Military history


Anglo-America at War’s End THE FRAGILITY OF EMPIRE


BY THE SPRING of 1763 it had been two years since Great Britain’s leaders had paid more than occasional attention to North America. Ministers concerned with ending the war and plagued by unstable domestic politics had few reasons to worry about a sector in which the fighting was finished. The Cherokee rebellion had caused concern, of course. Yet Grant had evidently restored order on the Carolina frontier; Amherst had initiated reforms in the Indian trade and begun to regulate backwoods settlement; and Johnson had induced the formerly French-allied nations of the interior to accept King George as their new father at a Detroit conference in September 1761. In some ways the colonists were more troublesome than the Indians, but they did nothing so outrageous as to require action. Thus Whitehall could afford to ignore America, and did.

To ministers and commander in chief alike, the main significance of the mainland colonies after the conquest of Canada had been their ability to continue providing provincial troops, and that they had done adequately. True, the colonies’ legislatures had not found it intuitively obvious why they should go on raising and paying for soldiers once Canada had fallen and the threat of Indian raids had subsided. But governors like Massachusetts’s new chief executive, Francis Bernard, hastened to remind their assemblymen that they “must not think that if the War does not rage at your own Doors, you many therefore be unconcerned spectators in it,” and the representatives had for the most part responded well.1

The continuation of parliamentary subsidies helps explain the willingness of representatives in various colonies to heed the empire’s calls for men. But the fact remains that most assemblies showed a degree of enthusiasm nearly comparable to what they had manifested in 1759 and 1760. Only two colonies, both proprietaries split by chronic disputes, refused to raise provincials in 1761 and 1762: Maryland, which kept to its well-worn path of nonparticipation, and Pennsylvania, where the assembly returned to fighting the Penn family once the Indians ceased to be active enemies. Other provinces did their best to comply with the Crown’s request for two-thirds the number of men they had raised in 1760. In all, the four New England colonies plus New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas raised 9,296 men in 1761. In 1762, with the Cherokee War over and no troops needed from the lower south, the same colonies, less the Carolinas, supplied 9,204 troops. These figures represented, respectively, 80 and 90 percent of the total numbers requested— levels that in retrospect would seem to indicate high enthusiasm for the empire. Perhaps equally remarkable was the willingness of the New England provinces to enlist men for full-year terms. Both in 1761–62 and in 1762–63, more than 1,000 New Englanders wintered, without compulsion or mutiny, in garrisons from Halifax to Oswego.2

And yet, ready as most colony governments were to offer their inhabitants’ military services, colonists and their legislatures made no better impression than ever on the men who administered the empire. Amherst, committed to supplying troops for the West Indies expeditions but unable to dispatch redcoat battalions until provincials had relieved them at their posts, despised the Americans who always arrived late and seemed to show initiative best when it came to embezzling rations and pay. To him every case of malfeasance and every shortfall in meeting enlistment quotas demonstrated the poor character of the colonists and the self-interest of their governments, features of American life he had come to expect—and detest. But the commander in chief characteristically kept his own counsel, complaining to his superiors more bitterly than to the provincial legislatures. Amherst’s reports therefore accumulated along with Loudoun’s and Braddock’s older complaints in London, where they formed the consistent pattern on the basis of which ministers understood the character and patriotism of Americans. Yet disturbing as they were, such evidences precipitated no official action. Even the outrage that the Southern secretary, Lord Egremont, felt at what he believed was the Pennsylvanians’ “premeditated Resolution not to afford any Assistance” once “the immediate danger is removed from their own Doors” produced only a peevish letter to the province’s acting governor.3

Of more immediate concern to Whitehall was the colonies’ commerce with the enemy, which had caused problems from the beginning of the war. In August 1760, Pitt had ordered the colonial governors to crack down on the “illegal and most pernicious Trade, carried on by the King’s Subjects, . . . whereby [the French colonies] are, principally, if not alone, enabled to sustain, and protract, this long and expensive War.” Despite this ringing denunciation, however, smuggling was so extensive, and so many colonial customsmen were on the take, that most governors could do little more than echo Pitt’s condemnation of practices they could not hope to stop. Only a handful of royal officials made any attempt to enforce Pitt’s order. The most significant case occurred in the Bay Colony, where the unusually conscientious Governor Bernard and the equally punctilious chief justice of the colony’s superior court, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, tried to help an honest customs surveyor act against Boston’s smuggling merchants and their ally, the port’s corrupt collector of customs. The results were far from encouraging.4

Early in 1761, Massachusetts’s surveyor general of customs applied to the colony’s superior court for a renewal of what were called writs of assistance—general warrants enabling customs officers to enter warehouses and private residences where they suspected smuggled goods had been stored. The merchants of the town petitioned against the issuance of the writs. In mesmerizing arguments before Hutchinson and the other justices, the merchants’ counsel, James Otis Jr., contended that by authorizing general searches the court would unleash a “monster of oppression,” endangering both the common-law rights of the subject against unreasonable searches and the natural rights of man. Otis’s arguments created a local sensation, prompted popular demonstrations against “tyranny,” and launched his career as a leader of the opposition in the General Court. Moreover, they redefined politics in Massachusetts by simultaneously giving opposition politicians a cause (the protection of rights), a hero (Otis), and a set of enemies (the customs officers, Bernard, and Hutchinson) as targets for their rhetorical barbs. Yet for all that, they could do no more than delay the issuance of the writs. Hutchinson deferred his decision until he could consult authorities in London and then, satisfied that the warrants were indeed legal, granted them in November 1761.

The result—not surprisingly, given the intensity of merchant anxieties, the popularity of Otis’s oratory, the political capital to be made by appeals to liberty, and the willingness of the smugglers to protect their investments by extralegal means—was that merchant-inspired mobs intimidated the customs officers and in effect nullified the writs. This placed Bernard in a difficult, embarrassing position at the outset of his administration, and many of the political problems that would blight both his and Thomas Hutchinson’s future years would descend directly from the episode. But the most significant short-run result of Bernard’s frustrations was to ensure that the secretary of state for the Southern Department, the Board of Trade, and the rest of his British correspondents would receive ample accounts of how the smugglers, their pet lawyer, and their toadies in the General Court had formed a “confederacy” to thwart the Crown’s legitimate power. Like Amherst’s complaints about the ways colonies provided troops, Bernard’s reports gave British officials evidence that smuggling was a problem that would require the attention of responsible imperial authorities.

There could hardly be a more vivid example than this case of the way in which public disputes can create political alignments that persist long after the original issues of the controversy have vanished. In fact, the Bostonians’ resistance to writ-wielding customs officers lasted a very short time, because the surrender of Martinique in February 1762 opened that island and the rest of the French West Indies to legitimate trade within the British empire. French molasses, the main smuggled commodity in Massachusetts, suddenly became a perfectly legal commodity. Boston’s merchants, no longer worried that customs officers would break into their warehouses and discover contraband, lost interest in protesting the constitutional dangers of general warrants. Down to the late 1760s the writs of assistance remained in force, and others would be issued without arousing political furor, mob violence, or indeed much notice. By the end of 1762 opposition in the General Court had more or less fizzled out, primarily because its animating issue had fallen in abeyance. In 1763, tranquillity, or what passed for it locally, reigned in Massachusetts politics. Although the alignments of blocs in the assembly would reappear in subsequent controversies, the uproar over the writs of assistance had blown itself out as quickly as any other tempest in Boston’s teapot.

Taken together, the writs of assistance case and Amherst’s discontentment with the way the colonies levied provincial troops suggest that while the ties between the metropolis and the colonies remained fundamentally strong during the long transition to peace, the gulf that had always yawned between American conditions and British perceptions was gaping wider than ever. The war had propelled the colonies, for five long years, to the center of Britain’s political stage, and had sent powerful administrators to the periphery of empire, increasing manyfold both the numbers of reports on American conditions and the attention that ministers were willing to pay them. The shift in the war’s focus after 1760 had diminished the willingness of Britain’s political leaders to think about the colonies without lessening the status or destroying the connections of those men, like Amherst, who remained in place—men whose jobs grew more frustrating in the aftermath of victory. Both in raising troops and in seeking to suppress smuggling, harassed officers of the Crown encountered less than perfect responsiveness, and indeed resistance, from the colonists. When they complained, their superiors took their reports as accurate representations of the deficient character and lawless disposition of Americans.

And yet, at least for the time being, the ministers took no action. The war, in effect, prevented them from trying. In the first place, they were simply too busy with European affairs to concern themselves with a theater of operations where the war was effectively over. In the last critical years of the conflict, therefore, the ministers of Great Britain accepted less than perfect compliance, and even tolerated what seemed to them radically imperfect behavior, rather than add complications to their already complex lives. But they understood how well Amherst’s complaints about recruitment squared with those of his predecessors; they saw how the ingrained self-interest of the colonial merchants threatened the welfare of the empire in 1762 as much as it had in 1755 or 1756. And they knew that when peace finally returned, responsible officers of the Crown would need to take the colonies in hand, to promote the order and the due subordination without which the empire could not survive.

If the prolongation of the war kept British officials from addressing colonial issues, it also focused their attention on strategic concerns (manpower and trade with the enemy) and delayed the formulation of policies to deal with the single most striking, and potentially disruptive, trend in North America—the rapid movement of colonists and European emigrants into backwoods and newly conquered regions. As a result, during the last years of the war some of this migration would be officially encouraged, and some would enjoy at least a degree of official sanction, but most would simply be uncontrolled. All of it would tend to destabilize localities, muddle politics and business enterprise, and, at least indirectly, render the periphery of the empire less manageable than ever.

Nova Scotia exemplified the equivocal effects of even officially sponsored migration. The expulsion of the Acadian population had created what amounted to a depopulated colony, and that in turn created huge problems of finance and security for the province government. As early as the fall of 1758, Governor Charles Lawrence and the Nova Scotia Assembly tried to address these issues by inviting New Englanders and other colonists to take over the farms of the dispossessed Acadians. So many groups and individuals responded to the inducements they offered— large land grants (hundred-thousand-acre townships), low quitrents (and none due until ten years after settlement), liberty of conscience (to Protestants only), and guarantees that taxes would be imposed only by act of a colony legislature—that in less than two years Nova Scotia’s civilian population doubled, to about 8,500 settlers. During that period the legislature granted fourteen new townships to migrants from eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, Governor Lawrence entered into negotiations with a high-flying Ulsterman named Alexander McNutt, whose promises climbed to stratospheric heights as it became clear that there was no limit to what Governor Lawrence was prepared to offer. Eventually McNutt failed spectacularly to fulfill his promises, but not before he had agreed to bring in more than eight thousand settlers from northern Ireland and the American colonies, in return for well over a million and a half acres of land. The effect of Nova Scotia’s policy thus was to inaugurate a decade of feverish speculation—“a veritable carnival of land grabbing”—and to encourage the wild schemes, conflicting claims, and unfulfillable promises that actually hindered the colony’s recovery from the devastations of war and depopulation.5

Legitimate and quasi-legitimate settlement projects proliferated everywhere in the colonies as the threat of Indian attack subsided. We have already seen how Amherst’s provisional land grants stimulated settlement in the neighborhood of his forts. In the spring of 1761, more than thirty families were already living on the enthusiastic Major Skene’s manor in the Champlain Valley, and something like a miniature land rush was beginning on military grants in the Mohawk Valley.6 Elsewhere in the northern colonies settlement processes interrupted by the war resumed, following courses marked out by the recently constructed forts and the roads that served them. The most spectacular case was that of the so-called New Hampshire Grants.

In the four years before the war began, Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire had made 16 township grants in lands west of the Connecticut River and north of the Massachusetts border. The onset of hostilities stifled settlement on these grants, which at any rate were remote from established towns, difficult to reach in the absence of wagon roads, and—since the province with the best claim to jurisdiction over the land they occupied was not New Hampshire, but New York—of the most dubious legitimacy. But during the war the Bay Colony garrisoned a line of outposts along its northwestern border, and when the fighting ended Forts Massachusetts, Pelham, and Shirley all offered the spring-boards from which provincial veterans plunged northward to settle on the grants. Ease of access now erased worries about technicalities of title, and Governor Wentworth, short on scruples wherever profits beckoned, responded to the demand for more grants in a truly heroic way. In 1760 and 1761 he renewed 9 lapsed prewar patents and made 64 new ones. Before he finished, in mid-1764, the enterprising governor had erected 128 townships, encompassing three million of the region’s most farmable acres. These included most of the west side of the Connecticut Valley and all of the flat and fertile land east of Lake Champlain; they lined the Massachusetts border 2 or 3 deep and flanked the military road that Amherst had built from Fort Number 4 to Crown Point. In a little over three years, Benning Wentworth handed out more than half the land in what would become Vermont. In so doing he set the stage for a protracted, eventually violent conflict between the New Englanders who settled on his grants and the government of New York, which—in law if not in fact—possessed the better right to distribute the land.7

At the same time, the return of peace to the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry allowed movement to the southwestern frontier to resume, both along its old paths and on new ones that the war had carved. Already in 1759, Scotch-Irish and German migrants were following their accustomed routes from Lancaster and York, across Maryland and down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, toward the Carolina backcountry. Although the Cherokee War briefly deterred settlers and hunters from moving southwestward, settlement proceeded briskly across western North Carolina except in periods of active hostility. Even the remote settlements near Long Canes Creek, South Carolina, which as the district nearest the Cherokees remained tense for the longest period after the war, began to attract white farmers and hunters as soon as peace returned. 8

Meanwhile the Forbes Road and Braddock Road provided farmers with routes to the Ohio Country and places to settle near the military posts that the roads connected. The area around Fort Pitt throve with settlements of all sorts: licensed, at Pittsburgh itself; unlicensed but tolerated, on the Allegheny Valley lands that George Croghan owned and began to develop as early as 1760; and illegal in hollows and valleys everywhere. The Monongahela Valley, Colonel Bouquet complained to Virginia’s governor in early 1760, was being “over run by . . . Vagabonds, who under pretense of hunting, were making settlements.” Seeing how much these squatters and hunters were aggravating relations with the Indians, Bouquet issued a proclamation in the fall of 1761 requiring them to leave. When they ignored him, he sent out detachments the following April to burn down their cabins. But the squatters only came back or moved on and had their places taken by others.9

Those were only the settlers who lived near enough to Pittsburgh to enter Bouquet’s field of vision. Many more lived along the roads and rivers leading to Fort Pitt, and many of these were simply too useful to be driven off. The hundred families who settled near Fort Bedford, east of the Alleghenies at the beginning of Forbes Road, grew more than enough corn, fodder, and cattle to feed the garrison there, and even smaller numbers living at considerable distances from the forts could hardly be dispensed with lightly. Only fourteen families were reported to be living in the vicinity of Red Stone Old Fort in 1761, forty or so miles from Pittsburgh; but that fall they floated a thousand bushels of corn down the Monongahela to the Forks. The comparable number of families living near Fort Ligonier would have been able to supply most of that small garrison’s needs. Thus the forts furnished markets that helped stimulate the movement of population to the west, and an ironic symbiosis emerged between the forts and settlers that placed contradictory pressures on commanders like Bouquet, who sought to discourage the squatters on whom their garrisons were coming to rely.10

Given the eagerness of settlers to cross the Alleghenies, it is hardly surprising that the Ohio Company of Virginia, dormant during the years of fighting, should have tried to revive itself as hostilities tapered off. The difficulties it encountered in doing so reveal yet another dimension of the war’s effects, for even as military roads furnished new conduits for migration and forts became magnets for settlement, competition between speculating groups intensified and complicated the renewal of prewar claims. As early as 1759 members of the Ohio Company, fearful that Pennsylvanians would take over the Pittsburgh area, had sought to persuade Virginia’s new lieutenant governor, Francis Fauquier, to support their claims to the Forks. At the same time, however, the Ohio Company’s old competitor, the Loyal Company, was pressing Fauquier to recognize its overlapping claim to the southern (Kentucky) half of the Ohio Valley. Finally, besieged by both groups, Fauquier consulted the Board of Trade for instructions. They ordered him to promote neither claim, but rather to discourage any settlement that would interfere with Indian hunting rights.

Finding no help at Williamsburg, the Ohio Company looked westward to Fort Pitt. In July 1760, its agents offered Colonel Bouquet a share of company stock in return for allowing them to sell titles to the squatters already occupying company lands in the valleys of the Youghiogheny, Monongahela, Loyalhanna, and Allegheny Rivers. Bouquet, who had earlier expressed an interest, declined to be bought out. His duty, he explained, required him to enforce the provisions of the Easton treaty restricting white settlement west of the Alleghenies. He declined to elaborate on how his own acquisition of speculative rights to land in western Maryland had contributed to his lack of interest in diverting settlers to the Ohio Valley. In December representatives of the company tried to bribe him again, only to be rebuffed once more. Finally, frustrated, the company turned its efforts to London, where its shareholder the duke of Bedford promised to present its case to the Privy Council. But Bedford, preoccupied with the war’s political endgame, moved so slowly that the company’s steering committee decided to send an agent, Colonel George Mercer, to present its memorials. Despite these efforts, the company sold no land at all until 1763—and then only in the vicinity of Fort Cumberland, not on the Ohio, where so many settlers had already located. 11

The intertwined histories of land speculation and frontier settlement in the postwar colonies often seem no more than a snarled skein of ambition, self-interest, greed, and deceit. But these instances, from Nova Scotia to the Carolina frontier, in fact reveal patterns that help clarify the essential processes of change in the 1760s. The fundamental force at work in them all, the power that animated the whole system of settlement and speculation, was the dynamism of a farming population seeking opportunity. In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, American farmers moved to take up new lands regardless of virtually every factor but the safety of their families. Only violent resistance by native peoples, as in the case of the Cherokee War, could effectively restrain the movements of a population that paid little heed to any contravening laws, boundaries, or policies of the colonial governments. With the defeat of the French accomplished and the Indians unlikely to mount effective military resistance, therefore, both governments and private enterprises tried to position themselves to take advantage of population movements that no one could control.

In Nova Scotia and New Hampshire, the war decisively altered the circumstances of settlement—in one case by forcibly ejecting the Acadians from their homes, in the other by suppressing a French and Indian threat and providing new access to lands previously too remote and hazardous to colonize. Weak provincial governments and ambitious governors moved quickly to take advantage of these opportunities and enrich themselves. In the case of the Ohio Company, the pattern was somewhat more complicated. There, too, the settlers were following roads that had been built to fight a distant enemy; but there it was a private business partnership, not a government or a governor, that sought to profit from the surge of farm-seeking migrants. Unlike Lawrence and Wentworth, who responded to the lure of profit by inviting farmers and speculators to colonize newly opened lands, Virginia’s governor understood his duty as requiring him to discourage new settlement. When Fauquier declined to support the Ohio Company’s claims, therefore, he was trying to do what Colonel Bouquet attempted by burning cabins: halt the further invasion of Indian lands. The net effect of such official discouragement, however, was not to prevent the settlement from taking place—nothing but overt Indian hostility could accomplish that—but rather to displace the company’s energies from the frontier to London, where by means fair and foul it lobbied Fauquier’s and Bouquet’s masters to alter policy in its favor.

These patterns foreshadowed developments in settlement and land speculation that would emerge in full force during the later 1760s. Whenever imperial officials and colonial governors tried to block settlement, groups of speculators like the Ohio Company focused their activities and competition in London. There, where the need for access to the inner circles of power inevitably encouraged them to offer shares to political insiders and influence-peddlers, the result would be the growth of ever larger and more powerful speculative syndicates, maneuvering to gain access to ever larger grants of land. As time passed and the potential for profit escalated, the activities of such groups would assume a kaleidoscopic complexity. Yet always their motives and tactics would remain the same: to gain control of policy at the highest levels by the manipulation of powerful men. Insofar as their maneuvers and countermaneuvers, plots and counterplots, would cancel one another out or inhibit the making of policy, these speculative syndicates would tend to slow the actual processes of settlement in America. They could not, however, prevent settlement from occurring. In the absence of a policy to legitimate it, the settlement that did take place would be unsanctioned, secretive, and chaotic.

Of course, not all of the new postwar colonization would take place on trans-Allegheny lands, any more than all speculative activity would occur in London. Wherever colonial governments or speculative groups directly tied to those governments sought to promote settlements where territorial jurisdiction was fuzzy or contested, conflicts would tend to arise between competing groups of settlers. Rather than the maneuverings of powerful groups in the metropolis, these competitions to define the future of American settlement would manifest themselves on the frontiers of empire—as boundary disputes between provinces, violent confrontations between bands of white settlers with titles based on colonies’ conflicting claims, or as open warfare between invading whites and the Indian groups that already occupied the land. In this final permutation, the most violent and in terms of human life the most costly conflicts could arise; and among them all the most tragic instance would be the Susquehannah Company’s attempts to settle the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!