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The French and Indian War

In 1754, the governor of Virginia gave a 21-year-old surveyor named George Washington a mission to scout out French forces who were building forts on land near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border — land that Virginians (including Washington's family) liked to think they owned. Washington, with 150 Virginian volunteers, spied some Frenchmen resting in the woods and took a shot at them. The Frenchmen called for reinforcements and eventually surrounded Washington. They could have killed him; his men had killed their leader in the sneak attack. Instead, they let Washington and his men go — ironically enough, on July 4. That was the start of the French and Indian War, the largest international war the world had yet seen.

The Americans called the conflict the French and Indian War, but it was the Seven Years' War in the rest of the world. The war raged so hot and heavy in Europe that the French couldn't do much more in the New World than unleash their American Indian allies. The British, fearing a stab in the back from French people living under British rule in Canada, forced some 4,000 of them to move to New Orleans, where they became the Cajuns.

To unite the colonists and impress the (hopefully) loyal Iroquois, the British called the intercolonial Albany Congress (1754). The American Indians stayed mostly loyal, and Ben Franklin got to present his Albany Plan of Union, an early attempt to form a union of the colonies. It was a nonstarter, but everybody agreed that the idea was interesting.

The British lost repeatedly early in the French and Indian War. A major British attack against Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) was cut to ribbons by a much smaller force of French and American Indians who knew about hiding behind bushes and rocks. In that battle, Washington had two horses shot out from under him, and four bullets tore through his coat. Miraculously unwounded, he rallied his men for an orderly retreat. A later major British attack on outposts all over Canada also failed.

Finally, new Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder directed British forces to make a coordinated assault on the key French fortress at Quebec. In one of the most important battles in British and American history, the British-American force won. The French were thrown completely out of North America, and William Pitt got Pittsburgh named after him.

During this long war, some 20,000 local troops from all the colonies learned to work and fight together. They saw that the British could lose, and they experienced British arrogance firsthand. British General James Wolfe, for example, called members of the American militia "contemptible, cowardly dogs." And despite Washington's heroic war record, the British demoted him to captain — not a good way to make friends.

With the French and most of the hostile American Indians out of the way, the colonies didn't need much protection from mother Britain. When the Treaty of Paris (1763) ended the war, the colonies were psychologically on their way to 1776. With the French defeated, the English tried to make peace with the American Indians by prohibiting the colonists from settling west of the Alleghenies in the Proclamation of 1763.


Question: What was the Proclamation of 1763?

Answer: The Proclamation of 1763 was a British royal decree that forbade the American colonists from settling west of the Alleghenies. Its goal was to promote peace with the American Indians and a clear line of defense for the British.

The British halt Western expansion

The Treaty of Paris (see the preceding section) was a tough blow for the American Indians. The warriors who had sided with the French lost an ally, but even American Indians who had been neutral or pro-British had lost the French counterweight to colonial expansion.

In the same year that the French admitted defeat, the great Ottawa American Indian leader Pontiac launched a last-ditch attack against the British advance into the Ohio country . It almost worked. Pontiac's warriors overran all but three British outposts west of the Appalachians, killing 2,000 soldiers and settlers, and coming close to taking heavily fortified Detroit.

Almost as though they were going into extreme defensive mode right after a victory, the British issued the Proclamation of 1763, flatly forbidding any settlement west of the Appalachians. The British were trying to be fair to their American Indian allies and to prevent more bloody uprisings like the one Pontiac had led. For the land-hungry Americans, the law was a slap in the face of their long-fought-for dreams. They disobeyed the law and moved West by the thousands. The British were in no mood to put up with insolence. Neither were the Americans. A confrontation was building.

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