When Washington was twenty-one years old, he was sent by Governor Dinwiddie, of Virginia, with a message to the French Commander in the Ohio Valley, directing him to withdraw from that territory, since it was claimed as an English possession. The place where Washington was to go was about five hundred and sixty miles away, through a tangled wilderness, beset by Indians and dangers of all kinds.
Washington, with a small party, started, in October, on his long journey. The winter soon settled down on the travelers as they toiled along. The snow fell thick and fast, the rain froze, and the sleet cut their faces like knives. Still, they were all strong young men, capable of enduring great hardship, and they bravely pursued their way.
When they reached the French settlement, they found the officer in charge busily engaged, preparing his fort. Washington delivered the letter from Governor Dinwiddie. The French Commander politely replied that he was a soldier, acting under orders, and that it was his purpose to stay where he was, until the Governor of Canada directed him to move. He wrote a letter to Governor Dinwiddie to this effect, and handed it to Washington; after which he treated the party with much consideration and kindness, until they were ready to depart.
Our story mainly deals with his return journey. It was now the dead of winter, and very cold. The long pathless forest, the steep mountains, the swollen streams, the treacherous savages, hunger and cold, lay before Washington; but, with a few faithful Indian guides and a companion, named Gist, he prepared to start on his perilous way. The French were polite to the very last. They stocked his canoes with provisions, and gave him everything he needed for his journey.
But Washington found the snow falling so fast that he sent a few men with the horses and baggage through the forest, while he took his own small party in canoes down the river. The way was most difficult. The channel was obstructed by rocks and drifting logs. Shallows and dangerous currents abounded.
"Many times," wrote Washington, "all hands were obliged to get out and remain in the water half an hour or more, while taking their canoes across the shoals. At one place, the ice had lodged and made it impassable by water; so we were forced to carry our canoe across a neck of land the distance of a quarter of a mile."
In six days they went one hundred and thirty miles, on a half frozen river, in frail canoes, to the place where they had planned to meet their horses and baggage. When they arrived, they found the outfit in a very pitiable plight.
Under these conditions Washington and Gist determined to proceed alone on foot, leaving the others to follow. With his gun on his shoulders, his knapsack on his back, and a stout staff to steady his feet, the brave adventurer started, followed by his faithful companion, similarly equipped. Leaving the regular path, they struck a straight course, by the compass, through the woods.
The journey was full of excitement. An Indian at one place met them and agreed to show them the way. At the end of the first day, Washington grew very weary and foot-sore with the heavy traveling. The Indian, who had carried his knapsack, now offered to carry his gun also. This Washington refused, and the Indian fell back a few paces, his face scowling. They had proceeded a few miles further on when the Indian, who had dropped behind, suddenly stopped.
Washington and Gist looked back and saw the treacherous savage aiming his gun at them. With a cry of alarm they both leaped aside, just as the weapon was fired, thereby escaping injury. But it was a narrow escape, and Gist was angry at this treatment; so he ran in pursuit of the Indian, who had taken refuge behind a tree. He seized him by the throat and was on the point of thrusting his knife into him, when Washington called out, "Don't kill him. It will do no good, and will only sound an alarm to bring other savages down upon us. Bind him, and have him go with us."
Gist accordingly bound the Indian and ordered him to walk ahead of the party for a day or more. Then Washington released him, and bade him begone to his home in the woods. The following night they reached the Allegheny River, where they were destined to meet with a most dangerous experience.
They had hoped to cross on the ice, but the river was not frozen hard enough; so they lay down on a bed of snow, and covered themselves up in their blankets, expecting that, by morning, the thick ice would be formed. But on rising, they saw, at a glance, that the ice was not yet to be trusted.
"We will make a raft, and rely on our good fortune to get us safely over," said Washington. Whereupon he and Gist began to cut down trees with their one small hatchet, and to bind the logs together with vines. It took a whole day to complete the raft, but, not caring to spend another night in the same place, they immediately launched their frail craft, and put out from the shore.
Before they had gone half across, the raft was jammed in the floating ice, so that it seemed as if they would be thrown into the water at any moment. Washington tried to hold the raft with his pole, in order to prevent it from drifting down stream. The result was most disastrous. The strength of the current was so great that Washington, powerful as he was, was jerked violently from the raft, and thrown into the icy current.
It was a dangerous moment for the future leader of the Revolutionary armies of America. By heroic effort, he breasted the cold water, pushed aside the floating ice, and caught hold of one end of the raft. Here, Gist assisted him to regain his place, dripping and shivering.
They had to abandon the raft and seek shelter on an island. All night long, without fire and food, his wet clothes freezing to his body, Washington waited for the hours to pass till morning. He kept alive by stamping his feet and beating his arms. When day dawned, the river was frozen over, thick and solid, and our two adventurers hastened to cross to the other side. Gist had his face and fingers frozen, but Washington escaped injury. They reached a trading-post where, after several days, they were completely recovered and ready to resume their journey.
The remaining portion of the trip was without adventure, though it was not without hardship. In due time, Washington reached the capital of Virginia and delivered to the Governor the answer of the French Commander. He had been absent eleven weeks and had traveled over a thousand miles.