Michigan Transportation History

Céloron's Expedition

Public Former CZ ArticleEventMilitaryColonialNew FranceOhio River ValleyThing

Céloron's expedition was a military & diplomatic march made by Pierre-Joseph Céloron? into the Ohio Country in 1749.


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 had pledged loyalty to New France and were supposedly a part of the French-Indian alliance, they had scorned the alliance. Most were trading with the British in either Pennsylvania or New York and had 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.

To add to de La Galissonière's concerns was that 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--it was a course of action designed to keep the peace in pays d'en haut. De La Galissonière instead sought to punish (rather than forgive) the murderers. It was a change in policy that further alienated the Indians of the Ohio Valley from the French.1

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. Céloron was entrusted with ceremonial lead plates that he was to bury thus marking 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 the peoples of the Ohio Valley. It was a complete disaster.2


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.3

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 had moved on. While he dutifully demanded that the British quit the place, he knew that the traders would be back.4

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. Overall, the expedition demonstrated to Céloron "that the Natives of these localities are very badly disposed toward the French and entirely devoted to the English."5


Céloron's expedition was intended to demonstrate the strength of France to the Indians and intimidate them back into the alliance. As Céloron's command 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 an act in many ways too late. The British were by then frequent traders in the region because the Indians had little respect left for the French or French intentions. Indeed, 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.


1. Richard White, The Middle Ground, 202-206.

2. White, Middle Ground, 206-207; Fred K. Anderson (2000), 26.

3. White, Middle Ground, 207.

4. Fowler, p. 14; Anderson, 26.

5. 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.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Fowler, William M. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763. New York: Walker & Co., 2005.


I wrote this story (and others related to it) in order to come to an understanding of Great Lakes history during the French era. This event leads us into the French and Indian War.

Page last modified on January 01, 2020, at 08:19 PM EST