Although the morning dawned with clouds, we decided to stick with our planned drive anyway. We left Pittsburgh and traveled south on PA 51. We went through small towns as we journeyed to Fort Necessity.
We are definitely history buffs and National Park Service fans. We wanted to visit the Fort Necessity National Battlefield which is located 11 miles east of Uniontown, PA. The park consists of three “units”: the main unit which includes the battlefield, the reconstructed fort and earthworks and an interpretive educational building. We watched the 20 minute film, which was quite worthwhile in understanding the sequence of events. We walked to the fort site, which was a small wooden cabin surrounded by a ring of wooden stakes. It really wasn’t much protection! It was really windy and raw all of a sudden, so we cut our walk short a bit and returned to the building for a look at some of the other exhibits. We stopped at General Braddock’s grave, a second “unit,” and viewed a tavern called Mount Washington Tavern because it was located on land once owned by George Washington (“unit” three).
Fort Necessity isn’t one of the places immediately recognized by most Americans as an important site in American history. Yet it was the site of George Washington’s first military engagement, the site of the first battle in what became the French and Indian War and indeed the fight that ignited the Seven Years’ War in Europe. Even a small match can light a conflagration if the kindling is very dry.
In the early 1750’s, the English were continuing to make inroads along the east coast of the North American continent while the French laid claim to New France (now Canada) and Louisiana. The French traded furs with the Indians and relied on the Ohio River as a “highway” between their holdings. A group of prominent Englishmen and Virginians organized The Ohio Company in 1748 and obtained a grant of 200,000 acres in the upper Ohio River Valley. The planned settlements and began to open an 80 mile wagon road to the Monongahela River.
Can you see the potential for conflicts? Apparently both the English and the French saw that possibility. The French built Fort Presque Isle near Lake Erie and Fort LeBoeuf in the part of the Ohio country claimed by the English. Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia was not amused. He sent an 8 man expedition under the command of newly commissioned lieutenant colonel George Washington to warn the French to withdraw. Washington was 21 years old and I assume the French were not impressed, because they refused to withdraw. The Indians played each side as it best benefited their own well being. Who wouldn’t?
I won’t try to give you all the details of the confrontations and battles except to say that, while the French won the initial battles, they also underestimated the will of the English. The French were not only eventually driven out of Canada (as rulers, not residents) and Louisiana. The French lost many of their colonial holdings in other parts of the world as well by the end of the Seven Years’ War.
The English victory allowed colonists to continue to spread into the Ohio River Valley slowly. After the Revolutionary War, President George Washington was deeply aware of the value of the “Western Country” and eager to unite the Eastern seaboard with the land beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under both Presidents Jefferson and Madison, drew up plans that led Congress the approve the construction of the National Road.
The National Roadwas begun in 1811 – the nation’s first federally funded highway and the first step in the development of a national road system. It ran from Cumberland, MD to Vandalia, IL, with a large part of it in southwestern PA. It was the primary road from the east coast to the western frontier from the late 1810’s to the 1850’s. It follows the early roads laid down first by Lt Colonel Washington and later General Braddock as far as Braddock’s Grave, then headed west to Wheeling, WV. Today, though it is realigned in places and resurfaced, US 40 (as it is now called), follows the same route as the National Road wherever it can.
We followed the Historic National Roadfrom the Fort Necessity National Battlefield all the way to Wheeling. It was about 77 miles of extreme terrain, with obelisk style “mile markers” periodically to tell you how many more miles to a given town. It climbs mountainsides and descends into valleys at angles that require extra care when driving a mechanical vehicle. It was amazing to think of people walking that road – up and down and up again!! Even the oxen and horses would have been pushed to their limits. It made me tired to just think about doing it. It goes through many small communities along the way. Many of these towns are feeling the economic decline that often comes with the superhighways, which take folks past them before they even have time to blink. We enjoyed traveling through those communities. We saw historic buildings that included one of the original “toll houses” which eventually dotted the road to pay for its upkeep. There were stone and brick structures that dated from the 1800’s, many beautiful examples of Victorian homes and the mill houses that sprang up along the rivers with the coming of the Industrial Age.
It wasn’t just what we saw that was impressive. It was thinking about the people who had traveled that road before us. The families that walked along that road, perhaps herding their livestock, as a wagon carried all their belongings to an unknown future. The stagecoaches that brought the mail – and passengers – to the new settlements. The unknown persons who were buried along the way as they succumbed to illness before getting to the final destination – perhaps with no grave marker remaining to note that passing. Imagine the courage it takes to pack up and leave for the unknown. I don’t think that we can really fathom that in this country anymore. Technology has made the world smaller and explored all but the most remote, uninhabitable places – and even then we have satellites to map out hidden places, including the ocean floor.
I know many things still take courage – leaving home, serving your country, leaving an abusive relationship. But even these have the experiences of prior generations to learn from. Imagine saying good bye to your family and friends, packing up what you have and leaving to colonize a distant planet about which little is known. If you can imagine being willing to do that, then I think you have the courage that it took for these pioneers to move out of their known world and into a new one – over steep hills and mountains that made the idea of returning if you didn’t like it there unthinkable.
There’s a line from the John Denver song, “Sweet Surrender,” that was running through my mind while we traveled the National Road. It says, “Driving along on some forgotten highway, travelled by many, remembered by few . . .” We try to remember – and I share these things with you so that perhaps a few more will remember.