Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: French and Indian War from Collins English Dictionary


1 the war (1755–60) between the French and British, each aided by different Indian tribes, that formed part of the North American Seven Years' War

Summary Article: French and Indian War
from Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607-1890, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Start Date: 1754

End Date: 1763

The last and largest North American conflict between Britain and France and their respective Native American allies. The French and Indian War (1754–1763) began on May 28, 1754. It involved battles on at least three distinct fronts and served as the catalyst for a wider conflict that came to be known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War that began there on August 28, 1756, and ended on February 15, 1763. The war saw fighting on land and sea in North America and Europe as well as in India, West Africa, and the Caribbean. The fighting in North America not only confirmed British hegemony on the eastern half of that continent but also affected the war in Europe and set forces in motion that would later influence the American drive for independence. Native Americans played an important role in the conflict.

During the long struggle alliances sometimes shifted, and Native Americans warred against each other as well as against their particular European adversary. The French often claimed the Delawares (Lenni Lenapes), Ottawas, Algonquins, Wyandots, Abenakis, Senecas, Mohawks, and Onondagas as allies. The British, at various points, claimed independent Iroquois bands as allies (although the Iroquois Confederacy declared neutrality) as well as select bands of the Mohawks and Cherokees. The alliance with the Cherokees, however, was short-lived. By 1759, the Cherokees were engaged in their own war with the British.

On August 28, 1753, Robert d'Arcy, Earl of Holdernesse, British secretary of state for the Southern Department (which included North America), sent a circular order to the British North American colonial governors. In it he authorized them to demand a French withdrawal from several disputed territories and, failing that, to force the French out using colonial militia.

Acting on this order, Virginia lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched Major George Washington, who was 21 years old, to Fort Le Boeuf, the nearest known French outpost, in what is now northwestern Pennsylvania. On December 16, 1753, Washington arrived with 11 men and was graciously received by Fort Le Boeuf's commandant, Jacques Legardeur de St. Pierre. St. Pierre patiently received Dinwiddie's demand to withdraw but went only so far as to forward the summons to his superiors in Quebec. This set in motion the second clause of Holdernesse's circular order.

On April 15, 1754, the French presence in western Pennsylvania turned from construction to conquest. A force of 500 men under French captain Claude Pierre Pécaudy, Seigneur de Contrecoeur, forced the surrender of 40 English workmen under Ensign Edward Ward and transformed their Ohio Company trading post into the nucleus of Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio River. Meanwhile, Washington returned to the frontier with 150 Virginia militiamen and some native allies. On May 28 a detachment of 47 men from this force surprised a party of 35 French and native allies from Fort Duquesne, firing the first shots of the war. Among the 10 French dead was their commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, who received a hatchet blow to the head delivered by Tanaghrisson, the leader of Washington's native allies.

While ministers in Britain and France sought to negotiate their differences in North America, the colonists further heightened tensions. Before the news of Fort Duquesne and Ensign Jumonville's death could reach Europe, French captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville's brother, led a force of 600 Canadians and 100 native allies against his brother's supposed murderer. Washington's 500-man militia fought from Fort Necessity, where they were compelled to surrender after a 10-hour fight.

For 1755 both governments planned a proxy war in North America, reinforcing colonial militia with regular European troops. The ministers in London planned one campaign for 1755, but colonial officials requested four smaller ones. The first, during June 2–16, witnessed Nova Scotia lieutenant governor Charles Lawrence and Colonel Robert Monckton leading 250 British regulars and 2,000 colonials to Fort Beauséjour and Fort Gaspéreau on the isthmus connecting Nova Scotia to the Canadian mainland. There the British force defeated 150 French regulars and a few hundred unsteady Acadians. On September 8, 1755, Major General William Johnson's operation against Crown Point achieved a defensive victory at Lake George, capturing the French commander, Marechal de Camp Jean Armand, Baron de Dieskau. Major General William Shirley's campaign to Niagara, however, ended at Oswego when supplies ran short and 2,000 colonial militia fell ill. Meanwhile, on July 9 British major general Edward Braddock's expedition to Fort Duquesne ended in the loss of more than 900 out of his 2,200 troops in the Battle of the Monongahela.

By year's end, ministers in London and Versailles planned new campaigns, expanding operations from North America into the Atlantic and from the Atlantic to the shores of Europe, where nothing short of a diplomatic revolution had occurred. Maria Theresa, the Habsburg empress of Austria, sought to recapture Silesia, which Prussia had invaded and taken in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), known as King George's War in America. She arranged an alliance with archenemy France, while Britain also switched sides, allying with Prussia. The basic rivalries of France versus Britain and Austria versus Prussia were maintained, however. Russia also agreed to enter the war against Prussia. King Frederick II of Prussia, aware of the forces massing against him, did not wait to be attacked. Frederick mobilized his own army and on August 28, 1756, began what would become known as the Seven Years’ War with an invasion of Saxony en route to the Austrian kingdom of Bohemia.

There was little in the way of large-scale campaigning in North America during 1756 and 1757. The British commander in chief in North America, John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun, reorganized British forces, which increased by the end of 1757 to 17 regular regiments and more than 10,000 colonial militiamen. Meanwhile, Maréchal de Camp Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Mont-calm, commanded some 7,200 French regulars and as many as 17,000 Canadian militiamen. Whereas Loudoun remained quiescent, aborting two projected British operations against Louis-bourg, Montcalm won several important victories and attracted large numbers of native allies to the French cause.

Accompanied by 250 native allies, 1,300 French regulars and 1,500 Canadian militiamen raided Oswego late in 1756, leaving the British without their trading and logistical base on Lake Ontario. Abandoned by their Oneida allies, the British garrison of 1,135 men was surprised in their poorly constructed works on the afternoon of August 11 and were compelled to conclude an ignominious surrender.

By 1757 the British attempted to gather their own intelligence and employed Captain Robert Rogers and his 100-man company of green-clad American troops, known as Rogers’ Rangers. Discovered and routed in their attempt to reconnoiter Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) in January 1757, the rangers left Fort William Henry as vulnerable to surprise as Oswego had been in 1756, and the prestige of French victories attracted increasing numbers of native allies. In mid-March a raid on Fort William Henry by Captain François Pierre Rigaud and 1,500 natives, French, and Canadians exposed British weaknesses and destroyed supplies, but Major William Eyre's capable defense saved the fort from immediate capture.

Fort William Henry was in no better shape on August 3 when Montcalm arrived there with some 6,000 French regulars and Canadian militia and 2,000 native allies. British lieutenant colonel George Monro had brought reinforcements to Fort William Henry in the spring and received additional reinforcements later, giving him a total garrison strength of 2,300 British regulars and American colonials. This force held out bravely for a week before surrendering.

On August 9, 1757, Monro negotiated a European-style surrender. Granted the full honors of war, the British garrison was assured safe conduct with all of its effects down the 14-mile road to Fort Edward. Unfortunately for the members of the British garrison, Montcalm had not consulted with his native allies. The natives, seeking plunder and scalps, engaged in what the British and colonial press called a massacre, inflaming public opinion throughout the Anglophone world. Moreover, by trying to restrain his native allies, Montcalm damaged French credibility and gave British Indian commissioner William Johnson an unprecedented opportunity to swing native opinion to Britain's side.

British ships and troops also conducted successful amphibious operations in North America and the Caribbean. The first, against Louisbourg, included Major General Jeffrey Amherst and Colonel (later Brigadier General) James Wolfe. Whereas Lord Loudoun had failed in 1756 and 1757, the expedition in 1758 succeeded brilliantly, taking the fort on July 26.

Wolfe continued with Vice Admiral Charles Saunders up the Saint Lawrence River in 1759. They then waged a lengthy amphibious campaign against the capital of New France, Quebec. In perhaps the most important land battle in the history of North America, the British were victorious in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec on September 13.

The British also enjoyed success in the North American interior. With the American Indian threat largely removed by the Treaty of Easton of August 5, 1757, British colonial forces, backed by regular troops, began a large and virtually continuous three-year offensive. Montcalm blunted the English advance at Ticonderoga on July 8, 1758, and French forces under Chevalier Gaston de Lévis almost retook Quebec following the Battle of Sainte Foy on April 28, 1760, but British operations continued to register slow, cautious progress.

British North American forces under the overall command of Major General James Abercromby in 1758, and Amherst from 1759, had great advantages in numbers and organization and in the quality and creativity of their officers. It was not only Wolfe and Amherst who stood out but also enterprising officers such as Brigadier General John Forbes, whose attack on Fort Duquesne on September 14, 1758, drove the French from western Pennsylvania; Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet, whose attack on Fort Frontenac during August 25–27, 1758, threatened the French Canadian war economy; and Indian commissioner Major General William Johnson, who convinced the Iroquois to join the struggle as a British ally in 1759 and whose siege of Niagara during July 6–26, 1759, cleared French influence from New York and the western Great Lakes region and secured British authority over the Ohio Country.

With the fall of Louisbourg and Frontenac and then of Niagara and Quebec, French trade with Canada collapsed. French maritime businesses fell on hard times. With the cancellation of payment on Canadian bills of exchange, merchants trading with Canada were compelled to declare bankruptcy. The Ministry of Marine declared bankruptcy as well in November 1759, and financial problems spread throughout the French government soon thereafter. As French territories in Canada and the Caribbean fell, French subsidies to European allies, notably Austria, dwindled, and French military efforts around the globe weakened substantially after 1760. Meanwhile, the British were able to make regular subsidy payments to Frederick and keep Prussia in the war, although just barely.

The British were successful at sea and in operations in the Caribbean and in India. The last French operation by sea was an assault on Newfoundland in 1762. Though successful, it involved only five ships and 800 men. British colonists in Massachusetts organized a relief expedition of more than 1,500 men under Colonel William Amherst and soon recovered the island. The French campaign in Newfoundland did not truly envision the conquest of that island as an end in its own right; rather, like the British invasion of Belle Isle with 8,000 men on June 7, 1761, it was an attempt to affect the two states’ respective bargaining positions at a future peace negotiation.

The first attempt to start peace talks was the Hague Declaration, presented by British and Prussian envoys in the Dutch Republic to their Austrian, French, and Russian counterparts in October 1759. These negotiations failed but led to efforts at a peace congress in Augsburg (Breda) in 1760 and 1761. Britain and France also attempted to negotiate a separate peace in 1761 with envoys Hans Stanley and Sieur de Bussy. Negotiations broke down, however, mostly under Austrian and Spanish pressure and because of concerns over fishing rights near Newfoundland and the return of conquests in Germany. Despite their failure, the talks were restarted through the Sardinian envoys Viry and Solar in 1762 and ended in success near the end of the year.

The negotiations in 1762 were more complex than those of 1761 for several reasons. Changes in the leadership in Spain, in Britain, and finally in Russia altered the international playing field. Spain had slowly edged toward the French camp after the accession of King Carlos III in 1759, and the two states concluded the Third Family Compact on August 15, 1761. With the accession of King George III on October 25, 1760, Britain moved quickly from the hawkish stance of William Pitt the Elder to the more dovish agenda of John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute, and John Russell, Fourth Duke of Bedford.

Finally, with Prussia on the verge of extinction in October 1761, there occurred the so-called Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. On January 5, 1762, Czarina Elizabeth of Russia died. Elizabeth, who hated Frederick and was determined to end his rule, was followed by Czar Peter III, an ardent admirer of the Prussian king. At the czar's command, the Russian Army switched sides and helped the Prussians to achieve victory over the Austrians in battle that July at Burkersdorf. Although Grand Duchess Catherine of Anhalt-Zerbst soon succeeded Peter in a palace coup to become Czarina Catherine II, the die had been cast: Russia declared neutrality, and Frederick and Prussia survived.

When Russia left the conflict, Sweden also declared neutrality, although Spain declared war against Britain on January 4, 1762. In effect Europe experienced a second diplomatic revolution, so that Prussia had an advantage over Austria, and France and Spain had what appeared, at first, to be an upper hand against Britain. Although exhausted financially and militarily, Prussia gained several victories in 1762 and forced Austria to accept the definitive loss of Silesia. British and allied forces meanwhile invaded Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines while repelling a Spanish invasion of Portugal.

Finally convinced of the futility of further conflict, France and Spain expanded on the Viry-Solar talks and found in George III and his envoy, Bedford, remarkable partners for peace. At the prodding of their respective allies, Austria and Prussia made peace at Hubertusburg on February 15, 1763, reaffirming the prewar status quo of 1756 and providing for the definitive secession of Silesia by Austria to Prussia.

Britain, France, and Spain meanwhile concluded the Treaty of Paris on February 10. This agreement formalized a substantial exchange of territories, greatly in Britain's favor. In North America the agreement involved the cession of all of New France to British control except for Louisiana and the small fishing islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, which France ceded to Spain. Britain also acquired Florida from Spain.

By taking large amounts of territory from France yet leaving important naval stations under French control, Britain left open the opportunity for ministers at Versailles to plot their revenge, which occurred during the American Revolutionary War (1775– 1783). Meanwhile, Britain had to contend with the difficulties and contradictions inherent in administering its new lands, including the toleration of Catholicism in New France, which was anathema to the Puritan colonists of New England.

Some prominent British officials sought tighter political control over the American colonies, provoking a series of increasingly hostile reactions among the colonists. By 1775, American discontent erupted into full-scale revolt against the mother country, presenting the French with the opportunity for revenge.

See also

Amherst, Jeffrey; Braddock's Campaign; Johnson, Sir William; Rogers, Robert; Tanaghrisson; Washington, George

  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of the Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. Vintage Books New York, 2001.
  • Fowler, William Jr. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763. Walker New York, 2004.
  • Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America. Norton New York, 1988.
    Copyright 2011 by Spencer C. Tucker

    Related Articles

    Full text Article FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR
    France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

    Begun as colonial muscling for control of the Ohio River valley, the French and Indian War (1754-1760) ignited the worldwide conflict between...

    Full text Article French and Indian War
    Chambers Dictionary of World History

    The last of the 18c wars between France and Britain for the control of North America. France accepted final defeat at the Treaty of Paris ...

    Full text Article French And Indian War
    Encyclopedia of African American Society

    Armed conflict from 1754 to 1763 in the Ohio Valley, west of the Allegheny Mountains, caused by tensions between the British and French over...

    See more from Credo