at the start of the French and Indian War, the French claimed the center of the North American continent and sought to contain the English east of the Alleghenies
Source: Library of Congress, "Robertson's geographic-historical series illustrating the history of America and the United States: from 1492 to the present time," English, French and Spanish Possessions
France and Britain were international rivals seeking wealth and power. This competition affected Virginia, as well as islands in the Caribbean and India. England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and even Sweden fought each other overseas in North America and he Caribbean, without formally declaring war and risking invasion of the homelands in Europe.
The French and Indian War was fought in North America between 1755-63 by French and British forces (including colonial militia). The "Indian" part of the name is key to understanding the conflict. Native Americans chose to ally with either England or France. Competition for their trade and support created conflicts that extended far from the cities of Montreal and Quebec along the St. Lawrence River, and from the English settlements on the Fall Line.
The war was one of a continuing chain of English-French conflicts in North America, stretching back to the earliest settlements by the European rivals.
Starting in the 1500's, the French had relied upon various Native American groups living within the interior of New France to hunt and process deer skins and furs, then exchange them with other tribes further east. French ships traded for beaver and other skins at Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River downstream from Quebec, which Samuel de Champlain started in 1608.
The French established complex trade deals with different Native American groups, but from the beginning the English and French chose to fight rather than trade with each other. In 1613, Virginia colonists sailed north from Jamestown to destroy a French settlement on Mt. Desert Island, now part of Acadia National Park.1
the Virginia colonists sailed 650 miles north to destroy the French settlement on Mt. Desert Island in 1613
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In the Great Peace of 1701, the Mohawk and other members of the Five Nations (the Tuscarora did not join until the 1720's) agreed to stop fighting the French on their northern border. This freed up the Iroquois to combat the Mahican on the east, their rivals for trade with the Dutch fort at Albany. Peace with New France also allowed the Iroquois to focus on conquering the Susquehanna and Delaware to the south, plus westward expansion to establish Five Nations hegemony over tribes living in the Ohio River valley.
The French built Fort Detroit in 1701, extending their trading network further to the west. It was located on territory that Virginia had claimed since 1609.
Governor Spotswood viewed new French forts in the Ohio River and Mississippi River as encroachment into Virginia's territory
Source: John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, A new chart of the English Empire in North America (by Cyprian Southack, 1717)
Virginia's claim to the Ohio Country westward to the Mississippi River and beyond was based its Second Charter, which granted:2
the French built forts at Frontenac in 1673, Niagara in 1679, and Detroit in 1701 to extend their trading network deeper into the backcounry - but in 1718, geographic knowledge of the Ohio River watershed was very thin
Source: University of Georgia, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, La France occidentale dans l'Amerique Septentrional ou le cours de la rivie`re de St. Laurens aux environs de la quelle se trouvent le Canada, l'Acadie, et la Gaspasie les Esquimaux, les Hurons, les Iroquois, les Illinois & la Virginie, la Marie-Lande, la Pensilvanie, le Nouveau Jersay, la Nouvelle Yorck, la Nouvelle Angleterre et l'isle de Terre-Neuve (1718)
In contrast to the economy established by the French based on fur trading, English colonies in North America were based on agriculture. Virginia and Maryland relied upon one staple crop, tobacco, which depleted nutrients in the soil within three years. To find fresh land to plant tobacco, English colonists displaced Native American tribes. Occupying their land and preventing traditional hunting practices led to conflict, and a desire of the colonists to push Native Americans out of Virginia.
The sale of tobacco to customers in Europe generated profits for business leaders in London. Taxes on tobacco generated an extraordinary profit for the English government. Land speculation steadily fueled the growth of a wealthy gentry class in Virginia, though the price of tobacco grown in the Middle Atlantic colonies varied based on supply, demand, and manipulation of the market by London businessmen.
The colony's gentry dominated colonial government in Virginia, and the colony's economy was based on a ever-growing population continuously buying western lands. The colonial government located in Jamestown and then in Williamsburg (after 1699) granted those lands at low cost to a select group of powerful families. They profited by displacing Native Americans and selling parcels to new farmers. Growing tobacco was profitable, but the major fortunes of the First Families of Virginia (FFV's) were made from land speculation.
That land speculation by Virginians, more than any other colony, was the fundamental cause of the French and Indian War. Full-scale conflict in the New World between England and France had been delayed 200 years, in part because the two countries initially separated their colonies by great distances. However, as English settlement expanded into the trading backcountry that fed furs to Montreal and Quebec, competition for trade with Native American tribes increased.
land speculation efforts by the Virginians in the area west of the Ohio River triggered the French and Indian War
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (John Mitchell, 1755)
The efforts of the Ohio Company to occupy lands at the Forks of the Ohio River finally triggered the war which determined which European power would control the interior of North America, east of the Mississippi River.
There was a long tradition of warfare between French colonists and Native Americans, pre-dating the settlement at Quebec in 1608. Warfare between English colonists and Native Americans started in the first days of Jamestown. Various groups of Native Americans resisted efforts by colonists to convert their towns and hunting territories into farms.
The paramount chiefdom of Powhatan was disrupted despite uprisings in 1622 and 1644, and most of the Native Americans forced to leave the Coastal Plain. In the 1670's, Virginia colonists intruded into the territory claimed by the Dogue at the same time the Susquehanna moved closer to the Potomac River. Resistance by those two tribes in 1676 helped spark Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia. That same year, King Philip's War in New England devastated 17 towns and damaged the economy severely:3
Throughout the first half of the 1700's, conflicts between France and England in Europe overlapped with European and Native American rivalries for control of land and trade in North America. Iroquois expansionism, fueled in part by skillful negotiation of alliances with colonial representatives of France and England, forced the Susquehanna and Delaware out of their traditional territories and made them dependent upon the Six Nations.
in the 1750's the British claimed sovereignty over lands west of the Susquehanna River which the Iroquois had been conquered
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements (John Mitchell, 1755)
West of the Ohio River, the Shawnee were the most willing to assert their independence of the Iroquois. The Erie, Mingo, Wyandot, Ottawa, and other tribes were forced to acknowledge the power of the Six Nations. In negotiations, dependent tribes were forced to accept arrangements acceptable to the Iroquois, and leaders of subordinate tribes were designated as only "half kings."
The Ohio Company's disruption of relationships in the backcountry of the Ohio River valley started in the late 1740's. Speculative land claims by that company was just one of many disputes between France and England; the conflict could have become just another minor event in a long pattern of conflicts. The overlapping territorial claims by the French based on the St. Lawrence River, and by the English speculators based in Virginia, grew into a decisive world war because the buffer of undisputed land between New France and the English colonies finally had been exhausted.
The Ohio Company intended to occupy the backcountry of the French traders and block their economic opportunity. The French refused to concede the valley of La Belle Riviere, and maneuvered to dominate the Native Americans who lived there. The traders from Pennsylvania sought to have Native American groups interfere with traders from Virginia and vice-versa. The colonial governors failed to work together to implement a common negotiation strategy with Native American tribes.
Choosing a time for the start of the French and Indian War requires assessing the events that preceded official declaration of war in 1756. King George's War started in 1744, and ended in 1748 with only a temporary peace.
In 1754, open conflict re-started in North America at the Forks of the Ohio. In 1756 the two countries started the Seven Years War in Europe. That led Great Britain to send enough military forces from Europe to North America to tip the balance, and in 1763 France was forced to abandon North America.
the expansive English claim to the Ohio River watershed was portrayed in John Mitchell's 1755 map
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements
John Mitchell's 1755 map of English claims in North America displayed the location of Kuskusky and Logstown (and demonstrated the old adage that "all interesting places are located at the edge of separate map sheets...")
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (John Mitchell, 1755)
In 1753, the French established military bases on the southern edge of Lake Ontario and in what today is northern Pennsylvania. In late 1753, Lord Dinwiddie sent George Washington to notify Legardeur de St. Pierre at Fort de la Riviere au Boeuf that the French had encroached into territory claimed by the English. Part of the English claim to the Ohio River territory was based on the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster. After the Iroquois supposedly "sold" their claim to that land, the Ohio Company obtained a land grant to much of what is modern-day Ohio.
After Lord Dinwiddie gave Washington the assignment to travel to Fort Le Boeuf, Washington hired Christopher Gist to serve as his guide. Together with Indian allies, the two Virginians reached the French headquarters near Lake Erie (modern-day New Waterford, Pennsylvania) despite the November snow and ice.
George Washington and Christopher Gist made a hazardous trip through the backcountry to reach the French at Fort Le Boeuf in 1753
Source: Federal Highway Administration, 1753 Washington Crossing (painting by Carl Rakeman)
Washington was treated well by the French at Fort Le Boeuf. The officers must have appreciated the opportunity to converse with a "gentleman" in the middle of nowhere - but they rejected Dinwiddie's claim that the Ohio River was British territory. Washington's tiny party in 1753 was clearly inadequate for anything more than a brief scouting expedition, and to the French any military threat from Williamsburg must have seemed minor. The French were more concerned with the Native American allies that accompanied Washington and Gist, and worked hard to shift the Native American loyalties to the French.
Washington hurried back to Williamsburg from Fort Le Boeuf in order to alert Dinwiddie as fast as possible, surviving a dunking in an ice-filled river and an attempt to kill him by a Native American in his traveling party.
George Washington was capable of navigating both the backcountry and the political environment in Williamsburg
Source: National Archives, Washington Reporting to Governor Dinwiddie at Williamsburg, Virginia
Washington submitted a written report to Lord Dinwiddie, who sent it to London. The report was published as The Journal of Major George Washington, and the 21-year old Virginian gained his first recognition in Europe through that report from the frontier.
George Washington traveled to Fort Le Boeuf in the winter of November 1753, crossing icy rivers in harsh winter conditions and surviving an attempted murder on the return trip
Source: Library of Congress, George Washington's map, accompanying his "journal to the Ohio", 1754
In 1754, the Virginia colony sent reinforcements to a fort that colonists were building at the Forks of the Ohio, to protect it from the French. However, before the Virginians arrived, the French captured the fort and renamed it Fort Duquesne, one of several they planned along the Ohio River to connect "New France" in Canada with their holdings in Louisiana. Colonel Joshua Fry was the leader of the Virginia expedition, but Fry died before getting to Pennsylvania. The second-in-command, George Washington, assumed leadership of the military force - and led it into a debacle.
the French moved south from Canada through Lake Erie, down the Allegheny River to the Forks of the Ohio, and forced the Ohio Company to abandon their incomplete fort
Source: Library of Congress, Captain Snow's scetch of the country by himself, and the best accounts he could receive from the Indian traders
After learning the fort had been captured and the Virginia colonists evicted, Washington attacked a group of Frenchmen in late May, 1754 while they slept. The site of the attack is now called Jumonville Glen, named after the French leader who died in the British ambush. After the Virginians had captured or killed all the Frenchmen, one of Washington's Native American allies took a hatchet and bashed out the brains of de Jumonville. This murder of the French leader, after he had surrendered, guaranteed continued hostilities between the Europeans trying to occupy the Ohio River valley.
The French responded by sending troops and Native American allies from Fort Duquesne to confront Washington's small force. Washington failed to maintain good relations with his Native American allies, and they deserted the Virginians. Washington built a small fort with a palisade around it in an open field, called Fort Necessity, but was forced to surrender after less than one day of fighting. Washington signed a surrender document, written in French, in which he admitted to "assassinating" the French ambassador who had travelled from Fort Duquesne to meet with the Virginians.
the French moved forces and supplies from Lake Erie in order to build Fort Duquesne, where the Allegheny and Monogohela rivers join to form the Ohio River
Source: Library of Congress, Copy of a sketch of the Monongahela, with the field of battle
Today we know George Washington grew up to be rich and famous, the "Father of the Country" and the "Indispensable Man" without whom the United States may have failed to coalesce into one united country. In 1755, however, Washington appears to have been an idealistic but unhappy young man who thought he had made a bad personal decision to go to Fort de la Riviere au Boeuf, then fight the French in 1754 (when he surrendered at Fort Necessity) and 1755 (when he was with General Braddock, and the British forces were defeated before reaching Fort Duquesne):4
What today we call the French and Indian War may have been inevitable, once two European powers sought control over the same Ohio River land. The war was triggered by the actions of the military force led by Washington in 1754, but had Washington not been in charge of the Virginia response to the French incursion then a war would have been triggered by some other incident in the 1750's.
The war was inevitable... but the role of the Virginians was not. Why were the Virginians fighting the French so far from the boundaries of the Virginia colony? Jumonville Glen, Fort Necessity, and Pittsburg (Fort Duquesne/Fort Pitt) are all in Pennsylvania - why didn't the Pennsylvanians fight the initial battles?
the contest between France and England for control of lands west of the Allegheny Mountains led to the French and Indian War, triggered by George Washington's "assassination" of a French official at Jumonville Glen in 1754
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the province of Pensilvania (1756)
Land-hungry Virginians in the General Assembly and on the governor's Council launched the Ohio Company in 1748. The average Virginian without a massive land grant shared the hunger for land, and was willing to fight Native Americans, the French, or even Pennsylvanians to obtain cheap land. The Quaker-led assembly in Pennsylvania lacked the avarice and willingness to fight for land. The Virginians saw an opportunity to gain control over the Ohio territory, and had no qualms about citing the colonial charters as the basis for their land claims or raising an army to fight for that land.
When Lord Braddock arrived in 1755 to lead the British army to the capture of Fort Duquesne, he established his base of operations in Alexandria - not Philadelphia. Farmers bringing crops and other supplies to Braddock created "Braddocks Road" in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, but Braddock himself marched up modern Route 7 and through Maryland to what is today Cumberland, Maryland. The Society of Colonial Dames of America erected a monument in 1915 to mark Braddock's path, placing a cannon at the intersection of Braddock and Russell roads.5
a cannon supposedly abandoned by General Braddock was used in 1915 to mark his trail from Alexandria towards Fort Duquesne
Source: Library of Congress, Keefer, Braddock Cannon, Alex., Va.
the Braddock cannon is still located at the intersection of Braddock and Russell roads in Alexandria
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
From Cumberland the English cut a road through the wilderness to Fort Duquesne. It followed Nemacolin's Trail, carved in 1750 by the Ohio Company, past Fort Necessity to the headwaters of Redstone Creek.
General Braddock's engineers cut a new road through wooded wilderness from Cumberland, Maryland towards the Forks of the Ohio
Source: Federal Highway Administration, 1755 Braddock's Road (painting by Carl Rakeman)
However, Braddock was killed and the British defeated in a surprise assault by the French and their Native American allies near the fort. Much to the dismay of the Virginians, however, the British forces moved to Philadelphia after Braddock's defeat and went into "winter quarters" in mid-summer of 1755.
construction of General Braddock's road to move artillery and supplies slowed the march from Cumberland to Fort Duquesne in 1755
Source: The National Road in Pennsylvania
Even worse, the British then decided to attack Fort Duquesne by building a different road. It cut through the Pennsylvania wilderness, enhancing the economic link between Philadelphia and the Ohio River. After the British captured Fort Duquesne and renamed it Fort Pitt, the Virginia investment in fighting the French ended up providing advantages to the Pennsylvania colony rather than to Virginia. The Virginians even dropped their claims to the land in southwestern Pennsylvania, though the land claims already established by Virginia colonists were confirmed by the Pennsylvanians.
General Braddock led an English army from Alexandria across the Monongahela River, but died in the defeat near Fort Duquesne
Source: Library of Congress, A sketch of the field of battle with the disposition of the troops in the beginning of the engagement of the 9th of July on the Monongahela 7 miles from Fort Du Quesne
with support from Virginians who wanted better access to the Ohio River, Braddock directed his army to cut a road from Fort Cumberland (now Cumberland, Maryland) to Fort Duquesne
Source: Library of Congress, "Robertson's geographic-historical series illustrating the history of America and the United States: from 1492 to the present time," Braddock's Defeat
in 1754, at the start of the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin called for united colonial action
Source: Library of Congress, Join or Die (by Benjamin Franklin, March 9, 1754)
General Braddock knew the details of Fort Duquesne, thanks to a diagram and report smuggled out by an English hostage retained after the surrender of Fort Necessity
Source: University of Pittsburgh, Robert Stobo to Colonel Innes, July 28, 1754
The Journal of Major George Washington (1754)
Source: University of Nebraska, Digital Commons
the English planned to seize four major forts in the 1755 campaign, isolating Quebec and Montreal
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the French claimed all of the Mississippi River watersheds, and asserted English claims stopped at the Alleghenies
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, English, French and Spanish Possessions (Guillaume de L'Isle, 1718)