What caused the French and Indian War?

Fort Le Boeuf

The French and Indian War (also known as The Seven's Years War) was sparked by the rivalry in Europe, between the French and the British in particular. Often events in Europe influenced the course of events in British, French and Spanish North American colonies. To increase their political and economic power, the British and the French competed to acquire the better share of the available land and control over the new trading opportunities in the North American colonies.

At the same time, the European colonial governments tried to find ways to coexist with the original inhabitants of North America, often making alliances with some tribes while alienating others. Sometimes, as in the case of the French and Indian War (which in Europe was referred to as the Seven Years’ War), European politics regarding balances of power resulted in conflict in the colonies. As wars in Europe became more heated, fighting broke out between the French and the British in the American colonies. Both sides called upon Native American allies to assist them, exacerbating tensions between the tribes, as well as tensions between the tribes and colonists. Ultimately, the British Government found it necessary to pour additional troops and resources into protecting its possessions in the Americas and taxed their colonists to pay for these resources. These taxes eventually became a rallying cry for the American independence movement.

The French and Indian War, the North American phase of the larger Seven Years’ War, began after a series of incidents in the upper Ohio River valley, which the French and British governments both claimed as their territory. Military forces assembled by both imperial powers built forts in the region and attempted to capture each others’ forts. These skirmishes, which included an expedition led by George Washington, ultimately led to the escalation of a broader, full-scale war between Great Britain and France.

The British March on Fort Le Boeuf

Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddle

Since the colony of Virginia also claimed this region, Virginian lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie sent Major George Washington with a small expedition to order the removal of the French forts in late 1753. Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf, about 15 miles inland from present-day Erie, Pennsylvania, and delivered his message. The commander of the fort, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, received Washington and his men courteously but denied the validity of English claims to the contested region.

Washington then returned hastily to Virginia, arriving in early 1754, and delivered the French reply to Governor Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie and the legislature agreed that French rejection of British demands constituted a hostile act and that the French must be driven from their frontier forts on British-claimed land. Dinwiddie sent Captain William Trent of the Virginia militia to construct a fort at the strategically essential forks of the Ohio River and to convince the local Indians to ally against the French. Dinwiddie also promoted Washington to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and ordered an expedition to compel the French to surrender their forts.

While French and British officials maneuvered military forces about, they also attempted to curry favor with American Indians living in the region. The most critical group, the Mingoes, were part of the Iroquois Confederation, which was allied with Great Britain. British officials claimed the Iroquois Confederacy had granted a Native American named Tanaghrisson the title of ‘Half-King’ over the Mingoes and other Native communities under Iroquois rule. However, many Indians in the upper Ohio Valley were concerned about British colonists encroaching upon their land and did not acknowledge either British or Iroquois authority. Although many of them also feared French power and bore grudges against the French from previous wars, the Indians of the upper Ohio valley believed a French alliance to be the lesser of two evils. Consequently, they were amenable to supplying French forces with additional men and intelligence about British movements.

Aided by such reports, the French soon learned of the British fort that William Trent and his small group of men were constructing, and French forces moved swiftly to compel its surrender on April 17, 1754. The French destroyed the unfinished fort, building in its place the much more formidable Fort Duquesne.

The Skirmish at Fort Duquesne

Further south, George Washington, accompanied by Tanaghrisson, surprised an encampment of French soldiers in southwestern Pennsylvania on May 24, 1754. A brief fight ensued, and afterward, the wounded French leader, Ensign Joseph de Jumonville, attempted to explain through translators that the French expedition was on a peaceful mission to warn British forces about their incursions into French-claimed territory. Although accounts of the incident differ, it seems that Tanaghrisson, who bore an intense personal hatred of the French stemming from earlier war experiences, intervened in the negotiations and killed Jumonville. Expecting further French incursions, Washington then hastily constructed a fort and prepared to defend his forces, but a combined French and Indian force forced his surrender on July 3.

Once he heard of Washington’s defeat, Lieutenant-Governor Dinwiddie immediately passed on the news to his superiors in London and called for aid from neighboring colonies. Only North Carolina responded but refused to make any expenditures outside its borders. However, British Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, reacted swiftly to the news and planned a quick strike against the French forts before they could be reinforced. King George II approved Newcastle’s plan to send General Edward Braddock to seize French frontier forts quickly.

Other political leaders wanted a bigger war, and so they publicly announced Newcastle’s plans and changed the original plan so that Braddock would command more forces and order the fractious North American colonies to provide additional support against the French. Once the plans had been publicly announced, the French government moved quickly to dispatch reinforcements to North America and further pursued negotiations to diplomatically isolate the British government by winning over its traditional European allies. Once military forces were underway, the war was inevitable.

Conclusion

British expeditions that sought to challenge French forts in the western frontier spiraled out of control. Instead of intimidating the French, Washington's expedition ended in disaster. Not only was he was forced to surrender to the French and allied Indian troops, but his actions also encouraged the British to escalate these minor skirmishes with France into an outright war that would eventually migrate to Europe.

Republished from the Office of the Historian, United States Department of State

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