The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)


England and France had been at war since—well, it seemed like forever. For more than three centuries, Europe had known far more years of warfare than of peace. But no matter what the conflict, or how causes and alliances changed, one pairing remained constant: England and France were always on opposite sides just as surely as they sat on opposite sides of the English Channel. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, this cross-Channel feud began to take on major global dimensions, as it became evident that far more than the mastery of Europe was at stake.

The colonies that half a dozen nations had established in the New World were flourishing. By 1733, thirteen English colonies stretched along the Atlantic coast. But this territory was minuscule compared with French outposts and settlements that embraced half a continent—from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, westward across the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Spain, too, was a major player in North America, claiming Florida, Texas, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande as the northern fringes of its domain. In earlier European wars, North America had been mostly a sideshow; but by 1748, these English, French, and Spanish empires were colliding in North America along ever-expanding frontiers. The bad blood of centuries-old European feuds was about to be spilled here as well.

Hemmed in by French claims, the English colonies squeezed between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coast grew uneasy. Virginia dispatched a twenty-one-year-old surveyor named George Washington west to tell the French on the upper Ohio River that they were trespassers. The French were cordial, but emphatic in their denial. When a British force under General Edward Braddock marched to the forks of the Ohio two years later, it met with a disastrous defeat that unleashed what quickly became history’s first global war.

From the Ohio River to the falls of Niagara, across Lake Champlain, and down the Saint Lawrence River, North America’s colonial frontiers erupted in flames. By the time what Europe called the Seven Years’ War was concluded, it had been fought not only in North America, but also on the battlefields of Europe and in colonies throughout the world—from the Caribbean to India, Africa, and the Philippines.

The war in North America was characterized by desperate battles in virgin wilderness. There were epic treks by Rogers’ Rangers, the original Green Berets; dogged campaigns to capture strategic linchpins such as Fort Duquesne and Fort Ticonderoga; and the legendary battle of Quebec atop the Plains of Abraham. Then, just when the British thought that they had won a continent, France counterattacked and almost recaptured Quebec.

When the warring powers finally met to sign the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the map of the world looked quite different from its appearance seven years before. As the historian Francis Parkman succinctly put it, “half a continent changed hands at the scratch of a pen.” But a challenge soon came from France’s Native American allies. Urged on by an Ottawa chief named Pontiac, a loose confederation of Northwest Indian nations launched a series of attacks that again turned the colonial frontier red with blood and threatened to lose for Great Britain all that it had gained from France.

Great Britain’s resolution of this Native American resistance had almost as much to say about the future of North America as did its victories over France. King George III proclaimed a vast “Indian reserve” between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, effectively hemming in his American colonists along the Atlantic coast just as the French had done previously. The young king also looked to the colonies as a source of income to pay the debts of this latest war.

Land claims extinguished west of the Appalachians and taxes imposed without representation quickly rankled colonists no longer bound to the British crown by the fear of French encirclement. Revolution was premature, but the die had been cast. The triumphs of one war had sown the seeds of discontent that would lead to another. Great Britain had indeed won a continent, but in doing so, it had also lit the fuse of revolution.

North America, circa 1754