This post is the first installment of my seven-part series on the Seven Years’ War.
Interested in more? The second installment looks at the Acadian Expulsion.Map of the Belligerents and Areas of Conflict During the Seven Years’ War [Source]
When the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) broke out in the Ohio River Valley, guess how many people were surprised? Somewhere in the range of…zero. Also known as the French and Indian War, the conflict was the culmination of over a century’s worth of fighting between Britain and France over North American supremacy. Two years later, the conflict made its way across the Atlantic. As a result, the Seven Years’ War was essentially two simultaneous conflicts, that extended across five continents, with the British and French Empires at the center. This has led some to label it as the first “real” world war, but that is debatable. Ultimately, the Seven Years’ War was a watershed event in history but before we get to all that, we have to start at the beginning. This post will look at the major and immediate causes of the Seven Years’ War in North America.
Geographic and Financial Animosity
Simply put, the Seven Years War was about land and trade. With roughly 1.2 million colonists living in the Thirteen Colonies along the eastern coast of the future United States, British colonists looked to the west to expand. Expansion and wealth were the main goals of their colonial empire. Britain profited off of both colonial imports and exports. The more colonists there were, the more products they could produce for or buy from Britain. With new immigrants pouring into the Thirteen Colonies year after year and no shortage in sight, expansion was seen as both financially desirable and necessary. So what was the problem?
The west wasn’t empty. Not only did you have Indigenous peoples living all throughout the area, the French were there as well. Both European powers had been squabbling long before either even knew of the great expanse of land across the ocean that they would one day fight over as well. Trade was at the heart of their North American animosity. New France was a for-profit venture so imports, exports, trading partners, and resources (especially fur) were all sources of competition between the two rivals.
The biggest problem facing New France? Low population. In 1754, New France’s numbers rested around 75,000; most of which resided in the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes area. They had long been greatly outnumbered by their English counterparts. There are several reasons for this, but with regards to the Seven Years’ War the main one was the French Regime placed more of an emphasis on the fur trade than agricultural settlement. For the French colonists, their low numbers meant that their alliances with different Indigenous peoples were crucial not just for warfare purposes, but for the survival of their colony. However even with their allies, enforcing French territorial claims was difficult.
Competition in the fur trade had forced the French to expand far beyond their original trading territory and why they began to explore the vast region. In the 1680s, small numbers of French fur traders and colonists had traveled and settled throughout, but ultimately the area was sparsely populated. Britain rejected France’s claim over the land. They argued that the Iroquois gave them the territory in the Lancaster Treaty of 1744 after claiming to have conquered the region back in the 1650s. France, of course, rejected all British claims over the territory. They got there “first” so tough luck to the British colonists and their dreams of expansion.
So what did Indigenous people think about of all this?
In all seriousness though, after the Nine Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, and the War of the Austrian Succession, by the time fighting broke out in 1754 Indigenous communities were likely 110% over the Anglo-French rivalry.
It is important to note that often when the Seven Years’ War gets summarized, it is depicted as Britain vs French and Indigenous peoples. This makes it seem like the British had no Indigenous allies, which is false as the Iroquois Confederacy had been long-standing allies of theirs. That being said, whether you were a member of the Iroquois or another Indigenous nation, getting caught up in yet another “white man’s war” was not on one’s list of things to do. Unfortunately, the high stakes nature of the impending war made it impossible to avoid. For example, nations such as the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi supported New France because (aside from their history of doing so), they held a negative view of British colonial settlement. They came, they saw, they cleared the land. Forests became farmlands. In their minds British control would spell the end for their way of life, whereas the French’s focus on the fur trade made their settlement less destructive. Meanwhile, the Iroquois Confederacy believed their support would put an end to European encroachment of their territory and that the British would support them in their own struggles against other Indigenous nations. Sadly, everyone who wasn’t British wound up being greatly disappointed.
Showdown in the Ohio River Valley
With all of the controversy over the Ohio River Valley, it’s no wonder the war got underway here. In the early 1750s, the French began to bulk up their fortifications throughout their territory. All along the eastern coast, British colonists became worried that the French would convince their Indigenous allies to attack them. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, settlers were particularly annoyed that Fort Duquesne prevented them from expanding into the rich farmland of the Ohio River Valley.
The earliest known depiction of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale (1772).
After written correspondence failed (the Lt. Governor of Virginia told the French to leave, the French replied that their king’s claim to the land was “incontestable”), a militia led by a 22 year-old George Washington was sent to the Ohio River Valley to settle the matter. Washington’s party met and defeated a smaller French one at Jumonville Glen in May of 1754. Among the dead was a military officer from New France, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. The French claimed his force was on a diplomatic mission, not a military one. His death was therefore an act of peacetime aggression.
In response, 600 French soldiers, militiamen, and 100 Indigenous allies were sent from Fort Duquesne to Washington’s camp at Great Meadows. With only 400 men at Washington’s disposal, they retreated to their hastily built fort that had been made out of necessity. It’s name? Wait for it……..Fort Necessity. It really should have been called Fort Sitting Duck because, well…
A modern recreation of Fort Necessity.
Washington knew their chances were slim and chose to surrender rather than allow a slaughter to happen. To his credit, this would be the only time Washington surrendered in a battle. When the British government learned of what happened, they decided it was time to escalate things. They chose Major General Edward Braddock to lead the fight against the French. His first mission? Take Fort Duquesne. Washington, whose military career was suffering at this point, joined the roughly 1,500 army and militia troops as a volunteer. His knowledge of the area made him a quick favorite of Braddock however and he served as one of the general’s aides. Meanwhile, French King Louis XV found out about Braddock and had six regiments (~3000 men) dispatched to New France in response.
The Wounding of General Braddock by Robert Griffing (ca. 2005)
While traveling along the Monongahela River about ten miles from Fort Duquesne, Braddock’s expedition was surprised and swiftly defeated by roughly 900 French soldiers, militiamen, and Indigenous warrirors. In the end, there were close to 1,000 British casualties and Braddock himself was shot in the chest and died after the battle. Washington assumed a leadership role and led the retreat of the surviving soldiers. As the “Hero of Monongahela,” Washington’s military career was back on track. While things were going great for him, on the whole the British were not off to a good start to the Seven Years War.
What are your thoughts on the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War? Is this the real “first world war” as Winston Churchill described it? Would you pick an earlier conflict or does WW1 still hold that label for you? Did George Washington really start the whole thing or was a war bound to happen eventually? Did the British or the French have any right to even fight over the contested Ohio River Valley? Sound off in the comments below!
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 2001.
Belshaw, John Douglas. Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. BC Open Textbook Project, B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education. British Columbia: Victoria. 2015.
Lackenbauer, P. Whitney, Moses, John, Sheffield, R. Scott, and Gohier, Maxime. “Aboriginal People in the Canadian Military. Chapter Two: The Imperial Wars. National Defense and the Canadian Forces. Government of Canada. December 22, 2009. Accessed from: http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/pub/boo-bro/abo-aut/chapter-chapitre-02-eng.asp
“Ten Facts About George Washington and the French & Indian War,” Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. 2016. Accessed from: http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/french-indian-war/ten-facts-about-george-washington-and-the-french-indian-war/
Fowler, William. Empires at War: Seven Years’ War and the Struggle for North America. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. 2015.