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How did George Washington's experiences in the Ohio River Valley as a young man prepare him to become a leader?

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Source 1: Washington's Mission to the Ohio Valley, 1753

As you read this secondary source, think about leadership skills Washington could have learned about being a leader during his trip to the Ohio Valley.

Washington the Surveyor

Even before George Washington was elected president, he had traveled extensively throughout the United States As a young man, his first career was as a land surveyor. Land surveyors establish the boundaries for legal descriptions and political divisions of land. They also help determine where to put structures such as roads, railroads, bridges, and buildings. Washington surveyed parts of the Ohio River Valley in Virginia as well as present-day West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Washington's surveying tools
Washington's surveying tools

Washington's surveying tools

An Important Mission

In 1753, when George Washington was 21 years old, he volunteered to travel with a fellow surveyor named Christopher Gist to the Ohio Valley. His mission was to deliver a letter from Robert Dinwiddie, governor of Virginia, to the commander of French troops in the Ohio territory. Both the English and the French had claimed the territory as their own. In his letter, Governor Dinwiddie demanded that the French withdraw from the region. The French commander was a man named Jacques Le Gardeur. He refused to removed his troops, but Washington's journey was a success in other ways.

A Test of Leadership

Washington's journal of the mission gave important new information to colonists about the frontier to the west. The journal also made him famous. Washington's trip to the Ohio River Valley was an important step for him. It meant that the colonists could trust him to follow through on a difficult assignment. During this trip, he met with England's Native American allies. Washington was able to make sure that the Native Americans he met would help the English if they had battles with other European powers in North America. On the way home, Washington and Gist met some Native Americans who were hostile. They also ran into difficult weather. The two men survived both challenges.

Source 2: George Washington's Map, Accompanying His Journal to the Ohio River Valley, 1754

Examine Read about and explore George Washington's hand-drawn map and the modern map of the same area.

Washington drew this map of the Ohio River Valley during his mission to deliver Governor Dinwiddie's letter to the French. Washington was a good choice for the mission because of his previous experience as a land surveyor. As a surveyor, he was also able to identify the forks formed by the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers "as extremely well situated for a Fort."

Look at the map Washington drew in 1754. Then, look at the map of the same area today. How close is Washington's map to the more modern map?

George Washington’s Map, Accompanying His “Journal to the Ohio,” 1754 (Library of Congress)

Source 3: The Journal of Major General Washington

Read As you read this primary source, think about the difficulties Washington and Gist faced when they were crossing the Allegheny River.

Primary Source

“…I took my necessary Papers, pulled off my Cloaths; tied myself up in a Match Coat; and with my Pack at my Back with my Papers and Provisions in it, and a Gun, set out with Mr. Gist, fitted in the same Manner, on Wednesday the 26th. The Day following, just after we had passed a Place called the Murdering-Town, where we intended to quit the Path, and steer across the Country for Shannapins Town, we fell in with a Party of French Indians, who had lain in Wait for us; one of them fired at Mr. Gist or me, not 15 Steps, but fortunately missed. We took this fellow into Custody, and kept him till about 9 o’Clock at Night, and then let him go, and walked all the remaining Part of the Night without making any Stop, that we might get the Start, so far, as to be out of the Reach of their Pursuit the next Day, as we were well assured they would follow our Tract as soon as it was light: The next Day we continued travelling till quite dark, and got to the River about two Miles above Shannapins; we expected to have found the River frozen, but it was not, only about 50 Yards from each Shore; the Ice I suppose had broke up above, for it was driving in vast Quantities.

“There was no Way for getting over but on a Raft, which we set about, with but one poor Hatchet, and got finished just after Sun-setting, after a whole Days Work; we got it launched, and on Board of it, and set off; but before we were Half Way over, we were jammed in the Ice in such a Manner that we expected every Moment our Raft to sink, and ourselves to perish; I put out my setting Pole to try to stop the Raft, that the Ice might pass by, when the Rapidity of the Stream threw it with so much Violence against the Pole, that it jirked me out into ten Feet Water, but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the Raft Logs; notwithstanding all our Efforts we could not get the Raft to either Shore, but were obliged, as we were near an Island, to quit our Raft and make to it.

“The Cold was so extremely severe, that Mr. Gist, had all his Fingers, and some of his Toes frozen, and the Water was shut up so hard, that we found no Difficulty in getting off the Island, on the Ice, in the Morning, and went to Mr. Frazier’s…”

-- from the Journal of Major George Washington

Check Your Understanding

A young George Washington describes the challenges of his return journey from the Ohio River Valley. Washington and fellow surveyor Christopher Gist are ambushed by a group of Native Americans. They capture one of the Native Americans who opened fire on them but later let him go. The two men walk all night without stopping to escape the Native Americans who attacked them. They come to an icy river and, using only a hatchet, make a raft to cross the water. The raft becomes trapped in ice, and the two men fear it will sink. Eventually, the raft breaks free of the ice, but Washington and Gist are forced to abandon the craft and make their way onto an island. It is so cold that Gist’s fingers and toes freeze. In the morning, the river has frozen over to the point that Washington and Gist can walk safely to shore.

What Do You Think?

What difficulties did Washington have to overcome on this journey? What leadership qualities did he demonstrate?

Source 4: Washington and Christopher Gist Crossing the Allegheny River

This is one artist's interpretation of Washington and Gist crossing the Allegheny River. It is believed to have been painted by 19th-century artist Daniel Huntington.

Source 4: Washington and Christopher Gist Crossing the Allegheny River

What Do You Think? 

Think about the details you read in Washington's Journal. Compare those details with what you see in the painting. How is Washington’s own account different from the painting?

What did you find out?

How did George Washington's experiences in the Ohio River Valley as a young man prepare him to become a leader? Download worksheet

In your activity sheet, explain how Washington's experiences in the Ohio River Valley Prepared him to become a leader. Use details from what you read.

Think about what you have learned. How does this information connect to the Essential Question, How did George Washington's travels help him when he became president?

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Focus Question 2

What did Washington learn about leadership from his travels and challenges during the American Revolution?

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Focus Question 3

What did Washington learn about the country and its people during his tours of the states?

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