Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Forks of the Ohio / Part # 1

Fort Duquesne
Forks of the Ohio / Part # 1
Pittsburgh, PA

The Allegheny Mountains
 The colonization of North America was well underway when the nation of France decided to jump in the game and attempt to grasp a piece of the New World.  As a result, the only slice of the pizza left for the taking along the Atlantic was the cold un-tillable wedge of Canada.  Nonetheless, the French explorers of Verrazano, Cartier, and Champlain laid claim to the northern fringe of the continent above the Great Lakes region.  To their south, the English were well entrenched in the rich soil of the 13 colonies from New England in the north to Georgia in the south.  However, unlike their English rivals, the French would not see an influx of new colonists from Europe to settle the land.  The short growing season and infertile soil made farming almost impossible.  Despite the failure of agriculture, New France would carve out an economy rich in fish and furs that would benefit the mother country and make it heavy with thirst for more.

 Winter Trade 
(Painting Credit / Robert Griffing)
In the early years, the few hearty souls who made the crossing into New France were mostly rugged adventurous mountain man types who penetrated the interior of the continent in search of wealth.  They came into contact with the Native Americans and developed strong trade relationships with various tribes.  The rich beaver pelt trade began to benefit both parties in the exchange of guns for furs that the native people viewed as the tool of the future.  It might seem foolish to trade a weapon to a rival people that claimed the same land you occupied, but there was a method to the madness in favor of the French.  The Native Americans received flintlock muskets for their fur harvest but had no way to manufacture the black powder or musket balls to fire them...  Unless they continued to trade with the French to get them.  The gun trade enabled the French to cement a long term economic trade relationship with the Indians that would later evolve into an alliance in the future French and Indian War with the British over the Ohio Valley. 

Marquette and the Indians
(Painting Credit / Wilhelm Lampwrecht)
In 1673, the exploration team of Marquette and Joliet descended south out of Lake Michigan and soon crossed over land in a short portage to the upper limits of the Mississippi River.  The team continued with the current south laying claim to the lands on both banks until they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River about 400 miles short of the Gulf of Mexico.  In a sense, the French had done an end-around run of the English colonies and boxed them in with the Appalachian Mountains providing a natural barrier of defense.  The French knew how valuable the land was that Marquette and Joliet had claimed... especially, the tropical climate to the south that could support cash crops like the profitable tobacco known as Green Gold.  An economic and political dance would soon follow later erupting into violence on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

 Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie
(Portrait Credit / Artist Unknown / National Portrait Gallery, London)
The French presence in the west did not go unnoticed by Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia who saw the opportunity for the colony he led to expand west and cut Pennsylvania off at the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers met to form the Ohio River.  The strategically important spot was known as the Forks of the Ohio by the local Indians in the area and became essential to controlling the future development of the Ohio Valley.  However, Dinwiddie soon learned that the French had already established a presence in the region by building a series of three small forts strung out along French Creek just to the north of the forks.  The Lieutenant Governor decided to open a dialogue with the French in the area by sending a written message, arrogantly asking them to get out of land claimed by the English Colony of Virginia.  The man he chose to deliver the fragile message to the French at Fort Le Boeuf was an impressive young Virginian named George Washington.

 Washington's Map to Fort Le Boeuf
(Image Map Credit / Library of Congress)
George Washington was 21 years old and wished to become an officer in the British Army.  However, he was born on the wrong side of the Atlantic and would have a difficult time getting a commission as an American.  Washington was already an officer in the Virginia Militia and hoped that his successful mission to Fort Le Boeuf, would prompt Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie to reward him by using his English connections to get him a promotion into the King's Army.  He was accompanied on the quest by a guide named Christopher Gist who led him along the Vernango Path toward the fort at French Creek.  They arrived in mid December where they delivered the Governor's message and discretely took mental notes of the strength and position of the French encampment.  The French received the message and politely dismissed Washington, his companion, and their request to vacate the site.  Washington and Gist then embarked south back toward the Forks of the Ohio through the frigid winter weather.

Washington and Gist on the Allegheny River
(Painting Credit / Daniel W. Huntington)
On the way back to Williamsburg to deliver their findings, the weather took a turn for the worse.  The biting teeth of winter had gripped the wilderness of the Ohio Valley.  At one point, their raft overturned crossing the freezing Allegheny River throwing George Washington into the frigid water.  Christopher Gist was able to pull Washington from the river before he was swept away by the icy current and saved his life.  It was a miserable 500 mile journey back home to Williamsburg.  In the meantime, the French now knew the English would take action and decided to beat them to the punch by securing the Forks of the Ohio.  Fort Duquesne was the result of their efforts and would become one of the key targets the British set their sights on during the brewing conflict.  The oncoming French and Indian War would decide what foreign nation would control the continent.  It would become the first true world war with nations fighting on both the eastern and western hemispheres.

Early Fort Duquesne Diorama
(Fort Pitt Museum / Pittsburgh, PA)
On a recent trip to Pittsburgh with my longtime friend Brian Repine, I was determined to see the sight of Fort Duquesne located at Point State Park where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge to form the Ohio River.  I had fallen short of seeing the sight during a traveling graduate course on the Forbes Road that was built to attack Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War.  It was my number one goal to stand within the outline of the fort and visit the accompanying museum. Luckily, my friend Brian was game to join me on a quick historical side trip.  It was the first thing on our agenda... after eating at Primanti Brothers of course!  We parked near PNC Park where the Pirates play... Pittsburgh has a professional baseball team just in case you didn't know.  It was a frigid day in late December and we immediately felt the chill in the wind as we walked across a foot bridge over the Allegheny River.

Brian on the Allegheny
Fort Duquesne was not the best suited position for a fortress, despite the geographic importance of its location.  The site is shadowed by the steep incline of Mount Washington that would have meant disaster for the French if the British could occupy the surrounding high ground.  An artillery assault by the English from the heights would have pounded the fort and its inhabitants to dust within an hour.  General Edward Braddock came within a few miles of the fort but ran into an ambush that turned the British advance into an abrupt retreat at the Battle of the Monongahela.  General Forbes followed the game plan of Braddock three years later by building another road west but much more cautiously.  His slow advance gave him time to turn the Indian allies of the French to the British side with gifts and hollow promises.  Without their Indian alliance and with General Forbes within striking distance, the Forks of the Ohio were abandoned by the French without a fight.   Fort Duquesne exploded in the night within earshot of the British Army, destroyed by the retreating French garrison who set delayed charges to explode the gun powder magazine in the fort's center. 

Outline Walls of Fort Duquesne
I was so excited to finally be within reach of "ground zero" of the French and Indian War in Pennsylvania!   Today the site is contained within Point State Park where the original walls of Fort Duquesne are outlined in brick to show the four pointed star shape of the fort's design.  However, all we could see was an open space covered by snow.  We ventured into the field to explore, unable to see anything of interest until we stumbled onto a large metal medallion (Arrow Pointing Down) in the middle of the space marking the center of Fort Duquesne.  From there we were able to navigate our way to the far edge of the open space and finally found snow evenly covering a smooth surface. We had found the outline of the fort's walls (Long Arrows) and pushed the snow aside to reveal the sharp twists and turns of the triangular gun mounts.  We had discovered the fort... mission accomplished! 

Center of Fort Duquesne
Please join us next time when we switch gears to cover the second half of the history of the Forks of the Ohio during the French and Indian War when the British occupied the site and built a new and larger stronghold called Fort Pitt.  We will also explore the Fort Pitt Museum.  Until then, we are off to Primanti Brother's once again to partake in the local cuisine!  As the French say... Bon Appetite!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks or sharing the detailed overview. I read this to my 9 year old nephew, I'm trying to further interest him in the local history that was sparked by a game he's playing (Assassins Creed. We're from Belle Vernon, PA, 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. I'm taking him this summer on a history tour of the area, starting with a trip to Fort Pitt - Fort Duquesne, then to Fort Necessity. Thanks for the great post.


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