This past Sunday, December 14, George Washington died 215 years ago. It’s customary to note the sad anniversary and recall what it meant to the country at the time and for years afterward. We have something to say about Washington’s passing in our forthcoming book, Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President, but this December we thought it would be interesting to travel back to Washington’s youth when, as a mature but untested 21-year-old, he was sent by the colonial governor of Virginia into the trackless Ohio Country. It was this time of year, and Washington was on an impossible mission.
He was to deliver an eviction notice to French interlopers who were trailing down out of Canada, building forts, and courting Indian allies. Nobody knew it in 1753, but these activities were setting the stage for a vast global war between the superpowers of that day, Great Britain and France. In fact, it was the first world war before anyone realized that world wars were supposed to be numbered. The contest for imperial supremacy that stretched from the Indian subcontinent to the Plains of Abraham at the threshold of Québec and southwestward to the Ohio wilderness would be called the French and Indian War by Americans and the Seven Years’ War by Europeans, but historian Lawrence Henry Gipson more accurately labeled it “The Great War for Empire.”
The prelude to this epic clash sent Washington and a handful of companions on a thousand-mile roundtrip the first part of which took him nearly to the shores of Lake Erie. It consumed ten weeks, the most grueling portion being the trek back to Virginia, making this week 261 years ago a memorable time in Washington’s life when he was trying to claw his way back home. That December's weather was worse than ghastly, and the adventures they faced proved almost lethal to young Washington and his guide, a grizzled character in buck-skins straight out of central casting who, like the best of guides, knew something about finding one’s way in an abstract as well as a material sense. His lessons were about more than woods lore and Indian relations. They were about the essentials of life and death, and the value of promises. The following is excerpted from an early draft of Washington’s Circle and has been adapted for this post.
With curly black hair, a full beard, thin face, and prominent eyebrows, Christopher Gist looked every bit the weathered pioneer, the kind of man who licked his thumb to clean gun sights for improved accuracy. Gist was occasionally employed as a scout by the Ohio Company, that group of Virginians who planned to survey and sell the western wilderness that the French were co-opting, so he knew the land where they were going better than any white man in the world. In his mid-forties when Washington met him, he had already done enough living for several men. Indeed, Gist was a bundle of quiet fortitude and subtle surprises. He kept a journal whose laconic entries were tinged with good cheer. Gist’s manner made him easy to like, and his sense of virtue made him easy to trust. For daily necessities, such as bagging game for a night’s rations, he was indispensable, but he was more than self-sufficient. In a crisis, Gist was steady. Stoic and seemingly passive, he had unsurpassed knowledge of how to stay alive in a place where almost everything was trying to kill you, but he rarely gave unsolicited advice. If a man wanted to pick up a cat by its tail, Gist let him. Experience was a better teacher than an argument. He treated Washington this way, which suited the young man who liked to work things out for himself. At the same time, Gist taught Washington by example how to survive in an unforgiving world and how to get along with the people living in it.
This last was crucial to their mission. The Indians always believed Gist because he had never lied to them and always treated them fairly. He kept his broad mouth shut about how they lived and kept it free of sneers when he accepted their hospitality. He resigned himself to their occasionally ferocious customs — he once wordlessly watched a captive Indian woman tortured to death by other Indians — but he often found them more personable than many of the unruly whites who wandered the frontier.
Gist probably understood better than Washington that visiting the French was really a formality providing an excuse for the real purpose of the journey, which was to renew contact with Indians. They were the key to everything in a place that had no European armies but only small garrisons of a few dozen men with muskets and, if lucky, a few field pieces. The Indians were the populace of this wilderness, and though they could melt into the woods in an instant, they could silently reassemble just as quickly to decide battles and win wars. Gist tried to teach Washington this reality as he was leading the way to Fort Le Boeuf, and some of it took, some of it didn’t.
Washington had known Indians all his life, but those of his childhood were only the shadows of their frontier counterparts. He first saw Indians as creatures of the forest during a 1748 surveying trip in western Virginia, and it had been an eye-opening experience. Five years later, persuading these people that the British were still a presence in the region was imperative, and Gist could help him do this too. Without the aid of the Indians, everything else would be in jeopardy. As Washington’s expedition trekked northward, Gist arranged a meeting with the most consequential Indian he knew.
He was an Oneida/Seneca named Tanacharison, whom the British called the Half-King, the leader of the Mingoes, fierce Iroquoian people who could cover miles in deep snow and fight to the death afterward. The Half-King was in his early fifties, at the height of his influence, and one of the few friends the British still had as the French came with lavish gifts and tempting promises. The Half-King was a shrewd judge of men, and he had no illusions about Europeans. He knew that British friendship was opportunistic rather than affectionate, but he sincerely hated the French because they had kidnapped him and killed his father. That the French had also eaten his father, as the Half-King claimed, was certainly an exaggeration, but his encounter with swaggering, contemptuous French officers remained a gnawing memory. This proud man deeply resented insults.
His meeting with Washington went well as the tall Virginian made the obligatory speeches voicing the proper sentiments while cutting a striking figure. Gist knew this would work. They lingered at the Half-King’s village longer than Washington wanted, but Gist likely told him that a hasty departure would be rude. Washington learned much more than a brief acquaintance would have shown him. The Half-King was a good friend. Later, Washington would see that he could be a horrifying enemy.
It took the small party a long time to reach Fort Le Boeuf where the French commander was pleasant but bluntly rejected Governor Robert Dinwiddie’s message. It was as everyone should have expected, and the Englishmen spent their three days at Le Boeuf taking stock of the garrison and its firepower. The French did not mind. There was no British army to fear, certainly not the Virginia militia, and odds were that Washington and his companions would not survive their journey home to deliver the French rebuff to Dinwiddie. As it happened, all of these considerations were very nearly correct.
The trip back quickly became a nightmare. The weather turned nasty with icy rain and snow. The horses flagged, and Gist for once broke his rule about advice and pleaded with Washington not to abandon them. Washington, however, insisted that they continue on foot and soon discovered that Gist had been right. Washington suffered terribly, but they persevered and reached a small outpost, no doubt with Washington feeling even greater appreciation for his companion. Resolved to push on, they enlisted an Indian guide who claimed to know Gist, but the Indian had lied and following him was a grave mistake. He became surly as he traced a route that made Gist increasingly suspicious, a feeling confirmed when the Indian tried to kill them. His bad aim saved them, but Washington’s mercy saved the Indian. Gist wanted to execute him on the spot, but Washington ordered that they would merely devise to get away from him. That meant the extra burden of time consuming tricks to cover their tracks. They found the Allegheny River running so hard that it tossed Washington from their makeshift raft, and they barely made it to an island in the middle of the river. The night was so cold that the Allegheny had frozen over by morning. Gist suffered frostbite, but Washington was miraculously unharmed, a bit of luck that continued when they were able to walk on the ice to the opposite bank and continue their journey.
Washington survived this impossible expedition with its improbable task because of good fortune, especially that of having Christopher Gist for a friend. Coming back, Gist stopped where he began, on the Maryland frontier, and Washington continued on to Williamsburg. His association with this admirable man, however, would continue for the next five years while they fought the French and their Indian allies over the Ohio Country. Gist joined the fray as a captain in the Virginia militia and remained one throughout. He was distinguished among the cadre of officers for likely saving Washington’s life, but he never mentioned it. Rather, he served in a lowly rank with meager pay under hard conditions without complaint. He always stood quietly by and when needed, he stood fast. When Washington had started the trip into the Ohio Country in that autumn of 1753, a Cherokee messenger brought word that Gist’s son was very ill and needed him. He naturally wanted to go back, but he had promised that he would take Washington to Fort Le Boeuf, and he never even considered leaving the young Virginian’s side. Gist hastily put together a bundle of herbal medicine and sent the Indian back with it. In a place where almost everything was trying to kill you, promises had to mean something. It was the best lesson of all. That one took completely.