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Washington’s Journal: Expeditions to Disputed Ohio Territory, 1753–1754

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


In 1753, the French were building forts around the Ohio River Valley to take firm possession of that territory against any expansion by the English. Virginia governor Robert A. Dinwiddie dispatched twenty-one-year-old George Washington to deliver a message to the French asserting Britain’s territorial claims. During his lengthy journey to modern-day Pittsburgh and beyond, he had many adventures on the frontier and was deeply involved with the events and imperial conflict that would lead to the French and Indian War less than a year later.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was George Washington?
  2. What was his purpose in keeping the journal?

Vocabulary Text
Wednesday, October 31, 1753
commission (v): to receive orders; to be appointed to a rank of officer

interpreter (n): a person who translates speech orally

necessaries (n): provisions, supplies
I was Commission’d & appointed by the Honourable Robert Dinwiddie, Esq; Governor of Virginia to visit and deliver a Letter to the Commandant of the French Forces on the Ohio, and set out on the intended Journey the same Day; the next, I arrivedd at Fredericksburg, and engaged Mr. Jacob Vanbraam, to be my French Interpreter; and proceeded with him to Alexandria, where we provided Necessaries; from thence we went to Winchester, and got Baggage, Horses, etc. and from thence we pursued the new Road to Wills-Creek, where we arrived the 14th of November.
Here I engaged Mr. [Christopher] Gist to Pilot us out, and also hired four others. . . . The excessive Rains and vast Quantity of Snow that had fallen, prevented our reaching Mr. Frazer’s an Indian trader, at the Mouth of Turtle-Creek, on Monongahela, till Thursday. . . .
[November 22]
As I got down [into] the Canoe, I spent some Time in viewing the Rivers, and the Land in the Fork [of the Ohio River at Pittsburgh], which I think extremely well situated for a Fort, as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers. . . .
About two Miles from this, on the South East side of the River, at the Place where the Ohio Company intended to erect a Fort, lives Shingiss, King of the Delawares; We call’d upon him to invite him to Council at the Loggs-Town. . . .
wampum (n): a belt of beads used as money [November 25]
I gave [Monacatoocha] a String of Wampum, and a Twist of Tobacco, and desired him to send for the Half-King. . . .
About 3 o’clock this Evening the Half-King came to Town; I went up and invited him [and the interpreter], privately, to my Tent, and desir’d him to relate some of the Particulars of his Journey to the French Commandant, and Reception there; and to give me an Account of the Way and Distance. . . .
[November 30]
We set out about 9 o’clock with [Half-King and other Indian leaders] and travelled on the road to Venango, where we arrived the 4th of December. . . .
There were three [French] Officers, one of whom, Capt. Joncaire, inform’d me, that he had the Command of the Ohio, but that there was a General Officer at the near Fort, which he advised me to for an Answer. . . .
design (n): plan They told me, That it was their absolute Design to take Possession of the Ohio, and by G[od] they would do it. . . .
From the best Intelligence I could get, there have been 1500 Men on this Side Ontario Lake, but upon the Death of the General all were recalled to about 6 or 700, who were left to Garrison four Forts. . . .
[December 7]
At 11 o’Clock we set out for the Fort [LeBeouf]; and were prevented from arriving there ‘til the 11th by excessive Rains, Snows, and bad Travelling. . . .
[December 13]
The chief Officers retired, to hold a Council of War, which gave me an Opportunity of taking the Dimensions of the Fort, and making what Observations I could. . . .
I could get no certain Account of the Number of Men here; but according to the best Judgment I could form, there are an Hundred exclusive of Officers, of which there are many. . . .
retard (v): to delay or slow

endeavor (v): to attempt to achieve a goal
[December 14]
As I found many Plots concerted to retard the Indians Business, and prevent their returning with me; I endeavour’d all that lay in my Power to frustrate their Schemes, and hurry them on to execute their intended Design. . . .
This evening I received an Answer to his Honour the Governor’s Letter from the Commandant. . . .
[It read: “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it. . . .”]
invention (n): design, plan [December 16]
The French were not slack in their Inventions to keep the Indians this Day also; but as they were obligated, according to promise, to give the Present, they then endeavoured to try the Power of Liquor. . . .
[December 23–26]
I put myself into an Indian walking Dress, and continued with them three Days, till I found . . . the Horses grew less able to travel every Day. The Cold increased very fast, and the Roads were becoming much worse by a deep Snow, continually freezing; and as I was uneasy to get back, to make a Report of my Proceedings to his Honour the Governor; I determined to prosecute my Journey the nearest way through the Woods. on Foot. . . .
With my Pack at my Back with my Papers and Provisions in it, and a Gun, set out with Mr. Gist. . . .
[December 27]
We fell in with a Party of French Indians, who had laid in Wait for us; one of them fired at Mr. Gist or me, not 15 Steps, but fortunately missed. . . . We expected to have found the River frozen, but it was not, only about 50 Yards from each Shore; the Ice I suppose had broke up above, for it was driving in vast Quantities. . . .
[We got a raft] finished just after Sun-setting, after a whole Days Work; we got it launched, and on Board of it, and set off; but before we were Half Way over, we were jammed in the Ice in such a Manner that we expected every Moment our Raft to sink, and ourselves to perish. . . . When the Rapidity of the Stream threw it with so much Violence against the Pole, that it [jerked] me out into ten Feet Water . . . as we were pretty near an Island, to quit our Raft and [wade] to it.
The cold was so extremely severe, that Mr. Gist had all his Fingers, and some of his Toes frozen. . . .
[January 2, 1754]
[We] arrived at Mr. Gist’s at Monangahela the 2nd, where I bought Horse, Saddle, etc. . . .
[January 16]
[I] then set out, and arrived at Williamsburg the 16th, and waited upon His Honour the Governor with the Letter I had brought from the French Commandant, and to give an Account of the Proceedings of my Journey.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the purpose of George Washington’s mission?
  2. How does Washington prepare for his journey along the path to Pittsburgh?
  3. What weather does Washington experience while traveling on the frontier?
  4. What is Washington’s assessment of the fort at Pittsburgh?
  5. What was Washington’s relationship to Native Americans in the Ohio River Valley?
  6. What answer does Washington receive from the French?
  7. How did Washington assess French strengths at their forts?
  8. How do Washington and the French fight to control the American Indians
  9. What is the French response to Governor Dinwiddie?
  10. What difficulties does Washington face while marching home through the frontier?
  11. Did Washington accomplish his mission?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What did the mission show about the character of young George Washington?
  2. Why was there an imperial conflict in the Ohio River Valley between the British and French?
  3. What role did the American Indians play in the imperial struggle?
  4. How did Washington’s actions on the frontier from 1753 to 1755 shape his later military and political career?

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