The Origins of the French and Indian War

The origins of the French and Indian War and the world war it spawned; the Seven Years’ War, lie in the ways European powers colonized North America.

Essentially, the Spanish came to build an empire; the British came to settle; the Dutch came to trade, and the French came to make money. Thus, four powers established four very different regimes in America.

Consequently, New Spain; modern Mexico, was a conquered province ruled by a Viceroy in the name of the of King of Spain. In contrast, the British colonies were giant royal agricultural land grants to groups, companies, and individuals.

Meanwhile, Dutch America was a series of trading posts along the Hudson River. Finally, French North America was a fur extraction machine dedicated to exploiting Native Americans.

French America

The purpose of French North America was to generate revenue from the sale of furs.

Furs were an important resource in the age before the cotton gin and industrial production of fabrics. Notably, people needed fur to keep warm in the cold European winters.

The always cash-strapped French Kings and their officials viewed North America as a source as a source of revenue not a province. Hence, the French government had no interest in the Native Americans as allies, subjects, or enemies.

The French developed good relations with the Natives because cooperation was the cheapest means of harvesting fur. As long as fur flowed into the warehouses in Montreal and Quebec City, French officials were happy.

An Empire Built on Fur

The reliance on fur explains why New France’s European population remained tiny. Large settlements could have angered the natives and triggered an expensive war.

Likewise, European colonists could be far harder to control than Natives, as the British Crown learned. In particular, colonists could form direct alliances with European empires.

One way the French kept control of their colony was through religion. They barred all non-Catholics from New France. This provided a handy pretext to keep out French Protestants; or Huguenots, the British, and the Dutch (also conveniently Protestant). It also legalized France’s fur monopoly.

To justify the pretext, the crown allowed a handful of Catholic missionaries to work with the Native Americans. However, the government kept the missionaries on a short leash. Missionary priests could baptize Indians but could not educate them or interfere with native culture.

On paper, France’s fur empire was vast. Theoretically, all the Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi Valley, and the Great Plains were under French rule. In reality, French rule did not extend beyond the walls of Quebec and Montreal.

The French maintained control by carefully bartering select goods to the natives for fur. Firearms and gunpowder, which natives were incapable of manufacturing, for example.

Like the modern diamond cartel, the French kept fur scarce and prices high by limiting the amount of fur exports. Incredibly, French officials sometimes burned furs to maintain high prices.

The British Threat

The British Crown used its North American colonies as a dumping ground for all the unlimited elements of the Kingdom’s population.

Those unwanted elements included religious dissenters, defeated rebels, political troublemakers, refugees, Catholics, second sons of the gentry, criminals, ex-convicts, prostitutes, criminals, paupers, the unemployed, and unmarried women. Later on, the Crown added rebellious Scots and troublesome Irish to the mix.

There were many colonists because the 17th and 18th Century British Isles were poor, violent, and overcrowded. Constant rebellions, religious strife, and civil wars created more colonists. The only way the monarchs and parliament could contain rebellion was by shipping off as much of the population as possible.

The result was that the British colonies, unlike the French, had a large European population. By 1750, the British colonies boasted metropolises such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, many smaller cities, and even universities.

Notably, Harvard, Yale, and William & Mary were all well-established institutions by 1750. In contrast, Canadians who wanted an education needed to take a long voyage back to France.

 Interestingly, British America boasted newspapers and a well-established publishing industry by 1750. The colonies’ most prominent publisher and printer was also British America’s best-known citizen; Benjamin Franklin. Meanwhile, readers in New France had to import all reading material.

Growing Colonies

In fact, there were probably more French colonists in the 13 colonies than in “New France.”

Several colonies including New York, Massachusetts, and South Carolina had large colonies of Huguenots, or French Protestant refugees. Thus the the colonies had a French diaspora.

In contrast, Huguenots were not welcome in New France because of their faith. The British; on the other hand, turned their religious minorities into an asset by using them as colonists.

Another reason the British colonies grew was that women came from the beginning. Early on, the Virginia Company brought Englishwomen to Jamestown for the men. Later, many colonists including the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the Huguenots and the Scotch-Irish came as families.

Hence, the British population grew from the start and kept growing. The population growth created problems because cultivatable land in some areas was in short supply. By 1750, the suitable land around New York City, in New Jersey, around Philadelphia, in the Virginia Tidewater, and on New England’s coasts was full.

In Pennsylvania, there was land aplenty, but it was on the other side of the Alleghenies in French territory. In New York, there were large tracts of empty land north and west of Albany, but they too were in French hands. In New England; Britain and France disputed large tracts of land in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

In reality, the western lands were still in Native Hands, but legally they were French. The legal fiction of French Sovereignty served the needs of the Indians because it obligated the French Crown to protect the natives from British attack.

The Six Nations

The fake French Sovereignty allowed the most powerful native state; the Six Nations or Iroquois Confederacy, to play the French and British Empires against each other. The Iroquois were nominal British allies who used the French threat to shake the British crown down for military and financial support.

Hence, the Six Nations occupied a position to similar that of Yugoslavia during the Cold War. To explain, Yugoslavia was a Communist state, able to get money from both sides by playing NATO against the Soviets.

Another use of French Sovereignty was to keep out British and Dutch traders whose goods were more popular with the Indians than French merchandise. New England rum; in particular, was popular with natives because it had a higher alcohol content than French brandy.

New England rum was also cheaper  because they manufactured it in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The French had to haul their brandy to America from France.

This arrangement benefited the Six Nations who had direct access to New York’s British and Dutch trade goods through their position in upstate New York. The Six Nations profited as middlemen who provided the goods the French could not.

To elaborate, the Six Nations traded furs to New York merchants for trade goods. Then the Iroquois traded the merchandise to native peoples further inland for furs.

To make matters worse, by the late 1740s, British (mostly Scottish) traders were operating deep in the Midwest with Iroquois help and trading directly with native peoples. Hence the Scots and Iroquois were exposing French power in North America as a charade and threatening French power.

By subverting the French Fur Empire, the Iroquois made war inevitable. To preserve their monopoly, the French had to shut the Iroquois trade down.

The Divided Continent

The French and British shared North America for a century and a half. However, by 1750 war was inevitable.

For almost 140 years, there was enough land West of the Alleghenies to satisfy the British colonists. However, around 1740 the colonists had filled up most of the land near the coast and began pushing inland.

The colonists, however, found their advance blocked by a curious military stalemate. To explain the native peoples, even the powerful Six Nations lacked the military power to attack the colonies.

The last major native attack on a colony King Philip’s War (1675-76) ended in catastrophe for New England’s Indians. After King Philip’s War, the natives pointedly avoided pitched battles with the colonists.

The colonists usually won pitched battles with their greater numbers and superior firepower. However, raids in which the Indians had the advantage continued into the 1760s.

The Military Stalemate

Conversely, the natives had the power to delay and drive off settlers through raids and guerrilla warfare. Moreover, the colonists’ lacked a professional military establishment and the means to undertake sustained campaigns against the natives.

The colonial military establishment was a large militia. A shortage of experienced soldiers hampered the militia by limiting its training and leadership capacities. Additionally, most militiamen were farmers or merchants who could not afford to leave their fields or shops for a sustained campaign.

Therefore, trained soldiers were a rarity in British America. Notably, when the first British Regulars arrived for the Seven Years War in 1755. Colonists came from miles around to gawk at the unfamiliar sight of redcoats drilling in Alexandria, Virginia.*

Meanwhile, the tribes lacked the technology and organization for direct attacks on the colonies. To elaborate, to attack the colonies, the tribes needed help in the form of arms, officers, and professional soldiers from an Old World military power.

After the colonists’ capture of the French naval base at Louisburg in 1745 in King George’s War. The French began sending professional soldiers to America to organize a resistance among the natives. Thus, after 1745 America’s natives had what they needed to threaten the colonies, direct help from Europe’s largest and most feared military machine the French Army.

The War Begins

This reality became painfully clear in 1754 when Colonel George Washington’s pitiful attempt to establish a Virginia Fort in Pennsylvania’s Ohio Valley ended in disaster.

Washington failed to build a fort, but his forces encountered and killed several French soldiers. Strangely, Washington’s true objective at For Necessity, near modern Pittsburgh, could have been heading off Pennsylvania traders operating in the region. Ironically, French soldiers had already driven the Pennsylvanians out.

That event triggered the French and Indian War because the British government dispatched a regular army to North America for the first time. In retaliation, the French dispatched 4,000 regular troops of their own.

Before 1755, British authority in the colonies had been minimal, comprising Royal Governors who relied on colonial legislatures for their salaries. In addition, there was no military force of any kind available to the British governors. The militiamen would not fire on their friends and neighbors in the name of the King.

Beginnings of the American of the American Revolution

After 1755, the governors could and increasingly called upon the disciplined Redcoats.

The Redcoats were Scottish, Irish, and sometimes German mercenaries who had no qualms about shooting or bayoneting a noisy colonist. Indeed, the Irish and Scottish Redcoats loved the prospect of killing an Englishman (most colonists thought of themselves as English before the Revolution) and collecting the King’s Schilling for the privilege.

Another disruption was the military experience Americans; such as Colonel George Washington, acquired in the French and Indian War. Washington was present at one of the great catastrophes in British military history; the destruction of Major General Edward Braddock’s Army by French and Indian forces in Western Pennsylvania, in 1755.

Additionally, the British Army trained large numbers of Americans during the French and Indian War. Plus, some British soldiers and officers stated in America after the war.

Thus, Washington had a pool of experienced soldiers available when he formed his Continental Army in 1775. The American Revolution began on the battlefields of the French and Indian War.

For their part, the British officers developed nothing but contempt for Americans. That contempt was to prove fatal 20 years later.

The contempt developed because of the American failure to back the British war effort in 1755-1763. British soldiers were dying to protect the colonies, yet the Americans failed to help. For example, General Braddock asked for 1,500 horses and wagons to move his expedition in 1755, and received none.*

The Roots of the American Revolution

Likewise, the British could only entice Americans to join their army by offering relaxed discipline and more pay.

The result was Rogers’ Rangers a minor commando force of American woodsmen. The Rangers received more pay than regular British soldiers, but less discipline. Unfortunately, the British did not know how to use the Rangers whose bush-fighting skills rivaled those of any Indian.

Attempts to enlist Americans in the Regular British Army failed because the poverty and misery that drove the Scots and Irish to the recruiting sergeant did not exist in the New World. The hungry Scottish or Irish peasant who owned nothing welcomed Army life with its regular pay and three meals a day. The landowning American farmer had no desire to submit low pay and harsh discipline at the hands of an Irish sergeant.

In addition, politics prevented the two most probable methods the British had of enlisting American recruits. Tradition and economy prevented the British Army from conscripting colonists. Although the British Navy could impress sailors.

The French had no such qualms, militia service was compulsory for all male residents of New France. However, New France lacked the enormous colonial population needed for a native army.

Similarly, politics kept the British Army from tapping the most probable pool of American volunteers; African American men. Enlisting slaves, a step taken by both sides in the Revolution, was politically impossible.

Sensibly, the slave-owning colonial elite blocked black enlistment. The Southern Gentry, in particular, feared that black soldiers would turn their guns on slave owners. Anther fear of slave owners was that most of their laborers would eagerly enlist and leave the fields fallow.

Instead of being welcomed as heroes, the British fought a thankless war to protect American colonies from a historic enemy. Predictably, the British officer class came to see most Americans as self-serving cowards and hypocrites.

Thus the cultural forces that led to the explosion of 1775 were in place by the end of the French and Indian War.


*The French and Indian War: An Informal History By Donald Barr Childsey Chapter Five for an account of the first British military expedition to Virginia in a century.

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War By Fred Anderson