Eyewitness 1753: Washington gets to The Point
Share with others:
Heavy rains and a "vast Quantity of Snow" made travel difficult for George Washington in the late fall of 1753.
Major Washington, age 21, was leading a small expedition through what would become western Pennsylvania on orders from Robert Dinwiddie.
Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor of Washington's home state of Virginia, had given the young man a delicate and dangerous diplomatic task on Oct. 31.
Washington was to take messages to the commander of newly built French outposts in the Ohio Country, telling him to withdraw from lands claimed by Great Britain. He was also to foster alliances with local Indian tribes and to bring back intelligence on French economic and military intentions.
Dull words that describe a 11-week journey that took him and Christopher Gist through 1,000 miles of mostly wilderness. As he traveled by horse, canoe and on foot, Washington kept a journal. When that journal was published in 1754, just weeks after his return to Williamsburg, then Virginia's capital, it gave Washington his first taste of fame.
Shot at and almost drowned, he came close to death twice during his trip. Trained as a surveyor, he paid close attention to topography, keeping his eye out for both fertile farmlands and places of military importance.
While Washington was not the first European to visit what became Pittsburgh's Point -- where the Monongahela and the Allegheny join to form the Ohio River -- he was the first to describe it.
He arrived on Nov. 22, 1753. "I spent some Time in viewing the Rivers, and the Land in the Fork, which I think extremely well situated for a Fort, as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers," he wrote.
"The Land at the Point is 20 or 25 Feet above the common Surface of the Water, and a considerable bottom of flat, well-timbered Land all around it, very convenient for Building.
"The Rivers are each a Quarter of a Mile, or more, across, and run here very near at right Angles: Alligany bearing N.E. and Monogahela S.E. [T]he former of these two is very rapid and swift running Water, the other deep and still without and perceptible Fall."
Washington's diplomatic party of seven white men and a varying number of Indian companions included Gist, an experienced woodsman, and a Dutchman named Jacob VanBraam, who spoke some French, to serve as interpreter. The best known Native American to accompany Washington was Tanacharison. Known as the Half-King, he represented the powerful Iroquois Confederacy in the area around what became Pittsburgh.
The French commander at Fort LeBoeuf, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, was not impressed. In a reply Washington carried back to Dinwiddie, Saint-Pierre wrote to Dinwiddie that while he received Washington "with a distinction suitable to your Dignity, and his Quality and great Merit," the French had no plans to leave.
Deep snow made Washington's trip back even more difficult and slower. Leaving their horses and the rest of their party behind, Washington and Gist set out alone and on foot on Dec. 26.
The next few days presented danger from humans and nature.
On Dec. 27 Washington and Gist had reached what is now Butler County. Washington wrote that he and Gist "fell in with a Party of French Indians, who had lain in Wait for us; one of them fired at Mr. Gist or me not 15 Steps [away], but fortunately missed."
Worried about another attack, Washington and Gist "walked all the remaining Part of the Night without making any Stop ..."
The next morning they reached the ice-filled Allegheny River and, still without sleep, spent most of the day building a crude raft "with one poor Hatchet." They were using long poles to push themselves across when Washington was thrown into the freezing water. He grabbed onto the raft as Gist maneuvered it to a island in the middle of the river. By next morning it had frozen over and they walked across to the south shore.
After a quick diplomatic meeting, near present-day McKeesport, with the Indian Queen Aliquippa, Washington hurried back to Williamsburg to report to Dinwiddie.
His journal was published in both Virginia and Great Britain, pretty much as he wrote it. "I think I can do no less than apologize, in some measure, for the numberless Imperfections of it," he said.
First Published November 30, 2008 12:00 am