By L. Bowman
In December 1753, twenty-one-year-old Major George Washington, on a diplomatic assignment for the Colonial Governor of Virginia, nearly lost his life -- twice -- in the space of three days in what is now western Pennsylvania. In between, the future father of our country camped overnight near Pine Creek, in what is now part of Pittsburgh's northern suburbs, not far from Boom This! headquarters (and certainly within silver dollar tossing range for the Washington of legend).
We learned more about this fascinating story on a trip last fall to Butler County's Old Stone House, which is near Slippery Rock, PA. During that visit, we picked up a short book that tells the tale and is a treat for history buffs: The Journals of George Washington and Christopher Gist: Mission to Fort Le Boeuf, 1753-1754
. (K. Kopper, Jr., Editor) (Second Edition, Friends of the Old Stone House, Slippery Rock University, 2003-2009.)
In December, 1753, Washington delivered a letter from the Governor of the Virginia Colony to the French commander at Ft. LeBoeuf, located at modern day Waterford (Erie County), PA. The letter said, more or less:
Dear French Commander,
Get out of the territory, and take your army with you.
The French commander respectfully declined, so Washington and Christopher Gist, a scout and explorer who also made the trip, started making their way back toward Virginia. Along the way, they had their two brushes with death.
On December 27, 1753, just after passing a place Washington called "Murdering Town", between today's Evans City, PA and Harmony, PA, a "French Indian" (Washington's term, meaning a Native American allied with the French) fired a shot at Washington and Gist. According to Washington, the shooter was "not fifteen steps off, but fortunately missed". They captured the shooter, but later let him go, and double-timed it away from the shooter and his friends.
Two days later, on December 29, after spending a night camped near Pine Creek, a mere silver dollar's throw from the current home of Boom This, Washington and Gist continued along Pine Creek to the Allegheny River.
At a point in modern Pittsburgh where the 40th Street Bridge (a/k/a, not too surprisingly, the Washington Crossing Bridge) spans the Allegheny River, Washington and Gist built a raft and started across the icy river. They didn't make it. Washington ended up off the raft and in the freezing river. He was, in his words, jerked off the raft, "out into ten feet of water; but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the raft logs. Notwithstanding all our efforts, we could not get to either shore, but were obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make to it."
Washington and Gist somehow dried out and warmed up during the night of the 29th-30th (Gist had severe frostbite) and they were able to make their way across the rest of the river on the 30th, because the river had frozen solid overnight.
Had young Major Washington not managed to escape these two near-death experiences, one can only speculate how American history might have been different. Of course, Washington survived and, as the cliche goes, the rest is history.