld was the display of the British troops on this eventful morning. Every man was neatly dressed in full uniform, the soldiers were arranged in columns, and marched in exact order, the sun gleamed from their burnished arms, the river flowed tranquilly on their right, and the deep forest overshadowed them with solemn grandeur on their left. Officers and men were equally inspirited with cheering hopes, and confident anticipations.
In this manner, they marched forward until about noon, when they arrived at the second crossing place, ten miles from Fort Duquesne. They halted but a little time and then began to ford the river and regain its northern bank. As soon as they had crossed, they came upon a level plain, elevated only a few feet above the surface of the river, and extending northward nearly half a mile from its margin. They gradually made their ascent, which terminated in hills of a considerable height at no great distance beyond. The road, from the fording-place to Fort Duquesne, led across the plain and up this ascent, and then proceeded through an uneven country, at that time covered with forest.
By the order of march, 300 men under Colonel Thomas Gage made the advanced party, which was immediately followed by another of 200 soldiers. Next came General Braddock with the columns of artillery, the main body of the army and the baggage. By about one o’clock the whole had crossed the river, and almost at this moment, a sharp firing was heard upon the advanced parties, who were now ascending the hill, and had proceeded about a hundred yards from the termination of the plain. A heavy discharge of musketry was poured in upon their front, which was the first intelligence they had of an enemy; and this was suddenly followed by another upon their right flank. They were filled with the greatest consternation, as no enemy was in sight, and the firing seemed to come from an invisible foe. They fired in return, however, but quite at random, and obviously without effect.
During the whole of the action, Colonel George Washington, then 23 years of age, behaved with the greatest courage and resolution. The other two aides-de-camp were wounded, and on him alone devolved the duty of distributing the orders of the general. He rode in every direction and was a conspicuous object for the enemy’s sharpshooters. He had four bullets through his coat and had two horses shot under him, and yet escaped unhurt. So bloody a contest has rarely been witnessed. Out of 1,200 men, 714 men were either killed or wounded; of 86 officers, more than two-thirds were among the killed or wounded. Braddock was mortally wounded by a provincial named Fausett. The enemy lost only about 40 men, having fought in deep ravines, and the balls of the English passed over their heads.
The remnant of Braddock’s army, panic-stricken, fled in great disorder to Fort Cumberland. The enemy did not pursue them. Satiated with carnage and plunder, the Indians could not be tempted from the battlefield.
The army of Braddock had been carefully watched, by some Indian spies, from the time they left Fort Cumberland. There was no force in Fort Duquesne that could cope with the English, and the French commandant had expressed the necessity of either retreat or surrender. By accident, 400 to 500 Indians happened to be at the fort of the French garrison. One officer of inferior rank, Captain Daniel Beaujeau, strenuously urged that, for the honor of the French arms, some resistance should be made. Beaujeau consulted the Indians, who volunteered to the number of about 400. With much difficulty, the young hero obtained from his commander, permission to lead out to a certain limit, such French soldiers as chose to join in the desperate enterprise. Of the number, only about 30 volunteered, and with these 430 men, the gallant Frenchman marched out to attack more than threefold their number. In the meantime, General Braddock had rejected every remonstrance from Washington and other colonial officers with insult, and advanced into the snare just as far as the enemy desired when destruction to the greater part of the army was almost the certain result.
When the victory was reported to the commandant at Fort Duquesne, his transports were unbounded. He received Captain Beaujeau with open arms, loaded him with the most extravagant honors, and, in a few days, sent to report the victory to the Governor of Canada. But, when the dispatches were opened, they consisted of criminal charges against Beaujeau in his office of paymaster, and other charges equally culpable. Under these accusations, this injured man was tried, broke and ruined. So matters rested until, in the American Revolution, the subject of Braddock’s defeat happened to come into a conversation between Washington and Lafayette, when the real facts were stated to the latter. He heard them with unqualified astonishment; but, with his powerful sense of justice, determining to do all in his ability to repair what he considered a national act of cruelty and injustice, he took and preserved careful notes, and on his return to Europe, had inquiries made for Beaujeau. He was found in a state of poverty and wretchedness, broken down by advancing years and unmerited obloquy. The affair was brought before the government of France, and as the real events were made manifest, the officer was restored to his rank and honors.
The result of this battle gave the French and Indians a complete ascendancy on the Ohio River, and put a check to the British operations, west of the mountains, for two or three years. In 1757, the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Iroquois, in alliance with the French, penetrated to the east side of the mountains, desolating the frontier settlements in blood. In the same autumn, the English built Fort Loudon, in eastern Tennessee. The next year, Colonel James Burd erected another fort on the Holston River, about 100 miles to the north. Settlements arose around each of these posts.
In 1758, great preparations were made by the English for the reduction of the French posts. In July, an army of 7,000 men, under General John Forbes, left Carlisle, Pennsylvania, destined for the reduction of Fort Duquesne. About the middle of September, the advanced guard, under Colonel Henry Boquet, having reached Loyalhanna, Pennsylvania, dispatched Major James Grant to reconnoiter, with 800 Highland Scotch and 200 Virginians, under Major Andrew Lewis, who subsequently commanded at the bloody Battle of Point Pleasant in present-day West Virginia.
As they drew near the fort undiscovered, Major Grant thought he could surprise the garrison, and thus disappoint his general of the honor of the conquest. Major Lewis, in vain, remonstrated against the folly of the attempt; but Grant, desirous of monopolizing all the honor, ordered Lewis with his provincials to remain behind with the baggage. Early in the morning, Major Grant, with his Scotch Highlanders, advanced to the attack by beating drums upon Grant’s Hill, as it was afterward called, within the site of Pittsburgh. This incautious bravado aroused the Indians, who, to the number of 1,400, were lying on the opposite side of the river, and soon Grant was surrounded by an overwhelming number when the work of death went on rapidly, and in a manner quite novel to the Scotch Highlanders, who, in all their European wars, had never before seen men’s heads skinned. Major Lewis soon perceiving, by the retreating fire, that Grant was over-matched, came to the rescue with his provincials, and falling on the rear of the Indians, made way for Grant and some of his men to retreat; but, his own party was overwhelmed by numbers. This action proved disastrous to the English, with more than one-third of the whole force being killed. Grant and Lewis were both taken prisoners, and the remnant of the detachment was saved mainly through the bravery and skill of Captain Bullet, of the Virginia provincials, the only officer who escaped unhurt.
Colonel Boquet, while remaining at Loyalhanna with the advance, was, shortly after, twice attacked by the French and Indians with great vigor; but, he successfully repulsed them, with a loss on his part, of only 67 in killed and wounded. The entrenchment he threw up at that place, was afterward called Fort Ligonier.
In November, the commandant of Fort Duquesne, unable to cope with the overwhelming force approaching under General John Forbes, destroyed the fortress and descended the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. On his route, he erected Fort Massac, on the Ohio River, about 40 miles from its mouth, in the Illinois country. General Forbes repaired Fort Duquesne and changed its name to Fort Pitt; where now stands the flourishing city of Pittsburgh.
The English were now, for the first time, in possession of the whole Upper Ohio River region. In the spring of 1759, they established posts on the eastern side of the Ohio River, prominent among which, was Fort Burd, on the site of Brownstown, Pennsylvania, later called Redstone Old Fort. They also soon had possession of Presque Isle, Detroit, and other French posts in that region.
While these events had been transpiring in the west, most brilliant successes had attended the English arms on the north. Ticonderoga, Crown Point, Fort Niagara, and Quebec, were taken in 1759; the next year, Montreal fell, and with it, the whole of Canada. By the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, France relinquished all her claims to Canada, and the western country, east of the Mississippi River, to Great Britain; to Spain, she ceded her claims to all lands west of the Mississippi River.
By Henry Howe, 1855 – Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2020.
From Historical Collections of THE GREAT WEST, Vol I, published by James A. Roberts, 1855.