Exploring French Creek [and George Washington]
Creek once carried young Washington to French fort

Original article by Cody Switzer
Condensed by Gina Boltz, Director, Native Village Publications

Waterford, PA -- In October, 1753, George Washington was a 21-year-old major in the Virginia militia. He was assigned to travel through the wilderness to deliver a message from Virginia's governor to Fort sur la Rivière aux Boeufs, a remote French Fort on French Creek. The message demanded that the French leave land that Great Britain claimed as its own. Washington was the second man to attempt the journey. 

It was among the last diplomatic efforts before the French and Indian War, part of the worldwide Seven Years' War.


"We passed over much good land since we left Venango, and through several extensive and very rich meadows, one of which, I believe, was nearly four miles in length," W
ashington wrote during his trip to the fort.

River systems were crucial trade and communication routes in the wild, roadless country.  The French claimed the entire Mississippi watershed, including the Ohio and Allegheny rivers and French Creek. They hoped to keep the English colonies east of the Appalachian Mountains so they could control the fur trade and connect French colonies in Canada with New Orleans.

 Washington arrived at Fort aux Boeufs in December. The French commander was not pleased with the note that accused them of trespassing.  "He told me that the country belonged to them; that no Englishman had a right to trade upon those waters; and that he had orders to make every person prisoner who attempted it on the Ohio, or the waters of it," Washington wrote in his journal.

Washington's journal of the trip was later published. It claimed England's ownership and served as propaganda to support the war. People throughout London and the colonies read the journal which was reprinted in newspapers.

The journey elevated Washington to a colonial idol. It described
dealings with the American Indians, his diplomatic efforts with the maligned French, an attempt on his life by a native, and how the ice-clogged, wild creek made him weary.

"We had a tedious and very fatiguing passage down the creek," he wrote of their return trip down French Creek. "Several times we had like to have been staved against rocks; and many times were obliged all hands to get out and remain in the water half an hour or more."

Today, the fur-bearing animals are rare. So are the bears that Washington's party hunted along the way. Native villages have been replaced with orderly creek side cornfields, split-level homes and manicured lawns.

There's still a connection, though. Washington was the first to name it "French Creek."

 

French Creek entries from the journals of George Washington and his guide, Christopher Gist:
Spelling and grammar are not corrected

Written by George Washington



November 30, 1753 -- Washington arrives in Venango

"We set out about nine o'clock with the half king, Jeskakake, White Thunder, and the Hunter; and traveled on the road to Venango (Franklin), where we arrived the fourth of December, without anything remarkable happening but a continued series of bad weather.

"This is an old Indian town, situated at the mouth of French Creek, on Ohio; and lies near north about sixty miles from the Loggstown, but more than seventy the way we were obliged to go.

"We found the French colours hoisted at a house from which they had driven Mr. John Frazier, an English subject. I immediately repaired to it, to know there the commander resided. There were three officers, one of whom, Captain Joncaire informed me that he had the command of the Ohio; but that there was a general officer at the near fort, where he advised me to apply for an answer."


Dec. 7, 1753 -- Washington sets out for Fort sur la Rivière aux Boeufs

"At twelve o'clock, we set out for the fort, and were prevented from arriving there until the eleventh by excessive rains, snows, and bad travelling through many mires and swamps; these we were obliged to pass to avoid crossing the creek, which was impossible, either by fording or rafting, the water was so high and rapid.

"We passed over much good land since we left Venango, and through several extensive and very rich meadows, one of which, I believe, was nearly for miles in length and considerably wide in some places."

Dec. 13, 1753 -- Washington describes Fort sur la Rivière aux Boeufs
"The chief officers retired to hold a council of war, which gave me an opportunity of taking the dimensions of the fort, and making what observations I could.

"It is situated on the south, or west fork of French creek, near the water; and is almost completely surrounded by the creek, and a small branch of it which forms a kind of island. Four houses compose the sides. The bastions are made of piles driven into the ground, standing more than twelve feet above it, and sharp at the top; with port holes cut for cannon, and loop holes for the small arms to fire through. There are eight six pound pieces mounted in each bastion, and one piece of four pounds before the gate. In the bastions are a guard house, chapel, doctor's lodging, and the commander's private store: round which are laid platforms for the cannon and men to stand on. There are several barracks without the fort, for the soldiers' dwelling, covered, some with bark, and some with boards, made chiefly of logs. There are also several other houses, such as stables, smith's shop, &c.

"I could get no certain account of the number of men here; but according to the best judgment I could form, there are an hundred, exclusive of officers, of which there are many. I also gave orders to the people who were with me, to take an exact account of the canoes which were hauled up to convey their forces down in the spring. This they did, and told fifty of birch bark, and an hundred and seventy of pine; besides many others which were blocked out, in readiness of being made.

Dec. 16, 1753 -- Washington departs from the fort, and describes the journey
"We had a tedious and very fatiguing passage down the creek. Several times we had like to have been staved against rocks; and many times were obliged all hands to get out and remain in the water half an hour or more, getting over the shoals. At one place, the ice had lodged, and made it impassable by water; we were, therefore, obliged to carry our canoes across the neck of land, a quarter of a mile over. We did not reach Venango until the 22nd, where we met with our horses.

"This creek is extremely crooked. I dare say the distance between the fort and Venango, can not be less than one hundred and thirty miles to follow the meanders."

 


Written by Christopher Gist, Washington's guide


Dec. 7, 1753 -- Party camps at Sugar Creek

"All encamped at Sugar creek, five miles from Venango (Franklin). The creek being very high, we were obliged to carry all our baggage over on trees, and swim our horses. The major (Washington) and I went first over, with our boots on."

Dec. 9, 1753 -- Failed attempt to build a raft

"We set out, left one of our horses here that could travel no further. This day we traveled to the big crossing, about fifteen miles, and encamped. Our Indians went out to look out logs to make a raft; but as the water was high, and there were other creeks to cross, we concluded to keep up this side the creek."

Dec. 17 and 18, 1753 -- Bear hunting on the way home to Virginia

"Monday, 17th. We set out, came to our Indian's camp. They were out hunting; they killed three bears.

"Tuesday, 18th. One of our Indians did not come to camp. So we finding the waters lower very fast, were obliged to go and leave our Indians."

Dec. 21, 1753 -- Hauling the boat over ice

"The ice was so hard we could not break our way through, but were obliged to haul our vessels across a point of land and put them in the creek again. The Indians and three French canoes overtook us here, and the people of one French canoe that was lost, with her cargo of powder and lead. This night we encamped about twenty miles above Venango."

Dec. 22, 1753 -- French canoe tips, party arrives in Venango

"Set out. The creek began to be very low, and we were forced to get out, to keep our canoe from oversetting, several times; the water freezing to our clothes; and we had the pleasure of seeing the French overset, and the branding and wine floating in the creek, and run by them, and left them to shift for themselves. Came to Venango, and met with our people and horses.

Background: Robert Kaufman Fabrics: http://www.robertkaufman.com/

 

*Copied from: "A Reprint of the Journals of George Washington and His Guide, Christopher Gist, Reciting Their Experiences on the Historic Mission from Governor Dinwiddie, of Virginia, to the French Forts in November-December, 1753," compiled by Don Marshall Larrabee in 1950.
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