The French and Indian War (1754-63)

Figure 1.--Four European powers and Native Americans vied for control of North America in the 18th century, butit would come down to a struggle between Britain and France. While the European powers fought much larger wars for small provines, this was a struggle for a continent. Both the French and British had Native American allies during the French amd Indin War, the North American componnt of the European Seven Years War. The War settled the future of North America. The Americans and British call it the French and Indian War because the majority of Native Americans sided with the French. This 18th century struggle in the North Anerican may seem like a footnote to history. In fact, it decided the fate of Europe in the 20h century. The British decided to establish an Indian Reserve west of the Alleganies. This and Parliments decesion to make the Americans pay for the War made the American Revolution inevitable. And the resulting American Republic would not only save Britain in three 20h century struggles, but eventually all of Europe.

The fighting in North America is commonly called the French and Indian War and the fighting began in North America when a Virginia militia unit commanded by none other than George Washington ventured into French territory. The French and India War can be seen as part of the Seven Years War, but they are major differences. The Seven Years War was essentially a combined European War to limit the aggressions of Prussia's Frederick the Great. The French and Indian War was a war over colonial control of North America. They are related in that France was deeply involved in both wars and they occurred at roughly the same time. the French and India War was fought by Britain and its North American colonies against France and its Indian (Algonquian) allies. France's North American colonies had evolved differently than the British colonies. The more limited French emmigration and differing attitudes toward Native Americans enduced the Algonquians to fight on their side against the British.

French-English Rivalry

The British and French claims to North America overlapped. They also persued very different colonial policies. The English planted largely agricultural settlments based on family settlement along a narrow coastal strip. The colonies were quite diverse, including religious disenters. They set up colonial legislatures and during the English Civil war essentially goverened themselves. New France from the beginning was strictly Catholic and goverened directly from Paris. The French moved into the interior, but with small numbers of mostly men seeking furs. La Salle explored the length of the Mississippi to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico (1682). This gave France a claim to a vast area of North America, but made no real effort to settle it. And few Frenchmen were motivated to settle the wilderness. At the same time, the much larger English population was huddled east of the Appalachians. It was thus only a matter of time before the two Empires came into conflict. And this conflict would come in the Ohio Valley. Furs attracted both the English and French. French control of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes gave them access to a vast wealth of furs. Henry Hidson had layed claim to Hudson Bay in the far north. He had been looking fir the Northwest Passage. The British founded the Hudson Bay Colony (1670). The French challenged the British claim and in a series of expeditions almost drove the English out. . France and England fought Queen Anne's War (1702). This merged into a major European War--the War of the Spanish Secession (1701-14). The English captured Port Royal (1710). Relatively minor provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht ending the War involved North America (1713). France regonized English control of the Hudson Bay Territory, Newfoundland, and Acadia. France retained Cape Breton Island as well as the interior of North American. The French to secure what was left of New France began building a powerful fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton. The French at the time were the most skilled military engineers in Europe. Louisbourg was a major military based and positioned to guard the entrance to the St. Lawrence River--the gateway to New France. Louisbourg became the most powerful fortress in North America. Louisbourg was not only a defensive instalation, but became a sanctuary for French privateeers preying on shipping from the English colonies in New England. Sir William Pepperell led a force of New Englanders organized a force of 90 vessels and 4,000 men to attack Louisbourg (1745). After a 3-month seige, the French garison surrendered. France and Britain fought a relatively small war, King George's War. It was ended by the Treaty of Aix-la Chapelle (1748). Louisbourg was returned to the French. The British decided to build its own Atlantic bastion. Britain dispatched a fleet and 2,500 new settlers to construct a city and fortress at Halifax on Nova Scotia (1749).

The Ohio Valley

The War of the Austrain Succession in Europe had been ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748). The Treaty did not, however, settle outstanding colonia issues between France and Britain. Chief among them was title to the strategic Ohio Valley. France had colonies in Louisiana and Canada. Possession of the Ohio River, which flowed into the Mississippi, was needed to link Canada and Louisiana. To this end, France began constructing forts along the Mississippi, Ohio, and upper Hudson Rivers. The British maintained that their colonies along the Atlantic coast validated a territorial claim "from sea to sea" establish by royal land grants. (Notice that many eastern states states or layed out in a east-west orientation: Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky). To persue the British claim, the Royal governor of Virginia organized a militia force.


The War began when a Virginia militia unit commanded by George Washington encountered a French force building a fort near what is now Brownsville Pennsylvania. The War at first went very badly for the British which suffered a string of defeats, especially in the interior where the power of the Royal Navy couild not be brought to bear.

Opening of hostilities (1754)

The French began building a string of forts to stake their claimto the land west of the Appalachins. The most imprtant of these forts was the Ohio River fort, Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh). Fort Duquesne was a particularly strategic location. There the Allegheny and Monongahela flow together forming the Ohio River. Remember that at this time that there were no real roads. Communications and trade in the interior was dependant on rivers. The Virginia House of Burgess dispatched militia unit commanded by George Washington to confront the French (1754). Virginia and Pennstlvania claimed much of the Ohio River Valley. Washington encountered a French force building a fort near what is now Brownsville, Pennsylvania.

General Edward Braddock (1755)

General Edward Braddock moved a large British and colonial militia force into the Ohio Valley. Brddock was personally brave, but arrogant. He had low regard for colonia militias and Washington in particular was defeated and killed in an attempt to take one of the French Ohio River forts, Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) (July 1755). Braddock proved to be a military failure, but Col. Washington was very impressed by him. Pittsburgh was a particularly strategic location. There the Allegheny and Monongahela flow together forming the Ohio River. (Remember that at this time that there were no real roads. Communicationa and trade in the interior was dependant on rivers.) The British were more effective in coastal actions supported by the Royal Navy.

Acadians (1755)

One of the best known tragedies of the War, largely because of a Longfellow poem, was the British expulsion of the Acadians (1755). The Acadian French refused to take the oath of allegiance demanded by the British. As a result, the British herded aboard transports and shipped them to the English colonies in the south where they would not be a threat. Some of their descendents would fight with General Andres Jackson to prevent the British seizing New Orleans several decaded later (1815).

Fort William Henry (1757)

Fort William Henry was a key British fort on the frontier between British and French North America. It was stategically placed on the souther coast of Lake George at the southeast base of the Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York. It was garisoned by Lt. Col. George Monro's 35th Regiment of Foot (Spring 1757). The eaely British objective in the war was the important French fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. The French after seeing that the British had massed their forces for the assault on Louisbourg, decided on a counter stroke, seing Fort William Henry. The French with their Native Amerian allies laid seige to the fort. Basky outnumbered, Monro decided he had to surrender. The terms of the surrender allowed Monro and his men safe pasage to Fort Edward, another British fortification. After Monro nd his men marched put the fort, the French were horrified as their Native American allies set upon the exposed British column (August 15, 1757). The attrocity resilted in outrage and ahange in British tactics. One historian writes, "Cptain Israel Putnam could smell the dead long before he could see them. Advancing out of the encircling woodsthe thirty-nine-year-old from Salem, Massachusetts, was lost for words. Fort William Henry was aharred ruin. The ground that ten thousand men had fought over just one week before was shrouded in silence, broken only by the occassional cry of squannling carrion birds. After tearing down the timbers and heaping the corses upon them, the French had set fire to the ruins, creating a great funeral pyre. Putnam thought the 'spectacle ... too diobolical ... to be endured." [Hughes] The battle would be imortalized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of he Mohiccans.

Fort Ticoneroga (1758)

The French again prevailed in the interior at the Battle of Ticonderoga (1758) where another important, but ill conceived fort was built on Lake Champagne.

Louisbourg (1757-58)

The French over the course of nearly three decades employed engineers to build a massive stone fort around the settlement of Louisbourg. It became perhaps the most formidable position in North America. It consisted of 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) of walls – measuring 30 feet high and 36 feet thick in the most heavily fortifoed positions. The French poued so much money into the project tht King Louis joked rhat he expected to see them from his Versailles palace. Howevering imposiong the walls, Louisbourg had one a critical weakness, The engineers were primarily concerned abput a Royal Navy seaborn assult. It was, however, less well defended against a land assault. Of course in the end, the major weakness was the superority of the Royal Navy and its ability to isolate the fort from sea born assistance. The British as they prepared to assault the planned just such a land attack. New England militia who saw Louisbourg the massive fortification as a forboding threat both to their homes, but lso the all important Grand Banks fishing grounds. They built siege batteries on the hills overlooking the fortress and began to bombrd the fort. The subsequent series of bombardments and assaults, forced the French to surrender (1745). The British in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle to the horror of the New England colonists returned Louisbourg to the French (1748). It British built an impressive fort of their own at Halifax to ballance the French presence on Cape Breton. This set up the battles of the French and Indian Wars to control Nova Scotia. The French in Louisbourg fought off a British assault (1757). but the British took Louisbourg again the next year (1758). The British were determined to never have to face such a formisable fortress again. British engineers destroyed the town and dismantled the fortifications. Some of the stones from the fort were shipped to Boston where it was used tp to construct Louisbourg Square and other city buildings.

William Pitt

It was at this time that in Britain, William Pitt the Elder was placed in complete charge of foreign policy. He gave much greater attention to the colonial wars, both in North America and India. The British in North America had two great advantages. First the Royal Navy provided superior movement and supply capabilities while impairing French resupply and reinforcements. Second the English had a much larger population in their Atlantic coast colonies from which to form militias to support the regular troops.

French forts

Pitt ordered competent military commanders (Jeffrey Amherst and Janes Wolfe) to America with a substantial army. They succeeded in taking the line French forts: Louisberg, Frontenac, Duquesne, Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Niagara which were turned into strategic British positions.

Quebec (1759)

The culminating battle of the War was fought at Quebec, the primary British objective. This was the nerve center of New France and best defended position. Set well inland from the Atalanyic on the St. Larence, the Royal Nvy couls provide less support than possioble with the cmpaign to take Louisburg. The French forces at Quebec were commanded by Louis Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, marquis de St-Veran. Montcalm constructed a ring of strong points commanding the possible attack routes to Quebec. The route east from Lake Ontario along the St. Lawrence was closed at Oswegoand. The route north along the Richelieu was clsed by Fort Ticonderoga. The British could not use the Royal Navy to support either if these inlnd routes. The route inland from the Atlantic, however, could be supported by the Royal Navy. Here the powerful fort of Louisbourg on Cape Breton guarded the invasion route. The British landed a substantial fore on Cape Breton Island (1758). After some tough fighting, the British took Louisbourg for the second time. This opened up the invasion route down the St. Lawrence. The following year, the most powerful force Britain assembled in North American began the assault on Quebec (1759). General James Wolfe led 140 ships carrying 9,000 trops up the St. Larence. Montcalm held a strong position because of the natural defenses of the city. That summer, Wolfe probed the defenses looking for a weakness. Wolfe finally decided on a night landing that that permitted him to assemble his army on the Plains of Abraham by the morning. There the superior English force was able to defeat the French as thre was no longer a natural barrier between the two armies. Both commanders, Wolfe and Montcalm, were mortally wounded in the ensuing bttle. The next year the British moved on Montreal. With the British controlling the St. Larence, Montreal was cut off. And unlike Quebec did not benefit from natural defenses. Thus Montreal fell the next year (1760). This essentially gave the British control of not only Canada, but North America. This ended the fighting in North America, although the peace treaty was not signed until 1763, as part of the general European peace ending the Seven Years War.

Seven Years War (1756-63)

The outbreak of hostilities in the Ohio Valley merged into amuch larger European War--The Seven Years War. This war drew in all of the major European powers. British participation in the War was largely restricted to the colonial struggles in North America, the Caribbean, and India. The struggle in Europe proved to be one of the major European conflicts before the advent if the French Revolution at the end of the century. Frederick the Great emerged as one of the great Eyropean leaders, although had it not been for tthe death of the Russian Emperess Elizabeth, the outcome might have been very different.


Althought not understood at the time by Europeans, the outcome in North America was the most significan result of the Seven Years War.

Desisive Factors

Several factors explain the British victory. First was the superority of the British Royal Navy, Second was the much larger British colonial population in North America. Third was Frederick II of Prussia who created the most efficient army in Europe during the 18th century. Frederick's Army fought against against France and its allies (Austria and Russia). Frederick should have been easily defeeated, but tied up so much of the French Army that only limited deployments could be deployed for the colonial wars in North America and India.


In North America the issue of who would domiante the continent was resolved. North America would be an English-speaking extension of Europe. This was in the 20th century to have profound consequences for Europe in the 20th century. (Ironocally France would be resucued by English-speaking North America in two great world wars.) The British were also affected in that the War changed the relationship with their colonies, at the time the primary overseas colonies. The expulsion of France from North America had the unintended impact of making the English colonists feel, less dependent on the Britain for security. In addition the struggle had shown many colonists the inadequacies of British colonial administration, the effectivness of colonial militias, and the need for cooperation among colonies. The colonies cooperated to some extent in dealing with the Native American tribes. The links established would be useful as the indepndence movement began to grow. The British failed to understand these developments, feeling that the colonists should be gratful that they had been saved from the French. The War had been costly and the British began to devise was of taxing the Americans to support the cost of the colonial administration. These taxes established without any consent by the Americans helped to fuel anti-British feeling. The American Revolution was to break out a little more than 10 years after the signing of the Peace of Paris. Ironically the only part of North America to remain loyal was still largely French Canada.


Hughes, Ben. The Seige of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier (2011).


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Created: 10:15 PM 12/27/2007
Last updated: 9:47 PM 2/15/2018