Jacob Van Braam was a soldier in the Dutch and British armies and a translator on George Washington’s expeditions into the Ohio Country between 1752 and 1754. Van Braam’s mistranslation of the British surrender documents at Fort Necessity in 1754, and the events that transpired as a result, contributed to the outbreak of the French and Indian War.
Born in the Netherlands in the municipality of Bergen Op Zoom on April 1, 1729, Van Braam served in various militaries until joining the Carthagena Expedition in 1741 with Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s elder half-brother.1 In 1752, Van Braam traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he attended the same Masonic lodge as George Washington.2
Writers have long misidentified Van Braam during his early time in America. Most significantly, in his 1855 biography of George Washington, Washington Irving claimed that Van Braam instructed the young Washington in both swordplay and European military tactics. There is no evidence suggesting that Van Braam taught Washington either of these things.3
In the fall of 1753, Washington asked Van Braam to act as a translator for a mission that Washington would lead into the Ohio Country to give the French forces occupying the area a letter from Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Though only a lieutenant, Van Braam was known to both act as and be treated as a captain by other members of the expedition. Van Braam, Washington, and others traveled to survey French forts being built in the area, specifically Fort LaBoeuf (today Waterford, Pennsylvania). After delivering Governor Dinwiddie’s letter, the group went back to Virginia.
Due to Anglo-French land disputes in the Ohio Country and news of French military forces in the area, Van Braam again joined Washington and a small military force sent into the Ohio Country by Governor Dinwiddie in May 1754. On May 28, Washington, Van Braam, and the other members of the group engaged in combat against a small French force. Amongst the wounded was a French officer, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, whose mission was to deliver a letter to Washington to tell the British to vacate the Ohio Country, the same type of letter that Washington was to deliver to the French. Van Braam acted as interpreter and made no errors translating between Washington and Jumonville. A Seneca companion of Washington’s, Tanacharison, known as the “Half-King,” killed Jumonville, while Tanacharison’s men killed several of the captured French soldiers.
After the skirmish and the killing of Jumonville, the military force rested at the Great Meadows and proceeded to construct Fort Necessity. On July 3, 1754, a skirmish broke out, and the French, led by Louis Colon de Villiers, overpowered Washington’s men. Washington eventually agreed to a parley, and on July 4, sent Van Braam and another translator, William La Peyrony, to negotiate the terms. During the negotiations, La Peyrony succumbed to injuries received in the earlier battle and died. De Villiers wrote the terms on both sides of a thin piece of paper, which, in combination with the heavy rainfall that started during the battle, resulted in the ink bleeding through the paper and smudging. Van Braam returned from the negotiations with the French reply, and after a back and forth between Washington and De Villiers with Van Braam as the middleman, settled on terms of surrender. It was at this time that Van Braam mistranslated and confused the words “l’assassin,” meaning “the murder” with “l’assassinat,” meaning “the killing” of Jumonville in May 1754.4 This meant that with his signature, Washington unwittingly and incorrectly confessed to the killing of Jumonville. The surrender also correctly asserted the fact that Washington was acting under the authority of the British crown, making any actions, specifically the assassination of a foreign diplomat, such as Jumonville, an act of war. As per the terms of the surrender, the French took two of Washington’s men, Van Braam and another officer, Captain Robert Stobo, as prisoners of war. Once back in Virginia and after learning of the mistranslation and its implications, Washington stated, “That we were wilfully, or ignorantly, deceived by our interpreter [Van Braam] in regard to the word assassination I do aver, and will to my dying moment so . . .”5
As a prisoner of war, Van Braam was taken to Montreal and unlike his associate Stobo, who escaped from prison there, would stay a prisoner until Britain captured the city in September 1760. He returned to Virginia, where a trial found him innocent of treason due to the rain soaking the paper and smudging the ink of the surrender document, as well as his poor English-speaking skills. As recognition of his service and as an apology for the original charges, he was granted a large reward, roughly £500 and 9000 acres of land in Virginia, as well as a recommendation for promotion to major in the 30th Battalion of the 60th foot Royal Americans.6
Later in life, Van Braam moved to Britain, where he lived in London for three years from 1763 on half-pay before retiring and moving to Wales. In 1775 he was summoned to fight in the American Revolutionary War on behalf of Britain, serving on the 60th Regiment of Foot. In early 1776, he sailed to St. Augustine, Florida, before eventually stationing in the West Indies. Van Braam tried to sell his military commission in order to quit his service in America. He participated in the 1778 Southern campaign, specifically serving in Georgia. Van Braam retired, with much pleasure, with the rank of major in 1779.7
In December 1783, he wrote to George Washington to offer congratulations on the American victory in the Revolutionary War and to express regret for having fought against Washington. Van Braam closed his letter by wishing Washington “a long life to enjoy the blessing of a great people whom You have been the Chief instrument of freeing from bondage.”8 The former translator retired and lived in Wales until immigrating to Charleville-Mézières in France, where he lived until his death on August 7, 1792.9
George Washington University
1. Will of Jacob Van Braam, Wills and Letters of Administration, PROB 11/1225/15, National Archives of the United Kingdom, London.
2. George Washington, Journal of Colonel George Washington, ed. Randolph Greenfield Adams (New York: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1940), 22.
3. The only existing evidence that Washington ever took lessons in swordplay can be found in Washington's financial papers, and does not mention Jacob Van Braam. On August 7, 1756, Washington paid £1 1s 6d to "Sergeant Wood Fencing Master." See Ledger A, 1750-1772, page 30, The George Washington Financial Papers Project, Center for Digital Editing, University of Virginia. For Washington Irving's story about Van Braam's role, see Irving, George Washington: A Biography, edited by Charles Neider (1855; reprint, New York: Doubleday, 1976), 21.
4. Washington, Journal of Colonel George Washington, 22.
6. Ibid., 23-24.
7. Jacob Van Braam to George Washington, December 20, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives.
9. Cornelis Arnoldus Duker, notarial deed discussing bequests of Jacob Van Braam, May 4, 1794, record 229, Archives of Utrecht.
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.
Irving, Washington. George Washington: A Biography. Edited by Charles Neider. 1855. Reprint, New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Nolan, Kiera E. “Lawrence Washington.” In The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/lawrence-washington/