George Washington Papers

Commission from Robert Dinwiddie, 30 October 1753

Commission from Robert Dinwiddie

[Williamsburg, 30 October 1753]

Editorial Note The commission from Governor Dinwiddie to GW to investigate reports that French forces were encroaching on frontier territory claimed by Great Britain marks the beginning of GW’s military career. Although both France and Britain had long entertained vague ambitions in the Ohio country, it was not until the middle years of the eighteenth century that the two powers met headlong in a struggle for control of the area. Britain’s seaboard colonies had discovered the profits to be made from a vigorous trade with the Indians, and the Ohio country’s potential as a gateway to the West and the crown’s potential grant in 1749 of more than half a million acres in the Ohio Valley to members of the Ohio Company increased the interest of land speculators in Virginia and Pennsylvania in establishing British control of the area.1 France’s interest in the Ohio was also intensifying. With the expeditions of baron de Longueuil in 1739 and Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville in 1749, French statesmen realized the strategic importance of the Ohio as a link between Canada and the Mississippi. Both powers aspired to control the fur trade.

Until the early 1750s the rivalry had confined itself largely to Indian diplomacy, but upon his arrival in Canada in 1752 the new governor, Ange de Menneville, marquis de Duquesne (1702–1778), instituted a vigorous policy of expansion. In early 1753 Duquesne sent Pierre Paul de La Malgue, sieur de Marin (1692–1753), south from Montreal with a force of some 2,000 men and instructions to construct a chain of forts which would establish effective French occupation of the area. By May a fort was completed at Presque Isle portage and Marin began construction of a road south to a new post at Fort Le Boeuf. In spite of numerous obstacles, by midsummer a network of French military and trading posts was well on the way to completion.

British traders such as William Trent and George Croghan were alarmed and warned that not only were the French threatening British trade but Britain’s Indian allies were also wavering in their allegiance. Dinwiddie, a strong proponent of intercolonial unity in the face of the French advance, was in constant correspondence with other colonial governors concerning French encroachments. “I have sometime ago heard of their Robberies & Murders,” he wrote Pennsylvania governor James Hamilton, “& if they are allow’d a peaceable Settlemt on the Ohio, I think the Consequence will be attend’d with the Ruin of our Trade with the Indians & also in Time will be Destruction to all our Settlemts on the Continent; . . . And We further think it wou’d be absolutely necessary, for all the Colonies to join together, in raising a proper Force to prevent the French settling on the Lands of the Ohio.”2 Dinwiddie also lost no time in reporting French activities on the Ohio to the Board of Trade. On 16 June 1753 he transmitted the latest reports of the French advance: “I hope you will think it necessary to prevent the French taking Possession of the Lands on the Ohio, so Contiguous to Our Settlements, or indeed in my private Opinion they ought to be prevented making any Settlements to the Westward of Our present Possessions.”3 The crown’s reply to Dinwiddie on 28 Aug. transmitted through the earl of Holderness, secretary of state, instructed the governor to investigate further the reports of the French invasion and, “if You shall find, that any Number of Persons, whether Indians, or Europeans, shall presume to erect any Fort or Forts within the Limits of Our Province of Virginia, . . . You are to require of Them peaceably to depart, and not to persist in such unlawfull Proceedings, & if, notwithstanding Your Admonitions, They do still endeavour to carry on any such unlawfull and unjustifiable Designs, We do hereby strictly charge, & command You, to drive them off by Force of Arms.”4

Dinwideie received these instructions in mid-October and on 22 Oct. presented them to the council. At the council’s next meeting, 27 Oct., “the Governor acquainted the Board that George Washington Esqr Adjutant General for the Southern District, had offered himself to go properly commissioned to the Commandant of the French Forces, to learn by what Authority he presumes to make Incroachments on his Majesty’s Lands on the Ohio, who being approved of by the Council, his Honour proposed that a Committee might be appointed to form a Letter to the said Commandant, with a Commission Instructions and Passport for the said George Washington.” The committee, made up of Richard Corbin, Philip Ludwell, and William Fairfax, presented the documents to the council on 29 Oct., and on 31 Oct. the governor delivered the papers to GW in the council chamber together with £150 to defray his expenses.5 GW left Williamsburg the same day. At Wills Creek he met Christopher Gist, and with a small party he began the arduous journey to the French establishment at Fort Le Boeuf to deliver Dinwiddie’s letter to Jacques Le Gardeur, sieur de Saint-Pierre (1701–1755), commandant of the French forces in the Ohio country. GW’s party reached the fort on 11 Dec. 1753 and on 14 Dec. received Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre’s unaccommodating reply to Dinwiddie’s communications.6 Two days later he left for home. GW found the journey to the fort and the return trip “as fatiguing a Journey as it is possible to conceive, rendered so by excessive bad Weather: From the first Day of December ’till the 15th. there was but one Day, but what it rain’d or snow’d incessantly & throughout the whole Journey we met with nothing but one continued Series of cold wet Weather.” GW reached Belvoir on 11 Jan. 1754, “where I stop’d one Day to take necessary rest; and then set out for, & arrived at Williamsburg, the 16th. & waited upon His Honour the Governor with the Letter I had brought from the French Commandant, & to give an Account of the Proceedures of my Journey.”7

Upon his arrival in Williamsburg, GW presented his journal of the trip to Dinwiddie, and the governor immediately ordered its publication.8 GW’s verbal accounts of his mission were presented to the council and House of Burgesses and, together with a copy of the journal, his map of the frontier, and his plan of Fort Le Boeuf, were forwarded by the governor to the Board of Trade.9 The journal was also published in various colonial newspapers. On 21 Feb. the House of Burgesses voted the sum of £50 to GW “to testify our Approbation of his Proceedings on his Journey to the Ohio.”10

[Williamsburg, 30 October 1753]

The Honble Robert Dinwiddie Esqr. Governor & Commander in Chief of the Colony & Dominion of Virginia[.] Chancellor & Vice Admiral of the same.

To George Washington Esqr. One of the Adjutants Genl of the Troops & Forces in the Colony of Virginia.

I reposing especial Trust & Confidence in the Ability Conduct, & Fidelity, of You the said George Washington have appointed You my express Messenger, And You are hereby authoriz’d & impower’d to proceed hence with all convenient & possible Dispatch, to that Part, or Place, on the River Ohio, where the French have lately erected a Fort, or Forts, or where the Commandant of the French Forces resides, in order to deliver my Letter & Message to Him; & after waiting not exceeding one Week for an Answer, You are to take Your Leave & return immediately back.

To this Commission I have set my Hand, & caus’d the Great Seal of this Dominion to be affix’d, at the City of Williamsburg, the Seat of my Government. this Thirtieth Day of October in the twenty seventh Year of the Reign of His Majesty George the Second King of Great Britain &ca Annoque Domini 1753.

Copy, P.R.O., C.O. 5/1328, f. 48; copy, P.R.O., C.O. 5/14, f. 75; copy, P.R.O., C.O. 5/1344, f. 191; copy, House of Lords, Record Office.

1The Ohio Company of Virginia was formed in 1747 under the leadership of Thomas Lee, to engage in land speculation and Indian trade in the upper Ohio Valley. The early members were primarily from Virginia’s Northern Neck, and the company quickly aroused the antagonism and suspicions not only of land speculators in neighboring colonies but also of many influential Virginians. Gov. William Gooch and the Virginia Executive Council received unfavorably the company’s first petition, 20 Oct. 1747, and the company’s leaders turned to direct negotiations with the Privy Council in London (P.R.O., C.O. 5/1333, f. 155). On 11 Jan. 1749 John Hanbury, a prominent London merchant and member of the Ohio Company, presented a petition on the company’s behalf to the Privy Council for a grant of 200,000 acres. In return the company would use its influence to promote the fur trade and open the way for a lucrative British trade with the Indians. In addition the members agreed to settle 100 families on the grant and provide for their support and protection (P.R.O., C.O. 5/1327, ff. 26–28). In Mar. 1749 the Privy Council recommended in favor of the grant and instructed Governor Gooch to transfer to the company 200,000 acres of land “lying betwixt Ramanettos and Buffalo’s Creek on the South Side of the River Alligane otherwise the Ohio, and betwixt the two Creeks and the Yellow Creek on the North Side of the River, to the westward of the great Mountains within the Colony of Virginia.” When the conditions of the original grant were fulfilled by the company, an additional 300,000 acres would be transferred on the same terms. Gooch transferred the 200,000 acres 12 July 1749 (“Minutes of Council Meeting,” 16 Mar. 1749, P.R.O., C.O. 5/1327, ff. 43–44; Exec. Journals of Virginia Council description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds. Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia. 6 vols. Richmond, 1925–66. description ends , 5:295–96). The company selected Wills Creek, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, as its frontier headquarters and commissioned such leading frontiersmen as Christopher Gist, William Trent, and Hugh Parker to make surveys, locate sites for settlement, and build roads. In addition to the establishment at Wills Creek, the company established a second store on Redstone Creek. With Dinwiddie’s vigorous support, permission was secured from the Indians at a meeting at Logstown in 1752 to build a fort at the forks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. By Jan. 1754 some preliminary work had been done at the site. At its height the company’s membership included such prominent figures as Thomas Cresap, William Thornton, S, Richard Lee, Thomas Lee, George William Fairfax, John, Capel, and Osgood Hanbury, Nathaniel Chapman, Robert Dinwiddie, Robert Carter, George Mason, Philip Ludwell Lee, and Lawrence and Augustine Washington.

2Dinwiddie to Hamilton, 22 May 1753, P.R.O., C.O. 5/1327, ff. 306–7.

3P.R.O., C.O. 5/1327, ff. 292–94.

4P.R.O., C.O. 5/211, ff. 21–40. In a separate letter of the same date, Holderness informed Dinwiddie that the Board of Ordnance had authorized 30 cannon for the use of Virginia and that 80 barrels of gunpowder would be shipped from the royal stores.

5Exec. Journals of Virginia Council description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds. Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia. 6 vols. Richmond, 1925–66. description ends , 5:444–45.

6A copy of Dinwiddie’s letter to the French commandant, 30 Oct. 1753, inquiring by whose authority French troops had invaded territory claimed by Great Britain and demanding the immediate withdrawal of the French from the area is in P.R.O., C.O. 5/1328, ff. 45–46, and is printed in Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 1:127. Le Gardeur de Saint-Pierre’s reply to Dinwiddie’s letter, 15 Dec. 1754, stated that the French commandant was in the Ohio country on the orders of his superiors and that the matter would have been better resolved if GW had continued his journey to Canada to negotiate with the French administration there (ibid., 151).

7Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 1:158.

8For the journal describing in detail GW’s journey to the French commandant, see ibid., 130–61.

9For GW’s verbal report to Dinwiddie, see ibid., 160, n.68.

10JHB, 1752–1755, 1756–1758 description begins H. R. McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy, eds. Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia. 13 vols. Richmond, 1905–15. description ends , 182–85.

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