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Le générique du Bulletin
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May/June 2003
Vol. 35, no. 3
ISSN 1492-4676

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SAVOIR FAIRE: The French and Indian War

Sandra Bell, Research and Information Services

William Fowler Jr., Director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, historian, professor, and author of several books on American history, spoke to an enthusiastic group on February 18, 2003, about his latest research project, the French and Indian War.

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was a series of conflicts between the French and English for control of North America. Dr. Fowler provided a chronology, context and analysis of the key events for his audience.

The French and Indian War has several names, including the War for Empire, the Seven Years’ War, and the War of the Conquest. Dr. Fowler suggested that it might also be called the first World War since the conflict spanned the entire globe from Europe to India, from the West Indies to the Philippines, and from North America to Asia. The period also saw the feats and achievements of some of history's famous characters: George Washington, General James Wolfe, the Marquis de Montcalm and William Pitt. It also saw the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, a significant date in the evolution of the country of Canada, a day which changed the course of history on the North American continent.

The context for the French and Indian War was the rivalry between France and England. After the Reformation, both countries went different ways: England became Protestant while France remained Roman Catholic. While both sought overseas exploits, neither country was the first to arrive in the New World. Other nation states such as Spain and Portugal had already ventured into North America. However, the rivalry between the two countries was transferred to the New World.

Their North American activities differed markedly. British North America attracted a variety of settlers: traders, merchants and planters who settled in farms and plantations and in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. Britain established an aggressive commercial empire pushing inland in North America. By contrast, the population of New France was small and concentrated in the valley of the St. Lawrence. French missionaries and fur traders were dispersed throughout the wilderness; however, their numbers were small and they rarely settled in those regions. As well, the French North American empire was held together by waterways  -  the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes and the Ohio River connecting New France and Louisiana.

Holding the balance of power between these two groups, and often caught between them, were the Native peoples. The most powerful were the Iroquois Confederacy, comprising the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca and the Cherokees in the south. Both the British and the French sought Native allies to assist in their settlements and respective conflicts.

Parallel to the French-English conflict in North America were the wars in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Conflict also occurred between these two countries in India as the French and English trading companies competed for local support; there were clashes over the sugar producing islands in the West Indies and the slave trade in Africa. By the 18th century, the conflict in North America was fueled by personalities in the British Parliament (Lord Halifax and the Duke of Cumberland) who felt that war was necessary to enlarge the British commercial empire. Governors in the North American colonies also saw military action as a means of protecting their interests and expanding their territories.

Events culminated in the contest for the strategically important upper Ohio Valley. The building of French forts and their expansion motivated the governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, to warn the French of their intrusion into territory claimed by the English. In 1754, he sent an armed force under the command of George Washington to expel them. The French defeated Washington’s troops, who were forced to surrender. Both sides subsequently prepared for war, and a series of battles ensued. Initially the French were victorious, capturing Oswego in 1756 and Fort William Henry in 1757, but the situation later reversed, ending in a victory for Great Britain.

Circumstances in Europe influenced events in North America. One key occurence was the ascendancy of William Pitt in 1757. Part of his foreign policy vision was the conquest of North America and the use of that continent as leverage for land in Europe. Pitt sought to use British naval superiority to its best advantage in battle. Following Pitt’s strategy, the battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec led to a British victory in 1759, an encounter which saw the death of two famous commanders, General James Wolfe and the Marquis de Montcalm. But this battle in itself did not spell the end of New France. More battles followed. The British were defeated at the Battle of Ste Foy in April 1760. Later in 1760, Montreal fell to the British, and on September 8, 1760, the French (under Pierre de Rigaud Vaudreuil-Cavagnal) surrendered New France. The French conceded Canada and all of their claims east of the Mississippi, including the Ohio Valley.

By the end of this war, Britain had established itself as the world’s greatest empire. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 confirmed this point. The war also left the country with a huge national debt and a more complex colonial empire to administer, one that had to incorporate French-speaking Roman Catholics. A form of benign authoritarianism allowing freedom of religion was extended. The Native peoples, who gradually became surrounded by an agricultural frontier, saw their bargaining power diminish.

The French and Indian War set the path for the British Empire to dominate the world, fuel the Industrial Revolution and create Canada. It also put in place a series of conditions that led to the American Revolution. Its impact on the history of two countries, Canada and the United States, has lasted to the present day.

The collections of the National Library include many sources in English and French to support research into the French and Indian War. These can be located in AMICUS, the Canadian national union catalogue, which can be searched free of charge on the Internet at http://amicus.collectionscanada.ca/aaweb/aalogine.htm

Suggested subject headings:

Canada -- History -- Seven Years’ War, 1755-1763
United States -- History -- French and Indian War, 1755-1763