Colonial History -- Continued
French and Indian Wars
The time came when the American colonies began to act together. From the beginning they had been kept apart by prejudice, suspicion, and mutual jealousy. But the fathers were now dead, old antagonisms had passed away, a new generation had arisen with kindlier feelings and more charitable sentiments. But it was not so much the growth of a more liberal public opinion as it was the sense of a common danger that at last led the colonists to make a united effort. The final struggle between Franch and England for colonial supremacy in America was at hand. Necessity compelled the English colonies to join in a common cause against a common foe. This is the conflict known as the French and Indian War; with this great event the separate histories of the colonies are lost in the more genral history of the nation. The contest began in 1754, but the causes of the war had existed for many years.
The first and greatest of these causes was the conficting territorial claims of the two nations. England had colonized the sea-coast; France had colonized the interior of the continent. From Maine to Florida the Atlantic shore was spread with English colonies; but there were no inland settlements. The great towns were on the ocean's edge. But the claims of England reached far beyond her colonies. Based on the discoveries of the Cabots, and not limited by actual occupation, those claims extended westward to the Pacific. Far different, however, were the claims of France; the French had first colonized the valley of the St. Lawrence. Montreal, one of the earliest settlements, is more than five hundred miles from the sea. If the French colonies had been limited to the St. Lawrence and its tributaries, there would have been little danger of a conflict about territorial dominion. But in the latter half of the seventeenth century the French began to push their way westward and southward; first, along the shores of the great lakes, then to the headwaters of the Wabash, the Illinois, the Wisconsin, and the St. Croix, then down these streams to the Mississippi, and then to the Gulf of Mexico. The purpose of the French, as manifested in these movements, was no less than to divide the American continent and to take the larger portion for France.
The zealous Jesuits, purposing to extend the Catholic faith to all lands and nations, set out fearlessly from the older settlements of the St. Lawrence to explore the unknown West, and to convert the barbarous races. In 1641 the first of the French missionary explorers passed through the northern straits of Lake Huron and entered Lake Superior. In the thirty years that followed, the Jesuits continued their explorations with prodigious activity. Missions were established at various points north of the lakes, and in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In 1673, Joliet and Marquette passed from the headwaters of Fox River over the watershed to the upper tributaries of the Wisconsin, and thence down that river in a seven days' voyage to the Mississippi. For a full month the canoe of the daring adventurers carried them on toward the sea. they passed the mouth of Arkansas River, and reached the limit of their voyage at the thirty-third parallel of latitude. Turning their boat upstream, they entered the mouth of the Illinois and returned by the site of Chicago into Lake Michigan, and thence to Detroit. But it was not yet known whether the great river discharged its flood of waters into the southern gulf or into the Pacific Ocean.
It remained for Robert de la Salle, most illustrious of the French explorers, to solve the problem. This courageous and daring man was living at the outlet of Lake Ontario when the news of Marquette's voyage reached Canada. Fired with the passion of discovery, La Salle built and launched the first ship above Niagara Falls. He sailed westward through Lake Erie and Lake Huron, crossed Lake Michigan to the mouth of the St. Joseph, ascended that stream with a few companions, traversed the country to the upper Kankakee, and dropped down with the current into the Illinois. Here disasters overtook the expedition, and La Salle was obliged to return on foot to Fort Frontenac, a distance of nearly a thousand miles. During his absence, Father Hennepin, a member of the company, traversed Illinois, and explored the Mississippi as high as the Falls of St. Anthony.
In 1681, La Salle returned to his station on the Illinois, bringing men and supplies. A boat was built, and early in the following year the heroic adventurer, with a few companions, descended the river to its junction with the Mississippi, and was borne by the Father of Waters to the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of the greatest exploits of modern times. The return voyage was successfully accomplished. La Salle reached Quebec, and immediately set sail for France. The kingdom was greatly excited, and vast plans were made for colonizing the valley of the Mississippi. In July of 1684 four ships, bearing two hundted and eighty emigrants, left France. Beaujeu commanded the fleet, and La Salle was leader of the colony. The plan was to enter the gulf, ascend the river, and plant settlements on its banks and tributaries. But Jeaujeu was a bad and headstrong captain, and against La Salle's entreaties the squadron was carried out of its course, beyond the mouths of the Mississippi, and into the Bay of Matagorda. Here a landing was effected, but the store-ship, with all its precious freightage, was dashed to ieces in a storm. Nevertheless, a colony was established, and Texas became a part of Louisiana.
La Salle made many unsuccessful efforts to rediscover the Mississippi. One misfortune after another followed fast, but the leader's resolute spirit remained tranquil through all calamities. At last, with sixteen companions, he set out to cross the continent to Canada. The march began in January of 1687, and continued for sixty days. The wanderers were already in the basin of the Colorado. Here, on the 20th of March, while La Salle was at some distance from the camp, two conspirators of the company, hiding in the prairie grass, took a deadly aim at the famous explorer, and shot him dead in his tracks. Only seven of the adventurers succeeded in reaching a French settlement on the Mississippi.
France was not slow to occupy the vast country revealed to her by the activity of the Jesuits. As early as 1688 military posts had been established at Frontenac, at Niagara, at the Straits of Mackinaw, and on the Illinois River. Before the middle of the eighteenth century, permanent settlements had been made by the French on the Maumee, at Detroit, at the mouth of the river St. Joseph, at Green Bay, at Vincennes on the Lower Wabash, on the Mississippi at the mouth of the Kaskaskia, at Fort Rosalie, the present site of Natchez, and on the Gulf of Mexico at the head of the Bay of Biloxi. At this time the only outposts of the English colonies were a small fort at Oswego, on Lake Ontario, and a few scattered cabins in West Virginia. It only remained for France to occupy the valley of the Ohio, in order to confine the provinces of Great Britain to the country east of the Alleghanies. To do this became the sole ambition of the French, and to prevent it the stubborn purpose of the English.
A second cause of war existed in the long-standing national animosity of France and England. The two nations could hardly remain at peace. The French and the English were of different races, languages, and laws. For more than two centuries France had been the leader of the Catholic, and England of the Protestant, powers of Europe. Religious prejudice intensified the natural jealousy of the two nations. Rivalry prevailed on land and sea. When, at the close of the seventeenth century, it was seen that the people of the English colonies outnumbered those of Canada by nearly twenty to one, France was filled with envy. When, by the enterprise of the Jesuit missionaries, the French began to dot the basin of the Mississippi with fortresses, and to monopolize the fur-trade of the Indians, England could not conceal her wrath. It was only a question of time when this unreasonable jealousy would bring on a colonial war.
The third and immediate cause of hostilities was a conflict between the frontiersmen of the two nations in attempting to colonize the Ohio valley. The year 1749 witnessed the beginning of difficulties. For some time the strolling traders of Virginia and Pennsylvania had frequented the Indian towns on the upper tributaries of the Ohio. Now the traders of Canada began to visit the same villages, and to compete with the English in the purchase of furs. Virginia, under her ancient charters, claimed the whole country lying between her western borders and the southern shores of Lake Erie. The French fur-gatherers in this district were regarded as intruders not to be tolerated. In order to prevent further encroachment, a number of prominent Virginians joined themselves together in a body called the Ohio Company, with a view to the immediate occupation of the disputed territory. Robert Dinwiddie, governor of the State, Lawrence and Augustine Washington, and Thomas Lee, president of the Virginia council, were the leading members of the corporation. In March of 1749 the company received from George II. an extensive land-grant covering a tract of five hundred acres, to be located between the Kanawha and the Monongahela Rivers. The conditions of the grant were that the land should be held free of rent for ten years, that within seven years a colony of one hundred families should be established in the district, and that the territory should be immediately selected.
But the French were equally active. Before the Ohio Company could send out a colony, the governor of Canada dispatched Bienville with three hundred men to explore and occupy the valley of the Ohio. The expedition was success. Plates of lead bearing French inscriptions were buried here and there on both banks of the river, the region was explored as far west as the towns of the Miamis, the English traders were expelled from the country, and a letter was written to Governor Hamilton of Pennsylvania admonishing him to encroach no farther on the territory of the king of France. This work occupied the summer and fall of 1749. In the meantime, the Ohio Company had equipped an exploring party, and placed it under command of Christopher Gist. In November of 1750 he and his company reached the Ohio opposite the mouth of Beaver Creek. Here the expedition crossed to the northern side, tarried at Logstown, passed down the river through the several Indian confederacies to the Great Miami, and thence to within fifteen miles of the falls at Louisville. Returning on foot through Kentucky, the explorers reached Virginia in the spring of 1751.
This expedition was followed by still more vigorous movements on the part of the French. Descending from their headquarters at Presque Isle, now Erie, on the southern shore of the lake, they built a fortress called Le Boeuf, on French Creek, a tributary of the Alleghany. Proceeding down the stream to its junction with the river, they erected a second fort, name Venango. From this point they advanced against a British post on the Miami, broke up the settlement, made prisoners of the garrison, and carried them to Canada. The king of the Miami confederacy, who had assisted the English in defending their outpost, was inhumanly murdered by the Indian allies of the French. About the same time the country south of the Ohio, between the Great Kanawha and the Monongahela, was explored by Gist and a party of armed surveyors, acting under orders of the company. In the summer of 1753 the English opened a road from Will's Creek through the mountains into the Ohio valley, and a colony of eleven families was planted on the Youghiogheny. It was impossible that a conflict between the advancing settlements of the two nations could be much longer averted.
Virginia was now thoroughly aroused. But before proceeding to actual hostilities, Governor Dinwiddie determined to try the effect of a final remonstrance with the French. A paper was accordingly drawn up setting forth the nature and extent of the English claim to the valley of the Ohio, and solemnly warning the authorities of France against further intrusions into that region. It was necessary that this paper should be carried to General St. Pierre, now stationed at Erie as commander of the French forces in the West. Who should be chosen to bear the important parchment to its far-off destination? It was the most serious mission ever yet undertaken in America. A young surveyor, named George Washington, was called to perform the perilous duty. Him the governor summoned from his home on the Potomac and commissioned as ambassador, and to him was committed the message which was to be borne from Williamsburg, on York River, through the untrodden wilderness to Presque Isle, on the shore of Lake Erie.
On the last day of October, 1753, Washington set out on his long journey. He was attended by four comrades besides an interpreter and Christopher Gist, the guide. The party arrived without accident at the mouth of Will's Creek, the last important tributary of the Potomac on the north. From this place Washington proceeded through the mountains to the headwaters of the Youghiogheny, and thence down that stream to the site of Pittsburg. The immense importance of this place, lying at the confluence of the two great tributaries of the Ohio, and commanding them both, was at once perceived by the young ambassador, who noted the spot as the site of a fortress. Washington was now conducted across the Alleghany by the chief of the Delawares, and thence twenty miles down the river to Logstown. Here a council was held with the Indians, who pledged their friendship and fidelity to the English. In the beginning of December, Washington and his party moved northward to the French post at Venango. The officers of the fort took no pains to conceal their purpose; the project of uniting Canada and Louisiana by way of the Ohio valley was openly avowed.
From Venango, Washington set out through the forest to Fort le Boeuf on French Creek, fifty miles above its junction with the Alleghany. This was the last stage in the journey. It was still fourteen miles to Presque Isle; but St. Pierre, the French commander, had come down from that place to superintend the fortifications at Le Boeuf. Here the conference was held. Washington was received with great courtesy, but the general of the French refused to enter into any discussions on the rights of nations. He was acting, he said, under military instructions given by the governor of New France. He had been commanded by his superior officer to eject every Englishman from the valley of the Ohio, and he meant to carry out his orders to the letter. A firm but courteous reply was returned to Governor Dinwiddie's message. France claimed the country of the Ohio in virtue of discovery, exploration, and occupation, and her claim should be made good by force of arms.
Washington was kindly dismissed, but not until he had noted with keen anxiety the immense preparations which were making at Le Boeuf. There lay a fleet of fifty birch-bark canoes and a hundred and seventy boats of pine ready to descend the river to the site of Pittsburg. For the French, as well as the English, had noted the importance of that spot, and had determined to fortify it as soon as the ice should break in the rivers. It was now the dead of winter. Washington returned to Venango, and then, with Gist as his sole companion, left the river and struck into the woods. It was one of the most solitary marches ever made by man. There in the desolate wilderness was the future President of the United States. Clad in the robe of an Indian, with gun in hand and knapsack strapped to his shoulders; struggling through interminable snows; sleeping with froen clothes on a bed of pine-brush; breaking through the treasherous ice of rapid sstreams; guided by day by a pocket compass, and at night by the North Star, seen at intervals through the leafless trees; fired at by a prowling savage from his covert not fifteen steps away; thrown from a raft into the rushing Alleghany; escaping to an island and lodging there until the river was frozen over; plunging again into the forest; reaching Gist's settlement and then the Potomac,--the strong-limbed young ambassador came back without wound or scar to the capital of Virginia. For his flesh was not made to be torn by bullets or to be eaten by the wolves. The defiant dispatch of St. Pierre was laid before Governor Dinwiddie, and the first public service of Washington was accomplished.
In the meantime, the Ohio Company had not been idle. About midwinter a party of thirty-three men had been organized and ordered to proceed at once to the souce of the Ohio and erect a fort. It was not far from the middle of March, 1754, when the party reached the confluence of the Alleghany and the Monongahela, and built the first rude stockade on the site of Pittsburg.*
As soon as the approaching spring broke the ice-gorges in the Alleghany, the French fleet of boats, already prepared at Venango, came sweeping down the river. Washington had now been commissioned as lieutenant-colonel, and was stationed at Alexandria to enlist recruits for the Ohio. A regiment of a hundred and fifty men had been enrolled; but it was impossible to bring succor in time to save the post. On the 17th of April the little band of Englishmen at the head of the Ohio surrendered to the enemy and withdrew from the country. The French immediately occupied the place, felled the forest-trees, built barracks, and laid the foundations of Fort du quesne. To recapture this place by force of arms Colonel Washington set out from Will's Creek in the early part of May, 1754. Negotiations had failed; remonstrance had been tried in vain; the possession of the disputed territory was now to be determined by the harsher methods of war.
*The accounts of this important event are very obscure and unsatisfactory.
Return to Ridpath's History of the United States Table of Contents
Return to E-Books Index
Return to California AHGP Home Page
Return to Sacramento County AHGP Home Page
© 2000-2002 by Jacque Rogers