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

BOOK ONE. Colliding Empires (1748–1756)


For forming this general union, gentlemen, there is no time to be lost; the French seem to have advanced further towards making themselves masters of this continent within these last five or six years than they have done ever since the first beginning of their settlements upon it.

—WILLIAM SHIRLEY, ROYAL GOVERNOR OF MASSACHUSETTS, to the General Court of Massachusetts, April 2, 1754


In the fall of 1748, the bells in the venerable cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle pealed out the welcome news that Europe was again at peace. Europe’s warring powers had gathered at the site of Charlemagne’s medieval capital in yet another attempt to end their incessant feuds and bring a lasting peace to the continent. But the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle—as has been the case with so many of history’s paper pronouncements—failed to resolve gnawing geopolitical realities. The playing field was no longer just the continent of Europe. Increasingly, it was the entire world, and the rival empires that fought on European battlefields were also colliding on far-flung oceans and faraway continents. Nowhere was this truer than in North America.

For more than two centuries, England had lagged far behind its European rivals in coloring in the map of North America. John Cabot sailed the North Atlantic a few years after Columbus’s first voyage, but England did little more for decades. Meanwhile, the Frenchman Jacques Cartier circled Newfoundland and probed the Saint Lawrence River as far as the site of Montreal in 1534–1535. Elsewhere, Coronado carried the Spanish banner across the American southwest and de Soto traversed the Deep South between 1539 and 1542. Somewhat belatedly, Elizabeth I of England sent Martin Frobisher on three voyages across the Atlantic in the 1570s to search for the Northwest Passage and reassert Cabot’s claims. By then, Spain had already established an outpost at Saint Augustine on the Florida coast in response to French forays into the area.

The continent of North America was never, of course, a universal blank waiting to be claimed, as all Europe deemed it. Numerous Native American nations, some quite powerful empires themselves, held sway over forest, lake, bayou, and river. Like the Europeans, they, too, frequently fought among themselves for territorial rights and other prerogatives. These Native American—or Indian—sovereignties did not deter European incursions, but they certainly made such incursions far more complex and conflicted. (Because contemporary accounts use the term “Indians,” it has sometimes been retained here rather than the currently accepted term “Native Americans.”)

In 1577, Spain was still the world’s leading power, but Elizabeth could not resist probing its weaknesses by dispatching Francis Drake to circle the globe and cause a little havoc on the Spanish Main. Attempts by the English to plant a colony at Roanoke on the Carolina coast withered under the distraction of the Spanish Armada; and by the time three English ships anchored off Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, Elizabeth was dead and England still far behind in the race for a continent.

Three years before, a French company that included Samuel de Champlain had established an outpost at the mouth of the Saint Croix River between present-day Maine and New Brunswick. After a damp and frigid northeastern winter, the post was moved to Port Royal on the northwest coast of Nova Scotia. When Port Royal was temporarily abandoned in 1607, Champlain and a few others refused to return to France and instead followed Cartier’s route up the Saint Lawrence and built an outpost under the Rock of Quebec.

Meanwhile, Spanish Florida was thriving despite Drake’s burning of Saint Augustine in 1586. Juan de Oñate’s efforts at colonization on the northern reaches of Spain’s claims resulted in the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1609. That same year, the Dutch entered the competition when Henry Hudson, an Englishman serving under the Dutch flag, sailed the tiny Half Moon up the Hudson River. In 1624, just four years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Dutch West India Company built a trading post called Fort Orange at the future site of Albany, New York.

Thus the seeds of many would-be empires were planted in North America. For a time the vastness of the continent swallowed their meager expansion and prevented major collisions. Then in 1682, Robert La Salle and his men dragged canoes across the portage between the Chicago and Illinois rivers and floated down the Illinois to the Mississippi. Continuing south down the Mississippi, La Salle reached the Gulf of Mexico and on a spot of dry ground at the river’s mouth proclaimed the sovereignty of Louis XIV over half a continent. The French already controlled one of North America’s strategic arteries—the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes—and now, on April 9, 1682, La Salle grandly claimed another. Henceforth, La Salle asserted, the Mississippi River and its tributaries, “this country of Louisiana,” were the domain of France.1

Indeed, by 1700 a look at the map of North America suggested that France held claim to the lion’s share. From Quebec, up the Saint Lawrence, across the Great Lakes to Michilimackinac, and down the Mississippi Valley, France constructed a string of trading posts that included Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes in the Illinois country and Fort Pontchartrain (Detroit) between lakes Huron and Erie. Spain was equally well established along the Gulf Coast east and west of Louisiana and was sending expeditions north from Santa Fe into Colorado to counter French claims to the extent of Louisiana. That left England with a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian Mountains.

All this time, the wars of Europe had continued to rage. Their causes were many: covetous territorial appetites, intense religious fervor, uncertain royal successions, and more and more frequently, commercial rivalries in an ever-expanding global marketplace. Before the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Europe’s wars had spilled over to North America, but they had been relatively minor sideshows. Three conflicts, however, became enough of an issue in North America that English colonists came to call them by the name of the reigning sovereign.

The War of the League of Augsburg (1688–1697) was called King William’s War in the English colonies. It pitted an anti-French alliance that included England under William III, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Holland, and a few German states against Louis XIV, who had an appetite for Alsace and Lorraine. On the grander scale of European dynasties, it was the Hapsburgs versus the Bourbons. In North America, the French raided Schenectady, New York, and frontier settlements in New England—while forces from Massachusetts Bay captured Port Royal in Nova Scotia and brought the French governor back to Boston as a prisoner. Later, the English made a foray against Quebec but were beaten back in disarray. The Peace of Rijswijk (Ryswick) in 1697 restored all territory to its original claimants, but John Pynchon of Springfield, Massachusetts, spoke what remained on the minds of many New Englanders: “We shall never be at rest until we have Canada.”2

Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713) came about somewhat differently, but the protagonists were largely the same. It was called the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe, and the issue was just that. Who would sit on the Spanish throne when Charles II died without issue? Conveniently for Louis XIV of France, whose desire for all of Europe had not diminished, Charles II willed his Spanish throne to Louis’s grandson, Philip of Anjou. France and Spain united! That set English hearts—and many more on the continent—aflutter. To counter the threat of this combined power, William III formed the Grand Alliance of England, Holland, Prussia, Austria, and most of the Holy Roman Empire states. When William III died in 1702, Queen Anne inherited both the English throne and the war.

In North America, because Spain was a nominal ally of France, there was conflict on both the northern and the southern borders of the English colonies. France’s Abenaki allies burned Deerfield, Massachusetts, provoking resentment that would still be remembered two generations and two wars later. New Englanders once again captured Port Royal in Nova Scotia, but yet another English expedition against Quebec turned around and sailed back down the Saint Lawrence while still 100 miles short of its goal. South Carolinians burned Spanish Saint Augustine—but could not capture its presidio—and Indian nations throughout the south resisted incursions from both sides with ever-changing alliances. One grand French scheme to move north from the West Indies and “chase our adversaries from Carolina … insult New York, attack Virginia, [and] carry help to L’Acadie and Newfoundland” was stillborn when its leader and hundreds of soldiers died of yellow fever in Cuba.3

The war dragged on in Europe for so long that yet another royal succession became problematic. Emperor Joseph I of Austria died without issue and was succeeded by his brother, Charles, who up until then had been the candidate of the Grand Alliance to become king of Spain. Europe looked around and decided that the only thing worse for the global balance of power than France and Spain united under the Bourbons would be Spain and Austria (and assorted states of the Holy Roman Empire) united under the Hapsburgs. In the end, more warfare and Louis XIV’s diplomacy finally achieved recognition for his grandson as Philip V of Spain on the condition that Spain and France never be united.

The resulting Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 had many provisions, but the chief result was to keep any one empire from dominating. In North America this meant that France yielded toeholds to England in Nova Scotia, in Newfoundland, and on the southern shores of Hudson Bay. England, which had used the war to build up its naval power while Louis XIV concentrated on his armies, also received Gibraltar and Minorca from Spain, as well as the right to participate in the slave trade in the New World.

“Before Queen Anne’s reign,” according to the naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “England was a sea power; after 1713 she was the sea power, and long so remained.”4 With the benefit of historical hindsight that is certainly true, but at the time England—or Great Britain, as the unified England, Wales, and Scotland were technically called after 1707—still had a war or two to fight before it would be the unchallenged ruler of the seas.* And nowhere was England more challenged than in North America. Historians have been quick to describe the quarter century after the Treaty of Utrecht as an era of peace, but that generalization hardly begins to account for the friction that continued along the English, French, and Spanish frontiers in North America and the surrounding seas.

In the north, the Treaty of Utrecht permitted France to retain the fortress of Louisbourg and Cape Breton Island. The French set about fortifying the island and keeping the loyalty of the Acadians on Nova Scotia, who were now nominally subjects of the new king of England, George I of Hanover. The French also built Fort Saint Frédéric on Lake Champlain south of Montreal. Crown Point, as the English would call it, was an annoying finger of French presence stuck down England’s throat on the New York frontier. Farther west, the French built Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River below the falls and augmented their positions on the Mississippi with two more outposts on the Wabash River and the lower Ohio River. Pierre de La Vérendrye even built French forts—if the crude stockades could be called forts—on Lake of the Woods and the future site of Winnipeg. Clearly, France was reaching to embrace a continent.

In the south, French Louisiana became firmly established with the founding of New Orleans in 1718. This fact and Spain’s frontier in Florida prompted England to give General James Oglethorpe a land grant to settle a buffer state between the Carolinas and Florida. Oglethorpe founded Savannah, Georgia, in 1733. In time, Georgia became a royal province, but not without more than a little opposition from Spain. Philip V urged “extirpation of the English from the new colony of Georgia which they have usurped” and “laying waste [to] South Carolina and her dependencies.”5

Then things really got bizarre. Friction between the English South Sea Company and Spanish monopolies over trading in the Caribbean became intense when an English sea captain named Jenkins—a smuggler at best, a pirate at worst—told a tale of being captured and having the tip of one ear cut off by a Spanish cutlass. By the time Jenkins was displayed before the House of Commons, the War of Jenkins’ Ear was in full swing. Oglethorpe advanced to Saint Augustine with “1,600 men on seven warships carrying forty dugouts for landing operations,” but failed to capture it. The Spanish retaliated by landing troops on Saint Simons Island on the Georgia coast and advanced on the settlement of Frederica before Oglethorpe managed to halt them at the battle of Bloody Marsh on July 7, 1742.6

By now, all of Europe was lining up for another major conflict over that most heated of topics—royal succession. This time, the throne was Austria’s, but it was not exactly vacant. Shortly after the Treaty of Utrecht, Charles VI of Austria, who had no son, went scurrying around the courts of Europe with a document called the Pragmatic Sanction, which purported to ensure the territorial integrity of his empire when his daughter, Maria Theresa, eventually ascended to the throne.

As it turned out, Maria Theresa could more than take care of herself, but not without a fight or two. Charles VI of Austria died in October 1740, a few months after Frederick William I of Prussia. Frederick William’s son, another Frederick, had no intention of respecting his father’s endorsement of the Pragmatic Sanction and promptly marched into Austria’s rich province of Silesia. Prussia and France became unlikely allies when Louis XV thought that France might win Austrian spoils in the conflict. England sided with Austria.

The ensuing War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) was called King George’s War in North America after George II, the second of the Hanovers to rule Great Britain. Frederick, whom history would call “the Great,” seemed to fight only when it suited him, withdrawing from the conflict after seizing Silesia, then reentering it several years later. Great Britain’s policy was to cajole and subsidize its allies—principally Prussia and the Low Countries—to keep the French occupied in Europe while the Royal Navy and the cream of the British army picked the plums of France’s overseas empire.

In North America, the usual frontier raids occurred, but the big news was in the North Atlantic. The royal governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, determined to capture the French fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia with a ragtag collection of New England militia. William Pepperell, a merchant from Kittery, Maine, led the troops with assistance from a Royal Navy squadron. By some accounts, the expedition more closely resembled a fraternity camping trip than a disciplined military campaign, but the result could not be denied.

Landing on the rocky coast of Cape Breton Island several miles from Louisbourg in April 1745, Pepperell’s forces created such havoc and confusion that the French commander surrendered the fortress six weeks later. The following year, France sent a fleet of almost 100 ships to retake Louisbourg and burn Boston in retaliation, but Atlantic storms and the dread of scurvy turned the fleet before it had fired a shot. Meanwhile, the feuding continued in Europe until, momentarily worn out, the belligerents gathered at Aix-la-Chapelle.

By the time the bells rang in Charlemagne’s ancient cathedral, they heralded peace—but a peace that did not resolve the geopolitical realities of colliding frontiers. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle put most of the pieces back on the board where they had been at the beginning and merely signaled a short recess in the underlying disputes. Frederick II was allowed to keep Silesia, but that only hardened Maria Theresa’s determination to beat him the next time. Indeed, the four most important signatories to the treaty—Great Britain’s George II, France’s Louis XV, Austria’s Maria Theresa, and Prussia’s Frederick II—would all be around the next time.

France gave Madras in India back to the English, and the English gave Louisbourg back to the French, much to the disgust of most New Englanders. The trading rivalries that had cost Jenkins his ear were not addressed, although one West Indian merchant, William Beckford, summed up what appeared to remain the mercantile policies of many: “Our trade will improve by the total extinction of theirs.” So the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle became the “peace without victory.” In France, it even inspired the expression, Bête comme la paix, “as stupid as the peace.”7

So there the world stood in 1748. The bells of Aix-la-Chapelle were not so much a call to peace, as a warning to prepare for another, inevitable war. Tangling alliances, commercial rivalries, royal successions, and a litany of treaties all made for a complex and volatile situation. But this global background has much to say about what was unfolding in North America and why the names of Rijswijk, Utrecht, and Aix-la-Chapelle should come to be inscribed on lead plates buried along the Ohio River the following year.