British Forces Occupy Ft. Duquesne, Burned and Abandoned by the French

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British Forces Occupy Ft. Duquesne, Burned and Abandoned by the French

"Taking Possession of Fort Du Quesne" by Alfred Waud (date unknown)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 25, 1758

Today's trip into history involves the colonial rivalry between France and Great Britain in the 1750's. For me, this is local history that every western Pennsylvania school child learned. Now most Americans are lucky to have even heard of Fort Duquesne.


Throughout the early eighteenth century, France and Great Britain sought to exert their influence in the heartland of North America, politically and economically. The French claimed all the lands that were watered by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. However, most British colonies lining the Atlantic seaboard of North America claimed extensive lands into the continent's interior, especially the heavily forested, hilly lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Virginia was particularly active in attempts to claim lands rich in furs and timber, despite the various Native American tribes which inhabited these areas, as well as the French militia and administrators who lived there. During the 1740s and early 1750s, Virginia-based entrepreneurs sought to expand trading markets west of the Appalachians.

In late 1753, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent young George Washington on a diplomatic/reconnaissance mission into (what would become) western Pennsylvania. Washington carried a letter from Dinwiddie, asking the French to leave the area, as it was rightfully the property of the British Crown. The young Virginian presented his letter from Dinwiddie to the local French administrator at Fort Le Boeuf (modern-day Waterford, PA). Though the Frenchman treated Washington respectfully, he politely turned down the letter's demand.

On his journey north along the Allegheny River to Fort Le Boeuf, Washington noted a perfect spot for a military outpost, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, an area known as the "Forks of the Ohio." After returning to Virginia and giving his report of his activities to Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor authorized an expedition to take over the Forks of the Ohio and build a fortification to command this strategic crossroad.

A small contingent of Virginia militiamen was sent to accomplish this mission. They began building a small wooden stockade which was dubbed Fort Prince George – in honor of British Crown Prince George, who would become King George III – but was unfinished when 1000 French and Indians appeared on April 18, 1754 to bloodlessly capture the structure. Once the Virginians were driven out, the French pulled down the unfinished fort and began building a military structure of their own. It was named Fort Duquesne, for the Marquis Duquesne, the governor-general of Quebec.

Model of Fort Duquesne (1754-1758); photograph by Sébastian Paquin (Allegheny River on left, Monongahela River on right)
Model of Fort Duquesne (1754-1758); photograph by Sébastian Paquin
(Allegheny River on left, Monongahela River on right)

The Braddock Expedition

Within a year of its construction, Fort Duquesne became a primary target of British military strategy in North America. In 1755 a large British expedition was launched to capture the French fortification; it was led by Major General Edward Braddock. His expedition, initially hampered by lack of supplies and administrative screw-ups, set off through the forests of what is now Virginia, western Maryland, and western Pennsylvania. On July 9, 1755 Braddock's force was marching along the Monongahela River when it was attacked by a force of French colonial soldiers and Indians. The expedition suffered severe casualties, and Braddock was himself mortally wounded. During the retreat back to Virginia, Braddock died. He was buried in the wagon road, so no trace of his body could be found by the Indians and scalped or otherwise desecrated.

During the course of its existence, Fort Duquesne also functioned as the center for Indian raids upon British settlers who were brave enough to attempt to settle in the area claimed by both the French and the English.

Despite the French coup of occupying and fortifying the Forks of the Ohio before the British, they soon realized that the site of the fortification was not all it was cracked up to be. The Forks was a low-lying, swampy area prone to flooding. In addition, to the south of the Forks stood a high hill (today known as Mount Washington) which loomed over the area. It was a perfect spot for an enemy to place cannon to bombard the French fort.

The Forbes Expedition

Finally, in 1758 a second major expedition was organized to take out Fort Duquesne. This force was commanded by Brigadier General James Forbes, and totaled between 6000 and 8000 men, including British, Scottish, and American troops. It started off from Carlisle, PA and journeyed west across the Allegheny Mountains, with the troops cutting trees and building a road the whole way. [This road was dubbed "Forbes Road" and later served as an important route of America's western expansion.]

Gen. Forbes, unlike Braddock three years previously, listened to advice given to him by colonial military leaders, including a young Virginia colonel named George Washington. Forbes ordered the construction of fortifications along the road, including Fort Ligonier (in present-day Ligonier, PA) and Fort Bedford (Bedford, PA). Washington objected strongly to the proposed route of the expedition, stating in several letters it was doomed to failure.

In early September of 1758, Gen. Forbes received intelligence that Ft. Duquesne's garrison was depleted. He authorized a reconnaissance-in-force to scout the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the force's commander, Major James Grant, overstepped his orders and tried to capture the fort. His plan went badly awry, as about 300 men were killed or captured. The survivors retreated to Ft. Ligonier, and reported the incident. Forbes decided to wait until the spring to take the French fort.

Braddock's and Forbes' roads, 1755-1758
Braddock's and Forbes' roads, 1755-1758

However, British diplomacy with the Ohio Indians provided Forbes with a welcome opportunity. In the fall of 1758, the Ohio Indians – who were tributary to the Iroquois – agreed to stop supporting the French. With the loss of these important allies, the French realized they were in an untenable position at Ft. Duquesne. In addition, the British captured Ft Niagara, another important military post. In mid- to late-November, the commandant of Ft Duquesne was ordered to abandon his fortification.

Getting wind of this, Gen. Forbes ordered his men to march on the Forks of the Ohio with all speed. He divided his force into three columns; the forward column was commanded by George Washington and consisted mainly of Virginia militiamen.

On November 24, Ft. Duquesne was empty of soldiers and salvageable materiél, so the commander ordered the fort set afire. Military stores that were unmovable were also put to the torch, which resulted in an extraordinarily loud explosion, which was heard by British scouts. [By this time, the Forbes Expedition was only about 10 miles away from their target.] Gen. Forbes urged his men to greater speed.

The next day, Washington's force broke through the forest and saw the smoldering ruins of Ft. Duquesne. The remainder of the expedition arrived later, and Gen. Forbes was present late in the day when the British flag was raised over the ruins of Ft. Duquesne.


Gen. Forbes had been very ill throughout the march west, and had to be carried in a litter most of the way. In a letter to the Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Pitt, the general opened the letter by stating he was writing from "Pittsborough" (later simply Pittsburgh). Only 9 days later, Forbes began the trip back to Philadelphia, where he survived for another 3 ½ months before dying of what one contemporary described as a "wasting disease" and that he "…looked like an old woman of eighty." He was 51 years of age when he died March 4, 1759.

Footnote #1: General Forbes is remembered in the city he essentially founded, with a Forbes Avenue, and – though no longer in existence – Forbes Field, which hosted Pittsburgh Pirates baseball, Steelers Steelers football until 1970, and University of Pittsburgh Panther football. The area where Forbes Field originally stood is now the property of the University of Pittsburg.

Footnote #2: To replace the razed Ft. Duquesne, the British built a new fort to guard the Forks of the Ohio. It was completed in 1761 and named Fort Pitt. It withstood a siege by Indians in 1763 as part of Pontiac's Conspiracy. Shortly afterward, a number of blockhouses were built outside the fort to reinforce its defenses. One of those blockhouses, over 250 years old, still stands in downtown Pittsburgh.

Footnote #3: Today at the "Point" of downtown Pittsburgh, a brick outline indicates where Ft. Duquesne was located.

Brick outline of walls of Ft. Duquesne, Point State Park, Pittsburgh PA; Photograph taken by Kevin Myers [The small, dark brown building in the background is the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, mentioned above]
Brick outline of walls of Ft. Duquesne, Point State Park, Pittsburgh PA
Photograph taken by Kevin Myers [The small, dark brown building in the background
Is the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, mentioned above]

Footnote #4: In the late 1960s, the city of Pittsburgh excavated the site of Ft. Pitt, which had been BRACed by the federal government in 1797. Two of the five bastions of the fort were recreated, and Fort Pitt Museum was located inside. In late 2009, a state budget crisis forced the temporary closure of the museum. In April of 2010, the Pittsburgh-based Senator John Heinz Regional History Center took over the administration of the museum.

Reconstructed bastion of Fort Pitt, Point State Park, Pittsburgh PA; Photograph taken by Kevin Myers
Reconstructed bastion of Fort Pitt, Point State Park, Pittsburgh PA
Photograph taken by Kevin Myers

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