The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814

The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814

by David Curtis Skaggs

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The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes contains twenty essays concerning not only military and naval operations, but also the political, economic, social, and cultural interactions of individuals and groups during the struggle to control the great freshwater lakes and rivers between the Ohio Valley and the Canadian Shield. Contributing scholars represent a


The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes contains twenty essays concerning not only military and naval operations, but also the political, economic, social, and cultural interactions of individuals and groups during the struggle to control the great freshwater lakes and rivers between the Ohio Valley and the Canadian Shield. Contributing scholars represent a wide variety of disciplines and institutional affiliations from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
     Collectively, these important essays delineate the common thread, weaving together the series of wars for the North American heartland that stretched from 1754 to 1814. The war for the Great Lakes was not merely a sideshow in a broader, worldwide struggle for empire, independence, self-determination, and territory. Rather, it was a single war, a regional conflict waged to establish hegemony within the area, forcing interactions that divided the Great Lakes nationally and ethnically for the two centuries that followed. 

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Michigan State University Press
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The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754–1814

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2001 Michigan State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-972-7

Chapter One

The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814: An Overview

David Curtis Skaggs

You can blame the conference and this book on the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. His famous History of the Peloponnesian War written in the fifth century B.C. is not only one of the great historical treatises, but also is one of the great commentaries on the nature of political power and the way state policies are made. This great war between Athenian and Spartan empires lasted from 431 to 404 B.C. It consisted of a series of subconflicts, interrupted by shaky peace, political intrigue, and policy decisions.

For me, the greatness of the Peloponnesian War is not its exceptional narrative, incisive character studies, famous orations, and strategic and tactical decision analysis, but rather its attention to the broader picture of historical drama. Thucy dides understood that the series of conflicts underlying the long struggle was a continuous event. It was a quest for the destiny of Greek civilization and political power in the Greek-speaking world. It is this broader reading of the great Greek historian that brought me to see the multifaceted struggle to control the great freshwater lakes and their basins that occupy the interior of North America, not as unconnected events, but rather as part of a broader sequence of episodes involving the Native Americans and Europeans of French, British, and Creole backgrounds for control of the finest bodies of fresh water in the world.

The Great Lakes world of 1750 was one of great expanses of forests and water. Interspersed with Native American villages along its major waterways were occasional small French outposts located at critical junctions—Fort Frontenac (modern Kingston, Ontario), Fort Niagara, Fort Detroit, Fort Michilimackinac, and Fort La Baye (Green Bay, Wisconsin) were among the most significant of these. Soldiers were few at these "forts," fur trading the most common occupation of the Frenchmen who dared to work their way along the many water passages that provided access to the North American interior from the major French settlements along the lower St. Lawrence River. That river, which drained all the Great Lakes, constituted the economic tie for the region with the trans-Atlantic world that lay beyond. The furs of beaver and muskrat and the hides of buffalo and deer were its principal exports.

Seventy years later we find that 1750 world dramatically changed. The political suzerainty the Native Americans and the French enjoyed was gone. Instead, sovereignty was divided between a young republic and the British Empire. Economically the centers of power were concentrated in a series of Euro-American settlements on both sides of the lakes. The southern side witnessed American migration into central New York, the Ohio Valley, and the fringes of the upper lakes. Rochester, Buffalo, Erie, and Cleveland emerged to rival the traditional centers of economic development at Oswego, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. On the Canadian side, Toronto emerged as a new emporium of Lake Ontario, displacing Kingston. Grain, not furs, became the area's most profitable export. At the center of this transformation was a conflict lasting some sixty years that changed forever the regional balance of power.

Only three of the stages in this long struggle were totally confined to the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley—Pontiac's Rebellion (1763–65), Lord Dunmore's War (1774), and the Maumee–Wabash Confederacy War (1786–94). The other three—the French and Indian (or Seven Years') War (1754–63), the War for American Independence (1775–83), and the War of 1812–14—were part of worldwide conflicts having significant impact upon this region. The last phase—the War of 1812—was the most fiercely fought conflict ever focused on the Great Lakes region. Like the 30 Years' War and the 100 Years' War, it contains conflict, tension, peace, and renewed warfare in a variety of phases.

In 1750, the French claimed that their provinces of New France and Louisiana controlled the vast drainage regions of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi valleys. But the Native Americans also had regional sovereignty claims that, for them, were more real than any emanating from Versailles. The Algonquian peoples of the lakes and rivers between the Ottawa and Ohio rivers felt themselves sovereign in their homelands. On the other hand, the Iroquois Confederacy, headquartered in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, claimed jurisdiction over the Algonquians and, because of their Covenant Chain of Friendship with the British, gave that nation's ever-greedy colonial governors a claim to the trans-Appalachian west.

By mid-century these claims were being actively broached by the three most ambitious of colonies—New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. New York's western claims came not so much from any charter territorial grant, but rather from the Iroquois' dubious claim to suzerainty over the Algonquian region southward into modern Kentucky. Virginia asserted that her charter of 1609 gave her title to lands between her boundary with North Carolina westward to the Mississippi River and northward to the lands of the Hudson's Bay Company. Only that of the Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, and British empires rivaled Virginia's vast dominion. Pennsylvania's claim rested on its trade with the Ohio Valley Indians. In the midst of all these provincial designs were assertions by various private land companies for territory in the trans-Appalachian west. These included a large number of claims in the Ohio River Valley by Virginia and Pennsylvania speculators under such titles as the Mississippi Company, the Greenbrier Company, the Loyal Land Company of Virginia, the New Wales Company, and the Ohio Company.

But it was the Franco-Algonquian presence that was the most dominant. In 1749, the governor-general of New France sent Captain Céloron de Blainville to reestablish their position in the Ohio Valley. He found himself opposed by Chief Memeskia at Pickawillany and reported that Indians in the Miami River Valley favored the British. Such an affront could not be tolerated. In 1752, young Charles Michel Langlade of Michilimackinac led an expedition of thirty Frenchmen and 210 Indians to Pickawillany, where they destroyed the local trading post, killed or captured several British traders there, and boiled and ate Chief Memeskia. Such a resort to terror only proved the weakness of French control of the region. Such actions alone would not stop British commercial intrusions.

Both the English and the French knew there were three keys to controlling the region. The first concerned dominance of the region's lifeline—the St. Lawrence Valley. The second demanded dominance of the straits between the lakes—Forts Frontenac, Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac, and Sault Ste. Marie. The third required control of the critical portages connecting the lakes with the Mississippi Valley. Hence, French installations at Fort Miami (modern Fort Wayne between the Maumee and Wabash rivers), Fort St. Joseph (at the portage between the river of that name in southwestern Michigan and the upper reaches of the Illinois River), and Fort La Baye (which guarded the entrance to Fox River that connected with the Wisconsin).

There were two critical weak links in the French plan—the headwaters of the Ohio River and the Lake Champlain corridor. Security of the St. Lawrence lifeline demanded control of the access route into the heart of New France afforded by the Lake George–Lake Champlain–Richelieu River route between Albany and Montreal. Here they constructed Fort Carillon, later known as Ticonderoga. To cover the upper Ohio Valley, the French began building a series of forts from Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania) toward the Forks of the Ohio (modern Pittsburgh). The Virginians formulated a counterplan. Here was the focal point of the first episode in the Great Lakes War.

Leading the British into the upper Ohio Valley were a group of fur traders and land speculators led by a Potomac River planter named Lawrence Washington, Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia, and the Duke of Bedford in England. These well-connected Ohio Company proprietors began in 1747 to claim lands whose ownership was in dispute with both Pennsylvania and the king of France. In exchange for building a fort at the Forks of the Ohio and settling two hundred individuals, they were to receive half a million acres stretching southward from modern Pittsburgh to Wheeling. In 1753, Governor Dinwiddie sent the recently deceased Lawrence Washington's half-brother on an expedition to warn the French not to move into this territory. Twenty-one-year-old Major George Washington's entreaties were rejected and the French began constructing Fort Duquesne at the very spot the Ohio Company was supposed to build its outpost. When Washington led a fruitless expedition to take Fort Duquesne in 1754, the Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes began.

We need not trace the details of this first phase of the conflict, known to history as either the French and Indian War or the Seven Years' War. Two British attempts to take Fort Duquesne failed; the last one disastrously in the battle of the Monongahela, often known as Braddock's defeat. The French also picked off the one British outpost on the Great Lakes at Oswego, New York, early in the conflict.

But it was, if one may be politically incorrect, on the sixth great lake, Lake Champlain, that the French and British fought the decisive campaign for the interior waterways. The Lake George–Lake Champlain–Richelieu River route between the Hudson and St. Lawrence rivers points like a dagger from Albany to Montreal. It is ringed by a rocky, densely forested, mountainous terrain with few land routes between Lake George's southern tip and the upper reaches of the Hudson. In other words, it worked like a highway from Albany to Montreal and like a cul de sac from Montreal to Lake George. The Marquis de Montcalm, commanding French forces in Quebec, captured Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George in 1757 and sent Indian raids into the upper Hudson Valley. But his army could not march southward; the logistical complications of movement over the Adirondacks, filled with unfriendly British Americans, were too much for him to undertake. This would not be the last time that such an avenue proved a military dead-end.

Things continued to go badly for the British until late 1757 when the new British Prime Minister, William Pitt, made one of the most critical strategic decisions of modern history. Rather than concentrate his troops and sailors on the European front, he refocused the British efforts in the New World and India. In a series of brilliant strokes, Forts Duquesne and Ticonderoga fell and a naval armada brought British army forces to Quebec, where in 1759 the decisive battle for the political control of the Great Lakes was won by the British. The fall of New France was a consequence of what Professor W. J. Eccles called the "stupidity factor" in history. In this case, the French depended too much on the stone walls of fortifications to defend their American empire and disregarded the need to maintain naval supremacy to preserve their control of the saltless seas of North America. The British victory on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec was merely part of a train of victories that saw the French empire in the West and East Indies fall to the British army and the Royal Navy. In a mixed metaphor, Horace Walpole wrote that "Our bells are worn out threadbare with the ringing of victories."

But Pitt's great triumph contained fatal flaws. First, the concentration on the American and Indian theaters left his European allies to twist in the wind. They would not easily be allied with "perfidious Albion" again. His defeated foes, France and Spain, hungered for revenge for their losses. All would find the American independence movement an ideal opportunity to coordinate and exercise their anti-British sentiments. Finally, the elimination of the French menace in Canada and the Spanish threat from the Floridas relieved the colonial Americans from strategic dependence upon the British.

However, we need to concentrate on the consequences of the massive British victory and the geopolitical transformation of the Great Lakes region that resulted. The Peace of Paris of 1763 dramatically reoriented political power in the North American interior. France ceded her vast cis-Mississippi empire to the British and the Indians lost their ability to play two European empires off against one another in their efforts to retain control of what their homeland. Remaining in the region were the Natives, the French-speaking habitants of the former New France; the Anglo-Americans from New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and British government officials and merchants who moved into New France; and the Indians. Their various claims and ambitions could not be easily satisfied.

Among the Native Americans various splits arose. Initially it appeared the Iroquois Confederacy had won out since they had long been British allies. But a century of warfare along the Anglo-French frontier had taken its toll on the people of the longhouse, and the British were no longer dependent upon them for protection. Instead, the more numerous Algonquian-speaking peoples of the western Great Lakes—particularly the Miamis, Shawnees, Ottawas, Potawatomis, Sauks, Foxes, Ojibwas (Chippewas), and Menominees—now held the balance of Indian power in the region. Traditionally allied with the French, they now confronted both the military power of the British and the aggressive land-grabbing designs of the colonists of British North America.

Their attitude of independence was best expressed in the words of Ojibwa Chief Minavavana, who told the first Englishman to reach Fort Michilimackinac: "Englishman, although you have conquered the French, you have not yet conquered us! We are not your slaves. These lakes, these woods and mountains were left us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance; and we will part with them to no one." Ottawa Chief Pontiac relayed his vision from the Manitou, or Great Spirit: "This land, where you live, I have made for you and not for others. How comes it that you suffer the whites on your lands? ... I love them not, they know me not, they are my enemies and the enemies of your brothers! Send them back to the country, which I made for them! There let them remain." From such attitudes came the second phase of the Sixty Years' War, known to us as Pontiac's Rebellion. Through subterfuge, the Ottawa accomplished one of the most unusual feats of Native American warfare; they seized a palisaded fortification—in this case Fort Michilimackinac—and they almost took Fort Detroit.

The British found they could not dictate to the Great Lakes tribes and they concluded the Pontiac conflict with a series of concessions. In many ways these concessions constitute the best testimony we have of the power the Indians still possessed. The first was the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade white settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains. It also placed all negotiations with the tribes in the hands of an imperial Indian superintendent, rather than the provincial governors. Recognized by all as a temporary measure, the British saw this proclamation as granting them breathing space before they concluded concessions from the Indians and formulated a policy for white settlement across the mountains. For the Great Lakes, it placed the region in a vast Indian country. Trying to appease both some Indians and some land speculators, in 1768 Indian Superintendent Sir William Johnson negotiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the Iroquois, which opened up land in central New York and south of the Ohio River. Still reserved as Indian lands were western New York and the area north of Ohio. For the Native Americans of the Great Lakes, the maintenance of the Fort Stanwix line on the Ohio was to be the core of their diplomatic and military efforts for over four decades. What followed was a decade of peace in the region when soldiers, traders, trappers, and Natives sought to accommodate themselves to the new environment.


Excerpted from The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754–1814 Copyright © 2001 by Michigan State University Press. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

John Grenier

Unlike many collections of essays by different authors, this one is noteworthy for the consistent high quality of its scholarship. Specialists as well as general readers of Great Lakes history will find The Sixty Years' War insightful and thought provoking. (John Grenier, U.S. Air Force Academy)

Meet the Author

David Curtis Skaggs is co-author of A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813 and co-editor of War on the Great Lakes: Essays Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie.

Larry L. Nelson is the author of Men of Patriotism, Courage, and Enterprise: Fort Meigs and the War of 1812 and A Man of Distinction Among Them: Alexander McKee and the Ohio Country Frontier, 1754-1799.

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