Day By Day

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This Day In History

Today is another of those days I can't make sense of. It is "Umbrella Day", not exactly appropriate here in the middle of the Great Gore Snowstorm [Mark II]. Yes there is plenty of precipitation, but no umbrella is going to be much use against it and the high winds. So let's just pretend that it is hot chocolate day or something equally appealing [although I really can't imagine anything as appealing as hot chocolate right about now.

On this day in 1763 Spain, France and Britain signed the Treaty of Paris bringing an end to the Seven Years War. One of my professors used to refer to it as the "Real First World War" because it involved every great power of the time and was fought on every continent except Antarctica as well as on all seven seas. The North American phase of the war is usually referred to as the "French and Indian War" [or more properly, "the war against the French and Indians"]. It was an enormously consequential conflict, one that decided for centuries to come the fate of the peoples of India and North America.

Few people are aware that this enormous conflict had its origins in Western Pennsylvania. The European phase of the war didn't start until 1756, but two years earlier fighting had already broken out in North America.

For nearly a century Britain and France were engaged in a global imperial rivalry that from time to time broke out into open warfare between the two powers. The most recent of these, "King George's War" [also known as the "War Of the Austrian Succession"] had ended in 1748, but it had been indecisive and both sides took advantage of the peace to get ready for the next round of hostilities. Part of this effort on the part of the French was a plan to establish a line of fortifications stretching south from Lake Erie that were intended to keep British settlers out of the Ohio country and to interdict the lucrative Iroquois fur trade in that area.

The first French expedition into western Pennsylvania took place in 1749 and did little more than to explore the region, make contact with local Indians, and to bury lead markers proclaiming French ownership of the land. A second, military expedition in 1752 was intended to cow the local Indians. It was only in 1753 that construction of the fortifications actually began. The first of these was at Presque Isle; the second was Fort LeBoeuf near Waterford. Virginia responded to these by sending a young militia officer, George Washington, west with a demand that the French abandon the region [which was claimed by both Virginia and Pennsylvania]. Not surprisingly, the French declined to obey Washington's demands.

Then began a race to secure and fortify the key point in the chain of fortifications -- the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at what is today Pittsburgh. Virginia got there first, early in 1753, but a much larger French force took over and forced them to withdraw. France then began construction on a major fortification which they called Fort Duquesne. Virginia then sent a large armed force under Washington to secure the site. In May, 1754 Washington's expedition encountered and attacked a French patrol commanded by Joseph de Jumonville. This is generally considered to be the first military engagement of the war. It did not go well. The French surrendered, but one of Washington's Indian allies assassinated de Jumonville. Washington then withdrew and constructed a fortification [Fort Necessity], but was forced to surrender and to sign a document admitting to murder. Not a very auspicious outcome for the future Father of the Country.

In the following year the British launched a major expedition against Fort Duquesne, led by General William Braddock. Washington was a participant in this effort too, and once more it was a disaster. Then in 1856 the war expanded to global proportions. At first things continued to go badly for the British, but by 1758 the tide began to turn [and in that year a third expedition, this one led by Gen. John Forbes finally drove the French out of Western Pennsylvania]. Other British victories followed and by 1763 the French and their allies had been thoroughly defeated in North America, in Europe and in Asia.

In the Treaty that ended the Seven Years War France had to yield all its North American possessions and was reduced to a marginal presence in India. The great war for empire had finally been decided in Britain's favor. But there were other important consequences. Britain's attempt to recoup the costs of the war and to administer her vast new territories led to policies that strained relations with her colonies and helped to bring on the American Revolution. French resentment at the outcome of the war was a major reason she later supported the American bid for independence. And, the financial costs of the conflict contributed to internal tensions that later contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. The consequences for the Indians [both North American and in India] were even more significant Prior to this war they had been able to play off the European Great Powers against each other and so to maintain a degree of independence. Now that was no longer possible and their attempts to maintain a degree of self-determination were doomed.