The French and Indian War

The Conflict known as the “Seven Years’ War” in Europe, on the American continent is known as the “French and Indian War.” The origin and object of the struggle on the eastern continent were diverse from those on the western.

Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, had wrested the important province of Silesia from Maria Theresa, empress of Austria. When she thought that a propitious time for retaking it had come, she made the attempt. One European nation after another took sides, and the war became general. There was also a difference between England and France in regard to power and possession in India. In America, the war was a contest between France and England for the possession of the valley of the Ohio. Finally, all the Catholic powers of Europe, together with Russia, were on one side; Frederick and England on the other. The war thus became a struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism—between the new ideas and the old—between freedom of thought and worship and the rule of one over many—between the right of self-government and deference to individual opinion and the worn-out feudal principle of the elevation of the prince at the expense of the people.

Frederick was the leader and champion of Protestantism on the continent. For him prayers ascended from the humble homes of Christians in New England—prayers that the God of battles would give him success in every endeavor.

The treaty of Aix la Chapelle concluded in 1748, had left unsettled the greater part of the differences that had caused the war. So far as England was concerned, almost the only gain was the acknowledgment on the part of France that the House of Hanover had the right to the throne of England. From that time the pretender sank into oblivion and had no following. The treaty was, however, unsatisfactory to all the parties concerned, and proved to be scarcely more than an armistice. Only a few years passed till war broke out afresh.

It was by no means the beginning of strife between France and England for the possession of territory on the western continent. There had been struggles between the two parties, with varying results, as to the ownership of tracts in the north. Now the gauge of battle was the fair lands that border La Belle Riviere. In regard to the claims of the two parties to the country in dispute, looking at it from a moral point of view, it would be difficult to take sides with either. Sympathy rather goes out to the poor red men, who were to be despoiled by whichsoever party proved itself most able in the fight. To them, of right, the whole belonged.

The claim of France rested upon discovery and nominal possession. Joliet and Marquette, in 1673, had gone from the head waters of the Fox river to the upper tributaries of the Wisconsin, down which river they went a seven days’ journey to the Mississippi, and for an entire month, in their light canoe, continued their perilous journey. Passing the mouth of the Arkansas, they terminated their voyage at the thirty-third parallel of latitude. Returning, they entered the mouth of the Illinois and went up that stream. Finally they reached Lake Michigan and the present site of Chicago. Their journey did not give them the opportunity of deciding whether the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific ocean. It was left for Robert de la Salle to solve that problem. This brave adventurer, in a second effort, went down the Illinois to its junction with the Mississippi, and the Father of Waters carried him and his men on his bosom till he brought them to where he loses himself in the Gulf of Mexico—a grand performance on the part of La Salle, which ought to make his name famous through all the ages. 

The country thus revealed to her, through the courage and enterprise of her brave sons, France speedily endeavored to make a sure possession. Posts had previously been established in the north at Frontenac and Niagara and the Straits of Mackinaw. Having already settlements in the south, they wished to connect the two by a line of forts extending from the lakes, by way of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and so shut up the English between the Atlantic ocean and the Alleghany mountains. These discoveries and possessions formed the basis of the claims of the French.

The claims of the English rested upon as baseless a fabric as those of the French. The discoveries of the Cabots and others on the Atlantic coast, they claimed, gave them the right of ownership to all the territory lying between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Some of the charters of the original colonies extended the grants from ocean to ocean. But when the contest with France began, the English shifted their ground. They then claimed the territory because of purchases from and treaties with the Indians. As early as 1726, the Iroquois, or Six Nations, were induced to give a formal deed by which these western lands were conveyed to England, in trust, “to be defended and protected by his majesty to and for the use of the grantors and their heirs.” To be sure, this deed was somewhat invalidated by the fact of the doubt as to whether the Iroquois had any right to transfer the valley of the Ohio to any one. They did not hold it in actual possession, and there were other tribes that did, and they claimed that the Iroquois had never conquered them and had no right or title to a foot of the land.

Another claim of the English was based upon actual purchase. A treaty was made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744, the contracting parties representing the same interests as in the previous case. One William Marshe, who went as secretary to the commissioners of Maryland, has given a full account of the journey thither and the proceedings afterward. Time, that destroys so much, has left the account intact. After describing the tribulations of the journey—among which were bad roads and “villainous bacon,” which, however, was mollified by “fresh eggs and fine tongues and hams,” and “serry rum and water called bumbo”—he gives an account of their arrival in Lancaster and the subsequent proceedings. He says: “After eating a good dinner”—we are glad to hear that he had a good dinner to gladden his heart—”and engaged lodgings,” they went out to take a look at the town, which had then been settled some sixteen years. They “found it well laid out, but very dirty and inhabited by a mixture of Dutch, Scotch, Irish, English and Israelites. Most of the houses were of wood, two stories high, and dirty.” It would seem that each of the colonies represented at this time made separate terms with the Indians. It will be remembered that these eastern colonies still considered the Pacific ocean their western boundary. The commissioners from Maryland agreed to pay two hundred pounds for the land upon which any settlements had been or should be made in their province. Those from Virginia paid two hundred pounds in gold and the value of a like sum in goods, with the promise of additional payments as the settlements increased. How much “bumbo” was given to the Indians in order to secure a state of mellowness that would induce them to make such a treaty, the narrator does not say.

Such was the famous treaty of Lancaster upon which so much stress was subsequently laid. Here was an actual sale and veritable payments received. This and the previous grant of the Six Nations constituted the sum and substance of English claims to the Ohio valley and adjacent territories. So far as present needs and wishes were concerned, the English colonies did not expect to cultivate the soil. They only wished to be favorably situated to carry on trade with the Indians. The French had found the same a lucrative business, and the cupidity of the English made them wish not merely to share but to monopolize the commerce. Previous to this period, in Thomas Lee and twelve other Virginians— including Lawrence and Augustine Washington, the brothers of George Washington together with a Mr. Hanbury, a rich merchant of London— had formed an association called the “Ohio Company. The company petitioned the king for a grant of land west of the mountains. Their prayer was heard and favorably answered. The governor of Virginia was ordered to grant the petitioners a half million acres of land within the bounds of the colony, beyond the Alleghanies; two hundred thousand acres, to be located at once, to be held for ten years, free of quitrent, provided the company placed thereon one hundred families and built a fort for their protection. The first public service upon which George Washington was employed was undertaken in behalf of this company. He was then only nineteen years of age. The fidelity and tact with which he performed the duties growing out of this mission were an earnest indication of what might be expected of him when he had reached a maturer age and was called to more important duties.

This movement on the part of the English stirred up the French to adopt new measures to establish their claim. One of their methods for doing so was of a rather novel character. Louis Céloron was sent out to place leaden plates at the mouths of rivers and on mounds, upon which plates were engraved the claims of his high mightiness the king of France. Long afterwards one of these plates was found at the mouth of the Muskingum, bearing the date August, 1749. They reasoned that by establishing a claim to the river at its mouth, they made sure of all the territory bordering not only that particular river, but all its affluents—a broad claim, certainly, for so narrow a base. But the English were not inclined to surrender their demands on account of these harmless pieces of lead, surrender and give over the contest.

Each party prepared to dispute the claims of the other. The French starting from their headquarters at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania) built a fortress which they called Le Boeuf, on a tributary of the Allegeny following down the stream to its junction with the Allegheny, they built another fort—Venango. From here they proceeded to a British post on the Miami, broke up the settlements and sent the men in the garrison prisoners, to Canada; or, as some authorities have it, put them to death. The Ohio Company also were awake to the importance of vigorous effort to secure their western possessions. They sent out a party of thirty men, under the command of a man named Trent. The object of the expedition was to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio. So urgent did the enterprise seem, that the men were sent out at mid-winter. The youthful Washington had seen and proclaimed the importance of this position. He says: “I spent some time in viewing the rivers and the land fork, which I think extremely well situated for a fort, as it has as it has absolute command of both rivers. The rivers are each a quarter mile or more across, and run here very nearly at right angles, the Allegheny bearing northeast and the Monongahela southeast. The former of these two is a very rapid and swift running stream, the other deep and still, without any perceptible fall.”

This point was looked upon by both parties as the key to the valley, and whichsoever gained that could control the whole.

The English party began their preparations for building the fort haste, but they were foiled in their attempt. The fort was still in a immature condition when, spring having melted the ice in the Allegheny, the French came swooping down from Venango, their fleet having been all ready and waiting for the melting of the waters. The feeble garrison in a fort in so unfinished a condition, were unable successfully to resist the attack. The English surrendered and the French took possession went on to complete the fort, to which they gave the name of Duquesne, in honor of the governor of Canada. 

As soon as might be, Colonel Washington was commissioned to raise a force and go out and recapture the fort. The difficulties in the way of accomplishing this were many. The roads were wretched, and over them the men were compelled to drag the cannon to be used in the attack they expected to make on the fort.

It was not until the last of May that Washington reached the Great Meadows. There he learned that a French force had been sent out from the garrison to meet and, if possible, defeat him. In consequence, Washington sent out scouts to scour the country and bring him information in regard to the enemy’s movements. Meanwhile, he advanced cautiously on the road leading to the fort. The French also were on the alert. A detachment was soon met Washington, with his musket in his hand, advanced to meet them at the head of his command. They were soon within fighting distance. The forest echoed the young commander’s order, “Fire!” The hills repeated the sound, but had not done so until the command was obeyed. The conflict was of short duration. Jumonville, the leader of the French, was killed, and ten of his men; twenty-one were made prisoners. That was the first blood shed in the French and Indian war, which lasted seven years. It was also the beginning of the military career of George Washington.

Although the victor in this unimportant skirmish, Washington learned enough of the condition of the fort to know that there was no possibility of his being able to attack it successfully with the small number of men in his command. He went to work, therefore, to build a fort where he was, hoping that he could so entrench himself as to hold it until reinforcements could arrive. To it he gave the name of Fort Necessity. Here he waited for supplies and additional troops. He waited in vain; they did not come.

Meanwhile French troops were gathering in large numbers at Fort Duquesne. Finally, Washington was attacked and compelled to capitulate. But he obtained honorable terms, and on the fourth of July the little band of soldiers marched out of Fort Necessity with all their accoutrements. The French now considered themselves secure in the possession of this important point in western Pennsylvania, and employed themselves in strengthening their forts at Crown Point, Niagara and elsewhere. 

To the wise men in the colonies it had been evident long before this that the indispensable thing for the welfare of the colonies was union. The want of it was a source of weakness, and would prevent successful effort in every direction. Benjamin Franklin was one of the stoutest advocates. Very much through his influence a convention was called to meet in Albany. There was a two-fold object in the meeting. First, to renew the treaty with the Iroquois and bind them more securely to their interest; and, secondly, to form a union so as to bring about concerted action on the part of the colonies; for by this time it was evident to the most superficial observer that a struggle with the French was imminent, and that when it came, it would be no child’s play.

Franklin was appointed to draft a constitution that would bind together the colonies and bring about united effort. The constitution was drawn up and accepted by the delegates, but when submitted to their constituents it was rejected by them because it gave too much power to the king, and it met with the same fate at the hands of the king because it allowed too much authority to the people.

was fairly begun in 1754 and England made vigorous effort at the beginning of the following year to secure a successful campaign. Four expeditions were planned. Lawrence, governor of Nova Scotia, was to complete the conquest of that province. William Johnson of New York was to take Crown Point, with the aid of the Mohawk Indians. To Shirley of Massachusetts was given the task of driving the French from Fort Niagara, while General Braddock, at the head of two regiments of regulars, aided by a considerable force of Continentals, was to drive out the French and take possession of Fort Duquesne.

The peculiar regulations of the British authorities prevented the colonists from enlisting in large numbers. It was ordered that provincial captains and colonels should have no rank when serving in the British army. Washington left the service in disgust, but his ardent patriotism induced him afterward to volunteer as an aid to General Braddock. The disastrous result of that expedition is too well known to need recapitulation. It was only through the courage, knowledge and tact of Washington that any part of the army was saved. The only successful enterprise during the year was that of Johnson. A victory was gained over Deskeau, yet it was not so much the skill of the general that brought about that result as the bravery of his New England troops. Johnson was wounded, not severely, early in the engagements, and the brave New Englanders fought on without a commander till they conquered the enemy. Deskeau was defeated, but the fort was not even attacked. Stark and Putnam were in the battle to take their first lessons in the art of war and prepare themselves for the brave deeds they were yet to do when other interests were at stake.

The expedition of Braddock, disastrous as it was in its results, had a hidden meaning, easily seen afterwards by those who see in the events of history the influence of a supreme and over-ruling power. The chief, who was afterward to lead his countrymen against those who were now acting instructors, had here an opportunity of learning the art of war.   He could have had no better teacher than General Braddock. He was a martinet, skilled in all the tactics and rules of warfare. There was scarcely anything that books could teach him that he did not know, had had a large experience in drilling and training men. It is difficult to see how Washington could have become so versed in military to be fitted to take the command of armies and lead his country men to victories that laid the foundation of a great republic, without the experience that he gained under Braddock and others in this French and Indian war. Nor was he the only learner. In another part of the field Israel Putnam and John Stark, with thousands of others, were gaining the knowledge that was to help them to act well their part in the great that was just before them.

After the death of Braddock, Shirley was appointed to the chief command. Only disaster marked the year 1755. Braddock ruined one army and Shirley scattered another. The only gain was the victory of Johnson at Lake George, and he did not accomplish the object for which he was sent. The year 1756 was begun with large plans and a new commander. The Earl of Loudon was general-in-chief. Abercrombie was, second in rank. The plans for the year included the taking of forts Frontenac, Toronto and Niagara, also Fort Duquesne, Detroit and Mackinaw. And now, hostilities had been in progress for two years, war was formally between France and England.

            Early in the season the French took Oswego, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The western Indians, commanded by the French, invaded Pennsylvania and spread alarm and devastation all along the border; scalping parties came within thirty miles of Philadelphia. Washington was employed in protecting, as well as he could, western Virginia, Colonel Armstrong led a force against the Indians in Pennsylvania, so far subdued them as to put a stop to their atrocities. The new commander, Lord Loudon, showed neither zeal nor ability. Franklin said of him:

“He was entirely made up of indecision. Like St. George on the signs, he was always on horseback but never rode on.”

The time for which Rufus Putnam was indentured expired in the period now reached in the account of the war. The successes of the French and the disasters of the English caused widespread alarm throughout New England, as well as in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Several of the colonies made vigorous efforts to raise both men and money for the war, but their want of union and concerted action paralyzed, to a great extent, their exertions. Besides, continental officers and men were allowed no authority in planning or conducting enterprises, and the British officers were not only inefficient but ignorant of the methods necessary to be resorted to in the new circumstances in which they were placed.

We can well suppose that the incidents of the war then in progress formed the staple of conversation in the evenings and leisure hours of Rufus Putnam and his fellow apprentices. As for Rufus, the spark of military ambition slumbered in his bosom, and the adventures and hairbreadth escapes of those who were participants in the struggle, especially the prowess of his father’s cousin, Israel Putnam, kindled it to a flame. He enlisted. We shall let him tell his own story of what he did and suffered during the campaign. A diary kept day by day during the time is a rare thing to be met with. The century and more that has passed since it was written has left many wrecks in its pathway. But this journal remains, the paper yellow from time, and the chirography by no means elegant and the spelling not always correct; it yet shows marks of care and exactness that are prophetic of the careful and thorough work which would distinguish the writer in the future that lay before him. Rufus Putnam was but nineteen years of age at the time of his enlistment, but his fine physical development, his courage and strength, made him a proper soldier.

Chapter 3, French and Indian War, Cont.

Other work by Mary Cone