Pennsylvania: Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Memorial to General Edward Braddock
Memorial to General Edward Braddock

Courtesy of National Park Service

Hoping to defend against an imminent attack by French soldiers, a young George Washington built a fort of necessity in a natural meadow in present-day Pennsylvania. Fort Necessity was the site of the first battle of the French and Indian War. Part of an international struggle to define empires and colonies, referred to as the Seven Years’ War in European countries, the French and Indian War (1756 to 1763) determined which colonizing power would control this part of North America—the French or the British. 

The cause of the French and Indian War was the desire of the British and French colonies to expand into land each empire claimed. Once war had broken out between the two powers, the American Indian tribes had to decide whom to back. Throughout the conflict varying tribes allied themselves with the French or the British, in order to better suit their individual goals. During the battle of Fort Necessity seven different American Indian tribes fought with the French. These tribes included: the Huron, Huron of Lorette, Nipissing, Algonquin, Odawa, Shawnee, and the Abenaki.


During the mid-1700s, British colonies along the Atlantic coast began to move westward onto the land the French claimed in the interior. With support from the mother country, the British colonies fought to establish their dominance in North America. The common experience of fighting together helped encourage the colonies to band together later in the 1770s and start their own country, the United States of America.

Long before his election as the first leader of this new country, George Washington led troops at Fort Necessity. Though Washington surrendered there to the French, he learned valuable lessons that helped him lead the country later. In 1753, the governor of Virginia sent George Washington to the Ohio lands to discourage French settlement. When the French persisted, British military leaders sent George Washington to meet the French again in 1754. This time, Washington’s mission was to build a road to help resupply the English fort on the Ohio River. By the time Washington reached Pennsylvania, the French had already captured this fort, rebuilt it, and renamed it Fort Duquesne. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania occupies the site of Fort Duquesne.

Memorial to General Edward Braddock
Memorial to General Edward Braddock 
National Park Service (Fort Necessity)

Arriving at a natural clearing called the Great Meadows in May 1754, Washington set up camp to wait for further reinforcements. Shortly after, he discovered French soldiers camping nearby. With Half King, a Seneca chief, Washington surrounded the French killing Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, a commander of the French troops, during the fight. After the battle, Washington returned to the Great Meadows.

By late June, the French, seeking revenge, returned in great numbers, along with their Indian allies, to attack Washington and his men at the Great Meadows. The July 3rd battle produced heavy losses for the British forces ending with Washington’s surrender to the French. In signing the surrender document, Washington agreed to having assassinated Jumonville, though Washington said that his English translation of the documents did not use this term. Following the surrender, the British returned to Virginia and the French burned Fort Necessity. 

Washington engaged with the French along the Ohio again when he returned the next year under General Edward Braddock's command. Braddock’s forces were part of a larger British plan to attack multiple French forts throughout North America simultaneously. Braddock's troops tried to move quickly through the mountains to attack Fort Duquesne using the road Washington had built earlier, but the roadbed was too narrow for the heavy armament and the roughly 2,400 men. To increase his speed, Braddock made the fatal mistake of splitting up his troops.

As Braddock and the first of his troops approached Fort Duquesne, the French and allied Indians attacked. Braddock and more than half of the 1,200 British men with him died. The remaining soldiers retreated. British troops buried the general near Fort Necessity, concealing the grave within the roadbed by marching over it to prevent desecration of the general's body. Braddock’s final resting place lay hidden until 1804, when workmen discovered a body reported to be the general’s. A monument constructed in 1913 marks the site over the reinterred bones of General Braddock. 

Mount Washington Tavern
Mount Washington Tavern sits alongside the first 
highway in America, the National Road. The tavern 
offered rest and food to travelers for roughly twenty 
years, between the 1830s and the 1850s.
Courtesy of the National Park Service (Fort Necessity)

The road Washington and his troops built and Braddock and his troops improved did more than serve military objectives; it opened the area to settlement. Opportunities in the West drew so many that, in 1806, the Federal Government constructed the first totally federally funded highway. This highway, first called the National Road and today known as US Route 40, eventually stretched from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois. Closely paralleling the Washington/Braddock route at its beginning, the National Road carried thousands west fueling the growth of towns along the highway. In stagecoaches and Conestoga wagons, goods and people traveled along the National Road. Taverns provided travelers with food, drink, and a place to sleep along the way. The National Road also figured prominently in the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape before the Civil War.

Mount Washington Tavern, which served wealthier men and women along the National Road, is in the park. Named for George Washington, who once owned the land on which the tavern sits, Mount Washington Tavern was built in the 1830s and operated until 1855 when rail transportation replaced much of the wagon traffic on the National Road. The automobile revived the need for a national network of roads. Building off existing stagecoach and wagon routes, early highways were often paved versions of the paths trod by horses less than 100 years before. 

Today, visitors can go inside a reconstructed version of the fort and see remnants of the original earthworks that Washington’s men built in preparation for the battle. A visitor center provides information about the battles and associated sites with an orientation film and guided tours. During the summer months, there are historic weapon demonstrations and a variety of other interpretive programs. Visitors can explore the Great Meadow and Fort Necessity or visit Jumonville Glen (approximately 7 miles from the visitor center) or see the grave of General Braddock 1 mile west of the visitor center off US Route 40. Visitors can also walk the actual roadbed built for Washington and Braddock in their campaigns against the French, learn about the nation’s first highway at Mount Washington Tavern, and hike on trails in the park.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield protects sites that have had a lasting impact in American history from establishing the early military career of the nation’s first president to helping to define the route of the first federally funded highway. The events at Fort Necessity also inched the British colonies toward the American Revolution.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1 Washington Parkway in Farmington, PA. The Fort Necessity and National Road Interpretation Center, the park's grounds, Jumonville Glen, Mount Washington Tavern, and the parking lot at Braddock's Grave have varied hours. For more information, visit the National Park Service Fort Necessity National Battlefield website or call 724-329-5811. 

Mount Washington Tavern, part of Fort Necessity National Battlefield, has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

US Route 40 has been designated a National Scenic Byway. Click here to explore this historic highway.

Last updated: August 7, 2017