In 1753, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched 21-year-old George Washington to southwestern Pennsylvania with a written order to French forces to vacate the contested territory of the Ohio Valley. When the French refused, Lieutenant Colonel Washington returned the following year with a force of hundreds and ambushed a small scouting party before dawn on May 28, 1754. The first military action of Washington’s life resulted in the deaths of 13 enemy soldiers and launched the French and Indian War. Washington was forced to surrender his makeshift garrison, Fort Necessity, on July 4, 1754, and the following year he was part of British General Edward Braddock’s disastrous expedition to southwestern Pennsylvania. Two decades after fighting to extend the dominion of King George III over the North American frontier, Washington would lead the armed rebellion to expel the king’s forces.
It was part of the first global war.
“The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire,” declared English author Horace Walpole, and indeed the 1754 battle started by Washington sparked the Seven Years’ War, a global conflagration in which hundreds of thousands died. Called “the first world war” by Winston Churchill, the Seven Years’ War included fighting in Europe, the Caribbean, the Philippines, India and Africa. It was the North American portion of the conflict that became known as the French and Indian War. While Britain kept up the fight in North America against France, it relied on its ally Prussia, led by Frederick the Great, to sustain the fight in Europe against France, Austria, Russia and Sweden.
The Seven Years’ War actually lasted nine years.
Although hostilities began in 1754, Britain did not formally declare war on France until May 18, 1756. France reciprocated three weeks later. Nine years of armed conflict between the two countries on the North American continent ended with the ratification of the Treaty of Paris by the British Parliament on February 10, 1763.
In spite of the war’s moniker, not all Native Americans sided with the French.
While the majority of Native American tribes backed the French, numerous tribes remained neutral, fought alongside the British or shifted allegiances with the winds of war. Native American tribes, which laid claim to the same territories that the British and French were fighting over, were hardly monolithic, and their fault lines were reflected in the sides they backed. The Iroquois Confederacy, initially neutral, eventually allied with the British in 1758, while the Algonquins, their traditional rivals, backed the French.
The war led Benjamin Franklin to draw a famed political cartoon.
Weeks after the war began, delegates from 7 of the 13 British colonies met in Albany, New York, to discuss the growing crisis and their collective defense. At the Albany Congress, Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin presented a plan for a unified colonial government that included a legislature of delegates chosen by colonial assemblies and an executive branch headed by a president-general appointed by the British crown. To support his plan, Franklin penned a political cartoon for his Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper that depicted a rattlesnake chopped into pieces with the caption: “Join, or Die.” The colonies, however, did not want to cede any power, and they overwhelmingly rejected Franklin’s Albany Plan.
The war gave rise to the Cajuns.
Although the Catholic residents of French-speaking Acadia—composed of portions of the present-day Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island—pledged neutrality, the British feared they would be subversive. Beginning in 1755, the British expelled thousands of Acadians. Refugees fled to the American colonies and to France, but beginning in the 1760s, hundreds started to settle in French-controlled Louisiana. There, the name “Acadian” morphed into “Cajun,” and present-day Cajuns are descendants of these French and Indian War refugees.
The war inspired “Yankee Doodle.”
Although more associated with the American Revolution, the lyrics for the patriotic tune were thought to have been composed by the British during the French and Indian War to mock the ragtag colonists fighting alongside the finely drilled and nattily attired redcoats. Intended as a derisive taunt, the patriots proudly adopted the tune during the American Revolution.
It launched an 18th-century special operations force—Rogers’ Rangers.
One of the war’s most famous fighting men was Major Robert Rogers, a New Hampshire frontiersman who led a band of daring scouts and raiders who devised guerilla tactics to fight in the thick wilderness, conducted reconnaissance missions deep into enemy territory and launched bold hit-and-run raids against French forts and Native American villages. Rogers’ Rangers served as a Loyalist force during the American Revolution, although many of its French and Indian War veterans joined the patriot cause instead.
The British gained Florida as a result.
With a stroke of the pen, the 1763 Treaty of Paris stripped France of its North American empire. Spain, which allied with France in 1762, was also forced to cede Florida to the British, although it did gain possession of Louisiana, which had been secretly granted to it by the French in the Treaty of Fontainebleau the year before.
The French and Indian War set the stage for the American Revolution.
After paying Prussia to fight in Europe and reimbursing the American colonies for military expenses, Britain found itself in deep debt at war’s end. As a result, it enacted the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767 and other unpopular measures aimed at raising funds from its 13 American colonies, which gave birth to protests against “taxation without representation.” The issuance of the Proclamation of 1763, which banned colonial settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, in the war’s immediate aftermath also contributed to colonial discontent that broke out into armed rebellion in 1775.