Mysteries of the French & Indian War
In this series we explore the enduring mysteries of the French & Indian War. Today we look at the beginnings of the war, and George Washington's first trial by fire, which produced a mystery that has just unfolded in the past generation. In this sense it is the newest of mysteries, and one that really stirs the imagination.
The Case of the Missing Diplomat
May 28, 1754. A foggy dawn at a sleepy campsite atop Chestnut Ridge. A fire of damp wood crackles. Thirty-five French soldiers snap awake to the sound of shouts and gunfire. Ambush! Less than 15 minutes later, somewhere between 10 and 14 lie dead, including the leader of the group, 35-year-old Ensign Coulon deVilliers, Sieur de Jumonville. Wounded in the battle, he has been murdered with a tomahawk blow to the head.
It is George Washington's first battle. He has led his Virginians here with a group of Seneca Indians under a sachem named Tanacharison, the Half King. Together they ambush Jumonville's band. Jumonville—who, some witnesses say, was seen waving about a paper that turns out to be a summons for the Virginians to depart lands claimed by France—receives a wound in the skirmish and falls to the earth. Minutes later, after the firing stops, the 22-year-old Washington witnesses Half King's cold-blooded slaying of Jumonville. He was unprepared for the swiftness or brutality of it. Half King had in one fell swoop, as Dr. R. David Edmunds pointed out in interviews for When the Forest Ran Red, "sealed their alliance in blood."
“We killed M. de Jumonville, commanding this party, with nine others,” reports Washington later from his base camp at Great Meadows--presumably after he has collected himself. “We wounded one and made 21 prisoners…The Indians scalped the dead, and took most of their arms.” His account does not mention burial of the French officer or his men. Washington merely notes, “Afterward, we marched with the prisoners under guard to the camp of the Indians.” Understandably, Washington was in a hurry. He didn't know if other French parties were on the march to reinforce Jumonville. And at the moment of the French officer's death, it was Washington occupying the low ground. The elements of mystery began to stir here and now, between the scalping and the marching. George, what did you do with the bodies?
Unbeknownst to Washington, a Frenchman had escaped this day and returned to Fort Duquesne, 50 miles to the northwest, to tell of ambush and murder in the wilderness.
Washington will maintain for the rest of his life that Jumonville's intentions were hostile, and not those of a diplomat. There will be charges and countercharges about who fired first and initiated hostilities. The summons Jumonville carried paints a different picture, that Jumonville merely intends to fire words at the Virginians, not lead, and Washington does not acknowledge the irony that only six months earlier, it was George Washington, military ambassador who had carried just such an English summons from Virginia north to the French army at Fort LeBoeuf.
In fact, Jumonville's orders were to: “Go up as far as the High Lands, and to make what discovery he can; he shall keep along the river Monongahela in Perlaguas, as far as the Hangard [currently Brownsville, PA], after which he shall march along until he finds the road which leads to that said to have been cleared by the English. As the Indians give out that the English are on their march to attack us (which we cannot believe, since we are at peace), should M. de Jumonville, contrary to our expectations, hear of any attempt intended to be made by the English on the lands belonging to the French King, he shall immediately go to them and deliver them the summons we have given him. We further discharge him to dispatch a speedy messenger to us before the summons be read, to acquaint us of all the discoveries he hath made; of the day he intends to read them the summons, and also to bring us an answer from them, with all possible diligence, after it is read.”
These orders closely mirror those given to Washington by Gov. Dinwiddie on his expedition to parlay with the French. World history might have been far different had it been Washington's party ambushed in the wilderness of the Ohio country in December of 1753, with Washington tomahawked by a Shawnee warrior in the snowy lands along French Creek.
In the weeks following Jumonville's death, Washington's report, and that of the French commandant of Fort Duquesne, speed to Europe, and the wilderness exchange becomes an international incident. Upon hearing of the skirmish, the British writer Horace Walpole observes, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”
In France, Voltaire had been neutral on the subject of potential conflict between England and France over the American wilderness. “I was formerly of the English party,” he wrote to a friend, “but am that no longer, since the English assassinate our officers in America.”
Five weeks later, Jumonville's brothers, Capt. Louis Coulon deVilliers of the French regulars, marches on Washington from Fort Duquesne with an army of upwards of a thousand. On July 3, 1754, he reaches the spot of the ambush. “I stopped at the place where my brother had been assassinated,” he states in his official report, “and here I saw some human bodies still remaining.” George, the bodies?
One could make an assumption that deVilliers ordered all the bodies buried that day, with a Catholic service performed. He makes no mention of it in his record, but considering that these were members of his brother's lost mission, it makes sense.
FLASH FORWARD to the turn of the 20th century. A movement is underway to appreciate the history of colonial America—particularly anything involving George Washington. A marker is erected at the site of the battle. It reads:
HERE LIE THE MORTAL REMAINS OF N. [sic] COULON DE JUMONVILLE, WHO, IN COMMAND OF A COMPANY OF THIRTY-THREE FRENCH REGULARS, WAS SURPRISED AND KILLED IN AN ENGAGEMENT WITH MAJOR [sic] GEORGE WASHINGTIN IN COMMAND OF A COMPANY OF FORTY PROVINCIAL TROOPS AND TANACHARISON, THE HALF KING, IN COMMAND OF A COMPANY OF FRIENDLY INDIANS ON MAY 29TH [sic], 1754.
THIS ACTION WAS THE FIRST CONFLICT AT ARMS BETWEEN THE FRENCH AND ENGLISH FOR SUPREMACY IN THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY.
ERECTED JULY 4TH, 1908. UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION COMMITTEE 1904.
For 70+ years the marker stands watch in the gloomy spot of forest. In the 1970s the site becomes a juvenile hangout and site of beer parties. During this period the marker is vandalized.
In the early 1980s the National Park Service, custodians of the site, perform tests that determine the spot of earth under the marker has never been overturned for the interment of a body. In other words, Jumonville's remains were not here after all, begging the question, if not here, then where? The marker was removed, and the mystery solidified for modern historians. George, you should have done something with the bodies.
In the late 1990s, the historian Joseph Peyser (author of Ambush and Revenge: George Washington's Adversaries in 1754) for a time believed that a log of burials at Fort Duquesne contained the name Jumonville, a fact he revealed in a lecture at a French & Indian War conference in Pennsylvania--producing quiet gasps and murmurs. But further investigation disproved the theory--it had been a Joseph DeLisle of Longueville, not Joseph DeVilliers of Jumonville, whose name had been entered by hand on August 3, 1754 in the Register of Fort Duquesne. Today the National Park Service position is that the location of the graves of Jumonville and his men is unknown, and in part because of Washington's haste in 1754 to depart a crime scene, leaving the bodies of a dozen men unattended, the mystery of the missing diplomat remains in the 21st century.
Jumonville's damaged grave marker is visible at upper right center in this winter 1979 view looking down from the top of the cliff (Washington's perspective at the opening of the battle) into the valley where Jumonville's men were camped and where, presumably, Jumonville was murdered.
Another winter 1979 view of the broken marker, this one taken from the bottom of the valley at the campsite and looking north toward the cliff (Capt. Adam Stephen's Virginians were located atop this ridge as the battle opened).