Study Guide

The French & Indian War

The French & Indian War Introduction

By the mid-1700s, France and Britain were both playing chicken over who was going to control the major trade routes and Native American alliances that were possible in central North America. 

France was all like, "I've got the Mississippi River Valley and the Great Lakes." Great Britain, never one to stand down from a fight, puffed out its chest and said, "Oh yeah? Well, I've got the Eastern Seaboard and the most direct route to the ocean. So there."

While they duked it out over who was the most powerful, several Native American tribes tried to get in on the fight. As was typical for the Native Americans around this time, though, they were mostly ignored—until Britain or France needed their help, of course. 

At this point, the Native Americans knew that they couldn't make a military stand on their own against either European power, so their best shot was to ally with the side they thought would secure a better future for them.

So, three great empires—France, Great Britain, and the Iroquois League—clashed in the backcountry of Pennsylvania in a war fought between 1755 and 1760 that largely determined the future of the North American continent.

Enter: The French and Indian War. Who will win control of the eastern U.S.?

What is The French & Indian War About and Why Should I Care?

The United States wasn't predestined to become the nation that it did—a diverse and dynamic, English-speaking, continent-spanning power on the world stage. 

Claims of Manifest Destiny notwithstanding, things could've easily turned out quite differently. America became the nation that it is only because its history unfolded in a particular way—because certain crucial events, large and small, occurred at specific times and places. The French and Indian War, though nearly forgotten today, was one of those large events. The war, fought when America was still little more than a rustic outpost on the far periphery of the British Empire, made everything that happened after possible. 

If the French and Indian War had unfolded along a slightly different path—and there were many times when it easily could have—the United States as we know it probably wouldn't exist.

If the war had unfolded differently, you may have ended up reading this in French, not English...or maybe you'd be reading it in Mohawk. You might now need a passport to cross from Pennsylvania into Ohio. You might now celebrate Tanaghrisson's or Pontiac's birthday, rather than George Washington's, as a national holiday. Everything would be different.

On a fateful spring day in 1754, a young military officer named George Washington led his regiment of Virginia provincials into battle against French troops near the Forks of the Ohio River, in the wilds of western Pennsylvania. They didn't know it, but the destiny of America hung in the balance.

The French & Indian War Resources

Books

Fred Anderson, The Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in North America (1999)
This award-winning volume offers a more comprehensive analysis of the Seven Years' War than Anderson's abridged version below. It's massive (more than 800 pages) but very readable—and for the reader interested in learning more about the European context of what Americans called the French and Indian War, this book provides encyclopedic coverage.

Fred Anderson, The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (2005)
This is a great little book. It pays only passing attention to the European war, focusing instead almost exclusively on the contest in North America between the French, British, and Native Americans. But for the reader interested more in the French and Indian War than the Seven Years' War, this is first book to read.

Colin G. Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (2006)
Calloway explores the range of ways in which 1763 represented a watershed in American history, and is a great account of the war's impact on Native Americans and their ongoing struggle for autonomy. Plus, this argument is given a real human quality through the inclusion of countless mini-biographies.

Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (1992)
Only the first 70 pages of this book deal with the French and Indian War, but Schama's account of James Wolfe, the Battle of Quebec, and Benjamin West's artistic treatment of these subjects is fascinating. Schama's work also explores the role of art in history, and implicitly, the practice of historical writing as art.

Music

Brian Keane, The War That Made America: The Story of the French and Indian War, Soundtrack (2006)
Grammy-winning producer Brian Keane employs 18th-century instruments and period compositions to deliver an exciting soundtrack to a documentary about one of the most pivotal wars in American history.

Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, The Last of the Mohicans: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2001)
Composers Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones offer a spectacular soundtrack for this action-packed blockbuster about one man's impossible struggle to choose between love and loyalty.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
A fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

Barry Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down (1992)
Barry Phillips' collection of popular music from the mid-18th century includes quaint folk songs, lively dance tunes, and other elegant compositions played in homes, taverns, and dancehalls throughout the colonies.

Images

Young Colonel Washington
George Washington as a colonel in the Virginia Regiment, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.

Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm
The commander of French forces, after 1756, in the French and Indian War.

The Death of General Wolfe
Benjamin West's portrait of the hero of Quebec. Painted in 1770, this work broke with the conventions of historical painting in its use of a contemporary subject and contemporary costume.

Early West
Benjamin West's, Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus at Brundisium, painted in 1768, reflects the more conventional approach to historical painting in its use of classical, rather than contemporary subject matter.

West Paints Another Dead Hero
The Death of Lord Nelson, by Benjamin West, 1806.

Benjamin West
West painted this self portrait in 1770.

British PR
The Charity of General Amherst romantically depicts the British general feeding the frightened French Canadians of Montreal. This is the same general who authorized the distribution of smallpox-contaminated blankets to rebelling North American Indians in 1763. By Francis Hayman, 1761.

Movies & TV

The War That Made America (2006)
This four-part, four-hour PBS series traces the war from George Washington's mission to the Ohio Valley in 1753 to American resentment of postwar British policies. Narrator Graham Greene, an Oneida Indian whose ancestors fought in this imperial conflict, leads viewers through the tumultuous years leading up to the war and into the fierce military struggle between the English and the French. A companion site which includes biographies of key figures and an interactive time line is available online.

"500 Nations: Cauldron of War" (1995)
This episode of a six-part series on the deep and complex history of Native Americans explores the relationship between French traders and the Algonquins. Host Kevin Costner helps illustrate how commercial trade helped determine the military dynamics of the French and Indian War.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye, a colonial orphan adopted by the few remaining members of the Mohican Indian tribe. A young man during the French and Indian War, Hawkeye must choose between love and loyalty. Loosely based on an early-19th-century novel by James Fenimore Cooper (and historical accuracy not being its strong suit), this blockbuster mirrors, in many ways, the 1936 film adaptation.

Northwest Passage (1958)
Keith Larsen and Hunk Marriner star in this 1950s television series about the real-life search for the Northwest Passage, an inland waterway that some thought would enable boats to cross the American continent. Each episode tracks the adventures of the Rogers' Rangers, a team of explorers and military men who found not the mythical route but new land in the Northeast.

Evangeline (1929)
This tender love story follows the lives of Evangeline and Gabriel, torn apart by the Great Expulsion in Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War. On the eve of her wedding, Evangeline must watch as the British imprison her sweetheart, along with hundreds of other Acadian men, and send them into exile in the American colonies.

Websites

The War in Pennsylvania
This website on Pennsylvania history has a section devoted to the French and Indian War in Pennsylvania. It includes useful summaries of events, period maps, a detailed timeline, and primary sources.

Period Maps
Maps relevant to the French and Indian War, including maps of the Forks of the Ohio River and the Battle of Quebec are posted on this site.

More Maps
More period maps of the French and Indian War are made available by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Seven Years' War for Reenactors
This website is aimed at reenactors, collectors, and military enthusiasts. It provides video and period music clips, and a series of articles written by amateur historians. Among the more useful articles are short biographies of critical figures and a few battle accounts.

Biographies and Timeline
A companion site to the PBS documentary, The War that Made America, provides biographies of critical figures and an interactive timeline.

Historical Documents

A Soldier's Journal
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania provides electronic access to the 1763 journal of William Trent, a merchant and militia captain stationed at Fort Pitt during Pontiac's Rebellion.

Washington's Papers
The George Washington Papers held by the Library of Congress are available online. These include correspondence, journals, and military papers related to the French and Indian War.

Wartime Documents and Correspondence
A very useful collection of documents is available at this website on Pennsylvania's history. These include George Washington's account of the death of General Braddock, and British General Jeffery Amherst's letter discussing the potential for using smallpox as a weapon against the Native Americans during Pontiac's Rebellion.