The Great Wars for Empire

France and Great Britain went to war beginning in 1754. They had, of course, fought on a number of earlier occasions, and at the outset nobody knew that this conflict, known ultimately as the Seven Years’ War, the French and Indian War, or the “Great War for Empire,” would produce such decisive change in the imperial geography of North America. The earlier conflicts had produced stalemate and an uneasy borderland between France and Great Britain controlled by a large number of autonomous native peoples. But unlike previous conflicts, where the fighting in America served as a sideshow to the much larger conflict in Europe, this time France and England fought in America for control of the continent. Native peoples, who had maneuvered carefully in the presence of the French and the English for decades, found it impossible to avoid the massive conflict, one that set the stage for the American Revolution, but also fueled intense hatreds between white settlers and native peoples.That hatred would lie at the black heart of a new American empire.

The war began in the Ohio Valley. Determined to halt the expansion of rapidly growing English settlements, French forces in 1753 fortified the forks of the Ohio River, erecting Fort Duquesne on the site of present-day Pittsburgh. Both Britain and France claimed these lands. Wealthy English colonists in Virginia, who hoped to reap huge profits from the sale of western lands, decided to drive out the French. In 1754 George Washington, then a young colonel in the Virginia militia and a shareholder in these speculative ventures, failed to dislodge the French and surrendered at his hastily constructed Fort Necessity. A larger force consisting of British regulars under the command of Major-General Edward Braddock met defeat at the hands of a small number of French soldiers and a large number of allied Indians in western Pennsylvania one year later. Without the Potawatomis, Odawas, Ojibways and many others, the defeat of Braddock’s slow-moving army would not have been possible.

The large numbers of Indians from the Ohio Valley and western Great Lakes who assisted the French in the defeats of Washington and Braddock, as well as the complaints made by Six Nations spokesmen at Albany in 1754 that the Covenant Chain had grown brittle, provided alarming evidence that the British empire’s relations with its native allies stood at the edge of a dangerous precipice.

Sir William Johnson

British efforts to bring order to the American frontier were too little, too late. Before his death, Braddock delivered to William Johnson a commission to serve as the crown’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Department. Johnson’s close ties to the Mohawks, established through trade, gift-giving, and his marriage to the Mohawk Molly Brant, made him an ideal choice for the job. In the south, Edmond Atkin received a commission to superintend the Southern Department. The superintendents quickly realized that they lacked the power to override the authority of colonial governors and British military officers, and as a result no single authority clearly exercised control over Indian affairs.

By the middle of the 1750s, any possibility of establishing order along the Anglo-American frontier had disappeared. Large numbers of native peoples allied with the French began raiding colonial settlements. They attacked English settlements in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, and according to French accounts, killed or captured more than 120 colonists by the end of October 1755. In the fall of that year, Shawnees, accompanied by Delawares and Mingos, began to raid isolated settlements in Pennsylvania and Maryland, taking captives, burning farms, and leaving behind bloody scenes that terrified the colonists and intensified the settlers’ hatred for native peoples. The Senecas from Chenussio joined in campaigns against English settlements to their south. Wherever the French distributed weapons and ammunition, native peoples from a variety of nations came together and recognized that they shared similar problems and a common enemy. By March of 1756, over seven hundred colonists had been killed or captured by warriors from dozens of native communities.

It was, for native peoples, a massive war. But by 1758 the tide of the war began to turn in the favor of the British. The war went badly for the French in Europe, and with a high percentage of its meager population in the field, the French colonists struggled to produce the food that they needed. With a British blockade effectively sealing off North America from Europe, New France could not supply its native allies. The British took the offensive. The French destroyed Fort Duquesne rather than allow it to fall into British hands; the British built Fort Pitt on the site. Quebec fell to British forces in 1759 and Montreal one year later. With the defeat of the French, native peoples now no longer could play one European power off against another. Those like the Senecas, who had adopted something of a wait-and-see attitude during the war, would now have to confront the British. What would happen now? In the absence of the French, what force would restrain the aggressiveness of Anglo-American settlers? To what extent would the English punish the Indian allies of its Catholic enemy? What place would Indians occupy in an Anglo-American empire that now reigned triumphant in North America? The initial signs provided little cause for optimism.

As early as 1761 Seneca warriors along the Genesee sent war belts to the Delawares and Shawnees. These wampum belts, sometimes painted red, carried a message calling native peoples to arms, and the Senecas invited their neighbors to join in a campaign against the English. They also sent messengers to the Potawatomis, Hurons, Ottawas and the Ojibwes. Warriors, who now saw themselves as “the People of consequence for managing affairs,” ignored Seneca leaders who chose still to try to work with the English. Though the Potawatomis did not join the Senecas and revealed what they knew to the British at Detroit, where they hoped to establish a trading relationship in the absence of the French, there can be no doubt that discontent in the region was widespread. With poor harvests, famine, and continued outbreaks of disease, more and more Indians in the Great Lakes region began to meet together to discuss a united opposition to the English. Many wanted to restore the French to their position as a trading partner, and to give strength to a mass movement against the British with French assistance.

This was a significant threat for the British. The voluminous correspondence of William Johnson makes clear that the “Chenussio” Senecas were the landlords of the Niagara frontier, the British hold on the region untenable without their support and approval. What to do with this Seneca discontent?

Native peoples plotted military action, but they also turned to the prophets, religious leaders who awakened their communities to a sense of their own faults and the problems that had befallen them since the newcomers arrived. The most important of these was the Delaware named Neolin, but he was not alone. The prophets preached a message of redemption. Bad things, native peoples believed, happened for a reason, and drought, famine, disease and disaster in war occurred, Neolin said, because the Master of Life was angry. Native peoples had neglected their rituals, or had performed them improperly, and now they suffered. The prophets called for a return to ritual. They were not conservatives; they willingly embraced new practices, beliefs and traditions. One prophet, the Munsee Delaware named Papoonan, had in the 1750s combined the pacifism of Quaker religion with a call to return to ancient traditions.

Neolin was no pacifist. He placed the blame for native suffering upon native peoples. Using a diagram that depicted heaven, the earth, and all that stood between, Neolin showed his followers that the English blocked the path which they hoped to follow to heaven. Along this road, Neolin depicted the vices that the white people brought. Acceptance of these vices meant a hell on earth and in the afterlife. Indeed, Neolin argued that the disappearance of the deer resulted from the Master of Life’s dissatisfaction with the Indians for so thoroughly assimilating into their ways of living many Anglo-American vices. The expansion of English settlements onto Indian lands, the English refusal to enter into reciprocal trading relationships, and the Indians’ dependence on European trade, Neolin said, all angered the Master of Life.

The Master of Life visited Neolin and taught him what his people must do to avoid suffering. Because their misfortunes resulted from their own actions, they could save themselves. The words of the prophets empowered their followers. The people must return to ritual. They must cease drinking rum. Neolin called upon his followers to heed the message of the Master of Life and to “put off entirely from yourselves the customs which you have adopted since the white people came among us; you are to return to that former happy state, in which we lived in peace and plenty, before these strangers came to disturb us, and above all, you must abstain from drinking their deadly poison, which they have forced upon us, for the sake of increasing their gains and diminishing our numbers.” Neolin’s was, without question, a militant message that called for armed conflict with the newcomers. If native peoples heeded the Master of Life, returned to their rituals, and ignored the vices of “civilized” life, they would triumph over the English, drive them out of their country, and build the world anew.

Neolin’s message spread rapidly, and those who heard it understood it in terms that made sense to them. French observers recognized, correctly, that Neolin’s message had been both shaped and tempered in its transmission by a century’s worth of preaching by Catholic missionaries.What all his adherents shared, whether Ottawas like the great military leader Pontiac, or Potawatomis, Shawnees, Delawares, Senecas, Mingos or many more, was a recognition that their people shared a common enemy and a common set of problems, and that their people suffered because of the nature of their relationships with white people. Historians have called this movement Pontiac’s Rebellion but it never had one leader. Resistance against British rule was widespread, and it had at least four centers. Near Detroit, the Potawatomis, Ottawas, Hurons and Ojibwe gathered.At Chenussio, along the Genesee River in western New York, Seneca militants planned actions against the British at Fort Niagara. Shawnees and Delawares centered their resistance along the upper reaches of the Ohio, while the various tribes of the Illinois Confederacy gathered to their south and west at the far end of the river’s valley. They never came together in a single movement.

Nonetheless warriors from these four centers of resistance attacked British posts beginning in the spring of 1763. Pontiac initially had planned to take Fort Detroit by subterfuge, bringing a diplomatic party armed with hidden weapons into the post to seize control.An informant foiled the plot but Pontiac began a siege of Detroit that he planned to maintain until French forces, he hoped, returned to assist him.The rumor of the return of the French played a large role in the thinking of native militants.

Forts Detroit, Pitt, and Niagara, the three largest British posts, held out. Built to withstand European siege warfare, the warriors simply lacked the strength to take these posts.Within weeks, however, smaller British posts came under assault, and native peoples throughout the region acted energetically to create a world without Anglo-Americans. The western Potawatomis took Fort St. Joseph through the use of stratagem. A party coming to visit the post and pay its respects to the garrison’s commander, Francis Schlosser, surprised the soldiers and made off with the fort’s supply of guns and ammunition. A group of Ojibwe gained access to the British post at Michilimackinac by tossing a lacrosse ball over the palisades.They entered the fort to retrieve their ball, killed sixteen soldiers, and seized the fort. Farther east, Shawnees and Delawares hit settlements on the Pennsylvania frontier with enormous fury.Many of the English settlers foolhardy enough not to flee to safer quarters in the east were found “most cruelly butchered,” with one woman found “roasted,” and her male neighbors left with “awls thrust in their eyes, and spears, arrows, pitchforks, etc., sticking in their bodies.”In September, Seneca warriors led by Farmer’s Brother attacked a British supply convoy, and then ambushed the British troops who came to relieve them, along the portage around Niagara Falls, a battle known now as the Devil’s Hole Massacre. They demonstrated forcefully the dominance of the Chenussio Senecas along the Niagara frontier. Nearly one hundred English soldiers were killed on the path or pushed from the high cliffs above the river into the whirlpool below.

By fall, the warriors besieging the remaining three British posts began to move away. British forces had resupplied Fort Pitt, and native leaders learned of the Peace of Paris, the accord that officially ended the Great War for Empire and eliminated any reason to believe that the French would come to the Indians’ relief.Economic concerns played a role as well. Warriors were also hunters, and they needed to prepare for the winter, something they could not do while encircling a British fort. And smallpox broke out among the Shawnees and Delawares besieging Fort Pitt. The epidemic may or may not have been spread to the Indians deliberately by the English through infected blankets, but the evidence is clear that the British tried to do this and found nothing immoral about the use of smallpox as a weapon.Henry Bouquet, the post commander, informed Amherst that he would “try to inoculate the Indians by means of Blankets that may fall in their hands.” Amherst agreed entirely with the value of this plan.“You will do well,” he replied to Bouquet, “to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”The warriors drifted away, and some carried home with them the dread disease.

War left considerable damage in its wake. Huge expanses of the Anglo-American backcountry had been depopulated. Hundreds of farms and settlements had been destroyed. Thousands of settlers fled for safer quarters in the east.Many, many native peoples died. But the war did more than leave behind sheer physical destruction. Wars always do. Pontiac’s Rebellion became a race war.Neolin’s message—that native peoples must return to their rituals and a proper way of life to purge their world of the corrupting and evil influence of Anglo-Americans—was both exclusive and violent. Had he had his way, nativist warriors would have eradicated Anglo-American settlers. British settlers, for their part, envisioned a world without Indians, a world they could create only with racism and violence.

Further Reading:

Calloway, Colin G. The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

________. The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Campbell, William J. Speculators in Empire: Iroquoia and the 1768 treaty of Fort Stanwix, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

________. “Converging Interests: Johnson, Croghan, the Six Nations, and the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix,” New York History, 89 (Spring 2008), 127-141.

Crouch, Christian Ayne. Nobility Lost: French and Canadian Martial Cultures, Indians, and the End of New France, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Dowd, Gregory Evans. “The French King Wakes Up In Detroit: ‘Pontiac’s War’ in Rumor and History,” Ethohistory, 37 (Summer 1990), 254-278.

Edelson, S. Max. The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America Before Independence, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Hinderaker, Eric. The Two Hendricks: Unraveling a Mohawk Mystery, (Cambridge:Harvard, 2010)

Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America, (New York: Norton, 1988).

Jones, Dorothy V. License for Empire: Colonialism by Treaty in Early America, (Chicago, 1982).

Merrell, James H. Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier, (New York: Norton, 1999).

Nammack, Georgiana C. Fraud, Politics and the Dispossession of the Indians: The Iroquois Land Frontier In the Colonial Period, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).

Parmenter, Jon. “’Onenwahatirigsi Sa Gentho Skaghnughtudigh’: Reassessing Iroquois Relations with the Albany Commissioners of Indian Affairs, 1723-1755,” in Nancy Rhoden, ed., English Atlantics Revisited: Essays Honouring Professor Ian K. Steele, (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007), 235-83.

________. “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois As Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns, 1676-1760,” William and Mary Quarterly, 64 (January 2007), 39-76.

________. “Pontiac’s War: Forging New Links in the Anglo-Iroquois Covenant Chain, 1758- 1766,” Ethnohistory, 44 (Autumn 1997), 617-654.

Preston, David L. Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Richter, Daniel K. and James H. Merrell, eds. Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987)

Shannon, Timothy J. Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier, (New York, 2008)

________. Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).