“I was younger than you are now when I was given my first command
I led my men straight into a massacre–I witnessed their deaths firsthand….”
In the Hamilton song “History Has Its Eyes on You,” General George Washington gives a “when I was your age” lesson to Alexander Hamilton, warning about the dangers of youthful overconfidence. But what’s he referring to, exactly?
He’s talking about the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), also known as the true First World War, with rippling effects on trade and economy throughout the New and Old Worlds.
The history of George Washington in Pittsburgh is a messy one, as you’ll soon see.
It started with a blundering encounter between British troops, French troops, and Native Americans on a forested bluff southeast of Pittsburgh, a moment that remains a tale of “he said, he said” 200-plus years after the incident.
In 1754, the British decided it was high time to kick the French out of the Forks of the Ohio, the junction of three rivers in southwestern Pennsylvania—today’s Point State Park, as seen below—to wrest control of the region’s lucrative fur trade.
Tensions were already high and the British wanted to tread carefully as they made their move. Cue the arrival of young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington in Pittsburgh, armed with a directive to evict the French from Fort Duquesne.
Camped at an area known as The Great Meadows in May 1754, scouts from Washington’s party noticed a French encampment in the woods nearby. Washington decided to approach them, bringing along a group of Native Americans led by the Seneca chief known as the Half King.
The French said that the British snuck up on them from behind, on the cliff above the camp, and began firing on them without warning.
The British said that the French started firing first and they were not intending to start any trouble, no sir, not in the least.
Either way, the end result was a bloodbath in which the French envoy, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, ended up with an axe through the skull courtesy of one of the Native Americans.
Washington and his men beat a retreat to the Great Meadows, where they called for reinforcements. They also constructed Fort Necessity, a circular palisade in the middle of a wide valley encircled by the woods of the Alleghenies.
In the immortal words of Vivian Ward, BIG MISTAKE. BIG. HUGE.
On the morning of July 3, it started pouring, turning the fort into a big muddy soup pit. Not only that, but Washington and his troops were in a damn meadow surrounded by forest. They were soggy sitting ducks and didn’t have a chance against the French onslaught.
Signing the terms of surrender to the French in the dark of the fort that night, Washington didn’t have the greatest translator to tell him exactly what he was agreeing to.
He got the basic gist, which was that the remaining troops would be allowed to leave with their lives, but what Washington didn’t realize is that he had also signed a confession that he was responsible for the assassination of Jumonville.
Not an accidental death as part of battle, but an assassination—a premeditated murderous strike.
Cue the French and Indian War. In the words of Horace Walpole, “The volley from a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”
Oh, and the woes weren’t over for George Washington in Pittsburgh.
Almost exactly one year later, he was involved in the battle known as Braddock’s Defeat, another fatal British blunder that happened just down the road from Fort Necessity.
If you want to walk in the footsteps of history and see the sites of Jumonville Glen, Fort Necessity, and Braddock’s Defeat in western Pennsylvania, they’re all part of the National Park Service under the umbrella of Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
Start at the visitor’s center near the reconstruction of Fort Necessity, and then drive to the two sites of Braddock’s grave and the Jumonville overlook. Both are short, self-guided trails marked with plaques.
Fort Necessity National Battlefield
National Pike, Farmington, PA 15437
Open 9-5 daily; free.