Americans like to think of their nation's history as predestined, driven by some sort of inner logic. From the landing of the Pilgrims through the Revolution and Civil War, and onward through more recent battles for civil and human rights, we like to tell a story of slow but steady progress toward liberty and justice for all. Whether or not that story accurately reflects the reality of American history—some historians would say yes, others no—it is a compelling narrative that makes it easy to assume that America was fated to follow a certain path.
But America's history was not pre-ordained. If events had unfolded along a different path, at any one of dozens of decisive moments in our past, things could have turned out differently. One of the most dramatic of those decisive moments occurred in the 1750s, a time when the future of the North American continent was not at all clear. Three powerful empires—France, Great Britain, and the Iroquois League—all claimed the right to control the interior of the continent, and all had good reasons to believe they could defend those claims. The future of America was up for grabs.
In 1754, the competing claims of the French, British, and Iroquois crashed together in a major military conflict Americans have labeled the French and Indian War.
Not everyone uses this label; some call this conflict part of the Seven Years' War, a broader European power struggle involving Great Britain, France, Austria, and Prussia in fighting that spanned much of the globe. There are good reasons for doing this. The conflict in America was certainly influenced by events in Europe, and vice versa. But viewing the French and Indian War as merely one small part of Europe's larger Seven Years' War undervalues the significance of events as they unfolded on this continent—in particular, the critical role that Native Americans played in determining the course of the North American war.
Most contemporaries recognized the central importance of the Indians in the French and Indian War, and those that did not—like British general Edward Braddock, mortally wounded when Indians ambushed his army at the Battle of the Monongahela—paid a huge a price.
But if the war's participants had a clearer understanding than some historians of the significance of Indians in the conflict, they could have used the benefit of hindsight when it came to understanding the broader significance of the war itself to America's future. The war ended in 1763 with the total defeat of France, seemingly a profound triumph for the British and their Indian and American colonial allies. But the three groups of victors—British, Indian, American—emerged from the conflict with very different, and ultimately incompatible, understandings of what they had won. The British concluded the war with the belief that they had secured a glorious future; in vanquishing the French, they had conclusively established their claim to the North American continent, ensuring that their empire would unfold peacefully and profitably into the foreseeable future.
Britain's Indian allies, just as optimistically, believed that they had secured their political and territorial independence through their service in the war; by the war's end, they had won from the British recognition of their rights to control the interior of North America.
American colonists, meanwhile, concluded that by defeating the French and hostile French-aligned Indians, they had secured their western frontier; they had won .
These competing visions for the future of the continent laid the basis for future controversy; far from putting an end to conflict in North America, the triumphant conclusion of the French and Indian War produced, almost immediately, severe tensions in the Anglo-Indian-American alliance that led, eventually, to the American Revolution.
Perhaps the only participant in the French and Indian War that truly read the situation at war's end correctly was France. In their humiliating defeat, the French saw a crushing blow to their imperial ambitions and national pride. Over the next decade, they would look for an opportunity to exact their revenge. And when Americans declared independence in 1776, they saw their chance.
In other words, only the French really recognized that 1763 wasn't the end of the American story, but only the beginning.