Laurel Highlands Travel — Back to 1754

George Washington, Fort Necessity, Laurel Highlands

Recreated Fort Necessity (photo: wikimedia)

George Washington definitely slept here! Last year, the excellent (and highly readable) Joseph J. Ellis biography, His Excellency George Washington (my review here), interested me in Washington’s early career as a Virginia regimental officer during the French and Indian Wars—“crash courses in the art of soldiering,” says Ellis. At age 22, Washington was second in command of troops bushwhacking in through the dense forests of the Allegheny Mountains toward the spot where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to create the Ohio River. Today, Pittsburgh.

This was the Laurel Highlands, and Washington was leading Virginia troops whose aim was to recapture an old fort the French had seized at Three Rivers. One early morning in late May, Indian guides led the colonials through the forest to a stone outcrop from which they surprised a French patrol below. In the ensuing skirmish, in which Washington’s forces prevailed, the French Commander Monsieur De Jumonville was killed. Who shot first in the battle of Jumonville Glen has been long-debated, and Washington’s own explanations changed over time. Nevertheless, this tiny Laurel Highlands encounter ignited the Seven Years’ War, which eventually embroiled many European countries and their colonies scattered across the globe.

Since the French had a strong force in the area, the colonials built a modest circular fort in a small clearing, Fort Necessity. In early July a large French and Indian contingent attacked. Washington was forced to surrender, and in return for leaving the Ohio Valley for a year, he and his men were allowed to evacuate.

Meanwhile, the French built Fort Duquesne where the three rivers joined. But the British weren’t giving up. The following year they re-invaded the area, led by General Edward Braddock, who “knew all there was to know about drilling troops in garrison, something about waging war in the arenas of Europe, and nothing whatsoever about the kind of savage conditions and equally savage battlefields he would encounter in the American interior,” says Ellis.

Washington joined Braddock’s forces as an aide-de-camp, knowing the campaign’s planned route through more than a hundred miles of wilderness terrain was “almost impassable.” The steep hills and dense forests in many parts of the Laurel Highlands today give only a taste of how difficult traversing this country must have been. Unprepared as he was, Braddock’s forces were routed. From experiences like this, Washington developed a strategy of avoiding a fight his troops were sure to lose that stood him in good stead throughout the American Revolution.

Eventually the French abandoned Fort Duquesne, and the British replaced it with Fort Pitt. Fort Pitt was Britain’s most extensive fortification in North America, indicating the strategic importance of this position.

You can tour The National Park Service’s Fort Necessity museum (724-329-5512), and nearby sites, including a monument to Braddock, as well as follow the easy walking path (today!) through the woods to see Jumonville Glen. The outlines of the earlier forts, including Fort Duquesne, are recreated in granite on the grass of Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, which also includes a museum about Fort Pitt, within a replica of one of the fort’s five original bastions, as well as an original block house, the oldest architectural landmark in Western Pennsylvania, dating from 1764. Museum phone: 412-281-9284.