Sunday, September 21, 2014

George Washington's Lie

If George Washington really did declare, "I cannot tell a lie, father," he was lying. George Washington led a military detachment which murdered a French ambassador and his men, a fact which he both admitted and denied (How you ask? Just wait and see...). It is this little known massacre, known as Jumoville's Glen, that contributed to the start of the Seven Years War in Europe (called the French and Indian War in America). Washington's actions were so significant that they led the French philosophe Voltaire to remark, "Such was the complication of political interests that a cannon-shot fired in America could give the signal that set Europe ablaze."

Jumonville's Glen (also called Jumonville's Clearing) took place before Washington was the least bit famous. He was a Virginia land surveyor who volunteered to lead a mission into the Ohio River Valley. The year was 1753 and the British and French were officially at peace with one another. Washington's task was twofold. His primary objective was to deliver a letter to the commander of the French army on behalf of King George ordering the French to withdraw from the Ohio River Valley. His second goal was to map the Ohio River Valley and report on French military strength and troop movements.

The British and French were both interested in the Ohio River Valley because of its rich natural resources, namely fur and timber. Control over the Ohio River was also a concern for both countries. On his expedition, Washington recruited Iroquois Chief Tanaghrisson and his men to escort him to the French (called "Half King" by the British).

Washington was welcomed by the French in their first encounter. The two parties dined and drank before Washington set out to Fort Le Boeuf, where the French General was located. Upon delivering King George's Letter, the French General curtly replied that the Ohio River Valley belonged to the French and that all Brits were considered trespassers.

When Washington returned to Virginia with the the French General's reply, he was ordered back to the Ohio River Valley to construct a British fort. The fort was to be located near the French Fort Duquense, which was already under construction. Once Washington returned to the Ohio River Valley Half King informed him that a party of thirty Frenchmen was camped near the construction site of the British fort.

Half King's intention was vengeance. His parents had supposedly been cooked and then eaten by the French, and he was looking to settle the score by killing as many Frenchmen as possible. It is unsurprising then that Half King encouraged Washington to ambush the French campsite. Fred Anderson's assessment of the situation reveals the twenty-two year old's inexperience and poor-decision making skills.

"Overlooking the fact that England and France were not officially at war, forgetting that the French had not attacked the party at the Forks and that Dinwiddie [Washington's commander] had ordered him to warn all Frenchmen away before he engaged in hostilities, Washington allowed himself to be persuaded to use the Indian tactic of a surprise attack."
The surprise attack lasted between 10 and 15 minutes. One of Washington's men died while 14 of the French lay dead or wounded. Joseph de Jomenville, the leader of the French outfit, lay wounded and waving a letter in the air when the firing had ceased. The letter was from the French governor of Canada and stated that the British must vacate the Ohio River Valley because it belonged to the French. In other words, Washington had launched surprise attack on a French diplomatic envoy.

In response to the wounded Jomenville's frantic waving, Half King rushed and decapitated him. At that moment, the Iroquois fell on the wounded French, murdering, scalping, and stripping any survivors. One Frenchman's decapitated head was even impaled on a stick.

Jumonville Glen, where Washington led a surprise attack on a French diplomatic envoy

Realizing the gravity of his actions, Washington scrambled and constructed what was aptly named "Fort Necessity." The "fort" was no more than a series of vertical logs surrounding an ammunition and weapons cache in the form of a shed.

Reconstruction of Fort Necessity at Fort Necessity National Battlefield
When the fort was soon thereafter surrounded by French troops from Fort Duquesne, Washington surrendered (the date was July 4!). The French General, none other than the brother of Joseph de Jomenville, allowed Washington and his men to return to Virginia under one condition: that Washington sign an agreement stating that neither he nor his men would take up arms for the next year. Washington gladly signed the document. What Washington would later claim that he did not "understand" was that the document also stated he had "assassinated" Joseph de Jomenville. Washington denied this point until his death. He claimed he didn't not understand the document and admitted no wrongdoing. In written accounts of his time in the Ohio River Valley, Washington consistently omitted the actions of the Half King and Iroquois. Moreover, Washington's entire account of Jumonville Glen differed significantly from that of the lone French survivor.

The truth may be buried with Washington, but the events in this saga raise important questions, such as:

"Should one be held accountable for signing a document they do not understand?" and

"Was Washington telling the truth, or protecting his reputation?"

Additional Resources

George Washington : Writings (Library of America)

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

America's Hidden History (Kenneth C. Davis)


  1. I enjoyed your post, and the story of Washington's role in starting the French and Indian War (which ultimately led to the American Revolution) is very fascinating to me! I wrote about it myself at and even compared Washington's role in the French and Indian War to the first two Alien movies at
    Who knows how different history might have been if only George Washington knew French!

    1. Thanks for your comment Howard. I will certainly check out your blog shortly - your topics sound fascinating.

    2. Washington's officer aides did understand French and I find it unbelievable they, at the signature-signing-scene, would not have delivered an interpretation of the document that Washington chose to sign in assent to it's charge. That being said, I find it puzzling he was not held in confinement for charges to ensue. Murder is murder.

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