The Backstory – How The French and Indian War Led to the American Revolution

The American Revolution was caused by the French and Indian War?

So many parts of American History just baffle me. Why was Washington such an accomplished general? Where did the continental congress come from? Were the English really so dense that they didn’t know increased taxes were going to tick people off?  Many of the answers can be tied back to the French and Indian War.

In the beginning was the American Revolutionary War. At least that’s what my fifth grade history teacher said. Perhaps I was snoozing in class (likely) but I don’t recall anything about the French and Indian War. And yet, in many ways, this “7 Years’ War” as it is called in England, laid the groundwork for the conflict between the colonies and the mother country. It also provided the training ground for colonial soldiers, organizational structure for the new government, and set the initial conditions for American relations with the Native Americans. Pretty significant for a forgotten war!

The map below displays locations of most of the forts related to the French and Indian War. Many of these have visitor centers and good museums. If you are looking for a nice route through the north east US and parts of Canada, route yourself through these dots!

The Lead-up to the French and Indian War

In the 200 years leading up the to American Revolution, four European countries vied for power over the North American territories.

The Dutch started their exploration with the Dutch East India Company in 1602, and spent many years trying to find a “Northwest Passage” to India.  They founded New Netherland in 1623, with its capital New Amsterdam (now New York).  This capital was taken by the British 1664 when they threatened an attack on the outnumbered settlement.

The Spanish explored the southern areas and eventually held Florida, Mexico and the areas of Central and South America.

The French mounted a two-pronged effort.  The first prong was in the North.  Jacques Cartier explored the St Lawrence River in 1535 and 1541, also looking for that elusive Northwest Passage.  Samuel de Champlain explored the Lake Huron area and began trade relations with the Iroquois Indians and other tribes.  He was the first European to see Lake Champlain, named in his honor, and he founded Quebec in 1608.  The second prong of French exploration came in through present day Louisiana as Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored the Mississippi river heading north.

The British sponsored an expedition to the Newfoundland in 1497 and then mostly ignored North America until 1560.  Queen Elizabeth enlisted Martin Frobisher and others, again to search for that Northwest Passage.  The first colony was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia.  In 1610 England settled colonies in Newfoundland, and later Plymouth (1620), Maine (1622), New Hampshire (1623) with many more to follow.

A Series of Wars
The Beaver Wars

Of course this means that four European countries with their agendas of Empire Building collided frequently and dramatically with the native people of North America.  People being who they are, the Native American tribes were also in a continuous struggle for control of the land..  From 1608 to 1700 the Iroquois Indians, originally from the area of Maine and Acadia, slowly expanded their power through warfare all the way to present day Fort Bend, Indiana.  They were often supported by Dutch firearms and were eventually stopped in Indiana by the Anishinaabeg Confederacy using French firearms.  Already the various tribes were aligning with the new European trappers, traders and settlers, each with their own political alliances.  This period was called the Beaver Wars, because from the European’s perspective the fighting was for the purpose of controlling the fur trade.  About 1700, the Iroquois, who had been enemies of the French, decided that the growing English population was much more of a threat to their dominance in the region, especially in the Ohio Valley.  They then formed alliances with the French and supported the French efforts to build forts along the St. Lawrence River and elsewhere.

The French and Indian Wars (notice plural)

These were also known as the Intercolonial Wars.  These included 4 wars running from 1690 to 1768, and were all extensions of the wars being fought in Europe.  If the French and English were fighting in Europe, their colonies were fighting in North America.

The French and Indian War (singular)

This is the American name for what is known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War.  In America, it ran from 1754-1763.  It is the first of the intercolonial wars to actually begin in the Americas rather than in Europe.  Europeans date the Seven Years’ War as 1756-1763 (seven years).

At the start of the war, the French North American colonies had a population of roughly 60,000 settlers, compared with 2 million in the British North American Colonies.  The outnumbered French depended on the Indians to balance the power.  The disputed territory included Acadia, the northern region of Maine, the area south of Montreal to include the Hudson River and Lake Champlain, as well as the entire area around the Ohio River in what is now Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The Kick-off

Although France and England were not officially at war in 1753, the friction between the colonists of the two countries was escalating.  The region south of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, called Ohio Country was the disputed territory of the day.  The French colonists were seeking control of the area because it was quite fertile and would connect them to their territories in the South.  Early explorers had placed metal markers down the Mississippi claiming it as French which would give them the right of “First Exploration”.

The English, of course wanted to move west.  Their population was increasing quickly and the Ohio Valley was prime farming land.  A long-standing hatred between the French and the English only made the rivalry more intense.

And don’t forget the Native Indians.  Several tribes were fighting each other for control of this land, although the Iroquois had the upper hand in most of the area.

Orders to Leave

In late 1753, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie assigned George Washington, a 22-year-old Lt. Colonel, the task of occupying, fortifying and defending the Upper Ohio Valley against a French army heading south from Canada.  Washington met with Captain La Force at Fort LeBoeuf, near Erie, Pennsylvania, to deliver Governor Dinwiddie’s letter demanding “peaceable departure” of the French.  The commander was polite, but firm.  He replied “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.”  Washington decided to quickly head home to give Gov. Dinwiddie the news.

In response, the Governor assigned Washington to head back and establish a military presence in the area.  The Lt. Colonel chose a meadow about 30 miles south of modern-day Pittsburgh, which we now know as Fort Necessity, and established a small fort there.

George Washington in Uniform of Officer
George Washington in Uniform of a British Officer
The First Battle – Jumonville Glenn

Investigating reports from his Indian allies, a portion of Washington’s troops went to confirm reports that a French contingent had attacked the home of a British settler.  They encountered the French at a location now called Jumonville Glen.  It is impossible to know exactly what happened next.  But historians seem to agree that Washington placed his men a little too close, making them visible to the French lookouts who called the alarm.  What is clear, however is that Washington ordered his men to fire.  At the end of the skirmish 10 French soldiers were dead, several scalped by the Indian allies.

Of course, the French charged Washington with an unprovoked attack in time of peace on members of a French embassy.  And so it begins.

The Progress

Fort Duquesne [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Ohio Valley) Even before news had reached Dinwiddie of the battle of Jumonville Glen, He had sent a company of 40 men to the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers (modern Pittsburgh) to build a small stockaded fort.  French forces were sent, under orders by Governor Duquesne, to stop that construction and take control of the critical confluence.  That force, led by Claude-Fierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, was 500 men strong.  They graciously allowed the English to leave the small fort they were building.  Purchasing the English soldiers’ construction tools, the French completed the fort and named it Fort Duquesne.  (This fort would later be re-taken by the English and named Fort Pitt.)

Fort Necessity [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Ohio Valley)  Meanwhile, back at Fort Necessity, the Canadians attacked the small English force in retaliation for the attack at Jumonville Glen.  On July 3rd Washington surrendered and left in disgrace.  The failures at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, as well as a surrender document that showed Washington apologizing for the Jumonville attack, left Washington in poor standing with the English.  This would affect his career with them later, as well as his attitude toward the British as the American Revolution began.

The Mother Countries Get Involved

In 1755, both the French and English begin to send troops to the Americas to reinforce the colonial forces.  Throughout 1755, the British, always stronger at sea than the French, harassed French shipping, attempting to slow down the flow of goods and troops to the battlefields.  The French and British homelands did not officially recognize the French and Indian War through a declaration of war until 1756.  They were actively involved in various ways, for at least a year before the formal declaration.

Fort Beausejour [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Acadia) The British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Mockton was given the task of taking and holding the territory including Acadia (roughly modern Maine and into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  In June of 1755, he captured Fort Beausejour, cutting off the French Fortress of Louisbourg from reinforcements.

Fortress of Louisbourg [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Acadia) In order to cut supplies from Louisbourg, Nova Scotia’s British Governor Charles Lawrence ordered the deportation of the French-speaking Acadian population form the area.  Colonel Mockton’s forces removed thousands of Acadians, chasing down and attacking those who resisted.  Many of these Acadians relocated to the Louisiana French colonies.  The term “Cajun” is a modification of the original term Acadian.

The Battle of the Wilderness

(Ohio Valley) On July 9, 1755 British General Braddock is defeated near Fort Duquesne, (now Pittsburgh).  This leaves the British colonists in the western settlements undefended.

The Battle of Lake George [fa icon=”fa-globe”]

(Lake George) William Johnson, arrived at the southern end of Lac Saint Sacrement on August 28, 1755 and renamed it Lake George in honor of his sovereign, George II.   The plan was to come up through Lake George, past Lake Champlain and eventually hold Crown Point.  This would effectively destroy the ability of the French to defend Canada. 

Declaration of War

Finally, May 8, 1756 Great Britain declares war on France, who declares war in return.  Although the colonists have been fighting for almost two years since George Washington fought the battle of Jumonville Glen, This date marks the beginning of what the British now call the Seven Years War.

Fort Oswego [fa icon=”fa-globe”] [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Lake Ontario – Southeastern Side)  This was the first major battle in the area surrounding Lake Ontario, now known as Upstate New York.   The British had built this fort and two others on Lake Ontario (Fort George, Fort Ontario) with the plan to eventually take Fort Niagara.  The French had the only large naval vessels on Lake Ontario and launched a winter attack    The French attacked Fort Oswego by land and from the lake, capturing Fort Oswego on August 14, 1756.

Fort William Henry [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Lake George) Fort William Henry was poorly garrisoned by British regulars and militia led by Lieutenant Colonel George Monro.   In August 1757,  the French, led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, included nearly 2000 Indians from several tribes.

The surrender included the withdrawal of troops, with the provision that the British troops would be protected by the French and they withdrew.  However, the Indians violated this agreement and attacked the British as they withdrew, killing and scalping many men and capturing women and children.

Louisbourg [fa icon=”fa-globe”] [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

The Siege of Louisbourg by the British in July 1758, was essential to the eventual loss of Quebec in 1759 and the remainder of French North America in 1760.   The Fortress of Louisbourg blocked the entrance to the St. Lawrence River, making it impossible for the British to attack Quebec.  The British tried initially in 1757 to take the fort, but was repelled by a strong blockade of the French navy.

The British made a second attempt in 1758.  Although the French attempted to use the same blockade tactic that had earlier succeeded, they had fewer ships available because of commitments elsewhere.  The British gathered a massive invasion force and took the fort, after a long siege, on July 26, 1758.

Fort Frontenac [fa icon=”fa-globe”]

(Lake Ontario) Fort Frontenac was a French trading post and military fort built in 1673.  It is located where the St. Lawrence River leaves Lake Ontario.  The Fort controlled the fur trade for the area and enabled the French to trade with the Iroquois.  This was often a problem because in general, the Iroquois were allied to the British.

Because it was in a strategic position to supply the western forts, the British attacked the fort in August 1758.  The Fort was quickly taken and the garrison surrendered and were allowed to leave.

British Indian Peace

The British make peace with the Iroquois, Shawnee and Delaware indians in a treaty signed October 21, 1758.

Iroquois, Shawnee, Delaware sign peace treaty with England.
Iroquois, Shawnee, Delaware sign peace treaty with England.
Fort Duquesne becomes Fort Pitt  [fa icon=”fa-globe”] [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Pittsburgh, PA) Fort Duquesne was built by the French in 1754, at the point where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River meet to form the Ohio.  This point is now the center of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.   It was an important point for controlling the Ohio River Valley area, a huge valley with great potential for settlement and trade.  The French claimed it as theirs because it was part of the drainage area of the Mississippi River.  The British disagreed.

In 1753, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia Colony, Robert Dinwiddle, sent a letter to the French Commander requesting that they leave.  The courier was George Washington.  Not surprisingly the commander refused to leave and Washington returned to report.

The French held the fort until November 1758, through British raids in 1755 and 1758.  Finally in November 1758, the British, under John Forbes, captured the site, after the French destroyed the fort the day before.  The Fort was rebuilt by the British and named Fort Pitt, centered in present-day Pittsburgh.

Fort Ticonderoga (Fort Carillon)  [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Lake George)  An overwhelming British force of more than 11,000 men converged in the area around the Fort Carillon.  Because only 400 men were garrisoned there at the time, the commander withdrew his forces.  The British then occupied the fort and renamed it Ticonderoga.

Fort Niagara [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Lake Ontario) Fort Niagara was built by the French as a supply point between the French province of Canada the their forts in the Ohio Valley.  It was, therefore, a key target for the British in their attempt to control the Ohio Country.

British forces arrived July 6, 1759 and began a siege that lasted until the French surrendered on July 26.

Crown Point [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

(Lake Champlain)  The French built Fort Saint-Frederic here in 1731 to protect the traders in this area.   It was a strategic location at the narrows of Lake Champlain.  Whoever controlled this point, controlled navigation through the critical water ways from Canada into the British territories and ultimately via the Hudson River to New York.

After these two battles, the British control the western frontier.

Quebec [fa icon=”fa-globe”]

(Canada) British win the Battle of Quebec.  Montcalm and Wolfe die in battle.  September 13, 1759.  French attempt to retake Quebec via siege which fails May 16, 1760.

Montreal [fa icon=”fa-globe”]

(Canada) Falls to the British, September 8, 1760.  Letters are signed surrendering Canada to the British.

Fort Detroit [fa icon=”fa-globe”]

(Detroit MI)  Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit or Fort Detroit was a fort established by the French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701. It was built to try to keep the British from moving west. (The site of the former fort is now within the city of Detroit in the U.S. state of Michigan, an area bounded by Larned Street, Griswold Street, and the Civic Center, now occupied by office towers)

British flag is raised over Detroit ending the war September 15, 1760.

Cherokee Peace Treaty

British make peace with Cherokee, 1761

Treaty of Paris

February 10, 1763 – All French possessions easy of the Mississippi except New Orleans become British territory.  All French possessions west of the Mississippi are given to the Spanish.  France regains Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Lucia.

Indian Wars

Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas proposes a coalition of tribes (Ottawas, Potawatomi, Hurons) to attack Detroit.

Battle of Detroit [fa icon=”fa-globe”]  [fa icon=”fa-camera”]

May 9, 1763 Pontiac lays siege to Detroit.  They later destroy forts Venango, LeBoeuf and Presque Isle.

Smallpox

July 1763 – Men of the garrison at Fort Pitt give blankets infected with smallpox to chiefs.  An epidemic is spread through the indians and they are forced to retreat.

Ottawas Defeated

October 31, 1763 Pontiac retreats and their power over the Ohio valley is broken.

 

The Consequences

By the end of the French and Indian War, the political and economic positions of all of the players had changed dramatically.

The French

The French were no longer signficant players on the North American continent.  The Treaty of Paris removed them completely from Canada and from the Mississippi River region.  They did pick up some islands in the Caribbean which gave them sugar plantations.  This was seen at the time to be more important than the area Voltaire had called a  “few acres of snow” that they had lost in Canada.

The French were in debt by the end of the war and of course held a bit of a grudge against the English, although there was nothing new there.  In later years, the French would prove immensely helpful to the colonists in their efforts to wage a revolution against the mother country.

The French Colonists

A great deal of land that was under French influence was suddenly now British.  It is true that much of the area was very sparsely inhabited.  But in areas like Montreal and Quebec, the change in ruler did not immediately result in a change of culture or language. Religion was also an issue.  The British colonists were generally Protestant Christians and highly opposed to the “Papists” from France.  The English rulers and Canada did eventually make provisions to allow French Catholics to maintain their religion under the new rule.

One group that was severely injured were the Acadians pushed out of Louisbourg.  The French population of the area around New Brunswick were effectively eliminated.  Some were killed, others relocated.  The Cajuns in Louisiana come from a group of these immigrants.

The English

The English now had control of a great deal of territory and a huge amount of debt.  Their governmental systems were spread extremely thin, especially given the slow transportation and communication of the period.  During the war they built the skills of the local militias which were needed to fight the French.  They also provided weapons, provisions and forts that would later be used against them in the Revolutionary War.

The debt was also a huge issue for the English after the war.  Many of the taxes and trade requirements that made the colonists so angry, were implemented with the specific purpose of re-filling the royal coffers.  The English were quite willing to place burdens on the colonies to do this.  After all, the purpose of the colonies was to provide income to the king!

The British Colonists

Even after fighting with the British military for several years, many colonists did not receive the same pay, or the same respect as the Royal armies from England.  The division between the colonists and their British governors and generals was growing. By the time of the Boston Tea Party, the belief that colonists were not treated fairly was ready to boil over.

At the same time, the colonists were now better prepared to fight a war than at any other time.  Military leaders, such as George Washington, and many others, gained their primary training while serving with the British against the French.

The Indians

By no means a limited player in the French and Indian war, the various Indian tribes played their own politics and often played the French against the English hoping to win in the middle.  The various tribes would ally with the side that suited them at the time, occasionally switching alliances mid-stream.

Even so, the strength of the Indian populations was greatly decreased by the end of the war.  The position of the settlers was more entrenched, all the way to Detroit.  Settlers were supported and defended by forts placed at strategic positions throughout the western settlements.  The Indians also lost population from diseases carried by the European settlers.

Conclusion

The French and Indian War was just one of many European Wars.  The wars had many names and many “causes” but in the end they were always about power and control of territory.  This war was no different.  But the outcome was clearly not what either the French, the British, or even the Indians had in mind.  Out of this war came a people that were almost ready to call themselves a nation, and defend themselves in the process.

 

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