The French and Indian War was the North American conflict that was part of a larger imperial conflict between Great Britain and France known as the Seven Years’ War. The French and Indian War began in 1754 and ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The war provided Great Britain enormous territorial gains in North America, but disputes over subsequent frontier policy and paying the war’s expenses led to colonial discontent, and ultimately to the American revolution.
The French and Indian War resulted from ongoing frontier tensions in North America as both French and British imperial officials and colonists sought to extend each country’s sphere of influence in frontier regions. In North America, the war pitted France, French colonists, and their Native allies against Great Britain, the Anglo-American colonists and the Iroquois Confederacy, which controlled most of upstate New York and parts of northern Pennsylvania. In 1753, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Great Britain controlled the 13 colonies up to the Appalachian Mountains, but beyond lay New France, a very large, sparsely settled colony that stretched from Louisiana through the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes to Canada. (See Incidents Leading up to the French and Indian War and Albany Plan) Map from the French and Indian War
The border between French and British possessions was not well defined, and one disputed territory was the upper Ohio River valley. The French had constructed a number of forts in this region in an attempt to strengthen their claim on the territory. British colonial forces, led by lieutenant colonel George Washington, attempted to expel the French in 1754, but were outnumbered and defeated by the French. When news of Washington’s failure reached British Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, he called for a quick undeclared retaliatory strike. However, his adversaries in the Cabinet outmaneuvered him by making the plans public, thus alerting the French Government and escalating a distant frontier skirmish into a full-scale war.
The war did not begin well for the British. The British Government sent General Edward Braddock to the colonies as commander in chief of British North American forces, but he alienated potential Indian allies and colonial leaders failed to cooperate with him. On July 13, 1755 Braddock himself died while on a failed expedition to capture Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh, after being mortally wounded in an ambush. The war in North America settled into a stalemate for the next several years, while in Europe the French scored an important naval victory and captured the British possession of Minorca in the Mediterranean in 1756. However, after 1757 the war began to turn in favor of Great Britain. British forces defeated French forces in India, and in 1759 British armies invaded and conquered Canada.
Facing defeat in North America and a tenuous position in Europe, the French Government attempted to engage the British in peace negotiations, but British minister William Pitt (the elder), Secretary for Southern Affairs, sought not only the French cession of Canada but also commercial concessions that the French Government found unacceptable. After these negotiations failed, Spanish King Charles III offered to come to the aid of his cousin, French King Louis XV, and their representatives signed an alliance known as the Family Compact on August 15, 1761. The terms of the agreement stated that Spain would declare war on Great Britain if the war did not end before May 1, 1762. Originally intended to pressure the British into a peace agreement, the Family Compact ultimately reinvigorated the French will to continue the war, and caused the British Government to declare war on Spain on January 4, 1762 after bitter infighting between King George III’s ministers. General Edward Braddock
Despite facing such a formidable alliance, British naval strength and Spanish ineffectiveness led to British success. British forces seized French Caribbean islands, Spanish Cuba, and the Philippines. Fighting in Europe ended after a failed Spanish invasion of British ally Portugal.
The most crushing blow would come from British and colonial forces in Canada. Known as the “Battle of the Plains of Abraham” outside of the city of Quebec, British soldiers scaled the impossible mountains of the surrounding territory and surrounded the city at daybreak. The French, outnumbered and surrounded, had two choices; surrender or fight. They chose the later of the two. The sound of the French battle song rung through the air as light blue French uniforms rushed the British lines of red. Though valiant and courageous, the French would lose to the battle hardened British regulars that day, losing the most important French city on the North American continent. This major victory sealed the deal for the British victory in North America.
By 1763, French and Spanish diplomats began to seek peace. In the resulting Treaty of Paris (1763), Great Britain secured significant territorial gains, including all French territory east of the Mississippi river, as well as Spanish Florida, although the treaty returned Cuba to Spain. Other major gains included Canada and trading rights across the Atlantic Ocean.
American colonists and British citizens rejoiced at their combined victory. The war proved the strength of the British Empire and that its people could come together in a time of need. Americans left the war proud of their nation, their Parliament, and their King. Things looked bright for both Americans and Britons as the war finished in 1763. The last thing anyone would have expected would be that in a short twelve years, Americans and Britons would be taking up arms and marching to the beat of the drum once again, only this time, against one another.
How could it ever come to this?