Monday, October 13, 2008

French and Indian War

My apologies to everyone I faked out-- you will note the September 2004 byline on this column, which is one of my weekly reruns here on the blog!

(September 2004, News-Herald) This weekend a strange and varied assortment of people will converge on Franklin to mark the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War.

It’s a tough war to commemorate. To begin with, the start date is not entirely obvious. In 1749, Celeron claimed the Ohio valley with his infamous plates. The next year the British and French made their final attempt to carve up the continent peaceably. It failed.

Then the Marquis Duquesne was appointed governor-general of New France with instructions to chase the British out of the Ohio valley. To put some muscle where their mouths were, in 1753 the French built forts at Presque Isle and Le Boeuf; later that same year they evicted trader John Frasier from his cabin at the confluence the Allegheny and La Riviere aux Boeufs (roughly French for “the river of beef”—heaven only knows what possessed the French to pick that label for what we now call French Creek).

Here’s where young George Washington passes through to scout the French locations. On the way, he decides that the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela would make a dandy fort location. The British begin construction, but the French chase them away and finish the structure as Fort Duquesne. A battle between troops led by Washington and troops from Fort Duquesne in 1754 is generally considered to be the first actual battle of the war.

The British sent Major General Edward Braddock; his major achievement was to get many troops killed, himself included. The following year, 1756, the war, which had already consumed considerable human and financial resources, was officially declared.

In 1758, Brigadier General John Forbes recaptured Fort Duquesne from the French. In 1759, the French gathered forces here at Fort Machault in preparation to try to retake the fort; instead, in what some cynics would call a signature French strategy, they ran away.

The British had pretty well mopped up the French by the end of 1760, including the construction of Fort Venango, but not till 1763 was a treaty signed to conclude the business. By that time, native American tribes had decided that the British were lousy neighbors. Although Indians get equal billing in the war’s title, Pontiac’s uprising, which resulted in the total destruction of Fort Venango and which was not squashed until 1764, appears as a small separate footnote.

So why care about the war? If the British had lost, maybe we’d all be washing down croissants with snooty wine; then again, Napoleon might still have sold it all to Thomas Jefferson forty years later anyway. And that’s just playing “what if”, a game that’s a lot like “who cares.”

The war did train many future heroes; Washington not only made a name for himself, but learned a great deal from British generals about managing an ill-supplied army.

The war also set the stage for the revolution. The colonies moved to join together for their mutual security and protection. Ben Franklin’s famous woodcut of the disconnected snake captioned “Join or Die” was created for the French and Indian War, not the revolution. A congress of colonies at Albany convinced colonial leaders that a Union of the Colonies was needed to protect them all from the French. The Albany Plan of Union provided the basis for many of the ideas later considered in setting up a new country.

In short, for those of you with a more literary than historical bent, the French and Indian War is to the United States what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings. To revisit it is to revisit the roots of who and what we are as a nation.

It is also, on a weekend with a fresher, more horrifying anniversary, a reminder of a time when war was very different. To kill a person you had to look at him. And despite the tension between the nations, Washington could gather intelligence about the French by walking up to their encampments and asking them. For his troubles he was invited in, fed a nice meal, and sent politely on his way. Not a trick you could try with Osama.

The encampment this weekend will be held both days in the parks from 9 till 5. Warriors of all sides will be represented, complete with close order drills and the firing of muskets and cannon. A variety of 18th century crafts will be demonstrated and guests will discuss everything from the forests of the day to the old French Road from Franklin to Presque Isle.

Perhaps not even oil put Venango County in the thick of such major American history. We were the front lines of a great war for empire. This is a good weekend to learn something new about our home and see some cool stuff from another age.


Anonymous said...

Thanks. I really enjoyed reading that!

condatis said...

I'm so easily confused. First I read your post and went "Wooo! Some fun... Oh wait, that is an old column!"

Then I read Mr. Dittman's blog and I think he thinks there is stuff this weekend.

There is?

There isn't?


Dittman said...

That's my fault - I didn't see the byline.

From my Flickr