Did George Washington Really Start the French and Indian War?

We Love the Stories

As we travel through this beautiful country we hear stories!  Here’s one we had never heard before.  George Washington, our favorite Revolutionary War Hero and First President, was accused by both the French and the British of starting the French and Indian War.  I missed that day in High School History class, so I never really learned about the French and Indian War.  The short story is that the French and British fought for the North American continent during the 1750s and 1760s mostly using Native Indians and Colonists as their surrogates.

 

For background on the French and Indian War, and a map of places to see related to that war, visit our History For Travelers page at How the French and Indian War led to the American Revolution .

 

The French and the British Disagree (surprise!)

So how did George Washington start it? The story begins in 1753.  George Washington was a 22-year-old Lt. Col. in the Virginia Militia, trained and supplied by the British to protect and defend the Colonies as well as enforce British rule.  He was 6 feet 4 1/2 inches tall and a commanding presence as he led his troops of 132 men.

George Washington in Uniform of British Officer

George Washington in Uniform of British Officer

The assignment he received from the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, was to tell the French to leave lands that the British claimed.  The French were beginning to build forts through the St. Lawrence River area all the way to what is now Pittsburgh.  They claimed the land as well.  Both sides believed that the land in the “Ohio Country”, south and east of the Ohio River would be prime real estate as their populations grew.  And, of course, both sides were right.

So Lt. Col. Washington led his troops slowly up to Fort LeBoeuf, near what is now Erie, Pennsylvania.  The commander in charge replied as expected.  “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.”  Washington returned to Virginia to report the news.

The British Return to Defend Pennsylvania (Ohio Country)

Of course, this gave Governor Dinwiddie the evidence he needed to procure funding and ordnance to send troops to mount a defense of the area on the Northern and Western frontier.  George Washington was assigned to lead a joint expedition with his militia, which would soon be joined by British regulars and militias from other colonies.

 

An “Accidental” Battle

So here’s where the fun begins.  After selecting a spot to settle in just South of Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh), the young officer begins to build a small fort, and names it “Fort Necessity”.  From here, he takes a small group of men up to investigate a report that the French have a small contingent moving south towards their location.  Washington and his men encircle the French camp to assess their strength and intentions.   No one really know exactly what happened next.  Most scholars believe one of the British troops made a noise that alerted the French, who, of course, found their weapons and prepared to defend themselves.  What we do know is that Washington gave the order to fire, and the rest is history.  After the confusion subsided, Washington had 21 prisoners, and 10 french fatalities, including their commander, Ensign Coulon de Jumonville.  The French charged Washington with an unprovoked attack.  Later that summer they would attack Fort Necessity and Washington’s troops would be forced to surrender, seriously diminishing Washington’s reputation as a British officer.

You can learn more about George Washington’s time with the British militia at Fort Necessity, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (See map, above).

To learn more about the progress of the French and Indian War, see our page at History For Travelers – The French and Indian War, which also describes how that war set up the American colonists to be ready for the Revolutionary War a few years later.

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