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Early centuries
16th - 17th century
17th century
18th century
     Three slices of America
     Washington in Ohio valley
     Pitt and north America
     Wolfe and Quebec

Adjusting the boundaries

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Three slices of America: 18th century

The accidents of history and the facts of geography combine to form a precarious balance between English, French and Spanish interests in north America during the 18th century.

The quest for gold has brought the Spanish into Mexico from their first landfall in the Caribbean. The search for the northwest passage has sent the French up the St Lawrence river to establish a vigorous royal province based largely on trade in furs, brought to the European market from the interior of the continent. Rather later a wish for overseas settlements prompts the English to found a string of colonies down the eastern seaboard.


Geography plays a more rigid role in keeping the three national interests distinct and separate - at any rate at first, while there seems to be room for all.

The natural direction for Spanish expansion is northwards, to the west of the Rockies, into the regions which are now New Mexico, Arizona and California. The French, from their base around the Great Lakes, are drawn south along the rivers which drain into the Mississippi, and then on down the great river itself. The English enjoy a fertile coastal fringe, neatly confined to the west by the curving line of the Appalachian mountains.


Each of these three colonial groups must conduct its own argument with the existing occupants of the land, the American Indians. But for the first two centuries of colonization the Europeans have little more than skirmishes with each other, and these occur mainly at sea.

The situation changes dramatically in the 18th century. The main clash is between the French and the English. The two nations are at war with each other in Europe almost constantly from 1689 (in the wars of the Grand Alliance, the Spanish Succession, the Austrian Succession). This is inevitably reflected in relationships between their neighbouring American colonies.


But a more direct cause for conflict in north America derives from the interest of each colonial group in the Ohio valley. For the French this region is the first route southwards, running west of the Appalachians. For the British it is the first region available for expansion beyond the Appalachians. As such it is steadily encroached upon by English colonists, eager for new territory in which to trade and settle.

The sensitive nature of the Ohio valley becomes evident in 1749, when a French official is sent down the river to set into the landscape, at regular intervals, embossed lead plates stating the ownership of the land. They declare that it belongs to the king of France.


Washington in the Ohio valley: 1753-1755

It has been plain for some years that the Ohio valley is a dangerous area of friction between French and British colonists. Hostility turns to violence in 1752, when the French destroy a British trading centre at Pickawillany. They and their Indian allies then seize or evict every English-speaking trader in the vicinity of the upper Ohio.

The government of Virginia regards this as part of its territory and has been granting land in this region to colonists. Its response, in 1753, is to send an officer to warn the French of impending reprisals if they do not withdraw. The choice for this difficult mission falls on a 21-year-old, George Washington.


With a party of only six (including an interpreter and a guide), Washington sets out on 13 October 1753. A difficult winter journey brings them to a French fort, Le Boeuf, just south of Lake Erie. When Washington delivers his message to the officer in charge, he is politely but firmly told that the French intend to occupy the entire Ohio valley.

The return journey is even more unpleasant, including a ducking when crossing the freezing Allegheny river on a raft. On January 16 Washington and his party reach Williamsburg, where Washington rapidly writes up an account of his futile adventure. Sent to London and printed, it gives wide publicity to France's hostile intentions.


By April 1754 Washington is marching northwest again, this time with 160 soldiers. Virginians have begun building a fort at what is now Pittsburgh, with the intention of making the area safe for English trade. Washington's mission is to defend the young enterprise, but he finds that the French are ahead of him. They have already captured the British who are building the log palisade. And they have given the place a French name, Fort Duquesne.

Washington makes a surprise attack on a contingent of French troops, killing ten. It is the first blood in what will prove the conclusive war between French and British on American soil - the conflict known to English-language historians as the French and Indian War.


When Washington meets the main French force, he is outnumbered and he surrenders. The French disarm his men, but allow them to march back to Virginia - on a promise that the Virginians will not attempt to build another fort on the Ohio for a year.

The expedition has been a failure, but it has important consequences.The government in London has been reluctant to renew formal hostilities with the French, so soon after the peace of 1748. But it cannot allow American militiamen, or volunteers, to remain unsupported against French professional soldiers. In February 1755 Edward Braddock lands with a British army. Washington becomes his personal aide-de-camp.


Braddock and Washington head west through the Allegheny mountains from Fort Cumberland, with wagons for their baggage train supplied by settlers in the Conestoga valley (introducing a vehicle of great significance in American history). But the two generals are no more successful than Washington alone in recovering Fort Duquesne. Their army is ambushed by the French in July 1755 and Braddock is killed. For the third time in eighteen months Washington arrives back in Virginia after a failed mission.

But his courage and authority on the field of battle have not gone unnoticed. In August he is promoted to colonel and is appointed commander-in-chief of Virginia's troops. He is now twenty-three.


Montcalm: 1756-1758

The French success at Fort Duquesne in 1755 is followed by two more years of striking victories over the British. The broad battlefield is the border territory between French and British America - east of Lake Ontario and north of Albany.

Here the French take several important British frontier posts, largely thanks to the skills of the marquis of Montcalm who arrives in the summer of 1756 to command the French armies in America. Montcalm captures Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1756, and Fort William Henry (to the north of Albany) in 1757.


Montcalm's greatest success is the defence of Fort Carillon in July 1758. In a strategically important position at Ticonderoga, between Lake George and Lake Champlain, he hold it against a much larger British force - with more than 2000 British casualties compared to only 372 in the French army.

By now the French threat to the British colonies seems overwhelming. The western regions of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are almost deserted as settlers flee to safety from marauding parties of the French or their Indian allies. But the tide is about to turn. The second half of 1758 brings British victories. By this time the conflict is part of the wider Seven Years' War.


Pitt and north America: 1758-1759

The changing fortunes of the British in north America in 1758-9 are largely due to the energy and skill of the man who in the summer of 1757 becomes secretary of state with responsibility for the war - William Pitt, known as Pitt the Elder (or, later, earl of Chatham). Pitt builds up Britain's navy and selects talented commanders on both sea and land.

His first success is an expedition sent out to capture the powerful fort at the eastern extremity of New France. Louisburg falls in July 1758 in an action in which a young officer, James Wolfe, distinguishes himself.


Four months later, in November 1758, there is a victory in the extreme west of the American war zone. The event is strategically less significant than the capture of Louisbourg, but symbolically it is most gratifying to the British.

The French capture of Fort Duquesne in 1754 began the war in America. Now four years later, on the advance of a British army (once again with George Washington commanding a contingent), the French burn their wooden fort and abandon the site. The commander of the British army writes to inform Pitt that he is giving the place a new name - Pittsburgh, in the secretary of state's honour.


In 1759 the French fort at Niagara is taken (a strategically important site), followed shortly by another event of sweet revenge - the capture of Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga, the site of a costly and embarrassing failure in the previous year.

The stage is now set for a final assault on the very heart of New France, the original settlements of Montreal and Quebec.


Wolfe and Quebec: 1759

To command the expedition against Quebec, Pitt selects the young officer, James Wolfe, who has distinguished himself in the previous year's capture of Louisbourg. Wolfe's opponent in this crucial encounter will be the most successful French general in this war, the marquis de Montcalm.

Wolfe's army, numbering about 8500, is brought up the St Lawrence River in British ships in June. Montcalm is defending Quebec with some 15,000 troops. The citadel is protected by the river to the south and by high cliffs to the west. Montcalm's army is firmly entrenched to the east of the city, blocking the only easy approach.


Wolfe spends nearly three months bombarding the citadel from across the river. He also attempts various unsuccessful assaults. Montcalm sits tight. Then, during the night of September 12, Wolfe puts into effect a bold plan.

He is himself in a weak state, from tuberculosis, but in the darkness he leads his men across the river, in boats with muffled oars, to the foot of a steep wooded cliff west of the city. At the top, 300 feet above the level of the river, is a plateau - the Plains of Abraham - with open access to Quebec. By dawn the British army is on the plateau. Only in battle can the city be defended now.


The battle for Quebec lasts little more than an hour before the French flee. But that hour has been long enough to claim the lives of both commanders. Montcalm is severely injured and dies the next day. Wolfe, wounded twice in the thick of the fighting, receives a third and mortal blow just as the tide of battle turns finally in his favour. The death of the 32-year-old general, at his moment of victory, becomes an icon in British popular history.

It is a profoundly significant victory. Without Quebec, Montreal is isolated. Surrounded by British armies, the commander of the city surrenders in September 1760. The whole of French Canada is now in British hands - a state of affairs confirmed in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.


Pontiac: 1763-1766

The victory of the British in the French and Indian War is followed by the departure of the French from all their forts. This leaves their Indian allies at the mercy of the British, whose interests are very different from those of the French.

The French colonists, consisting mainly of soldiers and traders, have established an easy relationship with the tribes. There is no direct rivalry, and both sides benefit from the trade in fur. Indians have traditionally been welcome in French forts and have been given presents, including even guns and ammunition. By contrast the British, interested in settled agriculture, are a direct threat to the Indians' territory.


Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawa Indians, responds to the new situation by planning an uprising of the Indian tribes. Skilfully synchronized to begin in May 1763, with each tribe attacking a different fort, the campaign has an early and devastating success. Many garrisons are overwhelmed and massacred, in an attempt to drive the British back east of the Appalachians. But a ferocious counter-offensive is launched by the governor-general, Jeffrey Amherst.

Amherst lacks any form of moral scruple in his treatment of tribes whom he regards as contemptible savages. He even suggests spreading smallpox by gifts of infected blankets (and Indians given blankets by the British, in a peace conference at Pittsburgh in 1764, do develop the disease).


In the first flush of Pontiac's success, in 1763, the British government is so alarmed that a royal proclamation is issued; all land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi is to be reserved as hunting grounds for the Indians. But two years later the British army regains control of the situation. Pontiac makes formal peace in 1766, whereupon the royal proclamation is soon forgotten.

Settlers press west in increasing numbers into the Ohio valley. With the threat from both French and Indians removed in the recent wars, the colonists are now in buoyant mood. Soon they even feel sufficiently confident to confront the British crown.


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