In a wooded clearing overlooking an imposing rock formation, roughly sixty-five miles outside modern day Pittsburgh, the face of North America would be irreparably altered. On May 28, 1754 this spot witnessed the first shot of the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years’ War around the world). The shot was fired under the order, or possibly even by the hand, of a twenty-two-year-old Virginian militia officer named George Washington. At the break of dawn and under the cover of the forest, British, French, and Native forces engaged in this brief (but globally impactful) battle that escalated the long-simmering tension over the contested lands of the Ohio Valley into a world war felt on five continents.
For generations there had been a tenuous stalemate in the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River between the French, British, and various Native American nations. Thinly settled by European colonists, there was a lack of clear authority or the means to impose it. It was a situation that allowed the Natives to pit the two colonial powers against each other. But as these European empires attempted to expand, this balance was shattered. All accused the others of encroaching upon their lands and sovereignty.
By 1753, the French began building a series of fortifications in the Ohio Valley. That same year, Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie tasked surveyor-turned-newly-appointed-militia-major George Washington (who spoke no French, contrary to the expectations of the eighteenth-century British gentleman) with carrying a message to the French commander, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, to withdraw from the contested lands. No retreat followed.
The prize of the region was the coveted strategic position at the intersection of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers. The British had previously established a small outpost, named Fort Prince George (or Trent’s Fort after Pennsylvania trader William Trent), to control trade and stake their own claim. On April 17, 1754, a sizeable French force under Captain Claude-Pierre Pécaudy, sieur de Contrecœur, drove the tiny overmatched garrison at Trent’s Fort under Ensign Edward Ward to surrender without a shot being fired. In its place rose Fort Duquesne (today’s Pittsburgh): a symbol of French authority that challenged not only the British but also the Mingo people (part of the Ohio Iroquois) and their leader Tanacharison (also known as Tanaghrisson or “Half-King”).
The fall of Trent’s Fort sparked alarm in the Virginia capital of Williamsburg and before news even reached London the now Lieutenant Colonel Washington and his force of 159 militiamen were marching to the frontier to combat the French threat. From the standpoint of the British and their new Native allies, it could be asserted that French incursions had initiated hostilities, but what followed would escalate the conflict into a war.[i]
After Washington and his troops reached the Great Meadows (located in present-day Farmington, PA), Silver Heels, a Native scout and warrior, reported a band of some fifty French soldiers “hidden” in a nearby encampment in a small glen surrounded by the dense wilderness. Their intentions were clearly set on ambushing Washington and his men, at least according to Tanacharison. The Mingo chief may have let personal matters influence his assessment of the situation, as he was convinced the French meant to murder him and his family. He alleged that this patrol was there “to take and kill all the English they should meet.”[ii] Washington decided to act.
Under the cover of darkness and a torrent of rain, a mixed band of forty militiamen and twelve Natives crept single file though the woods and surrounded the unsuspecting French patrol. As night turned to morning, Washington stood atop a rocky hill, looked down upon his adversaries, gave the command to fire, and personally loosed the first shot (as a signal or with aim is unclear).[iii] A volley immediately followed his discharge. Washington claimed the startled French, commanded by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, had “discovered” them and the initial shots were to stop their mad dash to arm themselves. The French version differed, but regardless multiple volleys flashed on both sides. The battle (probably better described as a skirmish) only lasted about fifteen minutes and ended as quickly as it began, with the French “routed” by British bullets and at least some of the retreating men meeting “their destiny by the Indian tomahawks” wielded by Tanacharison and his warriors. Just over twenty Frenchmen survived.[iv]
Their wounded commander, Jumonville, claimed he was on a diplomatic mission. much like Washington had been in 1753. If it were true, under the rules of war and honor, the French ambassador should not have been attacked, as his “character being always sacred.”[v] But this was after the fact and there was a clear communication problem between the two leaders: Jumonville spoke French and Washington only understood English. Tanacharison, having dealt with each colonial power, was fluent in both. Before Washington could make sense of what was happening, Tanacharison buried his tomahawk into Jumonville’s head, killing him on the spot. Removing his embedded hatchet, the Mingo leader turned to French officer Michel Pepin dit La Force and taunted him “now I will let you see that the Six Nations [of Iroquois] can kill as well as the French.”[vi] As the chief raised his blood-drenched blade, the terrified La Force hid behind an undoubtedly shocked Washington who intervened, saved the man’s life, and stopped any further slaughter.
Why had Tanacharison acted this way? Perhaps it was to escalate the conflict to a full-fledged war. Or perhaps it was to defend himself, his family, and his people from what he perceived as French aggression Despite Tanacharison vehement assertions that the French “intentions were evil,” the affair ensured that Washington “never” again dealt with these Native allies or their leader.[vii]
Though the Virginian officer had not ordered the deathblow, his sense of honor, the possibility of truth of the diplomatic mission, and the lack of quarter given to the wounded Jumonville likely troubled him deeply and he feared its implications. Washington’s account of the incident to Dinwiddie glossed over it, saying, “amongst those that were killed was Monsieur De Jumonville the Commander.”[viii] In turn, Washington who was in command omitted Tanacharison’s execution, perhaps because it would reflect a lack of control or authority on the part of the novice Virginian officer.
Still, the full magnitude of this event would not be felt until a few months later in early July, when the again-promoted Col. Washington’s Virginia regiment (joined by those of Captain James Mackay’s South Carolina Independent Company) were besieged inside the wooden palisades of Fort Necessity on the nearby Great Meadows by a vastly superior French force. At the head of the 600 attackers was Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville’s older brother, who was tasked with seeking reprisals for the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Washington and Mackay were forced to surrender. Again plagued by his lack of French, Washington signed the Articles of Capitulation improperly translated by Jacob Van Braam, his former fencing master who possessed a limited grasp of French himself. He thought it said “death” or “killing of,” which was technically accurate, but it actually declared that he had assassinated Jumonville, who was on a diplomatic mission.[ix] This was considered a violation of one of the technically inviolable rules of war. But the grievous language would only be revealed after the French published the document—shaming Washington and Britain before the world.
The young Virginian attempted to defend his honor by refusing to accept this version of events and continued to insist, to both himself and the world, that Jumonville was not a diplomat, but “only a simple petty French officer; an ambassador has no need of spies.” Considering the standards of gentility of the time, Jumonville’s dress, bearing, and actions, in Washington’s estimation, precluded his being an emissary—he didn’t look the part. Rather, he argued, the French diplomatic mission was simply “A plausible pretense to discover our camp, and to obtain the knowledge of our forces and our situation!”[x]
But regardless of Washington’s justifications, his signature allowed the French to cast him as an “assassin,” and while the British disregarded the charge, it gave King Louis XV a pretext for a war. Despite initially drawing harsh British criticism, Washington’ reputation would survive and thrive as a “noble” hero based on his relationship with Dinwiddie and the influential aristocratic Fairfax family. Though he never altered his story, Washington would consider the lesson throughout his life, especially during the American Revolution, where he dealt with British Major John André (part of Benedict Arnold’s treason) as a spy, despite his looking the part of a gentleman.[xi]
While the Battle of Jumonville Glen may not be considered the start of the war from the British perspective, it resulted in an expanded colonial conflict engulfing the world in violence, which then began the rift between Britain and their colonists that set the stage for the American Revolution.
Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. For more information visit www.craigbrucesmith.com or follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are that of the author and do not represent those of the Federal Government, the US Army, or Department of Defense.
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[i] For an excellent overview of the French and Indian War and its early battles see the following referenced throughout this article: Fred Anderson. The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. (New York: Viking, 2005); David Preston. Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). For a brief overview of the incident at Jumonville Glen, also referenced throughout: Joseph F. Stoltz III, “Jumonville Glen Skirmish,” Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/jumonville-glen-skirmish/
[ii] George Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,” 1754, Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=jumonville&s=1111311111&sa=&r=1&sr=,
[iii] “An Ohio Iroquois Warrior’s Account of the Jumonville Affair, 1754,” in Preston, Braddock’s Defeat, Appendix E and p. 25-28.
[iv] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,”1754; “An Ohio Iroquois Warrior’s Account of the Jumonville Affair, 1754”; Stoltz, “Jumonville Glen Skirmish.”
[v] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,”1754.
[vi] “An Ohio Iroquois Warrior’s Account of the Jumonville Affair, 1754.”
[vii] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,” 1754, Founders Online.
[viii] George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 29 May 1754, Founders Online.
[ix] “Articles of Capitulation,” [3 July 1754], Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=jumonville&s=1111311111&sa=&r=10&sr=; Paul K. Longmore. The Invention of George Washington. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), p. 22-24.
[x] Washington, “Expedition to the Ohio,” 1754, Founders Online; Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), p. 38-40.
[xi] Smith, American Honor, p. 38-40, 160.