Jumonville Glen - George Washington's First Combat



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Page Table of Contents

(Click a link to go to that section. Click HOME to return here.)

What's Jumonville?

Prelude to War

Hostilities Begin

The Battle

Aftermath

Jumonville Today

























Park Service painting of the battle.

A National Park Service rendition of the last moments before the fight.

What's a Jumonville Glen?

If you don't live in western Pennsylvania or study history, you've probably never heard of Jumonville Glen. That's understandable. It was a 15 minute skirmish in the middle of nowhere on May 28, 1754 that involved less than 100 men total on both sides. As battles go, it didn't amount to much especially when compared to spectacular ones like Gettysburg or the Alamo.  In fact, it wasn't even called Jumonville Glen until years later, when it was named after the French commander killed there. Nevertheless, it had huge implications for the combatants and the history of North America. During the fight and its aftermath,  George Washington saw his first combat, commanded men in battle for the first time, witnessed his first war atrocity and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to a world war and a colonial rebellion.

The Seven Years War was the first truly global war. Lasting from 1756 until 1763, it was fought by every major power in Europe across four continents - North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The campaign fought by the British, the French and their respective Native American allies for control of North America is most commonly called the French and Indian War. 

The Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania.
The Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, not far from from Jumonville Glen and other sites of the French and Indian War. How'd you like to build a road through this using hand tools and horses? Or trek through it at night in the pouring rain? Or transit during the winter on horseback with no roads?  That was how George Washington spent much of 1754.

There is a direct connection between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.  Even though they were 13 years apart, many of the American leaders became seasoned veterans during that first war.  George Washington himself fought on the frontier for most of the war.  He was a natural leader who led from the front and was always in the thick of it.

The seeds of rebellion were sown when Britain began to tax and exploit their North American colonies to pay off huge war debts from the Seven Years War. Some historians even say that the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Jumonville Glen.

Prelude to War

In the mid-1700's, three European powers were well established in North America.  Britain claimed the coastal region from Nova Scotia to Georgia and inland.  The French claimed the interior region along the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley down to New Orleans.  The Spanish claimed Florida, Mexico and the desert southwest.

Settlers, particularly English settlers, were drawn to this new land in increasing numbers and began moving westward, pushing the English claims closer and closer to French territory.  Both sides began to build forts and militarize the region to protect their interests. The center of the conflict was "The Forks". It was here that the Allegheny River from the north and the Monongahela River from the south converged to form the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River and a water highway to the ocean.  Later, this would become Pittsburgh but in those days, it was an unsettled wilderness called the Ohio River Valley. In the mid-1700's, this was the western frontier of America. It was every bit as lawless and dangerous as the "wild west" would be 100 years later.

Modern downtown Pittsburgh at the fork of the three rivers.
"The Forks" today in downtown Pittsburgh. The Allegheny River comes in from the left.  The Monongahela River comes in from the top right.  The Ohio River flows off the bottom on its way to Cairo, IL and the Mississippi River. The green section in the center is Point State Park and was the location of Fort Duquesne.

Modern-day western Pennsylvania at that point was part of the Virginia Colony, administered by Governor Robert Dinwiddie.  In the fall of 1753, Governor Dinwiddie sent 21 year old Major George Washington on a diplomatic mission to the French.  He was accompanied by seven men including Christopher Gist, a surveyor and land owner who knew the area well. Dinwiddie sent a simple message to the French - Get out!

Washington traveled from Williamsburg, VA to Fort LeBoeuf, near present-day Erie, PA - a distance of almost 500 miles -  in the harsh mountain winter.  He arrived at the French fort in late December.  The French received him politely but told him they were staying.  Washington returned home with their reply.

Twice during this journey, Washington narrowly escaped death.  He was pulled from a swift, icy river by Christopher Gist and spent a freezing cold night on an island.  He was also fired upon by a French sentry, putting a hole in his hat. These were but two of many close calls he would have in his military career.

Hostilities Begin

A view of the Great Meadows in 2010.

The Great Meadows in 2010. It looks much as it did in Washington's day but there have been changes. For one, the creek that ran through it and flooded the lowlands is no longer flowing free. The other big difference is the absence of old growth timber. The old forests had big trees that were several feet around, very tall and close enough together that their branches formed a canopy over the forest floor. That high canopy blocked sunlight to the ground and prevented low bushes from growing.  As a result, the forests were open and movement was much easier than today. They were also dark underneath with deep shadows, even at midday. This provided effective cover and concealment for combatants and had a major influence on the tactics and outcomes of forest battles during the 18th century.  All the old stands were lumbered and cleared out two centuries ago.  Now we have successive generations of new growth, lower to the ground and thick brush all around.  However, the size, shape and ground cover of the Meadows are much as they were in 1754.

 

To counter French intentions, Governor Dinwiddie sent a  militia company commanded by Captain William Trent to the Ohio Valley to build a fort at The Forks in March of 1754.  In early April,  Dinwiddie sent Washington, now a Lieutenant Colonel, out with orders to reinforce the new fort, gathering forces and supplies along the way. As part of that mission, he was to build a road that would support heavy wagons and artillery. While on the march near Cumberland, MD in mid-April, Washington learned that the British fort building company had been run off by 1,000 French troops, who were now building their own fort.  

Washington pressed on, planning to advance and construct the road as far forward as possible.  Progress was slow and arduous.  The terrain and mountains made for slow going and the men became exhausted from hard work and minimal rations.  On May 24, they reached a spot near present-day Uniontown, PA called the Great Meadows. This was a flat area in the Allegheny Mountain foothills with plenty of grass and water from two streams running through it.  It was also a boggy area prone to flooding.  But areas like these are few in the mountains and essential for livestock, so Washington set up camp. It had taken them six weeks to advance 60 miles.

Three days later, his friend Christopher Gist showed up.  Gist had a farm less than 20 miles to the north.  He informed Washington that a French force of about 40 men had passed through his farm the day before and appeared headed towards the Great Meadows. Shortly thereafter Washington received a message from his Native American ally, Tanacharison, a Seneca chief.  They had located the French force about five miles away.

A recent photo of Jumonville Glen where the battle took place.
Jumonville Glen.  The French were camped amongst the bottom of rocks on the right and on down the open front slope. Half of Washington's men were on the rock ledge above them.  The other half  were positioned behind the big rocks to the left front. The Seneca braves were down the hill to the right.  Washington's own reports and sketches put him near the forked trees on the left.  The British lost only one man.  He was shot while standing next to Washington. Another close call.

 

The Battle

Not knowing what the French intentions were, Washington decided to lead a contact mission himself. Taking 40 men, he led an all night march through the pitch black mountain forest in the pouring rain to where Tanacharison was camped, arriving in the pre-dawn darkness.  Then they moved out to ascertain French intentions, accompanied by about a dozen Native American braves.

The commander of the French force was Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville.  He was a French-Canadian officer and an Ensign in the French Marines.  The mission of his group is disputed to this day. Were they a raiding party? A recon patrol? Spies?  Diplomats? No one knows for sure. Likewise, no one knows for sure what Washington's intentions were as his force cornered the unsuspecting French on three sides.

As daylight broke, the French were just waking up with only one sentry posted. They had no other security out at all, which would have been odd for a raiding party or recon patrol.  Around 7:00 AM, someone fired a shot and the fight was on. Nobody knows who fired first.  The French found themselves taking fire from rocks and high ground on two sides. The cul-de-sac that had given them some shelter from the storm turned into a kill zone.  Some fled downhill along a narrow path, where they ran into the tomahawks of Tanacharison's braves.

Ten French soldiers were killed outright.  Twenty one were captured, some of them wounded.  One of them was Ensign Jumonville.

Jumonville was treated honorably as a prisoner of war and was being questioned by Washington. The French commander was carrying papers which supposedly showed them on a diplomatic mission similar to Washington's earlier that year.  Then out of the clear blue sky,  Tanacharison walked up to Jumonville and cleaved his skull with a tomahawk as Washington stood by dumbfounded. The other braves started killing and scalping the wounded before Washington re-gained his wits and put a stop to it. 

The Aftermath

As Washington sorted out the chaos, it was discovered that at least one French soldier had gotten away clean. The British mission was now compromised and options were limited.  Attacking The Forks was out of the question without reinforcements, including artillery.  That meant finishing the road.  Going back to Virginia meant leaving the entire area and beyond open to French incursions.  Washington probably had concerns about the ability of his men to carry out an orderly retreat, possibly under fire.  They were inexperienced, sick and exhausted. He decided to remain in the Great Meadows and prepare for the French attack he knew would come.

To compound Washington's difficulties, Tanacharison and his Native American allies bugged out on him for depriving them of their "trophies" - the scalps of the wounded. This would set a trend for the entire war.  The French had much more support from the Native Americans than the British did, a factor that would put British forces at a serious disadvantage in many wilderness engagements.  Tanacharison ceased to be a factor, though.  He left the area soon after and died of pneumonia five months later.

In the meantime, the French built their own fort at The Forks - Fort Duquesne (doo-cane').  It anchored a line of forts that stretched north to Lake Erie, giving them a solid foothold in the Ohio Valley.  This gave them a strong base from which to operate along the frontier - which they did very effectively with their Native American allies.  The first order of business was paybacks for killing Jumonville. A French force of 700 men would soon set out from Fort Duquesne to do just that.  They would be led by Ensign Jumonville's brother, Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers. 

The stage was set for the Battle of the Great Meadows, also called Fort Necessity.

Even though war wouldn't be declared for almost two more years, the Ohio Valley was now a battlefield  The elimination of Fort Duquesne became a top priority of the British.  It would take four years of fighting to accomplish that.

The Jumonville Area Today

There is no town of Jumonville, although the name is very familiar in western Pennsylvania. The name simply refers to that whole area and activities that go on there. There is a very nice Christian Camp and Retreat Center called Jumonville. It has a small museum with information and artifacts from the French and Indian War.

A Park Service plaque on the park's loop trail.
A plaque on a monument along the loop trail, not far from the trailhead.

 

The glen area itself hasn't changed much since the battle.  Now a sub-unit of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield, there is a half-mile loop trail that goes down to the battle site. It is a self-guided tour with information plaques along the way. The trailhead and parking area are about a 15 minute drive from Fort Necessity.

The Jumonville Glen geocache is near the battle site and Sherri's Cache is near the retreat just down the road. Other geocaches abound throughout the entire region.  There's everything from one star park'n'grabs to five star expeditions.

If you're into benchmark hunting, there are two survey disks within 500 feet of Sherri's Cache - JW1344 and JW1345.  Both have been found recently.

For a change of pace, try the Fat Bird letterbox. It was just placed in May 2010.

The GPS coordinates to the Jumonville Glen trailhead are  39.8799, -79.64294.  Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.

Semper Fi....Out here....Alpha6