Fort Duquesne (1754-1758)

French Fort Duquesne - 1754

The Struggle for Control of the Fork of the Ohio

One of the defining characteristics of Pittsburgh's place in the colonial history of the America is the struggle that took place for control of the strategic fork of the Ohio River. The French needed to establish themselves in the Ohio River Valley to consolidate their holdings in New France (Canada), New Orleans and west of the Mississippi River.

In the early-1700s, while the British worked to establish their dominance on the eastern coast, the French were busy setting up outposts and forts along the Great Lakes. By the 1740s, the French began a drive south along the Allegheny River and Ohio River Valleys, in a bid to extend the province of New France. Trading posts and settlements were established and their claim to the region seemed secure.

Map of Colonial America

The English had expansionist thoughts of their own, and their reach soon stretched across the Allegheny mountain range, to the west and into the French claimed territory. English traders were soon setting up their own posts to barter with the local tribes.

A commerce war soon followed, with the English underbidding their French rivals. A short local conflict, known as King George's War, followed. It ended in 1748 with an uneasy truce that allowed the English access to the Ohio and Mississippi River for trading purposes.

The French Claim The Ohio Country

This agreement was deemed unacceptable by the French monarchy. An expedition soon followed, led by Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Blainville, in 1749. Leaden plates were buried in several locations throughout the Ohio Valley officially claiming the lands for King Louis XV.

One of the lead plates buried by
Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Blainville.
One of the lead plates buried by Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Blainville.

Throughout their travels, the French were disheartened to find that many of the Native Americans in the region were sympathetic to their English trading partners. Because of this, they could not count on the full support of the Six Nations in their efforts to oust the ever increasing number of traders. The Indian tribes were divided in their loyalties, strategically allying themselves with whichever side that gave them the best deal. Oftentimes, these allegiances changed, depending upon the current circumstances.

To counter British ambitions, the French began building a string of forts extending south from Lake Erie down the Allegheny Valley. The first was Fort Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, in early 1753; followed by Fort Leboef, at French Creek, in December 1753; and Fort Machault, along the Allegheny River, in April 1954.

As French dominance grew, they began a policy of interdiction on British trade with the Indians. The French argued that the traders were dealing weapons and contraband in an effort to incite the local tribes to unite against their rule.

Virginia Governor Dinwiddie's Ultimatum To The French

In 1747, the British colony of Virginia formed the Ohio River Company to engage in land speculation and trade with the local Indian tribes. Half a million acres of land, mostly on the south side of the Ohio River between the Monongahela and Kenhawa Rivers, were granted. In 1752, an English expedition moved into, and mapped, the Ohio Country west of the Allegheny Mountains. In early-1753 plans for a fort and settlement along the Monongahela River were prepared.

On October 31, 1753, 21-year old Major George Washington, his guide Christopher Gist, and a small party set out from Williamsburg to the nearest French outpost, at Fort Le Boeuf, near Waterford, Pennsylvania. Washington carried Virginia Governor Dinwiddie's warning to the French army, which the British felt had invaded the Allegheny River Valley. The message was clear. The French were to abandon their military occupation of the Ohio Country and withdraw.

On his way to meet with the French commander, Washington's party passed by the junction where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River.

The River Junction
The fork of the Ohio River and the site chosen by George Washington for a British Fort

Washington was impressed with the nature of the terrain and the commanding position it presented. On November 24, 1753, he wrote in his journal:

"As I got down before the canoe, I spent some time viewing the rivers, and the land in the fork, which I think extremely well situated for a fort, as it has the absolute command of both rivers. The land at the point is twenty-five feet above the common surface of the water; and a considerable bottom of flat well timbered land all around it very convenient for building. The rivers are each a quarter of a mile across, and run here very nearly at right angles; Allegheny, bearing north-east; and Monongahela, south-east. The former of these two is a very rapid and swift running water, the other deep and still, without any perceptible fall."

Map of Western Pennsylvania (the Ohio Country)
drawn by George Washington in 1753.
Map drawn by George Washington of the Ohio Country in 1753.

"As I had taken a good deal of notice yesterday to the situation at the intended fort, my curiosity led me to examine this more particularly, and I think it greatly inferior, either for defence or advantages, especially the latter. A fort at the fork would be equally well situated on the Ohio, and have the entire command of the Monongahela, which runs up our settlement, and is extremely well designed for water carriage, as it is of a deep, still nature. Besides, a fort at the fork might be built at much less expense than the other place."

Washington and Gist arrived at Fort LeBoeuf on December 11, 1753. The commandant, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, received Washington politely, but contemptuously rejected Governor Dinwiddie's ultimatum, restating the French crown's claim to the region.

Major George Washington and his guide
Christopher Gist cross the Allegheny
River after Washington's meeting with
the French commander at Fort LeBoeuf.
Major George Washington and his guide Christopher Gist cross the Allegheny River
after Washington's meeting with the French commander at Fort LeBoeuf.

Washington and Gist rushed back to Williamsburg, and arrived on January 16, carrying to Dinwiddie a letter containing the French commander's refusal to withdraw. Washington also relayed his observations about the commanding nature of the land at the forks. The Virginia Governor immediately made arrangements to send troops of the colonial militia to fortify the river junction.

Tensions Escalate Over The Fork Of Belle Riviere

One company, under the command of Captain William Trent, was dispatched, and arrived at the fork on February 17, 1754. Construction of a stockade, called Fort Prince George, was begun. The French responded to this incursion by sending a force of sixty boats, 300 canoes, 500 soldiers and Indians, and eighteen artillery pieces to evict the British garrison.

Captain Trent and his company
arrive at the river junction.
Captain Trent and his company at the river junction.

On April 17, 1754, Monsieur Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, Captain of a company of the French Marine, delivered a summons to the British garrison, demanding their immediate withdrawal. Captain Trent was away at Turtle Creek, and Ensign Edward Ward was in command. With only forty men and an unfinished stockade, there was no alternative but to abandon the area and retreat peaceably south towards Virginia.

The French refered to the Ohio River as the Belle Riviere. Control of the fork of the Belle Riviere was essential to their plans to assert their dominance over the region. With the British garrison gone, the French soldiers began construction of a much larger structure, called Fort Duquesne. It was named after the Governor of Canada, the Marquis Du Quesne de Mennville.

Governor of New France
Marquis Du Quesne de Mennville
Marquis Du Quesne de Mennville

French plans for Fort Duquesne - 1754.
French plans for Fort Duquesne.

French Fort Duquesne    French Fort Duquesne
One of the bastions (left) and the courtyard and main buildings of Fort Duquesne.

The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

The English were already on the march to reinforce the garrison at Fort Prince George with two additional companies of Virginia militiamen, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, when news reached them of Ward's capitulation. Undaunted, the Virginia militiamen sought out the French with orders to engage. The opposing forces met on May 28, 1754, in a skirmish known as the Jumonville Affair, or the Battle of Jumonville Glen.

Washington's soldiers routed the French unit, which consisted of 35 Canadians under the command of Captain Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. The French captain was captured and summarily executed by the one of Washington's Indian guides. This action set off a chain of events that led to all-out war between the European powers for control of not only the Ohio River Valley, but for all of colonial North America.

Major George Washington and his troops
 retreat from Fort Necessity - 1754
Fort Necessity, where George Washington and 300 Virginians battled the French in 1754.

After the battle, Washington and his men withdrew to Great Meadows. Fearing an attack, the Virginians immediately began construction of a stockade. On July 3, 1754, the French responded in force. A battle ensued between Washington's 300 Virginians and an attacking force of 600 French and 100 Indians, known as the Battle of Fort Necessity.

The colonial militia defended their stockade against the French force in a driving rainstorm. Washington wrote:

"We continued this unequal fight with an enemy sheltered behind trees, ourselves without shelter, in trenches full of water, and the enemy galling us on all sides incessantly from the woods, until eight o'clock at night."

Major George Washington and his troops
 retreat from Fort Necessity - 1754
Major George Washington and his Virginia militia retreat from Fort Necessity in July 1754.

When the Virginians were unable to continue the fight, Washington was compelled to sign a truce with the French commander. The Virginians retreated from the fort with honors. The capitulation was a bitter humiliation for the English, and plans were immediately launched to retake control of the river junction. The French and Indian War had begun.

General Edward Braddock's Defeat

In February of 1755, General Edward Braddock, the supreme commander of British forces in North America, and two regiments of troops from Ireland, along with colonial forces including Colonel George Washington were raised to march on the French fort.

On May 29, 1755, Braddock's army embarked from Virginia. By the 8th ofJuly they had reached the outskirts of Fort Duquesne and prepared to march against it. The following day, while advancing on the fort, they were ambushed by a force of 850 French and Indians and suffered a devastating defeat, during which General Braddock was mortally wounded.

General Edward Braddock leads his army through
Southwestern Pennsylvania to Fort Duquesne.
General Braddock and his army traveled from Virginia to the outskirts of Fort Duquesne.

The following eyewitness account of the British defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755, is taken from the King's Library Volume 212, as published in "The History Of Pittsburgh," by Neville Craig, published in 1851.

The Monongahela had two extremely good fords, which were very shallow, and the banks not steep. On the evening of July 8, it was resolved to pass this river the next morning, and Lieutenant Colonel Gage was ordered to march before the break of day, with the two companies of Grenadiers, 160 rank and file, of the 44th and 48th, Captain Gates' Independant Company, and two six pounders. He was instructed to pass the fords of the Monongahela and to take post after the second crossing, to secure the passage of that river.

Sir John St. Clair was ordered to march at four o'clock, with a detachment of 250 men, to make the roads for the artillery and baggage, which was to march with the remainder of the troops at five.

Advanced units of Braddock's Army
cross the Monongahela River.
Indian scouts watch as units of General Braddock's army make their crossing of the Monongahela River.

On July 9th the whole marched agreeably to the orders, and about eight in the morning, the General made the first crossing of the Monongahela by passing over about 150 men in the front, to whom followed half the carriages; another party of 150 men headed the second division; the horses and cattle then passed, and after all the baggage was over, the remaining troops which until then possessed the heights, marched over in good order.

The General ordered a halt, and the whole formed in their proper line of march. When we had moved about a mile, the General received a note from Lieutenant Colonel Gage, acquainting him with his having passed the river the second time without any interruption, and having posted himself agreeably to his orders.

General Braddock and his aides
cross the Monongahela River.
General Braddock and his aides cross the Monongahela River.

When we got to the other crossing, the bank on the opposite side not being yet made passable, the artillery and baggage drew up along the beach, and halted until one, when the General passed over the detachment of the 44th, with the pickets on the right. The artillery wagons and carrying horses followed, and then the detachment of the 48th with the left pickets, which had been posted during the halt upon the heights. When the whole had passed, the General again halted until they formed according to the annexed plan.

It was now near two o'clock, and the advanced party under Lieutenant Colonel Gage, and the working party under John St. Clair, were ordered to march on until three. No sooner were the pickets upon their respective flanks and the word given to march, we heard an excessive quick and heavy firing in the front. The General, imagining the advanced parties were very warmly attacked, and being willing to free himself from the incumbrance of the baggage, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Burton to reinforce them with the vanguard, and the line to halt.

The French and Indian forces attack the British.
French and Indian forces attack the British during the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755.

According to this disposition, eight hundred men were detached from the line, free from all embarrassments, and four hundred were left for the defence of the artillery and baggage, posted in such a manner as to secure them from any attacks or insults. The General sent forward an aide-de-camp to bring him an account of the nature of the attack, but the fire continuing, he moved forward himself, leaving Sir Peter Halket with the command of the baggage.

The advance detachment soon gave way, and fell back upon Lieutenant Colonel Burton's detachment, who was forming his men to face a rising ground upon the right. The whole were now got together in great confusion. The colors were advanced in different places to separate the men of the two regiments. The General ordered the officers to endeavor to form the men, and tell them off into small divisions, and to advance with them, but neither entreaties nor threats could prevail.

The advanced flank parties, which were left for the security of the baggage, fled. Their baggage was them warmly attacked, a great many horses and some drivers were killed, the others escaped by flight. Two of the cannon flanked the baggage, and for some time kept the Indians off; the other cannon which were disposed of in the best manner, and fired away most of their ammunition, were of some service, but the spot being so woody, they could do little or no execution.

Map of Battlefield - Braddock's Attack - 1755.
A map of General Braddock's Defeat on July 9, 1755.

The enemy had spread themselves in such a manner that they extended from front to rear, and fired upon every part. The place of action was covered with trees and much underwood upon the left, without any opening but the road, which was only about twelve feet wide. At a distance of about 200 yards in front, and upon the right, were two rising grounds covered with trees.

When the General found it impossible to persuade them to advance, and no enemy appeared in view; and nevertheless a vast number of officers were killed by exposing themselves before the men, he endeavored to retreat them in good order; but the panic was so great that he could not succeed. During this time they were loading as fast as possible, and firing in the air. At last, Lieutenant Colonel Burton got together about 100 of the 48th regiment, and prevailed upon them, by the General's order, to follow him toward the rising ground on the right, but he being disabled by his wounds, they faced about to the right and returned.

General Braddock lies mortally wounded
at the Battle of the Monongahela.
General Edward Braddock lies mortally wounded amidst the chaos of the battle.

When the men had fired away all their ammunition, and saw the General and most of the officers wounded, they, by one common consent, left the field, running off with the greatest precipitation. About fifty Indians pursued us to the river, and killed several men in the passage. The officers used all possible endeavors to stop the men, and to prevail upon them to rally; but a great number of them threw away their arms and ammunition, and even their clothes, to escape the faster.

About a quarter of a mile on the other side of the river, we prevailed upon near 100 of them to take post upon a very advantageous spot, about two hundred yards from the road. Lieutenant Colonel Burton posted some small parties and sentinels. We intended to have kept possession of that ground until we could have been reinforced.

The mortally wounded General Braddock being
led from the battlefield during the retreat.
The mortally wounded General Braddock being led from the field after the battle.

The General and some wounded officers remained there about an hour, until most of the men had run off. From that place the General sent Mr. Washington to Colonel Dunbar, with orders to send wagons for the wounded, some provisions and hospital stores, to be escorted by the two youngest grenadier companies.

After we had passed the Monongahela the second time, we were joined by Lieutenant Colonel Gage, who had rallied nearly 60 men. We marched all that night and the next day.

General Edward Braddock.
General Edward Braddock

Of the 1300 men Braddock led into battle, 456 were killed and 422 were wounded. Officers were prime targets and suffered greatly: out of 86 officers, 26 were killed and 37 wounded. General Braddock died of his wounds on July 13, four days after the battle, and was buried on the military road near Fort Necessity. The French reported very few casualties.

The following is a list of officers killed or wounded during Braddock's defeat:

List of officers killed or wounded
during Braddock's defeat in 1755.

The defeat of General Braddock's army was the most disastrous affair to befall the British colonies. It laid open large portions of the territory of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to the ravages of the Indians. The French and their allies were now in complete control of the region. It would be three years before the British once again had the strength to challenge their adversaries for control of the Ohio River Valley.

Many of the survivors of Battle of the Monongahela who would go on to play pivotal roles in the American Revolution years later were engaged in the action and gained some experience in the art of war. General Gage, who subsequently commanded the British army at Bunker Hill, led the advance party at Braddock's Field. Horatio Gates, the conqueror of Burgoyne, Daniel Morgan, the hero of Cowpens, and the gentleman who would lead the American Revolutionary Forces and go on to become the first President of the United States of America, George Washington, all served under General Braddock.

Colonel George Washington.
British Colonel George Washington

The fate of the British prisoners captured by the Indians during the Battle of the Monongahela, or simply Braddock's Defeat, was far worse than that of their surviving comrades. Twelve British regulars were brought back to Fort Duquesne along with booty from the battle. These men were tortured and burned alive on the banks of the Allegheny River.

British colonial soldier James Smith, already a prisoner at Fort Duquesne, witnessed the gruesome spectacle. His account is documented below in the slaughter at Fort Duquesne.

French Fort Duquesne at the
fork of the Belle Riviere - 1755.
The French Fort Duquesne and the outlying buildings in 1755.

General John Forbes Marches on Fort Duquesne

After their victory over the British at Braddock's Field, the French consolidated their hold on the region that was now firmly in their grasp. During this time, the war raged in other parts of the country, but at Fort Duquesne there were no further large-scale military actions. Small frontier skirmishes with the Indians, often attributed, correctly or not, to Le Generale Washington, were the only engagements.

The English, however, were determined to return in force and drive the French from the Ohio River Valley. Capturing Fort Duquesne was the key to this goal. Control of the river junction would threaten the French hold on the entire Northwestern frontier. To this end, in the summer of 1758, a force of 6000 regular and colonial troops marched on Fort Duquesne, under the command of General John Forbes.

General John Forbes.
General John Forbes

The Battle of Fort Duquesne

In September of 1758, the vanguard of Forbes Army were within a few miles of Fort Duquesne. On September 11, 1758, Major James Grant led over 800 men to scout the territory around Fort Duquesne in advance of the arrival of General Forbes' main column. The fort was believed to be held by 500 French and 300 Indians, a force too strong to be attacked by Grant's detachment.

Grant's party were within two miles of the fort on September 13. A small party of fifty men were sent forward to scout. They encountered no enemy outside the fort. They raided and burned a storehouse, then returned to the main position. Major Grant, believing there were only about 200 enemy soldiers present, determined that the fort could be taken by coup-de-etat and planned an attack for the next day.

The next morning, Grant divided his force into several parts. A company of the 77th approached the fort with drums beating and pipes playing as a decoy. A force of 400 men lay in wait to ambush the enemy when responded to the ploy. Several hundred more were concealed near the baggage train in the hope of surprising an enemy attack there.

The French and Indian force turned out to be much larger than expected, and their response was swift and decisive. They overwhelmed the small decoy force and quickly overran the ambush positions. The British retreated and went to the aid of the those left at the baggage train. The Indians, concealed by thick foliage, unleashed a heavy and destructive fire that could not be returned with any effect.

Private Robert Kirkwood of the 77th Regiment
as he is taken prisoner after the battle.
Private Robert Kirkwood of the 77th Regiment as he is taken prisoner after the battle.

Private Robert Kirkwood of the 77th Highland Regiment was pursued by four Indians and wounded. He later wrote that, "I was immediately taken, but the Indian who laid hold of me would not allow the rest to scalp me, tho' they proposed to do so. In short, he befriended me greatly."

Many others were not so fortunate. During the Battle of Fort Duquesne the British and Colonial soldiers suffered 342 casualties, of whom 232 were from the 77th Regiment. Major Grant, along with Private Kirkwood and seventeen other rank and file soldiers, were taken prisoner. The remainder of Grant's force escaped to rejoin the main army camped at Fort Ligonier. The French and Indian defenders suffered only eight killed and eight wounded.

Although Major Grant was subsequently paroled and Private Kirkwood lived to write his story, the fate of several other prisoners was brutally similar to their predecessors three years before. These soldiers were tortured and mutiliated by their Indian captors, and their severed heads lined up on posts outside the fort.

Major James Grant.
Major James Grant

Note: A plaque on the Allegheny County Courthouse, erected in 1901, commemorates the site of the Battle of Fort Duquesne. The hill where the battle was fought is today called Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh.

The French Abandon Fort Duquesne

General Forbes was gravely ill during the campaign, and he trailed behind the column of soldiers and the laborers who were constructing the military road. When he finally arrived at Fort Ligonier in early November, the campaign season was practically over. Major Grant's disastrous defeat and the coming of winter caused doubt over whether his army should move on the fort immediately or wait until following spring.

George Washington, now a General and an assistant to Forbes, had his Indian scouts dispatched to gather intelligence on the condition of the fort. News of a recent peace treaty with the Iroquois and Delaware Indians was heartening. However, Forbes held a council of war on November 11, and decided to postpone the attack.

Indian scouts allied with the advancing British
provided intelligence on the French forces.
Indian scouts allied with the advancing British army provided intelligence on the French forces.

The next day, after receiving a report from Washington's scouting party, Forbes reversed himself. The French at Fort Duquesne were in dire straits. Most of the Indians had abandoned the post after routing Grant's force in September. The French commander, Francois-Marie le Marchand de Lignery, was left with a dwindling garrison. They had not received any supplies in months. His soldiers were starving and had resorted to eating their horses. The majority of the garrison was weak and unfit for service.

The British set out at once, and as the column neared Fort Duquesne, Lignery ordered the buildings burned and the bulk of the munitions destroyed. The approaching soldiers could heard the explosions from ten miles away.

The next day, November 25, 1758, General Forbes' troops overtook the ruins of the once mighty French fort without meeting any resistance. The French soldiers had quietly retreated to Fort LeBoeuf. Great Britain had reclaimed the Forks of the Ohio.

It had been over four years since the small British garrison at Fort Prince George had been evicted by the French. Forbes' victory was celebrated throughout the American colonies and back home in England. It was a devastating blow to French colonial aspirations.

General Forbes at Fort Duquesne.
General Forbes takes notes after the fall of the French Fort Duquesne.

General John Forbes renamed the site "Pittsborough" after Prime Minister William Pitt. When he began the arduous journey back to Philadelphia, Forbes left Colonel Hugh Mercer in command. The British garrison initially constructed a temporary structure, called Mercer's Fort, and in 1759, began construction on Fort Pitt, an elaborate fortification built to withstand any assault and assure British dominance in the Ohio Country.

In July 1759, while Colonel Mercer and his troops were protected only by the small Mercer's Fort, preparations were being made to drive the British once more from the fork of the Belle Riviere. Seven hundred French soldiers and several hundred Indians, along with cannons and provisions, gathered near Venango.

Before they could begin their task, news of the British attack on Fort Niagara forced them to abandon their plans and rush to the aid of that vital Great Lakes bastion. If Fort Niagara fell, the entire French Northeastern colonial empire would be in jeopardy.

Although the war between England and France would continue for another four years, there was no further military action between the two European adversaries near the forks of the Ohio River. Pittsburgh was, however, a vital staging ground for numerous military expeditions against the western Indians, and in 1763 was, for three months, held under siege during the Indian uprising known as Pontiac's War.

Note: Mercer's Fort stood at the site of what is today a parking lot between Point State Park and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette building.


Fort Duquesne - 250 Years After The French And Indian War

The outline of Fort Duquesne at Point State Park.
The outline of the historic French Fort Duquesne at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


The Slaughter At Fort Duquesne - July 10, 1755

Point State Park is a beautifully landscaped greenspace and recreational area that sits at the junction of the three rivers. The park rests at the forefront of the Golden Triangle, and is one of the signature vistas of the City of Pittsburgh.

Historical markers are placed at various locations throughout the park detailing the significance of the area during the colonial era, when the two great European powers, France and England, fought for supremacy in North America.

During wartime, atrocities are committed and rarely documented. One such occurence was witnessed, and it happened right on the banks of the Allegheny River, where spectators today gather to watch the boat races at the Three Rivers Regatta. It is a macabre tale of the torture of British prisoners at the hands of the French-allied Indians.

James Smith was a member of General Edward Braddock's advance party of construction engineers during the ill-fated British drive against French-held Fort Duquesne in 1755. A Pennsylvania native, Smith's tale of his time as a prisoner of the Mohawk tribe at Fort Duquesne is both gruesome and fascinating. The following is an excerpt from "The History Of Pittsburgh," by Neville Craig, published in 1851:

In the spring of the year 1755, James Smith, then a youth of eighteen, accompanied a party of three hundred men from the frontiers of Pennsylvania, who advanced in front of Braddock’s army, for the purpose of opening a road over the mountain. When within a few miles of Bedford Springs, he was sent back to the rear to hasten the progress of some wagons loaded with provisions and stores for the use of the wood cutters.

Having delivered his orders, he was returning, in company with another young man, when they were suddenly fired upon by a party of three Indians, from a cedar thicket which skirted the road. Smith’s companion was killed on the spot; and although he himself was unhurt, his horse was so much frightened by the flash and report of the guns as to become totally unmanageable. After a few plunges Smith was thrown violently to the ground. Before he could recover his feet, the Indians sprang upon him, and, overpowering his resistance, secured him as prisoner.

One of them demanded, in broken English, whether “more white men were coming up,” and upon his answering in the negative, he was seized by each arm and compelled to run with great rapidity over the mountain until night, when the small party encamped and cooked their suppers. An equal share of their scanty stock of provisions was given to the prisoner, and in other respects, although strictly guarded, he was treated with great kindness.

On the evening of the next day, after a rapid walk of fifty miles through cedar thickets, and over very rocky ground, they reached the western side of the Laurel mountain, and beheld, at a little distance, the smoke of an Indian encampment. His captors now fired their guns and raised the scalp halloo! This is a long yell for every scalp that has been taken, followed by a rapid succession of shrill, quick, piercing shrieks - shrieks somewhat resembling laughter in the most excited tones.

They were answered from the Indian camp below by a discharge of rifles, and a long whoop, followed by shrill cries of joy, and all thronged out to meet the party. Smith expected instant death at their hands as they crowded around him; but, to his surprise, no one offered him any violence. They belonged to another tribe, and entertained the party in their camp with great hospitality, respecting the prisoner as the property of their guests.

French Fort Duquesne.
The French Fort Duquesne

On the following morning Smith’s captors continued their march, and on the evening of the next day arrived at Fort Duquesne - now Pittsburgh. When within a half a mile of the fort they again raised the scalp halloo, and fired their guns as before. Instantly the whole garrison was in commotion. The cannons were fired, the drums were beaten, and the French and Indians ran out in great numbers to meet the party and partake of their triumph.

Smith was again surrounded by a multitude of savages, painted in various colors, and shouting with delight; but their demeanor was by no means as pacific as that of the last party he had encountered. They rapidly formed in two lines, and brandishing their hatchets, ramrods, switches, etc, called aloud for him to run the gauntlet.

Never having heard of this Indian ceremony before, he stood amazed for some time, not knowing what to do. Then one of his captors explained to him that he was to run between the two lines and receive a blow from each Indian, as he passed, concluding his explanation by exhorting him to “run his best,” as the faster he ran the sooner the affair would be over.

The truth was very plain, and young Smith entered upon his race with great spirit. He was switched very handsomely along the lines for about three-fourths of the distance, the strikes only acting as a spur to greater exertions. He had almost reached the extremity of the line, when a tall chief struck him a furious blow with a club upon the back of the head, and instantly felled him to the ground.

James Smith runs the gauntlet
outside Fort Duquesne.
Prisoner James Smith runs the gauntlet
outside Fort Duquesne.

Recovering himself in a moment, he sprung to his feet and started forward again, when a handful of sand was thrown in his eyes, which, in addition to the great pain, completely blinded him. He still attempted to grope his way through, but was again knocked down and beaten with merciless severity. He soon became insensible under such barbarous treatment, and recollected nothing more until he found himself in the hospital of the fort, under the hands of a French surgeon. He was beaten to a jelly, and unable to move a limb.

Here he was quickly visited by one of his captors, the same who had given him such good advice when about to commence his race. He now inquired, with some interest, if he felt “very sore.” Young Smith replied that he had been bruised almost to death, and asked what he had done to merit such barbarity. The Indian replied that he had done nothing, but that it was the customary greeting of the Indians to their prisoners, something like the English “how d’ya do,” and that now all ceremony would be laid aside, and he would be treated with kindness.

Smith inquired if they had any news of General Braddock. The Indian replied that their scouts saw him every day from the mountains, that he was advancing in close columns through the woods (this he indicated by placing a number of red sticks parallel to each other, and pressed closely together), and that the Indians would be able to shoot them down “like pigeons.”

Smith rapidly recovered, and was soon able to walk upon the battlements of the fort, with the aid of a stick. While engaged in this exercise, on the morning of July 9th, he observed an unusual bustle in the Fort. The Indians stood in crowds at the great gate, armed and painted. Many barrels of powder, balls, flints, etc., were brought out to them, from which each warrior helped himself to such articles as he required.

They were soon joined by a small detachment of French regulars, and the whole party marched off together. He had a full view of them as they passed, and was confident that they could not exceed four hundred men. He soon learned that it was detached against Braddock, who was now within a few miles of the Fort; but from their great inferiority in numbers, he regarded their destruction as certain, and looked joyfully to the arrival of Braddock in the evening, as the hour which was to deliver him from the power of the Indians.

In the afternoon, however, an Indian runner arrived with far different intelligence. The battle had not yet ended when he left the field; but he announced that the English had been surrounded, and were shot down in heaps by an invisible enemy; that instead of flying at once or rushing upon their concealed foe, they appeared completely bewildered, huddled together in the centre of the ring, and before sundown there would not be a man of them alive.

This intelligence fell like a thunderbolt upon Smith, who now saw himself irretrievably in the power of the savages, and could look forward to nothing but torture or endless captivity. He waited anxiously for further intelligence, still hoping that the fortune of the day might change. But, about sunset, he heard at a distance the well known scalp halloo, followed by wild, quick, joyful shrieks, and accompanied by long continued firing. This too surely announced the fate of the day.

A war party raises the scalp halloo.
A war party raises the scalp halloo to announce their victorious return to Fort Duquesne.

About dusk, the party returned to the Fort, driving before them twelve British regulars, stripped naked, and with their faces painted black, evidence that the unhappy wretches were devoted to death. Next came the Indians, displaying their bloody scalps, of which they had immense numbers, and dressed in the scarlet coats, sashes and military hats of the officers and British soldiers. Behind all came a train of baggage horses, laden with piles of scalps, canteens, and all the accoutrements of defeated army.

The savages appeared frantic with joy, and when Smith beheld them entering the Fort, dancing, yelling, brandishing their red tomahawks, and waving their scalps in the air, while the great guns of the Fort replied to the incessant discharge of the rifles, he says that it looked as if hell had given a holiday, and turned loose its inhabitants upon the upper world.

The most melancholy spectacle was the band of prisoners. They appeared dejected and anxious. Poor fellows! They had but a few months before left London, at the command of their superiors, and we may easily imagine their feelings at the strange and dreadful spectacle around them. The yells of delight and congratulation were scarcely over, when those of vengeance began.

The prisoners, all British regulars, were led out of the Fort to the banks of the Allegheny, and to the eternal disgrace of the French commandant, were there burnt to death, with the most awful tortures.

Smith stood upon the battlements and witnessed the shocking spectacle. A prisoner was tied to a stake, with his hands raised above his head, stripped naked, and surrounded by Indians. They would touch him with red hot irons, and stick his body full of pine splinters, and set them on fire; drowning the shrieks of the victim in the yells of delight with which they danced around him.

His companions in the mean time stood in a group near the stake, and had a foretaste of what was in reserve for each of them. As fast as one prisoner died under his tortures, another filled his place, until the whole of them had perished. All this took place so near the Fort, that every scream of the victims must have rang in the ears of the French commandant!

Two or three days after this shocking spectacle, most of the Indian tribes dispersed, and returned to their homes, as is usual with them after a great and decisive battle. Young Smith was demanded of the French by the Mohawk tribesmen to whom he belonged, and was immediately surrendered into their hands.

Frontiersman James Smith.
Frontiersman and adventurer James Smith
(1737–1814)

After his experiences at Fort Duquesne, James Smith was eventually adopted by a Mohawk family, ritually cleansed, and made to practice tribal ways. Smith ultimately gained respect for Indian culture before escaping near Montreal in 1759. He returned to the Conococheague Valley in Pennsylvania and took up farming.

During Pontiac's War, he fought in the Battle of Bushy Run and later accompanied British officer Henry Bouquet's 1764 expedition into the Ohio Country. Smith represented Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, at the 1776 Constitutional Convention, and when the American War of Independence broke out, he joined the Pennsylvania militia with the rank of Colonel.

Smith moved to Westmoreland County in 1778. By the late 1780s, he and his family had relocated to Bourbon County, Kentucky. There he served as a member of the Kentucky General Assembly for a number of years. James Smith, the farmer, soldier, Indian captive, frontiersman, adventurer and politician, passed away in 1814.

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