The French and Indian War - dummies

By Steve Wiegand

Despite being filled with the divine spirit of the Great Awakening — or maybe because of it — American colonists were ready by 1750 to once more fight the French and Native Americans. The first to do so were led by a tall, 22-year-old Virginia militia captain named George Washington.

This time the world war, called the Seven Years’ War in Europe and dubbed the French and Indian War in the New World, started in America. English speculators had secured the rights to 500,000 acres in the Ohio River valley.

At about the same time, the French had built a series of forts in the same area as a way to keep lines of communication and supply open between Canada and Louisiana.

In 1754, a year after he had conducted a diplomat/spy mission, Washington was sent to the Ohio Country with 150 men. They ran into a French detachment, the Virginians fired, and the French fled. “I heard the bullets whistle,” Washington wrote later, “and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

The French set out to “charm” Washington by counterattacking a fort the young Virginian had hastily put up (and aptly named Fort Necessity) and by forcing Washington to surrender — on July 4. Then, in a stroke of luck for a nation yet unborn, the French let Washington lead his men home.

Unifying the colonies

While Washington was savoring his first taste of battle, representatives of 8 of the 13 colonies were meeting in Albany, New York, at the request of the British government. The purpose was to see whether the colonies could be more unified. The British wanted more unity because they figured it would make it easier to fight the French and also to govern the colonies.

But a few far-seeing colonists — most notably a Philadelphia printer, inventor, scientist, and man-about-town named Benjamin Franklin — saw the meeting as an opportunity to increase the colonies’ economic and political clout.

Franklin engineered a sound plan for a colonial union, and the gathered representatives approved it. But the assemblies in the individual colonies rejected it, mostly because they felt they would give up too much of their independence.

Defeating British General Braddock

On the battlefield, meanwhile, the British had sent two of their worst regiments to the colonies and given command to a general named Edward Braddock. Though undeniably brave (   he had five horses shot from under him in one battle), Braddock was arrogant and a plodding bozo when it came to military strategy. He was also contemptuous of the American militia under his command.

In 1755, Braddock and a force of about 1,400 men, including Washington, marched on French forts in the Ohio Country. A force of French and Native Americans surprised the British force. Braddock was killed, along with almost a thousand of his men.

Braddock’s defeat was just one of a bunch of losses the British suffered over the next two years. The war in America merged with a war in Europe that involved all the major European powers. It went badly for the British in both theaters.

Outfighting the French

In 1757, however, things began looking up. An able administrator named William Pitt became head of the London government. Pitt skillfully used the superior British navy and appointed good military leaders.

Among them were James Wolfe and Jeffrey Amherst. Wolfe and Amherst led a British force against the French fortress-city of Quebec in 1759. In one of the most important battles fought in North America, the British took the city. Montreal fell in the following year, and the French were finished in the New World.

The war was formally settled by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The British got all of Canada, all of America east of the Mississippi, Florida, and some Caribbean islands.

The American colonists got rid of the decades-old threat from the French. More than in previous wars, men from different colonies fought alongside one another, lowering barriers among the colonies. Future leaders matured. And the animosity and friction that sprang up between British military leaders and the Americans lingered long after the war was over.

To see what land holdings that Britain, France, and Spain maintained in the mid-18th century, take a look at the following figure.