The Battle of Jumonville Glen, also known as the Jumonville affair, was the opening battle of the French and Indian War fought on May 28, 1754 near what is present-day Uniontown in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. A company of colonial militia from Virginia under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, and a small number of Mingo warriors led by Tanacharison (also known as "Half King"), ambushed a force of 35 Frenchmen under the command of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville.
The British colonial force had been sent to protect a fort under construction under the auspices of the Ohio Company at the location of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A larger French force had driven off the small construction crew, and sent Jumonville to warn Washington about encroaching on French-claimed territory. Washington was alerted to Jumonville's presence by Tanacharison, and they joined forces to surround the French camp. Some of the Frenchmen were killed in the ambush, and most of the others were captured. Jumonville was among the slain, although the exact circumstances of his death are a subject of historical controversy and debate.
Since Britain and France were not then at war, the event had international repercussions, and was a contributing factor in the start of the Seven Years' War in 1756. After the action, Washington retreated to Fort Necessity, where French forces from Fort Duquesne compelled his surrender. The terms of Washington's surrender included a statement (written in French, a language Washington did not read) admitting that Jumonville was assassinated. This document and others were used by the French to level accusations that Washington had ordered Jumonville's slaying.
Throughout the 1740s and early 1750s, British and French traders had increasingly come into contact in the Ohio Country, including the upper watershed of the Ohio River in what is now western Pennsylvania. Authorities in New France became more aggressive in their efforts to expel British traders and colonists from this area, and in 1753 began construction of a series of fortifications in the area.
The French action drew the attention of not just the British, but also the Indian tribes of the area. Despite good Franco-Indian relations, British traders had become highly successful in convincing the Indians to trade with them in preference to the French, and the planned large-scale advance was not well received by all.
In particular, Tanacharison, a Mingo chief also known as the "Half King", became decidedly anti-French as a consequence. In a meeting with Paul Marin de la Malgue, commander of the French construction force, the latter reportedly lost his temper, and shouted at the Indian chief, "I tell you, down the river I will go. If the river is blocked up, I have the forces to burst it open and tread under my feet all that oppose me. I despise all the stupid things you have said." He then threw down some wampum that Tanacharison had offered as a good will gesture. Marin died not long after, and command of the operations was turned over to Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre.
Virginia Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent militia Major George Washington to the Ohio Country (a territory that was claimed by several of the British colonies, including Virginia) as an emissary in December of 1753, to tell the French to leave. Saint-Pierre politely informed Washington that he was there pursuant to orders, that Washington's letter should have been addressed to his commanding officer in Canada, and that he had no intention of leaving.
Washington returned to Williamsburg and informed Governor Dinwiddie that the French refused to leave. Dinwiddie commissioned Washington a lieutenant colonel, and ordered him to begin raising a militia regiment to hold the Forks of the Ohio, a site Washington had identified as a fine location for a fortress. The governor also issued a captain's commission to Ohio Company employee William Trent, with instructions to raise a small force and immediately begin construction of the fort. Dinwiddie issued these instructions on his own authority, without even asking for funding from the Virginia House of Burgesses until after the fact. Trent's company arrived on site in February 1754, and began construction of a storehouse and stockade with the assistance of Tanacharison and the Mingos. In response, the French sent a force of about 500 men (Canadians and Indians) under Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecœur (rumors reaching Trent's men put its size at 1,000). On April 16, they arrived at the forks; the next day, Trent's force of 36 men, led by Ensign Edward Ward in Trent's absence, agreed to leave the site. The French then began construction of the fort they called Fort Duquesne.
In March 1754, Governor Dinwiddie ordered Washington back to the frontier with instructions to "act on the [defensive], but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our [settlements] by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them."
Historian Fred Anderson describes Dinwiddie's instructions, which were issued without the knowledge or direction of the British government in London, as "an invitation to start a war." Washington was ordered to gather up as many supplies and paid volunteers as he could along the way. By the time he left for the frontier on April 2, he had recruited fewer than 160 men.
Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1772
Along their march through the forests of the frontier, Washington was joined by more men at Winchester. At this point he learned from Captain Trent of the French advance. Trent also brought a message from Tanacharison, who promised warriors to assist the British. To keep Tanacharison's support, Washington decided not to turn back, choosing instead to advance. He reached a place known as the Great Meadows (now in Fayette County, Pennsylvania), about 37 miles (60 km) south of the forks, began construction of a small fort and awaited further news or instructions.
Contrecœur operated under orders that forbade attacks by his force unless they were provoked. On May 23, he sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville with 35 Canadiens to see if Washington had entered French territory, and with a summons to order Washington's troops out; this summons was similar in nature to the one Washington had delivered to them four months earlier.
On May 27, Washington was informed by Christopher Gist, a settler who had accompanied him on the 1753 expedition, that a French party numbering about 50 was in the area. In response, Washington sent 75 men with Gist to find them. That evening, Washington received a message from Tanacharison, informing him that he had found the Canadian camp, and that the two of them should meet. Despite the fact that he had just sent another group in pursuit of the French, Washington went with a detachment of 40 men to meet with Tanacharison. The Mingo leader had with him 12 warriors, two of whom were boys. After discussing the matter, the two leaders agreed to make an attack on the Canadiens. The attackers took up positions behind rocks around the Canadian camp, counting not more than 40 Canadiens.
Exactly what happened next has been a subject of controversy and debate. The few primary accounts of the affair agree on a number of facts, and disagree on others. They agree that the battle lasted about 15 minutes, that Jumonville was killed, and that most of the French party were either killed or taken prisoner.
Washington's accounts of the battle exist in several versions; they are consistent with each other, but short on details. He wrote in his diary, "We were advanced pretty near to them ... when they discovered us; whereupon I ordered my company to fire ... Wagonner's Company ... received the whole Fire of the French, during the greatest Part of the Action, which only lasted a Quarter of an Hour, before the Enemy was routed. We killed Mr. de Jumonville, the commander ... also nine others; we wounded one, and made Twenty-one Prisoners".
Photo of the battle site in 2007.
Contrecœur prepared an official report of the action that was based on two sources. Most of it came from a Canadian named Monceau who escaped the action but apparently did not witness Jumonville's slaying: "[Jumonville's party] saw themselves surrounded by the English on one side and the Indians on the Other. The English gave them two volleys, but the Indians did not fire. Mr. de Jumonville, by his interpreter, told them to desist, that he had something to tell them. Upon which they ceased firing. Then Mr. de Jumonville ordered the Summons which I had sent them to retire, to be read ... Monceau saw all our Frenchmen coming up close to Mr. de Jumonville, whilst they were reading the Summons ... during which Time, said Monceau made the best of his Way to us".
Contrecœur's second source was an Indian from Tanacharison's camp, who reported that "Mr. de Jumonville was killed by a Musket-Shot in the Head, whilst they were reading the Summons". The same Indian claimed that the Indians then rushed in to prevent the Englishmen from slaughtering the French.
A third account was made by a private named John Shaw who was in Washington's regiment, but not present at the affair. His account, based on detailed accounts from others who were present, was made in a sworn statement on August 21; the details on Tanacharison's role in the affair are confirmed in a newspaper account printed on June 27.
In his account, the French were surrounded while some still slept. Alerted by a noise, one of the Frenchmen "fired a Gun upon which Col. Washington gave the Word for all his Men to fire. Several of them being killed, the rest betook themselves to flight, but our Indians having gone round the French ... they fled back to the English and delivered up their Arms ... Some Time after[,]the Indians came up, the Half King took his Tomahawk and split the Head of the French Captain havening first asked if he was an Englishman and havening been told he was a French Man. He then took his Brains and washed his Hands with them and then scalped him. All this ... Shaw has heard and never heard it contradicted but knows nothing of it from his own Knowledge". Shaw's narrative is substantially correct on a number of other details, including the size and composition of both forces. Shaw also claimed to have seen and counted the dead, numbering 13 or 14.
Historian Fred Anderson documents a fourth account, by a deserter from the British-Indian camp named Denis Kaninguen; Anderson speculates that he was one of Tanacharison's followers.
His report to the French commanders echoed that of Shaw: "notwithstanding the discharge of musket fire that Washington had made upon him, he Washington intended to read the summons and had withdrawn himself to his people, whom he had previously ordered to fire upon the French. That Tanacharison, a savage, came up to [the wounded Jumonville] and had said, Thou are not yet dead, my father, and struck several hatchet blows with which he killed him." Anderson notes that Kaninguen apparently understood what Tanacharison said, and understood it to be a ritual slaying. Kaninguen reported that 30 men were taken prisoner, and 10 to 12 had been killed. The British colonists suffered only one killed and two or three wounded.
Washington wrote a letter to his brother after the battle, in which he said "I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound."
Following the battle, Washington returned to the Great Meadows and pushed onward the construction of a fort, which was called Fort Necessity. The French dead were left on the field or buried in shallow graves, where they were later found by the French.
On June 28, 1754, a combined force of 600 French, Canadian, and Indian soldiers under the command of Jumonville's brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers, left Fort Duquesne. On July 3, the French captured Fort Necessity in the Battle of the Great Meadows, forcing Washington to negotiate a withdrawal under arms. The capitulation document Washington signed, which was written in French (a language Washington did not know how to read, and may have been poorly translated for him), included language claiming that Jumonville and his men were assassinated.