The French and Indian War (1754-63) was part of the larger Seven Years’ War between France and England that some consider a proto-World War. The Seven Years’ War included warfare in Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and North America and featured complex alliances. France and England, two European powers and colonial rivals in North America, came to blows as the English colonies expanded westward into French territory. What began as a small skirmish in the Ohio Territory soon escalated into a full-scale war between the two powers. The continent-spanning nature of the Seven Years’ War made it a preview of the future World Wars, and the North American fighting and its resulting taxes led directly to the American Revolution.
Before the French and Indian War: Colonialism in North America
Beginning in the early 1500s, three European powers began exploring North America. Spain set foot in what is now the continental United States in 1513 when Ponce de Leon landed in Florida to search for the “fountain of youth.” Twenty-one years later, Frenchman Jacques Cartier claimed northern North America for France. In 1585, Britain attempted its first settlement at Roanoke, Virginia. A fourth European power, the Netherlands, explored the northeastern US coast during the early 1600s.
The four European powers had different styles and strategies regarding colonization, though all valued the power and prestige wrought by land and resources in North America. In the South and Southwest of what is now the United States, the Spanish viewed Native Americans as subjects who would labor for them in exchange for being Christianized. However, the Spanish did not heavily settle continental North America and tended to remain in the Caribbean and Mexico, where the climate was better suited for cash crops like sugarcane. The Southwest was hot and arid, making it unappealing for Spanish settlers.
By the 1700s, the colonial powers had met through increased exploration and settlement. This created conflict between France and England, as they both desired territory around the Great Lakes. Tensions were furthered because France and England were perpetual rivals in Europe, especially as Spain declined as a world power during the 1600s. The waning of Spain, which had taken over the Netherlands and Portugal, left France and England as the two dominant powers in the Atlantic.
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Before the War: France and England Both Want the Ohio River Valley
French and British desires for premium territory came to a head in the Ohio River Valley, south of the Great Lakes and west of the Appalachian Mountains. Despite having a much lower colonist population than the British, whose thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast were more formally settled, France began building forts in the area in the early 1700s. To bolster their power in the area, both European nations tried to recruit Native American allies. By the 1750s, the British colonies declared the French forts to be a threat and struck the first blow. Lt. Col. George Washington led a Virginia militia to attack the forts but was repulsed.
The French and Indian War Begins
George Washington’s assault, dubbed the Battle of Fort Necessity, sparked the French and Indian War. His exploits, made at the young age of 22, earned him fame both in the colonies and in Europe. During 1754 and 1755, the French and British skirmished in the region along with their respective Native American allies. In 1756, however, Britain declared war on France, beginning the Seven Years’ War that encompassed the French and Indian War. During these first three years of fighting in North America, France was victorious due to its localized strength and its greater number of Native American allies.
The Seven Years’ War
Formal war between Britain and France turned a localized North American colonial dispute into a globe-spanning conflict. In 1757, British prime minister William Pitt decided to double down on the French and Indian War in the belief that North America’s resources were invaluable to Britain. He increased Britain’s efforts in North America and urged the thirteen colonies to vigorously fight the French, which turned the tide of war in Britain’s favor.
In Europe, both Britain and France banded together with allies. Britain allied with Portugal and Prussia (part of modern-day Germany), while France allied with Spain, Russia, Sweden, and the Holy Roman Empire (the rest of modern-day Germany). Thanks to two centuries of exploration and colonialism, France and England had numerous targets of each other’s territories to attack, including in India. The two powers also fought each other in the German states, resulting in Austria and Prussia fighting each other.
Britain Emerging Victorious
By 1759, Britain had the advantage in the war. In the French and Indian War, Britain scored a major victory in September 1759 in the Battle of Quebec, giving them control of a major fort and blocking the French from easily reinforcing their positions throughout Canada. This decisive battle sealed France’s eventual defeat in North America, and the death of the young British commander in the battle, Major-General James Wolfe, further invigorated public sentiment in Britain against France.
As France began losing the war, it enticed Spain to enter the fray as an ally in 1762, offering the Louisiana Territory as a gift. Although Spain did not want the vast territory, it did invade Portugal, a traditional British ally that remained neutral thus far, to aid the French. Any defeat of the French in North America would pit a comparatively weaker Spain against the stronger British. Hoping to maintain a French “buffer zone” in North America, Spain embarked on the Anglo-Spanish War (1762-63).
New France No More: Treaty of Paris (1763)
Unfortunately for France, the entry of Spain into the war did nothing to stop Britain’s momentum. The British swiftly captured Spanish territories in the Caribbean, including the city of Havana, Cuba. Just after Britain concluded its capture of Canada in September 1762, France ceded its Louisiana Territory to Spain in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau in November. This concession was essentially an apology for Spain’s misfortune in the war as a French ally.
The Seven Years’ War, and thus the French and Indian War, ended with the Treaty of Paris (1763). France lost its entire North American colony of New France, much of which it had already secretly given to Spain. Britain’s colonies now enjoyed a tremendous westward expansion of territory. Militarily, Britain had emerged as the dominant global power.
Effects of the French and Indian War
The French and Indian War, and the resulting Seven Years’ War, had been a great military victory for Britain and its thirteen colonies. However, the victory soon soured due to economic and financial pressures. The globe-spanning war had been tremendously expensive for all nations involved and resulted in Britain stationing thousands of troops in North America. Britain’s Parliament, which did not allow representation from its colonies, decided to pass the Sugar Act of 1764 and Stamp Act of 1765 to raise tax revenue from the thirteen colonies.
Colonists reacted angrily to these tax acts, which were seen as exploitative. They insisted that tax increases could not be fairly levied on those who had no representation in Parliament, resulting in the refrain “no taxation without representation!” There was also anger about the Proclamation Line of 1763, declared by the British, which prevented colonists from settling in the newly-won territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. People began to protest against the oppressive British rule of the colonies.
Militarily, the French and Indian War created a large number of experienced war veterans in the thirteen colonies. Most prominently, Lt. Col. George Washington had learned much about military tactics while fighting against the French. The efforts made by the colonists for their own defense and support of British interests during the war made them angry at being treated poorly by Parliament in the years afterward. Thus, when Britain began increasing its demands on the colonies in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, many colonists pushed back in protest.
The period of pushback between Parliament and the colonists lasted for about a decade before sparking the American Revolutionary War. Having been defeated by Britain in the French and Indian War, France and Spain seized the opportunity to hand Britain a defeat in the American Revolutionary War by allying with the newly-declared United States of America. With French and Spanish help, the United States won its independence from Britain with the Treaty of Paris (1783). As a result of this military aid, France and Spain would remain diplomatically and militarily linked to the US throughout the next century.