Home > History of Wine > “The Wine, as they dos’d themselves pretty plentifully with” : Major George Washington and the French Wine of the Ohio Valley

“The Wine, as they dos’d themselves pretty plentifully with” : Major George Washington and the French Wine of the Ohio Valley


In 1749, the French officer Celeron de Bienville travelled down the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers to expand French claim to the region.  In 1753, Marquis Duquesne, the Governor of New France sent out a large expedition.  A party built Fort Presque Isle during the summer of 1753.  Located at Presque Bay, which is now Erie, Pennsylvania, the fort protected the northern end of the Venango Path.  The Venango Path ran from the forks of the Ohio River, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet, at what is now Pittsburgh, up to Presque Isle.  From Presque Isle the French moved inland by clearing a trail and began construction of Fort Le Boeuf in July 1753 along French Creek.

Portrait of Colonel George Washington. Charles Wilson Peale. 1772.  From Google Images.

Portrait of Colonel George Washington. Charles Wilson Peale. 1772. From Google Images.

Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia became alarmed by the increased French presence so he sent a warning letter to the French with the young Major George Washington.  Major Washington brought the British explorer Christopher Gist with him on his expedition.  The small group of eight men arrived at the forks of the Ohio River on November 25, 1753.  They continued to Venango where Major Washington presented Governor Dinwiddie’s letter.  The officer stated he did not have the power to negotiate so he told Major Washington to go to Fort Le Boeuf.  The party arrived at Fort Le Boeuf on December 11, 1753.  Commandeur Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre rejected the request for the French withdrawal.  Major Washington was entertained at the fort for three days then given a letter addressed to Governor Dinwiddie directing him to take his demand to the Major General at Quebec City.

George Washington's map, accompanying his "journal to the Ohio", 1754. From Google Images.

George Washington’s map, accompanying his “journal to the Ohio”, 1754. From Google Images.

Major Washington wrote of his experience in his Journey to the French Commandant: Narrative.[1]  He received his commission on Wednesday, October 31, 1753.  He left Fredericksburg on November 15, 1753 when winter was setting in.  He travels were delayed by the “excessive Rains & vast Quantity of Snow that had fallen”.  On November 25, 1753, Major Washington arrived at Logtown where he met the Half King Tanacharison.  He informed Major Washington that the French “had built two Forts, one on Lake Erie, & another on French Creek, near a small Lake about 15 Miles asunder, & a large Waggon Road between.”

With a party bolstered by Half King, Jeskakake, White Thunder, and the Hunter they arrived at Venango on December 4, 1753, amongst a “continued Series of bad Weather.”  According to Christopher Gist it was frequently raining.  The French flew their colors at a house which they had taken over from the English trader John Frazer.  There were only three officers so the commander Captain Joncaire advised him to proceed to the next fort where there was a “General Officer.”  Captain Joncaire invited the party to join him for supper “with the greatest Complaisance.  The Wine, as they dos’d themselves pretty plentifully with it, soon banish’d the restraint which at first appear’d in their Conversation, & gave license to their Tongues to reveal their Sentiments more freely.”

Major Washington and his party departed Venango late on December 6, 1753.  Due to “excessive rains, Snows,& bad traveling, through many Mires & Swamps” they did not arrive at Fort Le Boeuf until December 11, 1753.  They were received by “Knight of the Military Order of St: Lewis, & named Legadieur St. Piere, he is an elderly Gentleman, & has much the Air of a Soldier” who had just arrived at the fort seven days prior.  Major Washington spent several days at the fort, noting its design including the Commander’s private store in the Bastions.  On December 15, 1753, the Commander “order’d a plentiful Store of Liquor, Provisions & ca.” to be put in their canoe.  Despite this generosity “he was ploting every Scheme that  the Devil & Man cou’d invent, to set our Indians at Variance with us, to prevent their going ’till after our Departure.”  The next day the French once again tried to delay Half King and the others for “they then endeavour’d to try the Power of Liquor.”

Captain Snow's scetch of the country by himself, and the best accounts he could receive from the Indian traders. 1754.  No. G3820 1754 .S6. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Captain Snow’s scetch of the country by himself, and the best accounts he could receive from the Indian traders. 1754. No. G3820 1754 .S6. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Major Washington’s party managed to leave Fort Le Boeuf intact but the return trip was increasingly difficult due to the weather and fatique.  Major Washington “put my Self into an Indian walking Dress” and continued with the group for another three days.  “The Cold increas’d very fast, & the Roads were geting much worse by a deep Snow continually Freezing.”  Anxious to give his report to the Governor, Major Washington and Christopher Gist donned their match coats and backpacks containing papers, provisions, and their guns.  They approached Murdering Town where they had planned to leave the path but met a “Party of French Indians, which had laid in wait for us, one of them fired at Mr. Gist or me” but fortunately missed.  They continued their walk all through the night and came to French Creek which was not completely frozen.  With one hatchet they set about building a raft.  The water was moving extremely fast and at one point Major Washington noted “it Jirk’d me into 10 Feet Water”.  They eventually quit the raft and waded in.  “The Cold was so extream severe, that Mr. Gist got all his Fingers, & some of his Toes Froze.”  Christopher Gist wrote of December 22, 1753, “we were forced to get out, to keep our canoe from oversetting, several times; the water freezing to our clothes; and we had the pleasure of seeing the French overset, and the brandy and wine floating in the creek, and run by them, and left them to shift for themselves.”  They eventually made it to the house of John Frazer and eventually reached Williamsburg on January 16, 1754.

Major Washington did not describe the type of wine he drank with Captain Joncaire at Venango.  An article presumably written by John Adlum on “Communications of the Cultivation of the Vine” appeared in the Daily National Intelligencer on March 20, 1820.[2]  He writes of a Gershom Hicks, born 1734, who was taken prisoner along with his brothers Mosses and Levi the year before General Edward Braddock’s defeat.  Major Washington joined General Braddock on his expedition against the French in 1755.  At the Monongahela River on July 9, 1755, General Braddock was shot then died four days later.  This places Gershom Hick’s capture in 1754.  Gershom Hick’s is infamous for escaping from his second capture in 1764, where he returned to Fort Pitt with word of smallpox.

Gershom Hicks described the time of his first capture to John Adlum.  He was taken to French Creek where every fall the prisoners’ boys and girls went to Presque Isle to “gather grapes for the French officers of that garrison, which grew in considerable quantities on the peninsula.”  The French soldiers treaded “them with their feet, in a vat, and he saw them press out the wine and fill a number of casks.”  This was “repeated as long as the French held that post. The presumption is, that if the wine had not been pretty good, they would not have continued the practice.”  John Adlum confirms the presence of grapes at Presque Isle because he had “eaten good grapes” there.[3]

French Fort Machault.  Image from REPORT OF THE COMMISSION TO LOCATE THE SITE OF THE FRONTIER FORTS OF PENNSYLVANIA, 1896.

French Fort Machault. Image from REPORT OF THE COMMISSION TO LOCATE THE SITE OF THE FRONTIER FORTS OF PENNSYLVANIA, 1896.

Gershom Hicks was taken to French Creek but does not specify which garrison he saw.  He also does not specify when he was captured in 1754.  Fort Le Boeuf was located at the northern end of French Creek and protected the road between French Creek and Lake Erie where Fort Presque Isle was located.  Venango was located at the southern end of French Creek.  When Major Washington was at Venango the former trading house of John Frasier was still there.  The French eventually built Fort Machault at Venango on the Allegheny River.[4]  It was completed in April 1754 followed by Fort Dusquesne later that year at the forks of the Ohio.

Thus the garrison Gershom Hicks refers to on French Creek is Fort Le Boeuf.  His earliest experience of the harvesting of grapes and production of wine would be from the fall of 1754.  The French began construction of Fort Presque Isle in Spring of 1753 so they were in place for harvesting grapes during the Fall of 1753. Presque Isle served as a depot for Fort Le Boeuf and the garrison at Venango which became Fort Machault.  It is possible that some of the wine made it down to Venango for Christopher Gist noted wine floating on French Creek from an overturned boat.  Major Washington only writes of wine at the table of Captain Joncaire at Venanago and does not write of wine at Fort Le Boeuf, instead he mentions liquor as a provision and a bribe.  While we do not yet know if or what type of wine Major Washington drank, it is possible that during December 1753, he drank wine produced by the French garrison.  I find this possibility fascinating.


[1] All quotations of Major Washington and Christopher Gist from “Journey to the French Commandant: Narrative,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0003-0002, ver. 2013-09-28). Source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 1, 11 March 1748 – 13 November 1765, ed. Donald Jackson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976, pp. 130–161.
[2] Date: March 20, 1820       Paper: Daily National Intelligencer (Washington (DC), DC)   Volume: 8   Issue: 2242   Page: 2
[3] Adlum, John. A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America. 1823. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=nMA1AAAAMAAJ&pg=PR5#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] Busch, Clarence M. REPORT OF THE COMMISSION TO LOCATE THE SITE OF THE FRONTIER FORTS OF PENNSYLVANIA. VOLUME TWO. URL: http://www.usgwarchives.net/pa/1pa/1picts/frontierforts/ff39.html
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