The French and Indian War Was the First 'Real' World War

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

French & Indian War
A battle scene from the French and Indian War (1754 - 1763), a conflict between the British and the French, aided by their respective colonial and Native American allies, for the domination of America. MPI/Getty Images

The name is confusing, right? It sounds like the French and Indians were fighting each other. But the French and Indian War was the North American theater of engagement between two imperial powers — Great Britain and France — battling it out for world dominance. In that regard, some students of history, including former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, call the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years' War) the first "real" world war because, not only did it include the two most powerful armies at the time, but they also fought on multiple fronts — in Europe, in colonies in the West Indies and even as far away as India.

"The world was turned upside down by the Seven Years' War," says John Giblin, director of education and engagement for the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (also home to the U.S. Army War College). Giblin is the former director at the Fort Pitt Museum and Bushy Run Battlefield in Pennsylvania, and was one of the creators of the 2006 War for Empire project, commemorating the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War.

"You had superpowers, you had colonial governments vying for states or colonial rights, you had indigenous peoples attempting to hold on to what they believed they rightfully owned and you had adventurers in the mix, trying to get their piece of the pie," Giblin adds. "It was an extremely tumultuous time. There was no one winner; everyone got something, but lost something. But it set the stage for how the world was going to change."

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Who Controlled Which Territory?

When the war started, Britain controlled the colonies along the Atlantic coast, which included Nova Scotia at the time. Their colonies only extended as far west as the spiny ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and by the 1750s, the population of British colonists reached more than 1 million. Meanwhile, the French territory of "New France" covered the region beyond the Appalachians, running from Louisiana in the south through the Mississippi Valley to Canada in the north. New France had far fewer settlers, just 60,000. The borders between these colonies were not always respected.

Indigenous people still lived throughout these colonies, allied with both France and Britain. Multiple tribal groups inhabited the northeast including the Delaware, Mahican (Mohican) and the Iroquois Confederacy — the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora, all of whom allied with the British. Other Native American tribes living in the region included the Huron, Fox and Sauk (Sac). These tribes typically allied with the French.

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Why Did They Fight?

Like many wars, the French and Indian War was essentially a land grab.

"It started out as a debate over trade rights, but it quickly moved to a debate over land rights," Giblin says. "And the land rights [squabble] actually started before the French and Indian War when [military leader and explorer Pierre-Joseph Celoron] de Blainville made his expedition into the mid-Ohio region, laying lead plates on behalf of the French king."

Basically, the French were fur traders in the Ohio River Valley, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge with the Ohio — a region called the Forks of the Ohio (the site of present-day Pittsburgh). The British wanted a piece of that action and started trapping in the region in the late 1740s, but the French were not pleased. In an attempt to reestablish their claim to the lands, the French governor requested de Blainville bury multiple lead plates throughout the area inscribed in the name of King Louis XV of France.

Meanwhile, several wealthy Virginia colonists (including the governor, Robert Dinwiddie, and his young protégé George Washington) formed the Ohio Company specifically to speculate in land west of the Appalachians and hopefully get involved in the fur trade. The Ohio Company received a charter, securing the rights to 200,000 acres (80,937 hectares) near the Forks of the Ohio, but before the land could be settled, the French constructed a fort on the site.

French & Indian War
An 1877 engraving titled 'The Evacuation of Fort Duquesne, 1758.' In September 1758, Pennsylvania and Virginia militia under British Maj. Gen. James Grant were wiped out by French forces. The heads of dead British militia were impaled on stakes that encircled the fort.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

In 1753, Dinwiddie sent Washington and a small group of men with a letter of ultimatum to the French that they leave the region; the French refused. A year later, the British (under Capt. William Trent) began constructing a fort at another location at the Forks of the Ohio. The French weren't pleased by this development and arrived to put a stop to it. The British quickly abandoned the fort, but not before selling the tools and materials to the French who completed building what became Fort Duquesne.

Dinwiddie realized things were getting out of hand. At this time, there was no centralized colonial army. Each colony had their own militia or no militia at all. He asked the king to send British regulars to back up the colonists, but the king said this was a colonial problem. Dinwiddie decided to raise an army for Virginia and asked 22-year-old Washington, a farmer with no military experience, to lead it.

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The War Begins

1754: Washington and his men — 100 men strong — camped in a field known as the Great Meadows about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Fort Duquesne. The French sent a small party led by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville to gather intelligence and, if possible, convince the British to leave. Instead, Washington, a company of militia and a group of Iroquois allies intercepted Jumonville near the Great Meadows. In the fighting that ensued, Jumonville and nine French soldiers were killed. The British returned to Great Meadows, building a garrison they called Fort Necessity.

Alerted by a survivor of the ambush, the French attacked Fort Necessity July 3 with a superior force of more than 300 French Canadians and indigenous allies. Washington surrendered and ill-advisedly signed a document in which he admitted to "assassinating" Jumonville; he resigned in disgrace though later returned to serve under British command. When the British king heard the news of the humiliating defeat, British troops were finally sent to North America.

Skirmishes and battles continued throughout 1755 including the Battle of the Wilderness, where British Gen. Edward Braddock's troops were defeated near Fort Duquesne, and the Battle of Lake George in New York, which featured British Col. William Johnson, considered a hero of the war.

But it wasn't until almost a full year after Washington's first encounter at Fort Duquesne that war was officially declared between Great Britain and France, May 8-9, 1756. And while the most famous battles occurred in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern colonies, skirmishes went as far south as the Carolinas.

French & Indian War
The garrison known as Fort Necessity was built in 1754 by George Washington while trying to remove the French from western Pennsylvania.
MyLoupe/UIG/Getty Images

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Winners? Losers?

As the name implies, the French and Indian War raged on for seven years once it was officially declared. The tide turned when William Pitt, who served as secretary of state in the British government, took over wartime operations. Pitt recognized that the war played a crucial part in furthering Britain's global empire. He borrowed heavily to finance the war. He also stopped micromanaging the war from London and gave local control to the British forces in the colonies in matters of military leadership. As a result, British and colonial forces went on to defeat the French in North America and in territories throughout the world. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

The British were the clear winners in terms of territorial gains.

"Britain retained control of much of the eastern half of North America, the port cities, which were critical, including Nova Scotia," says Giblin. "They also gained open trade with Native Americans, one of the key things they wanted, and the ability to trade, trap and hunt in the Midwest.

They also gained control of the western frontier, all the land east of the Mississippi River, all of Canada, and took over Florida from Spain (which had allied itself with France). Giblin says the French and Spanish still controlled much of the western half of North America, but that would soon change after the American Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase.

The clear losers in addition to the French were the indigenous people. Not only were they pushed farther out of their tribal lands, but in some places, smallpox was introduced to their tribes for the first time.

One of the unintended consequences of the French and Indian War was that it indirectly led to the American Revolution. "Britain emptied its coffers to pay for the war," Giblin says.

But it wasn't going to be enough. They raised taxes to ease the burden.

"The colonists were happy to pay their share of taxes for their portion of the war, but as early as the first half of the French and Indian War, colonists began to believe they were being unfairly taxed," Giblin says.

And we all know how that turned out.

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