|A Year of Colonial American Frontier History|
George Washington’s most famous river crossing was during the Revolutionary War as he crossed the Delaware River as he maneuvered his troops in the hours before his victory at Trenton, New Jersey. His first river crossing in a hastily built raft took place almost twenty-three years before while on his first important diplomatic mission to the French prior to the French and Indian War.
Bitter Cold Weather
George Washington's party of seven had completed their journey to Fort Le Boeuf on the banks of Le Boeuf Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania. By December 13, the French commander had given a letter to Washington in reply to the Virginia governor's request that French forces leave the Ohio River Valley. He had denied the request. Washington was anxious to get the negative news back to the governor and had departed immediately. The weather turned cold, snowy and windy. Heavy snow and bitter cold impeded their progress. The horses, tired and overburdened with supplies, made slow progress in the snow. His exhausted men, frostbitten and weary, could scarcely walk. On December 25, Washington decided to go ahead with his bad news, leaving five men of the expedition to return with the horses and supplies as the weather allowed. He chose his guide, Christopher Gist, as his companion for the journey. The two traveled by night to avoid detection by the natives. They were detected once and a native fired on them, narrowly missing Washington.
The men arrived at the Allegheny River near the site of present day Pittsburg on December 28 after a forty-mile walk in the snow and cold. Washington could only have felt dismay when he saw the river. He had expected that the cold weather would have frozen it, allowing him and Gist to cross over the ice. However, it was not frozen. The swollen current carried huge chunks of ice with it as it swept by the nearly frozen men. Determined to cross, the men spent December 29 building a raft. The only tool the men had was a hatchet. With this, they cut logs and vines, fashioning their raft. By night, they had finished. In the darkness, they pushed the raft into the frigid water and started across the treacherous waters. By the time they reached midstream, the raft became jammed in ice flows. Washington wrote later in his journal:
"Before we were half way over, we were jammed in the ice in such a manner that we expected every minute to perish. I put out my setting pole to stop the raft, and the rapidity of the stream jerked me out into 10 feet of water, but I saved myself by catching hold of one of the raft logs. With all our efforts, we could not get to either shore, but I was obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make it."
The two men spent a wet, cold night on that island. By morning the river had frozen. Gist and Washington walked across the frozen surface.
Washington Crossing Bridge
The island Washington and Gist spent the night on has long since disappeared. It lay between current 38th and 40th Streets in Philadelphia. The Washington Crossing Bridge on 40th Street, built in 1924, is named in honor of the men's feat.
A Year of Colonial American Frontier History
© Paul Wonning 2016