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North Neighborhoods
Historians disagree on where to mark Washington's trail

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Roger Weaver doesn't want to rewrite the history of George Washington's journey through Butler County. He just wants to shift part of the route a few miles west.

Weaver, an architect and historian, has his office in the Mueller-Weaver House in Harmony. It was built in 1810 and stands just about 100 yards from the spot where Weaver concludes Washington crossed Connoquenessing Creek on Dec. 1, 1753.

Washington was on a diplomatic mission from Virginia to confront the French in what is now Erie County.

Both Washington, a trained surveyor, and his guide, Christopher Gist, kept journals of their winter journey, and many historians agree on the approximate northbound route the pair followed. But based on his study of the two journals, Weaver believes they took a path for part of their return trip through Butler County that veers slightly from the traditionally accepted one.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Washington's journey, and Butler County has received $69,000 in state funds for historical markers to be erected along his route. But first those in charge of the project must agree on where Washington rode, walked and canoed.

That's where Weaver comes in. He's been hired to research the issue, funded by a $10,000 state grant.

Whatever routes Washington and Gist took, it was a slow, bone-chilling and dangerous trek. While the two differed on the details, it seems likely that an attempt was made to shoot Washington near what is now Evans City. A day later, he almost died when he fell into the freezing waters of the Allegheny River.

"We take the position that the French and Indian War started with this trip," said Dave Johnston, Butler County's planning director and a member of the county's Washington 1753 Trail Commemorative Committee, which hired Weaver.

Dramatic journey

Washington's journey across Western Pennsylvania was full of adventure and drama.

Only 21, the young diplomat was representing Virginia, the largest and most populous of the American colonies. Gist, a bankrupt merchant turned explorer and scout, was Washington's chief companion as well as his guide. Gist was in his late 40s when the pair headed north toward Fort LeBoeuf. Located near what is now Waterford, Erie County, Fort LeBoeuf was one of several outposts the French had built in the Ohio River Valley.

The goal of the French was to gain control of the Ohio Valley by occupying what is now Pittsburgh's Point, the strategic spot where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers come together.

Western Pennsylvania had been conquered and claimed by the Iroquois in the 17th century. The British argued that they gained title to the region when the tribe was declared subjects of the English crown under the 18th century Treaty of Utrecht.

The French did not agree, tracing their claim back to the voyages of Rene-Robert de LaSalle in the late 17th century.

Traveling down from Canada in 1749, a second French explorer named Pierre-Joseph Celeron traveled 3,000 miles through Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. He sought alliances with local Indian tribes and warned off English traders. "He also buried lead plates at the headwaters of the most important rivers, claiming the territory for Louis XV, France's king," historian Kevin Patrick Kopper wrote. Kopper is the editor and annotator of a new version of the Washington and Gist journals published by Slippery Rock University. His book includes a background essay on the early history of the region.

A doctoral student in history at Kent State University, Kopper is the former associate director of the Butler County Historical Society.

Washington was dispatched from Williamsburg in November 1753 with three tasks as a representative of Virginia Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie. He was carrying an official letter from Dinwiddie, ordering the French to leave the Ohio Valley. He was also to try to persuade Indians in the region to cut their ties with the French. Finally, he was to learn as much as he could about French fortifications and intentions.

Hiring a translator, a guide and -- as Washington described them -- "four others as servitors," Washington traveled north and west, crossing the Allegheny Mountains through the Cumberland Gap. His small party followed traditional Indian paths to the banks of the Monongahela River.

It was on the first half of his journey that Washington produced the first written description of the land that is now Downtown Pittsburgh. "I spent some time in viewing the rivers and the land in the fork, which I think extremely well suited for a fort," he wrote when he reached the Point on Nov. 22, 1753.

Washington then traveled down the Ohio River to a group of Indian villages known as Logstown, located near the site of present-day Ambridge. He met with several Indian chiefs but had little success in persuading them to break off relations with the French. One convert, however, was Tanacharison, known as the Half King.

On Nov. 30, the Virginians, accompanied by only a few Indian leaders, headed north toward Fort LeBoeuf. That night they camped out at "Murthering town" and then crossed what is now Connoquenessing Creek.

Weaver locates "Murthering town" at a stream ford that still can be found near his Harmony office. Kopper is less sure of where the party crossed. He writes that "Murthering town" refers to a collection of villages strung along the Connoquenessing.

Many modern roads in the northern suburbs still follow the routes of old Indian paths. Historians believe that Washington and his party traveled north from Harmony, near what is now Route 19, as far as Portersville. Their route through Butler County probably took them across the western edge of what is now Moraine State Park and then northeast through Worth, and through Slippery Rock and Mercer townships, meeting up with the path of what is now Route 8, north of Harrisville.

Making their first contact with the French at Fort Venango, now Franklin, Venango County, the Virginians and their Indian companions were taken to Fort LeBoeuf. The French were led by Capt. Philippe-Thomas Joncaire, who had accompanied Celeron on his explorations four years earlier.

Washington delivered Dinwiddie's letter on Dec.13, then spent some time scouting the French defenses while waiting for a reply. Washington was most concerned by the numbers of boats and canoes that could be used to transport soldiers and their Indian allies downstream in the spring. His count found "fifty [canoes] of birch bark, and a hundred and seventy of pine; besides many others which were blocked out, in readiness for being made."

Going home

When the French reply came, the message was that they were not leaving the Ohio Valley. Washington's departure was delayed by bad weather and French efforts to separate him from his few Indian allies.

While the journey north had been hard, the return trip proved even tougher.

Anxious to report back to Dinwiddie as quickly as possible, Washington split his party, sending several companions with borrowed horses overland to Venango.

Accompanied by French scouts who intended to make sure the Virginians left what they claimed as New French, Washington and his remaining companions headed south in canoes down the ice-clogged French Creek.

While the distance between Fort LeBoeuf and Venango is less than 50 miles as the crow flies, Washington found the water route much longer. "This creek is extremely crooked," Washington wrote in his journal. "I dare say the distance between the fort and Venango can not be less than one hundred and thirty miles to follow the meanders."

Their French minders also had a rough trip. "We had the pleasure of seeing the French overset, and the brandy and wine floating in the creek, and run by them," Gist wrote on Dec. 22.

At Venango, the group split further. A chief named White Thunder had become ill, and the Half King told Washington he was staying with his friend.

The rest of the party headed south by land. For the next three days, the Virginians battled cold and snow and watched their horses grow weaker.

Hoping to make better time, Washington and Gist decided to set out alone on Dec. 26.

"Washington's return route is shrouded in mystery," Kopper wrote. He speculates "that the men traveled south on the Venango Trail using a compass as their guide." Kopper's path roughly follows Routes 8 and 528 south to present-day Evans City. That route takes the pair by the place where a widely known Butler County landmark, the Old Stone House, was built in 1812.

The Old Stone House is operated as a historic site by Slippery Rock University. Although the structure was built decades after Washington's journey, it is likely to play a role in the 250th commemoration.

Weaver, however, argues for a more westerly route. His study of the journals led him to conclude that once Washington and Gist broke away from the rest of the party, they simply retraced their steps south. He bases his argument, in part, on what is missing from the journals: any mention by either man of taking compass readings when the travelers started out.

"They didn't have a [local] guide, and they didn't check a compass," Weaver said. "Why? Because they could follow the same path they had taken on the way to Venango."

Traveling light, the pair made excellent time.

A new 'friend'

Both men mention returning the next day to what Gist spelled as "Murthering town" or what Washington spelled as "Murdering town."

In Weaver's version of the route, after they once again forded the Connoquenessing at Harmony, they turned southeast, following what would become Route 68.

At this point, Gist and Washington offer different descriptions of the next few hours.

Washington writes that he and Gist "fell in with a party of French Indians, who had lain in wait for us."

"One of them fired at Mr. Gist or me, not fifteen steps off, but fortunately missed. We took this fellow into custody, and kept him until about nine o'clock at night, then let him go, and walked the remaining part of night without making any stop."

Gist tells a more dramatic version.

At Murthering town, "we met with an Indian, whom I thought I had seen at Joncaire's, at Venango ...."

Washington wanted the shortest route back to the Point, and their new companion agreed to show them.

Gist says the Indian offered to carry Washington's pack and then wanted to carry his gun. Washington refused "and then the Indian grew churlish."

Gist knew the Point was south and he grew suspicious when "the Indian steered too much north-eastwardly."

Weaver sees this comment as more evidence that Washington and Gist had been retracing their steps.

If the men met their new guide near what is now Harmony, they could more easily have been led to make a gradual turn north and east, he reasoned.

If the pair had been coming down the Venango Trail, their new guide would have had to make a much more obvious hairpin change of direction to get them headed northeast toward modern day Connoquenessing Borough.

Warning Gist and Washington that "there were Ottawa Indians in these woods, and they would scalp us if we lay out," their companion urged the travelers to spend the night in his nearby cabin. The cabin was within the distance that the sound of a gunshot could travel, he told them.

The two men grew more uneasy as their companion seemed to take them farther and farther in the wrong direction, and finally Washington said he wouldn't cross another stream.

At that point, the three were likely somewhere between Evans City and Connoquenessing Borough, northwest of the modern Route 68. Weaver locates the spot just beyond a grove of oak trees, some of which are old enough to have been there when Washington and Gist passed by.

"But before we came to [a stream], we came to a clear meadow. ... The Indian made a stop, turned about; the Major saw him point his gun toward us and fire." Gist wrote.

Neither man was hurt.

"I would have killed him, but the Major would not suffer me to kill him," Gist wrote.

"People often speculate about 'What if George Washington had been killed that day?' " Weaver said. "I wonder about 'What if George Washington had killed that Indian?' "

"The whole mission tested his diplomacy, his compassion, his writing skills," Weaver said. "The incident with the Indian says a lot about his character, his judgment, his temperament. He would not be rushed into a rash act."

On to Virginia

Gist then described the ruse the pair used to get away from the guide.

They told the Indian to walk on to his cabin, while Gist and Washington would stay the night by a creek where they had built a fire. They gave the Indian bread and asked him to bring them meat in the morning.

"I followed him, and listened until he was fairly out of the way, and then we set out about half a mile, when we made a fire [to fool any watchers], set our compass and fixed our course," Gist wrote.

That was the first reference to using a compass in either journal, Weaver said. "Until that time, they were either retracing their steps or they had a guide."

Fearing they would be tracked down and killed, the pair traveled all night and much of the next day.

Early on Dec. 29, they reached the north shore of the ice-choked Allegheny River, probably near the 40th Street Bridge. The pair spent the day building a crude raft, which soon became stuck among the ice floes.

"I put out my setting pole to try to stop the raft, when the rapidity of the stream threw it with so much violence against the pole that it jerked me out into ten feet of water," Washington wrote.

Minutes from drowning or dying of hypothermia, he grabbed onto one of the logs and held on.

"We could not get to either shore, but were obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make to it," Washington wrote. The pair spent the night on Herr's Island. The next morning the river had frozen and they walked across the Allegheny.

Washington was back in Williamsburg by Jan. 16, 1754, with his report to Dinwiddie.

In the version of his report that appeared in the Maryland Gazette on March 21, 1754, Washington wrote that his map and journal were both less than perfect: "I think I can do no less than apologize, in some Measure, for the numberless imperfections of it."

Whatever its flaws, his report of his journey gave the young Washington his first 15 minutes of fame in London and in the rest of the American Colonies.

"There also followed an explosion in map making," Weaver said. "There were perhaps a dozen maps made in the period before 1753 and four times that many after the French told Washington to get off their property."

The real importance

The Commemorative Committee is still studying Weaver's report, and members have not made a final decision on where to mark the route.

"It's a very good report," said Johnston, the Butler planner. "We want to do our best to make sure we have an accurate route."

The committee is under pressure to decide. To have the commemorative signs in place for the 250th anniversary in the fall, paperwork describing the route must be submitted to the state by March 6, Johnston said.

Kopper said debate over Washington's journey is nothing new.

"This is an argument that has been raging for 100 years," he said. "People have been saying the path went this way or that, and it's hard to be sure since the topography has changed since 1753. I would agree with Roger that it's a matter of interpreting the documents."

Weaver insists the landscape hasn't changed that much -- if you know where to look and you trust the evidence in the journals.

Where precisely Washington walked is not critical, Kopper said. "Wherever they put the markers will be speculative, but it will not detract from the importance of the event.

"On this trip, Washington was almost shot and killed. The journey marked one of the first steps that led to the French and Indian War. It was the first test of a 21-year-old, and it showed his intestinal fortitude."

He added, "The exact route isn't significant, but the trip itself was."


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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