By the 1750s, the status of the Ohio Country was nebulous. Great Britain, France, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut and the Ohio Indians themselves all had claims to the lands bordered by Appalachians Mountains in the east and southeast, the Ohio River in the south, and the Great Lakes in the North. The Ohio, Iroquois for “good”, wasn’t always named so. Known as the “beautiful river” by its previous Algonquin and Sioux inhabitants, the Ohio and its tributaries teemed with one the 17th century’s most precious commodities: beaver.
In the 17th century the fur trade dominated Indian politics, but was still seconded to the demographic disaster that heralded the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. At the end of the 16th century, European childhood diseases swept through the Ohio Country, greatly reducing the Indian population. Most Indians spread out to take advantage of the increased space. One Indian nation did the opposite: the Iroquois Confederacy. Instead of breaking apart and spreading out, the Iroquois consolidated and centralized. Exploiting the insatiable demand by first Dutch and then British merchants for beaver pelts, the unified and powerful Iroquois embarked on seventy years of conquest, extermination, and expansion in order to secure the beaver trade and replace the population lost to disease.
The Iroquois and British formed the Covenant Chain, in which the Iroquois only attacked Indian tribes hostile to Britain or friends of the French. However, they struck a hard wall along the St Lawrence River against the Huron and Wabanaki Indians equipped by the French, so the Iroquois turned south and west against the Ohio Indians. Dutch and British trade goods, particularly muskets, fire strikers, and metal pots, hatchets and arrowheads, gave the Iroquois an asymmetric advantage over the Ohio Indians. These items greatly simplified the logistics for the ranging bands of Iroquois. No longer were hunting and war parties limited to the range at which they could carry a hot rock for fire starting, the amount of dried meat they could carry, or the length of time they could sleep cold and hungry in the elements. Fire starters could produce fire on demand to quickly cook game in metal pots efficiently killed by metal arrowheads and butchered by metal knives. But the Beaver Wars weren’t just about the all-important pelts but also the replacement of the Iroquois population killed by European diseases.
Small pox in particular took a toll on Indians nations. For the Iroquois, capture, enslavement and assimilation were the answers to mitigating their reduced population. Most nations defeated in battle disappeared. Men, wounded and anyone unable to make the increasingly longer trip back to the Five Nations, such as the elderly, infants and young children, were killed, while women and older children were taken back to the Iroquoian homeland. There they endured an initial period of brutal enslavement bookended by a gauntlet to enter the town when they arrived to an assimilation ceremony into the nation. If they survived they were welcomed into their clan as a full member. Many Indian nations disappeared, never to be heard of again, lost to history. The lucky ones were recorded by an intrepid European traveler or trader, and left in a dusty tome to be discovered by some future historian. The luckiest have a town or street named after them. The Erie Indians dominated the southern shore of the lake that bears their name, but that doesn’t change the fact that we know virtually nothing about them, so complete was their destruction at the hands of the Iroquois.
The decades of warfare became central to Iroquoian identity as young warriors wanted to emulate their elders, but had to range further and further afield for captives. Later, war was being conducted for its own sake, in many cases just to replace losses from previous wars. Consequently, Iroquoian conquests were so vast that they could not effectively control their own territory. Their hunting grounds were preyed upon by the southern Indians, such as the Cherokee. The Iroquois took to establishing buffer nations from their defeated foes, most notably the Shawnee, to protect the hunting grounds. To keep these subjects in line, Iroquois “half-kings” were appointed.
The half-kings were answerable only to the Five Nations council fire at Onondaga and lived among their vassal nations. However, the language differences and the animosity generated from the half-kings and their families choosing the best women for wives and the strongest and fastest boys for assimilation caused them to grow apart from their wards. The half-kings’ families and entourages eventually formed their own tribe, known as the Mingo.
As the Mingo were slowly forming their own identity in the Ohio country, the Beaver Wars were brought to an abrupt end. In 1697, the British Empire made a separate peace with France to end King William’s War, something they pledged the Iroquois never to do. It was the first break of the Covenant Chain. France and their Indian allies turned their full fury onto the Iroquois decisively defeating them. At the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701, the Iroquois pledged fealty to France, and to remain neutral in any future conflicts between France and England.
The Iroquois had no intention of remaining neutral and abdicating their commanding position as arbiter of all things Indian between the French and British Empires. They planned to play both sides. Barely three years after Montreal, the easternmost of the Five Iroquois Nations, the Mohawk, went to war as an ally of France during the War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War in America. The other four nations remained neutral in order to continue trade with the British. The war ended in 1713 with a British victory. At the Treaty of Utrecht, the negotiations of which the Iroquois did not participate in since it was signed in the Netherlands, France gave their nominal sovereignty over the Iroquois Confederacy to the British, who were not so hands off as the French were.
The Iroquois had a few problems with their new status; the least of which was their new “Great White Father” across the sea, because militarily, the edict could not be enforced: the English traversed Confederation land only because the Iroquois permitted them. The problem was the Treaty of Utrecht could be enforced economically. The Iroquois could not go back to their traditional way of life. The trade goods had permanently altered daily life and the traditional skills of their great-grandparents were gone. Moreover, they had no industrial base to produce their own muskets, metal tools, and woven clothes. Even their currencies, little beads called wampum, were now manufactured abroad. The Iroquois had no choice but to reluctantly accept the terms.
There were further problems. The neutrality of the westernmost of the Five Nations, the Seneca, and the Mingo and Ohio Indians, allowed the British to successfully court the Cherokee to fight Spain’s Indian allies in the south. The Cherokee and their allies defeated the Tuscarora in 1713. The Tuscarora were an Iroquoian speaking people, and sought refuge from the Cherokee with the Five Nations. The Tuscarora were vehemently anti-British, and the elders gave them new lands east of the Mohawk to prevent British encroachment. They became the Sixth Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, but they were very problematic for the council and caused no end of trouble with their new British overlords.
Nonetheless, the unique Iroquois position allowed them to effectively maintain their sovereignty, if not in name but in practice. They were more powerful than any two other English colonies and were masters of their territories. They settled into a power broker role, and played everyone against each other to maintain their position: the British against the French, the Crown against the colonies, colony against colony, the colonies against the French, and the colonies against other Indians.
During “the Long Peace” between 1713 and 1744, the Iroquois were colonial muscle against recalcitrant Indians that bordered the English colonies. Several English colonies bought land from the Iroquois that was occupied by one of their subject nations, and the Iroquios sent them west to the Ohio country at colonial request. All for some extra trade goods to key elders which could be given to followers for their loyalty. Pennsylvania in particular routinely called on the Mohawk to enforce treaties. The Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly refused to fund a militia and outsourced the colony’s defense to the Mohawk, again just for some extra trade goods. In 1737, the Delaware Indians rightfully balked at the duplicitous “Walking Purchase” for the remainder of the Delaware River valley. The Assembly appealed to the Mohawk and the Delaware were quickly sent packing. Even worse, in the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster, the Iroquois sold all of the Ohio Country land south of the Ohio River, at least in Virginian eyes. The Iroquois thought they sold just the Shenandoah Valley. The dispute would have probably ended in the Six Nations’ favor had war not broken out again.
The thirty years of “peace” ended when another European war spilled over into North America. The War of Austrian Succession was known as King George’s War in the colonies. At the start of the conflict in 1744, the Iroquois decided to exert their sovereignty and stayed neutral, despite British protestations.
The closest Iroquois nation and the one that could offer the most immediate assistance, the Tuscarora in the east, wanted nothing to do with the British. New York and the New England colonies routinely used the Iroquois to keep their Indian neighbors in line, and when they decided to stay neutral, the British could find few Indian allies to fight the French and Wabbanaki in New England. The British got the worst of it, about ten percent of the male population of New York and New England were killed. Due to factors outside New England, the British won the war, and did it without the Iroquois assistance. The colonists who suffered during the war wouldn’t forget Iroquois neutrality.
King George’s War had a different effect in the Ohio Country. In the 1730s, the colonies were expanding, especially Pennsylvania and Virginia, and colonial settlers were pushing west over the Appalachian Mountains. The settlers and traders brought cheap trade goods to the Ohio Indians. French trade goods were three times more expensive and of an inferior quality. The French tried to entice the Ohio Indians to attack British trading posts but with the exception of a few gruesome examples, the Ohio Indians refused. Despite Iroquois sovereignty, and thus supposedly British control over the Ohio country stemming from the Beaver Wars, the French used the river systems at will. The Ohio and its tributaries were vital in linking Quebec and the St Lawrence River basin to Detroit, the Illinois country and Mississippi Valley to New Orleans. In 1739, Baron De Longueuil led an expedition into the Ohio country where he met with the Ohio Indian nations to secure French use of the Ohio waterways. When King George’s War broke out in 1744, the French flooded the Ohio Indians with gifts and trade goods at great expense to themselves, securing treaties to assist with fighting the British.
Flush with French trade goods, the Delaware, Shawnee and even the Mingo rolled back the frontier. The threat to settlers east of the Appalachians broke Quaker resistance to a militia. With no Iroquois help with Indian issues as they traditionally had, the Pennsylvania Assembly, led by Benjamin Franklin, approved the construction of a number of forts along the frontier and a large number of militia mostly composed of recent German and Scots-Irish immigrants who had no love for neither Quakers nor Indians. The threat never really materialized east of the Appalachians, but that didn’t stop the colonists from believing that they won the war without Iroquois help.
The Iroquois recognized that they might have over played their hand and wished to get back into King George’s good graces. They just needed a way to do so without losing any more sovereignty and without angering the French; the balance of power needed to be maintained. The actions of the Ohio Indians gave them the perfect opportunity to do exactly that. The elders at the council fire at Onondaga were furious with Ohio Indians for directly negotiating with the French, and toward the end of the war, with the British and colonies. All diplomacy was supposed to go through them. But after decades of absentee rule even the Mingo had grown weary of and chaffed at subjugation from the far away Iroquois Six Nations. The Iroquois would have none of it. They forcefully re-exerted control and to add insult to injury sold their land out from under them.
The dispute with Virginia over the Treaty of Lancaster wasn’t pursued. Even worse were the actions by the Iroquois at the Albany Congress in 1748. Though famous for Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” proposition to unite the colonies, more importantly was the fact that the Iroquois sold even more Ohio country land to the colonies, sometimes selling the same land to several colonies. There’s a portion of present day Pennsylvania that was claimed by four colonies, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and Connecticut, due to “shady bush deals” with Iroquois elders at the Albany Congress. None of this endeared the Iroquois with the Ohio Indians.
After the defeat of the French in King George’s War, the Ohio Indians were left out to rot, not just by the Iroquois but also by the French. French gifts and trade goods, plentiful in 1748, dried up completely in 1749, despite French insistence that they were subjects, as per the claims made by LaSalle in the 17th century and their agreements in 1744. Like the Iroquois after the Treaty of Utrecht, the Ohio Indians were forced to crawl back to the British and colonies for trade goods, if the French could not or would not provide. Their daily life depended on them and the Ohio Indians had no capacity to produce their own. The Virginians formed the Ohio Company to exploit and speculate the land sold to them in the Treaty of Lancaster and the Ohio Indian invited them and Pennsylvania to establish a trading post at Logstown (present day Ambridge, PA) on the Ohio River, which ironically the French built for the Ohio Indians in 1747 to stage raids out of.
The French were incensed. Later that year, the governor of New France sent Celeron de Blainville with 300 troops to reestablish control. He planted lead markers along the rivers and when he reached Logstown expelled the traders and confiscated their goods. De Blainville then berated the inhabitants for not resisting British expansion as subjects of New France should. Feeling that the Ohio Indians were sufficiently chastised, De Blainville returned to Quebec.
Enter Tanacharison, a Mingo half-king with dreams of a sovereign Ohio Indian nation free of French, Iroquois and (eventually) British influence. But the pragmatic Tanacharison knew he needed British trade goods, so taking a page out of the Iroquois playbook, he decided to set everyone against each other and profit. After an abortive attempt in 1751, Tanacharison’s council at Logstown in May 1752 was a who’s who of frontier fixers assembled to hammer out a treaty to keep the trade goods flowing. Marylander Christopher Gist and Virginian William Trent of the Ohio Company, Joshua Fry from Virginia, George Crogan from Pennsylvania, and Miami, Seneca, Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo chiefs, all of whom were upset with the way they were treated by the De Blainville. To establish his authority and magnanimity, Tanacharison declared the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster voided but that any Virgina settlements south of the Ohio would be left in peace. Tanacharison’s statement raised an eyebrow from the Seneca chiefs, but as the Mingo chief had by far the most warriors, they chose to let it slide for the time being. He further stated that Pennsylvania and Virginia were allowed to reestablish their trading posts, but at different more defensible location, 19 miles upriver where Chartiers Creek empties in the Ohio(present day McKees Rocks, PA). As a representative of the Ohio Company, William Trent enthusiastically volunteered to build a fort there to protect against a repeat of De Blainville’s expedition. Tanacharison agreed as it was below the Ohio-Monongahela River boundary that he considered the southern boundary of his realm. The Ohio Company had been trying to get Iroquois approval for a fort there since DeBlainville threw them out in 1749 and Tanacharison just delivered on it. One Delaware chief told Gist that “You English claim the south of the (Ohio) river, and the French the north. Where is the Indian land?” So Tanarcharison added his only stipulation that the British limit colonial settlement to south of the Ohio River. The French claims to the north were void and Trent’s Fort would protect everyone’s claims. Finally, Tanacharison renewed his fealty to King George and expected to be treated no different than any other colonial governor. The Treaty of Logstown was approved by all parties, though the Seneca quickly returned to Onondaga to report the half-king’s usurpation of their authority and for violating their expressed orders to maintain strict neutrality between the French and British.
The French and their Indian allies were not idle while Tanacharison met with the British and colonials. In June 1752, Chippewa and Ottawa Indians under Charles Langlade descended on Pickawillany, (present day Pique, OH) where the Miami chief Memeskia attempted a similar arrangement with Pennsylvania. The town’s inhabitants were slaughtered and Memeskia was ritually boiled and eaten by the warriors. As they got wind of the Treaty of Logstown, the French established a chain of forts in 1753 securing their water transportation routes in the Ohio country. The first was Fort Presque Isle on Lake Erie, (present day Erie, PA) in May. In July, they built Fort Le Bouef (on present day French Creek at Waterford, PA). Then at the mouth of the creek where it empties into the Allegheny River, they confiscated a British trading post called Venango (good guess: Venango, PA) and converted it into Fort Machault. Tanacharison and other Ohio Indian leaders travelled to Fort Presque Isle to demand the French leave, but needless to say, the French threw them out.
In January 1754, William Trent was commsioned by Robert Dinwiddie, the governor of Virginia, a captain in the militia and ordered to raise a hundred men to defend the new fort. He finally arrived at the proposed site in February 1754, after cutting a road form Cumberland, Maryland to the junction Redstone Creek and the Monongahela River (US Route 40 to Brownsville, PA). But at the suggestion of another captain of the Virginia militia, a young 21 year old George Washington, Trent decided to move the fort to the far superior Forks of the Ohio about a mile away across the Monongahela. Trent was loath to break the Logstown Treaty but fortifications on that site made the Chartier’s creek position redundant in friendly hands and untenable in French hands. Moreover, Trent, a fur trader himself, had a small post there and he would be able to stay out of the elements at night as the weather got colder without having to row across the river twice a day. Trent broke ground on “Fort Saint George” at the Forks of the Ohio (present day Pittsburgh, PA) on 17 February, 1754. Tanacharison laid the first log of the first building: the storehouse.
George Washington wasn’t a part of Trent’s expedition, but was just returning from his mission to warn the French to leave. Tanacharison reported the French response to his ultimatum to the Ohio Company of which Robert Dinwiddie, Virginia’s governor was a member. In September 1753, Dinwiddie received word from the King that he was authorized to use force to expel the French from the Ohio Country. Dinwiddie charged Washington to formally declare the British possession of the Ohio Country and then respectfully demand their withdrawal. Washington enthusiastically left Williamsburg on 31 October and slowly made his way north.
In mid-November, Washington slipped on a rock while crossing a small creek and soaked himself in the cold water (present day Slippery Rock, PA) so he had to stay there a day to warm up and dry off. He reached Fort La Boeuf, but was told to go on to Venango which he reached on 4 December. He made his proclamation, but was rebuffed. He dined with the French officers that night, when they reiterated that the Ohio Country was French and had been for almost a hundred years. Washington returned to Dinwiddie with the response.
Upon Washington’s return, Dinwiddie promoted him to major and authorized him to raise 100 more men to assist and resupply Trent, and take over construction and garrison of the fort. However, Washington was delayed while recruiting and by the middle of March, Trent was running out of provisions. So Trent left the fort to travel back down the road to request more supplies from Dinwiddie, leaving his second in command, Lt John Fraser.
John Fraser was also a fur trader, but he only accepted his commission on the condition he was able to conduct his business simultaneously. As soon as Trent departed, Fraser also left for his own trading post eight miles up the Monongahela leaving young Ensign Edward Ward in charge. Work proceeded quickly but not quick enough. In early April a French spy spotted the work reported back. In the meantime, belts were being tightened when Gist arrived and informed Ward that he had provisions at the Redstone post, if he just sent some men to gather them and bring them back. Ward dispatched half his men. The next day he was informed the French were enroute. Ward attempted to convince Fraser to come back but he was busy making money and couldn’t be bothered. Ward and Tanacharison constructed a hasty palisade around the completed storehouse but couldn’t do anymore because the French arrived quicker than expected. On 17 April 600 French regulars and another 400 militia and Indians under Captain Claude-Pierre Pecaudy Contrecoeur landed just outside musket range.
Ward and Tanacharison’s 41 men were no match and they surrendered that day. Contrecoeur tore the fort down and began building a new one. Tanacharison was furious, not that they surrendered but that the French would dare dismantle a structure in which he laid the first log. Ward and the Virginia militia departed the next day, but Tanacharison and his men stayed to observe the French.
Ward met Washington and his men on the way back and informed him of the loss. Washington was determined to retake the fort and sent a letter to Dinwiddie for artillery. He also sent a letter Tanacharison thanking him for his loyalty and asking him to recruit more men to help take the fort. Washington moved his force to Great Meadows (Farmington, PA) to await the artillery from Dinwiddie.
A French fort at the forks of the Ohio made all of the colonial trading posts on any of its tributaries untenable and unprofitable. This was an unacceptable situation for Tanacharison. The French had to be removed and Tanacharison did not personally command enough men to do it himself, and he would receive no assistance from his erstwhile superiors, the Iroquois. In fact he was probably going to be killed for what he had already done. Tanacharison needed a war between Britain and France.
Washington and Tanacharison exchanged several letters about the progress of the new fort the French were building. Named after the most recent governor of New France, Fort Duquesne was a proper star fort in the latest style and nearly impregnable against any small force if properly garrisoned. By the end of May, Dinwiddie promoted Washington again, this time to Lieutenant Colonel, and reinforced him with more Virginians and a company of South Carolina militia. On 24 May, 1754, Washington received a letter from Tanacharison that the French were on their way to defeat him and that he needed to strike first. Washington dispatched two groups, one under Gist and another under a Captain Hog to protect trading nearby trading posts and ambush any French attempts to torch them. On 27 May, Tanacharison gave Washington the location of a French camp of about 40 men, and that he should meet him there so they could both attack at the same time. Washington, who assumed hostilities between the French and British empires had already commenced with the loss of Fort Saint George the month before, agreed and decided to attack.
To the French this was not the case. The capture of the forks of the Ohio was bloodless affair and therefore not the opening salvo of a war. The camp described by Tanacharison was that of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville accompanied by 40 French marines and Canadian militia. Jumonville was enroute to Washington, not to attack him, but demand his withdrawal from French territory, an identical mission to the one Washington made to Venango. Tanacharison almost certainly knew this, but did not pass this information to Washington.
That day, Washington took 40 men of Wagoner’s Company to meet Tanacharison outside the French camp. He was surprised to find Tanacharison had just twelve Mingo warriors with him, two of whom were little more than boys. Nevertheless, the young Washington was committed as he didn’t want to lose face in front of the much older and wiser half-king. They surrounded the glen where Jumonville had his camp and attacked at dawn.
The Battle of Jumonville’s Glen lasted less than 15 minutes. Washington and Tanacharison’s men fired two volleys into the exposed French, which prompted a wounded Jumonville to surrender. As the prisoners were sorted, Tanacharison found Jumonville, and in front of Washington, their men and the prisoners, planted his tomahawk in Jumonville’s skull, killing him. He then scalped him.
Tanacharison got his war.
The loss of Trent’s Fort, or Fort Saint George as it was known to the Ohio Company, was arguably the first act of war between Britain and France that would eventually grow into the Seven Years War or the French and Indian War as it was known in North America. What cannot be argued was that the murder of Jumonville by Tanacharison was the act that led to French to seek revenge, and eventually Washington’s defeat and surrender at Fort Necessity in July. The two battles convinced the prime minister of Great Britain, the Duke of Newcastle, to dispatch and expeditionary force led by General Edward Braddock, to North American to dislodge the French. Braddock’s defeat and the French alliance with Austria caused the war to expand to Europe. Frederick the Great’s Prussia launched a preemptive war against the Austrians, which cemented a British-Prussian alliance. The Seven Year’s War raged around the globe until 1763 and caused permanent split in Indian-American relations from which “they shall never come to peace again”.
Tanacharison didn’t live long enough to see his dream of an independent Ohio Indian nation, or even the rest of the war. He was scornful of Washington’s Fort Necessity at Great Meadows and took his men and departed before the French surrounded them. Cut off from his people in the Ohio Country, Tanacharison sought refuge with the ardently pro-British Seneca Queen Aliquippa, who had also broken with the Iroquois. However, he took ill late that summer with pneumonia. Aliquippa took him to the farm of the Susquehanna ferryman John Harris (present day Paxtang, PA, just outside Harrisburg) where he died on 4 October 1754.
The murder of Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville by Mingo half-king Tanacharison while under George Washington’s care was one of the seminal moments in Atlantic history, everything that happened before it led up to it and everything that happened after it was caused by it.