Noted historian Walter R. Borneman brings to life an epic struggle for a continent—what Samuel Eliot Morison called "truly the first world war"—and emphasizes how the seeds of discord sown in its aftermath would take root and blossom into the American Revolution.
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The French and Indian WarDeciding the Fate of North America
By Walter Borneman
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Walter Borneman
All right reserved.
The Bells of Aix-la-Chapelle
In the fall of 1748, the bells in the venerable cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle pealed out the welcome news that Europe was again at peace. Europe's warring powers had gathered at the site of Charlemagne's medieval capital in yet another attempt to end their incessant feuds and bring a lasting peace to the continent. But the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle--as has been the case with so many of history's paper pronouncements--failed to resolve gnawing geopolitical realities. The playing field was no longer just the continent of Europe. Increasingly, it was the entire world, and the rival empires that fought on European battlefields were also colliding on far-flung oceans and faraway continents. Nowhere was this truer than in North America.
For more than two centuries, England had lagged far behind its European rivals in coloring in the map of North America. John Cabot sailed the North Atlantic a few years after Columbus's first voyage, but England did little more for decades. Meanwhile, the Frenchman Jacques Cartier circled Newfoundland and probed the Saint Lawrence River as far as the site of Montreal in 1534-1535. Elsewhere, Coronado carried the Spanish banner across the American southwest and de Soto traversed the Deep South between 1539 and 1542. Somewhat belatedly, Elizabeth I ofEngland sent Martin Frobisher on three voyages across the Atlantic in the 1570s to search for the Northwest Passage and reassert Cabot's claims. By then, Spain had already established an outpost at Saint Augustine on the Florida coast in response to French forays into the area.
The continent of North America was never, of course, a universal blank waiting to be claimed, as all Europe deemed it. Numerous Native American nations, some quite powerful empires themselves, held sway over forest, lake, bayou, and river. Like the Europeans, they, too, frequently fought among themselves for territorial rights and other prerogatives. These Native American--or Indian--sovereignties did not deter European incursions, but they certainly made such incursions far more complex and conflicted. (Because contemporary accounts use the term "Indians," it has sometimes been retained here rather than the currently accepted term "Native Americans.")
In 1577, Spain was still the world's leading power, but Elizabeth could not resist probing its weaknesses by dispatching Francis Drake to circle the globe and cause a little havoc on the Spanish Main. Attempts by the English to plant a colony at Roanoke on the Carolina coast withered under the distraction of the Spanish Armada; and by the time three English ships anchored off Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, Elizabeth was dead and England still far behind in the race for a continent.
Three years before, a French company that included Samuel de Champlain had established an outpost at the mouth of the Saint Croix River between present-day Maine and New Brunswick. After a damp and frigid northeastern winter, the post was moved to Port Royal on the northwest coast of Nova Scotia. When Port Royal was temporarily abandoned in 1607, Champlain and a few others refused to return to France and instead followed Cartier's route up the Saint Lawrence and built an outpost under the Rock of Quebec.
Meanwhile, Spanish Florida was thriving despite Drake's burning of Saint Augustine in 1586. Juan de Oñate's efforts at colonization on the northern reaches of Spain's claims resulted in the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1609. That same year, the Dutch entered the competition when Henry Hudson, an Englishman serving under the Dutch flag, sailed the tiny Half Moon up the Hudson River. In 1624, just four years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Dutch West India Company built a trading post called Fort Orange at the future site of Albany, New York.
Thus the seeds of many would-be empires were planted in North America. For a time the vastness of the continent swallowed their meager expansion and prevented major collisions. Then in 1682, Robert La Salle and his men dragged canoes across the portage between the Chicago and Illinois rivers and floated down the Illinois to the Mississippi. Continuing south down the Mississippi, La Salle reached the Gulf of Mexico and on a spot of dry ground at the river's mouth proclaimed the sovereignty of Louis XIV over half a continent. The French already controlled one of North America's strategic arteries--the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes--and now, on April 9, 1682, La Salle grandly claimed another. Henceforth, La Salle asserted, the Mississippi River and its tributaries, "this country of Louisiana," were the domain of France.1
Indeed, by 1700 a look at the map of North America suggested that France held claim to the lion's share. From Quebec, up the Saint Lawrence, across the Great Lakes to Michilimackinac, and down the Mississippi Valley, France constructed a string of trading posts that included Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes in the Illinois country and Fort Pontchartrain (Detroit) between lakes Huron and Erie. Spain was equally well established along the Gulf Coast east and west of Louisiana and was sending expeditions north from Santa Fe into Colorado to counter French claims to the extent of Louisiana. That left England with a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian Mountains.
All this time, the wars of Europe had continued to rage. Their causes were many: covetous territorial appetites, intense religious fervor, uncertain royal successions, and more and more frequently, commercial rivalries in an ever-expanding global marketplace. Before the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Europe's wars had spilled over to North America, but they had been relatively minor sideshows. Three conflicts, however, became enough of an issue in North America that English colonists came to call them by the name of the reigning sovereign.
The War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697) was called King William's War in the English colonies. It pitted an anti-French alliance that included England under William III, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Holland, and a few German states against Louis XIV, who had an appetite for Alsace and Lorraine. . . .
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