Chronicles of America 

The French and Indian War, 1754-1763

The fight for North America was now rapidly approaching its final phase in the struggle which we know as the Seven Years' War. During forty years, commissioners of the two nations had been trying to reach some agreement as to boundaries. Each side, however, made impossible demands. France claimed all the lands drained by the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes and by the Mississippi and its tributaries a claim which, if made good, would have carried her into the very heart of the colony of New York and would have given her also the mastery of the Ohio and the regions beyond. Britain claimed all the lands ever occupied by the Iroquois Indians, who had been recognized as British subjects by the Treaty of Utrecht. As those Indians had overrun regions north of the St. Lawrence, the British thus would become masters of a good part of Canada. Neither side was prepared for reasonable compromise. The sword was to be the final arbiter.

Events moved rapidly towards war. In 1753 Duquesne, the new Governor of Canada, sent more than a thousand men to build Fort Le Boeuf, on upper waters flowing to the Ohio and within easy reach of support by way of Lake Erie. In the nest year the French were swarming in the Ohio Valley, stirring up the Indians against the English and confident of success. They jeered at the divisions among the English and believed their own unity so strong that they could master the colonies one by one. The two colonies most affected were Pennsylvania and Virginia, either of them quite ready to see its own citizens advance into the Ohio country and possess the land, but neither of them willing to unite with the other in effective military action to protect the frontier.

It is at this crisis that there appears for the first time in history George Washington of Virginia. In December, 1753, in the dead of winter, he made a long, toilsome journey from Virginia to the north through snow and rain, by difficult forest trails, over two ranges of mountains, across streams sometimes frozen, sometimes dangerous from treacherous thaws. On the way he heard gossip from the Indians about the designs of the French. They boasted that they would come in numbers like the sands of the seashore; that the natives would be no more an obstacle to them than the flies and mosquitoes, which indeed they resembled; and that not the breadth of a finger-nail of land belonged to the Indians. Washington was told by one of the French that "it was their absolute design to take possession of the Ohio and, by--, they would do it!" It was no matter that the French were outnumbered two to one by the English, for the English were dilatory and ineffective.

In the end, Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf and presented a letter from Dinwiddie, the Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, pointing out that the British could not permit an armed force from Canada to invade their territory of the Ohio and requiring that the French should leave the country at once. Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, to whom this firm demand was delivered, "an elderly gentleman," says Washington, with "much the air of a soldier" gave, of course, a polite answer in the manner of his nation, but he intended, he said, to remain where he was as long as he had instructions so to do. Washington kept his eyes open and made careful observations of the plan of the fort, the number of men, and also of the canoes, of which he noted that there were more than two hundred ready and many others building. The French tried to entice away his Indians and he says, "I cannot say that ever in my life I suffered so much anxiety." On the journey back he nearly perished when he fell into an ice-cold stream and was obliged to spend the night on a tiny island in frozen clothing. He brought comfort as cold to the waiting Dinwiddie.

The French meanwhile were always a little ahead of the English in their planning. Early in April, 1754, a French force of five or six hundred men from Canada, which had set out while Quebec was still in the icy grip of winter, reached the upper waters of the Ohio. They attacked and destroyed a fort which the English had begun at the forks where now stands Pittsburgh, and, in its place, began a formidable one, called Fort Duquesne after the Governor of Canada. In vain was Washington sent with a few hundred men to take possession of this fort and to assert the claim of the English to the land. He fell in with a French scouting party under young Coulon de Jumonville, killed its leader and nine others, and took more than a score of prisoners--warfare bloody enough in a time of supposed peace. But the French were now on the Ohio in greater numbers than the English. At a spot known as the Great Meadows, where Washington had hastily thrown up defenses, which he called Fort Necessity, he was forced to surrender, but was allowed to lead his force back to Virginia, defeated in the first military adventure of his career. The French took the view that his killing of the young officer Jumonville was assassination, since no state of war existed, and raised a fierce clamor that Washington was a murderer--a strange contrast to his relations with France in the years to come.

What astonishes us in regard to these events is that Britain and France long remained nominally at peace while they were carrying on active hostilities in America and sending from Europe armies to fight. There were various reasons for this hesitation about plunging formally into war. Each side wished to delay until sure of its alliances in Europe. During the war ending in 1748 France had fought with Frederick of Prussia against Austria, and Britain had been Austria's ally. The war had been chiefly a land war, but France had been beaten on the sea. Now Britain and Prussia were drawing together and, if France fought them, it must be with Austria as an ally. Such an alliance offered France but slight advantage. Austria, an inland power, could not help France against an adversary whose strength was on the sea; she could not aid the designs of France in America or in India, where the capable French leader Dupleix was in a fair way to build up a mighty oriental empire. Nor had France anything to gain in Europe from an Austrian alliance. The shoe was on the other foot. The supreme passion of Maria Theresa who ruled Austria was to recover the province of Silesia which had been seized in 1740 by Prussia and held--held to this day. Austria could do little for France but France could do much for Austria. So Austria worked for this alliance. It is a story of intrigue. Usually in France the King carried on negotiations with foreign countries only through his ministers, who knew the real interests of France. Now the astute Austrian statesman, Kaunitz, went past the ministers of Louis XV to Louis himself. This was the heyday of Madame de Pompadour, the King's mistress. Maria Theresa condescended to intrigue with this woman whom in her heart she despised. There is still much mystery in the affair. The King was flattered into thinking that personally he was swaying the affairs of Europe and took delight in deceiving his ministers and working behind their backs. While events in America were making war between France and Britain inevitable, France was being tied to an ally who could give her little aid. She must spend herself to fight Austria's battles on the land, while her real interests required that she should build up her fleet to fight on the sea the great adversary across the English Channel.

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