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French & Indian War: Causes

War in the Wilderness: 1754-1755

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French & Indian War: Causes

The reconstructed Fort Necessity

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1756-1757 - War on a Global Scale

An Unsettled Peace

In 1748, the War of the Austrian Succession came to a conclusion with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. During the course of the eight-year conflict, France, Prussia, and Spain had squared off against Austria, Britain, Russia, and the Low Countries. When the treaty was signed, many of the underlying issues of the conflict remained unresolved including those of expanding empires and Prussia's seizure of Silesia. In the negotiations, many captured colonial outposts were returned to their original owners, such as Madras to the British and Louisbourg to the French, while the trading rivalries that had helped cause the war were ignored. Due to this relatively inconclusive result, the treaty was considered by many to a "peace without victory" with international tensions remaining high among the recent combatants.

The Situation in North America

Known as King George's War in the North American colonies, the conflict had seen colonial troops mount a daring and successful attempt to capture the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. The return of the fortress was a point of concern and ire among the colonists when peace was declared. While the British colonies occupied much of the Atlantic coast, they were effectively surrounded by French lands to the north and west. To control this vast expanse of territory extending from the mouth of the St. Lawrence down to the Mississippi delta, the French built a string of outposts and forts from the western Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The location of this line left a wide area between the French garrisons and the crest of the Appalachian Mountains to the east. This territory, largely drained by the Ohio River, was claimed by the French but was increasingly filling with British settlers as they pushed over the mountains. This was largely due to the burgeoning population of the British colonies which in 1754 contained around 1,160,000 white inhabitants as well as another 300,000 slaves. These numbers dwarfed the population of New France which totaled around 55,000 in present-day Canada and another 25,000 in other areas.

Caught between these rival empires were the Native Americans, of which the Iroquois Confederacy was the most powerful. Initially consisting of the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga, the group later became the Six Nations with the addition of the Tuscarora. United, their territory extended between the French and British from the upper reaches of the Hudson River west into the Ohio basin. While officially neutral, the Six Nations were courted by both European powers and frequently traded with whichever side was convenient.

The French Stake Their Claim

In an effort to assert their control over the Ohio Country, the governor of New France, the Marquis de La Galissonière, dispatched Captain Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville in 1749 to restore and mark the border. Departing Montreal, his expedition of around 270 men moved through present-day western New York and Pennsylvania. As it progressed, he placed lead plates announcing France's claim to the land at the mouths of several creeks and rivers. Reaching Logstown on the Ohio River, he evicted several British traders and admonished the Native Americans against trading with anyone but the French. After passing present-day Cincinnati, he turned north and returned to Montreal.

Despite Céloron's expedition, British settlers continued to push over the mountains, especially those from Virginia. This was backed by colonial government of Virginia who granted land in the Ohio Country to the Ohio Land Company. Dispatching surveyor Christopher Gist, the company began scouting the region and received permission from the Native Americans to fortify the trading post at Logstown. Aware of these increasing British incursions, the new governor of New France, the Marquis de Duquesne, sent Paul Marin de la Malgue to the area with 2,000 men in 1753 to built a new series of forts. The first of these was built at Presque Isle on Lake Erie (Erie, PA), with another twelve miles south at French Creek (Fort Le Boeuf). Pushing down the Allegheny River, Marin captured the trading post at Venango and built Fort Machault. The Iroquois were alarmed by these actions and complained to British Indian agent Sir William Johnson.

The British Response

As Marin was constructing his outposts, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, became increasingly concerned. Lobbying for the building of a similar string of forts, he received permission provided that he first assert British rights to the French. To do so, he dispatched young Major George Washington on October 31, 1753. Traveling north with Gist, Washington paused at the Forks of the Ohio where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers came together to form the Ohio. Reaching Logstown, the party was joined by Tanaghrisson (Half King), a Seneca chief who disliked the French. The party ultimately reached Fort Le Boeuf on December 12 and Washington met with Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. Presenting an order from Dinwiddie requiring the French to depart, Washington received a negative reply from Legarduer. Returning to Virginia, Washington informed Dinwiddie of the situation.

French & Indian War/Seven Years' War: Overview | Next: 1756-1757 - War on a Global Scale

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