Military history


Amherst’s Dilemma


INDIAN POLICY WAS only one of many matters on Jeffery Amherst’s mind in 1761, and it was by no means the most pressing. For a variety of reasons—notably the willingness of post commanders and traders on the frontier to disregard the new regulations—rebellions did not immediately erupt in response to the changes he had decreed. Thus Amherst paid comparatively little attention to reports from Detroit of a rumored Indian conspiracy and news of unrest among the Indians around Fort Pitt; he merely assumed, notwithstanding the dire warnings of Sir William Johnson, that his reforms in the Indian trade were having the beneficial, economizing effect he intended. In the meantime Amherst addressed himself to the many problems of winding up the war in North America while fighting dragged on in Europe and elsewhere, with no clear end in sight. These difficulties all derived in one way or another from the need to control a conquered population and secure vast, newly won territories; and to do so with less money and fewer men than ever before.1

Amherst had established a military government for Canada in September 1760, immediately after Vaudreuil’s capitulation. This improvised system of administration, which divided what had been New France into the three districts of Québec, Trois-Rivières, and Montréal, would last until civil government could be instituted in August 1764. Until then, despite the fact that the governors of the three districts—Brigadier James Murray, Colonel Ralph Burton, and Brigadier Thomas Gage, respectively—ruled with comparative lenity, the government of Canada rested on essentially coercive foundations. At the beginning of 1761, seventeen battalions were stationed in the three districts, and another four battalions controlled the communications corridors that linked Canada to the British colonies and to the interior. Smaller units, of from one to eight companies, garrisoned the remote posts of the west, from Fort Pitt in the Ohio Valley, to Detroit at the head of Lake Erie, to Fort Michilimackinac at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. Eventually the absence of rebelliousness among the French allowed the garrisons of the Canadian heartland to be reduced, but there would always be at least five and a half battalions in the St. Lawrence Valley, and many more small units would be dispatched to take over French posts as they surrendered on the remote shores of the Great Lakes, in the Illinois Country, on the lower Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast, and in the southern interior. Finally, the British still had to man posts along the Atlantic coast, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, at Halifax and other Nova Scotia sites, and at army headquarters in New York. These together required a steady commitment of approximately four battalions.

Amherst at the beginning of 1761 had about sixteen thousand regular troops under his command, barely enough to perform the tasks of administration and control that confronted him—particularly since, as he well knew, desertion, death, and discharge would inexorably erode that number. In the best of times, Amherst’s battalions had been about 30 percent understrength; now, owing to the chronic difficulty of replenishing their ranks by enlistment in the colonies and the heavy demand for troops in Europe, which kept large numbers of replacements from being shipped across the Atlantic, he faced a situation that he knew would deteriorate, even as his responsibilities grew. To make matters worse, Pitt had recently ordered him to detach two thousand men for immediate service in the West Indies, and to prepare another six or seven thousand to depart in the fall for the invasion of the French island of Martinique. As much as he had come to despise American provincials—whom he thought barely worth their rations, much less their princely pay—Amherst had no choice but to request more than ten thousand troops from New England, New York, and New Jersey to help garrison his far-flung forts. This in turn meant more expense, and Amherst’s superiors were pressing him to economize with an urgency that would only intensify as the costs of the European war continued to mount. Always eager to please, Amherst constantly searched for ingenious ways to cut expenses while fulfilling his administrative responsibilities and securing the conquests. In the end, his solutions mainly succeeded in rendering his job more difficult.2

One of Amherst’s initiatives involved the early promotion of settlement. As early as 1759 he had agreed to requests from enterprising officers, provincial and regular alike, for grants of land in the vicinity of various posts. On November 10 that year, the colonels of the Massachusetts and Connecticut regiments had asked for permission to promote settlement along the road that had recently been completed from Fort Number 4 on the Connecticut River to Crown Point. That same day Major Philip Skene of the 27th Regiment had approached him with a request to ratify a venture he had already begun by settling a “number of poor families and some servants” at the head of Lake Champlain. Amherst tentatively agreed to both ventures and asked Pitt to have the Privy Council confirm his grants. Later he encouraged regular officers to begin settling civilians on a ten thousand–acre grant near Fort Niagara, and on a similar tract in the neighborhood of Fort Stanwix, at the Great Carrying Place between the Mohawk and Wood Creek. He also sanctioned settlements along the Forbes Road around Forts Bedford, Ligonier, and Pitt and was at least aware of settlements near other backwoods posts. The promoters of these schemes intended to make a speculative profit on the sale of lands to farmers, to promote trade, or even (in the case of Skene) to create manors on which they could settle tenants whom they would import from Europe. To Amherst, however, the new settlements offered a practical, economical solution to two problems. Most important, these settlements would insure the local availability of food, at a reasonable price, to garrisons that would otherwise have to continue hauling in provisions over vast distances. Second, they seemed to provide the only possible way to contain and control the migration of farm families to the now presumably safe frontier.3

By the fall of 1761 the valleys of the Youghiogheny, Monongahela, Loyalhanna, and Allegheny Rivers upstream from Pittsburgh were attracting backwoods settlers and hunters in such numbers that the commandant of Fort Pitt found it necessary to issue a proclamation forbidding settlement except where specifically authorized. Eventually he ordered the houses of squatters burned. Under such pressure, the officially sanctioned community at the Forks of the Ohio grew rapidly, as its inhabitants felled tracts of forest for fuel and building materials; planted fields of corn and beans; began a school for their children; constructed houses and barns, stores and warehouses, mills, brick kilns, and tanyards; excavated quarries for stone and lime, and opened a coal mine on a hill overlooking the Monongahela.4

Pittsburgh, and even the smaller settlements that grew up at Niagara, Fort Stanwix, on Lake Champlain, and elsewhere near frontier forts, were larger and more intrusive than any French trading post had ever been. Indian leaders understood only too well that the settlers had not necessarily come to trade with and live peaceably among them. While many had indeed come as traders whose presence was at least in general desirable, many more were coming to farm and to hunt, activities that competed directly with Indian subsistence. Those farmers and hunters, moreover, harbored attitudes shaped by seven years of bloody backwoods war, by no means favorable to Indians. Yet disruptive—and menacing— as their presence might be, no nativist leader could hope to expel them by force without first reckoning with the soldiers of the forts themselves: troops who were at once more alien, more numerous, and more heavily armed than the French had ever been.

Thus what seemed to Amherst to be sensible, economical solutions to the problems of supplying his garrisons and controlling the immigration of frontier families onto Indian lands looked to the Indians who traded at the forts like something else: colonization in the wake of conquest. In persuading them to abandon the French alliance, the British had pledged themselves to open a plentiful trade on favorable terms, and when the war was done to withdraw their soldiers. But more and more, in 1761 and after, the Indians came to understand these promises as lies. How else could they reasonably interpret the failure of the British to pull troops out of the west? How else could they explain the growth of civilian communities around the forts, or Amherst’s abrupt refusal to bestow presents, or new trade regulations that would render them both defenseless and dependent? At the end of 1761, however, Sir Jeffery Amherst saw none of the Indians’ concerns, for he had problems enough of his own.

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