continued from the previous post…
Wandering between the mills and their enormous water tanks, I came to the edge of the industrial plain—a cliff overlooking a long stretch of the Ohio River. A hundred feet below, a swampy basin lay strewn with rusty barrels leaking iridescent toxins, tires, the broken shell of a truck bed, the junk left by those too careless to respect a wetland and too ignorant to know that in that muck lay the remains of another forgotten time—not just a day, but a century of prosperity, international commerce, and the seeds of the American frontier.
From this height, it was easy to see how trees and logs that had fallen into the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers back in the mid-1700s eddied into the wetland below. Indians gathered the logs to build shelters. Most of them had moved here as refugees, fleeing the Europeans who had invaded and occupied the coast. Only the Adenas – mound builders—had lived here earlier.
Because of the piles of timber and the longhouses, like those of the Iroquois and Algonquin, the place earned the name “Logstown.” With more than 80 such structures, it became a commercial center for traders from five Iroquois nations.
Young men like me had hacked their way through the forests to reach the spot where I stood that morning behind Armco. They were determined to press their agenda against the Indians. One of them was Major George Washington of the Virginia Militia. In his journal, he marvels at the natural characteristics of the setting and takes note of the European style of the newest log shelters, evidence that the French were ensconced.
Washington came on orders from Governor Robert Dinwiddie, who held shares with Washington’s brother, in a land speculation firm known as The Ohio Company. Having promised King George II a map of western lands that could be sold to settlers, Dinwiddie sent Washington to do the surveying. He also wanted him to sit down with the chief at Logstown, a Catawba named Tanaghrisson, who claimed the French had killed and eaten his father, and deliver a message to French generals at Ft. LeBoeuf. Washington’s message – that the Marquis Duquesne should stop laying claims south of the Great Lakes – was unwelcome and he was nearly killed on his way home.
Most communities make a big deal of Washington sleeping in their town, whether he had or not. But he came to Logstown more than once, and you would never know it by reading local markers or asking folks around Ambridge. You’re more likely to hear about President Kennedy’s drive-by or the time the Hall of Fame Steeler, Franco Harris, stopped into Police Station Pizza. But Washington? Forget about it—too far in the past, his footprints too deeply buried under slag and the thirty-thousand gallon water tanks behind me.
Despite Tanaghrisson’s hatred of the French, he had been trading with them and they were well
established at Logstown. In Ambridge, Logstown is best known—by the mostly Catholic locals, as the site of the first Catholic Mass west of the Appalachians. Now there’s an historic tidbit we Catholics took note of: a spot where a French missionary set up a table and attempted to work his magic on native Americans.
In his journals, Washington describes Logstown as a broad meadow atop a jutting hill overlooking the Ohio with a white watercourse tumbling from its brow that narrowed the valley. Beyond the mills that have replaced Logstown to the bluff where I stood, I can still see the advantage of the location. More than two hundred feet above the river, the meadow opens a view several miles to the east and to the west. Across the river, steep, protective hillsides made it hard to approach occupants of this meadow without being seen.
It was Chief Tanaghrisson who would meet Washington a few months after the Ft. LeBeouf fiasco, this time south of present-day Pittsburgh. They had assembled a force to establish a toe-hold at the confluence of the three rivers, but were too late, the French had beaten them to it, and they had sent a contingent toward Washington’s militia.
Washington and Tanaghrisson hurried to attack, and fifteen minutes later, the French laid down their arms. Washington had his first military victory, but he would pay a price. Kneeling before the Virginian and his Indian ally, the captured Ensign Joseph Coulon Jumonville tried to explain that his intentions were purely diplomatic. The vengeful Tanaghrisson grabbed him split his head with an axe.
Shortly thereafter, Tanaghrisson abandoned Washington as he retreated to Fort Necessity, where an overwhelming force of French and Indian pursuers assaulted his Virginians into surrender. And here, Washington unwittingly took the rap for Tanaghrisson’s revenge, casting them both onto the world’s stage.
Washington, who could not read French, signed terms of capitulation, and thereby admitted to assassinating Ensign Jumonville. The document gave Louis XV justification for declaring war on Britain—The Seven Years War, which some historians see as the real first world war, killing millions in the French and British colonies across the globe.
When Washington returned to Logstown after the war, he found nothing but ashes. The strategic value of that stretch of riverbank remained lodged in his mind, though, and he would take advantage of it again, twenty years later, when it would play another pivotal role in American history.
more to come…