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7.2: The French and Indian War (1754-63)

  • Page ID
    7906
  • The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was a time of warfare in the colonies and in Europe. Over the period, the British, French, and Spanish empires in North America clashed and vied for control of the continent. Each of the colonial powers engaged in a series of shifting alliances with native peoples, who participated in the colonial wars in order to ensure or bolster their own regional economic or political power. Much of the fighting in King William’s, Queen Anne’s, and King George’s Wars had taken place at the periphery of the colonial borders, in Acadia and Spanish Florida. The next and greatest of these wars, the French and Indian War, emerged along the colonial boundaries in modern-day Pennsylvania. Unlike the previous colonial wars, which began in Europe and spread to the colonies, this war began in the colonies and spread to Europe and beyond. The name French and Indian War refers only to the engagement in North America; the greater global war is referred to as the Seven Years’ War.

    The French and Indian War arose from border tensions when Virginians crossed the Allegheny Mountains into the Ohio River Valley, an area claimed by both the British and the French. The French responded to this incursion by building a series of forts in western Pennsylvania. Tensions intensified as both sides tried to strengthen their hold on the region through increased presence and thwarted attempts to force the other power to leave the region. Militia leader George Washington was one of the prominent British officers in these actions.

    Screenshot (226).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): George Washington | Washington wearing his French and Indian War colonel’s uniform of the Virginia Regiment. This is the earliest authenticated portrait of Washington and appears in Woodrow Wilson’s book George Washington. artist: Charles Willson Peale Source: George Washington

    In 1752, Washington was sent by Virginia lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie to negotiate a French removal from the area. Not surprisingly, the French refused to leave and asserted that the French claim to the region was stronger than England’s. In the aftermath of the failed negotiations, both sides decided to focus their efforts on the convergence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers, the site of modern-day Pittsburgh. In 1754, Washington, his regiment of Virginians, and a small group of Mingo warriors, were charged to build a fort at the site. They arrived at the convergence of the rivers to find that the French had already constructed their own fort at this location. Washington and his men fell back and made camp; the next morning, they ambushed a small party of Frenchmen, killing many of them. The Battle of Jumonville Glen, named for French commander Joseph Coulon de Villers de Jumonville, was the first engagement of the French and Indian War. Although a British victory, overall, it was a completely botched mission that embarrassed Washington and damaged his reputation. To this day, historians do not know with any certainty what exactly happened at the Battle of Jumonville Glen. There is documentary evidence for two different accounts of the pivotal event of the day: the death of French commander Jumonville. Some sources assert that Washington effectively lost control of his Indian allies. After a ceasefire had been called, the leader of the Mingos split open Jumonville’s skull, scalping him in what some historians have called a ritual slaying. Several sources assert that after this, the Mingo set about killing and scalping many of the wounded Frenchmen, to the horror of Washington. Other accounts suggest that Jumonville was shot and killed in the skirmish. In the aftermath of the battle, Washington and his men retreated and hastily constructed Fort Necessity, where Washington was forced to surrender to attacking French forces a month later. The French and Indian War emerged from this series of blunders. British politician Horace Walpole remarked on the situation, “the volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” In effect, Washington’s actions triggered a world war.

    While Washington was fighting the French at Fort Necessity, colonial representatives from seven of the thirteen British colonies were meeting to discuss defensive measures against the French and improving foreign relations with the Indians. This meeting, called the Albany Congress, was the first time in the series of colonial wars when the colonies considered some kind of formal union. Great Britain’s Board of Trade had called for the meeting in order to discuss Indian relations and to meet with the Iroquois, hoping for an alliance. They were disappointed; the Iroquois refused to commit themselves to the British. Much of the meeting instead was spent debating Benjamin Franklin’s Plan of Union, which sought to create a formal colonial union. The plan called for a colonial union comprising a “grand council,” which would pass legislation, and a president appointed by the Crown. Although the plan was approved by the delegates at the Albany Congress, the colonies rejected the plan and the Colonial Office, as they were all feared their powers being eroded by the proposed colonial union. Although the Plan of Union failed, it later became a tremendous influence on the 1777 Articles of Confederation and, eventually, the Constitution.

    Screenshot (227).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Join or Die | Franklin’s cartoon encouraging membership in the Albany Congress has since been viewed by many as predictive of the formation of the United States, as many parts make up the whole. artist: Benjamin Franklin Source: Library of Congress

    One measure of the Plan of Union that was enacted was the appointment of a supreme commander of British and colonial military forces. In 1775, General Edward Braddock arrived in the colonies and assumed command of the forces. His first action was to return to western Pennsylvania and Fort Duquesne, the fort at the convergence of the rivers. Braddock led his force 125 miles from Fort Cumberland, Maryland, to within six miles of Fort Duquesne. They traveled slowly, laden down with their cannons. Along the way, they constructed a road to ensure easy transport between Cumberland and the Ohio Valley, an area which Braddock fully expected easily to take from the French. The French, realizing that the fort could not withstand Braddock’s heavy artillery, decided to attack the British before the British could lay siege to the fort.

    The French and Indian forces planned to ambush Braddock’s men; however, they were too late and were surprised to meet the British forces just after the British had crossed the Monongahela River. The resulting Battle of the Wilderness was fought on July 9, 1755. In the course of the battle, both the French commander and Braddock were shot; the French commander died on the field while Braddock lingered and died days later.

    The Battle of the Wilderness is significant because it illustrates the dramatic differences between European warfare and an emerging “American way of war.” Braddock tried in vain to make his troops hold formations and to maintain his own position on horseback in the manner of European warfare, only to have the French and Indian troops, concealed in the woods, make easy targets of his men and his horses: Braddock had several horses shot out from under him before he himself was shot. After Braddock was shot, George Washington managed to maintain order and disengage his forces. Washington was acclaimed for his actions at the Battle of the Wilderness, actions that led in part to his later appointment as commander in chief of the American forces in the Revolution.

    From this unexpected beginning, the French and Indian war by 1756 had spread to Europe, becoming the Seven Years’ War. This war involved nine European powers. In the midst of the growing European involvement, William Pitt assumed the leadership of the British government. Pitt’s strategy named North America as the primary field of engagement against France, where he mobilized an enormous force of 45,000 troops composed of both British regulars and colonial militiamen. Pitt was able to amass such a huge army because he offered the colonies subsidies for their wartime participation. His strategy also called for the British navy to blockade ports and cut off French reinforcements as well as French trade. This hurt the French army both directly and indirectly, as not only were they denied French troops, but also the lack of trade goods hurt their relationship with their Indian allies.

    The turning point of the war came in 1759 in the so-called Annus Mirabilis, or Year of Miracles. Over the course of the year, the war turned in favor of the British. In North America, they conquered Quebec, drove the French out of the Ohio Valley, and captured the rich island of Guadeloupe. Victories in India, in Europe, and at sea further empowered the British. Although the British gained the upper hand globally, in North America, the war limped weakly on until 1763. The newly-ascended British monarch, King George III, desired to bring the war to an end; however, Spain’s late entry into the Seven Years’ War prevented his doing so. A second “year of miracles” in 1762 saw the capture of the Spanish ports of Havana, Cuba, and Manila, Philippines, and, by 1763, the French and Spanish both were defeated.

    The Treaty of Paris of 1763 brought the Seven Years’ War, and related French and Indian War in America, to an end. The treaty wrought enormous changes on the North American map, as the British were awarded everything east of the Mississippi River, including Spanish Florida and only excepting New Orleans and Louisiana. Great Britain was now the uncontested European power in eastern North America. The treaty was vociferously protested by France’s Indian allies, who had been given no voice in the negotiations. Most groups asserted that France had no right to cede Indian lands to the British. From a European point of view, though, the lands of France’s Indian allies now rightfully belonged to the British as these lands were ceded as spoils of war upon France’s, and, by extension, its Indian allies’, defeat. Though the European war had ended, many tribes consequently remained hostile to the British, and violence simmered beneath the surface.

    7.2.1: Pontiac’s War (1763-64)

    After the end of the war, many tribes of the Ohio Valley expected that British colonists would pour over the Appalachian Mountains into their lands. The British quickly moved into French forts in the valley and did not trade with the tribes. Pontiac of the Ottawa nation responded to the growth of British power in the area by calling for tribes to join forces against the British. Pontiac used the message of a prophet named Neolin to encourage others to join his confederacy against the British. Neolin said that he had experienced a mystical vision in which he visited the realm of the Creator, that is, heaven, and seen the punishments of hell. In his vision, the route to heaven was obstructed by the British, because Indians had been neglecting their traditional ways, being corrupted instead by white ways. He attributed the misfortunes of the Indians to this corruption and so advocated restoring aboriginal rituals, beliefs, and practices. He concomitantly called upon Indians to exorcise white influences, such as alcohol and other European trade goods. The Indians, he said, must purify themselves through reforming their ways and driving the British from their lands.

    Pontiac took advantage of Neolin’s message, incorporating it into his own speeches and campaigns in order to win tribes into the confederacy. Ultimately, the group included the Shawnee, Munsee, Wyandot, Seneca, Delaware, Huron, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Ottawa. In May of 1763, the Ottawa attacked Fort Detroit; other groups led raids on British settlements in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Over the course of the year, more than 600 Pennsylvanians were killed and more than a dozen soldiers were massacred in the destruction of Fort Sandusky. By the fall of 1764, the British military led invasions of the Ohio Valley to subdue the confederacy. The British were able to force the tribes to surrender because, cut off from trade, they were quickly running out of ammunition. Pontiac’s War illuminated several things. First, it showed how reliant the Ohio Valley tribes had become on French trade. Second, it showed what a weak grasp Britain had over the Ohio Valley. In response to this war, Great Britain would enact the Proclamation of 1763, drawing a line east of the Appalachian Mountains where British colonists would be forced to live and setting aside the land west of the mountains for the Indians.

    7.2.2: Before You Move On...

    Key Concepts

    The French and Indian War was the most significant event of the century prior to the Revolutionary War. The war and the rejection of the Albany Plan of Union highlighted the fact that the British North American colonies had developed a fairly strong sense of individual autonomy that would take extraordinary efforts to overcome. Indeed, this colonial political structure would carry over into the early years of the United States in the context of the debate over states’ rights and federal power. The war drastically changed the balance of power in North America, with the elimination of the French presence from the continent. This outcome not only had an impact on international affairs; it also profoundly impacted the dynamics within the colonial situation. The ever-present enemy on the western border now disappeared. In the absence of such a threat, the colonists would be able to shift their focus to other problems, such as changing British colonial policies. Of course, the war was a major factor in changing British policy. The expenditures of war had driven up the imperial debt, and the removal of the French immediately precipitated a violent response from the Indians of the Ohio Valley region in what became known as Pontiac’s War. The British government’s responses to these problems would ultimately lead to conflict with the colonies.

    Test Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    An increasing sense of common identity among the colonists was one of the legacies of the French and Indian War.

    a. True

    b. False

    Answer

    a

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Proclamation of 1763 was enacted in part as a response to Pontiac’s War.

    a. True

    b. False

    Answer

    a

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The Ohio Valley was one of the major points of contention between the French and British in the French and Indian War as well as the British and Indians in Pontiac’s War.

    a. True

    b. False

    Answer

    a

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