Tanacharison or Tanaghrisson (c. 1700? – 4 October 1754) was an American Indian leader who played a pivotal role in the beginning of the French and Indian War. He was known to European-Americans as the Half King, a title also used to describe several other historically important American Indian leaders. His name has been spelled in a variety of ways.

Early life

Little is known of Tanacharison's early life. He may have been born into the Catawba tribe about 1700 near what is now Buffalo, New York. As a child, he was taken captive by the French and later adopted into the Seneca tribe, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. He would later claim that the French boiled and ate his father. His early years were spent on the southeastern shore of Lake Erie in what is now western New York state.

Becoming a leader

Tanacharison first appears in historical records in 1747, living in Logstown (near present Ambridge, Pennsylvania), a multi-ethnic village about 20 miles (30 kilometers) downstream from the forks of the Ohio River. Those Iroquois who had migrated to the Ohio Country were generally known as "Mingos", and Tanacharison emerged as a Mingo leader at this time. He also represented the Six Nations at the 1752 Treaty of Logstown, where he was referred to as "Thonariss, called by the English the half King". At this treaty, he speaks on behalf of the Six Nations' Grand Council, but also makes clear that the Council's ratification was required, in accordance with the Iroquois system of government.
According to the traditional interpretation, the Grand Council had named Tanacharison as leader or "half-king" (as a sort of viceroy) to conduct diplomacy with other tribes, and to act as spokesman to the British on their behalf. However, some modern historians have doubted this interpretation, asserting that Tanacharison was merely a village leader, whose actual authority extended no further than his village. In this view, the title "half king" was likely a British invention, and his "subsequent lofty historical role as a Six Nations 'regent' or 'viceroy' in the Ohio Country was the product of later generations of scholars."[1]

French and Indian War

In 1753, the French began the military occupation of the Ohio Country, driving out British traders and constructing a series of forts. British colonies, however, also claimed the Ohio Country. Robert Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, sent a young George Washington and Christopher Gist to travel to the French outposts and demand that the French vacate the Ohio Country. On his journey, Washington's party stopped at Logstown to ask Tanacharison to accompany them as a guide and as a "spokesman" for the Ohio Indians. Tanacharison traveled with Washington to meet with the French outpost at Fort Le Boeuf in what is now Waterford, Pennsylvania and Fort Presque Isle (present Erie, Pennsylvania). The French refused to vacate, however, and to Washington's great consternation, they tried to court Tanacharison as an ally. Like most native leaders in the region, Tanacharison was carefully weighing his options.

Tanacharison accompanied George Washington in the spring of 1754 in an expedition to establish a fort at the strategic forks of the Ohio. Tanacharisson had advised the British to construct a "strong house" or fortress at the forks for the previous two years. As Washington approached the forks, he was horrified to discover that the French had beaten him to it and constructed Fort Duquesne. Washington remained at his encampment at the Great Meadows, in what is now Fayette County, Pennsylvania (near Uniontown), awaiting reinforcements and further instructions. On May 27, 1754, Tanacharison sent word to Washington that a patrol of French soldiers was approaching Washington’s camp. He urged the attack, arguing that the French force planned to ambush Washington.

The next morning, Washington, Tanacharison, and a party of British soldiers surrounded the French soldiers and a fight broke out. In the fight, nine French soldiers were killed, 21 were captured, and two, including its commander Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, were wounded. Washington was meeting with the wounded Jumonville shortly after the battle discussing terms when Tanacharisson approached Jumonville and tomahawked and killed him, took out his brains, then washing his hands with them and scalped him, saying, "Tu n'es pas encore mort, mon père!" ("Thou are not dead yet, my father." in French)[2] The fight was later called the Battle of Jumonville Glen.

Some members of the French party had escaped to Fort Duquesne, informing the garrison of Washington's actions. The French and British were not at war and Washington's attack on the party of French soldiers was a major cause of the French and Indian War. The commander of Fort Duquesne, Jumonville's half-brother, Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, mounted an expedition to drive the British out. The French accused Washington of an unprovoked attack on a French diplomatic party and charged Washington and Tanacharisson with assassinating Jumonville.
Washington hastily erected a log fort named Fort Necessity at Great Meadows and awaited reinforcements. Washington asked Tanacharison and another Seneca leader, Queen Alliquippa, to help defend the site against the French, but a quarrel over strategy erupted and Tanacharison viewed Washington's defenses as inadequate, calling Fort Necessity "that little thing upon the meadow." Outnumbered and with supplies running low, Washington was subsequently forced to surrender the fort.


Tanacharison moved his people east to the Aughwick Valley near present Shirleysburg, Pennsylvania and then further east to Susquehanna River valley. He would take no active part in the remainder of the war. He died of pneumonia on October 4, 1754 on the farm of John Harris at Paxtang, Pennsylvania (near present-day Harrisburg, Pennsylvania).

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