The French and Indian War in North America (1754-60) was
begun as a consequence of a blunder by a young British
officer who led his men to defeat a French colonial force in
western Pennsylvania. The young British major had a year
before been sent to spy on the the French forts in that region,
including Fort Le Boeuf (“Beef”) near now what is Erie,
Pennsylvania, where he dined with French commander and
relayed a message from the British colonial commander
asking the French to withdraw from Pennsylvania. The
French leader refused, and the next year, the major was
sent back to western Pennsylvania to join the mission to
expel the French.
In a forest near Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh), the British
unit, led by the now 22 year-old major, came on a French unit
that was on a diplomatic mission, and mistakenly perceived
them as a hostile force. The short battle that followed
was brutal, and the French commander was savagely killed.
The consequences of this event was to begin the so-called
French and Indian War that spread quickly from Pennsylvania
to the northeast where the British faced French forces
established in Canada. Eventually, triumphing over the French
in North America, the British became the largest colonial
empire in the world. The North American conflict by 1756
spread to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, and is
usually called the Seven Years War, arguably the first true
And who was the inexperienced British major from Virginia
who, following that disappointing dinner in the French fort in
Erie, Pennsylvania (which led to his military encounter a year
later several miles south in a forest near Pittsburgh), set into
motion a cataclysmic world war?
It was none other than George Washington, an ambitious and
naive young colonial aristocrat from Mount Vernon, Virginia,
whose early military career was a series of disasters.
Washington, in spite of his ineptness, was both very brave and
very lucky, and before the French and Indian War was over, he
retired to Mount Vernon to become a farmer, politician and
Although the war pitted the two most avaricious colonial powers
in the world at that time, and one of them finally emerged
dominant, the outcome of the war was determined by a third
party, the native American tribes who had originally populated
this region of North America. Most of these tribes were allied
with the French, and this enabled France, with only 85,000
settlers and an army supplied primarily by these settlers, to
control Canada as well as much land which is now in the U.S.
The British, on the other hand, had one and half million English
settlers on the eastern seaboard, and a professional army
made up primarily of soldiers from the mother country.
Until the French and Indian War, however, British authorities
held most Native Americans in contempt, and had far fewer
tribal allies. The largest confederation of native American
tribes, the Iroquois nation, had remained neutral until this
time. Missteps by French commanders during the war led
many tribes to switch sides, and in the case of the Iroquois, to
choose sides with British. Most historians agree that native
American involvement in the war was decisive in the British
In Europe, as the war widened to the continent and beyond, the
French and English monarchs increasingly turned their attention
away from their North American colonies, and to their rivalry
nearer their home turf, and to the south and east. The growing
troublesome relationship between the English monarchy (as well
as its parliament) had been exacerbated by attitudes that
regarded English colonial settlers as not full English citizens.
American colonial settlers initially refused to contribute to the
financing of the French and Indian War, but when the new
British prime minister, William Pitt, came to power, he showed
new respect to its North American colony, and the colonies
became enthusiastic about the war. This further assisted the
final British victory.
A series of taxes in the 1760s imposed arbitrarily on North
America, however, undid the new colonial enthusiasm, and
led to the eventual alienation of the British settlers that
culminated in the 1770s with the American revolution.
Leading that revolution, of course, was its first and only
military commander, the former brash and naive major who
had inadvertently set into motion the world’s first global
war in a Pennsylvania forest more than twenty years before.
George Washington, the unanimous choice of the Continental
Congress to be the revolutionary army commander in chief,
was now older and wiser. Like so many of his countrymen, his
original ambition to be an acceptable Englishman had been
replaced with a desire to found not only a new and independent
nation, but establish a new form of government that would
change the world for centuries.
All that from a failed spy mission and unfulfilling dinner at a
frontier fort.. George Washington was no James Bond, but he
became the indispensable founding father.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.