Origin of the States, Supplemental 2: French and Indian War

Origin of the States, Supplemental 2: French and Indian War

This is a supplemental, the second of several … we’ll call it part 13b of 50 in an occasional series.

This is a long one.

Here’s a description of what North America looked like at the middle of the 18th century. Great Britain had its 13 colonies on the continent’s East Coast. France had its colonies in Acadia, Quebec, and Louisiana, along with all those wilderness forts and trading posts scattered throughout the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. And Spain had the Florida peninsula, along with a bunch of missions way out in that patch of map the British still labelled "Here there be dragons." There were Russians on the West Coast, though that’s not something that would ever really matter all that much. And in the middle of everything, there were still many dozens of Native American groups, most of whom still thought they might have a chance to hold onto their home territories, and some of them didn’t yet realize there was a threat. The North American table was set, and the boundaries were … well, not drawn exactly. We’ve seen how good British colonial folks were at drawing boundaries. But the boundaries existed, at least, even if they were only laid out in hand-wavy language that boiled down to "out there … somewhere." It was inevitable that the British colonists would bump up against one sooner or later.

That bump would come to be called the French and Indian War, and it turned out to be one of larger reasons why I call this series the "Origin of the States" and not the "Origin of the Colonies."

The French and Indian War is probably the most significant conflict fought on the North American continent that most people forget happened. I sometimes use that phrase for the War of 1812, but this one was a bigger deal. There aren’t many preserved sites related to it, so there’s not much to photograph that justifies me going into it at length in pictures and captions, though I do have a direct ancestral link. There’s an apocryphal tale told by the Ojibwe Indians that says French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm died on the Plains of Abraham in the arms of a seventh-great-grandfather of mine, so I might tell that story if I ever go to Quebec. (I’ll discuss the veracity of this and other claims after a trip I hope to take in September.)

It all started at the point of land shown in the not-great picture above, taken with a bad camera in 2012 at a construction site in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers come together to form the Ohio at a point called the Forks. Both the British and French had their eyes set on control of the Ohio Valley, and both sides knew the Forks would be essential to securing that control. The British actually thought they’d gotten there first when an Englishman set up a trading post in 1740, but then the French started stalking around the place building forts in the wilderness and making the British nervous about things. In January of 1754, the Governor of Virginia–who claimed this territory because the descendants of William Penn were too busy arguing with Maryland about the 40th parallel to notice Virginians crossing it–sent a garrison of British soldiers to build a fort of their own at the Forks. They were about halfway through the project when a much larger force of French showed up and told them to get lost. Heavily outnumbered, the British got lost, and the French knocked down the little British fort and built a much fancier fort of their own.

As you’d expect, this put the British Virginians in a bad mood. They weren’t going to stand for this. This meant war. On the upside, the British had a strong population advantage in North America. About 1.5 million British colonists lived in the fast-growing settlements along the coast in 1750, compared to about 75,000 French trappers and traders scattered in an arc that reached across half the continent. On the downside, the British didn’t have much of an army stationed in the colonies. But then again, neither did the French. Both sides would have to use militia to fight their war, at least until the homeland could send in the troops. In the mean time, both sides turned to the natives and started looking for allies.

Here, the French had the distinct advantage, as they had established much stronger ties with a much more diverse collection of Native American groups. They were able to get the Wabanaki Confederation from what are now Canada’s Maritime Provinces to sign on, along with various northeastern Algonquins, the three allied Anishinaabe nations (the Ottawas, Potawatomis, and Ojibwes), and the Shawnee of the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys. The British were only able to beg help from the Iroquois Confederacy of upstate New York and the Cherokee from Tennessee … at least until 1758, when they ticked the Cherokee off. So for the first couple of years of the war, things just didn’t go the way Great Britain and her colonists would have liked. Things went bad enough, in fact, that British blundering almost managed to kill a talented young lieutenant colonel from Virginia named George Washington. (The Brits would probably look back and wish they’d messed this one up just a tad bit more in later years.)

But then in 1756, things got complicated as events in Europe absorbed the attention of both home nations. It seemed that Austria wanted to reclaim Silesia from the Prussians … and isn’t it always Silesia and the Prussians? (As a proud American, I can honestly say that sentence means absolutely nothing to me.) Britain and Prussia were allies, and since France was already at war with Britain in the colonies, they decided to just go ahead and make it a thing and signed on to fight beside the Austrians … even though they hated the Austrians. But that’s just how things go in Europe. As with any European war, you can really get deep into the weeds if you start digging too far into any of it, so we’ll just sum it up by saying that this all turned into a really big, continent spanning conflict known as the Seven Years’ War that forced all the European powers to pick sides, and the French and Indian War just got sucked right into the thick of it. Britain and France committed to fighting even harder against each other, but things worked out much better for Britain in Europe, so France wasn’t able to send the reinforcements their North American armies needed to keep the fight going. The North American tide turned completely, and in 1759 the British forces rolled up the St. Lawrence and decimated the French, grabbing Quebec City, Montreal, and pretty much everything else.

The war in Europe raged on another four years, but when everybody sat down in Paris in 1763 to decide who won what, the negotiators remembered what the British had done in Canada and told them they could keep it. Spain, meanwhile, hadn’t been involved in the North American fighting, but they’d joined the Seven Years’ War in Europe to help out the French just as the French were losing the thread, so they wound up having to give Florida to the British. But France reimbursed Spain for the loss by giving them the Louisiana territory … something that will be kind of a big deal once I get back to the state origin stories. France, meanwhile, was kicked off the North American continent. They still held onto a few islands in the Caribbean–Haiti would turn into kind of a big thing for France in a couple of generations–but as for the mainland, they were out of the colony business.


The funny thing about the Seven Years’ War and its French and Indian theater is that it’s easy to miss just how consequential an event this was. It seems like sort of a little thing in the list of wars, and I know American history books undersell it, but it set up the conditions that would lead directly to the end of the Bourbons and fall of the French monarchy, the quarter-century of near-constant warfare from the French Revolutionary Wars all the way up to Waterloo, and all the revolutions that would wrack Europe between 1789 and 1848. Europe was always a convoluted soap opera of international intrigue far too complicated for mere mortals to ever comprehend, but the Seven Years’ War changed the plot significantly.

In North America, the consequences were simpler, but they bore down with more weight on the common British colonist. The British let the French speakers of Quebec stick around, which would result in a province full of confusing road signs two centuries later, but for reasons mostly to do with fishing, they kicked all the French-speakers out of the Acadia colony and replaced them with new settlers from England. This added a new set of British colonies full of loyal Englishmen who felt very little connection to the nutcases down in Boston.

(Those Acadians will pop up later, though they’ll be missing a syllable.)

Meanwhile, the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi had gone from active control by the French to a sort of passive control by a declining and disinterested Spanish Empire. And while you’d think this would be good for British colonists looking to push west with renewed vigor, King George III had other ideas. For the most part, the British government had taken an increasingly hands-off approach to running the colonies. The colonial assemblies had increasingly been left to fend for themselves, and this had been just fine with the colonists, who had gotten used to a certain level of freedom and self-determination. But George III had taken the throne just as the French and Indian part of the Seven Years’ War was wrapping up, and all those colonies suddenly caught the attention of the new King and the government formed in his name.

For one thing, George didn’t think it was all that good an idea to let the colonists go running all over the continent willy-nilly, grabbing up lands from Indians who might like to keep them, so he issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This limited colonial settlement to a line drawn down the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, far east of the Ohio Valley everybody’d just fought a war to secure. He was hoping he might divert settlers north to Canada or south to Florida, but he mostly just made a bunch of people mad.

On top of that, though, was the notion George and his ministry had that maybe it might be a good idea to have the colonies contribute a little more to their upkeep and protection. The colonies weren’t really paying much in the way of taxes at that point, and George had just spent an enormous amount of money fighting a war to keep them all from being overrun by the French, after all. The least they could do was pay a little bit for a stamp.

Posted by Clint Midwestwood on 2017-06-29 05:27:48

Tagged: , Pennsylvania , Pittsburgh , 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *