Unlike the previous wars between European powers in the 1700s, the French and Indian War was begun in North America—in the heartland of the Ohio Valley, where both France and Britain held claims to land and trading rights. Westward-moving British colonists were particularly aggressive in their desire for new tracts of wilderness. The French, in order to prevent further British encroachment on what they believed to be French lands, began to construct a series of forts along the Ohio River. Eventually, the two sides came into conflict when a young lieutenant colonel from Virginia named George Washington attacked French troops with his small militia force and established Fort Necessity. Washington eventually surrendered after the French returned in greater numbers.
The opportunity to serve side by side with British regulars during the war gave many Americans a sense of pride and confidence. It is estimated that some 20,000 Americans fought with the British against the French and Native American opposition. Washington, though he was defeated more than once during the war, was one of many colonists who gained valuable military and leadership skills that later proved useful during the Revolutionary War.
At the same time, though military service gave colonists a sense of pride, it also made many realize how different they were from the British regulars with whom they fought. Many British regulars disliked the colonists they were fighting to protect, and many British commanders refused to acknowledge the authority of high-ranking colonial militia officers.
Furthermore, the British never managed to gain colonial support for the conflict. Many colonists, especially those living on the eastern seaboard far from the conflict, didn’t particularly feel like fighting Britain’s wars. Many colonial legislatures refused to support the war wholeheartedly until leading British statesman William Pitt offered to pay them for their expenses. Some colonial shippers were so disinterested in British policy that they actually shipped food to the French and its European allies during the conflict. In short, there was little colonial support for the war, but much colonial unity that was subversive to British war aims.
To bolster more colonial support for the French and Indian War, Britain called for an intercolonial congress to meet in Albany, New York, in 1754. To promote the Albany Congress, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin created his now-famous political cartoon of a snake with the caption “Join or Die.”
Despite Franklin’s efforts, delegates from only seven of the thirteen colonies chose to attend. The delegates at the Albany conference agreed to support the war and also reaffirmed their military alliance with the Iroquois against the French and their Native American allies. But somewhat surprisingly, the delegates at Albany also sent Parliament recommendations for increased colonial unity and a degree of home rule. British ministers in London—as well as the delegates’ own colonial legislatures—balked at the idea.
American colonists and the French waged undeclared warfare for two years until 1756, when London formally declared war against France. The conflict quickly spread to Europe and soon engulfed the Old World powers in another continental war (in Europe, the war was referred to as the Seven Years’ War).
For Britain and France, this expansion of the war shifted the war’s center from the Americas to Europe and thus transformed the struggle entirely. The fighting in North America became secondary, and both powers focused their attention and resources in Europe. However, despite the diversion of resources and manpower to Europe, many key battles in the war continued to be fought in the New World.
During the initial years of the war, the French maintained the upper hand, as they repeatedly dominated British forces. The most notorious British defeat in North America came in 1755, when British General Edward “Bulldog” Braddock and his aide George Washington chose to attack the French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley. After hacking through endless wilderness, their forces were slaughtered by the French and their Native American allies. This seemingly easy victory encouraged Native American tribes throughout the frontier to attack the British settlers encroaching on their lands.
After Britain officially declared war on France in 1756, British troops—many of whom were American colonists—invaded French Canada and also assaulted French posts in the West Indies. Not until the “Great Commoner” statesman William Pitt took charge of operations in London did Britain begin to turn the tide against France. Pitt focused the war effort on achieving three goals: the capture of the French Canadian cities Louisbourg, Quebec, and Montreal. He succeeded: Louisbourg fell in 1758, Quebec in 1759, and Montreal in 1760, giving the British a victory.
The war ended formally with the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763. Under the terms of the agreement, France was effectively driven out of Canada, leaving Britain the dominant North American power.
Despite the signing of the peace treaty, unofficial fighting between white settlers and Native Americans in the West continued for another three years. In one incident, a group of Native Americans, under the leadership of Ottawa chief Pontiac and supported by bitter French traders, killed roughly 2,000 British settlers, lay seige to Detroit, and captured most of the British forts on the western frontier. Though the British army quickly squelched Pontiac’s Rebellion, Parliament, in order to appease Native Americans and to prevent further clashes, issued the Proclamation of 1763 , which forbade British colonists from settling on Native American territory.
The Proclamation of 1763 angered Americans intensely: during the French and Indian War, they had believed they were fighting, at least in part, for their right to expand and settle west of the Appalachians. Many firmly believed that this land was theirs for the taking. The proclamation thus came as a shock. Many colonists chose to ignore the proclamation and move westward anyway. This issue was the first of many that would ultimately split America from Britain.