In the fall of 1753, as French forces moved into the Ohio Valley to build a series of forts, George Washington offered his services to the Governor of Virginia as an envoy to carry a message to the French commander Jacques Le Gardeur. Washington received his commission on October 31, 1753 and set out immediately. Washington was accompanied by a small group.
Jacob Van Braam, a Dutch immigrant, served as interpreter. Prominent frontiersman Christopher Gist was also part of the convoy. As a part of his mission, Washington was required to meet with several Native American chiefs to ask for their assistance. As a result, Barnaby Currin and John McGuire, traders with familiarity of the local Native populations, were also involved in the group, as well as two additional men, Henry Steward and William Jenkins. Nearly one month after leaving Williamsburg, Virginia, Washington arrived at Logstown (near present-day Ambridge, Pennsylvania), a principal trading village in the Ohio River region.
Washington met with Monacatoocha of the Oneida branch of the Iroquois nation, as well as with Tanacharison (or The Half-King) from the Seneca, another Iroquois Confederacy tribe. The Half-King had already met with the French commandant, whom he found to be "very stern" and brusque. The commander had compared the Native Americans to "Flies or Musquito's," and The Half-King was told that the land belonged to France, and that "If People will be rul'd by me they may expect Kindness but not else."1
Washington gathered information from The Half-King about the numbers and locations of the French forts, as well as intelligence concerning individuals taken prisoner by the French. Washington shared details of his mission with the Native Americans, however he was asked to wait before proceeding until some of the tribes' allies arrived before advancing further West. Washington recorded that: "As I found it impossible to get off without affronting them in the most egregious Manner, I consented to stay."2
It was on this trip and possibly during the course of these negotiations with the Native Americans that Washington was given a nickname by The Half-King that hearkened back to one of Washington's forebearers. In the late seventeenth century, Washington's great-grandfather John Washington participated in an effort to suppress a Native American uprising in Virginia and Maryland that involved members of both the Susquehannah and the Piscataway, an Algonquian tribe that lived across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon. Following a massacre when five chiefs who had come out to negotiate under a flag of truce were murdered by colonists, the Susquehannahs gave John Washington an Algonquian name that translated to "town taker" or "devourer of villages."
The elder Washington's reputation was remembered and when the Native Americans met his great-grandson in 1753 they called George Washington by the same name, Conotocarious. Washington later wrote that this name "being registered in their Manner and communicated to other Nations of Indians, has been remembered by them ever since in all their transactions during the late War [referencing the American Revolution].3
Washington referred to himself as "Conotocaurious" in a letter that he wrote to interpreter and negotiator Andrew Montour in October of 1755 expressing his desire that the Oneida resettle along the Potomac. Washington wrote,"Recommend me kindly to our good friend Monacatootha, and others; tell them how happy it would make Conotocarious to have an opportunity of taking them by the hand at Fort Cumberland, and how glad he would be to treat them as brothers of our Great King beyond the waters."4
1. "Journey to the French Commandant, 31 October 1753-16 January 1754," The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 1, ed. Donald Jackson (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia), 137.
2. Ibid., 140.
3. Quoted in David Humphreys, Life of General Washington With George Washington's Remarks, ed. Rosemarie Zagarri (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 10. This is a modern edition, the quote originally comes from Washington's own biographical memoranda supplied to Humphreys in preparation of the biography. The biographical memorand can be found in Mount Vernon's manuscript collection.
4. "George Washington to Andrew Montour, 10 October 1755," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931), 198.