TCS Daily

Why We Don't Speak French

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - June 25, 2004 12:00 AM

LIGONIER, PA. -- This is the 250th anniversary of why we don't speak French.

It all began in this area of Western Pennsylvania in the spring and summer of 1754. It must have been a spring and summer much like the one we've been experiencing around here this year -- lots of rain; lots and lots of rain.

Back at that time these mountains were covered with dense forest laced by mountain streams and rivers, a vast hunting ground for the Indians in a few scattered villages. A handful of hardy English and German-American adventurers hunted, trapped and traded with the Indians, so there were some crude log cabins here and there.

But the colonists back in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, in their brick, stone and clapboard homes, regarded these Allegheny Mountains as a deep, dark and dangerous frontier. They clung to the comforts of civilization along the East Coast, where Great Britain with a dash of Europe had been more or less replicated over the course of more than a century.

It can fairly be said that America as a distinct and separate entity really began on this green, mountainous frontier. The buckskin-clad souls living here by wit and watchfulness had to be independent, because the "protection" of the British crown was pretty much a concept rather than a reality.

And back in the summer of 1754 there was some dispute as to just which crown would be offering protection. French explorers and traders had declared all of the land west of the Alleghenies to be "New France" and under the control of King Louis XV. French priests and trappers had been operating farther to the west and north (Canada) for a long time.

But English traders and explorers, mainly from the colony of Virginia, had different ideas. They had formed the Ohio Company and begun casting their eyes westward.

Aware of this, the French under the Governor-General of New France, Marquis Duquesne (we used to have a local beer named after him) had set up a line of forts along the Allegheny River in 1753. The first two of them were well north of here, in the vicinity of present-day Erie, Pa.

Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia didn't like this at all. So he sent a 21-year-old surveyor named George Washington up into the wilds of Pennsylvania in the fall of that year to further discern French intentions and tell them to get out.

This demand was, of course, framed in the proper diplomatic language of the day. Washington's message from the governor inquired of the French, "By whose Authority and Instructions you have lately marched from Canada, with an armed Force, and invaded the King of Great-Britain's Territories?"

With great hardship, young Washington traveled all the way up to Fort Le Boeuf in Northwestern Pennsylvania by foot, horseback and boat to deliver the governor's words. There the Frenchies fed him, fobbed him off with diplomatic politesse, and left it clear they were staying put.

The commander at Le Boeuf, one Jacques Legardeur de Saint Pierre, was pleased to dine with the young surveyor, but informed him, "as to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it." So Washington made his way back to Virginia bearing news of his polite but firm rebuff and pretty soon everybody knew that if the merde had not quite hit the fan it was very close to the blades.

Governor Dinwiddie sent a small detachment of colonial troops up to build a stockade at one of the most important points in the disputed territory -- the hilly triangle of land where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers met to form the Ohio -- the site of present day Pittsburgh. Young Washington had been "forcibly struck" by the strategic importance of this location on his earlier journey to treat with the French.

Arriving in February 1754, the Virginians worked on the fortification until April. Then a large French force came down the Allegheny River and told them to yield the site. Overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned, the English colonists decamped. The French proceeded to enlarge and strengthen the works, naming them Fort Duquesne.

Indian scouts brought the news of this capitulation to George Washington -- now 22 and a commissioned colonel -- as he was making his way north and west with troops to garrison the new English fort. He had just struggled over Laurel Mountain, and one last mountain, Chestnut Ridge, lay between him and the "three rivers" when he received the disheartening news.

Washington decided to establish a fortified camp at an open place between Laurel Mountain and Chestnut Ridge, about 30 miles south of here, called the Great Meadows. There he would wait for reinforcements from Virginia and then "attack the Post which the enemy now occupied."

And so it was that on a rain-soaked day in May 250 years ago, George Washington, supervising the enlargement and fortification of the place he had unceremoniously dubbed "Fort Necessity," received more bad news from his Indian scouts.

They had sighted a small detachment of French troops moving eastward from Fort Duquesne. Indeed, they were in the forest nearby. Actually, as the French were to claim, this detachment, headed by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, had orders to simply find the Virginians and ask them to please leave.

But Washington found de Jumonville first. Early on the foggy morning of May 28, 1754, he was at the head of an advance party of 40 Virginians, Pennsylvanians and Mingo Indians when they peered down into a rocky, forested glen east of what is now Uniontown, Pa. Below them were de Jumonville's troops in their distinctive white uniforms with blue facings. Most of them were still asleep.

With Washington on the rocky bluffs above the glen was an Indian he knew well, a mixed Seneca and Catawba named Tanaghrisson. The English called him "Half-King," and he was probably as close as any Indian came to being a diplomat. He had personally brokered many meetings between various Ohio tribes and representatives of the colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

He was also very wary of the increasing French incursions into the Ohio Valley and apparently was not feeling very diplomatic that rainy morning. What exactly happened in that misty Pennsylvania glen (now the site of a church camp) will never be known. But it appears that Half-King talked Washington into attacking the French troops.

It was a sort of pre-emptive strike. The old Indian persuaded Washington that de Jumonville and his men had marched out for the express purpose of killing or capturing the Virginians. This would have been a bold enterprise given the small size of the French party.

Whatever the case, a bloody 15-minute skirmish -- the opening shots of what we call the French and Indian War -- took place. Ensign de Jumonville was among the 10 Frenchmen killed. It was said that Half-King personally tomahawked the young officer. One French soldier was wounded and 21 were captured.

But one escaped.

He returned to Fort Duquesne with a tale of treachery. He said that Ensign de Jumonville was in the act of delivering his diplomatic message to Washington when gunfire broke out. Washington, whom the Indians had already gauged enough to honor him with the name "Conotocarious," or "Destroyer of Villages," was branded by the French simply as an "assassin."

The musket fire that echoed off the huge rocks (you can see them today) of what is now called Jumonville Glen marked the opening shots of a war largely forgotten in American history (Didn't everything begin with the Revolution?) a war that would change the whole complexion of the northern half of this hemisphere.

Things would go badly and worse for the English and their American cousins in ensuing months. And young Washington would be in the middle of it all. He would fight a pitched battle with French forces at Fort Necessity before capitulating on July 3, 1754.

A year later, he would be with the British General Edward Braddock when his army of Redcoats were routed and slaughtered by French and Indians in the forest along the Monongahela River, just east of Fort Duquesne, one of the worst defeats ever suffered by British arms.

But the British would persist and prevail, eventually. It would take years. It would take arduous hacking of roads through the wilderness and the movement of British and "Royal American" troops over them. It would take the building of forts like Fort Ligonier, for which our town is named, before the British could gain the foothold necessary to finally drive the French out of Fort Duquesne and rename the place at the three rivers Fort Pitt.

The French claims on North America would be finished. The British flag would fly over the Alleghenies. The Indians, as usual, would be the big losers, being driven further west as the white men took over their hunting grounds.

When the war ended in 1763, with the Treaty of Paris, it would leave an enlarged and emboldened British Empire. At the same time, it provided a rich military experience for George Washington. The French and Indian War tested him in ways he did not understand at the time. And the closest he would ever come to losing his life would be in a bloody, furious friendly fire incident a few miles from the gates of Fort Ligonier. (The fort, incidentally, has been fully restored. It sits at the edge of town, the finest, most meticulous reconstruction of a British frontier fort that exists.)

Most importantly, many of the fellow officers Washington was able to observe in the crucible of this frontier war would be the very men he would call on years hence to help him lead the Continental Army in the American Revolution.

Right now there's quite a hubbub in the Ligonier Valley. Folks are trying on powdered wigs and getting into 18th century military tunics, buckskin coats and the long, full dresses of "pioneer women." Down at Fort Necessity they are preparing for a major 250th anniversary re-enactment of the battle there.

And up on Laurel Mountain, just east of here, a space has been carved out of the still-thick forest, where sets have been built and a television production crew is filming a documentary about that war of 250 years ago, "the war that made America."

They come back home in the evenings with stories to tell about reliving history. And they tell them in English.


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