Tanaghrisson was a chief among the Senecas—one of the six tribes within the Iroquois League that dominated the northeastern part of North America for most of the eighteenth century. But among the people he was sent to govern in the Ohio Valley—the Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos—he was referred to disparagingly as a "half king" because his decisions had to be submitted for approval to the Iroquois council sitting at Onondaga. During the 1750s, this half king would be handed the impossible task of maintaining Iroquois control as the imperial visions of three great powers converged on a comparatively small area at the Forks of the Ohio River. Tanaghrisson's problem would prove to be unsolvable, and by 1754, the contest for the Ohio Valley would trigger a chain of events of unsurpassed importance in the history of the western world.
In 1750, three great nations pursued imperial visions on the North American continent. The story most familiar belongs to Great Britain. Since the planting of a settlement at Jamestown in 1607, the British had established a string of colonies stretching from Nova Scotia to Georgia. These colonies had been settled under varying arrangements with the British government and the British government maintained an interested, if somewhat relaxed, eye on the colonies. But for the most part, Britain's American colonies were private ventures, rooted in the ambitions of specific commercial organizations and religious groups. On occasion, the British government had tried to tighten its grip on the colonies—but never too hard, for experience soon showed that a relaxed approach to ruling the North American colonies allowed them the freedom to flourish.
By 1750, British North America was home to more than a million people and a vibrant and diverse economy. Fully half of all British shipping was engaged in trade with North America, and some 33 % of Britain's commercial vessels were built in American shipyards.6 England had grown increasingly dependent on American wheat to maintain its food supply; by 1760, for the first time, the mother country would import more grain than it exported. And American food exports to other British colonies—especially the lucrative sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean—were vital to their survival. And just as American exports were crucial to the economic health of the British Empire as a whole, American consumption of English manufactured goods was critical to Britain's domestic economy. By 1760, Britain had come to see its North American colonies as the centerpiece of its expanding global vision. British imperialists imagined America's raw materials feeding English industries and being re-exported throughout Europe, saw America's growing population providing lucrative markets for English manufactured goods, and anticipated American timber building the ships that protected British interests around the world.
France also had an interest in North America. Claiming a huge diagonal swath of land stretching from present-day eastern Canada across the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and including both banks of the Mississippi River, France nursed visions of a western empire to rival Britain's. The French had established significant posts at Quebec and New Orleans, but while France claimed more territory in North America than Britain, New France was only sparsely populated. In 1750, there were only 50,000 people of European descent living in the entire colony. Its economy was correspondingly far simpler than that of British North America, built largely upon fur trapping and fishing, with a particular dependence upon trade with the Native Americans living near the Great Lakes and in the upper Mississippi Valley. But as their commercial success in these regions grew, French traders looked eagerly to the south and southeast, to the abundant furs and populous Indian communities of the lower Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. Expanding into these areas could bring even greater commercial profits and the added bonus of forcing the rival British colonists to stay on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains.
The third great empire interested in strengthening and expanding its hold in eastern North America was that of the Iroquois. Actually a league of six Indian nations (the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora), the Iroquois, through war and diplomacy, had established a dominant position among North American Indians east of the Mississippi river by 1750.
The ascendance of the Iroquois had been influenced, tragically, by the arrival of Europeans—and their diseases—in the sixteenth century. Smallpox, in particular, wreaked havoc on Indian populations. Without the immunities of Europeans, Indian villages provided "virgin soil" for the periodic epidemics that afflicted all North American residents. Whereas mortality rates among whites generally remained below 20 percent, among Indian communities struck by smallpox outbreaks, death rates of 40 to 60 percent were more common.
The wars waged by the Iroquois against other northeastern tribes must be placed within the context of these brutal epidemics. In addition to territory and plunder, these "mourning wars" sought to replenish tribal numbers through conquest. Women and children were taken captive and absorbed into the tribe in order to quickly rebuild disease-depleted communities.
But Europeans did not just bring disease, they also brought trade, including trade in weapons—sharper, more durable metal blades and eventually firearms as well. This meant that in order to succeed in war, a tribe also had to succeed in trade. In an increasingly destructive cycle, then, expanding trade led to more devastating wars, which led to further depopulation, which led to even more wars in order to repopulate.
The Iroquois were the most successful northeastern Indian nation within this deadly cycle. In the seventeenth century, they had been among the first to establish commercial relations with the Dutch in New York, and then with the British after they took over the Dutch settlement. Armed with European weapons, the Iroquois reduced other powerful northeastern Indian tribes—such as the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo—to client nations.
Iroquois domination soon brought respect from the European powers scheming to control the continent. Both Britain and France quickly realized that the Iroquois could become a powerful ally in advancing their own interests on the continent. As the British and French sought to establish friendly relations with the Iroquois on terms beneficial to their own imperial designs, they soon found that the Iroquois were even better at this exploitive diplomatic game than the Europeans. In 1701, the Iroquois successfully negotiated the Grand Settlement—actually a series of agreements reached separately and secretly with both European powers. Through these agreements, the Iroquois secured pledges of friendship, as well as trade and hunting rights, from both nations.
By 1750, Iroquois strength had reached its peak. Through war, trade, and diplomacy, the Iroquois League had come to dominate a vast territory, stretching from Canada to the Carolinas. Dozens of smaller tribes lived under Iroquois the control and protection. The British and French correctly recognized the Iroquois as the dominant power in the North American interior—and the Iroquois exploited this recognition to their own advantage. For example, in 1737 the Iroquois negotiated the Walking Purchase with Pennsylvania, through which they sold 750,000 acres of land claimed and occupied by the Delawares to the British colony.
By 1750, then, three great powers had developed grand imperial visions for the future of North America. Only the Iroquois kept these competing visions from crashing into one another. Both the British and the French depended upon the Iroquois to maintain order in the regions just west of the Appalachians—to keep the smaller Indian tribes in line and to prevent their European competitor from encroaching against their established holdings. Just as the British counted on the Iroquois to keep the French restricted to the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi Valley, the French expected the Iroquois to keep the British out of the interior and away from their lucrative trade in the northwest.
It was a mutually beneficial and—for a long time—relatively stable formula. After 1750, however, it began to unravel. And the unraveling occurred at the Forks of the Ohio River, the site of modern-day Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. A place that had always been known for the beautiful confluence of three great rivers—the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny—was about to experience the violent confluence of three incompatible imperial visions for the future of America.
In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos (together known as the Ohio Indians) began moving into the watershed of the upper Ohio River. Earlier Iroquois raids in the valley had left it all but uninhabited for a half century. Now rich with game, and seemingly far removed from both the westward-moving white population of Pennsylvania and the oppressive power of the Iroquois, the valley provided an attractive sanctuary for smaller tribes anxious to find prosperity and autonomy.
But this repopulating of the valley soon attracted British traders, anxious to buy and sell goods in commerce with the growing Indian population. The most ambitious of these was George Croghan, an Irish-born fur trader, Indian negotiator, and land speculator. During the 1740s, Croghan built a trading post at the Forks of the Ohio, intending it to be the first in a chain of posts stretching to Lake Erie—deep within French territory. The French were unsurprisingly unnerved by British encroachment on their trade, and even more unsettled by the prospect of permanent British settlement near the Forks. In 1745, the colonial legislature of Virginia granted the Ohio Company, a group of Virginia land speculators, 300 square miles of land in the Ohio Valley. These speculators envisioned the parceling and sale of these lands to Virginia farmers looking for fresh acreage away from the Chesapeake. Full-blown Anglo-American colonization of the Ohio Valley loomed as a very real possibility.
By 1750, the French had concluded that their own imperial vision was being jeopardized by developments in the Ohio Valley. And because the French were concerned, the Iroquois were concerned. They realized that the key to their influence with the French was their ability to maintain control over the land and Indians within the region. Therefore they dispatched the Seneca chief Tanaghrisson to bring the Ohio Indians under control and establish limits to British expansion.
But Tanaghrisson's mission proved all but impossible. The Ohio Indians were tired of Iroquois domination, and the only way they could be wooed was through a constant supply of money and gifts. The Ohio Company was only too willing to provide these to Tanaghrisson, in hopes of winning the allegiance of the Iroquois representative. And he had little choice but to accept their offers. But in return, Tanaghrisson had to make concessions to the Virginia speculators, including support for the construction of their own trading post in the region.
As a result, by 1752 the French had lost all confidence in Tanaghrisson's ability—and the ability of the Iroquois in general—to control the Ohio Valley and keep the British at bay. Therefore they sent a band of Indian mercenaries—Ojibwa and Ottawa from Canada—to destroy the British trading post at Pickawillany, on the Great Miami River. And the next fall, the newly arrived governor of New France, the marquis Duquesne, decided to take stronger measures to discourage British expansion by building a series of French forts between Lake Erie and the Ohio Valley, including one—the modestly named Fort Duquesne—right at the Forks.
It was now Britain's turn to be alarmed. Duquesne's plans brought French forces much closer to British territories. And the move seemed suspiciously opportunistic. In Europe, Britain's alliance with Austria had been recently strained; France's newfound assertiveness in North America seemed part of an attempt to test the British in their moment of weakness. Therefore British policymakers decided they needed to respond by sending a message of their own. They needed to make it clear that their troubled relationship with Austria would not weaken their resolve to defend their positions anywhere in the world.
In 1753, officials in London therefore instructed the British governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, to clear the Ohio Valley of French intruders—peacefully if possible, by force if necessary. To achieve this, the governor selected a young Virginia planter and military officer, George Washington, to deliver the British ultimatum. Accompanied by a handful of scouts and interpreters, Washington spent November and December of 1753 scouting French positions in the Ohio Valley and delivering Dinwiddie's demand. But the French refused to withdraw, and when Washington returned from the Forks with word of the French refusal, he was asked to lead a regiment back into the valley to build a competing British fort at the Forks of the Ohio.
Washington was only 22 years old when he left Williamsburg for the Forks in 1754. Perhaps an older, more experienced military leader might have been able to achieve greater success on the mission he now undertook. But probably not—especially as the most critical figure in the story about to unfold was not actually George Washington but rather Tanaghrisson.
When Washington and his men arrived within a few miles of the Forks, he established a camp at the Great Meadows. Indian scouts soon brought word that a French patrol was in the vicinity. Washington set off in pursuit, surprising the patrol of 35 French soldiers just before dawn. After a brief skirmish—it is not clear who fired the first shot or even why—the French surrendered.
It was a small battle but one that would have monumental importance in the history of America and the entire world. As Washington accepted the surrender of the French officer, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, the young ensign explained that he had been sent on a diplomatic mission—to find the Virginia regiment and demand that it leave the valley. But before Washington could even respond, Tanaghrisson seized the initiative and fatefully set the course of events. With a single blow from his tomahawk, he smashed the skull of Jumonville, killing him instantly. His warriors then slaughtered the wounded French soldiers. The French and Indian War had unofficially begun.
Could things have turned out differently? Could the British have complied with the French order to abandon all plans for the valley? Or could the French have abandoned their insistence that the British leave? We will never know, for Tanaghrisson's attack set all parties on the path to war—a war that Tanaghrisson believed gave the Iroquois their best chance of retaining control over the Ohio Valley and its Indian occupants. Convinced that the Ohio Indians had already entered into an alliance with the French, and convinced that the Iroquois could no longer maintain their dominant status by playing one European power against the other, Tanaghrisson resolved to take a stand with the British, deliberately inciting a war that he hoped would crush the upstart Ohio Indians and drive the French back to the Great Lakes. We will have to defer consideration of the long-term effectiveness of the strategy—but in the short term it achieved all that he planned.
George Washington was caught completely off guard by Tanaghrisson's attack, but he immediately recognized that the unprovoked murder of French prisoners-of-war under his watch had just changed the diplomatic landscape entirely. Knowing that French retaliation was inevitable, he withdrew to the little fort his men had thrown up at the Great Meadows and awaited the French attack he knew would come. On 3 July 1753, more than 600 French troops, reinforced by 100 Indian allies, attacked Washington at the rickety stockade dubbed Fort Necessity. Badly outmanned, Washington surrendered the next morning. The young officer made one final youthful mistake; unable to read French, he signed a statement admitting he had assassinated a French envoy—a serious breach of diplomatic protocol and formal grounds for war.
When word of the military and diplomatic humiliation of Washington at Fort Necessity reached London, there was panic among British officials. British interests in the interior of North America had suffered a serious setback, and broader French schemes against British power had been given a boost. Command over the dire situation in North America could no longer be entrusted to a raw kid from Virginia. So in the spring of 1755, General Edward Braddock was dispatched to America with two regiments of British regulars. These forces would be joined by two more regiments raised in America, plus provincial militia called into service by colonial governors. With more than 5000 total troops at his disposal, Braddock was to attack French holdings not only in the Ohio Valley, but in Nova Scotia and all regions south of the Great Lakes. By force of arms, Britain would reestablish its position in the interior of North America, secure its holdings south of the Great Lakes, and send a message to the French that it was to be taken lightly in neither hemisphere. It was time for war.