Throughout the 1740s and early 1750s, British and French traders had increasingly come into contact in the Ohio Country, including the upper watershed of the Ohio River in what is now western Pennsylvania. Authorities in New France became more aggressive in their efforts to expel British traders and colonists from this area, and in 1753 began construction of a series of fortifications in the area. In previous wars, the Québecois had more than held their own against the English colonials.
The French action drew the attention of not just the British, but also the Indian tribes of the area. Despite good Franco-Indian relations, British traders became successful in convincing the Indians to trade with them in preference to the Canadiens, and the planned large-scale advance was not well received by all. The reason for this was that they had to provide them with the goods that the Anglo-American traders had previously supplied, and at similar prices. This proved to be singularly difficult. With the exception of one or two Montreal merchant traders, the Canadians showed a great reluctance to venture into the Ohio country. In particular, Tanacharison, a Mingo chief also known as the "Half King", became anti-French as a consequence. In a meeting with Paul Marin de la Malgue, commander of the Canadian construction force, the latter reportedly lost his temper, and shouted at the Indian chief, "I tell you, down the river I will go. If the river is blocked up, I have the forces to burst it open and tread under my feet all that oppose me. I despise all the stupid things you have said." He then threw down some wampum that Tanacharison had offered as a good will gesture. Marin died not long after, and command of the operations was turned over to Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre.
Virginia colonial Lieutenant Colonel George Washington was sent by Governor Robert Dinwiddie to travel from Williamsburg to Fort LeBeouf in the Ohio Territory (a territory claimed by several of the British colonies, including Virginia) as an emissary in December 1753, to deliver a letter. Saint-Pierre politely informed Washington that he was there pursuant to orders, and Washington's letter should have been addressed to his commanding officer in Canada.
Washington returned to Williamsburg and informed Governor Dinwiddie that the French refused to leave. Dinwiddie ordered Washington to begin raising a militia regiment to hold the Forks of the Ohio, in present-day Pittsburgh, a site Washington had identified as a fine location for a fortress. The governor also issued a captain's commission to Ohio Company employee William Trent, with instructions to raise a small force and immediately begin construction of a fortification on the Ohio. Dinwiddie issued these instructions on his own authority, without even asking for funding from the Virginia House of Burgesses until after the fact. Trent's company arrived on site in February 1754, and began construction of a storehouse and stockade with the assistance of Tanacharison and the Mingos. In response, the Canadians sent a force of about 500 men, Canadian, French, and Indians under Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecœur (rumors reaching Trent's men put its size at 1,000). On April 16, they arrived at the forks; the next day, Trent's force of 36 men, led by Ensign Edward Ward in Trent's absence, agreed to leave the site. The Canadians tore down the British works, and began construction of the fort they called Fort Duquesne.
In March 1754, Governor Dinwiddie sent Washington back to the frontier with orders to "act on the [defensive], but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our [settlements] by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them". Historian Fred Anderson describes Dinwiddie's instructions, which were issued without the knowledge or direction of the British government in London, as "an invitation to start a war". Washington was ordered to gather as many supplies and paid volunteers as he could along the way. By the time he left for the frontier on April 2, he had gathered 186 men.
Contrecœur operated under orders that forbade attacks by his force unless they were provoked. On May 23, he sent Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville with 35 men to see if Washington had entered French territory, and with a summons to order Washington's troops to leave; this summons was similar in nature to the one Washington had delivered to them four months previous. Sources disagree on the exact composition of Jumonville's force, which may have included French troupes de la marine, Canadian militia, and Indians.
During the march through the forests of the frontier, Washington received a few more men from another regiment that they met at Winchester. At this point Captain Trent arrived with news of the advance of the French force under Jumonville. Trent was accompanied by Tanacharison, who promised warriors to assist the British. To keep Tanacharison's support, Washington decided not to turn back, choosing instead to build a fortification 37 miles (60 km) south of the forks and await further instructions.
Washington sent out Captain Hog with 75 men to pursue French troops who had threatened to destroy his house and property. However, shortly after Hog left, Washington called together some young Indians and told them that the French had come to kill Tanacharison, and the Indians also left to pursue the French. That evening, Washington received a message from Tanacharison, who said he had found the French encampment. Washington decided to attack himself and brought 40 soldiers with him towards Tanacharison's camp. That morning, they met with Tanacharison's 12 Indian warriors, and Washington and Tanacharison agreed to attack the encampment. Washington ambushed the French, killing 10 to 12, wounding 2 and capturing 21. Among the dead was Jumonville; the exact manner of his death is uncertain, but by several accounts Tanacharison executed Jumonville in cold blood, crushing his head with a tomahawk and washing his hands in Jumonville's brains. One account, reported by an Indian to Contrecœur, claimed that Jumonville was killed by Half King while the summons was being read.
After retiring from Jumonville, Washington expected to be attacked. Tanacharison attempted to convince the Delaware, Shawnee and the Seneca Indians to join the Virginians at Great Meadows. With about 150 Virginians at Great Meadows, they began to construct a fort, which was completed on June 3. The fort, which Washington named Fort Necessity, was a circular stockade made of 7-foot-high (2.1 m) upright logs covered with bark and skins built around a little hut which contained ammunition and provisions.
By June 9, the rest of the Virginia Regiment arrived at Great Meadows, excluding Colonel Joshua Fry, who had fallen from his horse, broken his neck and died. Washington took his place as colonel. A few days later, 100 British regulars under the command of James Mackay arrived, but, instead of making camp with the Virginians, they camped separately outside the fort.
Washington had heard that there were 500 poorly supplied French troops at Fort Duquesne, and thus he led the 300 Virginians out of Great Meadows on June 16 to widen the road for those who would follow to an advanced position at Red Stone Creek. On the June 18, Washington met with Tanacharison, who told him that he had been unable to convince the other chiefs to assist Washington and said that he would also be unable to help the Virginians. Although he had lost Indian support, which made his troops more vulnerable to attack, Washington continued to widen the road towards Red Stone Creek.
On June 28, after a council of war, Washington ordered the withdrawal to Great Meadows. That same day 600 French, and 100 Indians left Fort Duquesne led by the slain Jumonville's older brother, Louis Coulon de Villiers. In order to keep ahead of the French/Canadian force, the Virginians had to abandon most of their supplies. On July 1, they reached Fort Necessity.
At Fort Necessity, the provision hut was depleted, and there was little shelter from the heavy rain that started to fall on the 2nd. With the rain, the trenches that Washington had ordered to be dug had turned into streams. Washington realized that he would have to defend against a frontal assault and also realized that it would be difficult because the woods were less than 100 yards away, within musket range, making it possible for a besieging attacker to pick off the defenders. To improve the defense, Washington ordered his men to cut trees down and to make them into makeshift breastworks.
As the British worked, Coulon approached Fort Necessity using the road the Virginians had built. He arrived at Jumonville's Glen early on the morning of July 3. Horrified to find several scalped French bodies, he immediately ordered them to be buried.
By 11:00 am on the 3rd of July 1754, Louis Coulon de Villiers came within sight of Fort Necessity. At this time, the Virginians were digging a trench in the mud. The pickets fired their muskets and fell back to the fort, whereupon three columns of Canadian soldiers and Indians advanced downhill towards the fort. However, Coulon had miscalculated the location of the fort and had advanced with the fort at his right. As Coulon halted and then redeployed his troops, Washington began to prepare for an attack.
Coulon moved his troops into the woods, within easy musket range of the fort. Washington knew he had to dislodge the Canadians and Indians from that position, so he ordered an assault with his entire force across the open field. Seeing the assault coming, Coulon ordered his soldiers, led by Indians, to charge directly at Washington's line. Washington ordered the men to hold their ground and fire a volley. Mackay's regulars obeyed Washington's command, and supported by two swivel cannons, they inflicted several casualties on the oncoming Indians. The Virginians, however, fled back to the fort, leaving Washington and the British regulars greatly outnumbered. Washington ordered a retreat back to the fort.
Coulon reformed his troops in the woods. The Canadians spread out around the clearing and kept up heavy fire on Fort Necessity. Washington ordered his troops to return fire, but they aimed too high, inflicting few casualties, and the swivel cannon fared no better. To add to the garrison's troubles, heavy rain began to fall that afternoon, and Washington's troops were unable to continue the firefight because their gunpowder was wet.
Louis Coulon de Villiers, who did not know when British reinforcements might arrive, sent an officer under a white flag to negotiate. Washington did not allow the Canadian officer into or near the fort, but sent two of his own men, including his translator Jacob Van Braam, to negotiate. As negotiations began, the Virginians, against Washington's orders, broke into the fort's liquor supply and got drunk. Coulon told Van Braam that all he wanted was the surrender of the garrison, and the Virginians could go back to Virginia. He warned, however, that if they did not surrender now, the Indians might storm the fort and scalp the entire garrison.
Van Braam brought this message to Washington, who agreed to these basic terms. One of Louis Coulon de Villiers' aides then wrote down Coulon's surrender terms and then gave them to Van Braam, who in turn gave them to Washington. Washington, who could not read French, had Van Braam translate it for him, and in the document it said that Jumonville had been "assassinated". However, Van Braam may have skipped over this word; otherwise Washington would have likely sent it back to Coulon and asked that the word be removed. Both Washington and Mackay signed the surrender document.
On July 4, Washington and his troops abandoned Fort Necessity. The garrison marched away with drums beating and flags flying, but the Indians and the French began to loot the garrison's baggage on their way out. Washington, who feared a bloodbath, did not try to stop the looting. The Indians continued to steal from the soldiers until July 5. Washington and his troops arrived back in eastern Virginia in mid-July. On the 17th, Washington delivered his report of the battles to Governor Dinwiddie, expecting a rebuke, but Washington instead received a vote of thanks from the House of Burgesses and Dinwiddie blamed the defeat not on Washington but on poor supply and the refusal of aid by the other colonies.
The battlefield is preserved at Fort Necessity National Battlefield, and includes a reconstruction of Fort Necessity.
When news of the two battles reached England in August, the government of the Duke of Newcastle, after several months of negotiations, decided to send an army expedition the following year to dislodge the French. Major General Edward Braddock was chosen to lead the expedition. His expedition ended in disaster, and the French remained in control of Fort Duquesne until 1758, when an expedition under General John Forbes finally succeeded in taking the fort.
Word of the British military plans leaked to France well before Braddock's departure for North America, and King Louis XV dispatched a much larger body of troops to Canada in 1755. Although they arrived too late to participate in Braddock's defeat, the French troop presence led to a string of French victories in the following years. In a second British act of aggression, Admiral Edward Boscawen fired on the French ship Alcide in a naval action on June 8, 1755, capturing her and two troop ships carrying some of those troops. Military matters escalated on both North American soil and sea until France and Britain declared war on each other in spring 1756, marking the formal start of the Seven Years' War.