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Colonial America | Wars | French and Indian War (1754–1763)

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French and Indian War.

By the end of the 1740s, settlers' attention became focused on the Forks of the Ohio River, a strategically important area claimed by both the British and the French but effectively occupied by neither. The region beyond the Appalachian Mountains was particularly attractive to the wealthy tobacco planters of Virginia whose income had been undercut by a combination of exhausted soil and a glut in the international tobacco market.

In 1747, a group of Virginians formed the Ohio Company and received a grant for two hundred thousand acres. In return, the company would build a fort and settle one hundred families in the area of the forks of the Ohio. Another group of Virginians established the Loyal Land Company, which received a grant of eight hundred thousand acres on what was later to be the borders of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The actions of the land companies caused Pennsylvania traders to establish posts at several places in or near the Ohio River Valley, including the Miami Indian village of Pickawillany (present-day Piqua, Ohio) on the Miami River. Pickawillany soon became the center of British power and the focus of American Indian rebellion against the French.

Learn more about
the fur trade.

The French were not unaware of these activities. With the heart of New France thinly populated, the French had no interest in settling the Ohio Valley, but the area was of vital interest to French trappers and France's American Indian allies. As British traders and settlers pushed into the Ohio River Valley, the French, who feared the loss of the Ohio country's fur trade, responded by trying to strengthen their own claim to the area. They were concerned that trade between New France and New Orleans would be impeded.

Initiating a series of moves to confine the British colonies to a narrow strip of land along the coast east of the Allegheny mountains, the French first sent an expedition to inform the American Indians of France's title to their territory. Then in June 1752, the French sent a war party of over 200 Ottawa and Chippewa with a few French Marines to destroy Pickawillany. The attack resulted in the killing of a number of traders and Miami Indians.

In July 1752, Marquis Duquesne de Menneville arrived at Quebec as the new Governor General of New France with orders to take possession of the Ohio Valley area. The French began to lay out a string of forts in what is now western Pennsylvania along the Allegheny River at the eastern end of the Ohio River Valley. Other forts were built between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, strengthening Niagara. By 1753 only the Ohio River required fortification to complete the chain.

The British government responded to these actions by instituting a number of measures. The colonial governments were instructed to meet force with force if they found the French trespassing on the king's territory. In addition, the Board of Trade urged the northern colonies to negotiate with the native peoples and, most importantly, to persuade the Iroquois to resume their traditional alliance. The Board of Trade, under Lord Halifax, began to expend large sums for the establishment of a new fortification and harbor in Nova Scotia, to be called Halifax.

In June 1754, the Albany Congress was held. It was attended by delegates from the colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. It was a landmark in colonial cooperation. Never before had there been such widespread participation.

At Albany, colonial officials and British representatives tried to convince the representatives of the Five Nations to side with them, though with little result. The sachems decided to see who was the likely winner before committing themselves. The conference then turned to the question of a common war fund. This issue provoked a wide-ranging discussion of a plan of colonial union drawn up by Benjamin Franklin. He suggested that there should be a president general appointed by the Crown and a grand council elected by the colonial assemblies. Representation would depend on each colony's respective population. The grand council, or congress, was to have legislative power, though the president would be able to veto any measure. The new body was to be responsible for defense, relations with native peoples, and any lands added to the colonies in the future.

The proposal proved too ambitious to be acceptable either to the Crown or the provincial assemblies, both of which were concerned about a loss of authority. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable initiative that would surface again in 1775. While the conference was in session, the first hostilities broke out.

Robert Dinwiddie

Read a biography of Virginia
Governor, Robert Dinwiddie.

Read more about George
Washington's expedition
the Ohio Valley, including his
role in the Battle of Fort

In 1753, Robert Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, sent a 21-year-old militia officer named George Washington to warn the French to stop encroaching on the Ohio River. Washington was unable to convince the French envoy to withdraw, and returned to give the news to Dinwiddie. Early in 1754, Dinwiddie sent a militia force to the region. The force arrived at the forks of the Ohio and started to build a fort. They were soon ejected by a much larger French and American Indian force, which seized the strategic site and proceeded to construct a stockade on it which they named after the Governor General—Fort Duquesne.

Dinwiddie responded the following year by sending Washington, now a colonel, back with a contingent to inform the French that they were trespassing on Virginian soil and to expel them. Accompanied by about 300 men, Washington was also instructed to construct a fort where the Allegheny and Monangahela rivers join to form the Ohio (the site of present-day Pittsburgh).

Washington was unable to reach the forks of the Ohio, however. He defeated a small force of French and Native Americans but had to withdraw and, building Fort Necessity near present-day Uniontown, held his ground until forced to surrender. Defeated in this first battle of the French and Indian War, Washington and his men were released and withdrew east of the mountains.

General Edward Braddock

Read a brief biography of
General Edward Braddock.

When news of Washington's setback reached London, the ministry realized that the colonies would be unable to prevent the French advance on their own. A force of two regular regiments from Britain were sent under the command of General Edward Braddock, who was to advance into the Ohio Valley to capture the French forts. The British also looked to the Iroquois League for assistance, working through William Johnson, the superintendent of Indian affairs. Johnson was to advance north with a group of Mohawks and New York volunteers against the posts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, two French forts on New York's northern border. Governor Shirley and the New England troops were to attack Fort Niagara. Finally, a mixed force of regulars and provincials was to set out to take Louisbourg and the French cities on the St. Lawrence—Quebec and Montreal.

Governor William Shirley

Read the biography of
Massachusetts Governor
William Shirley.

Things went poorly from the start. Braddock arrived in Virginia in February 1755 and found few offers of assistance. As a result, he had difficulty acquiring both supplies and transport and was saved only when Benjamin Franklin, in his capacity as postmaster general, managed to hire some wagons and horses. Farther north, Governor Shirley managed to raise a substantial force of New Englanders, but he and Johnson experienced difficulty supplying their forces. As a result, their campaigns were seriously delayed.

Discover more about
Braddock's Defeat at
Fort Duquesne.

These setbacks set the scene for the disastrous events that followed. In July 1755, Braddock led troops to attack Fort Duquesne. The French and their Native American allies ambushed and defeated Braddock's forces a few miles from Fort Duquesne. Braddock himself was killed and the surviving troops withdrew to Philadelphia.

Discover more about the
Battle of Lake George.

The provincials at Lake George and Oswego fared even worse; they failed to advance at all. They found the logistics of moving whole armies through a wilderness beyond their means. Under the effective generalship of the Marquis Louis Joseph de Montcalm, New France enjoyed victory after victory.

The rout of Braddock's forces set the frontier ablaze, for the Delaware and Shawnee tribes saw it as an opportunity to avenge themselves on the Pennsylvanians for their lost lands. The French victory convinced them that they had nothing more to fear or gain from the British. Settlements were attacked without mercy—settlers were killed, houses were burned, and refugees flooded into eastern Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania was not the only colony to be attacked. Virginia had to raise a regiment under Washington to repel similar assaults by the Shawnee and Delaware. New York did not escape trouble, either; even though the Iroquois were considered friendly, the colonists' pretensions to control the area were now fully exposed. Nearly all the native peoples from Maine to Virginia took the opportunity proffered by the French victories to seek revenge. Only in the Carolinas, where the Cherokee supported the British, did the backcountry remain quiet.

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See how newspapers covered the French & Indian War.

Facing these problems, the colonial assembly approved funds for military defense. The colony built a line of forts from Easton on the Delaware River to Chambersburg in the Cumberland Valley. In September 1756, Colonel John Armstrong struck back, destroying the Delaware's main village at Kittanning.

Meanwhile, the British government resolved to persevere with its objectives, even though France was threatening to invade Britain itself early in 1756. Unlike the previous wars, it was now America that was engulfing Europe in war (it would be known in Europe as the Seven Years' War). First, a new commander, John Campbell, 4th Lord Loudoun, was sent to replace Braddock. Accompanying him were two more regiments of regulars.

Unfortunately, Loudoun was an ineffective decision-maker, and he arrived too late to prevent Montcalm from seizing Oswego on Lake Ontario in August 1756. The fort had been garrisoned with the remnants of Shirley's force from the 1755 campaign, but its defenses were poorly constructed and the place was short of supplies. Oswego had been an important trading post and window to the west for New York for many years; its loss was a grievous blow.

Despite their success at guerilla warfare, the French were in a perilous situation. They were greatly outnumbered by the English colonists. The French still claimed the goodwill of the majority of American Indians in the region, but even this advantage was partially nullified by the efficiency and fierceness of the pro-British Iroquois.

The British feared that the French farmers and fishermen who were the majority in Nova Scotia would rebel against the new stronghold of Halifax. Therefore, in 1755, the Acadians were given one chance to take the oath of British loyalty. Those who refused to comply were forcibly deported, losing most or all of their property in the process. Virtually all of the French peasants of Nova Scotia were forced aboard ships and dispersed throughout the other English colonies. Many perished on the journey or died of sickness. A few made heroic efforts to return to Canada over land. Others found a haven in the French territory of Louisiana, where their descendants still form a distinct ethnic and cultural group in the state of Louisiana, the Cajuns (a corruption of the word Acadians).

Loudoun, meanwhile, met further resistance when he tried to combine the provincial forces with his own. Previously, the British army had decreed that no colonial should rank ahead of any regular officer. A British lieutenant could thus give orders to a provincial colonel, creating much resentment in the process.

Another dispute concerned recruitment by the British regiments. Many indentured servants were enlisting with the army to escape the drudgery of their work. Their defection represented a serious loss to those for whom they worked.

Yet another point of tension concerned quartering. The British allowed its army to quarter its men on local inns and taverns. The colonists argued that this legislation did not apply to America. Furthermore, most American taverns were gin shops, with no stabling or accommodations. Loudoun accordingly began lodging his men in private houses. The colonists protested, but to no avail.

Loudoun by now had little faith in the military capabilities of the provincials, but realized that he could not do without them. He also realized that a more radical approach against the French was needed, namely an assault on the center of French power in the St. Lawrence. Loudoun requested an army of ten thousand regulars and a sizable fleet. His plans coincided with the creation of a new ministry in London headed by William Pitt. The new government authorized eight additional regiments, or eight thousand men, plus a fleet of twelve ships with orders to attack Louisbourg and Quebec. Loudoun sailed for Halifax in June 1757 with a considerable armada to await the forces from Britain.

Once again, events did not work out as planned. Although Loudoun arrived on schedule, the forces from Britain did not appear before July, by which time the French had gathered a powerful fleet at Louisbourg. Without command of the sea, Loudoun dared not proceed in case his army became trapped on the barren lands of Cape Breton Island. Even if the French fleet remained in port, Louisbourg was almost impossible to attack, since French naval guns could bombard the besieging force.

Find out more about the
Battle of Fort William Henry.

While Loudoun pondered his options, Montcalm and his forces attacked and destroyed Fort William Henry at the south end of Lake George, dashing British hopes for an advance through the Champlain Valley to Crown Point. General Webb at Fort Edward had decided he was not strong enough to march until reinforced by the provincial militias of New England, giving Montcalm all the opportunity he needed. The French success was marred by the brutal behavior of their native allies, many of whom had been promised revenge or plunder. They accordingly rushed in, first scalping the sick before attacking the rest. A large number of those who were not killed were carried off as captives.

When it appeared the French might win the war, perhaps regaining all of Nova Scotia, Prime Minister William Pitt turned the war around by drastically increasing aid to the American colonies and making important concessions. First, the issue of rank was settled. In the future, colonial officers would rank with the regulars. Next, Loudoun was to be replaced by General James Abercromby. Finally, the British treasury would feed and arm the colonial troops; the provincials would merely have to provide their pay, and even this expense would be reimbursed. As a result, men and supplies were quickly secured now that the proprietary government had agreed to be more flexible.

Affairs soon took a better turn for the British. In 1758, the ministry decided upon a three-pronged offensive. General Jeffery Amherst, supported by the fleet, was to command an army of fourteen thousand regulars in another attempt against Louisbourg. James Abercromby was to advance north from New York toward Montreal with British and provincial troops. Finally, Brigadier General John Forbes, commanding a mixed force of regulars and provincials, would advance westward in a new effort to capture Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio.

Lord Amherst's attack on Louisbourg was successful, the fortress finally capitulating early in July 1758. This victory helped cut off French settlers from France.

Forbes, too, was successful, though as a result of numerous troubles he did not reach his objective until November. As Forbes and his men began their march on the fort, they heard an explosion; the French commander decided to burn the fort rather than surrender it. The British rebuilt it and named it Fort Pitt after the Prime Minister. This victory also convinced many American Indians that Britain would prevail after all, accelerating a shift of tribal support away from the French.

Only at Ticonderoga, south of Crown Point, did the British suffer a major defeat. Although the provincial forces were slow to muster, Abercromby reached his first objective, the fortress of Ticonderoga, early in July. Although Ticonderoga was a stone fortification, Abercromby reasoned that if he stormed the outer entrenchments that held most of Montcalm's six thousand men, he would easily be able to take the fort. It proved to be a terrible miscalculation. Montcalm had protected his army with a chest-high fortification of trees lined with sharpened stakes. When the assault began, the British were unable to break through the enemy's lines, and thousands of regulars and colonials were killed or wounded as a result. Abercromby retreated back down Lake George to reorganize his shattered command.

Abercromby refused to advance again until he heard that Montcalm had withdrawn to face Amherst in the St. Lawrence. Offensive action was not given up altogether, however. Abercromby's ambitious quartermaster, Colonel John Bradstreet, along with a force of twenty-five hundred men mainly from New York, began an advance on the French post of Frontenac on Lake Ontario. When they reached the fort in August, they found the French defenses negligible. Frontenac was burned, along with numerous stores. Bradstreet, however, made no attempt to hold the post or reoccupy Oswego, judging the French ability to retaliate too formidable. Nevertheless, a major blow to French power had been delivered, of which the Iroquois especially took note.

Despite the overall success of the 1758 campaign, the ministry felt that there could be no relaxation of military activity until all of Canada had been conquered. Thus, in 1759 a similar three-pronged campaign was devised. This time the amphibious forces under General James Wolfe were to sail directly for Quebec. In addition, Amherst would succeed Abercromby in an operation to take Ticonderoga and Crown Point before proceeding to Montreal. Finally, General John Prideaux and William Johnson would advance on Niagara (Forbes having died at the end of the last campaign).

Read the biography of General James Wolfe.

The Death of General James Wolfe

Painting depicting The Death of Wolfe after
the Battle of Quebec.

Wolfe sailed from Halifax in early June of 1759, arriving near Quebec at the beginning of July. For the next ten weeks, he searched in vain for a way through the French defenses until he engineered one of the most daring attacks on a city in military history. Quebec stood atop a steep, rocky cliff, giving it a defensive advantage. On September 13, 1759, after leading several futile frontal attacks on this natural fortress, Wolfe quietly led 4,000 troops up a steep, narrow trail under cover of night. It was a risky, daring gambit. Wolfe had no avenue of retreat—a violation of military theory. When the sun rose over the Plains of Abraham, a broad prairie on the undefended landward side of Quebec, Montcalm saw a scarlet-coated army in full battle formation. After a single close-range exchange of musket fire, Montcalm lost his life and with it, the French empire in America. Wolfe was wounded on the battlefield and died the next day, only 32 years of age. The surrender of Quebec followed soon after the battle.

Amherst's campaign was, by comparison, a simpler affair. Once more, the provincials found it difficult to keep to Pitt's timetable. However, the French had nearly abandoned and destroyed both Ticonderoga and Crown Point before Amherst arrive, and therefore, British success was assured. Although it was too late in the season to move on to Montreal after learning of Wolfe's success in Quebec, Amherst's capture of Ticonderoga and Crown Point meant that the backcountry of New York and western Massachusetts was now secure.

In the west, Prideaux and Johnson were also victorious at Niagara. After surrounding the fort, they successfully defeated a force sent to relieve it. Although Prideaux was accidentally killed by a mortar, Johnson carried the operation to a successful conclusion on July 25, 1759.

Find out more about Major
Robert Rogers
and his Rangers.

It was during this campaign that Major Robert Rogers and his rangers made their famous raid on the St. Francis Indians near Sorel. The St. Francis Indians were Abenaki people who had been driven from their homes on the Merrimack, Connecticut, and Kennebec rivers. Rogers and his men were sent on a punitive campaign in response to devastating attacks that the Abenaki had made against English settlements. The attack on the village, which took place on October 6, amounted to little more than a massacre of men, women, and children. First, the houses were set alight; then, many survivors were shot as they attempted to swim across the St. Francis River.

The British victories in 1759 convinced most of the American Indians that further support for France was inadvisable. The issue with this decision was the outbreak of hostilities with the Cherokee. In the aftermath of Forbes's campaign, they had clashed with some settlers while returning home. Perhaps it was not coincidental that the first settlers were now beginning to encroach on Cherokee lands. The South Carolinian government called for assistance against the Cherokees, and a Scottish Highland regiment, together with some provincial forces, marched into the Cherokee heartland. The regiment destroyed the lower towns of the Cherokee, thus convincing the native peoples of the necessity for peace.

Orders were again issued by Pitt for a final campaign in 1760 to conquer Montreal. The plan was similar to that of the previous year. Three armies were to converge on Montreal. General Murray was to advance from Quebec; General Haldimand was to resume the northward movement by way of Lake Champlain; and Amherst would advance with the main force via the Mohawk River and Lake Ontario to approach from the west. Significantly, this time the army was accompanied by a large body of Iroquois. The campaign itself was nearly ruined when Murray was defeated by the French under the Chevalier Lévis early in the spring. For a few weeks it was not certain whether Quebec itself might fall to the French again. However, British reinforcements arrived by river and the French were forced to give up. Thereafter, all three British armies advanced steadily, finally linking up near Montreal at the beginning of September. The French surrendered on September 7, 1760.

By the end of 1760, French resistance in North America had virtually ceased. The only fighting still going on was between the British and the Cherokee Indians in the south, and that ended in a British victory in 1761. The Seven Years' War did continue elsewhere, with Spain becoming involved against Britain early in 1762. The overwhelming strength of British sea power, however, rapidly eroded French hopes of success. Britain, too, needed peace, primarily for financial reasons.

Learn more about the
Treaty of Paris.

Read more about the
French and Indian War.

The war-weary nations began negotiations that in February 1763 produced the decisive Treaty of Paris. Britain gained all of North America east of the Mississippi River, including Canada and Florida. With the French and Spanish menace now removed from their frontiers and the American Indians deprived of foreign support in their resistance to British expansion, the inhabitants of the coastal colonies could feel less dependent on Britain and better able to fend for themselves. Their experience with British regular forces during the war, moreover, had generated much friction, that was not softened by the American habit of trading with non-British sources in the Caribbean. Furthermore, Britain's costly struggle with France had depleted the British treasury, a fact that soon would lead Parliament to seek additional revenue by taxing the American colonies. Clearly, conditions arising from the French and Indian Wars helped set the stage for the American Revolution.

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