The Roarbots’ series of NPS Adventures takes a big-picture view of one location within the National Park Service and highlights some of the best activities that site has to offer. This is usually done through a kid-friendly lens and almost always includes activities and suggestions we can recommend from personal experience. And pictures. There are lots and lots of pictures. Glad to have you aboard!
Welcome to Fort Necessity National Battlefield!
- Fort Necessity National Battlefield
- Location: Pennsylvania
- Established: 1931
- Admission: Free
- Social Sites: Twitter, Facebook
Fort Necessity is, in a nutshell, the site where the French and Indian War began. It’s also the spot where a young George Washington, as an inexperienced commander of British colonial forces, inauspiciously began his career.
Rival claims over the Ohio River Valley led to a conflict between French and British interests in the area. A 21-year-old Washington was sent into western Pennsylvania on behalf of the British to secure a British fort and warn the French to leave. The French had no such plans.
Though Washington would later become a gifted general, he didn’t start out that way. He built his “fort of necessity” in the middle of a marshy, unprotected field he felt was “a charming field for an encounter.” Upon learning that French soldiers were camped in the nearby woods, Washington led a group of 40 men to find them.
And this is where accounts of what happened differ. No one knows who fired first, but in the end, 10 French — including their commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville — were killed and 21 taken prisoner.
Several weeks later, the French retaliated by attacking the fort. Washington was surrounded, outnumbered, and in a poorly defensible position. It was only a matter of time before he surrendered, which he did. The terms of his surrender (written in French) required him to take responsibility for the events at Jumonville Glen.
My kids, who are diehard Hamilton fans, got really excited when they learned that the battles commemorated here are mentioned in the musical. The following lines, sung by George Washington in “History Has Its Eyes on You,” reference the young lieutenant colonel’s defeat at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity:
I was younger than you are now
When I was given my first command.
I led my men straight into a massacre.
I witnessed their deaths firsthand.
I made every mistake,
And felt the shame rise in me.
And even now I lie awake,
Knowing history has its eyes on me.
(Click on all pictures to embiggen.)
Visitor Center and Museum
If you’re like me (and, realistically, most Americans), you don’t know much about the French and Indian War. The visitor center here is small but surprisingly good at providing some context and historical significance of the war and the battles of Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity.
It gives a quick overview of the opposing sides of the conflict — British, French, and Native American — and it helps show how the events here really were the opening battles of a world war.
There’s a 20-minute video that’s also well worth watching, as it provides even more context — especially if you’re not planning on making the trek out to Jumonville Glen, Braddock’s Grave, or Mount Washington Tavern. If you’re just stopping at the visitor center and checking out the nearby fort, then definitely take the time for the video.
The fort is located just a short 200-yard walk behind the visitor center, but it’s just a reconstruction. “Fort” is also a bit of a misnomer. It’s not much more than a circle of sticks with a makeshift shelter in the center. This is apparently historically accurate, though, which should give you a sense for why a contingent of 700 French and Native American soldiers were able to capture the fort and cause Washington to surrender in just a few hours.
Defeated, Washington signed a bad treaty of surrender that admitted guilt in the assassination of Joseph Coulon de Jumonville (it was written in French, which he didn’t understand), and the French promptly burned the fort.
In the summer months, the fort is also home to living history programs and historic weapons demonstrations.
Grounds and Trails
Surrounding the fort behind the visitor center is the area known as Great Meadows, which is where the actual battle occurred on July 3, 1754, and is indeed still a very large open area. Five miles of trails circle Great Meadows and the reconstructed fort and winds in and out of the surrounding forest. Unfortunately, the day we visited was rainy and cold, so we didn’t venture much further out than the fort itself.
In addition to the fort, there are three other locations to visit for the “full experience.” Mount Washington Tavern is just up the hill from the fort and visitor center and was one of the first substantial buildings on the National Road between Grantsville, MD, and Uniontown, PA. Braddock’s Grave is marked by a tall granite monument just off Route 40 about a mile away from the visitor center. (If you watch the 20-minute video at the visitor center, you’ll learn that Braddock was buried in the middle of the National Road so French or Indian troops wouldn’t find it, but his remains were discovered in 1804 during repairs to the road.) Finally, Jumonville Glen (open during the summer months only) is about 7 miles away and is the site of Washington’s initial skirmish with the French that ultimately led to the battle of Fort Necessity. A natural rock outcropping marks the site of the encounter. (Click here to download the NPS brochure for the latter two locations.)
Like most NPS sites, Fort Necessity has a park-centric Junior Ranger program. Kids get an opportunity to explore the grounds, the context of the French and Indian War, and Washington’s early military career. The Junior Ranger program is one of the highlights of any NPS visit for the little Roarbots. It wouldn’t be a visit without a passport stamp and a Junior Ranger badge/pin!
Plus, Fort Necessity has a nice, thick wooden badge, which is always a bonus!