The Struggle for Control of
the Fork of the Ohio
One of the defining characteristics of
Pittsburgh's place in the colonial history of the America is the
struggle that took place for control of the strategic fork of the Ohio River.
The French needed to establish themselves in the Ohio River Valley to
consolidate their holdings in New France (Canada), New Orleans and west of
the Mississippi River.
In the early-1700s, while the British
worked to establish their dominance on the eastern coast, the French were
busy setting up outposts and forts along the Great Lakes. By the 1740s, the
French began a drive south along the Allegheny River and Ohio River Valleys,
in a bid to extend the province of New France. Trading posts and settlements
were established and their claim to the region seemed secure.
The English had expansionist
thoughts of their own, and their reach soon stretched across the Allegheny
mountain range, to the west and into the French claimed territory. English
traders were soon setting up their own posts to barter with the local
A commerce war soon followed, with the
English underbidding their French rivals. A short local conflict, known as King George's War, followed. It ended in 1748 with an uneasy truce that allowed the
English access to the Ohio and Mississippi River for trading purposes.
The French Claim The Ohio
This agreement was deemed unacceptable
by the French monarchy. An expedition soon followed, led by Pierre-Joseph Celeron
de Blainville, in 1749. Leaden plates were buried in several locations throughout
the Ohio Valley officially claiming the lands for King Louis XV.
One of the lead plates buried by
Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Blainville.
Throughout their travels, the French were
disheartened to find that many of the Native Americans in the region were sympathetic to their English
trading partners. Because of this, they could not count on the full support of
the Six Nations in their efforts to oust the ever increasing number of traders.
The Indian tribes were divided in their loyalties, strategically allying
themselves with whichever side that gave them the best deal. Oftentimes, these
allegiances changed, depending upon the current circumstances.
To counter British ambitions, the
French began building a string of forts extending south from Lake Erie down
the Allegheny Valley. The first was Fort Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, in early
1753; followed by Fort Leboef, at French Creek, in December 1753; and Fort
Machault, along the Allegheny River, in April 1954.
As French dominance grew, they began
a policy of interdiction on British trade with the Indians. The French argued
that the traders were dealing weapons and contraband in an effort to incite
the local tribes to unite against their rule.
Virginia Governor Dinwiddie's
Ultimatum To The French
In 1747, the British colony of Virginia
formed the Ohio River Company to engage in land speculation and trade with
the local Indian tribes. Half a million acres of land, mostly on the south side of the Ohio River
between the Monongahela and Kenhawa Rivers, were granted. In 1752, an English
expedition moved into, and mapped, the Ohio Country west of the Allegheny
Mountains. In early-1753 plans for a fort and settlement along the Monongahela
River were prepared.
On October 31, 1753, 21-year old
Major George Washington, his guide Christopher Gist, and a small party set out from
Williamsburg to the nearest French outpost, at Fort Le Boeuf, near
Waterford, Pennsylvania. Washington carried Virginia Governor Dinwiddie's
warning to the French army, which the British felt had invaded the Allegheny
River Valley. The message was clear. The French were to abandon their
military occupation of the Ohio Country and withdraw.
On his way to meet with the French
commander, Washington's party passed by the junction where the Monongahela
and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River.
The fork of the Ohio River and the
site chosen by George Washington for a British Fort
Washington was impressed with the
nature of the terrain and the commanding position it presented. On November
24, 1753, he wrote in his journal:
"As I got down before the canoe,
I spent some time viewing the rivers, and the land in the fork, which I
think extremely well situated for a fort, as it has the absolute command
of both rivers. The land at the point is twenty-five feet above the common
surface of the water; and a considerable bottom of flat well timbered land
all around it very convenient for building. The rivers are each a quarter
of a mile across, and run here very nearly at right angles; Allegheny,
bearing north-east; and Monongahela, south-east. The former of these two
is a very rapid and swift running water, the other deep and still, without
any perceptible fall."
Map drawn by George Washington of the
Ohio Country in 1753.
"As I had taken a good deal of
notice yesterday to the situation at the intended fort, my curiosity led
me to examine this more particularly, and I think it greatly inferior,
either for defence or advantages, especially the latter. A fort at the
fork would be equally well situated on the Ohio, and have the entire
command of the Monongahela, which runs up our settlement, and is
extremely well designed for water carriage, as it is of a deep, still
nature. Besides, a fort at the fork might be built at much less expense
than the other place."
Washington and Gist arrived at
Fort LeBoeuf on December 11, 1753. The commandant, Jacques Legardeur de
Saint-Pierre, received Washington politely, but contemptuously rejected
Governor Dinwiddie's ultimatum, restating the French crown's claim to the
Major George Washington and his guide
Christopher Gist cross the Allegheny River
after Washington's meeting with the French commander at Fort LeBoeuf.
Washington and Gist rushed back to
Williamsburg, and arrived on January 16, carrying to Dinwiddie a letter
containing the French commander's refusal to withdraw. Washington also
relayed his observations about the commanding nature of the land at the
forks. The Virginia Governor immediately made arrangements to send troops
of the colonial militia to fortify the river junction.
Tensions Escalate Over
The Fork Of Belle Riviere
One company, under the command of
Captain William Trent, was dispatched, and arrived at the fork on
February 17, 1754. Construction of a stockade, called Fort Prince George, was
begun. The French responded to this incursion by sending a force of sixty boats,
300 canoes, 500 soldiers and Indians, and eighteen artillery pieces to evict
the British garrison.
Captain Trent and his company at the river
On April 17, 1754, Monsieur
Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, Captain of a company of the French
Marine, delivered a summons to the British garrison, demanding their
immediate withdrawal. Captain Trent was away at Turtle Creek, and Ensign
Edward Ward was in command. With only forty men and an unfinished stockade,
there was no alternative but to abandon the area and retreat peaceably south
The French refered to the Ohio River
as the Belle Riviere. Control of the fork of the Belle Riviere was essential
to their plans to assert their dominance over the region. With the British
garrison gone, the French soldiers began construction of a much larger
structure, called Fort Duquesne. It was named after the Governor of Canada,
the Marquis Du Quesne de Mennville.
Marquis Du Quesne de Mennville
French plans for Fort Duquesne.
One of the bastions (left) and the
courtyard and main buildings of Fort Duquesne.
The French and Indian War
The English were already on the march to
reinforce the garrison at Fort Prince George with two additional companies of
Virginia militiamen, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, when news reached them of Ward's capitulation. Undaunted, the
Virginia militiamen sought out the French with orders to engage. The opposing
forces met on May 28, 1754, in a skirmish known as the Jumonville Affair, or
the Battle of Jumonville Glen.
Washington's soldiers routed the French
unit, which consisted of 35 Canadians under the command of Captain Joseph Coulon
de Villiers de Jumonville. The French captain was captured and summarily executed
by the one of Washington's Indian guides. This action set off a chain of events that
led to all-out war between the European powers for control of not only the Ohio
River Valley, but for all of colonial North America.
Fort Necessity, where George Washington
and 300 Virginians battled the French in 1754.
After the battle, Washington and his
men withdrew to Great Meadows. Fearing an attack, the Virginians immediately
began construction of a stockade. On July 3, 1754, the French responded in force.
A battle ensued between Washington's 300 Virginians and an attacking force of
600 French and 100 Indians, known as the Battle of Fort Necessity.
The colonial militia defended their stockade
against the French force in a driving rainstorm. Washington wrote:
"We continued this unequal fight with
an enemy sheltered behind trees, ourselves without shelter, in trenches full of
water, and the enemy galling us on all sides incessantly from the woods, until
eight o'clock at night."
Major George Washington and
his Virginia militia retreat from Fort Necessity in July 1754.
When the Virginians were unable
to continue the fight, Washington was compelled to sign a truce with the French
commander. The Virginians retreated from the fort with honors. The capitulation
was a bitter humiliation for the English, and plans were immediately launched to
retake control of the river junction. The French and Indian War had begun.
General Edward Braddock's
In February of 1755, General Edward
Braddock, the supreme commander of British forces in North America,
and two regiments of troops from Ireland, along with colonial forces
including Colonel George Washington were raised to march on the French fort.
On May 29, 1755, Braddock's army
embarked from Virginia. By the 8th ofJuly they had reached the outskirts
of Fort Duquesne and prepared to march against it. The following day, while
advancing on the fort, they were ambushed by a force of 850 French and Indians
and suffered a devastating defeat, during which General Braddock was mortally
General Braddock and his army traveled
from Virginia to the outskirts of Fort Duquesne.
The following eyewitness account of
the British defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755, is taken
from the King's Library Volume 212, as published in "The History Of
Pittsburgh," by Neville Craig, published in 1851.
The Monongahela had two extremely
good fords, which were very shallow, and the banks not steep. On the evening
of July 8, it was resolved to pass this river the next morning, and
Lieutenant Colonel Gage was ordered to march before the break of day, with
the two companies of Grenadiers, 160 rank and file, of the 44th and 48th,
Captain Gates' Independant Company, and two six pounders. He was instructed
to pass the fords of the Monongahela and to take post after the second
crossing, to secure the passage of that river.
Sir John St. Clair was ordered to
march at four o'clock, with a detachment of 250 men, to make the roads for
the artillery and baggage, which was to march with the remainder of the
troops at five.
Indian scouts watch as units of
General Braddock's army make their crossing of the Monongahela River.
On July 9th the whole marched
agreeably to the orders, and about eight in the morning, the General made
the first crossing of the Monongahela by passing over about 150 men in the
front, to whom followed half the carriages; another party of 150 men headed
the second division; the horses and cattle then passed, and after all the
baggage was over, the remaining troops which until then possessed the
heights, marched over in good order.
The General ordered a halt, and
the whole formed in their proper line of march. When we had moved about a
mile, the General received a note from Lieutenant Colonel Gage, acquainting
him with his having passed the river the second time without any
interruption, and having posted himself agreeably to his orders.
General Braddock and his aides cross the
When we got to the other crossing,
the bank on the opposite side not being yet made passable, the artillery and
baggage drew up along the beach, and halted until one, when the General
passed over the detachment of the 44th, with the pickets on the right. The
artillery wagons and carrying horses followed, and then the detachment of
the 48th with the left pickets, which had been posted during the halt upon
the heights. When the whole had passed, the General again halted until they
formed according to the annexed plan.
It was now near two o'clock, and
the advanced party under Lieutenant Colonel Gage, and the working party
under John St. Clair, were ordered to march on until three. No sooner were
the pickets upon their respective flanks and the word given to march, we
heard an excessive quick and heavy firing in the front. The General,
imagining the advanced parties were very warmly attacked, and being willing
to free himself from the incumbrance of the baggage, ordered Lieutenant
Colonel Burton to reinforce them with the vanguard, and the line to
French and Indian forces attack the
British during the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755.
According to this disposition,
eight hundred men were detached from the line, free from all embarrassments,
and four hundred were left for the defence of the artillery and baggage,
posted in such a manner as to secure them from any attacks or insults. The
General sent forward an aide-de-camp to bring him an account of the nature
of the attack, but the fire continuing, he moved forward himself, leaving
Sir Peter Halket with the command of the baggage.
The advance detachment soon gave
way, and fell back upon Lieutenant Colonel Burton's detachment, who was
forming his men to face a rising ground upon the right. The whole were now
got together in great confusion. The colors were advanced in different
places to separate the men of the two regiments. The General ordered the
officers to endeavor to form the men, and tell them off into small divisions,
and to advance with them, but neither entreaties nor threats could
The advanced flank parties, which
were left for the security of the baggage, fled. Their baggage was them
warmly attacked, a great many horses and some drivers were killed, the
others escaped by flight. Two of the cannon flanked the baggage, and for
some time kept the Indians off; the other cannon which were disposed of in
the best manner, and fired away most of their ammunition, were of some
service, but the spot being so woody, they could do little or no
A map of General Braddock's Defeat
on July 9, 1755.
The enemy had spread themselves in
such a manner that they extended from front to rear, and fired upon every
part. The place of action was covered with trees and much underwood upon the
left, without any opening but the road, which was only about twelve feet
wide. At a distance of about 200 yards in front, and upon the right, were
two rising grounds covered with trees.
When the General found it
impossible to persuade them to advance, and no enemy appeared in view; and
nevertheless a vast number of officers were killed by exposing themselves
before the men, he endeavored to retreat them in good order; but the panic
was so great that he could not succeed. During this time they were loading as
fast as possible, and firing in the air. At last, Lieutenant Colonel Burton
got together about 100 of the 48th regiment, and prevailed upon them, by the
General's order, to follow him toward the rising ground on the right, but he
being disabled by his wounds, they faced about to the right and
General Edward Braddock lies mortally
wounded amidst the chaos of the battle.
When the men had fired away all
their ammunition, and saw the General and most of the officers wounded, they,
by one common consent, left the field, running off with the greatest
precipitation. About fifty Indians pursued us to the river, and killed
several men in the passage. The officers used all possible endeavors to stop
the men, and to prevail upon them to rally; but a great number of them threw
away their arms and ammunition, and even their clothes, to escape the
About a quarter of a mile on the
other side of the river, we prevailed upon near 100 of them to take post
upon a very advantageous spot, about two hundred yards from the road.
Lieutenant Colonel Burton posted some small parties and sentinels. We
intended to have kept possession of that ground until we could have been
The mortally wounded General Braddock
being led from the field after the battle.
The General and some wounded
officers remained there about an hour, until most of the men had run off.
From that place the General sent Mr. Washington to Colonel Dunbar, with
orders to send wagons for the wounded, some provisions and hospital stores,
to be escorted by the two youngest grenadier companies.
After we had passed the
Monongahela the second time, we were joined by Lieutenant Colonel Gage, who
had rallied nearly 60 men. We marched all that night and the next
General Edward Braddock
Of the 1300 men Braddock led into battle,
456 were killed and 422 were wounded. Officers were prime targets and suffered
greatly: out of 86 officers, 26 were killed and 37 wounded. General Braddock
died of his wounds on July 13, four days after the battle, and was buried on
the military road near Fort Necessity. The French reported very few
The following is a list of officers
killed or wounded during Braddock's defeat:
The defeat of General Braddock's army
was the most disastrous affair to befall the British colonies. It laid open
large portions of the territory of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to
the ravages of the Indians. The French and their allies were now
in complete control of the region. It would be three years before the
British once again had the strength to challenge their adversaries for
control of the Ohio River Valley.
Many of the survivors of Battle of the Monongahela who would go on to play pivotal roles in the
American Revolution years later were engaged in the action and gained some
experience in the art of war. General Gage, who subsequently commanded the
British army at Bunker Hill, led the advance party at Braddock's Field.
Horatio Gates, the conqueror of Burgoyne, Daniel Morgan, the hero of
Cowpens, and the gentleman who would lead the American Revolutionary Forces
and go on to become the first President of the United States of
America, George Washington, all served under General
British Colonel George
The fate of the British prisoners
captured by the Indians during the Battle of the Monongahela, or simply Braddock's Defeat, was far worse
than that of their surviving comrades. Twelve British regulars were brought
back to Fort Duquesne along with booty from the battle. These men were
tortured and burned alive on the banks of the Allegheny River.
British colonial soldier James Smith,
already a prisoner at Fort Duquesne, witnessed the gruesome spectacle. His
account is documented below in the slaughter at Fort Duquesne.
The French Fort Duquesne and the outlying
buildings in 1755.
General John Forbes Marches
on Fort Duquesne
After their victory over the British
at Braddock's Field, the French consolidated their hold on the region that
was now firmly in their grasp. During this time, the war raged in other parts
of the country, but at Fort Duquesne there were no further large-scale military
actions. Small frontier skirmishes with the Indians, often attributed, correctly
or not, to Le Generale Washington, were the only engagements.
The English, however, were determined
to return in force and drive the French from the Ohio River Valley. Capturing
Fort Duquesne was the key to this goal. Control of the river junction would
threaten the French hold on the entire Northwestern frontier. To this end,
in the summer of 1758, a force of 6000 regular and colonial troops marched
on Fort Duquesne, under the command of General John Forbes.
General John Forbes
The Battle of Fort
In September of 1758, the vanguard of
Forbes Army were within a few miles of Fort Duquesne. On September 11, 1758,
Major James Grant led over 800 men to scout the territory around Fort Duquesne
in advance of the arrival of General Forbes' main column. The fort was believed
to be held by 500 French and 300 Indians, a force too strong to be attacked by
Grant's party were within two miles of
the fort on September 13. A small party of fifty men were sent forward to scout.
They encountered no enemy outside the fort. They raided and burned a storehouse,
then returned to the main position. Major Grant, believing there were only about
200 enemy soldiers present, determined that the fort could be taken by
coup-de-etat and planned an attack for the next day.
The next morning, Grant divided his force
into several parts. A company of the 77th approached the fort with drums beating
and pipes playing as a decoy. A force of 400 men lay in wait to ambush the enemy
when responded to the ploy. Several hundred more were concealed near the baggage
train in the hope of surprising an enemy attack there.
The French and Indian force turned out to
be much larger than expected, and their response was swift and decisive. They
overwhelmed the small decoy force and quickly overran the ambush positions.
The British retreated and went to the aid of the those left at the baggage train.
The Indians, concealed by thick foliage, unleashed a heavy and destructive fire
that could not be returned with any effect.
Private Robert Kirkwood of the 77th Regiment
as he is taken prisoner after the battle.
Private Robert Kirkwood of the 77th
Highland Regiment was pursued by four Indians and wounded. He later wrote that,
"I was immediately taken, but the Indian who laid hold of me would not allow
the rest to scalp me, tho' they proposed to do so. In short, he befriended me
Many others were not so fortunate.
During the Battle of Fort Duquesne the British and Colonial soldiers suffered
342 casualties, of whom 232 were from the 77th Regiment. Major Grant, along
with Private Kirkwood and seventeen other rank and file soldiers, were taken
prisoner. The remainder of Grant's force escaped to rejoin the main army camped
at Fort Ligonier. The French and Indian defenders suffered only eight killed and
Although Major Grant was subsequently
paroled and Private Kirkwood lived to write his story, the fate of several
other prisoners was brutally similar to their predecessors three years before.
These soldiers were tortured and mutiliated by their Indian captors, and their
severed heads lined up on posts outside the fort.
Major James Grant
Note: A plaque on the Allegheny County
Courthouse, erected in 1901, commemorates the site of the Battle of Fort Duquesne. The hill where the battle was fought is today
called Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh.
The French Abandon Fort
General Forbes was gravely ill
during the campaign, and he trailed behind the column of soldiers and the
laborers who were constructing the military road. When he finally arrived at
Fort Ligonier in early November, the campaign season was practically
over. Major Grant's disastrous defeat and the coming of winter caused
doubt over whether his army should move on the fort immediately or wait until
George Washington, now a General and an assistant to Forbes, had his Indian scouts
dispatched to gather intelligence on the condition of the fort. News of a
recent peace treaty with the Iroquois and Delaware Indians was heartening.
However, Forbes held a council of war on November 11, and decided to postpone
Indian scouts allied with the advancing
British army provided intelligence on the French forces.
The next day, after receiving a report
from Washington's scouting party, Forbes reversed himself. The French at Fort
Duquesne were in dire straits. Most of the Indians had abandoned the post
after routing Grant's force in September. The French commander, Francois-Marie
le Marchand de Lignery, was left with a dwindling garrison. They had not
received any supplies in months. His soldiers were starving and had
resorted to eating their horses. The majority of the garrison was weak
and unfit for service.
The British set out at once, and as
the column neared Fort Duquesne, Lignery ordered the buildings burned and the
bulk of the munitions destroyed. The approaching soldiers could heard the
explosions from ten miles away.
The next day, November 25, 1758, General
Forbes' troops overtook the ruins of the once mighty French fort without meeting
any resistance. The French soldiers had quietly retreated to Fort LeBoeuf. Great
Britain had reclaimed the Forks of the Ohio.
It had been over four years since the
small British garrison at Fort Prince George had been evicted by the French.
Forbes' victory was celebrated throughout the American colonies and back home
in England. It was a devastating blow to French colonial aspirations.
General Forbes takes notes after the
fall of the French Fort Duquesne.
General John Forbes renamed the site
"Pittsborough" after Prime Minister William Pitt. When he began the arduous
journey back to Philadelphia, Forbes left Colonel Hugh Mercer in command.
The British garrison initially constructed a temporary structure, called
Mercer's Fort, and in 1759, began construction on Fort Pitt, an elaborate fortification built to withstand any
assault and assure British dominance in the Ohio Country.
In July 1759, while Colonel Mercer
and his troops were protected only by the small Mercer's Fort, preparations
were being made to drive the British once more from the fork of the Belle
Riviere. Seven hundred French soldiers and several hundred Indians, along
with cannons and provisions, gathered near Venango.
Before they could begin their task,
news of the British attack on Fort Niagara forced them to abandon their
plans and rush to the aid of that vital Great Lakes bastion. If Fort
Niagara fell, the entire French Northeastern colonial empire would
be in jeopardy.
Although the war between England and
France would continue for another four years, there was no further military
action between the two European adversaries near the forks of the Ohio
River. Pittsburgh was, however, a vital staging ground for numerous military
expeditions against the western Indians, and in 1763 was, for three months,
held under siege during the Indian uprising known as Pontiac's War.
Note: Mercer's Fort stood at the
site of what is today a parking lot between Point State Park and the
Pittsburgh Post Gazette building.
Fort Duquesne - 250
Years After The French And Indian War
The outline of the historic French
Fort Duquesne at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Slaughter At Fort Duquesne - July 10, 1755
Point State Park is a beautifully
landscaped greenspace and recreational area that sits at the junction of
the three rivers. The park rests at the forefront of the Golden Triangle,
and is one of the signature vistas of the City of Pittsburgh.
Historical markers are placed at
various locations throughout the park detailing the significance of the
area during the colonial era, when the two great European powers, France
and England, fought for supremacy in North America.
During wartime, atrocities are committed
and rarely documented. One such occurence was witnessed, and it happened
right on the banks of the Allegheny River, where spectators today gather
to watch the boat races at the Three Rivers Regatta. It is a macabre
tale of the torture of British prisoners at the hands of the
James Smith was a member of General
Edward Braddock's advance party of construction engineers during the
ill-fated British drive against French-held Fort Duquesne in 1755.
A Pennsylvania native, Smith's tale of his time as a prisoner of the Mohawk
tribe at Fort Duquesne is both gruesome and fascinating. The following is
an excerpt from "The History Of Pittsburgh," by Neville Craig, published
In the spring of the year 1755,
James Smith, then a youth of eighteen, accompanied a party of three hundred
men from the frontiers of Pennsylvania, who advanced in front of Braddock’s
army, for the purpose of opening a road over the mountain. When within a few
miles of Bedford Springs, he was sent back to the rear to hasten the progress
of some wagons loaded with provisions and stores for the use of the wood
Having delivered his orders, he
was returning, in company with another young man, when they were suddenly
fired upon by a party of three Indians, from a cedar thicket which skirted
the road. Smith’s companion was killed on the spot; and although he himself
was unhurt, his horse was so much frightened by the flash and report of the
guns as to become totally unmanageable. After a few plunges Smith was thrown
violently to the ground. Before he could recover his feet, the Indians sprang
upon him, and, overpowering his resistance, secured him as
One of them demanded, in broken
English, whether “more white men were coming up,” and upon his answering in
the negative, he was seized by each arm and compelled to run with great
rapidity over the mountain until night, when the small party encamped and
cooked their suppers. An equal share of their scanty stock of provisions was
given to the prisoner, and in other respects, although strictly guarded, he
was treated with great kindness.
On the evening of the next day,
after a rapid walk of fifty miles through cedar thickets, and over very rocky
ground, they reached the western side of the Laurel mountain, and beheld, at
a little distance, the smoke of an Indian encampment. His captors now fired
their guns and raised the scalp halloo! This is a long yell for every scalp
that has been taken, followed by a rapid succession of shrill, quick, piercing
shrieks - shrieks somewhat resembling laughter in the most excited
They were answered from the Indian
camp below by a discharge of rifles, and a long whoop, followed by shrill cries
of joy, and all thronged out to meet the party. Smith expected instant death at
their hands as they crowded around him; but, to his surprise, no one offered
him any violence. They belonged to another tribe, and entertained the party in
their camp with great hospitality, respecting the prisoner as the property of
The French Fort Duquesne
On the following morning Smith’s
captors continued their march, and on the evening of the next day arrived at
Fort Duquesne - now Pittsburgh. When within a half a mile of the fort they
again raised the scalp halloo, and fired their guns as before. Instantly the
whole garrison was in commotion. The cannons were fired, the drums were beaten,
and the French and Indians ran out in great numbers to meet the party and
partake of their triumph.
Smith was again surrounded by a
multitude of savages, painted in various colors, and shouting with delight;
but their demeanor was by no means as pacific as that of the last party he had
encountered. They rapidly formed in two lines, and brandishing their hatchets,
ramrods, switches, etc, called aloud for him to run the gauntlet.
Never having heard of this Indian
ceremony before, he stood amazed for some time, not knowing what to do. Then
one of his captors explained to him that he was to run between the two lines
and receive a blow from each Indian, as he passed, concluding his explanation
by exhorting him to “run his best,” as the faster he ran the sooner the affair
would be over.
The truth was very plain, and young
Smith entered upon his race with great spirit. He was switched very handsomely
along the lines for about three-fourths of the distance, the strikes only acting
as a spur to greater exertions. He had almost reached the extremity of the line,
when a tall chief struck him a furious blow with a club upon the back of the head,
and instantly felled him to the ground.
Prisoner James Smith runs the gauntlet
outside Fort Duquesne.
Recovering himself in a moment, he
sprung to his feet and started forward again, when a handful of sand was thrown
in his eyes, which, in addition to the great pain, completely blinded him. He
still attempted to grope his way through, but was again knocked down and beaten
with merciless severity. He soon became insensible under such barbarous treatment,
and recollected nothing more until he found himself in the hospital of the fort,
under the hands of a French surgeon. He was beaten to a jelly, and unable to move
Here he was quickly visited by one of
his captors, the same who had given him such good advice when about to commence
his race. He now inquired, with some interest, if he felt “very sore.” Young
Smith replied that he had been bruised almost to death, and asked what he had
done to merit such barbarity. The Indian replied that he had done nothing, but
that it was the customary greeting of the Indians to their prisoners, something
like the English “how d’ya do,” and that now all ceremony would be laid aside,
and he would be treated with kindness.
Smith inquired if they had any news of
General Braddock. The Indian replied that their scouts saw him every day from the
mountains, that he was advancing in close columns through the woods (this he
indicated by placing a number of red sticks parallel to each other, and pressed
closely together), and that the Indians would be able to shoot them down
Smith rapidly recovered, and was soon
able to walk upon the battlements of the fort, with the aid of a stick. While
engaged in this exercise, on the morning of July 9th, he observed an unusual
bustle in the Fort. The Indians stood in crowds at the great gate, armed and
painted. Many barrels of powder, balls, flints, etc., were brought out to them,
from which each warrior helped himself to such articles as he
They were soon joined by a small
detachment of French regulars, and the whole party marched off together. He
had a full view of them as they passed, and was confident that they could not
exceed four hundred men. He soon learned that it was detached against Braddock,
who was now within a few miles of the Fort; but from their great inferiority in
numbers, he regarded their destruction as certain, and looked joyfully to the
arrival of Braddock in the evening, as the hour which was to deliver him from
the power of the Indians.
In the afternoon, however, an Indian
runner arrived with far different intelligence. The battle had not yet ended when
he left the field; but he announced that the English had been surrounded, and
were shot down in heaps by an invisible enemy; that instead of flying at once or
rushing upon their concealed foe, they appeared completely bewildered, huddled
together in the centre of the ring, and before sundown there would not be a man
of them alive.
This intelligence fell like a
thunderbolt upon Smith, who now saw himself irretrievably in the power of the
savages, and could look forward to nothing but torture or endless captivity. He
waited anxiously for further intelligence, still hoping that the fortune of the
day might change. But, about sunset, he heard at a distance the well known scalp
halloo, followed by wild, quick, joyful shrieks, and accompanied by long continued
firing. This too surely announced the fate of the day.
A war party raises the scalp
halloo to announce their victorious return to Fort Duquesne.
About dusk, the party returned to the
Fort, driving before them twelve British regulars, stripped naked, and with their
faces painted black, evidence that the unhappy wretches were devoted to death.
Next came the Indians, displaying their bloody scalps, of which they had immense
numbers, and dressed in the scarlet coats, sashes and military hats of the officers
and British soldiers. Behind all came a train of baggage horses, laden with piles
of scalps, canteens, and all the accoutrements of defeated army.
The savages appeared frantic with joy,
and when Smith beheld them entering the Fort, dancing, yelling, brandishing their
red tomahawks, and waving their scalps in the air, while the great guns of the
Fort replied to the incessant discharge of the rifles, he says that it looked as
if hell had given a holiday, and turned loose its inhabitants upon the upper
The most melancholy spectacle was the
band of prisoners. They appeared dejected and anxious. Poor fellows! They had but
a few months before left London, at the command of their superiors, and we may
easily imagine their feelings at the strange and dreadful spectacle around them.
The yells of delight and congratulation were scarcely over, when those of vengeance
The prisoners, all British regulars,
were led out of the Fort to the banks of the Allegheny, and to the eternal
disgrace of the French commandant, were there burnt to death, with the most awful
Smith stood upon the battlements and
witnessed the shocking spectacle. A prisoner was tied to a stake, with his hands
raised above his head, stripped naked, and surrounded by Indians. They would
touch him with red hot irons, and stick his body full of pine splinters, and set
them on fire; drowning the shrieks of the victim in the yells of delight with
which they danced around him.
His companions in the mean time stood in
a group near the stake, and had a foretaste of what was in reserve for each of them.
As fast as one prisoner died under his tortures, another filled his place, until
the whole of them had perished. All this took place so near the Fort, that every
scream of the victims must have rang in the ears of the French
Two or three days after this shocking
spectacle, most of the Indian tribes dispersed, and returned to their homes,
as is usual with them after a great and decisive battle. Young Smith was demanded
of the French by the Mohawk tribesmen to whom he belonged, and was immediately
surrendered into their hands.
Frontiersman and adventurer James Smith
After his experiences at Fort Duquesne,
James Smith was eventually adopted by a Mohawk family, ritually cleansed, and
made to practice tribal ways. Smith ultimately gained respect for Indian
culture before escaping near Montreal in 1759. He returned to the Conococheague
Valley in Pennsylvania and took up farming.
During Pontiac's War, he fought in the Battle of Bushy Run and later accompanied British
officer Henry Bouquet's 1764 expedition into the Ohio Country. Smith represented
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, at the 1776 Constitutional Convention, and
when the American War of Independence broke out, he joined the Pennsylvania
militia with the rank of Colonel.
Smith moved to Westmoreland County in
1778. By the late 1780s, he and his family had relocated to Bourbon County,
Kentucky. There he served as a member of the Kentucky General Assembly for a
number of years. James Smith, the farmer, soldier, Indian captive, frontiersman,
adventurer and politician, passed away in 1814.