Washington’s Actions Help Start the Seven Years’ War

While the 1748 Treaty of Aix la Chapelle ended the War of Austrian Succession, none of the belligerents were happy. Once again, the major powers of Europe – Austria-Hungary, France, Great Britain, Prussia, Spain, and Russia – began jockeying to create new alliances.

France emerged with an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Russia. England and Prussia became military partners. Spain joined France and Austria-Hungary.

Control of North America and the Indian subcontinent was at stake. The winners could expand empires and individuals could make fortunes.

England had a string of 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast. France controlled Canada and had begun to move south into land claimed as part of Britain’s Pennsylvania and Virginia colonies.

In December 1753, Virginia’s Royal Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, sent newly commissioned Virginia militia Major George Washington and a small party of men to ask the French to leave their settlement at The Forks of the Ohio, a place we now call Pittsburgh. The French commander – Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre – read Dinwiddie’s note and politely told Washington that the French were not leaving, and Dinwiddie’s note should have been sent to the French Governor General of Canada. Without orders from his boss, Saint-Pierre would not leave.

Dinwiddie’s promoted Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to raise a regiment of militia. At the same time, Dinwiddie ordered William Trent to take a small group of men to the Forks of the Ohio and build a fort before the French did the same. When Trent left with 36 men, Dinwiddie hadn’t gotten approval for this campaign from either the Virginia House of Burgesses or the British parliament.

The French sent 800 men under the command of Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecoeur to build a fort at the same location where Trent had started work. Trent and his men were sent back to Virginia by the French who began building Fort Duquesne in April 1754.

Hearing this, Governor Dinwiddie ordered Washington to take the 160 men he’d recruited and force the French to leave. His orders, which were not approved by either Parliament or the Foreign Office, were to act on the defensive, but in case any attempts are made to obstruct the works or inter our settlement by any persons whatsoever, you are to restrain all offenders and in the case of resistance to make prisoners of or ill and destroy them.

As Washington moved west with his small force, Trent and his men as well as other recruits joined his unit along with native Americans under the command of Tanacharison who had agreed to help. Trent said the French force was about 1,000 men (it numbered about 600). Washington stopped and built Fort Necessity to await further instructions from Dinwiddie. His fort was at Great Meadows which is near Union, PA, and about 40 miles SE of Pittsburgh.

Washington did not know that Contrecoeur’s orders forbade him to attack the British unless it was in response to an English attack. He sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville and 35 other French Canadians to deliver an order for the British to leave what he now believed was sovereign French territory.

Tanacharison’s scouts found the French-Canadians and after scouting the French-Canadian position, Washington decided to attack. The Virginians killed nine of the Canadians and captured the rest in a 15-minute skirmish.

When they learned of their loss, French sent a force to take Fort Necessity. Washington was heavily outnumbered and agreed to withdraw.

As part of his surrender, Washington was forced to sign a document in French that Washington could not read. In it, he admitted to ordering the assassination of de Jumonville and the other French Canadians who were killed. This document in the French archives directly contradicts statements by others who were there during the 15-minute-long skirmish and its aftermath. Their reports say Washington treated his enemies with dignity and fairness.

After months of fruitless negotiations with the French over the two incidents, the Seven Years War began when British took Acadia (Nova Scotia) from the French in June 1755. Shortly afterwards, Major General Edward Braddock led an army to capture Fort Duquesne. We all know how that turned out.

Reconstructed Fort Necessity at the National Battlefield.

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