What’s in a name? Well, more than we often think there is. And, that’s certainly the case with the so-called French-Indian War that began in 1756. There’s only one group of people who would give that conflict that name—the British. And it’s a poor representation of reality. So just why did this conflagration—alternatively referred to as the Seven Years’ War—begin?
For some people, the Seven Years’ War served as a victory, for others a defeat, and for a greater number still it had no immediate impact on their lives. It was, in effect, a nonevent.
According to conventional wisdom, the 1750s and 1760s was the period in which the British defeated the French and Indians and, in so doing, secured title to virtually all of North America east of the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, the Native people—tribal nations, largely in the Northeast and Ohio Country—deployed both time-tested and innovative strategies to survive between European would-be empires.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Setting the Stage for the Seven Years’ War
By the mid-18th century, the Spanish were holding on to what is today Florida, and they continued to have a powerful presence in the Southwest and California. The British, meanwhile, had established quite a colonial presence across the Eastern Seaboard and were pushing westward to the Appalachian Mountains.
The French, on the other hand, built a vast trading network—and no small number of forts—that began in the St. Lawrence River Valley and extended north of the Great Lakes, and then down the Mississippi River, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Ohio Country is the vast space in between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, a space surrounded by and vital to competing European colonial powers.
With the depletion of valuable game and pelts in the Northeast—especially deer and beaver—the Ohio Country’s importance only grew. Both the British and the French needed the Ohio River and the Ohio Country to sustain the economic foundation upon which their dreams of empire in North America rested.
But dreams is the operative term here, as the Ohio Country was really Indian Country. It remained Native ground; Indian people called the shots there and everybody knew it.
Ohio Country: A Muti-ethnic Land
Looking at the Ohio Country as the homeland of Native nations further complicates matters, as it consisted of increasingly multi-ethnic tribal communities.
Most of them were Algonquian language-speaking peoples such as the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Myaamia, and Lenape. But there were also Siouan language speakers, like the Ho-Chunk, the Iroquoian language-speaking Wyandot, Seneca, and Cayuga. Many of these people were refugees of war living far away from their ancestral lands.
Learn more about Iroquoia and Wendake in the 1600s.
The French recognized that force could not maintain the allegiance of indigenous nations. In testimony to Native power, the French adopted Native protocol in the context of diplomacy and exchange.
Native people, for instance, expected gifts and payments for services rendered. The French complied. Native people expected diplomatic engagements to be conducted in the language of kinship, the use of wampum belts, and the observation of rituals, such as the smoking of tobacco. And, the French complied.
These ties also grew out of intimate connections. Consider what historian Susan Sleeper-Smith calls Catholic kin networks. These networks, the product of Native individuals’ conversion to Catholicism, intermarriage across tribes, and the establishment of intertribal communities around missions, bound together the interior of the Ohio Country in webs of biological and social relations. And they could be mobilized.
Native Ties Aid French
At the turn of the 18th century, coordinated campaigns against the Iroquois led to the Grand Settlement at Montréal in 1701. This settlement, in turn, made it possible for the Myaamia, Shawnee, and others to reclaim the rich hunting grounds below the Great Lakes.
By mid-century, the British were working very hard to make inroads into the Ohio Country, this time by supplying tribes with greater quantities of higher quality trade goods.
The French responded by establishing a fort—Fort Duquesne, located at the intersection of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers.
The fort served as a gateway into Ohio Country, and it’s where the French drew their proverbial line in the sand. The British essentially ignored it. And so, after a few skirmishes in the spring of 1754, a French-Algonquian force defeated a detachment of Virginia militia under the command of George Washington at Fort Necessity in July.
The French then set about reinforcing Fort Duquesne, and shoring up alliances with tribal nations, over the next 12 months. They needed both when British troops returned under the command of General Edward Braddock, in July 1755.
Learn more about the Lenape people.
British Failure to Forge Alliance with the Natives
It would be an understatement to say that Braddock was unsuited for forging an alliance predicated largely on the ideas of extending kinship ties with Indian people.
In fact, according to historian Fred Anderson, he was downright insulting of their ability as warriors. Not only that, but Braddock blew his one shot at forming an alliance with the critically important Lenape—Shingas.
A Lenape chief, Shingas actually offered Braddock a detailed map of Fort Duquesne that he had acquired from the French. The Lenape would gladly help the British drive the French out, he told Braddock, so long as the British respected Lenape land rights.
Battle of Fort Duquesne
However, Braddock dismissed Shingas. The British, he said, intended to “inhabit and inherit the land” after defeating the French and their Indian allies. They had no intention of acknowledging any Native rights to the Ohio Country. Shingas responded by withdrawing his offer of assistance.
And, perhaps to no one’s surprise, when Braddock and his 2,200 soldiers marched on Fort Duquesne in July 1755, they did so with a grand total of 8 Native warriors among them.
Equally unsurprising, the British plan to take the fort failed miserably. Braddock’s army was surprised and decimated by a largely Indian force. Some 900 of the 1,400 British troops were casualties. Braddock himself—the general so convinced of Indian warriors’ ineptitude—was among them.
But this was only going to be the beginning of this global conflict.
Common Questions about Seven Years’ War in Indian Country
Most of the Native communities in Ohio Country were Algonquian language-speaking peoples such as the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Myaamia, and Lenape. There were also Siouan language speakers, like the Ho-Chunk, the Iroquoian language-speaking Wyandot, Seneca, and Cayuga.
The Ohio Country became important for Europeans, as they needed the Ohio River and the Ohio Country to sustain the economic foundation upon which their dreams of empire in North America rested.
Fort Duquesne was located at the intersection of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers.