OHIO VALLEY — When George Washington’s name is mentioned, for most it conjures an image of the Revolutionary War General crossing the Delaware, or the stately first president of the United States. It is unlikely that most American’s would think of him as the outdoorsman traveling the Ohio River in a canoe, hunting for game in the forests and camping on the banks of the river, communing with Native American Chiefs, surveying lands in what was then the frontier, or leading troops during the French and Indian War.
But George Washington did all of those things and more before becoming a Revolutionary War hero and president of a newly formed nation.
The 250th anniversary of Washington’s trip into the Ohio county presents an opportunity to explore the importance of this visit, the 1753 communications with the French in the region, and his relationships with native peoples in the founding of the United States and the establishment of a slave free territory larger than the whole of the 13 colonies. The trip highlights Washington’s commitment to securing payment for his troops service in the French and Indian War, and his interest in the areas indigenous people and European settlers.
To understand how and why Washington came to explore the Ohio area, we need a brief history of Washington: The Washington family was prosperous, and it was expected that Washington would follow his two older half-brothers in receiving a classical education, probably in England. The sudden death of his father when he was 11 meant that he would not be provided with that opportunity, and was instead educated by private tutors and possibly attended a local school in nearby Fredericksburg.
Instead of receiving a formal classical education, Washington’s studies included subjects that would prepare him for his career as a surveyor, an acceptable profession for a man in the 18th century Colonies. His studies also included “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”.
Surveyors were in high demand in the vast new territory of the Americas, and he began his first position in the office of county surveyor in Culpeper County, Virginia, In 1748, at age 16 he would take his first trip across western Virginia to survey lands in the Shenandoah Valley.
He would go even further into the western territories in October 1753 as an emissary of Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie thought the 21-year-old Washington, now a Major in the Virginia Regiment, was well suited for the mission, having spent time in the area on the previous surveying trip. The mission was to deliver a message demanding French withdrawal from lands that were claimed by Virginia.
Washington and his party traveled over 900 miles round trip, encountering deep snow, cold temperatures, and treacherous traveling conditions. The group returned to Virginia in January 1754 with a message from the French that they had no plans to leave the area, as they also believed they had a valid claim to the region.
Washington was promoted to Lt. Colonel and returned with the Virginia Militia in March of 1754 with orders to secure the region for England. It was here that he formed a relationship with Tanacharison, a Seneca chief also known as Half-King and other native warriors sympathetic to the British, including Kiashuta who acted as a guide.
During this expedition the first shots were fired in what became known as the French and Indian Wars in North America, and where Washington would spend the next five years in combat.
At the close of the war with England victorious, Washington resigned his commission, married, and began life as a farmer at Mount Vernon.
His military service had earned him land grants in the Ohio River valley, and in October 1770 he again headed west by canoe to identify “suitable land along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Kanawha River.”
Washington had three objectives: to view tracts of land that had been secured for him in Western Pennsylvania; to view the choice unoccupied tracts of land along the Ohio River for personal purchase; to examine lands that might be available for bounties promised soldier of his Virginia regiment for services in the French and Indian War.
The trip began in Pittsburgh, and Washington’s Journal details his thoughts and description of the country as he traveled down the Ohio River.
Washington and his party camped at several sites along the river, including one in what is now called Long Bottom in Meigs County, Ohio. Washington spent the evening and the next morning reconnecting with Kiashuta, who was now chief of the Seneca tribe, one of the Iroquois Six Nations confederacy of the northeastern region. Chief Kiashuta referred to Washington as “The Tall Hunter”.
Washington’s Journal, October 28, 1770 recounts the meeting:
28th. – Left our encampment about seven o’clock. Two miles below, a small run comes in, on the east side, through a piece of land that has a very good appearance, the bottom beginning above our encampment, and continuing in appearance wide for four miles down, where we found Kiashuta and his hunting party encamped. Here we were under a necessity of paying our compliments, as this person was one of the Six Nation chiefs, and the head of those upon this river. In the person of Kiashuta I found an old acquaintance, he being one of the Indians that went with me to the French in 1753. He expressed satisfaction at seeing me, and treated us with great kindness, giving us a quarter of very fine buffalo. He insisted upon our spending that night with him, and, in order to retard us as little as possible, moved his camp down the river just below the mouth of a creek, the name of which I could not learn. At this place we all encamped. After much counseling over night, they all came to my fire the next morning with great formality; when Kiashuta, rehearsing what had passed between me and the Sachems at Colonel Croghan’s, thanked me for saying, that peace and friendship with them were the wish of the people of Virginia, and for recommending it to the traders to deal with them upon a fair and equitable footing; and then again expressed their desire of having a trade opened with Virginia, and that the governor thereof might not only be made acquainted therewith, but with their friendly disposition towards the white people. This I promised to do.
The next day Washington writes about finding “wide bottoms and good land”, and the Great Bend.
The party continued down the Ohio River to the Kanawha River before returning to Virginia, Nine weeks and one day from the time the trip began.
During the 1932, 200th year celebration of George Washington’s birthday the Ohio and West Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution placed markers at several sites in Ohio and West Virginia commemorating the 1770 trip. Their locations include East Liverpool, Mingo Junction, Reno (Marietta), and Long Bottom in Ohio, Parkersburg and Point Pleasant in West Virginia.
Sources for this story include Daughters of the American Revolution Return Jonathan Meigs Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution representative Jean Yost, Zachery Cunningham, Manager of Educational Programs at Ferry Farm, Mt. Vernon.org.-Washington’s Journals
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.