Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

The Perils of the Wilderness

On the 31st day of October, in the year 1753, a young man, whose name was as yet unknown outside the colony of Virginia, though it was destined to attain world-wide fame, set out from Williamsburg, in that colony, on a momentous errand. It was the first step taken in a series of events which were to end in driving the French from North America, and placing this great realm under English control,—the opening movement in the memorable French and Indian War. The name of the young man was George Washington. His age was twenty-one years. He began thus, in his earliest manhood, that work in the service of his country which was to continue until the end.

The enterprise before the young Virginian was one that needed the energies of youth and the unyielding perseverance of an indefatigable spirit. A wilderness extended far and wide before him, partly broken in Virginia, but farther on untouched by the hand of civilization. Much of his route lay over rugged mountains, pathless save by the narrow and difficult Indian trails. The whole distance to be traversed was not less than five hundred and sixty miles, with an equal distance to return. The season was winter. It was a task calculated to try the powers and test the endurance of the strongest and most energetic man.

The contest between France and England for American soil was about to begin. Hitherto the colonists of those nations had kept far asunder,—the French in Canada and on the great lakes; the English on the Atlantic coast. Now the English were feeling their way westward, the French southward,—lines of movement which would touch each other on the Ohio. The touch, when made, was sure to be a hostile one.

England had established an "Ohio Company,"—ostensibly for trade, really for conquest. The French had built forts,—one at Presque Isle, on Lake Erie; one on French Creek, near its head-waters; a third at the junction of French Creek with the Alleghany. This was a bold push inland. They had done more than this. A party of French and Indians had made their way as far as the point where Pittsburgh now stands. Here they found some English traders, took them prisoners, and conveyed them to Presque Isle. In response to this, some French traders were seized by the Twightwee Indians, a tribe friendly to the English, and sent to Pennsylvania. The touch had taken place, and it was a hostile one.


Washington's Home at Mt. Vernon.

Major Washington—he had been a Virginian adjutant-general, with the rank of major, since the age of nineteen—was chosen for the next step, that of visiting the French forts and demanding the withdrawal of their garrisons from what was claimed to be English territory. The mission was a delicate one. It demanded courage, discretion, and energy. Washington had them all. No better choice could have been made than of this young officer of militia.

The youthful pioneer proceeded alone as far as Fredericksburg. Here he engaged two companions, one as French, the other as Indian, interpreter, and proceeded. Civilization had touched the region before him, but not subdued it. At the junction of Will's Creek with the Potomac (now Cumberland, Maryland), he reached the extreme outpost of civilization. Before him stretched more than four hundred miles of unbroken wilderness. The snow-covered Alleghanies were just in advance. The chill of the coming winter already was making itself felt. Recent rains had swollen the streams. They could be crossed only on log-rafts, or by the more primitive methods of wading or swimming,—expedients none too agreeable in freezing weather. But youth and a lofty spirit halt not for obstacles. Washington pushed on.

At Will's Creek he added to his party. Here he was joined by Mr. Gist, an experienced frontiersman, who knew well the ways of the wilderness, and by four other persons, two of them Indian traders. On November 14 the journey was resumed. Hardships now surrounded the little party of adventurers. Miles of rough mountain had to be climbed; streams, swollen to their limits, to be crossed; unbroken and interminable forests to be traversed. Day after day they pressed onward, through difficulties that would have deterred all but the hardiest and most vigorous of men. In ten days they had accomplished an important section of their journey, and reached those forks of the Ohio which were afterwards to attain such celebrity both in war and peace,—as the site of Fort Duquesne and of the subsequent city of Pittsburgh.

Twenty miles farther on the Indian settlement of Logstown was reached. Here Washington called the Indian chiefs together in conference. The leading chief was known as Tanacharison (Half-King), an Indian patriot, who had been much disturbed by the French and English incursions. He had been to the French forts. What he had said to their commanders is curious, and worthy of being quoted:

"Fathers, I am come to tell you your own speeches; what your own mouths have declared. Fathers, you in former days set a silver basin before us, wherein was the leg of a beaver, and desired all the nations to come and eat of it,—to eat in peace and plenty, and not to be churlish to one another; and that, if any person should be found to be a disturber, I here lay down by the edge of the dish a rod, which you must scourge them with; and if your father should get foolish in my old days, I desire you may use it upon me as well as others. Now, fathers, it is you who are the disturbers in this land, by coming and building your towns, and taking it away unknown to us, and by force. . . .

"Fathers, I desire you may hear me in civilness; if not, we must handle that rod which was laid down for the use of the obstreperous. . . . Fathers, both you and the English are white; we live in a country between; therefore, the land belongs to neither one nor the other. The Great Being above allowed it to be a place of residence for us; so, fathers, I desire you to withdraw, as I have done our brothers the English: for I will keep you at arms' length. I lay this down as a trial for both, to see which will have the greatest regard for it, and that side we will stand by, and make equal sharers with us. Our brothers, the English, have heard this, and I now come to tell it to you; for I am not afraid to discharge you off this land."

The poor Half-King was to find that he had undertaken a task like that of discharging the wolves out of the sheep-cote. The French heard his protest with contempt, and went on building their forts. He thereupon turned to the English, whom he, in the simplicity of his heart, imagined had no purpose save that of peaceful trade. His "fathers" had contemned him; to his "brothers" he turned in amity.

Washington told his purposes to his dusky auditors. He had come to warn the French intruders off the Indian lands. He desired a guide to conduct him to the French fort, one hundred and twenty miles distant. His statement pleased the Indians. Their English "brothers" were in sympathy with them. They would help them to recover their lands. The generosity of their white brothers must have seemed highly meritorious to the simple savages. They had yet to learn that the French and the English were the two millstones, and they and their lands the corn to be ground between.

The Half-King, with two other chiefs (Jeskakake and White Thunder by name), volunteered to guide the whites. A hunter of noted skill also joined them. Once more the expedition set out. The journey was a terrible one. Winter had set in; rain and snow fell almost unceasingly; the forest was next to impassable; great were their toils, severe their hardships. On December 5 they reached the French outpost at Venango (now Franklin), where French Creek joins the Alleghany. Here they were met by Captain Joncaire, the French commandant, with a promising show of civility. Secretly, however, the astute Frenchman sought to rob Washington of his Indians. Fortunately, the aborigines knew the French too well to be cajoled, and were ready to accompany Washington when he set out on his remaining journey. Their route now led up French Creek to Fort Le Boeuf, on the head-waters of that stream. This they reached on the 12th, after a wearisome experience of frontier travel. Forty-one days had passed since Washington left Williamsburg.

The commandant here was M. de St. Pierre, an elderly man, of courteous manners, a knight of the order of St. Louis. He received Washington cordially, treated him with every hospitality while in the fort, did everything except to comply with Governor Dinwiddie's order to leave the works.

Washington's instruction were conveyed in a letter from the governor of Virginia, which asserted that the lands of the Ohio and its tributaries belonged to England, declared that the French movements were encroachments, asked by whose authority an armed force had crossed the lakes, and demanded their speedy departure from English territory.

St. Pierre's reply was given in a sealed letter. It declared that he was a soldier, his duty being to obey orders, not to discuss treaties. He was there under instructions from the governor of Canada, here he meant to stay. Such was the purport of the communication. The tone was courteous, but in it was no shadow of turning.

While the Frenchman was using the pen, Washington was using his eyes. He went away with an accurate mental picture of the fort, its form, size, construction, location, and the details of its armament. His men counted the canoes in the river. The fort lay about fifteen miles south of Lake Erie. A plan of it, drawn by Washington, was sent to England.

At the time fixed for their return, Washington found the snow falling so fast that he decided to make his journey to Venango by canoe, the horses, which they had used in the outward journey, being forwarded through the forest with their baggage. St. Pierre was civil to the last. He was as hospitable as polite. The canoe was plentifully stocked with provisions and liquors. But secretly artifices were practised to lure away the Indians. The Half-King was a man whose friendship was worth bidding for. Promises were made, present were given, the Indians were offered every advantage of friendship and trade.

But the Half-King was not to be placated by fine words. He knew the French. Delay was occasioned, however, of which Washington complained, and hinted at the cause.

"You are certainly mistaken, Major Washington," declared the polite Frenchman. "Nothing of the kind has come to my knowledge. I really cannot tell why the Indians delay. They are naturally inclined to procrastinate, you know. Certainly, everything shall be done on my part to get you off in good time."

Finally, the Indians proving immovable in their decision, the party got off. The journey before them was no pleasure one, even with the advantage of a water-route, and a canoe as a vehicle of travel. Rocks and drifting trees obstructed the channel. Here were shallows; there, dangerous currents. The passage was slow and wearisome, and not without its perils.

"Many times," says Washington, "all hands were obliged to get out, and remain in the water half an hour or more in getting over the shoals. At one place the ice had lodged and made it impassable by water, and we were obliged to carry our canoe across a neck of land a quarter of a mile over."

In six days they reached Venango, having journeyed one hundred and thirty miles by the course of the stream. The horses had preceded them, but had reached the fort in so pitiable a condition as to render them hardly fit to carry the baggage and provisions. Washington, Mr. Gist, and Mr. Vanbraam, the French interpreter, clad in Indian walking costume, proceeded on foot, the horses following with their drivers. After three days' journey the poor animals had become so feeble, the snow so deep, the cold so severe, that Washington and Gist determined to push forward alone, leaving Mr. Vanbraam as leader of the remainder of the party.

Gun in hand, and knapsack—containing his food and papers—on back, the intrepid explorer pushed forward with his companion, who was similarly equipped. Leaving the path they had been following, they struck into a straight trail through the woods, purposing to reach the Alleghany a few miles above the Ohio.

The journey proved an adventurous one. They met an Indian, who agreed to go with them and show them the nearest way. Ten or twelve miles were traversed, at the end of which Washington grew very foot-sore and weary. The Indian had carried his knapsack, and now wished to relieve him of his gun. This Washington refused, whereupon the savage grew surly. He pressed them to keep on, however, saying that there were Ottawa Indians in the forest, who might discover and scalp them if they lay out at night. By going on they would reach his cabin and be safe.

They advanced several miles farther. Then the Indian, who had fallen behind them, suddenly stopped. On looking back they perceived that he had raised his gun, and was aiming at them. The next instant the piece was discharged.

"Are you shot?" cried Washington.

"No," answered Gist.

"After this fellow, then."

The Indian had run to the shelter of a large white oak, behind which he was loading as fast as possible. The others were quickly upon him, Gist with his gun at his shoulder.

"Do not shoot," said Washington. "We had best not kill the man, but we must take care of him."

The savage was permitted to finish his loading, even to putting in a ball, but his companions took good heed to give him no further opportunity to play the traitor. At a little run which they soon reached they bade the Indian to make a fire, on pretence that they would sleep there. They had no such intention, however.

"As you will not have him killed," said Gist, "we must get him away, and then we must travel all night."

Gist turned to the Indian. "I suppose you were lost, and fired your gun," he said, with a transparent affectation of innocence.

"I know the way to my cabin," replied the Indian "It is not far away."

"Well, then, do you go home. We are tired, but will follow your track in the morning. Here is a cake of bread for you, and you must give us meat in the morning."

The savage was glad enough to get away. Gist followed and listened, that he might not steal back on them. Then they went half a mile farther, where they made a fire, set their compass, and, after a short period of rest, took to the route again and travelled all night.

The next night they reached the Alleghany. Here they were destined to experience a dangerous adventure. They had expected to cross on the ice, but the river proved to be frozen only for a short distance from the shores. That night they slept with the snow for a bed, their blankets for a covering. When dawn appeared the same dubious prospect confronted them. The current of the river still swept past, loaded with broken ice.

"There is nothing for it but a raft," said Washington. "And we have but one hatchet to aid us in making it. Let us to work."

To work they fell, but it was sunset before the raft was completed. Not caring to spend another night where they were, they launched the raft and pushed from shore. It proved a perilous journey. Before the stream was half crossed they were so jammed in the floating ice that it seemed every moment as if their frail support would sink, and they perish in the swift current. Washington tried with his setting-pole to stop the raft and let the ice run by. His effort ended unfortunately. Such was the strength of the current that the ice was driven against the pole with a violence that swept him from his feet and hurled him into water ten feet deep. Only that chance which seems the work of destiny saved him. He fell near enough to the raft to seize one of its logs, and after a sharp scramble was up again, though dripping with icy water. They continued their efforts, but failed to reach either shore, and in the end they were obliged to spring from their weak support to an island, past which the current was sweeping the raft.

The escape was almost like the proverbial one "from the frying-pan to the fire." The island was destitute of shelter. As the night advanced the air grew colder, and the adventurers suffered severely. Mr. Gist had his hands and feet frozen,—a disaster which Washington, despite his wetting, fortunately escaped. The morning dawned at length. Hope returned to their hearts. The cold of the night had done one service, it had frozen the water between the island and the eastern bank of the stream. The ice bore their weight. They crossed in safety, and the same day reached a trading-post, recently formed, near the ground subsequently to be celebrated as that of Braddock's defeat.

Here they rested two or three days, Gist recovering from the effects of his freezing, Washington improving the opportunity to pay a visit to Queen Aliquippa, an Indian princess, whose palace—if we may venture to call it so—was near by. The royal lady had been angry that he had neglected her on his way out. This visit, an apology, and a present healed her wounded feelings, and disposed her to a gracious reception.

Nothing could be learned of Vanbraam and the remainder of the party. Washington could not wait for them. He hurried forward with Gist, crossed the Alleghanies to Will's Creek, and, leaving his companion there, hastened onward to Williamsburg, anxious to put his despatches in Governor Dinwiddie's hands. He reached there on January 16, having been absent eleven weeks, during which he had traversed a distance of eleven hundred miles.

What followed is matter of common history. Dinwiddie was incensed at St. Pierre's letter. The French had come to stay; that was plain. If the English wanted a footing in the land they must be on the alert. A party was quickly sent to the Ohio forks to build a fort, Washington having suggested this as a suitable plan. But hardly was this fort begun before it was captured by the French, who hastened to erect one for themselves on the spot.

Washington, advancing with a supporting force, met a French detachment in the woods, which he attacked and defeated. It was the opening contest of the French and Indian War.

As for Fort Duquesne, which the French had built, it gave rise to the most disastrous event of the war, the defeat of General Braddock and his army, on their march to capture it. It continued in French hands till near the end of the war, its final capture by Washington being nearly the closing event in the contest which wrested from the hands of the French all their possessions on the American continent.

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