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The French & Indian War for Teachers

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The Setting
The Ohio River Valley or "Ohio Country" lay west of the Appalachian Mountains. Contested lands actually spread well beyond the actual Ohio River basin to include parts of present-day New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia.

The focal point of conflict was the "Forks of the Ohio," a point of land in the wilderness where the Monongahela River (flowing north) and the Allegheny River (flowing southwest) met to form the Ohio River. Today, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania marks the spot. In the early 1750s, it was virgin forest.

The Combatants
As pointed out by historian Fred Anderson in his landmark book Crucible of War, and in interviews for Paladin, four distinct groups sought to control the Ohio Valley:

• The British, who wished to conquer the wilderness for settlement and expansion of empire.

• The French, who wished to use the wilderness for trade and transportation and to bring new cultures into their fold.

• The Native Americans, who wished to maintain control of their own homelands and keep out Europeans.

• The English colonials or "Americans," who felt subjugated and wished to have a say in their lives--and their future.

The Outbreak
There is disagreement about when the French & Indian War began, and a distinction to be made between the terms French & Indian War and Seven Years' War.

The French & Indian War was a conflict solely on the American continent and any way it is viewed, a young and inexperienced George Washington was involved in its ignition. Some say the war began with a shot fired at Washington by a Native American in late December 1753. At that time, Washington and frontiersman Christopher Gist were returning from a journey of several hundred miles to issue an ultimatum from the British province of Virginia that the French must immediately evacuate the Ohio Country.

Others insist that war broke out with a brief and deadly encounter on the morning of May 28, 1754. It happened on a mountain called Chestnut Ridge, about 20 miles east of the confluence of Redstone Creek and the Monongahela River. At dawn on the 28th, a French scouting party was attacked by a combined force of Virginia militia and Seneca Indians. Somewhere between 10 and 13 French soldiers were killed, including Ensign Joseph Coulon deVilliers, Sieur Jumonville. There is historical agreement that the Seneca leader Half King personally tomahawked and scalped Jumonville with a horrified George Washington looking on.




At Fort Necessity, George Washington goes
on a rant because of lack of resupply and
support from Virginia in this scene from




Why did Washington attack rather than parley with the French soldiers? In the film When the Forest Ran Red, acclaimed historian R. David Edmunds, Ph.D., author of the book The Shawnee Prophet, states, "Washington is a bright young man, but he's not from the region. Consequently, as these events begin to take place, Washington reacts to what is going on rather than really affording much leadership." Pittsburgh colonial historian Bruce Egli agrees, noting that the Half King is "attempting to manipulate the situation; get the English and Washington to make the French go away but somehow not get them to stay permanently themselves." Egli calls it a "deep, a fast, and a dangerous game for all three of the participants."

By the evening of May 28, 1754, a shooting war between the militia of the English colony of Virginia and the French army had begun. However, the Seven Years' War between England, France, and various other world powers did not begin until 1756. In fact, the brutal wilderness battle known as Braddock's Defeat or the Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755, between a French/Indian guerrilla force and a large column of British regulars and provincial troops was fought before the formal declaration of war by England that made the Seven Years' War official on May 15, 1756.

Progress of the French & Indian War
Ironically, within weeks of the death of Jumonville, his elder brother arrives at the new French stronghold, Fort Duquesne, at the Forks of the Ohio. Capt. Louis Coulon deVilliers requested of the fort commander that he be permitted to lead an army to defeat Washington's Virginia militia force, then camped on the mountain near the spot where Jumonville had been killed.

In late June 1754, deVilliers began his march and found George Washington's army of 300 men awaiting them in a small circular stockade built "of Necessity" in the middle of the Great Meadows, a broad, flat, marshy piece of open flatland in the wilderness. After a brief but bloody battle, followed by a soaking rainstorm, deVilliers forced Washington's surrender, and the young Virginian set off on the return march to Williamsburg in the most desperate gloom possible. He thought his military career had ended as soon as it had begun, and he was only 22 years old.

But that wasn't the end at all. Within six months the English King George II had decided to send a powerful army to America to expel the French from the Ohio Country and exercise control over the Native Americans. He put Major General Edward Braddock in charge of this army and further made Braddock the supreme commander of all British military forces in America.

At this time, most of the western tribes of Indians, called the Algonquin or Great Lakes Indians, had gravitated to the French. Native American historian Yvonne Dion-Buffalo, Ph.D. of the State University of New York says this was because, "The French people had a whole different idea toward the indigenous peoples. They were trying to build a nation-state, and so they saw people as human beings and tried to bring them into their fold." But Braddock sealed the deal. He managed - through his insistence on English rights to own the wilderness - to drive most Iroquois Indians from New York and Pennsylvania to the French side. The stage was set for disaster for the English.

The deputy postmaster of the American provinces, 49-year-old Benjamin Franklin, urged Braddock to be cautious as he ventured into the wilderness: the British army could be vulnerable to surprise attack as it snaked its way deep into enemy country. In the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father recounts his experiences with Gen. Braddock. He seemed to vividly recall Braddock's strident answer to concerns about the skill of American Indian tribes: "These savages may be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia. But upon the King's regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression!"

It had taken the British army three weeks to cross the Atlantic, three months to plan, march, drill, and equip, and four weeks to make the famous Braddock's March from Virginia to the heart of the wilderness. It then took Gen. Braddock three hours to oversee a disastrous battle with experienced French and Indian forest fighters that wrecked the army and led to his mortal wounding. True to Franklin's prediction, the British army fell victim to what historian Stephen Brumwell, author of the book Redcoats, labeled an "encounter battle," with the forces colliding unexpectedly in the forest six miles southeast of Fort Duquesne.



As seen in this extremely rare painting, retired Virginia Militia officer George Washington, 23 years old, presents his credentials to 60-year-old Major-General Edward Braddock, the commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America, as Sir John St. Clair (right center, partially obscured behind Washington) and others look on.




Braddock had asked George Washington - now retired from the military life - to accompany the army as an aide and guide. After all, Washington knew the land and the players on the French and Native American side. So Washington was there for the battle, and ironically it was Washington who recommended that Braddock divide his army and make a bold stab at the French with 1,200 chosen men. Weeks later, it was Washington who ducked from a hailstorm of lead, Washington who organized the retreat from the battlefield, and Washington who oversaw the burial of Gen. Braddock four days after the battle.

All in all, George Washington's military resume in the summer of 1755 was a disaster. But irony wasn't done with him. Almost at once, even as Washington retired a second time at age 23, the governor of Virginia came calling because, quite simply, there was no one else in the province qualified to lead an army in the wilderness. For a third time Washington was called, this time to lead the defense of Virginia's frontier, which had been thrown wide open to French and Indian terrorist attacks in the wake of Braddock's Defeat. The war that followed was bloody and cruel.

Ironically, one of the first wagon drivers in Braddock's column to "cut and run," or cut loose one of the horses in his team and hurry away from harm, was 18-year-old Daniel Boone, who would later go on to fame as an explorer, frontiersman, and politician. Legendary for his bravery and wiles in battling Indians later in life, Boone actually began his frontier career by running away from a battle!

There is much more to learn about George Washington's French & Indian War, like the story of Major James Grant's 1758 battle at Fort Duquesne. We invite you to explore these pages, and our movies, to learn all about it.

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