Monday, February 20, 2012
Dear French people everywhere,
Hi. I teach fourth grade in a small, country school in West Virginia. As some people know, that is in the western part of Virginia. But, we sort of are our own state. As a fourth grade teacher, part of my job is to teach Social Studies. Now, I realize that the textbook people only put in the books what they want to put in there, so my facts may be a bit off. But, my intentions are swell.
Today is President’s Day. Banks and post offices are closed today. Some schools are closed. I do think my garbage is going to be picked up this morning, but it’s nothing you have to worry about. But, today is the day when we honor George Washington. His birthday is February 22. Well, it is now called Presidents’ Day, originally known as Washington’s Birthday. Someone complained that since Abe Lincoln’s birthday is February 12, that they should be combined for one big hybrid of a birthday party. So, President’s Day falls on the third Monday of February. This year Presidents’ Day falls on February 20, 2012.
Ok, but that is not why I’m writing. I am writing today to the French people of France, Canada, and to the pockets of French people hanging out in New Orleans and any place called Louisville, to thank you for letting us have the opportunity to celebrate Georgie’s birthday. Your ancestors were nice people. Really nice people.
Now, you have to understand that I have to teach the textbook. Sort of. Sure, I let my kids know what a nut case Christopher Columbus was, and how Amerigo Vespucci may have told little white lies about his adventures, but I teach what I know. And I make up the rest.
The French basically came to the Americas for beaver fur. I guess. Maybe. Oh, my goodness, though, how they loved trapping! From what my textbook tells me, their route was mainly down the St. Lawrence River. The British, on the other hand, were swatting mosquitoes further south in Jamestown, years after a whole colony disappeared from Roanoke. The only thing left behind was a carving on a post or tree that simply read, CROA. I personally think they were trying to write, “Croak,” as in they all died. The last colonist, God love him, just didn’t have enough strength to write that final letter. Well, ok, I guess there was a Croatoan tribe nearby, so historians seem to think that is what someone was trying to write. But, you know, if one group disappears from the area, why would you try to go there again? Gluttons for punishment, those British were.
But, the first French explorers made friends with the Native Americans and learned all about hunting, fishing, and this will be important in a little bit, fighting. So, they hung out. Made hats made out of beavers. Meanwhile, the colonists are pushing westward. The Native Americans are pissed because their hunting ground is disappearing and they just really were tired of the colonists sneaking at night, stealing their crops because they didn’t realize that, duh, maybe they should have planted stuff when they arrived. The first colonists to arrive in the new land were not so bright.
To the French, the Ohio Valley was an important link between France’s holdings in Canada and Louisiana. The British saw it as an area for trade and growth. By about 1750, the French had moved to make their claim to the Ohio Valley stronger. They sent soldiers into the region to drive out the British traders. They also began building a line of forts near the eastern end of the valley.
But, both sides decided they wanted the Ohio Valley. The French began building a series of forts in the disputed land. In 1753, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia (the name always makes my students giggle), was pissed. He said this was like an act of war. So, he sent a young Georgie Washington with a letter to the French that they had to leave the area. How dare they build forts in the land that they wanted to eventully steal from the Indians. Washington headed over the Appalachian Mountains, all by his lonesome, and delivered the message.
He knocked on the fort’s door. (I’m making this part up because my textbook doesn’t tell me where he went when he delivered the message. So, you know, I am improvising.)
“Hey, um, yeah, hello…..My name is George Washington. I’m 21 and new to this. I have a message from Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie (the French giggled) Hey, um, you guys are going to have to leave. You can’t build forts in this area.”
“Go home, Georgie,” said the French guy who answered the fort door. “We are not leaving. Go away, you silly boy.”
Well, they could have captured him or killed him, but they let him go. They could have even laughed at him for coming such a long distance with no real back up, only to leave without even as much as a cup of coffee. So, Washington had to sleep somewhere, right? You see all those places that used to say, “Washington slept here.” Well, uh, yeah, because Dinwiddie made him travel so damn much.
Dinwiddie was not happy with the response from the fort building French. He sent a small force of soldiers from Virginia. Their orders were to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio River, where the city of Pittsburgh now stands. Two can play this game, dammit.
Where the hell is the fort?
The Virginians had barely finished the fort when the French attacked it. The French drove off the Virginians and built a larger fort on that site. They called it Fort Duquesne, after some French guy named Duquesne. The French didn’t care for the Colonial look, evidently, and wanted a more Woodsy look to their fort. Unaware of the French attack, Dinwiddie sent young George once again to the Forks of the Ohio River to reinforce the Virginian’s fort. So, Washington didn’t know this, because his internet was getting spotty reception. He was all set to get to the fort with supplies, ready to make the fort pretty and maybe hang some curtains. Can you imagine if he actually got to the fort, and wondered why the key didn’t open the door? Or something like that.
So, Washington left Williamsburg with an army of 150 Virginians. On their way to the fort, the Virginians surprised a small group of French soldiers on patrol. Thinking “we might be attacked by considerable forces,” Washington later wrote, they built a makeshift fort that they called Fort Necessity. Because, well, it was necessary. Within days a large force of more than 600 French soldiers and 100 indian allies attacked Fort Necessity. Washington and his men surrendered in what turned out to be the opening battle of the French and Indian War. And guess what? The French let Washington and his soldiers return to Virginia.
“Go home, Georgie.” they said in a thick, French accent. (Ok, I’m taking liberties with the facts once again.) “Haven’t you learned your lesson, little boy? We are the French, and you are……not.”
Now, that makes two times that the French let George Washington go. They could have killed him. But, they didn’t. The next thing you know, Washington is fighting alongside Braddock. The French and Indian War. I don’t know why they called it this, because the French did not fight the Indians.
In April of 1755, General Edward Braddock was ordered to capture Fort Duquense. Oh, God, here we go again. He and more than 1,800 british and colonial soldiers began the long trip to the fort. He invited George along as an advisor. I mean, why wouldn’t he? George knew the route blind folded by now. Well, they made it as far as nearby Fort Necessity, when they met up with a force of about 900 French and Indian soldiers. Those damn French and Indians fired upon them from trees and boulders. What the hell? The British were used to open field fighting, so this threw them for a loop. They had never fought an enemy this way before. They “broke and ran,” Washington later wrote, “as sheep before the hounds.” We call that AWOL nowadays. When the battle ended, two thirds of the British were dead or wonded. Braddock was killed.
I should mention that the British should have caught on fairly quickly that bright red uniforms and a drummer making a racket would maybe give the French the heads-up that they were coming. Just sayin. Quit the damn rat-a-tat-tat, for God’s sake. You need to be quiet, stupid Red-coats.
It doesn’t say what happened to Washington after this battle, but he somehow managed to limp home. Was this guy lucky, or what? Some historians mention that Washington was standing close to Braddock when he was killed. It was just wasn’t a good day for Eddie Braddock.
So, French people, your ancestors could have easily killed Washington at least three times. But, they didn’t. If they had, we wouldn’t have the cool quote about Washington choppping down the cherry tree. Denzil would not have a last name. We wouldn’t have Mount Vernon. Washington DC may very well be called DC or Columbia District. Thousands of streets would go nameless. Washington, Pennsylvania, would be called Braddock or Necessity, or something totally different. There would never have been a crossing of the Delaware. Hell, maybe we would never be a nation because his army would not have been there. This is like It’s A Wonderful Life, starring George Washington as George Bailey.
So, yeah, thank you, French people, for letting me teach about Georgie Washington, father of our country.
This period of history is my favorite time period to teach. And I have my fourth graders write pretend thank you cards to the French every year after we study this.
If you give me an address maybe we will mail them for real.
V. Mendenhall, fourth grade Social Studies teacher and occasional smart ass