French and Indian War (1754-1763), the last of four North American wars waged from 1689 to 1763 between the British and the French. In these struggles, each country fought for control of the continent with the assistance of Native American and colonial allies. The French and Indian War differed from previous confrontations, however. The earlier wars consisted primarily of skirmishes between small regular units of the European powers aided by local militiamen. The French and Indian War was part of a 'great war for empire,' a determined and eventually successful attempt by the British to attain a dominant position in North America, the West Indies, and the subcontinent of India. Although the French and Indian War began in America, it expanded into Europe as the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), and at the same time into Asia as the Third Carnatic War (see Carnatic Wars). The French and Indian War not only stripped France of its North American empire, it also caused Britain to change its relationship to its colonies, a change that eventually led to the American Revolution.
By the end of the 17th century, the British had established flourishing colonial settlements along the Atlantic Coast in New England and in the Chesapeake Bay region. At the same time, France had founded small communities along the St. Lawrence River and had claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley, following the expeditions of French explorers Louis Joliet and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. These North American colonies became part of an intense rivalry between Great Britain and France. Each country tried to equal or surpass the economic, political, and military power of the other through colonization, alliances, and warfare.
Beginning in 1689, Britain fought a century-long series of wars with France and its ally, Spain. On three occasions prior to the French and Indian War, these hostilities spilled over into the western hemisphere where overseas colonies could provide important advantages. Britain and France competed to control the valuable fur trade on the North American mainland and the rich sugar production on the islands of the West Indies. Both nations received military assistance from colonists in these wars, but also relied on the help of Native American peoples who participated because of their own rivalries for land and power.
The first of these conflicts was King William’s War (1689-1697), known in Europe as the War of the League of Augsburg. In North America, this war consisted of a number of skirmishes that produced no changes in territory. The New England militia and their Native American allies, the Iroquois, fought against French troops and their Algonquian Native American allies on the northern frontier in the American colonies and in Canada. The New Englanders captured Port Royal, the capital of French Acadia (now the portion of Canada that includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), but the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) that ended the war in Europe also returned Acadia to France.
The next conflict was Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), known in Europe as the War of the Spanish Succession. During this war, the French and British again fought battles along the New England frontier. However, the northern region of New York remained quiet because the Iroquois adopted a policy of “aggressive neutrality,” selling furs to both the French and the English but refusing to fight for either side. The major battle was a British and colonial attempt to capture Québec in 1710. Although the expedition failed, Britain used victories in Europe to gain significant additional territory in the Peace of Utrecht (1713-1714). From France, Britain obtained Newfoundland, Acadia, the Hudson Bay region of northern Canada, and greater access to the Native American fur trade. From Spain, France’s ally, Britain acquired the Mediterranean fortress of Gibraltar and trading privileges in Spanish America. These gains enhanced Britain’s commercial supremacy and gave it extensive territories in North America.
A new conflict, King George’s War (1744-1748), began outside of North America in 1739 when Spain tried to halt commerce between its North American colonies and Britain. This trade war became part of a general European conflict, the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). In 1745 New England militiamen captured the French naval fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River), but the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) returned the fortress to France.
|III||BEGINNING OF THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR|
The last of the conflicts between Britain and France for control of North America was the French and Indian War. It began in the struggle for control of the Ohio Valley. For more than a generation, the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of several Native American nations from the Iroquoian language family, dominated a middle ground between the French and British colonies in North America. The Iroquois, originally centered in western New York, had gained control of a vast region in the interior of the continent by alliances with other Native American peoples and had successfully excluded the European nations from this territory. The Iroquois were able to maintain their power against that of both the British and the French, but this three-way balance of power began to break down during the 1740s. British traders penetrated deep into the Ohio country and established direct relations with tribal groups who previously had been controlled by the Iroquois or had traded only with the French.
|A||Rivalry for the Ohio Valley|
The Ohio company, an association of land speculators based in Virginia, encouraged the British excursions. The company had received a grant of 500,000 acres from the British king and wanted to move traders and settlers into this interior region. In 1753 Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia, who was also a leading member of the Ohio Company, dispatched 21-year-old George Washington on his first military mission. Washington carried a message to the French, warning them to leave the region. In the following year Governor Dinwiddie ordered the construction of a fort at the forks of the Ohio (where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet), later the site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
These developments convinced the French governor-general of Canada of the need to dominate the Ohio Valley militarily in order to protect France’s strategic interests in the American interior. The French immediately reinforced their existing forts south of Lake Erie and expelled the British from the forks of the Ohio. At that strategic site, they built a new military post, Fort Duquesne, and established firm title to the region. The French government realized that not only were the profits of the fur trade at stake, but also possession of the vast Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.
These rival territorial claims in the Ohio Valley quickly led to violence. An armed party of Virginians under the command of George Washington defeated a small French force east of the Ohio River and built a log stockade that became known as Fort Necessity. The French gathered more troops and quickly laid siege to this small fort, forcing Washington and his troops to surrender on July 4, 1754. The French then sent Washington and his troops back to Virginia. The French and Indian War had begun.
|B||The Albany Congress|
The British Board of Trade had anticipated the outbreak of war, and only weeks before had urged the colonial governors to seek an alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy, often referred to as the Six Nations. In June 1754 delegates from seven colonies met with 150 Iroquois leaders in Albany, New York. Some members of the Iroquois Confederacy already in alliances with the British colonies complained of poor treatment. The Native Americans also protested that the British governor of Virginia as well as the French governor-general of Canada had attempted to seize their lands. After receiving large presents of supplies and arms, the Iroquois grudgingly renewed their alliances with the British colonies. Delegates then moved on to plan other defensive measures.
An important topic was a plan of union developed by Benjamin Franklin. The Albany Plan, as it became known, proposed a single institution to govern all of the British colonies in America. Under the plan, each colony would send delegates to an American continental assembly, presided over by a British governor-general. This council would assume responsibility for the western affairs of the colonies, including trade, Native American policy, and defense. The Albany Plan was never implemented because the British government feared the consequences of convening a great American assembly, and individual colonial assemblies refused to support the proposal because they wanted to preserve their autonomy.
|IV||THE MILITARY STRUGGLE|
The British had no desire to begin a war in America. The last conflict with France, which ended in 1748, had depleted the British treasury, and Parliament refused to impose new taxes. But British leaders, such as William Pitt, 1st earl of Chatham, who were intent on expanding British influence, demanded action. As a result, Britain dispatched two regiments of troops, under Sir Edward Braddock, to America. Eventually, however, many more troops were needed. During the next five years, the government sent thousands of regular troops under a succession of British commanders. In addition, Parliament financed the enlistment and supply of more than 20,000 American troops during the period of heaviest fighting from 1758 to 1760.
|A||Phase One: Initial Skirmishes|
The French and Indian War had four distinct phases. The first began with the French capture of Washington and his troops at Fort Necessity in 1754 and lasted until 1756, when war was formally declared. During these two years both Britain and France hoped to avoid a general European war and so committed few troops or resources to the fighting in America. Each side primarily attacked enemy forts in unsettled areas along the frontier.
Two battles of considerable significance did take place during this phase, however. The French ambushed and defeated forces led by British General Edward Braddock as they attempted to drive the French from Fort Duquesne. The defeat was costly for the British: General Braddock lost his life, more than 900 of his men were killed or wounded, and British prestige among Native Americans in the region declined. British and colonial forces offset these losses by victories in Nova Scotia, where they captured two French forts. Subsequently, the British deported more than 6000 of the French inhabitants of Nova Scotia, known as Acadians, a signal of the growing brutality of the conflict.
|B||Phase Two: French Successes|
The second phase of the war in America was fought with much larger armies and opened with a series of French victories. In mid-1756 a French force captured the British fort at Oswego in northern New York. The French advance continued in 1757 with a victory over British regulars and New England militia at Fort William Henry, within striking distance of the important fur-trading town of Albany, New York. Then the French offensive faltered.
France's regular troops and their Native American allies could not continue the war in populated areas of the British colonies. They had to travel vast distances, where there were few local sources of supply. Most importantly, the small French Canadian population was not large enough to provide food and soldiers for a lengthy campaign.
In the end, the British had the strategic advantage in North America. Britain could call upon a population more than ten times as large to provide troops and supplies for an all-out assault on Canada. The only other necessities were political support from the colonial assemblies, which were provided somewhat begrudgingly, and firm direction and financial assistance from the British ministry. Strong support by the British government began after William Pitt became secretary of state in June 1757. Pitt firmly believed the way to defeat France in Europe was to attack French possessions around the world, including India, North America, and the West Indies.
|C||Phase Three: British Victories in North America|
In 1757 Pitt launched the third phase of the war by sending thousands of British troops to America and ordering a direct attack on Canada. A force of 16,000 British and colonial troops advanced from Albany toward Montréal, Canada, in 1758. This expedition, commanded by General James Abercrombie, stalled in the face of French opposition at Fort Ticonderoga in northeastern New York. However, British and colonial troops under General Jeffrey Amherst did capture the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Additional British victories came at Fort Frontenac, on Lake Ontario, and at Fort Duquesne.
Bolstered by these successes, William Pitt ordered a new British offensive for 1759. He agreed to finance the mobilization of 20,000 colonial troops and elevated Amherst to the command of all British forces in America. Amherst's army promptly continued the advance on Canada, capturing Fort Niagara at the junction of lakes Erie and Ontario and forcing the French to abandon the strategic Fort Ticonderoga. By early August 1759 the French had retreated to their inner line of defense which protected the major cities along the St. Lawrence River.
The British quickly breached these defenses and dispatched a large fleet and an army up the river from Louisbourg. Late in 1759 British troops led by James Wolfe defeated a French army commanded by Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Véran on the Plains of Abraham, just outside of Québec. The capture of the fortified city of Québec was the climax of the 'year of victories' for Great Britain. Only Montréal remained in French hands, and it surrendered to British forces in September 1760.
|D||Phase Four: Worldwide Conflict|
The fall of Canada began the fourth and last stage of the war. Only minor conflicts continued on the mainland of North America. Many of these occurred between British settlers in the Carolinas and Native American peoples like the Cherokee, who had sided with the French to protect their lands. In Europe, the Seven Years’ War had reached a stalemate, with neither the British nor the French alliances able to dominate.
On many other battlefronts around the world, however, the British had great successes. The English East India Company captured French trading posts and dominated commercial markets in large sections of India. British forces seized French Senegal in West Africa, the French sugar islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippine Islands. When warfare ended in 1763, William Pitt had left office, but his strategy of attacking the enemies’ colonial possessions had extended British power all over the world.
|V||RESULTS OF THE WAR|
Warfare ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and the peace terms reflected British military successes. Britain gained control over half the North American continent, including French Canada, all French territorial claims east of the Mississippi River, and Spanish Florida. In return, Britain gave Cuba and the Philippines back to Spain, and France compensated its Spanish ally for the loss of Florida by giving it title to all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River.
|A||End of the French Empire in North America|
The French and Indian War had reduced the once-impressive French empire in North America to a handful of sugar plantations in the West Indies and two rocky islands off the coast of Newfoundland. It also ended the century-long threat of a French or Spanish invasion of the American mainland colonies and ensured that British institutions would dominate in eastern North America. But France’s desire to avenge its humiliating defeat in the war prompted it to provide financial and military aid to the American rebels during the American Revolution. This aid was instrumental in the loss of Britain’s American colonies, but it also contributed to the French financial crisis that climaxed in the French Revolution of 1789.
|B||Reevaluation of the Colonial Relationship|
Another result of the war was a British decision to reevaluate its relationship with its colonies. Before the French and Indian War, Britain had not closely controlled its colonies. British leaders regarded the colonial governments as subordinate bodies, subject to the sovereign authority of king and Parliament. As long as few serious conflicts of interest arose between Britain and its American possessions, the British government permitted colonial assemblies to oversee enforcement of instructions of the royal governors or to pass new legislation suited to their own needs.
In addition, the British did not always enforce their laws in the colonies. For example, the British Customs Service, which was inefficient, understaffed, and open to bribery, did not enforce the Molasses Act of 1733(see Sugar and Molasses Acts). This important measure required the colonists to pay a duty on the molasses they imported from the French West Indian islands. British leaders did not insist on strict enforcement of this tax or other commercial duties because booming American trade was making Britain a wealthy and powerful nation. British statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke described his country’s policies toward the colonies as “salutary neglect” because he believed their leniency was actually beneficial. As a result of this salutary neglect, the colonists developed a political and economic system that was virtually independent. They were loyal, although somewhat uncooperative, subjects of the crown.
The British became concerned about the colonists’ lack of cooperation during the French and Indian War. The British initially resented the fact that the prosperous colonists were unwilling to undertake their own defense. Even the generous subsidies voted by Parliament at William Pitt's urging did not cause the colonists to respond as the British expected—colonial assemblies still refused to send their militiamen on expeditions to Canada. The colonists claimed that their militias were needed to defend home territory.
The British also suspected that the assemblies took advantage of the war to increase their own political power. Colonists demanded greater authority over finances and military appointments in return for their approval of war-related measures. The royal governors, under strict orders from the British ministry to support the war effort in America, often gave in to these demands without resistance.
While the tactics of the colonial assemblies appeared opportunistic to the British, the actions of many American merchants seemed almost treasonable. British government officials were irate that many Americans continued to trade illegally with France. Smuggling was highly profitable and prolonged the war by sustaining the French sugar plantations in the West Indies and providing the French armies with food and supplies. The continuation of this illegal trade led to British demands for more centralized control of the empire. American conduct during the war convinced many British leaders that the old imperial system, with its emphasis on voluntary cooperation between the home government and the colonies, had been a dismal failure.
The British government also faced pressing financial problems. Britain began fighting in 1754 with a national debt of approximately 75 million pounds, but the war effort caused the debt to soar to 133 million pounds by 1763. Americans had benefited substantially from these military expenditures. They had received a million pounds in direct subsidies and millions more in contracts for food, supplies, and transport for the British military forces in America. After these huge expenses, Britain was reluctant to offer additional subsidies for the peacetime defense of the colonies. Money was needed to maintain the British troops who occupied the conquered provinces of Canada and Florida and who defended a chain of western frontier posts. Given the size of the British debt and the extent of American prosperity, British leaders saw no feasible alternative to taxing the colonists.
For the colonists, the French and Indian War increased their concern over the permanent presence of a British army. They believed that a standing army threatened liberty and representative government. These fears intensified as the British demanded imperial reform, imposed direct taxes, and stationed army units in the colonial port cities. Britain’s demands soon led the colonists to active resistance and paved the way for the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America.