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Geo. Washington Slept Here
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Geo. Washington Slept Here.. Really!

In the day of Washington's youth western Pennsylvania was the first "Old West," part of the vast, rich Ohio Country. Claimed by the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania, its first English settlers were Virginians.

Disputed by the nations of Britain and France as well as the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania, it came to be the first battleground of a worldwide struggle known as the French and Indian or Seven Years War. Young Washington figured in the flashpoint of this worldwide conflagration.

His story began in the winter of 1753-54, when the twenty-one year old Virginian traveled with frontiersman and guide Christopher Gist, and an interperter, Jacob Von Braam, to deliver a message from Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to the French commander at Ft. LeBoeuf, (near present day Erie). The message amounted to a demand that the French desist from claiming and colonizing the Ohio Country as part of "New France." The party returned with a letter of refusal that bleak winter, so the young Washington returned to present day Fayette county in command of a contingent of approximately 400 militiamen from Virginia and South Carolina in the spring of 1754.

The result was a skirmish and a battle - the beginnings of Washington's military career. Washington received word from the Gist family in late May 1754, that a contingent of French soldiers were camped in a rocky glen about 6 miles north of Uniontown. Thirty-six French marines were ambushed by the English colonials and their Indian allies. Thirteen were killed, 22 captured and one escaped. Among the dead was Ensign M. Colon de Jumonville - a designated diplomat bearing a message telling the English to leave New France immediately.

Washington then sent the captured French to the Virginia capital at Williamsburg and ordered his men to erect a stockade at a large clearing known as the "Great Meadows." This rude "fort of necessity" was a simple log headquarters, surrounded by a palisade of sharpened logs, and ringed at its outer parameters with hastily thrown up earthen breastworks.

Historians often remark that the youthful Washington, "made his first mistakes here," certainly he received an unforgettable lesson in warfare. When the French and their Indian allies arrived on July 3, they were able to rain shot and arrows on the colonials from the surrounding high ground under the protection of dense forests.

Washington and his officers had expected the French to fight like Europeans of the day - assembling in formation on the open plain of the Great Meadow. Instead, they fought "Indian style" from the protection of rocks and trees. Such tactics were to bear even more dire consequences for the British the next year when Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock was routed in the Pennsylvania wilderness. In fact, the lesson learned by the young Virginian at Fort Necessity was to be of great advantage to the American colonists in the Revolutionary War against the British and their Hessian hirelings.

A driving rain hampered the little army through the day and into the evening of July 3, 1754. That night they parleyed with the French and surrendered July 4, to retreat back into Virginia with full military honors. Although the engagement ended in defeat for the colonials - and marked the only time in his military career that Washington surrendered - the event marked a second important lesson in the young leader. Historians ascribe much of Washington's success in the subsequent Revolution to his abilities in keeping an army together despite setbacks and defeats.

He was to return the next year as an officer in the ill fated expedition of British Major General Edward Braddock, commander of two regiments of the Cold Stream Guards - some 2000 of the finest fighting men the empire could field.

The army advanced over the trail improved by Washington and his men the year before, inspected the burned ruins of Ft. Necessity and the surrounding breastworks. Braddock then divided his army, with 1,000 men camping nearby the glen where the small contingent of French including the emissary Jumonville had been ambushed by Washington the year before. Col. Thomas Dunbar was placed in command of the camp, the site today known as Dunbar's Knob, where a sixty foot high concrete and steel cross towers over a Methodist retreat.

Braddock, Washington, and some 1400 English and colonial militia men proceeded north to meet the French at Fort Dusquene, then situated in what is today's "Golden Triangle" in the heart of Pittsburgh. Only miles from what would have been certain victory, Braddock and his men were met by a contingent of French and Native Americans whose "backwoods" tactics enabled them to inflict terrible losses on the army. Routed headlong, the army could easily have disintegrated had not Washington assumed command, bringing the mortally wounded Braddock to Dunbar's camp.

The dying Braddock lingered four days. Washington had his remains interred in the middle of the road near Ft. Necessity and the wagons run over the spot so as to obscure it from desecration. Braddock's remains were lost until the early 1800's when unearthed by a road contractor. They were removed to a nearby spot commemorated in 1909 by a large stone marker. Major General Edward Braddock, Cold Stream Guards, a Scot, born into a military family in Ireland, is to this day the only English army commander buried on foreign soil..

Such is the military legacy of George Washington in the mountains just above the city of Uniontown. But the civilian legacy of the great statesman "first in peace" was also cherished among the people of the area who revered him as one of their own.

The Virginia militiamen were rewarded with parcels of land for their service in the Great Meadows Campaign - with their commander receiving the biggest plat. Washington the speculator cannily purchased adjoining plots from his men and so, eventually came to own the Meadows - the site of his earlier defeat! Records differ, but altogether his holdings totaled 1,600 to 2,000 acres in colonial Fayette county, making him the largest landowner in the county at that time.

He was to revisit the area twice, first in 1770 and most notably in September and October of 1784 -just following the Revolution. In the diary Washington kept of the adventure he relates a visit to his grist mill near the present town of Perryopolis. He wrote:

"I visited my Mill and the several tenements on this tract ... "I do not find the land in general equal to my expectation of it - some part indeed is as rich as can be, some other part is but indifferent - the levellest is the coldest, and of the meanest quality-that which is most broken is the richest; tho' some of the hills are not of the first quality.

The Tenements with respect to buildings, are but indifferently improved - each have Meadow and arable, but in no great quantity. - the Mill was quite destitute of water - the works & House appear to be in very bad condition - and no reservoir of water - the stream as it runs, is all the resource it has; -formerly there was a dam to stop the water; but that giving way it is brought in a narrow confined & trifling Race to the forebay, ... and the trunk, which conveys the water to the wheel are in bad order - In a word, little Rent, or good is to be expected from the present aspect of her. -

Washington found much of his holdings in decline, and even forced to evict squatters from his Washington county holdings through a court action in Uniontown (then Beesontown, which he terms "Beason Town") later that month. Despite the negative aspects of the journey, the hero of the Revolution was warmly welcomed at nearly every leg of trip. Hadden relates in the History of Uniontown (pp. 744 - 5.):

Washington arrived in Uniontown "about dusk" on the 22nd" of Setember and "put up" at a house of public entertainment, which was a double log house which stood on the south side of West Main street on the lot now occupied by the Fayette Title & Trust building, and formerly owned by Phillip Dilts. The tavern at this time may have been kept by one John Huston, as he was an inn keeper in the early history of the town, and it is said, was at this time connected with this lot. (Note the name "Huston "that appears generations later in Jane's book. - F.L.) While lodging at this old tavern, Washington had the opportunity of conversing with several intelligent gentlemen concerning the feasibility of connecting the haedwaters of the Potomac with those of the Ohio.

Although Washington's arrival in the town was unannounced, the ubiquitous boys of the village discovered it and soon gathered en masse. They procured thirteen tallow candles which they lighted and marched and countermarched past the old tavern, waving their torches and cheering for the great general whom they wished to honor.

Much of Washington's interest in his holdings in the West concerned the feasibility of connecting them with his Virginia holdings on the Potomac River. Plans included a canal and a roadway - some have credited the "father of his country" with also being the father of the National Road. The road was to come later, and the actual credit goes largely to Albert Gallatin. Interesting enough Washington and Gallatin met briefly in the fall of 1784 and may have discussed these ideas!

But the National Road was completed more than two decades later, and Washington lost interest in his Western holdings. At the time of his death he had liquidated all of his land in Fayette county, except the 234 acre parcel at Great Meadows - little wonder!

- F. LaCava

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