One of my favorite places to visit are the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania. The area abounds in history, and its scenery is, in my view, unparalleled. Rugged mountains overlook beautiful valleys of hardwoods, streams and waterfalls. Rocky outcroppings emerge from the forest. Powerful rivers wind through the region
It is a center of industrial history: railroading and mining, transportation like canals, the National Road, and other scenic highways. There is even a bit of Civil War history in the region. But my favorite topic to explore is its French and Indian War history. Which brings me to the person who started it all, George Washington.
As a young Virginia militia colonel, he led the force that ambushed a French detachment in Jumonville Glen in 1754, triggering the start of the war. The next year General Edward Braddock brought an army into the frontier region, only to meet a disastrous defeat. Washington served as an aide in that army, participating in his first major military operation. Both the 1754 and 1755 campaigns used a road cut through the forest.
Originally an Indian path, this was first known as Nemacolin’s Path.
Both England and France claimed this territory, with the Virginia colony in the forefront of claiming the land and challenging the French. Various Native American groups, caught in the middle, divided their loyalties between the rival Europeans.
I enjoy nothing better than walking stretches of that road known as Nemacolin’s Path, and later Braddock’s Road, and thinking about these events. One day I pondered how many times Washington himself crossed this path. It was more than I realized. I believe George passed by this spot in Somerset County ten times.
The old road used by Washington and the armies.
Each of these trips into the Laurel Highlands represents a different phase in Washington’s life. Lets’ count them:
- In 1753 a twenty-one year- old Washington, a Major in the Virginia militia, left Williamsburg with a note from Governor Dinwiddie to deliver to the French. They were building forts in the area, taking possession of land that Virginia claimed. Virginia’s governor demanded that they desist. They refused, sending Washington on his way.
Washington travelled with guide Chirstopher Gist and six others, mostly Indian traders. They passed by this spot in mid-October. The journey was difficult, and he wrote of “excessive rains and vast quantities of snow.”
- He returned in early January, 1754 on this same path, perhaps making note of familiar landmarks. He was lucky to be alive, having survived a fall into the icy Allegheny River and an assassination attempt by a hostile Indian.
- At the head of a detachment of Virginia militia, Washington passed by here in mid-May, 1754. He eventually attacked French troops at Jumonville Glen (his first battle), then retreated to Fort Necessity. There he surrendered (the only time he ever would) on July 4.
- Washington and his Virginia troops retreated along the road returning over the mountains to report to the governor on what had transpired. Riding along, he had time to reflect on the heart-pounding days of late June and early July: his first two battles, one victory, one defeat. Seeing men killed in combat, hearing the whistle of the musket balls (which he found ‘charming’). Did he second guess his decisions as he rode over the mountains?
- Accompanying General Braddock’s army, Washington trod this road again in June, 1755. He was very ill but made the journey, anxious to be with the army when they met the French. On this passage of the road Washington was jostled along in wagon, being too weak to ride from his “violent” illness.
- Braddock’s forces met defeat on July 9 at the Battle of the Monongahela. Washington survived, with bullet holes in his coat and hat. He helped oversee the withdraw of the army, and again passed this spot July 14.
In the years ahead Washington married, participated in the successful Forbes campaign (capturing Fort Duquesne and ousting the French for good), was elected to public office, and inherited Mount Vernon.
- On October 12, 1770, Washington again passed by on his way to inspect his western lands. He wrote that day that he rode twenty miles, “which we found a tolerable good day’s work. The country we travelled over today was very mountainous and stony, with but very little good land. It had been fifteen years since he passed by the fern covered hills and rocky outcroppings along this stretch road.
By 1770, tensions with the mother country would have dominated Washington’s thoughts. The Boston Massacre took place that March. As a landowner and member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, he was no doubt concerned about the future.
- He returned from inspecting his lands in 1770, having journeyed all the way to the town of Pittsburgh at the forks of the Ohio River. Washington was entitled to land grants from Virginia for his service in the French and Indian War. This area of modern western Pennsylvania was claimed by both Virginia and Pennsylvania, and the border would not be settled until the Revolution was nearly over.
This road has seen the passage of many explorers, settlers, and armies.
9. In 1784, with the Revolution over for just one year, Washington again travelled the old road to the west. He had been away from his beloved Mount Vernon for eight years with only one brief visit, but after the war it did not take long for him to turn to his valuable lands. He not only visited his holdings but added to them, purchasing the Great Meadows, where the Battle of Fort Necessity took place thirty years earlier.
How many people can say they bought their own battlefield! Having commanded large armies, and seen much in his military career, Washington no doubt looked over the ruins of the fort and the shallow trenches around it with reflection. July 4 had a different meaning for him now.
It wasn’t all about nostalgia, for there was serious business at hand as well. Washington had many squatters on his land who refused to leave or recognize his claims. The former Commander in Chief settled with these unruly frontiersmen, agreeing to let them stay in exchange for payments (which he deemed below value). Although revered across the nation, in this remote corner, frontier families who squatted on the war hero’s land and refused to negotiate with him.
- Washington returned east, heading towards home and retirement, and eventually the Presidency. This was Washington’s last journey over this section of the road. In the decades ahead, it would see the march of an army to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, floods of settlers, and travelers on the National Road.
Standing at this spot, watching the morning fog lift, I can see where Washington passed by during the different stages of his life: young militia officer, seasoned combat veteran, husband and homeowner, aspiring politician, and war hero.