By the mid-eighteenth century, the face of North America was changing. The British soldiers, officials, and colonists were moving west from the Atlantic coast and starting to cross into the Ohio River Valley. The Spanish occupied a vast region extending from the Gulf of California, across the desert, and along the Gulf Coast to Florida. The French settled primarily in New France, the area that would later become Canada.
The changes in North America were dramatic for the Native Americans. European expansion displaced many indigenous peoples. European diseases decimated whole tribes. Changing trade relations and the arrival of firearms allowed some tribes to become more powerful and expand their influence at the expense of rival tribes. The Native American tribes often struggled against each other as much as against the whites.
Both Europeans and Native Americans took advantage of shifting alliances within and between factions to expand territory, gain prestige, and settle grudges. In the 1600s, Native Americans were seen as obstacles to European advancement. By the 1700s, a new collection of allies and rivals developed as the political battles of Europe merged with the existing tensions among the Native American tribes of the New World.
One system of alliances pitted the French and the Huron Indians against the English and the Iroquois Indians. France and the Huron Indians had allied themselves as early as the 1600s in Quebec. The relationship between the French and the Huron dated back to the early 1600s when French fur-traders and explorer Samuel de Champlain established a friendly relationship between the Quebec settlers and the Huron. The Huron asked for, and received, assistance from the French in overcoming their primary rival, the Iroquois tribe of upper New York. Meanwhile, the British developed a trade relationship with the Iroquois. As a result of this relationship, the Iroquois aligned themselves with the colonists and became extensions of British authority just as the Huron became an important tool for French ambitions.
Tensions mounted as the settlers of New France wanted to increase their land holdings to build up the fur trade. Their primary focus was the lush Ohio River Valley and the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, the British also started moving into the Ohio River Valley, with the Crown granting lands to companies such as the Ohio Company to encourage settlement.
The conflict between the British and the French in North America played into power struggles in Europe. In the 1740s war broke out between George II of England and his allies in northern Germany against France and Austria who had connections to the Hapsburg rulers of Spain. As part of this struggle for power, in 1745, the British captured the French city of Louisbourg, in what is now Nova Scotia. The French tried to retake the area but were unsuccessful. With the French on the St. Lawrence threatening British holdings on the Atlantic coast, colonists in New England began contemplating an invasion of Canada to prevent the French from gaining any strongholds in North America.
A peace treaty in 1748 was only a temporary lull in the hostilities. By the 1750s, tensions in North America were again on the rise. The French, under New France’s leader Marquis Duquesne, established new settlements in the North American interior and unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Iroquois to break their ties to Britain. As the French prepared to mount an attack, the British were making plans for an attack of their own.
In 1754, the Virginia government dispatched 22-year-old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington with 150 men to an area near the forks of the Ohio River in modern-day Pennsylvania, where the French were building a fortified post named Fort Duquesne. Washington hoped to prevent the French from completing the fort, and to develop the fort for the British. However, before Washington and his troops reached the Fort, they came into contact with a small contingent of French and Huron Indians in the woods. After a bloody battle, the French and Indians emerged as victors. They allowed Washington to retreat with what was left of his troops. This battle marked the beginning of the French and Indian War.
In that same year, colonists called for an intercolonial congress—a meeting of representatives of all British colonies and six allied Native American nations to develop a plan to defend their land from the French. The congress took place in Albany, New York, where Benjamin Franklin, one of the congress organizers, proposed the Albany Plan of Union. The plan focused on two issues: developing a colonial force of defense, and self-imposed taxation to pay for that defense.
However, the distance and harsh traveling conditions kept representatives of six colonies from attending. Furthermore, although colonists agreed that unification was their goal, they could not agree on the terms. Colonists were not happy with the prospect of taxation, just as the British government was unhappy with the prospect of more colonial self-control. Even though the representatives returned home with no consensus having been reached, they had laid the groundwork for the republic that would eventually become the United States of America.
By 1756, the tensions in North America developed into a global conflict. Previous global conflicts had started in Europe and spread to the colonies, but this was the first example of aggression that started in the colonies and spread to Europe. Battles between Britain, France, Spain, and other European powers erupted in the West Indies, the Philippines, Africa, and Europe. This conflict, which started in North America as the French and Indian War, came to be known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe.
Britain emerged as the eventual victor in this war, but the triumph did not come easily. The British and colonial forces were notoriously disorganized and lost several battles along the way. In 1755, British General Edward Braddock lost an important battle, as well as his own life, when he set out to capture Fort Duquesne. Prior to arriving at the fort, he met a small contingent of French and Indian troops, which, despite being outnumbered, quickly dispatched Braddock’s troops. Among the routed British troops was Braddock’s second-in-command, George Washington, a veteran of the battle near Fort Duquesne in 1754.
To the British, the true hero of the war was William Pitt, who became prime minister of England in 1756. His administration orchestrated a British offensive under the command of Lord Loudon that finally succeeded in toppling Fort Duquesne in 1758. It was promptly renamed Pittsburgh in honor of the prime minister.
Pitt then set out to conquer the heart of French holdings in North America: the Montreal-Quebec area of New France (Canada). Pitt put James Wolfe in charge of a sneak attack on Quebec. Although Wolfe and his French counterpart, Marquis de Montcalm, were killed in the battle, the French surrendered, and the Battle of Quebec became the defining battle in the French and Indian War. With this victory in 1759, and a victory over Montreal a year later, France was removed from power in Canada. The Paris Peace Settlement of 1763 confirmed that France no longer held control over any part of North America, except for two small islands near Newfoundland.
The British victory opened new territory for exploration and expansion, but it also brought the responsibility for overseeing three troublesome groups. The first were thousands of resentful former French subjects. French settlements remained in Canada and even today the French are a prominent minority in Quebec and Montreal. To keep the settlements under control, the British maintained a close watch and employed harsh tactics to quell rebellion. One tactic was mass deportation of former French colonists. One group, the Acadians, left New France and settled in Louisiana, particularly around New Orleans. Over time, the name Acadian was condensed to the now familiar “Cajun.”
France’s Native American allies were Britain’s second problem. With Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, the Indian supporters of the French were now in a precarious position. The French were no longer able to back their Indian allies, which left tribes such as the Huron out of an increasingly British-dominated power and trade network. While the French tended to develop trade and mission connections with local tribes, the British colonial authorities were much more inclined to remove indigenous peoples altogether and clear the land for white settlement. Some tribes feared that the influx of British colonists would result in their eventual removal from their lands.
With the colonists marching forward onto his people’s land, Chief Pontiac of the Algonquian-speaking Ottawa tribe led a bloody rebellion that resulted in the death of thousands of soldiers and settlers. The Ottawa besieged all but three of the British forts west of the Appalachians.
The British countered by giving smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians. This disease swept through the Indian tribes and decimated their forces. The British regained the upper hand, but nonetheless realized the need to cohabitate peacefully with the Indians to prevent further turmoil.
The third troublesome group was, ironically, the British colonists, who were beginning to test the boundaries of Britain’s rule and were becoming increasingly aggressive toward the natives. In an attempt to maintain the situation until a peaceful resolution could be reached, London’s government issued the Proclamation of 1763, which called for a halt to westward expansion beyond the Appalachians. The desired effect of this proclamation was two-fold. First, the Britons hoped to keep the colonists tied more closely to English colonial authorities by confining them to the coast. Second, the Seven Years’ War had put England in dire financial straits, and keeping colonists east of the Appalachians would facilitate the collection of taxes and allow England to refill its coffers.
However, the Proclamation incensed the colonists, who felt they had earned the right to expansion by risking their lives in the new country. They openly defied British rule and rushed westward, creating new settlements, facing new challenges, and becoming more self-reliant.
The Proclamation of 1763 surfaced some resentments harbored by the colonists as a result of the French and Indian War. The colonists who fought alongside their British counterparts viewed the Brits as overly and unnecessarily formal. The colonists preferred Indian-style guerrilla tactics, while the British favored organized entry into battle. Colonists in New England also resented having to quarter British troops in their homes during the war. And Britain’s attempts to tax the colonists to pay for Britain’s wartime support angered the colonists.
In addition, Britain’s authoritarian rule over Canada brought deep concerns to the settlers. The loss of liberties in Canada, such as the right to trial by jury, raised fears among colonists that the Crown might impose a similar rule in New England. To the British, the end of the French and Indian War was a costly victory but one that opened the North American continent to their total control and development.
To the colonists the war was one of the first signs that they were not just transplanted Englishmen. They were a society with their own traditions, customs, and identity that was increasingly distinct from the mother country. They also had realized they had the resources to handle some of their own affairs without looking to Britain for support.At one time, the British government was an important source of support and protection for the colonies. Increasingly, the British government was perceived as a nuisance whose demands for taxes became symbolic of an increasingly irrelevant colonial authority.