England and France were old enemies and in the 1750s that was no different. Both wanted to be the dominant power in Europe and to control all of North America. What would become Canada and the United States were rich in resources and by having total control of that territory that nation could control the market for those resources. We think today that a world war is a relatively modern thing but the war that would be known in Europe as the Seven Year War and the French and Indian War in North America would be a world war as fighting took place all over the globe.
The spark did not come in Europe but instead came in the wilderness of what would be western Pennsylvania. Rival English and French fur trappers had been coming in contact with each other and control of the Ohio River became imperative for both sides. The French fortified a bluff overlooking the confluence of the two rivers that formed the Ohio River which placed them in charge of the river and its resources. Both sides claimed the land and this act was too much for the English, who believed that they had a stronger claim to the region. The French were angry that the English had been successful in convincing the Native Americans in the area to trade with them and not the French and the English hoped that this alone would prevent the French from venturing further and pack up and leave.
As the Virginia colony claimed the Ohio River Valley they had a vested interest in the French occupying it. A young lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia named George Washington was dispatched in 1753 to deliver a letter to the French at Fort LeBoeuf that asked the French to leave. The French (not surprisingly) refused and in fact reinforced themselves and replaced Fort LeBoeuf with another, stronger, fortification that they called Fort Duquesne.
Washington was sent back in 1754 with orders from the royal governor of Virginia to protect Virginian interests and to detain or kill any offenders who threatened them. This was basically an invitation to start a war and a fact which had to be known in London. Washington was also tasked with building a road into the area which would allow for more efficient movement of military forces and eventually settlers. He had about 185 men with him and arrived in what is today Fayette County, Pennsylvania in late May. About 35 Frenchmen were located nearby under the command of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. Washington attacked killing 10, including Jumonville and captured most of the rest in what became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen. French survivors claimed that Washington had killed Jumonville in cold blood. War was now inevitable.
Washington expected to be attacked and pulled his men back to a large meadow known as the Great Meadow and began constructing a fort with local white oak trees. He called it Fort Necessity. Reinforcements were arriving both from the Virginia militia and the British army but Washington received a blow when his native allies refused to help. That should have been the first sign of trouble and despite that Washington remained at the fort. It was a bad decision as the fort was in an indefensible position located on the valley floor and surrounded by forest giving any attacker an easy approach. More trees were cut down to fashion a line of defenses but with the forest was only 100 yards away, the defenders were well within musket range already.
French troops under the command of Louis Coulon de Villiers arrived in the area on July 3 and found their dead comrades in the Jumonville Glen lying unburied and scalped. Their blood was up. Later that day the French came upon the Great Meadow and Washington’s small fort. They attacked and forced the Virginia militia to seek refuge behind the oak timbers though the British regulars held their ground and inflicted heavy losses on the French’s Native allies. The French surrounded the fort using the woods for cover and began picking off Washington’s men. To make matters worse for Washington and his men it began to rain in the afternoon ruining their gunpowder. Washington knew the game was up and sent a negotiator out to discuss surrender terms. The negotiator was told that if Washington did not surrender that the natives would storm the place and scalp every defender. Washington surrendered and was allowed to march his troops out the next day.
This act did start a war, one of which took place in Europe, North America and on the oceans of the world. Washington himself would visit the area again, accompanying Edward Braddock’s ill-fated attempt to take Fort Duquesne. The area around the Great Meadow was of great importance until English soldiers under John Forbes succeeded in taking Fort Duquesne in 1758 and renamed it Fort Pitt in honor of John Pitt, the British Prime Minister at the time. The war ended in 1763 when James Wolfe’s men scaled the cliffs at Quebec City and routed the French on the Plains of Abraham establishing the English as masters of North America. Washington’s road would remain and would be one of the earliest roads west being designated the National Road.
George Washington would of course go on to more everlasting fame, at least here in the colonies. His small fort did not reap any of the benefits of his fame. The French destroyed the fort upon his evacuation and only small depressions in the ground marked where it located. Erosion took its toll and the fort was in danger of being lost to history by the early 20th century. The War Department protected the land in 1901 and the National Park Service performed an archaeological dig in 1931 with a reconstruction of the fort built the following year. They also opened the site to the public as the Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
For many years historians debated whether the fort was a square or triangular shaped. Subsequent digs concluded something different, that it was circular and the depressions simply marked the entrenchments. The remains of the white oak logs that the French burned were discovered marking the boundaries of the fort. New white oak logs were used to reconstruct the fort and it was finished in 1954. Due to deterioration the fort was reconstructed again in 1981, 1989, 1993 and 1996. The white oak trees used are the same trees that have helped to make the United States into the world power that it has become. One has to wonder that if these trees had not been available would Washington have did what he did knowing the protection they would offer and how much different world history would have been if he had just moved on rather than constructing Fort Necessity. Either way, the fort did not help him much and marks the only place that the Father of our Nation ever surrendered.