In 1748, several wealthy Virginians, including family members of George Washington, established the Ohio Company. The investors hoped to secure lands west of the Appalachian Mountains from the British government. They would purchase the property from the king and then sell the land to settlers moving westward for a higher price than what the investors had originally paid.
The British government granted the Ohio Company 200,000 acres of land near the headwaters of the Ohio River in what is now western Pennsylvania. In return, the king expected the company to distribute the property among one hundred families. The Ohio Company also was to construct a fort to guarantee the colonists' safety.
In 1750, the Ohio Company hired Christopher Gist to survey the land. Gist provided one of the first and most detailed descriptions of southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky. He also helped to establish trading relationships with American Indians living in the Ohio Country. Based partly on Gist's survey, the Ohio Company investors decided to settle south and east of the Ohio River in modern-day Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The Ohio Company's venture greatly upset the French, who had long claimed the Ohio Country as their own. In 1753, 1,500 French soldiers entered the disputed area and established several forts, including Fort Le Boeuf (modern Waterford, Pennsylvania) and Fort Machault (modern Franklin, Pennsylvania).
The Ohio Company's land technically fell under the control of the Virginia colony. Robert Dinwiddie, the lieutenant-governor of Virginia, upon hearing of France's actions, immediately sent George Washington and Christopher Gist to Fort Le Boeuf to convince the French to evacuate the Ohio Country. The French commander refused and informed the English representatives that the French would arrest any English settlers or merchants entering the Ohio Country.
In 1754 the French expanded their control of the region, capturing the British trading post at Logstown and another site operated by William Trent on the headwaters of the Ohio River as well. Here the French built Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). That same year, Dinwiddie sent Washington and a force of Virginia militiamen to the Ohio Country to force the French to withdraw from the area. The French, however, proved to be too firmly entrenched. Washington decided to build his own fort, Fort Necessity, to challenge Fort Duquesne's dominance of the region. A combined force of French soldiers from Fort Duquesne and their American Indian allies attacked Fort Necessity in July 1754, signaling the start of the French and Indian War (1756-1763). The French captured Washington's men and sent the militia forces back to Virginia.
For the next nine years, France and Great Britain fought for control of North America. In most cases, the Ohio Country's American Indian peoples supported the French. Most American Indians in the region feared that, if England proved victorious in the conflict, some of the approximately two million British colonists would come across the Appalachian Mountains to settle the fertile soils north of the Ohio River. France's willingness to trade with these groups, as well as the small number of French citizens in North America (approximately sixty thousand) caused the American Indians to ally with the French. In the end, Great Britain emerged victorious. The Treaty of Paris (1763) secured France's North American territory, including the Ohio Country, for the British. Unfortunately for the Ohio Company investors, Great Britain implemented the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited its colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. This legislation essentially ended the Ohio Company, as the company could not legally sell any of its land. The investors lost all of the money contributed to the Ohio Company.
In 1786, another land company, the Ohio Company of Associates, formed. This organization also sought land in what is now Ohio, however, it was not affiliated with the original Ohio Company.
- Bailey, Kenneth P. Christopher Gist: Colonial Frontiersman, Explorer, and Indian Agent. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1976.
- Bailey, Kenneth P. The Ohio Company of Virginia and the Westward Movement, 1748-1792: A Chapter in the History of the Colonial Frontier. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1939.
- Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- James, Alfred Procter. George Mercer of the Ohio Company: A Study in Frustration. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963.