The following article is from a series for a local newspaper done by one of the site directors of the Association. It is not a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the War, but is concerned mainly with causes related to the Virginia frontier.


Prelude to the
French and Indian War

Part 1: Settlement


The year 2004 will begin a national 250th anniversary celebration of the French and Indian War, one of America’s most crucial conflicts in the development of our nation. This war set the stage for the American Revolution and formed some of the Revolution’s most important military heroes. Unfortunately, it is not studied much today as many varied subjects vie for attention in our school curriculums. However, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary affords us the opportunity to learn something about what many call “America’s First First World War” and others call the “War for Empire in North America.”

This is a “sometime” series (as I get the time) with a particular perspective (some may say peculiar) as I happen to view local events. It is not meant to be an inclusive study of the conflict touching all aspects of this very complex affair; it is not meant to satisfy everyone’s point of view. It will deal primarily with the conflict in the Mid-Atlantic colonies and will highlight the contribution of Virginia and its neighbors while it may ignore many national issues and political complexities. It will highlight sites you can visit today. There are plenty of books that will satisfy those who desire a wider perspective or a more modern view. There will sometimes be references mentioned at the end of articles for those interested in a more in-depth perspective.

The official anniversary begins in 2004, two hundred and fifty years after George Washington’s encounter with the French force under Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, since many view this skirmish as the opening shots of the war. However, for someone to get an understanding of that event, one must know something about the events that preceded it. The French and Indian War was another in a long series of conflicts involving British colonials, French settlers and soldiers, and Native Americans (Indians) that extend back almost to the earliest days of settlement. The larger conflict of which it became a part, the Seven Years War, was itself another event in a long and bitter struggle between Britain and France for dominance not only in Europe but in the emerging colonial empires. One should review this complex series to get the total picture, but at least a cursory knowledge of the most recent events preceding Washington’s encounter would be helpful.

This series begins in October, 1753, in commemoration of the trip George Washington made to the French commander in the Ohio river country to deliver Great Britain’s demand that the French vacate British-claimed territory. One must understand that although the French incursion into the Ohio territory was recent, forts-fr2.jpg they had for many years been building forts, trading posts and towns along the great river routes of the continent. The names of many cities along the Lakes and rivers including St. Louis, Detroit, Portage, Prairie du Rocher and others are French. The Appalachian Mountains may have been the first barrier to English advancement west, but the fast spreading French were working to create a political barrier to British expansion beyond the mountains.

The French had come to North America with a different intention than the British. The French were concerned with establishing a trading network to reap the fur trade and possibly precious metals to fill the coffers of France. LaSalle2.jpgThe British were far more concerned with establishing farms, towns and cities that would require British goods and would afford a home for some of the population that was overwhelming their home island. Initially the French settled along the two most extensive river systems of the continent: the Mississippi which drained the prairie heartland and the St. Lawrence which drained the Great Lakes. These river systems afforded them easy access to the vast riches of the continent. The British, on the other hand, had settled the coastal plains east of the Appalachians where they began to raise tobacco and other crops. The coastal rivers made access to the entire east coast very easy and allowed fast sea commerce with the British Isles.

However, by the late 1740s a major change was taking place. The French were seeking shorter, quicker routes between Quebec and New Orleans. In 1749 Celeron explored the Ohio River and realized its importance as a route of commerce and a barrier to British expansion. By 1752 the French governor was sending soldiers to begin a chain of forts along the Ohio and its tributaries to guard the route and to keep the British out.

But this was not the only change that was taking place. The two nations’ relation to the Indians was also changing. Although early incidents with the natives had somewhat determined the relationship with each of the newly arrived powers, the relationships changed over time. The French were more apt to cultivate a friendship with the natives; French traders would often marry into a native tribe to solidify a good commercial relationship. The British, on the other hand, were often seen as interlopers who came to steal land. But as the Indians came to rely more and more upon European trade goods, their alliance would change depending on whom they thought they could get the most from. As the Native Americans began to play one country off against the other, the Europeans began to try to manage the alliances more powerfully to their own advantage. Britain’s greater sea power curtailed the shipment of French goods, and English wares became more important as British officials became more adept at Indian diplomacy.

As Britain worked harder to circumvent the French advances west of the mountains and ensure their own ability to move westward, the manipulation of Indian alliances became more critical. tomahawk2.jpgThe commercial benefit also made the Europeans more determined to bring as many tribes into alliances as possible. Finally, political manipulation would give way to force. One incident is particularly telling. Around 1744 a Pennsylvania trader, George Croghan, had established a trading post on the Great Miami River among the Miami Indians at Pickawillany. Here he was very successful in luring tribes from across the Great Lakes and all along the Ohio River to forsake French connections and come to Pickawillany to trade.

The French officials saw this invasion by British colonials into regions formerly secure to French commerce as a very dangerous situation. They did everything in their power to coerce the Indians to forgo British trade; they even put a bounty on Croghan’s head hoping someone would kill him as a sign to other traders. They also tried to “show the flag” by sending Captain Pierre-Joseph de Celeron de Blainville and a detachment of soldiers down the Ohio River. Celeron’s trip was not only an exploratory trip seeing a shorter route to New Orleans. The French hoped to enforce the claim to the territory made by the great French explorer, La Salle; they also wished to assess the extent of British intrusion and awe the Indians with a show of French force. Celeron buried symbolic lead plates along the river to emphasize the French claim. This was the same year (1749) that young George Washington received his appointment as Surveyor of Culpeper County and came to the Cacapon River valley to survey for Lord Fairfax.


However, Celeron’s show of force was not enough to stop the Indians from trading with the British. As the British seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the region, the French realized the situation was getting critical. In the spring the British called a conference with native tribes at Logstown, the town of the Half-King, Tanaghrisson, the Iroquois representative. Here they gained the Indians’ approval to build a stronghouse at the Forks of the Ohio (present Pittsburgh) in order to supply the locals with high quality British goods and to keep the French out of the region. The French saw their power and commerce slipping away and decided more drastic action was needed.

While the Logstown conference was going on in Pennsylvania, a French officer who was half French, half Indian, Charles de Langlade, led a force of about two hundred allied Indians and thirty French soldiers in an attack on Pickawillany in present day Ohio. The village was lightly defended at that time, and Langlade easily captured it. He took the British traders prisoner, and his Indian allies boiled and ate the Indian chief, Memeskia, known as “Old Britain” for his alliance with the British.

The French were upping the ante. The stage was set for a confrontation. Stay tuned.



1702-1713 War of Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War) ends with Treaty of Utrecht.
1735-37 Lord Fairfax’s first trip to America to inspect his Northern Neck Proprietary.
1740-1748 War of Austrian Succession (King George’s War) ends with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle.
1743 Virginian James Patton petitions for 200,000 acres on branches of the Mississippi.
1744 Treaty of Lancaster; Iroquois give land west of the Alleghanies to the Ohio River to the British.
1747 Thomas, Lord Fairfax, returns to live in Virginia.
1748 Ohio Company organized by Virginia gentry and merchants. Joseph Edwards has his 400 acres surveyed on the Cacapon River.
1749 Celoron de Bienville travels down the Ohio River as far as the Miami River claiming land for France. The Ohio Company of Virginia receives a grant of 200,000 acres on the Ohio River and constructs their first storehouse at Wills Creek on the Potomac.
1750-51 Christopher Gist makes two trips into the Ohio country surveying locations for the Ohio Company.
1752 Marquis de Duquesne becomes governor-general of Canada and begins to fortify the route down the Ohio River. Logstown Treaty: The British try to cement the earlier transfer of lands east of the Ohio to the British by the Iroquois. French attack Pickawillany.

For further, more in-depth reading see:

Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson; Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000. This is considered the best of the modern accounts of the war taking into consideration the three important parties involved. It treats the politics of Native American involvement and looks at the whole conflict from a perspective of its contribution to the coming Revolution. It has 746 pages of text with 85 pages of supporting footnotes so it is not for the casual reader. It is to be expected that a work of this scope will, of necessity, omit many local events that various readers might want to know about; many events in Virginia are not well recounted. However, one might consider at least reading the first 168 pages for an insight into the early stages of the conflict. It is available through most any bookstore.

The Ohio Company of Virginia and the Westward Movement, 1748-1792 by Kenneth P. Bailey; Wennawoods Publishing, Lewisburg, PA, 2000 (originally published 1939). This book deals extensively with the role that the Ohio Company and to a lessor extent its Virginia competitors played in forcing the frontier westward. It is a very readable study of the Virginia contribution to the causes of the War and covers many events and people of interest to those living on what was the frontier. Reprint available from Wennawoods Publishing:

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© 2003 Charles C. Hall
updated: Dec. 26, 2003-11/8/12