We trusted 22-year-olds a lot more back in the 1700s than we do now. It’s not because life is more complicated now, because that’s arguable. Back then we (and by we I mean not us but our British colonial overlords) told a young man to take a bunch of men and forge a road where previously there was none and along the way keep them fed and healthy, avoid dying to miscellaneous but numerous possible causes, keep from antagonizing the natives too greatly, and oh yeah, try not to engage in hostilities with a competing and definitely unfriendly colonial overlord (France).
So in 1754, George Washington, a lieutenant colonel already at age 22, set off with his Virginia militia through western Maryland to carve out what became the first federally funded and maintained highway — now U.S. 40. Along the way he encountered a French patrol and ambushed them. Stories differ about the actual events — whether Washington and his men surprised them at dawn and before the enemy even had a chance to pick up their weapons, killed them despite pleas for truce, as the French claim, or whether he tried to surprise them, goofed, and there was an honest confrontation between the two sides that he ended up winning.
Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville was a French Canadian military officer; his defeat and killing at the Battle of Jumonville Glen by forces led by Washington was one of the sparks that ignited the Seven Years’ War. (Accounts vary whether Jumonville was killed during the skirmish or whether he was wounded, subsequently taken prisoner by Washington’s forces, and then summarily executed by one of Washington’s Native American allies.) Regardless, Washington seriously pissed off the French, and he worried, accurately, that the French were hell bent on revenge.
Hence Fort Necessity, at Great Meadows, near Uniontown, PA. “A charming field for an encounter,” is supposedly what Washington said of the marshy, natural meadow surrounded by dense forest. He threw a few logs up, called it a fort, and settled down to await the French attack. The wait wasn’t long — just 30 days, during which time Washington and his men lengthened the new road by some 14 back-breaking miles.
A large French reprisal force attacked Fort Necessity and forced Washington to surrender on 4 July — the only time Washington ever surrendered. Washington and his men left, and the French burned the fort. The present day reconstruction is close proximity to what Washington had built.
What took Washington months to build takes us modern-day history buffs hours to drive — just three, in fact, if you’re coming from the Baltimore-Washington area. You want to go there for the history of the road, as well as the history related to George Washington’s life (he clearly learned some lessons during that time that later served him well) and the history related to the first battle of the French and Indian War.
Getting there: 1 Washington Parkway, Farmington PA 15437
Hours: Park grounds open sunrise to sunset. Visitor center open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed federal holidays.
Dogs: Wecome on the grounds, leashed. Not so much in the visitor’s center.
Eats: Pack a picnic — picnic tables available. About 11 miles from Uniontown, where there are plenty of choices.
Updated May 2018.