In the early 1750s, the French were establishing trading posts and building forts along western the frontiers of the British colonies. In the fall of 1753, in part to protect his own land claims, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie had sent 22-year-old George Washington (then a militia leader and surveyor) to deliver a letter to Fort Le Boeuf at what is today Waterford in northwest Pennsylvania, demanding they stop.
When Washington returned without success, Dinwiddie sent a small force to build Fort Prince George at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers (today Pittsburgh). Soon a larger French force arrived, torn down the small British fort, and began and built Fort Duquesne, named for then Governor-General of New France, Marquis Duquesne.
Washington then raised the provincial Virginia Regiment to build a road to Fort Prince George, and to defend it. The Virginia Regiment set out on April 2, 1754 and on May 28th, Washington’s small force met and ambushed a body of French under Joseph Coulon de Jumonville at what became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen.
Jumonville was killed in the skirmish, but Washington was later forced to surrender to a larger force from Fort Duquesne. The surrender terms included a statement that Washington had assassinated Jumonville – they were written in French, which Washington could not read.
The incident sparked an international crises, which led to the outbreak of French and Indian War (1754-1763), part of a global conflict that many scholars consider the first world war, the Seven Years War (1756–1763). Among other results of this conflict, the war would in many ways help spark the American Revolution a decade later.
The Arrival of Braddock
In 1754, British Major-General Edward Braddock was named Commander of the British forces in North America and arrived on February 20, 1755 at Hampton, Virginia, with two regiments of British regulars to begin a campaign against the French in the Ohio Country.
Braddock called a meeting of colonial governors at Alexandria, Virginia (now known as the Congress of Alexandria, and a precursor to the Albany Congress of 1754). On April 15, 1754, Dinwiddie, Maryland Governor Horatio Sharpe, Pennsylvania Deputy Governor Robert Hunter Morris, New York Governor James DeLancey, and Massachusetts Governor William Shirley met with Braddock.
Also invited was Colonel William Johnson, who was a favorite of the ministers in England and had spent the previous 15 years usurping the power of Albany’s merchants and the city’s Indian Commissioners, while solidfying his relationship with North America’s third most powerful nation, the Iroquois Confederacy.
Braddock tried to convince the provincial representatives to raise a fund to fight the French, but they rejected this idea, demanding instead that the Parliament of Great Britain pay for the effort against French “encroachments” at the periphery of the British Empire.
Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, the most militant of the group, proposed that Johnson be funded to marshal a group of Iroquois and colonial militia to attack French Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point on Lake Champlain. He was probably also the man who suggested Colonel Robert Monckton of Nova Scotia lead an attack on Fort Beausejour on the Bay of Fundy. Shirley also assured the meeting that Massachusetts would lead an attack on Fort Niagara (now known as Old Fort Niagara, near Buffalo).
Braddock agreed to lead an attack on Fort Duquesne with his regulars. In addition to being named to lead the attack on Fort St. Frederic, Johnson was commissioned a Major-General and appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs in order to work to keep the Iroquois at least neutral.
The Opening Battles
In June 1755 Robert Monckton and a fleet of 34 ships with 270 British regular troops and 2,000 New England militia onboard, landed at the mouth of the Missaguash River unopposed and surrounded Fort Beausejour in a successful two-week siege. The British renamed the occupied fort after the Duke of Cumberland – Fort Cumberland.
On July 9, 1755, Edward Braddock and his regulars marched on Pittsburgh and met with disaster. Braddock’s experience had been fighting European wars, which did not translate well in the colonies. Braddock was killed and his defeated army fell back in what was known as “Braddock’s Defeat.”
Several future prominent Americans took part in the the Braddock Expedition, including Benjamin Franklin, who helped supply the effort; Daniel Boone, who was a wagoner along with future Patriot General Daniel Morgan; future British Commander in Chief during the Revolution Thomas Gage; and future Patriot Generals Charles Lee, Horatio Gates and George Washington. Washington, who Braddock personally charged with his burial as he was dying, carried the General’s sash on his campaigns throughout the Revolution.
William Shirley, who had long hoped to be Governor of the Province of New York, went to the city of New York for funds and supplies and then on to Albany where the Albany Congress of 1754 (which he had called for) was about to meet. There he met troops from Massachusetts who were provisioning and training in preparation for their expedition to Fort Niagara.
Shirley’s force left before the Albany Congress began. He marched his troops to Schenectady and hired the commercial bateaux men who normally worked the Mohawk River to transport them west to a point near Oriskany, just west of Utica. From there their equipment was carried a short distance to Oneida Lake where they followed the Oswego River to Oswego.
When Shirley and his troops reached Fort Oswego (which was established as a trading post in 1722), they planned to sail across Lake Ontario and attack what is now Fort Niagara, at the mouth of the Niagara River.
The defensive works at the Niagara River were established by the French as Fort Conti in 1678, and renamed Fort Denonville in 1687, but by 1755 it was largely just a fortified building, a Maison à Machicoulis or “Machicolated House” (a fortified building with floor openings through which stones or other defensive material could be dropped on attackers).
Shirley learned en route to Oswego that General Braddock had died after the Battle of the Monongahela near Pittsburgh, during which his son William was also killed. He became temporary commander-in-chief of North American forces, but his move toward the French fortifications on the Niagara River stalled at Fort Oswego due to poor provisioning and the need to improve Oswego’s defenses. Shirley and his troops never did get further than Oswego.
The Battle of Lake George
William Johnson, held a meeting of the Six Nations of Iroquois at his home on the north side of Mohawk River, now known as Old Fort Johnson, and they promised support. Militia from New England and New York were still marshaling at Albany and they made their way north to the “Great Carrying Place” on the Hudson River, at the recently reconstructed Fort Edward, where equipment was unloaded and carried to the south end of Lake George in August 1755.
Marching north into French territory Johnson renamed the lake Isaac Jogues had named Lac du Saint-Sacrement (Lake of the Holy Sacrament) to Lake George, in honor of his king, George II.
French General Jean-Armand Dieskau learned of the British plans from documents the French had captured from Braddock’s defeat and started south toward what was then the northernmost substantial British defense.
Leaving half his force at Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point, Dieskau led about 800 French and Native allies to attack Fort Edward behind Johnson. Johnson learned of this threat and sent about 1,000 men from the Massachusetts and Connecticut militia and about 250 Native allies back south to reinforce the fort, but they were ambushed and took heavy casualties.
In the ambush, which became known as “The Bloody Morning Scout,” Hendrick Theyanoguin, the leader of the Mohawks, and Colonel Ephraim Williams, leader of the men of Massachusetts, were both killed. (Memorials to this ambush are located on Route 9, just south of the Village of Lake George; a bequeath in Williams’ will would fund Williams College.)
The French then turned to advance on Johnson’s remaining force and those militiamen who had fled back to the south end of the Lake George. There, Johnson’s men were constructing defenses with downed trees and a few cannon. In the Battle of Lake George which ensued, both Dieskau and Johnson were wounded, but the colonists held their position and Dieskau was captured. The French general was taken to Albany where he was hosted at Philip Schuyler’s home until he was healed. He was released and able to return to France in 1763. Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was placed in command of French forces in Canada.
Colonel Joseph Blanchard, then commander at Fort Edward, heard of the battle at Lake George and sent reinforcements. Blanchard’s forces arrived just as the remaining French were gathering their wounded and retiring from battle. Another sharp battle erupted and the French withdrew back towards Canada. Johnson and Blanchard’s troops did not pursue them however, and the attack on Fort St. Frederic was cancelled.
Johnson spent the next few months constructing a more substantial fort at the foot of Lake George that he named Fort William Henry. The French, meanwhile, constructed a fort at the opposite end of Lake George where Dieskau’s forces had encamped on their way south, which became Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga).
With the onset of winter, the northward attack was abandoned and Johnson resigned his command. Only Lake George separated the French from the English.
According to tradition, British surgeon Dr. Richard Schackburg composed the song “Yankee Doodle” at the Van Rensselaer home Crailo, just across the Hudson River from Albany, while attending the wounded who returned from the 1755 expeditions, but the song appears to have older roots as well.
Montclam & The Siege of Fort William Henry
It wasn’t until 1756 that Great Britain declared war on France, and in February of that year King George II and his ministers bypassed the colonial government and confirmed William Johnson with a royal commission as “Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern District.” He also was granted a hereditary title of baronet and Parliament granted him a purse of 5,000 British pounds.
Later that spring, John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun, replaced Shirley as Commander of British Forces in North America British Commander, and for the next several years Robert Rogers and his rangers conducted attacks north along Lake George against the French, notably the First Battle of the Snowshoes (January 21, 1757) and the Second Battle of the Snowshoes (March 13, 1758).
In 1756, Colonel John Bradstreet led an expedition to supply Fort Oswego and after surviving an attack during his return, warned Shirley and Loudon of the alarmingly deteriorating condition of the fort. He was ignored, and in August of that same year Montcalm surprised the fort and destroyed it. The French now had control of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, including most of Northern New York.
While Lord Loudoun was on an expedition to take Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, the French returned to Fort William Henry with a much larger force, about twice the number of men stationed at the fort.
On August 3, 1757, Montcalm laid siege Fort William Henry with about 16,000 men. The fort was then under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Monro, who had recently received reinforcements from Connecticut, Massachusetts and men from Albany and Van Rensselaer Manor, but this had only brought his force up to about 2,400.
Montcalm’s army laid siege to the fort for six days until the British were forced to surrender to the overwhelming French force.
The terms of the surrender allowed the British forces to keep their arms (though not their powder or shot) and personal belongings and retreat to Fort Edward. They also pledged not to fight against the French for 18 months. With an escort of 450 French Regulars, they were to march to Fort Edward; their sick and wounded were to remain behind until they were able to travel.
On the way to Fort Edward one of the most notorious incidents of the war took place, retold with embellishment in James Fenimore Cooper‘s Last of the Mohicans. Montcalm’s Indigenous allies, violating the terms of surrender, attacked the unarmed column, killing and scalping numerous soldiers and civilians, taking some 200 women, children, servants, and slaves captive, and killing most of the of the sick and wounded in and around the fort. Early accounts of the event said as many as 1,500 people were killed, although modern historians believe the number was closer to 200.
After taking Fort William Henry, Montcalm could have probably taken Fort Edward and attacked Albany, but instead he destroyed Fort William Henry (it would not be rebuilt, but Fort George was constructed nearby) and then returned to Ticonderoga. With the loss of Fort William Henry to the French, the ministers in England recalled Lord Loudoun and James Abercromby assumed command.
Abercromby & The Battle of Fort Carillon
In the spring of 1758, Abercromby assembled an army of 15,000 at the ruins of Fort William Henry, many passing through Albany on their way north to Fort Edward and then on to the south end of Lake George. There ultimate goal was an attack on Montreal.
Albany troops under Colonel Philip Schuyler, Colonel Henry Quackenbush, Colonel Abraham Ten Broeck and Captain Volkert Petrus Douw served with Abercromby under Lord George Augustus Howe, his second in command. Howe had spent the spring reforming Abercomby’s regular army using Roger’s Rangers as a model, along with Colonel Thomas Gage, whose 80th Regiment of Light-Armed Foot was created at the same time in the same army.
On July 5th, they left for the north end of the lake, spending the night at what is now called Sabbath Day Point in the town of Hague. The next day they landed at the west side of the north end of the lake near what’s known as Baldwin in the town of Ticonderoga, just four miles from Fort Carillon. Abercromby however, although considered a great organizer, vacillated so much he was called “Mrs. Nanny Cromby.” Then Viscount Howe was unexpectedly killed during a skirmish while reconnoitering on July 7th.
The next day, July 8, 1758, Abercromby ordered a frontal assault on the fortified French positions before his cannon were brought forward and more than 2,000 men were killed or wounded. Losing control of his troops, he almost immediately retreated back down Lake George to the ruins of Fort William Henry. Despite Abercromby’s failure, he was promoted to Lieutenant General the following year, and to full General in 1772.
Philip Schuyler was given the mission of accompanying the body of Lord Howe back to Albany, where it was interred in the Schuyler family crypt and later re-interred in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The marker on the church’s floor is believed to be the only burial marker for a British peer in the United States. Bradstreet took over for Lord Howe at the Battle of Carillon and became a close friend of Philip Schuyler, settling in Albany after the war.
While Abercromby was withdrawing to Albany, British General Jeffery Amherst was successful in capturing Louisbourg (Nova Scotia) and Colonel John Bradstreet captured and destroyed Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario), at the juncture of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. (It was during Abercromby’s withdrawal that the 1758 Sunken Fleet of bateaux were sunk in the south end of Lake George).
The Tide Turns – The Aftermath
In September Abercromby was recalled to Great Britain and Amherst assumed command of all British forces in North America. By the end of the summer of 1758 British General John Forbes had also taken Fort Duquesne.
In 1859, the British continued their offensive. Amherst sent General John Prideaux against Fort Niagara. Prideaux marshaled his forces at Schenectady and proceeded out the Mohawk River. At Oswego, Colonel William Johnson and 900 Native allies joined them. They proceeded to Fort Niagara and commenced an artillery barrage. On July 20th the explosion of a mortar accidentally killed Prideaux and Colonel Johnson took command and continued the siege.
French forces from the Ohio River area, Lake Erie, and Detroit came to the defense of Fort Niagara. A force of 600 French and 1,000 Native allies attacked a fortified and entrenched British force guarding the road out of the fort, but the British forces drove them off and Fort Niagara shortly surrendered. General Thomas Gage replaced William Johnson in command of the expedition.
At about this time, William Johnson’s first child by Molly Brant, sister of Mohawk Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), was born. Johnson’s first wife had died, and between 1759 and 1774 William Johnson and Molly Brant would have eight children.
It was Amherst who sent General James Wolfe to attack Quebec on September 13, 1859. Wolfe and Montcalm were both killed, but the British took Quebec. The victory was a major turning point in the conflict in North America and when the British besieged and finally occupied Montreal in 1760 the war was over with the conquest of Canada by Great Britain. French Canadians still call the war Guerre de la Conquête (War of the Conquest).
At Detroit on November 29, 1760, Robert Rogers, who was part of the attack on Montreal, accepted the surrender of the French installations on the Great Lakes and the next spring occupied Fort Michilimackinac and Fort St. Joseph in what is now Michigan. The Rangers were disbanded later that year.
Although the war was over in North America, it raged on as the Seven Years War in Europe and around the world. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 formalized the French withdrawal from North America, leaving Spain New Orleans and Louisiana and the British the rest of New France (France chose to keep the Caribbean island colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique over Canada). Great Britain also gained Florida from the Spanish, leaving them all of North America east of the Mississippi.
Great Britain was however, also left with new French-Canadian subjects and all the Indigenous nations which had supported France in the war. That same year (in May), Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out among them, in opposition to new trade and settlement policies of General Amherst. Indigenous warriors allied with the Seneca besieged five British forts and captured three of them.
By the middle of 1763, only Fort Detroit, Fort Niagara and Fort Pitt (formerly Fort Duquesne) remained in British hands. The conflict was ended with British punitive expeditions, negotiations, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 issued by King George III on October 7, 1763, which forbade all settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains.
The Proclamation contributed to the American Revolution, but the new United States eventually adopted a similar policy, including prohibiting unregulated trade and travel on Native American lands. In 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that only the United States government could purchase lands from Indigenous people.
Similarly, the Quebec Act of 1774 created resentment among British colonists, who were predominately and notoriously anti-Catholic. The Act, which was designed to pacify the French in Canada, protected the Catholic religion and French language, resulting in the Quebecois refusing to support the American Revolution.
William Johnson died on July 11, 1774. Guy Johnson, John Johnson (William’s oldest son) and John’s brother-in-law Joseph Brant supported the British during the American Revolution, leading colonial Loyalists and British allied Iroquois warriors against Patriots in Upstate New York.
John Warren contributed to the essay.
Illustrations, from above: Miniature of Fort Prince George under attack by French troops (diorama in the Fort Pitt Museum, Pittsburgh); Carlyle House, 121 North Fairfax Street, in Alexandria where the Alexandria Congress took place; “The Wounding of General Braddock” by Robert Griffing (Westmoreland Museum of American Art); a period map of the Battle of Lake George by Samuel Blodget; map from the time of the siege of Fort William Henry in 1757; A Plan of the Town and Fort of Carillon at Ticonderoga; and “Taking of Quebec, 13 September 1759.”