Summer 2005

George Washington In Pennsylvania, A Test Of Faith, Fortitude & Freedom


A Test of Faith, Fortitude & Freedom

George Washington will always be associated with his beloved Mount Vernon in Virginia, but history will forever remember him in the western wilderness and colonial hub of Pennsylvania.

Journey into the Wilderness

On October 31, 1753, Virginia Governor, Robert Dinwiddie appointed 21 year-old George Washington to serve as ambassador to the French at Fort LeBoeuf (present day Waterford, Erie County). Already a major in the Virginia militia, young George was eager to prove himself, although it is doubtful that he could have foreseen where this journey would ultimately lead.

Washington’s mission was to deliver an ultimatum to the French forces demanding they leave the Ohio Country (present day western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia) or face the threat of being forced out by the British. The French occupation of the region threatened the western expansion of the colonies and caused the British great angst.

Washington enlisted the expertise of Christopher Gist, a land scout and experienced frontiersman from Maryland. Once in Pennsylvania, Washington sought the help of Native Americans friendly to the British, namely Seneca Chief Tanaghrisson (referred to in Washington’s journal as the Half King). His alliance with the Seneca Chief would later prove to escalate hostilities into a global war.

On December 4, Washington and his party reached Venango (modern day Franklin) where they met famous French Indian Joncaire. The shrewd Indian tried to persuade Washington’s American Indian escorts, to remain, in order to stall their mission. For three days, their resolve was tested before leaving on December 7.

After overcoming excessive rain, snow and less than ideal traveling conditions, George and his party reached Fort LeBoeuf on December 11, where he presented French commander Legardeur de St. Pierre with his dispatch. On the evening of December 14, Major Washington received an answer to the ultimatum - that he, St. Peirre would continue to follow orders to remove every Englishman from the Ohio River Valley.

The 500-mile trip back to Virginia proved to be dangerous for Washington and Gist. They were forced to abandon their horses near Venango because it was too difficult to navigate the terrain on horseback. It was here, at Venango that the French flattery and cunning had taken its toll and George Washington’s Indian companions stayed behind. Washington and Gist set out once again through the western Pennsylvania wilderness.

On the 27th of December just after passing a place called the Murthering Town, they crossed paths with a party of French Indians. One of the men fired at Washington from close range, but missed his target. After the close call, Washington and Gist quickened their pace.

Two days later they reached the Allegheny River. They were very disappointed to find that the river was not frozen. With only one poor hatchet, it took the entire day to build a raft. They attempted to cross the river just after sunset, but before they were halfway, Washington was knocked overboard when his guide pole was hit by a large ice flow. He managed to grab the raft before the freezing water rushed him away. The incident occurred near what is now the 40th Street Bridge in Pittsburgh. The two men managed to reach Wainwright’s Island (now part of the shore) where they survived a long night without fire or shelter. Fortunately, the morning brought good news - the river had frozen and they walked across to the east bank. There they received shelter from native Americans.

As their journey continued Gist and Washington traveled for a time with a party of twenty warriors headed south. The band of travelers came to a place where they found seven people killed and scalped. The warriors fled for fear that the murders would be attributed to them. According to Washington’s journal the markings left behind indicated that the murderers were French Indians.

The gruesome scene reinforced their need to find horses for the remainder of their trip.

While in the area, Washington decided to visit Indian Queen Alliquippa, where he presented her with gifts. While she accepted the gifts with enthusiasm, she gave the young man a sound scolding for not visiting while on his way to Fort LeBeouf.

Major Washington presented St. Pierre’s reply to Governor Dinwiddie on January 16, 1754. The historic account of Washington’s first journey to western Pennsylvania is believed to be accurate as both Washington and Gist kept detailed journals.

The Second Mission

Washington’s second trip to western Pennsylvania left little time to recuperate from the first. After receiving the French response to his letter, Governor Dinwiddie promoted Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and dispatched him with a small band of militia to secure the forks of the Ohio River (the Point in present day Pittsburgh). Upon returning the first time, Washington reported to Dinwiddie the strategic importance of the forks.

Along the way, Washington learned that the French had taken control of the land at the forks and were already in the process of building Fort Dusquesne.

While traveling through Fayette County, the young colonel would again rely on the assistance of his ally Chief Tanaghrisson. The chief warned Washington of a small band of approaching Frenchmen. On May 28, 1754, Washington and Tanaghrisson’s forces ambushed the French, killing their leader Jumonville and many others. Washington quickly retreated to Great Meadows, Pennsylvania to prepare for the French retaliation. The men hastily built Fort Necessity and awaited the impending consequence.

"...they then, from every little rising - tree - stump - stone and bush kept up a constant galding fire upon us; which was returned in the best manner we could..," was Washington’s account of the battle of Ft. Necessity in "Remarks."

With his food supply exhausted and much of his ammunition wet from the pouring rain, Washington was left with no recourse. The overwhelming French force killed a third of Washington’s 400 men before he surrendered. The papers of surrender were signed in darkness and a word in the text was misinterpreted. Washington unwittingly admitted to assassinating Ensign Jumonville.

Disappointed in the outcome of his first military test, George Washington resigned as colonel and returned to Mount Vernon.


"...the man who is a particular favorite of Heaven..."

A year later Washington joined British Major General Braddock and a large force of British regulars. His knowledge of the area helped him serve as Braddock’s assistant. He was not paid for his service but hoped it would help him gain a British military commission.

Their mission was to seize Fort Dusquesne from the French. A force of about 1,300 carved out a road close to what is now the National Road (Route 40). On July 9, 1755, as the British neared the fort, they crossed the Monongahela River where they were ambushed by about 900 French and Indian troops. The British suffered 1,000 casualties at the hands of an enemy that fired from behind rocks and trees, a form of battle foreign to the British. Braddock was mortally wounded in the battle. Washington was uninjured and tried desperately to maintain control, but the remaining troops fled.

His actions during the three-hour Battle of the Monongahela helped to enhance Washington’s reputation for courage under fire. The fact that he escaped without a scratch amazed many who witnessed the battle. Washington himself, later wrote to his brother John, "By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!"

Years later, the Indian chief who fought in the battle sought Washington out in order to tell him his experience. The chief recalled, "I am a chief and ruler over my tribes. I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of the great battle. [On that day] I called to my men and said, 'Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies.' Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for you, knew not how to miss--'twas all in vain, a power mightier far than we, shielded you…I am come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle."

The Mighty Fortress Falls

On May 17, 1756, the British formally declared war on France, extending hostilities to the West Indies, India and Europe.

In 1758, Washington’s First Virginia Regiment accompanied British General John Forbes in a second attempt, to capture Fort Dusquesne. Forbes ordered the construction of a new road as well as the construction of Fort Bedford and Fort Ligonier to establish a supply line for the troops.

Again, Washington’s courage would be tested on the battlefield. Before reaching their objective, Washington’s Virginia Militia encountered French troops. Following a skirmish, two Virginia regiments unintentionally opened fire on each other. Washington quickly rode into the crossfire to stop the barrage of fire, knocking down muskets with his sword.

Several days later Washington arrived at Fort Dusquesne to find it burned to the ground. With their supply lines cut and their Native American allies dwindling, the French burned the fort and fled to Venango. The Fort would later be rebuilt by British forces and named Fort Pitt.

After four years of service, Colonel Washington once again returned to Mount Vernon. Though treacherous, young George Washington’s adventures in western Pennsylvania no doubt helped prepare him for the challenges he had yet to face.

New Beginnings

Shortly after returning from war, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow with two small children. For all accounts, theirs was a happy marriage. For ten years, George Washington spent much of his time farming his land and making improvements to Mount Vernon.

Time passed and Washington like many colonists became increasingly aggravated with Great Britain’s policies. As a delegate to the first and second Continental Congress, Washington was a man of little words, but his peers felt his sound presence. On June 15, 1775, he was chosen unanimously by Congress as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. General Washington took command of the troops surrounding the British in Boston on July 3, 1775. His first victory came in March of 1776 when the British evacuated Boston. But the war for independence would be most trying for Washington, fighting off attacks from both the British and his countrymen in Congress.

A Soldier’s Story

The months following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 did not go well for Washington’s rag tag colonial army. Undisciplined and under supplied they lost important battles in New York and New Jersey. The dismal year was somewhat salvaged when George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas to lead a surprise attack and defeat enemy Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.

Earlier that day Hessian commander Col. Rall had an opportunity to avert the attack. He spent the entire day in the Trenton Tavern playing cards with other officers when a servant handed him a message from a courier. Either Rall discounted the warning or never read it. Many hours later the crumpled note was found in his coat pocket as he lay dying of the wounds he suffered in the Battle of Trenton. Again, it seemed like providence was on Washington’s side since prior to the battle his army was near collapse.

By August 1777, British intentions were clear - capture the American Capital, Philadelphia.

In September, the two forces met about 25 miles southwest of the city at a place where the road to Philadelphia crossed the Brandywine Creek. Washington had placed his troops in large numbers at the main fords and crossing points. But due to bad intelligence, he overlooked a crossing point at Trimble’s Ford and was caught off-guard when his troops were attacked from behind their lines. Again, they were forced to retreat. Washington’s decisive action and reinforcements from Nathanael Greene’s divisions helped stave off a disaster. There were many who showed exceptional courage during the Battle of Brandywine, twenty-year old French Marquis de Lafayette rallied his confused, battered and demoralized troops at the end of the day even as he suffered a serious leg wound.

A particularly brutal assault against colonial troops occurred at Paoli on September 21, 1777. Under the cover of night, British troops under the command of Charles Grey attacked soldiers under the command of "Mad Anthony" Wayne. The British troops were instructed to use only bayonets. Many were killed or wounded in the brutal attack. The Americans called the slaughter The Paoli Massacre and it became the rally cry for the Continental Army.

On September 26, the British arrival in Philadelphia was a grand spectacle. Because of the many Tories that resided in the colonial capital, the British officers were greeted with soirees and indulgence. There was little Washington could do to stop the occupation. As pleased, as British General Sir William Howe was to have his prize, it would prove to be a costly one for the British.

On October 4, 1777, Washington led an attack on British positions in Germantown on the outskirts of Philadelphia. This nighttime campaign was another near disaster for the American troops. The attack had Howe’s troops in chaotic retreat. But, the fog had caused both of General Washington’s wings to begin firing on each other's positions causing confusion and panic. Again Washington’s troops retreated. Howe’s army did not pursue, allowing the colonists to fight another day. In a span of three weeks, the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown had lost Washington 20 percent of his army.

But Howe’s inaction after he had the colonial army in retreat drew criticism. His own General Cornwallis was not pleased with the way he conducted himself. He was very concerned after the Battle of Germantown that the Continental Army was not pursued and destroyed. Cornwallis felt that Howe spent too much time indulging himself in parades and parties. It was obvious to him that Howe severely underestimated the resolve of the Continental Army and its General.

While Howe resided comfortably in headquarters in Germantown, British under General Burgoyne were in desperate need of reinforcements from Howe. Washington’s position outside the city prevented him for sending aid to Burgoyne in Saratoga, New York. As a result, Burgoyne surrendered his army to Major General Horatio Gates on October 17. This great victory for the colonies proved to be the start of political difficulties for General Washington.

Though the soldiers who fought beside their General had the greatest respect for him, there was dissent in the Congress. There were those who questioned his decision making and the fact that he relied too heavily on unproven soldiers like Nathanael Greene and the Marquis de Layfayette. By the end of 1777, Washington’s critics were tired of waiting to expel the British from Philadelphia. Some felt that Horatio Gates was better equipped to command the Continental Army. But Washington had many supporters and with public opinion and his reputation of courage and unquestioned integrity, he would survive the political storm.

Washington was not the only one with problems. Howe needed supplies and fast. With Washington’s troops surrounding Philadelphia, the British had no way to bring food and supplies into the city. Washington was aware of Howe’s dilemma when he wrote:

"If the river defenses can be maintained, General Howe’s situation will not be the most agreeable; for if his supplies can be stopped by water, it may easily be done by land...The acquisition of Philadelphia may, instead of his good fortune, prove his ruin."

As Washington recognized, Howe’s only chance was to attack the forts along the Delaware. After three weeks of fighting, the British finally succeeded in capturing Fort Mifflin. Again, like the previous year, 1777 was to end on a high note for the Americans. The Continental Army spent six weeks encamped at Whitemarsh. From his position, Washington was able to protect the supply cities of Reading and Lancaster and monitor the British. On December 5, Howe launched a surprise attack on Washington, but an unlikely spy allowed the Americans to prepare.

A Quaker woman, Lydia Darragh, walked through the snow to deliver a message to George Washington warning them of Howe’s attack. The evening before, she overheard the British plan and devised a plan of her own. Her twenty-two year old son was stationed at Whitemarsh and she was determined to risk her life if necessary to save that of her son’s. Fortunately she didn’t have to make the entire sixteen-mile journey, along the way she met an American officer who delivered the message. A few days after the British assault was thwarted, a British officer confided in her:

"We were betrayed, for, on arriving near the encampment of General Washington, we found his cannon mounted, his troops under arms and so prepared at every point to receive us that we were compelled to march back without injuring our enemy, like a parcel of fools."

When the British returned to the city, Washington knew Howe would be content to wait out the winter in the comfort of Philadelphia. The Americans considered a few different locations but finally settled on Valley Forge to winter the troops.

A Turning Point in the War

When Valley Forge is mentioned thoughts of bloody footprints in the snow, starvation and desperation come to mind. But let us not forget faith, courage, unity, and leadership. The soldiers built more than 1,000 huts at Valley Forge during a two-week period at the end of December and beginning of January 1778. These make shift structures did little to protect the soldiers from the harsh winter.

More troublesome than this was the condition of the army’s supply system or lack of one. His time spent at Valley Forge was a very frustrating one for Washington. He was criticized for not launching a winter attack on Howe, yet his troops weren’t being adequately fed and clothed. At times, the men faced starvation and many were nearly naked without coats or shoes. Washington reported that more than 2,800 men were "unfit for duty...they are barefoot and otherwise naked."

Of the nearly 10,000 men who passed through Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778, more than 3,000 deserted. Finally, in utter fury Washington unleashed his anger on his critics,

"I can assure these gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and snow without cloaths or blankets." By March, General Nathanael Greene replaced Quartermaster Thomas Mifflin and food and supplies began to arrive at camp.

Prussian officer Baron von Steuben arrived to give the troops something they dearly lacked, training. The colonial army was a far cry from the disciplined soldiers of their enemy - they were farmers and tradesmen. Von Steuben instructed the soldiers in infantry drill and helped prepare them for combat. He soon earned the respect of the troops. Washington’s rag tag bunch was starting to look like a real army.

"Even if the rest of the world continues to ignore us, we will fight on. For we are fighting not only for ourselves, but, for all mankind. We are fighting for freedom and human dignity and the right to worship the God of our choice," were Washington’s words prior to hearing that France had finally agreed to aid the colonies in their war for independence.

Much needed supplies, warmer weather and drilling helped lift spirits in the camp but never as much as when word reached them that France had agreed on an alliance with the colonies. Although no battle was fought during the six-month encampment at Valley Forge, it was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. General Washington had weathered the storm first the conditions at Valley Forge and his detractors. No one who served with Washington could understand why anyone would want to see the great man replaced, but they did not know how it was at Valley Forge.

"The greatest difficulty," stated young Marquis de Layfayette, "was that, in order to conceal misfortunes from the enemy, it is necessary to conceal them from the nation also."

When the British found out that the French fleet was approaching the Delaware River, they evacuated Philadelphia. Although the war raged on (mainly in the south) for another five years, its Pennsylvania campaign was all but over.

The Father of a Nation

Washington’s stature with America grew greatly during the war, but after the war, his greatest ambition was to get home to his family at Mount Vernon. He enjoyed farming and breeding hunting dogs and horses. But his love for home and family could not keep him from the duty he had to his country.

In May of 1787, Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was elected presiding officer. After the new Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, he was unanimously elected president on February 4, 1789.

Washington’s White House was located on Market Street in Philadelphia. He occupied the residence from November 1790 to March 1797. The site where the President’s House once stood is directly across from the entrance to Independence Hall. During the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Washington took temporary residence in the Deshler-Morris House in Germantown. Between August and October nearly 5,000 Philadelphians died of the epidemic. Later the home served as a country retreat for the first family.

A Return to His Proving Grounds

President Washington returned to western Pennsylvania again when the Whiskey Rebellion erupted in 1794. The settlers in western Pennsylvania were protesting the federal tax on whiskey. Tax collectors were frequently attacked while doing their job.

Washington assembled an army of 13,000 troops and marched to Bedford, where he headquartered at the Espy House. This is the only time in American history that a Commander-in-Chief marched with his troops into battle.

Washington’s Pennsylvania experience speaks of courage, mistakes and maturation. His, is the story of a young man that wanted nothing more than a British military commission, but was destined to became the father of the most powerful nation in the world.

At sites throughout Pennsylvania, Washington’s mark on the nation is celebrated.

The National Commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the French and Indian War will hold special events and exhibits at historic sites and museums through 2005. For more information logon to

The fight for American independence is observed at locations throughout Philadelphia and its countryside. For more information on the historic events of the Revolutionary War logon to: or


Follow Washington’s Steps through History by Visiting These Historic Pennsylvania Sites:

Fort LeBoeuf Museum, Waterford,

Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Farmington,

National Road Heritage Corridor,

Fort Bedford Museum, Bedford.

Old Bedford Village, Bedford

Fort Ligonier, Ligonier,

Fort Pitt Museum, Pittsburgh,

Brandywine Battlefield Park, Chadds Ford,

Valley Forge National Historical Park, Valley Forge,

Washington Crossing Historic Park,

Fort Washington State Park, Fort Washington,

Peter Wentz Farmstead Historic Site, Worcester,

Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia, (215) 685 4192

The Moland House, Warwick Township,

Hope Lodge Historic Site, Fort Washington,

Cliveden, Philadelphia,

Historic Waynesborough, Paoli,


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