French & Indian War for Teachers
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The Ohio River Valley or "Ohio Country" lay
west of the Appalachian Mountains. Contested lands actually
spread well beyond the actual Ohio River basin to include
parts of present-day New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West
Virginia, and Virginia.
The focal point of conflict
was the "Forks of the Ohio," a point of land
in the wilderness where the Monongahela River (flowing
north) and the Allegheny River (flowing southwest) met
to form the Ohio River. Today, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
marks the spot. In the early 1750s, it was virgin forest.
As pointed out by historian Fred Anderson in his landmark book Crucible of War, and in interviews for Paladin, four distinct groups sought to control the Ohio Valley:
• The British, who wished to conquer the wilderness for settlement and expansion of empire.
• The French, who wished to use the wilderness for trade and transportation and to bring new cultures into their fold.
• The Native Americans, who wished to maintain control of their own homelands and keep out Europeans.
• The English colonials or "Americans," who felt subjugated and wished to have a say in their lives--and their future.
There is disagreement about when the French & Indian
War began, and a distinction to be made between the
terms French & Indian War and Seven Years' War.
The French & Indian
War was a conflict solely on the American continent
and any way it is viewed, a young and inexperienced
George Washington was involved in its ignition. Some
say the war began with a shot fired at Washington by
a Native American in late December 1753. At that time,
Washington and frontiersman Christopher Gist were returning
from a journey of several hundred miles to issue an
ultimatum from the British province of Virginia that
the French must immediately evacuate the Ohio Country.
Others insist that war
broke out with a brief and deadly encounter on the morning of May 28,
1754. It happened on a mountain called Chestnut Ridge,
about 20 miles east of the confluence of Redstone Creek
and the Monongahela River. At dawn on the 28th, a French
scouting party was attacked by a combined force of Virginia
militia and Seneca Indians. Somewhere between 10 and
13 French soldiers were killed, including Ensign Joseph
Coulon deVilliers, Sieur Jumonville. There is historical
agreement that the Seneca leader Half King personally
tomahawked and scalped Jumonville with a horrified George
Washington looking on.
At Fort Necessity, George Washington goes
of lack of resupply and
support from Virginia
in this scene from
PURSUIT OF HONOR.
Why did Washington attack
rather than parley with the French soldiers? In the
film When the Forest Ran Red, acclaimed historian
R. David Edmunds, Ph.D., author of the book The
Shawnee Prophet, states, "Washington is a bright young
man, but he's not from the region. Consequently, as
these events begin to take place, Washington reacts
to what is going on rather than really affording much
leadership." Pittsburgh colonial historian Bruce
Egli agrees, noting that the Half King is "attempting
to manipulate the situation; get the English and Washington
to make the French go away but somehow not get them
to stay permanently themselves." Egli calls it
a "deep, a fast, and a dangerous game for all three
of the participants."
By the evening
of May 28, 1754, a shooting war between the militia of the English colony of Virginia and the French army had begun.
However, the Seven Years' War between England, France,
and various other world powers did not begin until 1756.
In fact, the brutal wilderness battle known as Braddock's
Defeat or the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755,
between a French/Indian guerrilla force and a large
column of British regulars and provincial troops was
fought before the formal declaration of war by England
that made the Seven Years' War official on May 15, 1756.
Progress of the
French & Indian War
Ironically, within weeks
of the death of Jumonville, his elder brother arrives
at the new French stronghold, Fort Duquesne, at the
Forks of the Ohio. Capt. Louis Coulon deVilliers requested
of the fort commander that he be permitted to lead an
army to defeat Washington's Virginia militia force,
then camped on the mountain near the spot where Jumonville
had been killed.
In late June 1754, deVilliers
began his march and found George Washington's army of
300 men awaiting them in a small circular stockade built
"of Necessity" in the middle of the Great
Meadows, a broad, flat, marshy piece of open flatland
in the wilderness. After a brief but bloody battle,
followed by a soaking rainstorm, deVilliers forced Washington's
surrender, and the young Virginian set off on the return
march to Williamsburg in the most desperate gloom possible.
He thought his military career had ended as soon as
it had begun, and he was only 22 years old.
But that wasn't the end
at all. Within six months the English King George II
had decided to send a powerful army to America to expel
the French from the Ohio Country and exercise control
over the Native Americans. He put Major General Edward
Braddock in charge of this army and further made Braddock
the supreme commander of all British military forces
At this time, most of
the western tribes of Indians, called the Algonquin
or Great Lakes Indians, had gravitated to the French.
Native American historian Yvonne Dion-Buffalo, Ph.D.
of the State University of New York says this was because,
"The French people had a whole different idea toward
the indigenous peoples. They were trying to build a
nation-state, and so they saw people as human beings
and tried to bring them into their fold." But Braddock
sealed the deal. He managed - through his insistence
on English rights to own the wilderness - to drive most
Iroquois Indians from New York and Pennsylvania to the
French side. The stage was set for disaster for the
The deputy postmaster of the American provinces, 49-year-old Benjamin Franklin, urged Braddock to be cautious as he ventured into the wilderness: the British army could be vulnerable to surprise attack as it snaked its way deep into enemy country. In the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father recounts his experiences with Gen. Braddock. He seemed to vividly recall Braddock's strident answer to concerns about the skill of American Indian tribes: "These savages may be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia. But upon the King's regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression!"
It had taken the British army
three weeks to cross the Atlantic, three months to plan, march, drill, and
equip, and four weeks to make the famous Braddock's March from Virginia to the
heart of the wilderness. It then took Gen. Braddock three
hours to oversee a disastrous battle with experienced
French and Indian forest fighters that wrecked the army
and led to his mortal wounding. True to Franklin's prediction, the British army fell victim to what historian Stephen Brumwell, author of the book Redcoats, labeled an "encounter battle," with the forces colliding unexpectedly in the forest six miles southeast of Fort Duquesne.
As seen in this extremely rare painting, retired Virginia Militia officer George Washington, 23 years old, presents his credentials to 60-year-old Major-General Edward Braddock, the commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America, as Sir John St. Clair (right center, partially obscured behind Washington) and others look on.
Braddock had asked George
Washington - now retired from the military life - to
accompany the army as an aide and guide. After all,
Washington knew the land and the players on the French
and Native American side. So Washington was there for
the battle, and ironically it was Washington who recommended
that Braddock divide his army and make a bold stab at
the French with 1,200 chosen men. Weeks later, it was
Washington who ducked from a hailstorm of lead, Washington
who organized the retreat from the battlefield, and
Washington who oversaw the burial of Gen. Braddock four
days after the battle.
All in all, George Washington's
military resume in the summer of 1755 was a disaster.
But irony wasn't done with him. Almost at once, even
as Washington retired a second time at age 23, the governor
of Virginia came calling because, quite simply, there
was no one else in the province qualified to lead an
army in the wilderness. For a third time Washington
was called, this time to lead the defense of Virginia's
frontier, which had been thrown wide open to French
and Indian terrorist attacks in the wake of Braddock's
Defeat. The war that followed was bloody and cruel.
Ironically, one of the first wagon drivers in Braddock's column to "cut and run," or cut loose one of the horses in his team and hurry away from harm, was 18-year-old Daniel Boone, who would later go on to fame as an explorer, frontiersman, and politician. Legendary for his bravery and wiles in battling Indians later in life, Boone actually began his frontier career by running away from a battle!
There is much more to
learn about George
Washington's French & Indian War, like the story of Major James Grant's 1758 battle at Fort Duquesne. We invite you to explore these pages, and our movies, to learn all about it.