Erie County

Erie County, Pennsylvania

History of Erie County, Pennsylvania 1884

by Samuel P. Bates, 

Submitted by Gaylene Kerr Banister


Chapter VII - The French and English

The French were the first white men who made explorations in the lake region. As early as 1611-12, Sieur de Champlain ascended the chain of lakes as far as Lake Huron. At a period extending from 1620 to 1640, the Indians were visited by numerous French Catholic priests, among whom were the celebrated Joliet and Marquette, on the double mission of spreading the Gospel and promoting the interests of their king and nation. In 1679, La Salle launched the schooner Griffin in Niagara River, and sailed with a picked body of men to Green Bay, in Lake Michigan, as will be found more fully detailed in the chapter on lake navigation. A french post was established at Machinaw in 1684, and a fort and navy on Lake Erie were proposed by M. de Denonville in 1685, but the idea was not carried into effect. The dominion of the country was not wholly given over to the French until 1753. They did a large trade with the Indians by exchanging beads, goods, provisions, guns and ammunition for furs, which were shipped across the ocean and sold at an immense profit. Although their possession was undisturbed, it must not be inferred that it was quietly acquiesced in by the English. The French claimed that their discovery of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi entitled them to the ownership of the territory bordering upon those streams and their tributaries. The English claim was based upon a grant by King James I, in 1606, to "divers of his subjects, of all the countries between north latitude 48 and 34, and westward from the Atlantic Ocean to the South Sea," and also upon purchases of Western lands made from the Six Nations by Commissioners from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, representing the mother country. A long and sometimes acrimonious controversy was waged between the foreign departments of the two nations over the question, and the leading officers in America, on both sides, looked upon it as certain to eventually result in war.

The First Soldiers
Previous to 1749, the French had done nothing of an official nature looking to the occupation of the country between Lake Erie and the Ohio. Their discoverers had taken possession of it long before in the name of the King, and from that time it had been a sort of common tramping ground for adventurous traders of both nations, without being directly subject to the control of either. In the year named, Capt. Celeron, with a detachment of 300 men, was sent by the Captain General of Canada to "renew the French possession" of the Ohio and its tributaries. He came up Lake Erie to the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, from which point he crossed over to the Allegheny, by way of Chautauqua Lake and the Conewango. Descending the Allegheny and the Ohio as far as the mouth of the Muskingum, he deposited leaden plates at the mouths of some of the most important streams, as a "monument of renewal of possession," and as a mark for the guidance of those who might follow him. One of these plates, buried at the confluence of French Creek with the Allegheny, was found afterward. The expedition caused much alarm among the Indians, who regarded it as the beginning of a scheme to "steal their country," and also created much commotion throughout the English colonies, whose officials saw in it a purpose to maintain by force what the French had before contented themselves with claiming in argument. An extensive correspondence ensued between the Governors of the several colonies, stirring letters were forwarded to the home Government, and the movement was universally regarded as the precursor of a long and sanguinary war. Among other plans proposed on the English side, Gov. Shirley of Massachusetts suggested the building of one or two war vessels each on Lakes Erie and Ontario, for the purpose of keeping the French in check.

In 1751, an expedition of French and Indians was organized in Canada to proceed to the "Beautiful" or Ohio River, and in May of that year a part of the force was reported to have passed Oswego in thirty canoes. For some reason the venture was abandoned, but warlike threats and preparations continued for two years.

Army of Occupation
Finally, in the spring of 1753, the long threatened occupation began. Quite a full account of the expedition is given in a letter preserved among the Pennsylvania Archives, from M. DuQuesne, General-in-chief at Montreal, to the French minister at Paris. It was in charge of three young officers -- Sieur Marin, commander, and Maj. Pean and the Chevalier Mercier, assistants -- and consisted of 250 men. The little army marched up Lake Erie by land and ice to Presque Isle, where it was decided to build a fort and establish a base of supplies. The reasons which prompted the selection of Presque Isle were the short portage to Lake Le Boeuf and the facility with which canoes could be floated down French Creek from the latter to the Allegheny. M. DuQuesne's letter describes the bay of Presque Isle as "a harbor which the largest vessels can enter loaded, and be in perfect safety. It is," says he, "the finest spot in nature, a bark could safely enter -- it would be as it were in a box." On the 3d of August the fort at Presque Isle was finished, the portage road, six leagues long, was "ready for carriages," the storehouse, half way across, was in a condition to receive stock, and the fort at LeBoeuf was nearly completed. No serious trouble was apprehended from the Indians, who were willingly assisting in the transportation of the stores.

From the same and other authorities we learn that it was the original purpose to establish the base of supplies at the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, but that when Marin reached there he did not like the position. He accordingly ordered Mercier, who was the engineer of the expedition, to proceed to Presque Isle and report upon its merits. The latter was gone three days, and gave such a glowing account of the advantages of the location that the army was immediately ordered forward. Among the members of the expedition was one Stephen Coffin, an Englishman, who had been taken prisoner by the French and Indians in 1747, and carried to Canada. When the expedition left Quebec he enlisted in it, and accompanied his command to Presque Isle. After a military experience of less than a year he deserted to the English, and on the 10th of January, 1754, made a deposition in which he alleges that the army reached Presque Isle over 800 strong, a statement that does not correspond with the report of DuQuesne. The following is an abstract of his story:

Coffin's Statement

When they arrived at Presque Isle, work was almost immediately commenced on the fort. It was of chestnut logs, squared, and lapped over each other to the height of fifteen feet, about 120 feet on the sides, with a log house in each corner, and had gates in the north and south sides. When the fort was finished, they began cutting a wagon road to LeBoeuf, where they commenced getting out boards and timber for another fort. Presque Isle was left in command of Capt. Deponteney, while Marin, with the rest of the troops, encamped at LeBoeuf. From the latter point a detachment of fifty men was sent to the mouth of French Creek, but finding the Indians hostile to the erection of a fort, it returned, capturing two English traders on the way, who were sent to Canada in irons. A few days later, 100 Indians "called by the French Loos," visited LeBoeuf and arranged to carry some stores to the Allegheny, which they never delivered, greatly to the disappointment of the French. This and other causes, including the failure to build the third fort at the mouth of French Creek, disheartened Marin, who feared that he might forfeit the favor of the Governor General in consequence. He had been sick for some time, and had to be moved about in a carriage. Rather than return to Canada in disgrace, he begged his officers to seat him in the center of the fort, set it on fire, and let him perish in the flames, which they of course, refused to do. Marin, according to the deponent, was of a peevish and disagreeable disposition, and extremely unpopular among his brother officers. Lake in the fall, Chevalier Le Crake arrived at Presque Isle in a birch canoe worked by ten men, bearing, among other things, a cross of St. Louis for Marin, which the other officer would not allow him to take until the Governor General had been acquainted with his conduct. Near the close of October, all but 300 men to garrison the fort, were ordered back to Canada. The first detachment went down the lake in twenty-two batteaux, each containing twenty men, and were followed in a few days by the balance -- 700 in number. A halt was made at the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, where, with 200 men, a road was cut in four days to Lake Chautauqua, in the expectation that it might be a more feasible route to the Allegheny than the one by LeBoeuf. Reaching Niagara, fifty men were left there to build batteaux for the army in the spring, and to erect a building for storing provisions. Coffin places the total number of men who reach Presque Isle during the year at 1,500.

Washington's Visit
Marin died at Le Boeuf soon after the main body of the troops departed, leaving the forts at Presque Isle and Le Boeuf respectively in charge of Capt. Riparti and Commander St. Pierre. The latter was visited during the winter by a gentleman who afterward rose to the first place in American love and history. This was no less a personage than George Washington, then in his twenty-first year, who was accompanied by Christopher Gist, an experienced white frontiersman, and one Indian interpreter. They reached Le Boeuf on the 11th of December and remained till the 16th, during which time Capt. Riparti was called over from Presque Isle to confer with Washington and St. Pierre. Washington's treatment, though formal, was courteous and kind, and he has left on record in his journal a warm compliment to the gentlemanly character of the French officers. The object and result of Washington's mission are given in the following letters, the first being the one he was charged with delivering to the Commander-in-chief of the French forces by Gov. Dinwiddie, of Virginia, and the second the reply of St. Pierre:

October 31, 1753
Sir: The lands upon the River Ohio, in the western part of the colony of Virginia, are so notoriously known to be the property of the crown of Great Britain that it is a matter of equal concern and surprise to me to hear that a body of French forces are erecting fortresses and making settlements upon that river within His Majesty's dominions. The many and repeated complaints I have received of these acts of hostility lay me under the necessity of sending in the name of the King, my master, the bearer hereof, George Washington, Esq., one of the Adjutants General of the forces of this dominion, to complain to you of the encroachments thus made, and of the injuries done to the subjects of Great Britain, in violation of the law of nations and the treaties subsisting between the two crowns. If these facts are true and you think fit to justify your proceedings, I must desire you to acquaint me by whose authority and instructions you have lately marched from Canada with an armed force and invaded the King of Great Britain's territory, in the manner complained of; that, according to the purport and resolution of your answer, I may act agreeably to the commission I am honored with from the King, my master. However, sir, in obedience to my instructions, it becomes my duty to require your peaceable departure; and that you would forbear prosecuting a purpose so interruptive of the harmony and good understanding which His Majesty is desirous to continue and cultivate with the most Christian King, etc.

Robert Dinwiddie.

From the Fort on the River au Boeuf
December 15, 1753
Sir: As I have the honor of commanding here as chief, Mr. Washing delivered to me the letter which you wrote to the commander of the French troops. I should have been glad that you had given him orders, or that he had been inclined to proceed to Canada to see our General, to whom it better belongs than to me to set forth the evidence and the reality of the rights of the King, my master, to the lands situate along the River Ohio, and to contest the pretensions of the King of Great Britain thereto. I shall transmit your letter to the Marquis Du Quesne. His answer will be a law to me. And if he shall order me to communicate it to you, sir, you may be assured I shall not fail to dispatch it forthwith to you. As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it. Whatever may be your intentions, I am here by virtue of the orders of my General, and I entreat you, sir, not to doubt one moment but that I am determined to conform myself to them with all the exactness and resolution which can be expected from the best officer. I do not know that in the progress of this campaign anything has passed which can be reputed an act of hostility, or that is contrary to the treaties which subsist between the two crowns; the continuance whereof interests and pleases us as much as it does the English. Had you been pleased, sir, to descend to particularize the facts which occasioned your complaint, I should have had the honor of answering you in the fullest, and, I am persuaded, the most satisfactory manner, etc.

Legardeur de Sr. Pierre

Washington did not extend his journey to Presque Isle, feeling, perhaps, that duty compelled him to report the French answer as speedily as could be done. Both sides were busily engaged during the winter in preparing for the war which was now inevitable. The French plan was to establish a chain of fortifications from Quebec along Lake Ontario and Erie and the water of French Creek and the Allegheny to the junction of the last-named stream with the Monongahela, where Pittsburgh now stands, and from there along the Ohio and Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico. Of these, we have already described the progress at Presque Isle and Le Boeuf. The forts at Niagara, the mouth of French Creek and the head of the Ohio were constructed early in 1754. The one at the junction of French Creek and the Allegheny was known as Fort Machault or Venango, and the one at Pittsburgh as Fort DuQuesne. Provisions and ammunition were sent from Quebec to Presque Isle, and from there distributed to the lower forts.

Progress of the French
As soon as the weather would permit in the spring of 1754, troops were moved by both sides in the direction of the Ohio. The first French detachment to reach Pittsburgh, then known as the "Forks of the Ohio," was on the 17th of April. It was commanded by Contreceur, and consisted of 1,000 French and Indians, with eighteen cannon. Their voyage from Le Boeuf down French Creek and the Allegheny was made in sixty batteaux and 300 canoes. The English had put up a stockade at the Forks, during the winter, which was unfinished and guarded only by an ensign and forty-one men. This small body, seeing the hopelessness of defense, immediately surrendered. On the 3d or 4th of July, 500 English capitulated to the French at Fort Necessity, in Fayette County, after an engagement of about ten hours. The French seem to have been uniformly successful in the campaign of 1754. Deserters from their ranks reported that the number of French and Indians in the country during the year was about 2,000, of whom five or six hundred had become unfit for duty.

The records of the campaign show that Presque Isle was regarded by both the French and English as a post of much importance. DuQuesne, in a letter from Quebec of July 6, 1755, says: "The fort at Presque Isle serves as a depot for all others on the Ohio. * * The effects are put on board pirogues at Fort Le Boeuf. * * At the latter fort the prairies, which are extensive, furnish only bad hay, but it is easy to get rid of it. * * At Presque Isle the hay is very abundant and good. The quantity of pirogues constructed on the River AuBoeuf has exhausted all the large trees in the neighborhood." It was on the 9th of July, 1755, that Braddock's defeat took place near Pittsburgh, an event which raised the French hopes to a pitch of the utmost exultation, and seemed for the time to destroy all prospect of English ascendancy in the West. From 2,000 to 3,000 French and Indians are supposed to have passed through Presque Isla during the season.

French Village at Presque Isle
An official letter dated at Montreal, August 8, 1756, says: "The domiciliated Mississaugues of Presque Isle have been out to the number of ten against the English. They have taken one prisoner and two scalps, and gave them to cover the loss of M. de St. Pierre." This officer had been ordered East in the winter of 1753, and was killed in battle near Lake George the ensuing summer. The same letter reports the small-pox as having prevailed at Presque Isle. A prisoner who escaped from the Indians during this year described Fort Le Boeuf as "garrisoned with 150 men, and a few straggling Indians. Presque Isle is built of square logs filled up with earth; the barracks are within the fort, and garrisoned with 150 men, supported chiefly from a French settlement begun near it. The settlement consists of about one hundred families. The Indian families about the settlement are pretty numerous; they have a priest and schoolmaster, and some grist mills and stills in the settlement." The village here referred to was on the east bank of Mill Creek, a little back from the lake, almost on a line with Parade street.

Events in 1757 and 1758
No events of importance occurred in this section in 1757. The only chronicle we find relates that some of the Indian warriors aiding the French sent their families to the neighborhood of Presque Isle for the purpose of planting corn. A captured French ensign reported in his examination on the 20th of June that 100 men were in garrison at Presque Isle, and that apprehensions were felt by them of an attack by the English and Indians. The transportation from Canada for the troops was mainly by canoes, which were obliged to keep close to the north shore of the lake. Fort LeBoeuf was in charge of an ensign of foot. There were from 800 to 900, and sometimes 1,000 men between the forts, 150 of whom were regulars and the rest Canadian Indians, who worked at the forts and built boats. There were no settlements nor improvements near the forts, which would indicate that the village at Presque Isle had been abandoned. The French planted corn about them for the Indians, whose wives and children came to the forts for it, and were also furnished with clothing at the King's expense. Traders resided in the forts who bought peltries of them. Several homes were outside the forts, but people did not care to occupy them for fear of being scalped. One of the French batteaux usually carried sixty bags of flour and three or four men; when unloaded they would carry twelve men.

A journal written in November, 1758, gives this description of the two forts, on the authority of an Indian who had just come in: "Presque Isle has been a strong stockaded fort, but is so much out of repair that a strong man might pull up any log out of the earth. There are two officers and thirty-five men in garrison there, and not above ten Indians, which they keep constantly hunting for the support of the garrison. The fort on LeBoeuf River is in much the same condition, with an officer and thirty men, and a few hunting Indians, who said they would leave there in a few days."

The English Gaining
During the year 1758, the English made sufficient progress in the direction of the Ohio to compel the French to evacuate Fort DuQuesne on the 22d of November, their artillery being sent down the river, and the larger part of the garrison retiring up the Allegheny. A letter dated Montreal, March 30, 1759, announces that the French troops at Detroit had been ordered to rendezvous at Presque Isle, in order to be ready to aid Fort Machault if necessary, the commander at the latter being required, if too hard pressed, to fall back on Le Boeuf. The Indians, by this time, had lost confidence in the triumph of the French, and many were either siding with the English or pretending to be neutral. One of them, employed by the English as a spy at the lakes, reached Pittsburgh during March, and gave some additional particulars of the fort at Presque Isle. "It is," he said, "square with four bastions. * * The wall is only of single logs, with no bank within -- a ditch without. * * * The magazine is a stone house covered with shingles, and not sunk in the ground, standing in the right bastion, next the lake. * * The other houses are of square logs." Fort Le Boeuf he described as of "the same plan, but very small -- the logs mostly rotten. Platforms are erected in the bastions, and loopholes properly cut; one gun is mounted in a bastion, and looks down the river. It has only one gate, and that faces the side opposite the creek. The magazine is on the right of the gate, going in, partly sunk in the ground, and above are some casks of powder to serve the Indians. Here are two officers, a storekeeper, clerk, priest, and 150 soldiers, who have no employment. * * * The road from Venango to LeBoeuf is well trodden; from there to Presque Isle is very low and swampy, and bridged most of the way."

Evacuation of the French
The tide of battle continued to favor the English, and they finally besieged Fort Niagara below Buffalo, compelling the French to withdraw 1,200 men from Detroit, Presque Isle and Venango for its defense. Its capture by the English astonished and terrified the French in this section. A messenger reached Presque Isle from Sir William Johnson, the victorious English commander, notifying the officer in charge that the other posts must surrender in a few days. The French knew that their force was too small to copy with the enemy, and began making hasty preparations for departure. Their principal stores at Presque Isle were sent up the lake August 13, 1759, and the garrison waited a brief time for their comrades at Le Boeuf and Venango when the entire army left in batteaux for Detroit. An Indian, who arrived at DuQuesne soon after, reported that they had burned all of the forts, but this is questioned by some of the authorities. Upon taking their departure, they told the aborigines that they had been driven away by superior numbers, but would return in sufficient force to hold the country permanently.

English Dominion

The English did not take formal possession of Forts Presque Isle and Le Boeuf until 1760, when Maj.Rogers was sent out for that purpose. Hostilities between the two nations continued, but the bloody wave of war did not reach Western Pennsylvania. A treaty of peace was signed at Paris in 1763, by which the French ceded Canada and confirmed the Western country to the British Crown. The Indians did not take kindly to the British. They were hopeful of the return of the French, and meditated the driving of the victorious rivals out of the country. In June, 1763, the great Indian uprising known as "Pontiac's Conspiracy" occurred, which resulted in the destruction of all but four of the frontier posts. Fort Le Boeuf fell on the 18th and Fort Presque Isle on the 22d of that month, as will be found more fully described in the chapter devoted to the Indians. Col. Bradstreet, with a small army, arrived at Presque Isle on the 12th of August, 1764, and met a band of Shawnees and Delawares, who agreed to articles of peace and friendship. From there he marched to Detroit, where another treaty was made with the Northwestern Indians. These proceedings seem to have been entered into by the savages merely as a deception, for in a short time they renewed hostilities. Another expedition, under Col. Boquet, was fitted out, and punished the troublesome tribes so severely that they were glad to accept the conditions offered them.

The independence of the United States was acknowledged by Great Britain in 1783. By the treaty of peace the mother country abandoned all pretensions to the western region. Her officers in Canada, however, still retained a hope of the ultimate return of the colonies to the protection of the British Crown. The English had, by this date, won the confidence of the Indians, who were kept hostile to the Americans by representations that Great Britain would yet resume possession of the country. As late as 1785, Mr. Adams, our minister at London, complained to the English Secretary of State, that though two years had elapsed since the definitive treaty, the forts of Presque Isle, Niagara, and elsewhere on the Northern frontier were still held by British garrisons. The actual American occupation dates from 1795.

The French and English Forts

Little remains to be added to the various statements above, descriptive of the French forts. Fort Presque Isle stood on the bluff overlooking the mouth of Mill Creek, on the western side, about 350 feet back from the shore of the bay. The British put it in repair and occupied it till after our independence was acknowledged, by which time it had almost gone to ruin. Its site was easily traceable as late as 1863, by mounds and depressions on the bank of the lake near the mouth of the creek.

The fort at LeBoeuf stood within the present limits of Waterford Borough, on the brow of the hill above LeBoeuf Creek, nearly in line with the iron bridge across that stream. A ravine, which has since been partially filled up, extended along its north side, down which flowed a rivulet, leading Washington to describe the fort as standing on "a kind of an island." Practically the same site was successively occupied by the English and Americans.

The French Road
The French road commenced at the mouth of Mill Creek, where a warehouse stood, extended up that stream a short distance, and then struck off to the higher land, nearly following the line of Parade street, on its west side, through the city limits of Erie. A branch road led from the south gate of the fort, and connected with the main road in the hollow of Mill Creek. From the southern end of Parade street the latter ran across Mill Creek Township to the present Waterford plank road. The road that begins in Marvintown opposite the old Seib stand, and terminates at the farm of Judge Souther, is almost identical with the French thoroughfare. Leaving the Waterford plank, the French road took across the hills into Summit Township, which it crossed entirely, entering Waterford Township on the Charles Skinner place, and terminating at the gate of Fort LeBoeuf, about where Judson's Hotel stands. The route known as the French road in Summit is understood to be exactly on the line of its historical original. The road was laid out thirty feet wide, and was "corduroyed" throughout most of its length. It was easily traced when the first American settlers came in, was partially adopted by them, and portions of it, as above stated, are in use to this day.

Bibliography: Samuel P. Bates, History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, (Warner, Beers & Co.: Chicago, 1884), Part II, Chapter VII, pp. 185-194.


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