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French and Indian War

The Treaty of Aiz-la-Chapelle of 1748, like its predecessors, at Ryswick and Utrecht failed to settle the vital question between the rival claimants of North America. A commission of two Englishmen and two Frenchmen sat in Paris for many months after this treaty was signed, endeavoring to adjust the French-English boundaries in America; but they labored in vain.

The first subject in dispute was the bounds of Acadia. The Treaty of Utrecht ceded it to England without defining its bounds, and thus planted the seeds of future quarrels. The French now contended that Acadia comprised only the peninsula of Nova Scotia, while the English claimed that the bounds formerly given to it by the French must now be adhered to. By these bounds the vast territory comprising northern Maine, New Brunswick, and a great portion of the St. Lawrence Valley were included in Acadia. While this question was pending, a more important and immediate one came up for solution, namely, the ownership of the Ohio Valley.

This valley of the "Beautiful River" was a princely domain. It extended southward from Lake Erie and westward from the base of the Alleghany Mountains, comprising an endless succession of hills and valleys, watered by innumerable crystal streams, and stretching on and on until it merged at length into the greater valley of the Mississippi. The French claimed this vast region as a part of the great basin of the Mississippi discovered by Marquette and La Salle, and now secured by a cordon of forts from Canada to the sunny climate of the Gulf of Mexico. The English claimed it on two grounds, both of which were as shadowy as the claims of the French: first, the early charters of Virginia and of other colonies (based on the Cabot discoveries) which covered the unknown regions westward to the equally unknown "South Sea"; and second, the claims of the Iroquois. The Iroquois had been acknowledged British subjects by the Treaty of Utrecht, and their lands were therefore British territory, and their conquests were considered British conquests. Roving bands of these Indians had, at various times, traversed this western country, and had here and there driven off the natives or gained some trivial victory; and the English now claimed many thousands of square miles in consequence of these "conquests." They "laid claim to every mountain, forest, or prairie where an Iroquois had taken a scalp."

The claims of both nations were extravagant in the extreme. If the French had had their way, the English would have been confined to the narrow space between the crest of the Alleghanies and the Atlantic. If the English boundaries had been accepted, the French would have been hemmed within a small portion of Canada, north of the river St. Lawrence. Both nations were now moving to occupy the Ohio Valley. The governor of Canada sent Celoron de Bienville, who, with a company of Canadians and Indians, floated down the Allegheny and Ohio rivers, and took formal possession in the name of his king. At the mouth of a river flowing into the Ohio, he would choose a large tree and nail to it a tin plate bearing the arms of France, while at its root he would bury a leaden plate inscribed with the statement that the country belonged to France. This was done at many places along the Ohio.

On July 4th 1754, the strapping, twenty-two-year-old militia commander had surrendered to an enemy for the first and only time in his career. Then Washington signed a murder confession.

The incident began in late May 1754, with England and France in a brief respite from years of relentless war. Relying upon knowledge garnered from reading military manuals, the wet-behind-the-ears Washington was in command of a crew of militiamen dispatched to build an outpost in western Pennsylvania's contested wilderness.

Encountering a detachment of French soldiers, Washington followed the advice of an ally he barely trusted—an Indian chief known to the English as the Half King. Tossing caution to the wind, the untested Washington defied orders and ambushed the French. When the smoke cleared, one Virginian and several Frenchmen lay dead or wounded; the rest were taken prisoner. "I heard bullets whistle," Washington later told his brother, famously adding that the sound was "charming."

What happened next was anything but charming. A wounded French officer frantically waved some papers at Washington. He was, in fact, a diplomat, carrying letters to the British. But before Washington could make sense of this, the Half King buried his tomahawk in the Frenchman's brain. The Indians fell on the other captives, leaving few alive.

Following this massacre, a French army set off in hot pursuit of Washington. Outnumbered, Washington's men cobbled together a small wooden shed, surrounded by sharpened stakes, in a meadow about 60 miles south of what is now Pittsburgh. It was called "Fort Necessity" but "Desperation" would have been more fitting. The Half King's warriors took one look and beat a hasty retreat.

On a rainy July 3rd, the French surrounded Fort Necessity and poured gunfire down on Washington's hapless troops. Their powder wet, their trenches filling with mud and gore, some of the Virginians ransacked the rum stores. By the morning of the 4th, Washington had no choice. Fortunate he wasn't shot on the spot, he accepted terms. Among them was signing what amounted to a murder confession. His admission sparked the Seven Years' War, history's first true "world war." (The North American phase was the French and Indian War.)

Insubordinate, incompetent, an admitted murderer who had surrendered in abject defeat—Washington should have been done in by any of these blows to his reputation. But instead, he flourished. The first "Teflon" hero in American history—nothing stuck to the young George Washington.

Clearly, he possessed uncanny survival skills. He had proven that in 1753, during a dangerous trek through the Ohio River Valley wilderness when he was shot at by an Indian and later plunged into an icy river. By all rights, Washington should have died of exposure. But he lived to tell the tale and made a name for himself.

A second, more political factor bolstered Washington after his inglorious July 4th debacle. Instead of being upbraided and sacked, he was praised by the Virginia legislature for his courage in the face of the "depraved" French and their "savage" Indian allies. Washington benefited from some 18th-century "spin" as the British turned the Fort Necessity fiasco into a propaganda coup to rally opinion against the enemy.

Just as intriguing as this public reversal of Washington's failures is how they escaped inclusion in your schoolbooks. Maybe it is this simple: his "youthful indiscretions" never fit the tidy "I-cannot-tell-a-lie" image of young Washington that many Americans still cherish. As historian Andrew Burstein once wrote, "We gauge our prospects as a people by locating a past from which we can draw hope and pride." Many Americans still cling to the mythic version of history with heroes as perfectly polished as the marble monuments in the nation's capitol.

Yet the tale of "Washington's Confession" is not simply revisionism meant to tarnish an icon. Washington emerged as the "indispensable man" who saw combat at its worst, learned well the politics of war, and was surely shaped by these disastrous misadventures. The measured, and generally indomitable, spirit he later demonstrated, as commander facing daunting odds and then as President, was molded by what has been called his "forge of experience."

Perhaps, then, Washington's confession is just one piece of America's "hidden history," a reminder that winners tell the tales. And Washington was a winner. Even though ­as he surely knew—it is often the defeats and disasters that can teach us the most.

During this same year, 1749, the English made a far more rational and tangible move toward securing the coveted territory. The Ohio Company was formed; it was composed of a few wealthy Virginians, to whom King George II granted five hundred thousand acres of land free of rent for ten years, between the Monongahela and Kanawha rivers, on condition that they plant one hundred families and maintain a fort in their new possessions. A little later the French made an important move. They built a fort at Presque Isle, where Erie now stands, Fort Le Boeuf, twenty miles from this, and Venango, on the site of the city of Franklin, Pennsylvania. This action alarmed Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia, as Virginia claimed the whole of the Allegheny Valley by right of her charter of 1609. The governor, therefore, determined to make a formal protest against the occupation of this territory by the French, and in choosing a messenger to make the journey to the newly built forts he unconsciously introduced to the future a young man who was destined to hold the first place in the heart of the great nation that was soon to be born in America -- George Washington.

Washington was a youth of twenty-one years and was adjutant-general of the Virginia militia. He had seen much experience in the woods as a surveyor. He was tall and stalwart, and he not only excelled all his fellows in athletic sports, but was specially noted for his moral character and for his unswerving fidelity to truth and duty. This first appearance of Washington in public life revealed the metal of which he was made, and plainly foreshadowed the great deeds of which he afterward became the hero. With the strength and vigor of youth, he and a few attendants made this perilous journey through the unbroken forest. Over hills and mountains, swamps and marshes, encountering deep snows and frozen rivers, and every peril of a wilderness yet untrodden by the foot of the pioneer, he carried the letter of Virginia's governor to the French commandant at Fort Le Boeuf. Washington's chief guides were Christopher Gist, a pioneer noted for his great skill in woodcraft, and Half King, an Indian chief whom he picked up on the banks of the Ohio. He was treated with much kindness by the French commandant, Saint-Pierre, who, however, declared in his answer that he would remain at his post, according to the commands of his general, but promised to send Dinwiddie's letter to Marquis Duquesne, the governor of Canada.

Washington's return trip was full of adventure. Thinking he could make better time, he left his horses and all his guides except Gist, and started out on foot. At an Indian village called Murdering Town they were shot at by a native whom they caught and whom Gist would have killed but for Washington's interference. Reaching the Allegheny River, they attempted to cross on a raft, but Washington was thrown into the current among the ice floes. He regained the raft, thoroughly drenched with the icy waters, and they reached an island in the river, on which they were obliged to spend a bitterly cold night. Next morning the river was frozen over, and they crossed on the ice and were soon again speeding through the forest. They reached Williamsburg, Virginia, on January 16, whence they had started seventy-eight days before.

Washington thus won the warm favor of his governor and the attention of all Virginia. The people early recognized in him the rising hero, nor was it long until his further services were needed, for hostilities were at hand. Before midsummer of this same year, 1754, Washington, in command of a small body of militia near a place called Great Meadows, fired on a body of Frenchmen under the command of Jumonville, and the latter with nine of his men were killed; and the great war that was to shake two continents, and to determine the language and civilization of the future United States, was begun.

Historians will usually note that the French and Indian War was actually a small portion of what is known as the Seven Years War. This is not entirely correct. While the Seven Years War, and the French and Indian War were related, in fact the French and Indian War being the beginning of the Seven Years War, the conflict in America was more closely tied to the unsettled feelings left over from King George's War (1744-1748).

After the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle finished that earlier war, the hatred between the French and the English in the Americas never quite waned. It must be understood, that in 1755 France held most of America. The French land claims covered Canada (close to what we know know as Canada), as well as New France (that is, the stretch of land following the Mississippi River all the way to Louisiana).

The English, wanting to expand their land, often moved into the land claimed by the French. This encroachment forced the French to build several forts along the frontier. Some of these forts were Fort Duquesne (Near present day Pittsburgh), and Fort Miamis. The French, never lovers of the English due to hundreds of years of fighting, sent the Indians who allied themselves with the French in raiding parties in retaliation for raids conducted by the Indians on the English side, who claimed that their raids were in retaliation for those made by the French. It didn't matter which side was correct, the main object wasn't to retaliate, but rather for the French to keep the English in their place, and for the English to irritate the French as much as possible until they moved out.

Kenneth C. Davis. The First “Teflon” Hero. Smithsonian Magazine. July 2008.


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