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Clash of Empires

How the French and Indian War Redrew the Map of North America

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, May/June 2005 | Volume 26, Number 3

In the spring of 1754, a twenty-two-year-old officer named George Washington led a small group of soldiers over the Allegheny Mountains. The Virginia militia's mission was peaceful: to construct a fort near the head of the Ohio River. It turned to disaster when a Seneca chief persuaded Washington to attack some French soldiers nearby. The skirmish lasted no more than fifteen minutes. When it was over, ten Frenchmen were dead, including a French ensign tomahawked by the Seneca chief.

These were the first shots in a war called by various names: the French and Indian War in North America, the War of Conquest in French-speaking Canada, and the Seven Years' War in Europe. "A volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire," British M.P. Horace Walpole wrote. The conflict involved the major powers of the day and redrew the map of North America. For this reason, Winston Churchill called it the "first world war."

Marking the 250th anniversary of the war, the NEH-supported exhibition "Clash of Empires: The British, French, and Indian War, 1754-1763" opens May 1 in Pittsburgh. The exhibition, which will be at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center, contains paintings, native decorative arts and costumes, period maps, and weaponry. Rare manuscripts, such as the journal of George Washington and land deeds signed by the Iroquois, will also be on display.

"This war, more than any other, marked a watershed in the kind of place North America became," says Scott Stephenson, curator of the exhibition. "There were three groups competing for the fate of North America--the British, French, and American Indians. Each felt that this area, the Ohio Valley, was absolutely crucial for its security and independence." Tensions began to mount among the groups in the 1750s as each claimed the Ohio River Valley as its own: the French by discovery, the English by proclamation, and the Ohio Indians, mainly the Seneca, Delaware, and Shawnee, by years of residency.

For the French, control of the river was strategic for the fur trade. France had claimed a large area in North America based on the seventeenth-century explorations of La Salle. French fur traders came through Canada and set up trading posts and small settlements in the Ohio country. "French security rested on having a very extensive network of native alliances," says Stephenson. Because the sparsely populated French settlements did not encroach upon the native hunting grounds, unlike the large British settlements east of the Appalachian Mountains, the Ohio Indians did not feel threatened by the French colonists.

The British claimed the region by royal charter, and colonists began moving westward to settle and trade, reducing French profits. "This alarmed the French because it was necessary for the Ohio Valley to remain free of British control because it was a direct route of travel to Louisiana, to the French interior colony," says Fred Anderson, author of Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. "So the French could not tolerate the presence of the English. The Ohio Indians had no intention of becoming dependent on the English, but the French didn't understand that."

Many of the Ohio Indians, especially the Delaware and Shawnee, had been recent immigrants to the region, moving there in the 1720s after being displaced from the East. When British military expeditions and land speculators turned to the Ohio country, the Indians stayed steadfast in their claim to the land. "They were absolutely resolute that they were not going to be moved any more," says Stephenson.

Many Indian nations played a central role in inciting the English-French conflict and in affecting its outcome. "Playing these powers off one another and shifting alliances were part of a very sophisticated diplomatic effort to preserve independence," Stephenson explains.

One group adept at intercultural negotiations was the Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of six tribes in the northeastern region of North America--Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. The confederacy also represented and claimed sovereignty over the Ohio Indians. Yet the Ohio Indians initially sided with the French and the Iroquois with the British.

A confederacy leader, a Seneca named Tanaghrisson, threatened the French, and George Washington recorded the threat in his journal in 1753:

FATHERS Both you & the English are White. We live in a Country between, therefore the Land does not belong either to one or the other; but the GREAT BEING above allow'd it to be a Place of residence for us; so Fathers, I desire you to withdraw, as I have done our Brothers the English, for I will keep you at Arm's length. I lay this down as a Tryal for both, to see which will have the greatest regard to it, & that Side we will stand by, & make equal Sharers with us: Our Brothers the English have heard this, & I come now to tell it to you, for I am not affraid to discharge you off this Land.

In reality, says Stephenson, the confederacy was not powerful enough to keep the French off its land. By enlisting the British, it could put British resources and lives at stake, sparing those of its members.

"When Washington got to the Ohio country, he misconstrued the diplomatic relations in the region. He thought the Indians there were less autonomous than they actually were. So he was maneuvered into an alliance with Tanaghrisson and was ultimately held responsible for killing Ambassador Jumonville," says Anderson.

Tanaghrisson met Washington at night and encouraged him to attack the French at dawn. While Washington and his men approached from one direction, Tanaghrisson and a small group of warriors crept toward the campsite from another. The French, seeing Washington's group, grabbed their arms. The Indians stayed back and waited. "I fortunately escaped without any wound," Washington wrote, "for the right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy's fire, and it was the part where the man was killed, and the rest wounded. I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me there is something charming in the sound."

When the musket smoke cleared, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville lay wounded, trying to explain to Washington that he was on a diplomatic mission. Before surrender was declared, Tanaghrisson struck the ambassador dead with a tomahawk to the head.

Anticipating French retaliation, the young Virginian withdrew a few miles to a large meadow, where he hastily built a small, crude stockade and named it Fort Necessity. Here, Washington suffered his first and most humiliating defeat by French reinforcements on July 3, 1754. Washington signed the surrender document, which was written in French, and unknowingly accepted responsibility for the ambassador's death. The French published the document in major European capitals.

"This was a terrible embarrassment--the assassination of an ambassador is an act of war. So Washington admitted to something he was not responsible for, giving the French the justification to declare war on Britain," says Anderson. "It was an inauspicious beginning for Washington's military career. In the first year of the war, he could do almost nothing right."

The next year Washington was given a second chance as the aide to Major General Edward Braddock on his campaign to expel the French from their stronghold at Fort Duquesne. Although familiar with the topography, the British were naove about the Indian factor. Benjamin Franklin, who helped supply the expedition, cautioned Braddock about Indian warfare. "These savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia," responded Braddock, "but upon the King's regular and disciplined troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any impression."

Braddock's hubris would haunt him. He failed to win Indian allies, and at the Battle of the Monongahela near Fort Duquesne, he fought with fourteen hundred British troops and eight Indians, including an Oneida leader named Scarouyady. Scarouyady had also been with Washington when Jumonville was killed. Although the French forces numbered only nine hundred, six hundred of which were Indian allies, they soundly defeated the British. Hundreds were killed, including General Braddock. In his 1755 journal, Washington wrote "I luckily escaped without a wound, though I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me."

During the next two years, the French and their Indian allies defeated the British in battle after battle, including the 1757 bloodbath at Fort William Henry made famous by James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. By allowing the British to leave the fort with their supplies, the French denied their Indian allies their promised plunder from the fort. To retaliate, the Indians attacked the fleeing British, at the same time breaking their alliance with the French.

The tide began to turn. William Pitt the Elder, secretary of state in Britain, assumed control of the war effort in 1758 and made treaties with the Delaware, Shawnee, and Iroquois Indians, who had severed ties with the French. The Treaty of Easton promised that in exchange for Indian neutrality the British would stay off the land west of the Allegheny Mountains. Without the aid of their Indian allies, the French surrendered Fort Duquesne, burning it to the ground before fleeing to the Allegheny River.

The French resources were stretched thin, defending their territory around the globe as Britain attacked the West Indies, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the west coast of Africa, and French holdings in India. Alone and impoverished, the French surrendered Montreal in 1760, ending the fighting in North America.

The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, ended the war and stipulated that France cede all land in North America east of the Mississippi River to Britain and the land west of the Mississippi to Spain. France lost its influence in North America, and Britain emerged as the preeminent colonial power. Despite their promise to the Ohio Indians, the British built Fort Pitt on the previous site of Fort Duquesne.

Britain's victory was to have other implications. "The war that changed the world in the eighteenth century was one that was bad for the victor," says Anderson. Discontent grew among the colonists, who became outraged by heavy taxes levied to pay for the war and by restrictions on settling beyond the Allegheny Mountains.

"British officials saw a need to impose order on a big, sprawling, disorderly empire," says Stephenson. "And the colonists believed the British were victorious because of their participation. They expected to be treated as equals, as partners in a great venture to expand the empire and defeat their enemies."

A new, separate American identity was budding. "People like George Washington were toasting the British victories and were proud to be members of the British Empire," says Stephenson. "They go from being the most patriotic Britons to American revolutionaries in just ten years."

About the Author

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in New Berlin, Wisconsin.

Funding Information

The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania received $300,000 from NEH for the exhibition "Clash of Empires: The British, French, and Indian War, 1754-1763," which opens in Pittsburgh May 1. After Pittsburgh, the exhibition will travel to Ottawa and Washington, D.C. A documentary about the war is being produced by WQED with $850,000 from NEH. Excerpts from the film accompany the exhibition; the film will be shown on public television in 2006.