User:Russell D. Jones/Céloron's expedition
During King George's War, acting Governor-General of New France the Marquis de La Galissonière grew wary of the growing independence of the Indians living between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. While the Indians living in these villages were mostly from nations having pledge loyalty to New France and which were part of the French-Indian alliance, they had scorned the alliance. Most were trading with the British in Pennsylvania or New York and developed alliances with the Iroquois. De La Galissonière was part of a group of New France administrators who had come to believe that the best way to command the loyalty of the Indians was to follow a policy of intimidation, coercion, and force.
Also during King George's War, there had been a spate of murders of French traders among Indian villages. De La Galissonière demanded that the Indians hand over the murderers to New France officials in Montreal for punishment. Traditionally, the role of the New France governor was to mediate disputes and resolve the murders by pardoning and forgiving the culprits. De La Galissonière instead sought to punish (rather than forgive) the murderers. It was a policy that further alienated the Indians of the Ohio Valley from the French.
Because of these issues, the Indians of the Ohio River Valley began seeking trade and protection from the British. Foremost among the British who opened trade with these Indians was George Croghan. French policy, therefore, wanted to force the British traders out of territory claimed by New France and force the British-leaning Indian villages back into the French alliance by either moving those Indians back into villages in Michigan, especially to villages around Detroit, or dispersing them. To accomplish these aims, de La Galissonière sent Captain Pierre-Joseph Céloron with a force of 200 soldiers and 30 Alliance Indians. He was entrusted with ceremonial lead plates that he was to bury to mark the border between Pennsylvania and New France's Ohio territory. The expedition was intended to be a demonstration of French might that would restore French authority over the region and peoples of the Ohio Valley. It was a complete disaster.
The failure of the expedition began even before Céloron left Montreal. William Johnson had been sending word to the Detroit area villages warning them about French intentions. When they refused to join Céloron's expedition, they gave strength to defiance of the French.
The expedition left Montreal in June 1749 and traveled along the St. Lawrence River and around Lake Ontario on the north. The expedition crossed into New York at Niagara and proceeded along the southern Shore of Lake Erie to Barcelona Harbor where the Chautauqua Creek empties into Lake Erie. From there, Céloron marched southwards to the Allegheny River, taking that to the confluence of the Ohio. Along this path between Lake Erie and the forks, Céloron planted his lead plates claiming the territory for France.
The further that Céloron advanced into the Ohio country, the more conscious he became of the fragility of his position. While he had a fighting force of some 230 men, some of the village groups he approached could field up to eight hundred. Any show of military aggression could have been quickly met. Thus, Céloron increasingly turned to conciliation and negotiation as his preferred tactics. He also could not very well keep the British traders out of the village once he moved on. While he dutifully demanded that they quit the place, he knew that the traders would be back. From the forks, Céloron followed the Ohio River until he reached the mouth of the Miami River, just south of the rebel Indian village of Pickawillany. By this time, he feared for his expedition's safety because the Indians were openly defiant of the French. The further west he traveled the more hostile the Indians became. By November, he turned the expedition around and returned to Montreal.
The expedition demonstrated to Céloron "that the Natives of these localities are very badly disposed toward the French and entirely devoted to the English."
Céloron's expedition was intended to demonstrate the strength of France to the Indians and intimidate them back into the alliance. As Céloron's expedition was almost always out-numbered, he could make little show of force. And while he did mark the boundary between British Pennsylvania and French Ohio, it was in many ways too late. The British were frequent traders in the region, encouraged by the Indians who had little respect left for the French or French intentions. (Within a few years, English Virginians started a fort at the forks, which the French would dispossess and rebuild as Fort Duquesne.) Thus, what started as a show of force, ended as a demonstration of French weakness.
- Richard White, The Middle Ground, 202-206.
- White, Middle Ground, 206-207; Fred K. Anderson (2000), 26.
- White, Middle Ground, 207.
- Fowler, p. 14; Anderson, 26.
- Céloron in his report, see Margry, Découvertes, 6:725-726 and quoted in Fowler, 14.
Céloron's report is found in Pierre Margry, Découvertes et établissements des Français ... de l'Amerique Septentrionale, 1614-1698 (6 vols. Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie, 1879; repr., New York: AMS, 1974), VI:666-726.
The report is excerpted in Wisconsin Historical Collections 18, pp. 36-59.