Accession number: 2003.292.22
Accession number: 1905.10
This depiction of George Washington (1732–1799) as commander of the Continental army was painted in the 1790s by Charles Peale Polk.
The British and the French both claimed the territory known as Ohio. By the middle of the 1700s, many wealthy Virginians, including Thomas, Lord Fairfax, became interested in the region and formed the Ohio Company. King George II granted the company 500,000 acres of land—provided it could erect and maintain a fort and entice a hundred settlers to the area. The company included a number of powerful English merchants and the future governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie. It was not the first—or last—time that a colonial governor sought both to shape and profit from imperial policy.
As Dinwiddie advocated British expansion into Ohio, the French in Canada also were pressing their claims, establishing a trading post and series of forts south of Lake Erie. Dinwiddie reported French actions to London, and in October 1753 the Board of Trade instructed the governor to demand that the French leave the region. Should the French fail to comply, Dinwiddie was to resort to force.
Dinwiddie chose George Washington to deliver this ultimatum to the French. Although he was only twenty-one and did not speak French, the young man was an excellent choice. As a surveyor, he had a thorough knowledge of the backcountry and the ability to map French positions. More important, he was the protégé of the Lord Fairfax, who was one of the governor's most powerful patrons.
Washington assembled a small party that included a guide, Christopher Gist, and an interpreter, and set out on the 560-mile journey. His instructions called for him to consult with the tribes of the six nations and confirm their allegiance. Washington met with Tanacharison, known to the British as the Half King, and the Seneca chief agreed to accompany Washington to Fort Le Boeuf, the French post just south of Lake Erie. The French received Washington graciously, but rejected the British proposal, drafting a response to that effect for Washington to deliver to the governor.
The journey home was an arduous one. Washington and his party faced bone-chilling cold and rain- and snow-swollen rivers. Despite these hardships, Washington reached Williamsburg in January 1754 and reported to Dinwiddie. Both his oral testimony and written account buttressed the governor's conviction that the French were indeed a threat to British imperial designs. The governor ordered the publication of Washington's journal. This brought Washington to the attention of the public for the first time, and many were impressed by the young man’s courage and determination.