The French and Indian War
A Matter of Colonial Policy

By Frank H. Kirtley

The day dawned cold and cloudy.  And the sound of the dry leaves rattling in the wind made the morning seem just a little colder.  But as Jean Baptiste, engage militare for Louis XV and the French government, came gradually awake to his surroundings, the cold weather reminded him of two things:  It would likely soon be snowing, and he desperately needed a fire and a hot cup of coffee to warm himself a little.  Then, perhaps, well-fortified with food and warm clothing, he could continue his journey to the rendezvous with the keel-boat, which would take his furs to market in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, just the other side of a range of wooded hills, Faith Morgan was stirring the morning’s breakfast fire in the family’s two-room cabin.  Her two children were still asleep in the loft of the cabin and her husband had dressed and left an hour ago to tend to the farm’s livestock.  Life on the frontier for a young English family was certainly not easy.  But the investment that Faith and her husband had made in their small farm promised a bright future.  And by the grace of God, with the clearing of more land and a good crop, next season would find them able sell some of their yield on the open market.

As illustrated, these were two vastly different ways of life for both of these fictional individuals, and, in like manner, two vastly different political and economic philosophies of colonization by their home countries.  Both France and England took an early interest in colonizing the New World, but they had gone about it in completely different ways.  LaSalle and other French explorers, more than 100 years before, had claimed all the territory in North America from the Appalachians on the east to the Mississippi River on the west, and from Canada on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south.  It was a great and fertile range of territory.   New France grew and prospered along the St. Lawrence River, across to the region of the Great Lakes, and south, into the territory of Louisiana.  And while French missionaries and explorers spread a strong heritage of Roman Catholicism and feudal government, and traveled great distances in doing so, large, permanent French settlements were few.  French colonists were overwhelmingly engaged in the fur trade and in other economic pursuits with the various Indian tribes who lived in the region.  And the living habits of the French traders were similarly, nomadic.

Frank Kirtley in the garb of a French frontiersman
Frank Kirtley in the garb of a French frontiersman, ca. 1810.
Photo courtesy of Charlie Harrison

By the mid-eighteenth century, the population of New France in America was only around 80,000 people.  And 55,000 lived in Canada.  On the other hand, the English colonists numbered around 1,500,000 people.  While their claims to land extended west of the Appalachians, as a matter of reality, their settled areas had been largely restricted to the eastern seaboard of the continent.  The mountains represented, if only temporarily, a natural barrier to westward expansion.

Economically, the English colonists were engaged in a wide variety of agricultural and industrial occupations.  A series of thriving cities had been established from Massachusetts to Georgia and the seaports, south of Virginia, guaranteed year-round access to the colonies.  A developing system of roads facilitated the shipping of goods throughout the colonies.  And with their largely Protestant background, the English colonists had become accustomed to a high level of political, social and economic freedom.  Even without the traditional rivalries between the home countries in Europe, conflicts between the English colonies and New France, because of these different approaches, were virtually assured at some future date.

Since the late 17th century, France and England had engaged in a series of inconclusive wars which involved not only Europe, but also, North America.  In 1754, the final war began which would decide, once and for all, which of these countries would control the North American continent and the social and economic development of the future.  The matter that made this, the final French and Indian War, different from the earlier conflicts was that it began in North America. All previous wars between the French and English had begun in Europe, and with the exception of King George's War (1744 – 1748), no major battles had been fought in North America.

The main reason that the French and Indian War began in the New World, involved the Ohio Country.  The issue of colonization and development had finally come to maturity.  Both the English and the French claimed the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Beginning in the 1740s both countries had merchants engaged in the fur trade with the Indians in Ohio. By the 1750s, however, English colonists, especially the investors in a land speculation venture called The Ohio Company, also hoped to convert the wilderness into viable farms.

In the 1750s, as a prelude to the coming war, the French and the English each moved to deny the other access to the Ohio Country.  In the early 1750s, French soldiers captured several English trading posts. They also built Fort Duquesne (modern-day Pittsburgh) which would enable them to defend their territory from English threats.  In 1752, the French and their Indian allies destroyed a Miami village called Pickawillany, in what is now western Ohio, that had been dealing with English traders.  That fight proved to be only one of many such fights which would occur in the next 10 years.

In 1754, George Washington and a small force of Virginia militiamen, by order of Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia, marched to the Ohio Country to drive the French from the region. Hoping to capture Fort Duquesne, Washington, instead, was surprised at the Battle of Great Meadows by a force from Ft. Duquesne lead by French Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers.  Washington had halted his force a few miles east of Fort Duquesne and constructed Fort Necessity, a hastily built earthen and stockade fort, in a tactically unsound meadow.  If he could not drive the French from the area, he would at least contest their presence with his own fort. A combined force of French soldiers and their native allies overwhelmed Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754, marking the start of the French and Indian War in the North America.  England, however, did not officially declare war until 1756 although the conflict had actually begun two years earlier.

The next few years witnessed French successes on the battlefield against the English, including General Edward Braddock's defeat in 1755.  In 1755, The British sent General Braddock from England to America as commander of the British Colonial forces.  But on his way to expel the French from Fort Duquesne, his first campaign, he was surprised by the French and badly routed, losing his life in the process.  The outnumbered French continued to dominate the battlefield for the next three years, soundly defeating the English in battles at Fort Oswego and Fort Ticonderoga.  Perhaps the most notorious battle of the war was the French victory at Fort William Henry, which ended in a massacre of British soldiers by Indians allied with the French. The battle and ensuing massacre was captured for history--though not accurately--by James Fennimore Cooper in his classic The Last of the Mohicans.

As demonstrated by Braddock’s defeat, and other British disasters, the major cause for the French victories during this period was the able assistance of their Indian allies.  Ohio Country Indians enjoyed trading with both the English and the French.  However, most tribes feared the large number of British colonists in North America.  Indians west of the Appalachian Mountains feared that the number of English colonists would continue to grow. And as the English population increased, the Indians believed that more white settlers would flood into the west seeking farm-land, driving the Indians from their hunting land.  This was a reason for war.

In 1757 the tide turned in favor of the English.  The British began to make peace with important Indian allies and, under the direction of Lord William Pitt began adapting their combat tactics and general strategy to fit the territory and landscape of the American frontier. The British had a further stroke of good fortune at that time when the French were simply abandoned by many of their Indian allies.  Exhausted by years of battle, outnumbered and outgunned by the British, the French collapsed during the years 1758-59.  Further Pitt (the English Prime Minister) determined strategically that the best way that England could defeat the French in Europe was first to conquer the French in the New World.  Accordingly, in 1758, a formidable number of British soldiers, along with an impressive naval armada, arrived in North America to carry out Pitt's plan. With colonial assistance, British soldiers captured Fort Duquesne that year. In 1759, the English captured Fort Niagara and finished the campaign year in September with a massive defeat of the French at Quebec, France's major city in the New World.  Montreal fell the following year, leaving England in control of France's possessions in North America.

The French and Indian War, called the “Seven Years War” in Europe, continued for three more years, not only in Europe, but also in Africa and Asia.  But for all intents and purposes, the war in America was over by 1760.  It was the bloodiest American war in the 18th century and it took more lives than the American Revolution.  In 1763, both sides signed the Treaty of Paris which formally concluded the war.  The end result in the New World was French loss of all of its colonies in North America to the English. England had gained most of modern-day Canada and  land between the Atlantic seaboard and the Mississippi River, with the exception of what is now Florida.  Although French territory had been ceded by treaty to England, the British did not have firm control over most of it.  American Indians, including those in the Ohio Country, stood ready to defend their territory, as before the war, from the colonists' westward expansion.  Most tribes hoped that friendly trading arrangements could be made, but they also continued to fear the large number of English colonists in the New World.

 Finally, while the results of the war effectively ended French political and cultural influence in North America, the war also had two more subtle and far-reaching results. First, the future of the economic and political development of the North American continent was virtually assured.  British colonies would continue to move forward on the basis of a mercantile and agricultural economy.  And English law and political thought would provide the governing basis.  Secondly, although the war seemed to strengthen England's hold on the colonies, the effects of the French and Indian War played a major role in a worsening relationship between England and its colonies.  This political oppression and narrow-mindedness eventually led to the American Revolution, the Revolutionary War and American independence.

Feather Grey

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