The French and Indian War

North America before the French and Indian War: British settlement confined to the Atlantic seaboard.

What North America called the French and Indian War, the rest of the world called the Seven Years’ War. It was a global war, fought from Europe to the subcontinent of India and elsewhere, but here we will concern ourselves only with the war in North America. (The war in North America extended from 1754 to 1760; the war in Europe continued from 1756 to 1763.)

The North American part of the war was fought from the Virginia frontier to Nova Scotia. Each side had its colonists, soldiers from the parent country, and Indian allies.

The French particularly depended on Indian allies, because they were so heavily outnumbered. They had few settlers on the ground (about 75,000, mostly along the St. Lawrence River valley) and were defended by about 3,000 colonial troops, and no French regulars.

The British colonies outnumbered them 20 to one, 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. And oddly enough, the first battle in what became a global struggle was precipitated in May, 1754 by a 22-year-old Virginia militia Colonel named George Washington.

Years before, British activity in the Ohio territories had 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 sent 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.” (Must have been an interesting man. He spoke their languages, had been made a colonel of the Iroquois, as well as a colonel of the Western New York Militia.) The Mohawks insisted that the British block French expansion.

The French began building Fort Duquesne, near the site of present-day Pittsburgh. (At issue was the control of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and ultimately the Ohio.) The Governor  of Virginia ordered 21-year-old Major Washington to warn the French to leave. Washington’s party surprised them on May 28, killing many of them, including their commanding officer, at the Battle of Jumonville Glen.

On July 4, however, Washington was forced to surrender Fort Necessity to a French force. 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.

In 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.

The Seven Years’ War nearly doubled Britain’s national debt, which as we have seen led to attempts to impose taxes on the colonies. The French debt increased as well, and they handed over some of the richest and most productive 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. The war changed everything.


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