Following the success of The Death of General Wolfe (National Gallery of Canada; fig. 1), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, West proposed to Lord Grosvenor, its purchaser, that he paint another incident from the Seven Years' War (known in America as the French-and-Indian War) as a sequel. The picture was never executed, and this drawing, which bears an inscription on the verso identifying the subject, provides the only known visual record of the composition. The event took place in West's native Pennsylvania in 1758 before West left the state (or colony, as it then still was) in 1760, never to return. His elder brother Samuel, who was a captain in the colonial militia, was one of the participants and evidently the source of West's knowledge of what had transpired. The artist, in turn, told the story to his first biographer John Galt, who devoted some nine pages of his account of West's early life to it.
In 1755 a British army led by General Edward Braddock, which had been sent to capture Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania from the French, was ambushed and annihilated by a combined French and Indian force. Three years later, in 1758, a second British expedition under General John Forbes dislodged the French and changed the name of Fort Duquesne to Fort Pitt (it has since become the modern city of Pittsburgh). A detachment of Forbes's army, which included Americans led by Samuel West, went in search of the remains of the earlier force, guided by Indians who had come over to the British side. A member of the group was a British Major, Sir Peter Halket, whose father and brother had both been among those killed in 1755. The present drawing shows the moment when the Indian guides remove fallen leaves covering the skeletons of father and son, allowing Major Halket to identify and bury them. On the left, a kneeling Indian holds up a skeleton, while a circle of grieving British and American soldiers, including Major Halket and Captain West, stand on the right. According to Galt's account, West proposed the event 'as a pictorial subject capable of being managed with great effect. The gloom of the vast forest, the naked and simple Indians supporting the skeletons, the grief of the son on recognising the relics of his father, the subdued melancholy of the spectators, and the picturesque garb of the Pennsylvanian sharpshooters, undoubtedly furnished topics capable of every effect which the pencil could bestow, or the imagination require in the treatment of so sublime a scene. His lordship [Lord Grosvenor] admitted... It was superior even to that of the search for the remains of the army of Varus; the transaction, however, being little known, and not recorded by any historian, he thought it would not be interesting to the public' (John Galt, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, Esq., President of the Royal Academy of London, Prior to His Arrival in England, London, 1816, pp. 86-7).
Galt also described Major Halket's and Captain West's 'pious expedition' as 'the second of the kind that history records' (op. cit., p. 83). The first was the search for the army of Varus, cited by Lord Grosvenor. In AD 9 three Roman legions commanded by Publius Quintilius Varus were slaughtered by the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest. Six years later, not far from the same spot, the Romans led by Germanicus avenged that defeat, then sought out the bleached bones of their predecessors to give them proper burial. That act is movingly described in the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus (I. 60-62), whose account was certainly familiar to West. At approximately the same moment he was proposing the Pennsylvanian subject to Lord Grosvenor, he was utilizing immediately preceding paragraphs from Tacitus's Annals (I. 57-58) for a subject he was painting for King George III: Segestes and his Daughter before Germanicus (Royal Collection), and, a few years previously, slightly later passages in the Annals (II. 75, and III. 1-2) had provided the subject of one of his first major successes: Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (Yale University Art Gallery), the work completed in 1768 which first gained him the patronage of the King. The respect shown to the remains of Braddock's army by Captain West and his companions must have suggested itself as a subject because of its echoes of an ancient act of piety celebrated in a revered and canonical source. Such echoes pervade West's paintings from around this time. He may have been partly prompted to depict General Wolfe's death at the moment of victory in Quebec because it reminded contemporaries of the similar death of the Theban general Epaminondas at the Battle of Mantinea. In 1773 West painted a Death of Epaminondas (Royal Collection) as another sequel to The Death of General Wolfe, commissioned by King George III to hang as a companion to the replica of the picture in the Royal Collection.
Unlike acts of bravery described by Tacitus and hence known to every educated 18th Century Englishman, and unlike Wolfe's death, which accompanied a great victory and had been described in numerous published accounts by the time West painted it, the scene played out in Western Pennsylvania in 1758 had not been recorded by any historian, as Lord Grosvenor observed (and seems not to have been mentioned in print prior to Galt's account published in 1816); so its rejection as a subject on the grounds of lack of public interest probably was not unreasonable. According to Galt, it never lost its influence on West's mind (an assertion corroborated by the number of pages devoted to it in Galt's book, based on what the aged artist told him over fifty years after the event), but he never painted it. For Lord Grosvenor he went on to paint subjects from 17th Century British history (of which The Battle of La Hogue in the National Gallery in Washington is the best known), which would hang with The Death of General Wolfe. In 1771-2, for another patron, a descendant of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, he did paint another subject from the state's history, a 17th Century rather than contemporary one: William Penn's Treaty with the Indians (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). He only painted a contemporary companion to The Death of General Wolfe in 1806 following the Battle of Trafalgar: The Death of Lord Nelson (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).