Bisonalities, Again


A History of Our Home Town

The French Military Road
by Lewis Dove, Teacher, Fort Le Boeuf School District (Retired)

Forward by the Editor

When Mr. Dove sent me this information, he included a letter explaining how he came about writing this part of the history of the Waterford area. It is quoted below:

"The information I enclosed or disclosed on the "Old French Road" came to me almost by accident. I follow the farm sales in the local paper. I think they disclose the great social change of the last 100 years - a disintegration of the dairy agriculture, and literally jumped out of my chair to see one for sale at Chapmanville on "Le Boeuf Trail."

The attempt I made to show in this booklet:

1. The need - French Creek was too unreliable
2. The roads and trails along the valley (Washington's route) were too difficult for an army to use and rely upon to create an empire
3. Ease of route - I've driven and walked all of the route and it is an easy route from Erie to Franklin
4. Shortness --- Its a little more than 50 miles from Lake Erie to the Allegheny (Franklin)

The route was still open in 1795 when Franklin, Meadville, Waterford, and Erie were laid out but the legislature, at the insistence of the Holland and Population Land Companies (two different outfits) they included Meadville. Therefore, the old French shortcut was not used except as a surveyors' road and local travel continued to use it. History has forgotten this important 30 foot right-of-way. I have never seen a document, except for the History documents of the counties (Venango and Crawford), that even mentions the road. But, without it, the French could never have transported their military "stuff" to build forts at Pittsburgh and Franklin."


With the close of King George's War in 1748, neither England nor France had gained a total, complete victory in controlling North America. In fact, nothing had changed and the forces and positions of the two were again facing one another. France controlled the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes - England acknowledged these claims. England controlled the eastern seaboard and inland to the mountains. France acknowledged this claim. But they both claimed the interior of the continent, especially the Ohio Valley. Both knew it was a temporary stalemate that would be solved by bluff, compromise, or open warfare.

Since 1500 much of Europe had been enjoying the natural resources of North America, for the most part without serious incident. They had fishing communities up and down the coast catching the protein that Europe desperately needed. They came in September, caught their quota (a boat load), and left - always before May. We still use the rule of fishing only in months with an "r".

European nations also sent ashore men to cut the oak, pine, basswood, and chestnut logs to build their merchant and naval fleets. Lumber of this quality and quantity could not be found in Europe. Hunting and trapping as well as trading with the Indians for fur was an old business by 1748.

The English settled in to build permanent centers where goods needed at home would be effectively gathered. There was work for everyone, and there was room for a man to expand his business or trade. People driven off their ancestral homes by the manor system, "street ladies" with no hope for gainful employment, prisoners, and young people - men and women - could indenture themselves for up to seven years of labor and gain a ticket to America. By 1748, 1,400,000 English settlers were in America.

The French saw the English system as a future political and social problem to their existence. The area of England was about the size of New York alone. They reasoned that the English colonies would soon be so powerful in wealth, land, and manpower that no European nation would be able to control them. Canada's white population was less than 50,000 with many of them wanting to obtain enough wealth to go "home" again. The westward expansion of the American colonies must be stopped!

The governors of Canada, first Galissoniere and then Duquesne, began to spread the alarm. They encouraged the Government to strengthen the fort at Niagara on Lake Ontario, place naval ships on both Ontario and Erie, authorize a large standing army of regulars, citizens, and Indians, and 'with all haste' invade the area south of Lake Erie, placing forts on strategic water ways. It was thought that no individual colony would successfully oppose this action; England, with its manpower tied to the Royal Navy, could not dispatch enough troops to fight on an extended frontier; France would control the American continent; the fragmented English colonies could be controlled.

In 1749, the Governor sent Celeron to map and claim the Ohio frontier. He began building his army and establishing bases. Supplies were brought from across the ocean to equip the operation. In 1752, a base was built on Buffalo River near the Niagara River on Lake Erie, and schooners and sloops for transport were on Lake Ontario by 1753. In 1754, these ships were in use on Lake Erie, also.

However, Duquesne had problems with his own government. As John Miller, in his excellent History of Erie County (1909) reports: "Although the colonial minister advised against it and charged Duquesne: 'Build on the Ohio such forts as are absolutely necessary, but no more. Remember, His Majesty suspects your advisors of interested views' - a word of caution that the governor could not fail to understand the meaning of, for graft and jobbery and corruption flourished at the French Canadian Capital; ... " The French government did not propose to have a break-a-way empire in North America of its own.

Late in February the movement began. After some floundering, the first fort was begun at Presque Isle - a natural harbor. While this fort was being built, the engineers were surveying the route south to Le Boeuf. The road went straight as possible and kept to high ground to avoid bridging.

A chestnut log bridge crossed Mill Creek. (This bridge was still standing in 1795 when David McNair was hired to re-open the road.) Approximately nine miles of wet spots were corduroyed between Presque Isle and Le Boeuf. Generally, for a "Woods road," it was quite good. Horses pulled wagons over it for six years of French occupancy. At times, and in different places, the bottom gave out, but that was expected and they were quickly repaired. As many as four thousand men, their food, supplies, cannon, hardware for saw mills, iron for gate and door hinges, cooking equipment, animal feed, powder - an army used that road. All the materials of war for Forts Le Boeuf, Machault, and Duquesne had to be funneled over the old French Road.

Once the French had completed the fort at Presque Isle, it was imperative that they move quickly to occupy the Ohio country (today the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Valleys). Presque Isle was theirs by Cartier's claim. But when they crossed the summit and entered the lands of the Ohio, they would be trespassing, according to English understanding. Fort Le Boeuf was build with all haste. The fort, barracks, a black smith shop, stables, and warehouses were quickly produced. Upstream on Le Boeuf Creek a saw mill was soon cutting boards for piroques and bateau, those flat bottomed boats, tapered at both ends, and still used in Louisiana and Canada. Two boat yards were operating near the fort.

The warehouses were filled with materials, ready to be transported to Machault. Governor Duquesne, who was six weeks' travel away, wrote repeatedly to Marin, the officer in charge of building the four forts, to hurry things up. Why the delay? Why was Machault not completed? Why have you not reached the "fork of the Ohio?" The Governor promised to punish anyone not doing his best. He singled out Ripentigni for court martial. His consistent question to Marin was: "Why are you not moving ahead?" In May four forts had been promised; only two were completed.

The officer at Fort Le Boeuf, Marin, was a tough old trooper. He hesitated to make excuses, but the problems he faced were overcoming the plans of the empire. Because the French had little information regarding the area between Lake Erie and the Allegheny River, they simply did not understand the unpredictable nature of French Creek.

When Marin and his army arrived and built Fort Le Boeuf, they saw a peaceful stream flowing past the fort, a placid lake, and a nice flow of tranquil water to waft them to Machault. They built their craft, assembled their goods, and made ready to depart - only to find by the first week in August that there was insufficient water to float their boats. So they waited - and waited - and waited! By "under loading" they laboriously moved some material downstream to Machault (Today's Franklin). But the heavy cargo - mill machinery, iron, cannon - would have to follow later. French Creek did not cooperate until late in October, and by then it was too late for that year to build the two remaining forts - Machault and Duquesne. After the first week in November, French Creek flooded. Boats risked swamping if they ventured out.

While that problem slowed the military transport, a second problem proved to be very serious to the operation. The 1,500 man army of French soldiers, Canadians, and Indians that arrived at Presque Isle and moved inland to Le Boeuf, came down with illnesses that devastated the encampment. They contracted scurvy, tuberculosis, and pneumonia; they lacked proper food; the promised medicines never arrived. The able spent their time caring for the ill, but the task was over-whelming. When orders were finally given to leave the area for the winter, only 300 men were well enough to man the three forts. Machault was not completed; they used the trader Frazier's home, after ordering him to leave. General Marin died of scurvy at Fort Le Boeuf and an unknown number of his men died and were buried in unmarked graves.

Duquesne was shocked at the condition of his returning survivors. He vowed to "overcome the vagrancies" of the previous operation (the problem of French Creek) and to send an entirely new group of recruits the following year.

A third problem was somewhat less serious but perhaps more annoying. As Marin reported it: "The Loup (Delaware Indians) have stolen my blankets. The best blankets - the white blankets - big, middle-sized, and small - so that I don't have any left to supply my post."

A plan was made in Montreal that winter and it was to solve the problem of transport. It is easily the least know operation of the French in North America.

George Washington's Trip

When George Washington began his historic trip to warn the French of their trespass, he knew no more about the upper "Ohio" then the French had known. He planned to confront them at "Venango" on "French Creek." Both of these names originate in his Journal. When he arrived at Machault, the officer in charge, Joncaire, directed him to the fort up the creek at Le Boeuf. Four Frenchmen accompanied him as guides.

Christopher Gist, Washington's educated guide who worked for the Ohio Company as a surveyor and Indian expert, kept an accurate account of the journey up French Creek. The following is a summary of the 68 mile trip from Machault to Le Boeuf:

December 7th - Friday - crossed French Creek at Noon - traveled 5 miles - camped at Sugar Creek.

December 8th - Saturday - traveled 25 miles to Cussewago (Meadville) - camped

December 9th - Sunday - traveled 15 miles to "fording place" - (Cambridge Springs) - could not cross - camped

December 10th - Monday - traveled 8 miles - crossed creek - (Muddy Run at Little Cooley) - camped

December 11th - Tuesday - traveled 15 miles on straight, well-worn trail to Fort Le Boeuf

Washington's party stayed at Le Boeuf from the 11th to the 16th. Marin having died on about the same day Washington left Williamsburg, St. Pierre, his replacement, left the answer to the dispatch to Ripentigui.

On the 16th day they left, Gist and Washington, by water. Again Gist's Journal:

December 16th - Sunday - by canoe - traveled 16 miles - camped - water high

December 18th - Tuesday - water falling

December 20th - Thursday - traveled 20 miles - stopped by ice

December 21st - Friday - The ice was so hard we could not break it ... haul vessels . . . Three French canoes overtake us . . . with people of one French canoe that was lost . . . with cargo of powder and lead - encamped about 20 miles above Venango

December 22nd - Saturday - The creek began to get very low - forced to get out - several times - we had the pleasure of seeing the French overset - came to Venango

French Creek was not fickle - it gave misery to everyone equally.

Need for a Military Road

Governor Duquesne was feeling the heat from the Ministers. He met in Montreal with Mercier, the engineer who worked with Marin in building the forts and planning the operation.

The flaw in the previous year's plan was that French Creek proved not to be a dependable source of transport. It froze over; it flooded; it dried up. Mercier had mapped the creek and knew it was a semi-circle from Fort Le Boeuf to Cussewago (Meadville) to Machault (Franklin). A trip on the meandering stream was close to a hundred miles, while following Indian trails down the valley would be about 55 (in good weather). They needed a direct route - cut the circle, so to speak - build to the diameter. A straight road from Fort Le Boeuf to Machault would be less than 37 miles. The future of France, they though, depended on the road to the Ohio.

Building the Road

The first work crews to arrive in 1754 quickly set about to move materials from storage at Fort Le Boeuf to Machault by way of French Creek. Cannon, lead, powder, iron for the smiths, food for man and beast - everything possible was sent down the creek in the boats built at Le Boeuf. Washington's trip the previous December made clear that the English would be moving westward. It became a race for an empire.

Another crew began to build the road. (Added note) Using today's place names and road names or numbers, the road left Le Boeuf on a bridge over Le Boeuf Creek. It traveled down the Flat (Flatts) Road, crossed French Creek on a ferry - raft, on to just east of the center of Mill Village, up the easy grade of Mackey Hill and proceeded south to a point below where Kelley Run Crosses. Then, on a road now closed but still open in 1798, (Added note) the military road crossed to Brown Hill near the Church. Sterling Road closely follows this path today. It went down Sutterview and South Brown Hill Roads to the flats and stuck to the east side of Muddy Run to avoid fording.

Crossing the Little Cooley Road and Centerville Road about a half mile above Little Cooley, the road proceeded south to Armstrong Road. From there to Franklin the road is still open and well-traveled, and it is paved. Believe it or not! For twenty-two miles it has sign posts - "Le Boeuf Road" or "Le Boeuf Trail Road" - from Armstrong Road to Franklin.

When the French were defeated at Niagara in 1759, orders went out to destroy all bases. Duquesne, Machault, Le Boeuf, and Presque Isle were burned. All bridges were destroyed except for the one on Mill Creek. The forests reclaimed the land. When Americans came in the mid-1790's the legislature mandated a road from Franklin to Meadville to Waterford. Settlers kept open the Flat Road, Mackey Hill, Brown Hill, etc., as they saw need. The era of French road making was nearly forgotten to historians. Today, the road is only a nice memory of our past in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Personal and Historic Evidence

The people who live along the road and their families have kept alive the stories of the wagon road - Le Boeuf - Venango road.

Richard Willey of Rockdale Township trapped the Muddy Run area as a youth and can retrace the road connecting Mackey and Brown Hills. His wife, Brenda, knew of the road from friends and neighbors.

Leon and Nancy Burdick, she is a tax collector for Rockland Township, were aware of the ancient French Road. They live near Teepleville - always have. They and their friends are well aware of the road.

Earl Prather, whose family emigrated to Crawford County before it was a county, had been told of the road all his life. As an employee of P.D.H., he daily traveled over the Le Boeuf Road; his family keeps the stories alive. Mr. Prather lives in Centerville, not far from his early home on Taylor Stand. Retired, he enjoys talking about early history.

Bruce Dean of Little Cooley drew a map showing where the French wagons crossed his property; parts of the road can still be traced. As a youth they found old pieces of iron that the French horses had slipped. He can also show where Washington crossed, as it's the only possible place to cross Muddy Run.

Bob Marzka, a township supervisor, can describe in detail the course of the road. The township has papers with references to it. Mr. Marzka lives on the property where Roger Alden built a saw mill. He and his family know the history of the area well.

A Gannon College student was born on Le Boeuf Road where it crosses Route 27 at Chapmanville. Stephanie Gaub has no question were "Le Boeuf Road" went. After all, where would the Wattsburg road end?

At the old Sunville Church, the D.A.R. has a stone commemorating George Washington and the French Road.

For an excellent description of Washington's trip to Fort Le Boeuf, see Indian Paths of Pennsylvania by Paul A. W. Wallace.

"The country's first highway was the Old French Military Road from Le Boeuf (Waterford) to Machault (Franklin)." Historic Western Pennsylvania Smith and Swetnam, 1991.

When the French were driven out of this area in 1759, they were forced to retreat west to Detroit. The British in that year captured Quebec and Niagara as well as Fort Duquesne. French Forces were cut off from returning to France for years because of the Seven Years' War. Many maps, journals, letters, and records of these years are lost - probably forever. What they left us was a phantom road from Lake Erie to the Allegheny, sometimes overgrown by the wilds of North America, along with their dreams of an empire.

Lewis Dove is a retired Teacher from Fort Le Boeuf High School, Waterford, PA. He has published many stories about the Waterford area and its history. This story of The French Military Road is published in the Bisonalities, Again Web site with Mr. Dove's permission and blessings. Thank you, Lou.

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