WHILE While floundering about in the wilds of the Alleghanies, one day in the year 1754, two little bands of bushrangers stumbled upon each other. There was a puff of smoke, and the primeval stillness was shaken by the whistling of bullets. In those fateful fifteen minutes of that May morning, France lost America and a twenty-two-year-old Virginian in buckskin first drew a sword that was to cost England also her American empire.
As long as the French raided only the worthless desolation of the New England forests, the other colonies and England herself indifferently viewed the conflict from a safe distance. Even while the ambitious and adventurous Gauls stretched a cordon of their trading posts and their altars from New Orleans to Detroit, the colonists on the Atlantic seaboard remained careless of what was happening so far from their borders. But when France began to draw another and nearer chain from Lake Erie down the Ohio valley, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia saw that they were in imminent danger of being pent up on their little strip of coast and forever cut off from all chance to trade or expand westward.
France had then been planted at the mouth of the Mississippi for half a century, and she held the Great Lakes by the throat at Detroit (which means the strait). Still there were fewer than four thousand French in all that western country in 1749, with perhaps only five hundred of them in the immense upper valley of the great river.
So far as history knows, there was not yet a white settler between the crest of the Alleghany mountains and the French outpost at Vicennes, on the Wabash River in Indiana, when the French and the English filed rival claims to that Ohio valley. Parts of the present area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Indiana and all of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee were at stake.
When rival parties of claim jumpers chanced to collide in that disputed territory, they who were caught in the collision were not humble frontier settlers, like the New Englanders, who had been the buffers between England and France for so many years. On the contrary, they were some of the principal gentry of Virginia, where a favored coterie of insiders had obtained a royal grant to hundreds of thousands of acres out in the empty valley of the Ohio. Governor Dinwiddie himself was "in on it," though such a think would be called graft to-day.
Lawrence and Augustin Washington also were in on the ground floor in that big land deal. Their young brother, George, being poor and unemployed and a militia officer who had seen frontiering as a surveyor, was sent out in 1753 to warn off the French. On his return, he made a report to the governor, which was published in the colonies and in England, and it spread abroad the first news that two empires were at sword's point for the possession of the Ohio valley.
Washington was sent again the next year as the second in command of a military expedition. But as the Virginia legislature and the colony as a whole were reluctant to spend their money in clearing a land title for the benefit of a few, it was a sorry lot of warriors that went with him. "Loose, idle persons," he called them.
One day while Washington was pushing forward with forty men, both whites and reds, suddenly he came upon a party of perhaps thirty-three French and Indians. The French declared that at his approach they shouted that they were only message bearers on a peaceable errand. But he insisted that they rushed for their arms.
At any rate, the French were caught off their guard, and only one of them escaped. Ten were killed, including their commander, Jumonville; one was wounded and twenty-one were taken prisoners.
The tables were turned seven weeks afterward, when Washington surrendered his Fort Necessity to seven hundred French and Indians, under command of a brother of Jumonville. And, mark the day, July 4! The Virginians, who were heavily outnumbered, had been drawing more freely on their liquid than on their solid rations. Their commander did well to put up a front that extorted from the conquerors the privilege of marching his motley three hundred out of their hastily built fort with the honors of war and the assurance of a parole.
The youthful commander was less fortunate in his Dutch interpreter. The terms of the victor were translated for Washington in the light of a candle, which blew out in the wind and had to be relighted again and again. He protested afterward that he did not understand that the capitulation he signed described the slaying of the French commander in the earlier engagement as an "assassination." Thus it happened that France first heard of her future ally as a self-confessed assassin!
The name of the destined-to-be immortal rebel first came to the attention of England the year before, with the publication of the report of his peaceable mission to the French. Now it reappeared in English print, with a London newspaper reproducing a letter that he wrote to a brother while under the intoxication of his first taste of gunpowder: "I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound."
A romantic legend has King George II lifting his eyebrows at that boyish outburst and remarking: "He would not say so if he had been used to hearing many." Yet the royal house of Hanover missed a big trick in the game of destiny when the government at London ignored the recommendation of the Governor of Virginia that George Washington be rewarded with a commission in the British army. If . . . but who can finish that sentence?
James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930