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The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

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General Summary

Important People and Places

The French and Indian War, a colonial manifestation of the same forces and tensions that erupted in the European Seven Years' War, was, quite simply, a war about imperialism. The French and the English were competing for land and trading rights in North America; these strivings resulted in a great deal of disputed land, particularly that of the rich Ohio Valley. Each nation saw this territory as vital in its effort to increase its own power and wealth while simultaneously limiting the strength of its rival. Although the war itself therefore stemmed from a fairly simple motivation, its consequences were far- reaching. The English victory in the war decided the colonial fate of North America, and yet at the same time sowed the seeds of the eventual colonial revolution. After the war, the British ended their century-long policy of salutary neglect, attempting to keep the colonials under a more watchful eye. The British also raised taxes in an effort to pay for the war. Both of these postwar policies resulted in massive colonial discontent and added to the budding nationalism that eventually exploded in the Revolutionary War.

The French and Indian War also had lasting (and devastating) effects for the Native American tribes of North America. The British took retribution against Native American nations that fought on the side of the French by cutting off their supplies and then forcibly compelling the tribes to obey the rules of the new mother country. Native Americans that had fought on the side of the British with the understanding that their cooperation would lead to an end to European encroachment on their land were unpleasantly surprised when many new settlers began to move in. Furthermore, with the French presence gone, there was little to distract the British government from focusing its stifling attention on whatever Native American tribes lay within its grasp. All of these factors played into the multinational Indian uprising called "Pontiac's War" that erupted directly following the end of the French and Indian War.

Before the French and Indian War broke out, the main issue facing the two colonial powers was division of the continent. The English were settled along the eastern seaboard, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and what is now the Northeastern United States. The French controlled Louisiana in the South and, to the far North, Acadia (Nova Scotia) and Northeast Canada. The Cherokee, Catawabas, Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws inhabited the mountainous region in between the two powers and attempted to maintain their autonomy by trading with both nations. Based primarily on the travels of the explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier de Salle in 1682, France regarded itself as possessor of all disputed lands in the west, including the Ohio Valley. The English needless to say, disputed the French claim. Although the French lay claim to far more territory than the English did, the French territory was sparsely populated. Often French territory was not marked by the existence of outposts or towns but simple forts manned by only a few men. English territory, by contrast, was rapidly being populated. The pressures of a growing population, the desire for expansion, and impatience to gain access to the profitable fur trade of the Great Lakes region impelled an intense English desire to extend westward during the 18th century.

During the first half of the 18th century, the British slowly moved to expand their land base. In 1727, they constructed a trading fort, Oswego, on the banks of Lake Ontario. In 1749, the Ohio Company, a consortium of Virginian speculators, successfully petitioned the English crown for lands in the Ohio region with the purpose of building a permanent settlement. That same year the French began sending diplomats to the British, demanding that Fort Oswego be abandoned and that England recognize French land boundaries. The next year a conference was held in Paris in an attempt to sort out some of the conflicting claims. No progress was made. In 1752, the Marquis Duquesne assumed the office of governor of New France, with specific instructions to secure possession of the Ohio Valley. All of these small agitations set the stage for the French and Indian War to explode.

While the War has often been portrayed as merely a fight between England and France, the many Indian nations that lived in these regions played a pivotal role in both the instigation and the outcome of the conflict. The fight for control of the continent was a fight between three nations, and until the late 18th century it was not at all certain which one would win. The Indians, especially the Five nations of the Iroquois, were exceptionally good at playing the French and the English against each other in order to maximize their own benefits. The French and Indian War was a guerrilla war of small skirmishes and surprise attacks. The terrain was unfamiliar to both the French and the English; the involvement of the Indian nations as allies in battle made an enormous difference. In fact, some historians have hypothesized that the turning point in the war came when many of the Indian nations changed their war policies and turned their backs on the French. Faced with the greater resources of the British and lacking the advantage of their Indian allies, the French were left with little hope, and soon lost the continent.

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