French-Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion

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2015
Conference between the French and Indian leaders around a ceremonial fire, by Émile Louis Vernier

Known as the “Seven Years’ War” in Britain and the “Guerre de sept ans” in France, this was the culmination of the imperial struggle for North America.

After King George’s War ended in 1748, officials of the French Empire in North America were determined to secure trade with the Indians of the pays d’en haute, or the “Ohio Country.” They had long enjoyed trade with Indians of this area, but now after this war the British were beginning to usurp that trade and threatening to cross the mountains in the fertile Ohio Valley. The French sent Captain Pierre-Joseph Celeron de Bienville, (known simply as Celeron, or Celeron de Bienville), to claim the Ohio Valley. To do this he was given lead plates to bury at the mouths of the major tributaries of the Ohio River from the Mississippi to the headwaters of the Ohio (the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, known as the “Forks of the Ohio” at modern-day Pittsburgh).

Braddock’s Campaign

In 1753, Virginia Colonial Governor Robert Dinwiddie and his fellow investors – which included George Washington and his half-brothers – in a land speculation scheme known as the Ohio Company became concerned about this French expansion. Lt. George Washington was sent to the French Fort La Boeuf in modern-day northeastern Pennsylvania to formally request that the French leave British territory. The French commander politely entertained Washington’s party, and sent him on his way with a statement declining to leave. The French claimed prior possession due to the voyages of Pere Jacques Marquette and Rene-Robert de la Salle nearly a century earlier.

This was met with stronger retaliation by Dinwiddie. He sent Washington back in 1754 with a military attachment who, along with Iroquois allies under the Mingo leader Tanighrisson, attacked a French encampment near Ft. Duquesne which the French had built at the Forks. Washington pulled back and established Fort Necessity to the southeast, where the French and their Indian allies attacked and routed them. Washington was forced to surrender, but he was allowed by the French to return with his men to Virginia.

Dinwiddie the sent General William Braddock and an army of 2,000 men to attempt to stop French encroachment into the Ohio Valley. Along with Lt. Washington, Braddock’s army set out to attack Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River (modern-day Pittsburgh). The British was attacked and routed, with Washington barely escaping with his life; Braddock was not so lucky. The survivors retreated, but documents containing the British war plans fell into French hands and other British actions in Canada and New York became known to the French.

World War and the Battle of Quebec

Other battles on land and sea led to a formal mutual declaration of war by the French and British in 1756. For the first two years, the French held the upper hand. By 1758, British naval power began to win the day — the tide was turning against the French.

The pivotal battle in this “World War” was at Quebec City in Canada at a place called the “Plains of Abraham.” There, in September of 1759, General James Wolfe launched a surprise attack on the French garrison, led by the Marquis de Montcalm. By the time the French soldiers knew what was happening, they had 5,000 British troops in their midst with their supply lines to Montreal cut. Both generals were killed in this decisive battle.

After several more years of fighting outside of North America, the French and British struck a treaty at Paris in 1763. This treaty gave French territory in North America to the British, essentially ending official French presence there. The Quebecois and other French Catholics now under British jurisdiction were allowed to continue their Catholic worship, but were expected to remain loyal to the British crown.

Pontiac’s Rebellion

The alliance of numerous Indian groups in the Great Lakes area had been allied with the French. They were dismayed by the French surrender, the news of which came suddenly. Also, a Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indian “prophet” known as Neolin had been publicizing his ideas about how to restore Indian independence. Neolin said that the Europeans had cut off their close connection to “heaven” and that now it was a long and circuitous route for the Indians to be at one with the “Owner of Reality.” Indians should avoid all things European and return to their self-sufficient roots, he said.

Pontiac, an Ottawa leader who lived in modern-day Michigan, agreed with these views and saw it as a call to maintain and increase Indian unity in the Ohio Country and Great Lakes region. In addition, the British Superintendant for the Northern District, General Jeffrey Amherst disavowed the French practice of gift-giving – French acknowledgment of the indigenous gift economy – and generally treated the Indians with contempt. Amherst ordered blankets to be traded to the Indians at Fort Pitt (the new British garrison at the forks of the Ohio), that had been knowingly infected with smallpox, a disease to which the Indians had little resistance. Amherst called for the “extermination of this execrable race.”

Pontiac’s Pan-Indian alliance won important battles against the British at many of the Great Lakes forts. Over the course of two years, Pontiac’s alliance and the British essentially fought to a stalemate. The British were forced to negotiate with the Indians, abandoning Amherst’s heavy-handed policies. The Indians were unable to drive the British from their midst, and certainly the possibility of uniting the two groups, as had happened to some extent in French and Spanish America, was largely lost.

The British, concerned about keeping the peace with the Ohio Country Indians, established the Proclamation Line, which forbid colonists from entering the Ohio Country. This incensed not only the land speculators of the Ohio Company and others, but the rank and file farmers who had hoped to establish themselves west of the Appalachians. The Proclamation Line, seen this way, was both the last of the long-term causes of the American Revolution, and the first of the short-term causes.

The French-Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion changed much in the British colonies and eliminated the French authorities altogether. Indian-hating on the frontier became rampant, and depredations on both sides continued into and beyond the American Revolution.

Sources:

  1. Alfred Cave, The French Indian War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2004).
  2. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! Vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 2010).