The Roots of the French and Indian War

The French and Indian War of 1754-1763 played a crucial role in the history of North America, and decided which European power would come to dominate the continent. Yet the roots of the war go back decades previously.

Fort Pitt Blockhouse Museum, Pittsburgh

The two countries of France and England had been rivals in Europe for centuries and had fought innumerable wars against each other, and this competition extended to their New World colonies. The English had settled Virginia in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, and the French had been established in Quebec since 1608. And just as there was not enough room in all of Europe for the both of them, so too even the vast expanse of North America was not big enough to prevent rivalry and enmity between them. British colonies, known as “New England”, soon extended from Massachusetts along the Appalachian Mountains and all the way down to Georgia, while the French had settlements from the Mississippi River Valley up to Hudson Bay and across to the St Lawrence River—known as “New France”. And so they carried their European conflicts along with them. Inevitably, only one empire could dominate the new continent, and they could only do that by pushing the other one out.

The French and Indian War settled that issue. Today, the war is mostly forgotten: remembered, if at all, as the justification that the English Parliament gave for imposing taxes on its thirteen colonies and provoking the American Revolution.

But the effects of the War go much deeper than simply deciding which European power would control Canada. Both France and England were global powers, with colonies and trade routes that extended all over the world. Thus, although it was sparked in North America, the “Seven Years War”, as it became known in Europe, quickly spread to reach five continents, and it contested control over areas as wide apart as India, the Caribbean, Brazil, the Philippines, and Senegal. Some wags have dubbed it “World War Zero”.

But France and England were not the only combatants in the French and Indian War. There was a third diplomatic and military force which is today virtually ignored, but which was recognized at the time by the two other contenders as holding the ability to tip the scale one way or the other and to determine which European power would win and which would lose. That participant was the Iroquois Confederation.

By the middle of the 18th century, the British colonists in North America numbered over 1,100,000 and the French settlers around 80,000. The Iroquois, with a population of around 20,000, and thousands more under their authority, were a powerful military force as well as exercising political influence over many other Native American Nations stretching from Long Island to the Great Lakes. Both France and England recognized that the Iroquois held the real balance of power in the region, and they could not defeat each other without the active support of their Native American allies. And the Iroquois were the most powerful.

The Confederation, also known as the Iroquois League, had already been established decades before the Europeans arrived in the New World. According to oral tradition, the Iroquois League was established at a time, believed to have been around 1450 CE, when the Natives in what is now New York were involved with a series of raids and conflicts with each other. Then a religious prophet appeared named Deganawida, who preached a message of peace and unity. One of his first converts was a woman named Jigonhsasee, who opened her house to all and allowed warriors from all of the tribes to meet and talk, while she spread Deganawida’s message of peace. One of her converts was Hiawatha, an influential member of the Onondaga Nation, and it was through Hiawatha’s efforts that five of the warring tribes—the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca—joined together into the Iroquois Confederation or Haudenosaunee, also known as the Five Nations. In the traditional story, Hiawatha was able to win the warring tribes over to his vision of unity when the sun disappeared and the day became as night (and some anthropologists have concluded that this is a reference to a solar eclipse that occurred in North America in 1451 CE). In 1722, the Tuscarora joined the Confederation, and the Five Nations became the Six Nations.

Deganawida became a legendary religious figure known as the Great Peacemaker, and Jigonhsasee was referred to as The Mother of Nations. Hiawatha helped to construct a set of principles known as the Great Law of Peace, which became the basis of the Confederation. Under this structure, the women choose the men who serve as chiefs for the Six Nations, and while each Nation remains independent in action, the council of chiefs decides on matters of mutual interest.

The now-unified Haudenosaunee became a powerful force and soon began to dominate the smaller Native Nations around them, such as the Lenape and Shawnee. (In Iroquois parlance, the Five Nations had “made women of them”.) In this, they were greatly aided by trade relations established with the Dutch at Fort Orange, near Albany NY, from which the Haudenosaunee obtained European manufactured goods. When the Frenchman Samuel Champlain entered what is now Quebec in 1609, he found the Iroquois in conflict with the large Algonquin Nation to their north, and as the influence of the Five Nations spread they bumped up against the English colonists in Kentucky and the French at the Great Lakes.

By the 1630s, however, the Five Nations were facing difficulties. They had become completely dependent upon modern European manufactured goods such as matchlock (and later flintlock) guns, cooking pots, iron knives, blankets, and other implements, and since they could not make any of these things for themselves they could only obtain them by trading furs, especially beaver pelts, to the Dutch. In addition, exposure to European diseases like smallpox and measles had wiped out entire villages and reduced the Native populations by as much as half in some areas. Nevertheless, even with their lower numbers, the Haudenosaunee had hunted out most of the fur-bearing animals in their home territory and were running out of furs to trade to the Dutch.

These twin pressures forced the Iroquois to become expansionistic, both to obtain new hunting grounds for the fur markets and to acquire captives from neighboring Nations who could be adopted into the tribes to bolster their population. Although all of the Native Americans were considered by all of the Europeans to be little more than uncivilized savages, the reality on the ground was that many of the larger tribes, such as the Haudenosaunee, the Huron and the Susquehannock, were well-supplied with muskets and just as well-armed as any French or English militia (the Susquehannock at one point even possessed a small cannon that they could use in battle), and as masters of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare, the Natives were serious military forces that had to be treated with respect. The result of the Haudenosaunee expansion, therefore, was several decades of severe and bloody conflict that became known as the Beaver Wars.

By the 1660s, the Iroquois had broken the powerful Huron tribes in the north and had begun raids against the Susquehannocks in the south (in a sign of the often-fluid nature of alliances in this conflict, in which everybody was always putting their own interests first, the Susquehannocks had been supported by the British, and the Five Nations attack on them led to a declaration of war against the Haudenosaunee by their ostensible allies in the English colony of Maryland). In the west, the Iroquois pushed the Lakota nations away from the Great Lakes region and out onto the western plains. As the Haudenosaunee continued to expand, many refugees from the subjugated tribes, particularly the Lenape and Shawnee, escaped to the area of the Ohio River Valley, where the Iroquois launched occasional raids against them.

And that caught the attention of the French. By this time, the English colonies had moved into central New York and had driven out the Dutch—replacing them as the principle trading partners for the Haudenosaunee and, recognizing the strategic value of having the Five Nations as allies, continuing to supply the Natives with guns and European goods. The French, on the other hand, were determined to hold their English rivals behind the Appalachian Mountains, and recognized that if the Ohio Valley became dominated by Iroquois allied to the British, then the east coast colonists would inevitably come flooding into French territories to the west, cutting the communications between the western portions of New France in Louisiana and Illinois and the eastern portions in Hudson Bay and Quebec. It would weaken France’s position on the entire continent. And indeed the British, who held a rival claim to the Ohio area, were very much interested in expanding their colonies into those fertile well-watered lands, and now viewed the Iroquois as a powerful ally in that quest.

So both European powers responded to the other by seeking allies among the Native Americans and arming them. After a time the French began sending their own militia and regular troops (including the Carignan-Salières Regiment dispatched from France) in support of their Potawatomie and Miami allies, and several times tried to invade Haudenosaunee territory: the Iroquois always pushed them back. A truce was established that lasted for two years, but fighting again broke out when French traders began encroaching upon territory claimed by the Five Nations. Once again, French troops were sent by the Governor of New France, Louis de Frontenac, to attack Iroquois territory.

But by 1701, all of the sides were ready to end the conflicts. At Montreal, the French, the English, and 39 Native American representatives all signed the Treaty of the Great Peace. It ended the fighting, but it did not resolve the underlying issue of the two incompatible claims to the Ohio Valley. And now there was a third claim added to the mix: the Haudenosaunee decided that the Valley now belonged to them, since they had political control over the Lenape and Shawnee who were living there. Those people, however, wanted to be freed from the domination of the Iroquois League, and began to move closer to the French. It was an unstable situation which would soon lead to another war.

3 thoughts on “The Roots of the French and Indian War”

  1. Good article Lenny Flank. You mentioned the conflict between the Haudenosaunee and the Lakota Nations; “In the west, the Iroquois pushed the Lakota nations away from the Great Lakes region and out onto the western plains.” I had read once that the Haudenosaunee had waged war on a People called “The Trader People” over in that direction and had wiped them out. Do you think that the “Trader People’ and the “Lakota Nations” were one and the same?

    Its interesting how a movement for Peace, in the beginnings of the Iroquois Tribes, became so territorial and non-peaceful.

    1. Do you think that the “Trader People’ and the “Lakota Nations” were one and the same?

      It’s possible. There were a lot of tribes in that area, and the Beaver Wars dragged nearly all of them into it.

      Its interesting how a movement for Peace, in the beginnings of the Iroquois Tribes, became so territorial and non-peaceful.

      That seems to always be how things turn out, doesn’t it …

  2. Maybe, some day, Humanity can “see” what’s happening and prevent well intended good directions from deteriorating. We will learn to recognize and “nip” greed in the bud. Whoa there! Enough is Enough! We will say. Plentitude is Good. Excess is bad.

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