The French and Indian War

British, French, and Spanish possessions in 1750. (Lands in purple had been ceded by France to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713.)

What North America called the French and Indian War, the rest of the world called the Seven Years’ War. It was fought worldwide, but here we will concern ourselves only with its North American phase. In any case, “Seven Years’ War” refers to the war in Europe, which continued from 1756 to 1763. The war in North America extended from 1754 to 1760.

In North America, the war was fought between British and French colonists, and soldiers from the two parent countries, and Indian allies on each side, with battles taking place on the frontier from Virginia to Nova Scotia. The French particularly depended on Indian allies, because they were so heavily outnumbered. Though their early voyages of exploration gave them claim to vast amounts of North America, they had few settlers on the ground – about 75,000, mostly along the St. Lawrence River valley — defended by about 3,000 colonial troops (no French regulars). The British colonies, by contrast, outnumbered them 20 to one, with about a million and a half people strung along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to Newfoundland, and continually moving inland. Most of the British colonies had only ill-trained local militia, but Virginia, being by far the largest colony, with the longest and most exposed frontier, hosted several companies of British regulars.

The immediate cause of hostilities came in the Ohio country, which was claimed by French, British and Iroquois. British activity in the Ohio territories prompted the Governor-General of New France to dispatch a force of 300 men to the area, with the objective of punishing the Miami tribe for continuing to trade with the British. In 1753,  a mixed 2,000-man force constructed and garrisoned forts in the area. As the force moved south, it drove off or captured British traders, thus alienating the Mingo Indians.  The Iroquois, insisting that the British block French expansion, applied to the British Superintendent for Indian Affairs in the New York region and beyond, William Johnson, whom the Iroquois called “He who does great things.” (He spoke their languages, had been made a colonel of the Iroquois, as well as a colonel of the Western New York Militia. Must have been an interesting man.)

The French began building Fort Duquesne near the site of present-day Pittsburgh. The Governor  of Virginia ordered a 22-year-old militia officer named George Washington to warn the French to leave. Washington’s party surprised them on May 28, 1754, killing many , including their commanding officer, at the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Thus Washington precipitated what became a global struggle.

When England heard of the battles, the government sent an army expedition to dislodge the French. The British plans leaked, and France sent New France six regiments. Naval engagements led to formal declarations of war in 1756.

The year 1755 was a year of disasters for the British, with four operations against the French all failing. The worst defeat came to British General Edward Braddock at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock lost 1,000 killed or injured, and died of his wounds a few days later. Young Washington led the remaining 500 British troops to safety in Virginia. In preventing defeat from turning into a rout, Washington immediately became famous throughout the colonies. (In 1774, delegates to the First Continental Congress, meeting the man they had read about 20 years earlier, were surprised to see not some old greybeard but a young and vigorous man of 42.)

Military matters didn’t go much better for the British in the following two years, except in Canada, where forces from Nova Scotia overcame the French in Acadia (present-day New Brunswick). British commander in chief William Shirley, acting without orders, expelled the French from the area, thus dispersing the Acadians (or ‘Cadians, and eventually Cajuns) as far as Louisiana.

In 1757, a mixed French force of Canadian scouts and Indians besieged Fort William Henry, which finally capitulated with an agreement to withdraw under parole. When the withdrawal began, some of Montcalm’s Indian allies, angered at the lost opportunity for loot, attacked the British column, killing and capturing several hundred men, women, children, and slaves. And, since smallpox was present within the fort, the siege may have helped spread smallpox among the Indians beyond the Mississippi, as returning warriors unknowingly carried it with them.

The turning point of the war came after William Pitt became Prime Minister. He committed large numbers of troops and ships to the struggle in the New World, which France was unable to match, partly due to the British blockade, partly due to France’s military entanglements on the European continent.

Then came 1759, which the British called the year of miracles. The British captured both Ticonderoga and Quebec city. In September 1760, the French Governor-General negotiated a surrender that guaranteed French residents religious freedom, security of property and the right to remain if they chose. And that was more or less the end of the fighting on the North American continent. The war in North America officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, a few days before another treaty ended the Seven Years’ War.

Now, notice this. The British offered France a choice: surrender either its continental North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the two Caribbean islands that the British had occupied, Guadeloupe and Martinique – and the French chose to keep the islands, for the value of their sugar production. Inexplicable to us, logical to them. So, the peace treaty gave the British everything east of the Mississippi, handed over the rest of French possessions to their Spanish allies, and left France with only the Caribbean islands plus a couple of fishing islands in the St. Lawrence.

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The war changed everything, for Britain, for France, for Spain, for their colonies, and for the natives inhabiting the territories involved. The Seven Years’ War nearly doubled Britain’s national debt, which led to attempts to impose taxes on the colonies. The French debt increased as well, and they handed over territories comprising some of the richest farmland and hunting territories in the world. The Indians, regardless which side they had allied with, found that the British now faced no counterweight to expansion. British takeover of Spanish Florida prompted most of its population to leave for Cuba, and sent Indian tribes westward to avoid the British, leading to rising tensions between the Choctaw and the Creek.

Some people think might makes right; some think might makes wrong, and in either case, their assumptions determine their conclusions. But history is rarely that neat, and if people are almost never divisible into angels and devils, states are that much less so. The French and Indian War was no exception.

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