SummaryThe French-Indian war was fought between Britain and France, along with their respective colonists and allied Indian groups, for control of land in North America. Occurring from 1754 to 1763, it helped trigger – and then formed part of – the Seven Years War. It has also been called the fourth French-Indian war, because of three other early struggles involving Britain, France and Indians. Historian Fred Anderson has called it the “most important event in eighteenth century North America”. (Anderson, The Crucible of War, p. xv).
Note: Recent histories, such as Anderson and Marston, still refer to the native peoples as ‘Indians’ and this article has followed suit. No disrespect is intended.
OriginsThe age of European overseas conquest had left Britain and France with territory in North America. Britain had the ‘Thirteen Colonies’, plus Nova Scotia, while France ruled a vast area named ‘New France’. Both had frontiers which pushed against each other. There had been several wars between the two empires in the years preceding the French-Indian war – King William’s War of 1689–97, Queen Anne’s War of 1702-13 and King George’s War of 1744 – 48, all American aspects of European wars – and tensions remained. By 1754 Britain controlled nearly one and a half million colonists, France around only 75,000 and expansion was pushing the two closer together, increasing the stress. The essential argument behind the war was which nation would dominate the area?
In the 1750s tensions rose, especially in the Ohio River Valley and Nova Scotia. In the latter, where both sides claimed large areas, the French had built what the British considered illegal forts and had worked to incite French-speaking colonists to insurrection against their British rulers.
The Ohio River ValleyThe Ohio River Valley was considered a rich source for the colonists and strategically vital because the French needed it for effective communications between the two halves of their American empire. As Iroquois influence in the region declined, Britain tried to use if for trade, but France began building forts and evicting the British. In 1754 Britain decided to build a fort at the forks of the river Ohio, and they sent a 23 year old Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginian militia with a force to protect it. He was George Washington.
French forces seized the fort before Washington arrived, but he carried on, ambushing a French detachment, killing French Ensign Jumonville. After trying to fortify and receiving limited reinforcements, Washington was defeated by a French and Indian attack led by Jumonville’s brother, and had to retreat out of the valley. Britain responded to this failure by sending regular troops to the thirteen colonies to supplement their own forces and, while a formal declaration didn’t happen until 1756, war had begun.
British Reverses, British VictoryFighting took place around the Ohio River Valley and Pennsylvania, around New York and Lakes George and Champlain, and in Canada around Nova Scotia, Quebec and Cape Breton. (Marston, The French Indian War, p. 27). Both sides used regular troops from Europe, colonial forces, and Indians. Britain initially fared badly, despite having many more colonists on the ground. French forces showed a much better understanding of the type of warfare North America required, where the heavily forested regions favoured irregular/light troops, although French commander Montcalm was sceptical of non-European methods, but used them out of necessity.
Britain adapted as the war progressed, lessons from early defeats leading to reforms. Britain was helped by the leadership of William Pitt, who further prioritised the war in America when France began to focus resources onto war in Europe, trying for targets in the Old World to use as bargaining chips in the New. Pitt also gave some autonomy back to the colonists and began to treat them on a more equal footing, which increased their co-operation.
The British could marshal superior resources against a France wracked with financial problems, and the British navy mounted successful blockades and, after the Battle of Quiberon Bay on November 20th 1759, shattered France’s ability to operate in the Atlantic. Growing British success and a handful of canny negotiators, who managed to deal with the Indians on a neutral footing despite the prejudices of the British command, lead to Indians siding with the British. Victories were won, including the Battle of the Plains of Abraham where the commanders of both sides – the British Wolfe and the French Montcalm – were killed, and France defeated.