Young George Washington ‘Set the World on Fire’

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In 1753, it was only a question of time until the British and French clashed over their North American colonies. The British colonies were mainly along the eastern seaboard west to the Allegheny Mountains. The French claimed the entire area west thereof, including Canada. Both nations claimed the huge Ohio Country, covering today’s Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and Indiana. When the British granted the newly established “Ohio Company” to encourage settlers by establishing a fort and trading post at the present site of Pittsburgh, the French countered by building several forts between Lake Erie and the Ohio River system.

Virginia’s Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie was empowered to create a chain of forts in the disputed area. George, age 21, a surveyor familiar with the frontier, was sent to deliver to the French an ultimatum to vacate the Ohio Country. The French marshaled 1500 soldiers and responded that they would arrest any British poaching on the Ohio Country.

George, appointed by Dinwiddie as Lt. Colonel, was authorized to train 100 Virginia militia, to be joined by other troops and friendly Indians.George’s instructions provided that the French should peacefully depart and if they failed to comply, he was authorized “to drive them off by force of arms.” On May 28, according to George, they were encamped near Great Meadows, when a group of 35 French troops encamped nearby spied on his troops. Convinced of their hostile intentions, George’s men encircled them. The French fired upon his troops. Washington responded, ordering return fire. Ten French were killed with another 21 captured. The French denied shooting first. It became a worldwide incident when one of the victims bore “an important diplomatic message to the British demanding their evacuation from the Ohio Country.” The French called George an assassin against peaceful soldiers, whereas he was embraced as a hero in Virginia. The opening shot precipitated the French and Indian War, known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. In the words of a British statesman, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”

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