Europe, Native America, and the Fur Trade

The geography of America, physical and historical, is today an open book. Not all of it was hidden from Champlain, that extraordinary clairvoyant, who had mapped Lake Ontario and guessed at the existence of Lakes Michigan and Superior. His vision of the interior, nevertheless, was patchy and shallow. He had no inkling of the existence of the Rockies, no knowledge of Canada’s frozen north or of the rivers which ran through it to Hudson Bay, no conception that the mouth of the Mississippi, already entered by the Spanish, led northwards to headwaters in his own zone of exploration, and certainly no apprehension of the existence or extent of the Great Plains. He knew, of course, of the Pacific, into which the Portuguese and Spanish had already voyaged, but was as confused as most explorers of North America from the Atlantic coast were long to remain over the configuration of its eastern shores; he presumed a mer douce in the American heartland which gave on to the fabled realms of the Orient.

We can now arrange his scraps of objective discovery, and the outlines of the more distant topography gleaned from Indian descriptions, quite exactly. New France, as it was to become, is, we understand, what geographers have called “an empire of the spillways.” In the great ages of glaciation, ending twelve thousand years ago, an enormous sheet of ice had spread southwards from the Arctic to cover the whole of Canada and the Great Lakes region, its southernmost edge coming to rest in the crescent where today the Missouri and Ohio rivers join the Mississippi. The advance of the ice had the effect of blocking the northern outlets of the Canadian rivers into Hudson Bay, thus forming enormous lakes which eventually overflowed their shores and drained away southwards into the Caribbean and Atlantic. The “spillways” gouged channels through the high ground interlying the original river valleys, which, on the retreat of the ice, left a complex network of natural portages—“carrying places” between waterways, where goods and boats could be manhandled overland—making for easy intercommunication over a vast area for canoeists and forest travellers. Such travellers, who became the coureurs de bois and voyageurs, following the tracks left by and usually shown to them by the indigenous Indian inhabitants, were thus spared the long exhausting journeys on foot which faced the Spanish and English in their explorations of the interior mountainous and arid zones.

This is not to say that the task of the French explorers was simple. As anyone knows who lives where streams and rivers run, the logic of a waterway system is infuriatingly difficult to dissect. An eastward flow may be no more than the bend in a brook whose eventual direction is westward; the apparent connection between one stream and another may be interrupted by a watershed which sends each in divergent directions; a clear and fast-flowing rivulet may waste itself in a swamp; the feeder to a lake may have no outlet on the other side. I live at a high point from which I can descend to cross four rivers, the Frome, the Stour, the Wylye, and the Brue, with their many tiny tributaries; all rise within a mile of my house. Though it stands only seven hundred feet above sea level, each of these rivers nevertheless follows a declivity which puts its mouth at least fifty miles away from any other; two of the rivers eventually drain into the Bristol Channel, opposite Wales, two into the English Channel opposite France.

All this can be seen at a glance from the Ordnance Survey map. There were no maps at all, however, of any part of North America when Champlain began his survey, for the Indians were not mapmakers; they carried the pattern of the rivers and lakes in their heads and marked their trails and portages by “blazes” on the trees. They in their turn had learnt something of the lie of the land from the tracks beaten out by the larger game which had roamed the wilderness before they arrived in America at the end of the last ice age. None of this amounted to a key to the continent; there were no song lines by which an aborigine could chant himself, as in Australia, from sea to sea. Walkabout, in any case, was not an American Indian habit. Tribal neighbours were more often enemies than friends, inclined to take and torture an interloper rather than help him on his way. The Indians, therefore, did not know the shape of the world they inhabited, and it would take the Europeans four hundred years to fix its features correctly into place on a single sheet of mapmaker’s paper.

Yet the pattern of North American geography since the retreat of the ice may, by a reader of modern maps, be quite simply grasped. It consists of two mountain chains and two intermediate river systems. The mountains, Appalachian and Rocky respectively, the latter enormously exceeding the former in scale, march parallel to the Atlantic and Pacific borders of the continent, and from them comparatively short rivers drain east and west through the littorals to the oceans; an exception is the Rio Grande system, which flows southward from the Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico. The inland basin contained between the mountain chains is watered by their runoff, which feeds one of the two great intermediate river systems, the Mississippi, by way of the Missouri, the Arkansas, and the Red rivers through the Great Plains and by way of the Ohio and the Tennessee, the principal waterways of the Midwest and the South. The other great intermediate system is that of the St. Lawrence, deriving from the Great Lakes, where the source of supply is internal: the lakes form the largest freshwater complex in the world, which is a climatic zone in itself, attracting rainfall from its feeder rivers but also creating its own rainfall, by which the St. Lawrence and its tributaries are fed. Thus America’s inland basin contains one outlet in the Gulf of Mexico and one to the Atlantic, with the Great Lakes lying between them to form a strategic centre of intercommunication southwards and westwards for any power swift enough to make the lakes its own.

There is, of course, a third hydrographic system, that lying above the “Height of Land” which separates habitable Canada from the coniferous wilderness and tundra of the north. It contains the largest number of lakes in the world, lakes so numerous, indeed, that the modern Northwest Territories is almost as much water as land, as well as its own major rivers such as the Mackenzie, which flow either directly to the Arctic Ocean or else, indirectly, through the great inlet of Hudson Bay. Frozen in winter, swamped and insect-ridden in summer, the country above the Height of Land is scarcely fit for human life. In pre-Columbian times it was the most sparsely populated American region, occupied by scattered migrational bands of Athapascans and Algonquians, who followed the caribou, and of Eskimo fishermen. It was also home, however, to the world’s richest population of fur-bearing animals outside the Russian taiga, fox, wolf, bear, and beaver, whose coats grew in the subarctic temperatures to luxuriant thickness. Thus one of the poorer regions on the globe’s surface offered the allure of sudden riches to trappers, hunters, and middlemen adventurous enough to risk the hazards and hardships for profit.

They could not be the Spanish or the English, let alone the Dutch. Their patroons (landholders), swanneken (traders), and boschlopers (men of the woods) never succeeded in breaking far enough out of their Hudson foothold to find the primal sources of furs in the interior. The Spanish began the quest from too far away, while the English were frustrated by the barriers of the Appalachians, the gaps through which long hid themselves from discovery. It was the French, therefore, who started with the advantage, conferred by Cartier’s discovery of the St. Lawrence’s mouth and by Champlain’s journeys up the Ottawa and Saguenay rivers into the territory above the great river, down the Richelieu towards the Hudson Valley and westward to Lakes Ontario and Huron. Champlain, however, did not succeed in uncovering the inner connections between the St. Lawrence and the further Great Lakes. Those were to come later, and to be opened to the Europeans by the local knowledge of Indian collaborators.

The pattern of the key portages is now well known to us, though their usefulness has been altogether obliterated by the building of the modern road system, which so often overlays them. They may be divided into three: (a) those along the main axis of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, which allowed men to use that complex as a single east–west water highway; (b) those giving southward off that axis on to the Mississippi but also to its great tributary, the Ohio, and on to the short rivers draining into the Atlantic, in particular the Hudson; and (c) those leading northward to Hudson Bay.

On the St. Lawrence the most important of the portages was that in the narrows between Montreal and Lake Ontario, by which the traveller could reach Lake Erie through the portage round Niagara Falls, and thence both Lake Huron by the St. Clair portage above Detroit and Lake Superior by the portage at Sault Ste. Marie, on the route of the modern Soo Canal; Huron has an open connection with Lake Michigan at Michilimackinac (modern Mackinaw City) and, as a crucial junction, was fortified by the French as early as 1676.

The second set of portages included the Temiscouata, from the St. Lawrence estuary to the St. John River (in modern New Brunswick); that between Lake Oneida and the Mohawk River (“the Great Carrying Place”), giving a connection from Lake Ontario to the Hudson; that overland from Lake Erie to the headwaters of the Allegheny River, one of the forks of the Ohio; the Maumee, which connected to the Wabash River and so down to the Ohio near its confluence with the Mississippi; and the Chicago, on which the modern metropolis stands, which joined Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and, together with the Green Bay portage to the Wisconsin River, thus directly to the Mississippi again. The most important of all, however, was that in the Hudson Valley by which that river could be reached from Lake Champlain and so, via the Richelieu River, from the St. Lawrence. This Hudson–Richelieu corridor was to become the most heavily fortified and contested strategic route in American military history.

The third set of portages included the Matlawa, connecting the upper Ottawa River to the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron via Lake Nipissing; the Grand Portage, which led from the north shore of Lake Superior to Rainy Lake and so on to the Lake of the Woods and Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba and along the Saskatchewan River to the prairies and the Canadian Northwest; and the Lake Nipigon portage, which, via the Ogoki and Albany rivers, took the traveller to James Bay of Hudson Bay. The Michipicoten portage to the Missinaibi and Moose rivers reached the same destination on a parallel route.

All this looks simple to the student of a modern atlas, and much of it was natural to the indigenous Indians. Indeed, in New Brunswick, to take one of many examples, the road system today does little more than replicate in blacktop the routes paddled and walked by the native inhabitants for millennia before the French arrived. The Trans-Canada Highway between Fredericton and Edmunston follows their canoe route along the St. John River; its branch from Bristol to Newcastle, Provincial Highways 107 and 8, replicates the Indian river route down the Miramichi, which involved two portages, while that from St. Leonard to Campbellton parallels another which portaged at the Restigouche River. Nothing, however, was simple or natural to the French, who either had to work things out for themselves or, if they were fortunate, submit to teaching by the Indians. In a strategic sense, they must be given the credit—very great credit—for working out the connection between the mouths of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, since no Indian’s knowledge was extensive enough to encompass such a span of geography. Short-range connections were, by contrast, almost always divulged by the locals. Thus, for example, it was Iroquois who told Champlain of the Saguenay–Mistassini traverse from the St. Lawrence to Hudson Bay and of the key portage from Lake George, below Lake Champlain, to the Hudson River. In 1653 the Jesuit Father Poncet, then a captive of the Iroquois, was taken under escort from the Mohawk River to Montreal by the route normal to his captors: instead of descending to the Hudson, portaging and ascending the Richelieu, they took the short cut up Lake Oneida and the Oswego River, so into Lake Ontario and thence down the St. Lawrence; this inadvertent disclosure then became part of the French-Canadian route map.

The stages by which the pattern of key interconnections was established add up to a roll call of famous names. Cartier found the St. Lawrence in the sixteenth century. Champlain explored its source in Lake Ontario and discovered its connections with the Hudson and Lake Huron, via the Ottawa River, in the early seventeenth. A remarkable series of journeys was meanwhile undertaken by a young subordinate of Champlain’s, Etienne Brulé, who was left by him to overwinter with the Hurons in 1615. These hivernants, as the French would call them, were to become the essential interpreters of Indian ways and language of the French and vice versa, but Brulé, a boy of wonderful self-confidence and high spirits, proved himself a great explorer in his own right. He lacked Champlain’s cartographic training and so could give no exact record of his travels, but he undoubtedly made his way from the Great Lakes to the Susquehanna River and thence to its mouth in Chesapeake Bay.

French power would never suffice for an expansion in that direction, however; their course of empire lay westward, and the next men to make an imaginative leap forward were the trader Louis Jolliet and the Jesuit father Jacques Marquette. Missionaries and traders had done much land exploration around the Great Lakes from 1650 to 1670, and Jolliet in 1668 had been shown by an Iroquois the short route, via the St. Clair River, between Lakes Huron and Erie, on which Detroit now stands. In 1672 he and Marquette were commissioned by the royal intendant, Jean Talon, to authenticate reports of a route down the Mississippi—of which the missionaries Dablon and Allouez had heard but not had sight—to the ocean; whether that ocean was the Atlantic or Pacific was to be the subject of their investigation. Leaving Green Bay on Lake Michigan in the summer of 1673, they were shown by the Miami Indians how to portage to the Wisconsin River and thus entered the Mississippi on 17 June. Shortly afterwards, they passed the mouth of a “second Mississippi,” the Missouri, but pressed on to see the confluence with the Ohio and did not finally halt until they met Indians with guns who frightened them by their warlike manner, just short of the mouth of the Arkansas. They were then told by friendlier locals that they were only ten days from the sea but judged it unsafe to go farther.

They had already voyaged over a thousand miles from their starting place and on the way back made the additional discovery of the portage from the Illinois to Lake Michigan on which Chicago now stands; astonishingly, an interim report in Latin of their adventures, given to an Indian encountered on the Ohio, was passed by him to a Virginia trader, who gave it to William Byrd, who gave it to William Penn, who sent it home to Robert Harley in England, where it turned up at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire in the 1890s. News of the Jolliet–Marquette discoveries, of course, reached New France somewhat earlier than that. The royal government, nevertheless, was slow to act. It was not until 1680 that the mysterious adventurer Robert de La Salle secured permission to trade with a monopoly in the Mississippi Valley and to discover its connections with Mexico. He had already traded and travelled widely in the Great Lakes region, and made an arduous journey on foot at the time of the snow-melt from the Illinois to the east, making new moccasins every night for sixty nights, that year. In 1682 he set off from the Chicago portage with a sizeable party, dragged canoes to the Illinois, and thence paddled down to the junction with the Mississippi, whose whole length to the mouth at what is now New Orleans he traversed in three months.

The inland circuit between the entries to North America’s two greatest rivers, the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, was now complete. All that remained to do by way of enumerating their tributary lakeland and portage connections with the interior west of the Rockies was accomplished within the next sixty years. Not all who made significant discoveries were French. Henry Kelsey, the first European to see the Great Plains, was an English employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, while some of the boldest rangers of the country between the Appalachians and the Ohio were unnamed Dutch boschlopers. Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who had done so much to establish the overland routes from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay, was French but a turncoat who ended in the pay of the English; Lederer, who got from the coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains, was of German descent. A set of French names nevertheless stands out, that of Pierre de la Vérendrye and his sons, who together in the years 1727–43 opened up the routes westward from Lake Superior to Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba and to the Saskatchewan River foremost. Vérendrye was a genuine Canadian—though he spent enough time in France to be badly wounded fighting against Marlborough at Malplaquet in 1709—whose father had been governor of Trois Rivières on the St. Lawrence. He and his sons secured a monopoly to trade around Lake Winnipeg in 1730, conditional on a promise to search for that old chimera, a route to the Pacific, and in fulfilment of it over the next thirteen years explored widely on the Missouri and the Saskatchewan, built chains of forts, established relations with many Indian tribes, including the Sioux, and pushed their ventures so far to the west that they are credited with having seen the Rockies. It is more probable that the mountains the Vérendryes saw were the Black Hills of Dakota, but they were certainly in the Badlands and penetrated to the Cheyenne River. There, almost touching the borders of the Spanish-Indian culture zone of the Southwest and in anticipation of the days of the Wild West, they planted the farthest outpost of New France in the Americas.

Yet little of all this adventure can be called exploration for its own sake; pure exploration, indeed, was a concept alien to Europeans before the onset of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. Pious Europeans explored for souls; the rest explored for riches. Riches in North America meant fur, and it was in order to dominate the fur frontier that the French drove so relentlessly north and westward from their lodgement on the St. Lawrence, always in pursuit of compliant trading partners whom rumour alleged to have access to an inexhaustible source of thicker and glossier pelts. No such source existed. Fur is one of the most rapidly depleted commodities in the natural world, as are ivory, horn, plumage, or any other animal product acquired by killing its bearer. The native Americans had, in the first millennium after their arrival in the continent from Siberia, exterminated as game the mammoth, the horse, and dozens of other species; fox, wolf, and beaver had survived only because they were not edible. The Indians of the fur zone, of course, killed as many beaver as they needed to clothe themselves, but the number was easily replaced by reproduction. Indian population density was low. Though some scholars claim that there were as many as ten million natives in pre-Columbian America north of Mexico, a figure of 750,000 in the modern United States and 250,000 in Canada is more generally agreed; even the “great” tribes, such as the Iroquois, could field against the French no more than 2,000 warriors from a total population of about 20,000. Once, however, the European appetite for furs impinged, animal numbers declined precipitately. Millions across the Atlantic wanted pelts; a few thousand trappers and hunters could easily supply the need. The gentle, domesticated beaver’s pattern of life, centred on his conspicuous lodge and dams, made him easy meat; even the sly fox was trapped with regularity in the winter months when the snowfall betrayed his tracks and lairs.

By the mid-seventeenth century the immediate neighbourhood of the St. Lawrence was trapped out, as the New England rivers already had been. The fur frontier then moved to the eastern Great Lakes, where the Hurons of “Huronia”—the triangle of land between Lakes Ontario, Huron, and Erie—thrived as middlemen, exchanging their agricultural produce with the hunting and trapping Indians of the colder interior for furs and selling them on to the French for trade goods. War with the Iroquois, who coveted the middleman role but preferred English to French trade goods, destroyed Huronia in 1649 and temporarily interrupted supply. It was resumed when other Indians, notably the Ottawa, saw the opportunity to use their routes north of the lakes in an outflanking move and thus brought the produce of the Assiniboines and other trapping tribes directly down to Montreal. Individual Frenchmen were quick to see that what the Ottawa could do they might try for themselves, and it was these early coureurs de bois who set off to the upper Great Lakes, encouraged by the local administration and often accompanied by missionaries seeking new converts in the wilderness. By 1670 the fur frontier stood at Lake Superior but then took a southward direction when, through the discoveries of Jolliet, Marquette, and La Salle, the fur-bearing region of the Ohio was opened up to French trade. It was one in which they were shortly to find themselves in competition with the English, as also in Hudson Bay far to the north. The imperative to open up new, wholly French-dominated trading zones therefore persisted, and in the eighteenth century it was towards the Northwest that the effort shifted. The Indian response adapted accordingly; just as the Iroquois had sought to impose an exchange barrier on the Great Lakes, first it was the Illinois and then the Fox who attempted to create a monopoly west of Lakes Michigan and Superior, ironically often in conflict with would-be French monopolists of the export trade such as La Salle. The Vérendryes, last of the great French explorers, were in effect attempting to bypass the Fox and trade with such fur-trapping tribes as the Cree when they made their epic journeys along the Saskatchewan and into the Dakotas in the 1730s.

The French empire of the fur frontier was therefore an odd one, since it had no fixed boundaries; the value of land fluctuated with its fur-bearing properties. The empire has, indeed, been called unique, since, as W. J. Eccles puts it, the French “were no more interested in occupying territory than were New England seamen who voyaged to Africa for cargoes of slaves.” Yet they had to claim occupation, none the less, as a means both of subjugating those Indians who contested trade rights with them and of excluding other Europeans who wanted trade rights for themselves. They were, in consequence, often at war, though the wars they fought varied greatly in intensity, duration, and legality. Some were extensions of great wars in Europe, some local, some quite unofficial. Almost every sort of war in the inventory, indeed, was waged in North America between the founding of New France and its overthrow 150 years later.

Champlain, friend to the Iroquois though he eventually sought to make himself, opened hostilities in 1609 when he accompanied a party of their Huron and Algonquin enemies on the warpath down the Richelieu River. On 29 July, at what would become the site of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, the Champlain party encountered a band of two hundred Mohawks. The two sides built barricades and exchanged insults, the preliminaries to “primitive” warfare almost worldwide, and next day advanced to contact. Champlain fired his quadruple-shotted arquebus and killed two Mohawk chiefs; a third was killed by another Frenchman. Their armour of wooden slats offered no protection against gunpowder weapons. Some fifty Mohawks were killed altogether, and the Hurons and Algonquins returned home rejoicing at the victory over their traditional enemies.

One skirmish could not, however, end a war in which the material interests of the two sides were so fundamentally involved. The European appetite for furs had overturned the Indians’ subsistence economies, arousing in them a lust for trade goods and so a determination to intercept and control the flow of pelts from the Indians of the interior by denying them direct contact with the Europeans. Had the French themselves been able to deny all the would-be middlemen—Hurons and Iroquois alike—contact with other Europeans, conflict might have been moderated or even averted. They could perhaps have imposed a peace or lent decisive support to one side. As it was, the Iroquois succeeded in acquiring guns and support first from the Dutch, who established a forward base at Fort Orange (Albany) in the 1620s, and later, when the New Netherlands became New York, with the English. It was this accretion of power which allowed the Iroquois, whose Five Nations association rapidly transformed itself from a cultural to a political confederacy, to fall on the Hurons with such destructive ferocity in 1648–49 and thereafter to sustain endemic guerrilla warfare against the French mission and trading outposts until the end of the seventeenth century.

France responded to Iroquois hostility by a variety of means, diplomatic, military, active, and passive. One was fort-building. Fortification was not unknown to the native Americans, and the Iroquois in particular had numbers of stockaded settlements, against which Champlain showed the Hurons how to use a European-style siege tower. It was the Europeans, however, who understood “scientific” fortification, the style of walling and entrenchment designed to foil musketry and later to resist artillery bombardment, and by the end of the seventeenth century they were doing as the Dutch had done and the English were doing, busily building small but stout forts at whatever sites they had identified as commercially or strategically significant. The design tended to be standard, some variation of the star or more properly “bastion trace” plan already appearing along the coastlines, lakeshores, and rivers of the world wherever Europeans were planting empire; in North America, where timber was so plentiful, the material used was wood, supplemented by sod. Where musketry alone had to be feared, a timber palisade, with a trench in front, sufficed; forts threatened by field guns were built of earth or sod, revetted by timber; a few coastal, lake, or river forts, against which the enemy could bring waterborne cannon, were, at enormous expense, constructed of stone.

The extension of the French fortification can be dated with accuracy. Quebec was fortified by Champlain in 1612, and thereafter the works were frequently improved, and Cartier had built an overwintering fort at the mouth of the St. Charles River in 1535 and another at Cap Diamant in 1541, but both had returned to nature by the time of Champlain’s settlement. During the 1620s a scattering of small coastal forts were built in Acadia (Nova Scotia) to protect the infant communities against the English, and this fortification was extended in the years 1630–40. In 1721 was begun what would become the strongest fortress in North America, Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, intended to be a Gibraltar at the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

Along the St. Lawrence itself the French built forts for local protection against Indians: at Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River, perhaps as early as 1600; at Trois Rivières at the mouth of the St. Maurice in 1634; and on the island of Montreal in 1642. The chain was extended down to and then within the Great Lakes by the building of Frontenac (modern Kingston) in 1673 and Detroit, guarding the St. Clair River connection between Lakes Erie and Huron, in 1704.

These outposts were links leading to a new fur trade fort built in 1676 at Michilimackinac, which stands strategically at the junction of Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. From it, following the expeditions of Jolliet, Marquette, and La Salle into the Illinois country and down to the Mississippi, extra forts were emplaced on the upper Mississippi: Le Soeur, at its junction with the Des Moines River, and St.-Louis-des-Miamis and Crèvecoeur, both on the Illinois; all were built in 1680–81. Prud’homme, near modern Memphis, and Toulouse, on the lower Mississippi, were built in 1681 and 1699 respectively to connect with the recently founded Biloxi and New Orleans.

Northward from the system stretched the chain protecting the fur trade frontier opened up by La Vérendrye and his sons in the eighteenth century. Its starting points were at Green Bay, Lake Michigan, a post founded by the Jesuits in 1670, and at Cedar Lake (Fort Bourbon), founded in 1680. Kaministikwia was built at Grand Portage on the north shore of Lake Superior in 1718. It protected the route which led via Pigeon River to Rainy Lake (Fort St. Pierre, 1731), Lake of the Woods (Fort St. Charles, 1732), Lake Winnipeg (Fort Maurepas, 1734), the Assiniboine River giving on to the Red River (Fort La Reine, 1731), Lake Winnipegosis (Fort Dauphin, 1740), and finally the Saskatchewan River (Fort Paskoyak, 1750). This was the farthest northwest the French penetrated.

The shore of Hudson Bay, and its great inlet at James Bay, was also fortified at the points where the rivers of the Canadian shield—Churchill, Nelson, Hayes, Severn, Albany, Rupert—flow into the Arctic. Six forts had been established by 1701, but the approach was from the sea, not the land, and the duality of their nomenclature—Fort Albany and Ste. Anne, Moose Factory and Fort St. Louis, York Factory and Fort Bourbon—is a reminder of the shifting fortunes of the French and the Hudson’s Bay Company in those northern latitudes. The history of the Hudson Bay forts does not connect with the larger military history of North America.

That was eventually to focus on two other river systems: the Richelieu–Hudson line, with its offshoot up the Mohawk River by which eastern Lake Ontario was approached from the south, and the Forks of the Ohio, a strategic complex of waterways leading northward to Lake Ontario and southward through Pennsylvania to Virginia, Maryland, and the waters of Chesapeake Bay. The French began to construct forts at the St. Lawrence end of the Richelieu River corridor as early as 1665, when men of the Carignan-Salières Regiment built Chambly and St. Jean; the smaller forts of St. Louis, Ste. Thérèse, and Ste. Anne were built the following year. Major engineering, however, did not begin until the eighteenth century, with the intensification of the Anglo-French struggle for empire, when St. Frédéric (Crown Point) was built on the bottom of Lake Champlain in 1731 and Carillon (Ticonderoga) in 1755. The British responded with the construction of Fort William Henry (1755) at the bottom of Lake St.-Sacrement, an arm of Lake Champlain, and Fort Edward on the upper Hudson. They had inherited control of the Mohawk corridor from the Dutch, whose fortification of Albany (Fort Orange, 1624) protected the connection with the Hudson. At the upper end of the Mohawk, where the portage of the Great Carrying Place led to Lake Oneida and so to Lake Ontario, control was exerted through Fort William and Fort Bull and Fort Oswego (1726), against which the French fortified Niagara the following year.

In the Ohio country the means of movement provided by two waterways is bafflingly intricate to the modern eye. The Ohio River itself, key to the geography, connects directly to the Mississippi, where Cairo, Illinois, now stands, but its northern tributaries, the Miami, the Scioto, and the Allegheny, lead towards Lake Erie, while those rising to the south, particularly the Monongahela, drop down from the Appalachian watershed. Just over that crest begin the short but important streams—Juniata and Susquehanna and Potomac—which furnish the way inland from Chesapeake Bay. For the French, therefore, to control the Ohio was essential. The watershed was British territory, unsettled but, from the 1720s, increasingly penetrated by English-speaking traders with attractive trade goods to offer to the Indians. The New Yorkers were already threatening the French position on the southern shores of Lake Ontario. Were the Pennsylvanians and Virginians to break out in numbers across the mountains, the Ohio country might be lost and then the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes–Mississippi axis, the backbone of French America, itself put under threat. From their coastal bases, outposts of their Atlantic power with its roots in the British Isles, but connected also to their spreading network of possessions in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Indies, the British might, once they found and made passable the gaps in the Appalachian chain (the Cumberland Gap, later to be exploited by Daniel Boone, had been discovered by the Virginian Thomas Walker in 1750), overwhelm the scattered French with an army of land-hungry settlers. In anxious anticipation of such a development, the new governor of Canada, Marquis Duquesne des Menneville, had two new forts built on the southern shore of Lake Erie, Presqu’ile (modern Erie) and Le Boeuf, just inland, in 1753; when in 1754 the Virginians nevertheless voted funds to fortify the Forks of the Ohio, Duquesne pre-empted them by capturing the site (modern Pittsburgh) and creating a fort of his own bearing his name.

By the beginning of what we know, though the contestants did not, was to become the Seven Years War, North America was perhaps as extensively fortified a zone as any in the world, certainly more so than the interior of Britain or France, and bearing comparison—if allowance is made for differences of scale—with the densely defended waterway zones of the Low Countries and northern Italy. North America, moreover, already had its own bitter military history. Intertribal warfare was a fact of American Indian life long before the coming of the Europeans, as in so many “hard primitive” societies; Indians fought for honour, revenge, excitement, and in order to replace the casualties of war by seizing and “adopting” captives from the enemy. Later they fought against themselves over fur as well, particularly in the period 1649–84 when the Iroquois destroyed Huronia, raided the Susquehannocks, Nipissings, Potawatomi, and Delawares, and tried but failed to defeat the Illinois. There had been a series of Indian–settler wars by the Powhatan Confederacy against the Virginians during the years 1622–46, by the Pequot in Connecticut in 1636–37, by several tribes in the New Netherlands against the Dutch in 1643–44, and by the Algonquins in Massachusetts and Rhode Island (King Philip’s War) in 1675–66. Indians also joined the imperial wars of the colonists on their own account, as the Abenakis of Maine did against the English in 1688, or at the side of European allies. The raids staged by the Comte de Frontenac, Governor of New France, 1689–98, into New York and New England in the years 1690–92 were mounted with Indian assistance, as were those by the French during the War of the Spanish Succession of 1702–13—Queen Anne’s War—when Deerfield, the northernmost settlement on the Connecticut River (today home to one of the most famous American prep schools), was raided for the third time, to the usual accompaniment of massacre, scalping, kidnap, and other cruelties.

The menace of Indian raids was an endemic colonial anxiety; but every colony had its share of roughs who could wreak reprisal, or get their reprisal in first, and the Indians never, in any case, threatened to upset the balance of power in the New World. The settlers themselves, who had cannon, regular soldiers, and, above all, ships in which to shift their means of power about, fought war on a different scale altogether. In 1629, David Kirke from Boston turned Champlain out of Quebec, which was restored to France only at the peace of 1630; this was the first of many subsequent episodes in which the locals undertook hostilities against each other, often without approval from home. In 1654, Robert Sedgwick, a Cromwellian admiral commissioned to attack the New Netherlands in prosecution of England’s first Dutch War, chose to attack French Acadia instead, and, though there was then no war with France, it remained in English hands until 1670. The Hudson Bay forts and factories were swapped about like counters in the late seventeenth century, Radisson, a figure of Conradian romance, selling his services between the trading companies as the bidding shifted. In 1689 another adventurer, William Phips, seized Port Royal in Acadia for the New Englanders, and, spurred on by the rewards of a knighthood, sailed with two thousand Boston men for Quebec the following year. They felt they had much to avenge, for Frontenac’s raids into their northern farmland and townships had left many dead; they were also inflamed by the promise of loot from Quebec’s churches and rich merchant houses. Frontenac was confronted with an ultimatum. It was backed with impressive force, for a fleet of thirty-four ships filled the St. Lawrence estuary around the Ile d’Orléans, and Phips’s emissary, who had been blindfolded to make the steep ascent to the Governor’s residence, demanded the city’s surrender within the hour. The fortress was far stronger, however, than when Kirke had come in 1629. Frontenac curtly dismissed him with the words that he would answer “from the mouths of my cannon,” and so the second siege of Quebec began. The Boston men at once began to discover how well its geography frustrated attack.

With winter approaching, which would freeze their ships in, they could not prepare a deliberate offensive. The height of the Quebec cliffs protected the city walls from effective cannonade from the river, and the steepness of the cliffs appeared to rule out a landing in the Plains of Abraham. Phips therefore landed troops on the lower ground of Beauport. Between those flats and Quebec, however, the St. Charles River discharges into the St. Lawrence, and across it the attackers could not get. The forts were defended by cannon and the Quebec shore of the St. Charles by French skirmishers. Smallpox, the ever-ready companion of unvaccinated armies, had also broken out among the attackers, who, after two days’ floundering in the wetlands under galling fire, made a rush for the boats and got back to the fleet just in time for it to turn tail before ice began to spread from the shoreline to the navigable channel.

The New Englanders’ failure at Quebec was the culminating event of what Americans call King William’s War. Queen Anne’s War was much slower to ignite than its predecessor had been, perhaps because the fiery Frontenac had left Canada, perhaps because the “policy of posts,” advocated by Governor Denonville as early as 1686, was at last beginning to work. The French now really did control the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes–Mississippi line, had as a result brought the Iroquois to accept lasting peace, and were succeeding in turning the undisciplined coureurs de bois into wage-earning voyageurs who could be counted on to bring the harvest of furs back to the warehouses of Montreal. The French at last found themselves in a stronger position than the New Englanders and New Yorkers whose attempts to revive the war against Acadia, Quebec, and, for the first time, Montreal all failed in the years 1707–10. Port Royal, the Acadian capital and base of vexatious privateers, was eventually taken at the third attempt in 1710, but a maritime expedition to Quebec failed in 1711—the Church of Notre-Dame which stands in the Lower Town accordingly became “des Victoires”—and the British had no success in Hudson Bay either.

Yet at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, France was forced to cede much territory in North America, the penalty for failure not abroad but at home. The defeats of Blenheim, Ramillies, Malplaquet, and Oudenaarde had to be paid for with American soil, which included all the French ports in Hudson Bay, such bits of Newfoundland as were French, and “peninsular” Acadia, which became Nova Scotia. All that was left to France of importance on the Atlantic was Ile St. Jean, the future Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton Island (Ile Royal), guarding the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

In these circumstances, France decided on the necessity of fortifying even more stoutly the strategic entry points to her American dominions. Sieur d’Iberville, one of Canada’s swashbucklers, had already founded Biloxi to protect the approaches to the Louisiana delta (1699), while Chambly at the St. Lawrence end of the Richelieu–Champlain corridor was now rebuilt in stone. The great work to be undertaken, at the urging of Philippe de Vandreuil, appointed Governor of New France in 1705, was the engineering of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, to the highest European standard. Its walls, bastions, citadel, redoubts, demi-bastions, and ravelins, constructed of stone and in places wet-ditched, were to provide barracks for six companies of infantry, protection to and anchorage for a major fleet, and the assurance that no maritime expedition mounted by an enemy might enter the St. Lawrence estuary as long as France had men and ships to defend it. The work, begun in 1721, was continued, at enormous expense, for years afterwards.

Fortifying the entry points was a defence against enemies without; the threat to New France, as the eighteenth century drew on, came increasingly from enemies within. The merchants and frontiersmen of the British colonies, whatever the policy of the government at home, had a policy of their own, which was to carry their goods—better and cheaper than the French could offer—into the interior and to bring back via Albany the wealth the Indians exchanged in furs. The British colonists, moreover, were prepared to fight for trade advantage, even when Britain was at peace with France in Europe. On the lower Mississippi they encouraged the Indians—Natchez and Chickasaws—to fight the French of Louisiana. Along the borders of Canada they were ready to fight themselves. The challenge was thrown down in 1726 when Governor William Burnet of New York sanctioned the building of Fort Oswego at the head of the Mohawk River axis to Lake Ontario. Though this was a violation of the Treaty of Utrecht, the French Canadians recognised that they were not strong enough to insist on its removal and it remained. Their riposte was to strengthen the Champlain–Richelieu corridor by constructing Fort St. Frédéric at Crown Point in 1731.

When international conflict returned to North America through the medium of the War of the Austrian Succession (1742–48) in 1744, it was also as a result of local enterprise. Again, a colonial governor, William Shirley of Massachusetts, saw the commercial opportunity and seized it. His militia, covered by a Royal Navy squadron, transhipped itself to Acadia, besieged the formidable fort of Louisbourg, and took it after a forty-seven-day siege. The American Gibraltar had proved to be worth little of the fortune spent in its building. This was but the major event in a campaign of inter-colonial raiding and atrocity, whose events included the French destruction of Saratoga, New York, in November 1746, a British raid as far as Montreal, and the French devastation of Northfield, Massachusetts. Along the Acadian coast, which the British saw as a nest of privateers, there was much naval activity. A French fleet failed to recapture both Louisbourg and Port Royal, while the British did succeed in taking the fort of Grande Pré.

The official peace of 1748 was, for the first time, to influence the strategic policy of the two great imperial powers in Europe. Hitherto France and Britain had fought in America because they were at war in Spain or Germany. In the next decade they were to find themselves at war in Europe because their colonists had precipitated a war in America. It was a messy multilateral conflict, which reached as far north as the shores of Hudson Bay and as far east as Acadia. Its focus, however, lay in the Ohio country, to which New France, the British colonists, and the Indians had also made claim. The French insisted on their rights through the alleged discovery of the Ohio by La Salle in 1669. The Iroquois claimed right of conquest over other tribes but had ceded it to the British by treaty in 1744. A Pennsylvanian, George Croghan, claimed it for the British Crown through a treaty signed with the Shawnees, Wyandots, and Delawares in 1748. The truth of the matter was that the Ohio country was a grey area, vital to both empires because of its fur wealth, which the Indians were willing to sell to the stronger party, but dominated by neither for lack of a military presence in the region.

In 1753, Governor Duquesne set out to supply this. In May 1753 he despatched a force of militia and marine infantry to construct a line of forts, linked by a new road through the wilderness, from Presqu’ile on Lake Erie through modern Waterford, Pennsylvania (Fort Le Boeuf), to the Indian settlement of Venango, thus establishing a military axis from the Great Lakes to the headwaters of the Ohio. The Virginians, whose Ohio Company (1749) was active in the region, were determined not to acquiesce. They could feel the Indians bending their way, knew that they respected force above all, and accordingly sent to London for permission to build a fort of their own in the disputed region. The trouble was that it was indeed disputed; in treaties made in Europe—that applying was the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle ending the Austrian Succession War in 1748—boundaries in unmapped forest could not be delineated, and while diplomats might not be prepared to press the matter, the locals were. When, accordingly, Governor Robert Dinwiddie received permission from home to attack the French found “within the undoubted limits of His Majesty’s dominions,” he commissioned one of his young officers to journey to Fort Le Boeuf and warn the French off, in the certain knowledge that no one in London, or anywhere else, could say whether the French were trespassing or not.

The man he chose was George Washington, a provincial militia officer, an already experienced surveyor—it is striking how many of young America’s great men, from Champlain to Ulysses S. Grant, were mapmakers or geographers—and acknowledged to be, as Dinwiddie would later hail him, “a braw laddie.” Washington’s mission was unsuccessful. At Le Boeuf he met a French officer whose manner impressed him—young George, a stickler for his own military dignity, recognised the authentic article—and, under the menace of the fort’s nine cannon, was obliged to carry back a dusty answer. His version of the Frenchman’s words was that “it was their absolute Design to take possession of the Ohio, and by G—– they would do so.” This was a challenge to local, if not international, war. Dinwiddie’s response was to pre-empt the French by building a Virginian fort at the point identified by Washington as strategic, the Forks of the Ohio itself, where the Allegheny and Monongahela joined the stripling stream on its course to the Mississippi. The spot today is overbuilt by modern Pittsburgh. In 1754, when Dinwiddie’s men began their work, it was raw forest, a wilderness so dense that it disoriented even Washington the mapmaker. He had been sent back by Dinwiddie to reinforce the party at the Forks. When he returned in May he found that the Virginian party had been ousted by a French force, despatched by Governor Duquesne, which was building a fort of their own to be named after him.

Fort Duquesne, Fort Pitt, Pittsburgh: who could have guessed in the middle of the eighteenth century that a clearing in North America’s ocean of trees was to become, in the nineteenth, a powerhouse of its industrial revolution? To both sides in May 1754 it seemed a nothingness, important only because the confluence of the rivers at that point gave access to markets in one direction and fur regions in another. It was certainly not worth a fight, and the French were under strict orders not to provoke one. When word reached them, therefore, of Washington’s approach, they decided to send a parlementaire, whose commander would counsel him to withdraw. Washington, unfortunately, misapprehended the intentions of the French. They were adept at wilderness warfare, the sort of Indian raid which ended in scalping and torture. When he, in turn, learnt that the parlementaire had camped nearby, he decided to beat the French to the draw and, in a ghastly dawn descent, surprised them at breakfast and wrought what he feared to suffer. The French officer in command was instantly scalped by an Indian ally of Washington’s, known as the Half King, and ten of his party of fifty were killed in a few minutes. Washington then legged it, in the certain knowledge that the French would seek to avenge the massacre. He had constructed a makeshift refuge called Fort Necessity to his rear, and there a strong French force found him five weeks later. Badly outnumbered, he was shortly brought to give his surrender, offered on surprisingly generous terms in view of what the French had against him. In return for a signed admission that he had assassinated his French opposite number, he was allowed to march out under arms and make his way home.

The French were meanwhile transforming Fort Duquesne into a strong place. With six bastions and a covered way to the Monongahela to assure a water supply, another front was covered by the Ohio River. News of the fortification of the Forks did not please the British government, increasingly harried by William Pitt (the Elder) to regard the cold war in the American wilderness as a violation of the treaties both of Utrecht and Aix-la-Chapelle. In January 1755 an expeditionary force was assembled in Ireland and shipped to America, where, after sailing up the Potomac, they debarked at Alexandria, Virginia, then already beginning to grow into what is today a major urban neighbour of the United States capital. It was commanded by Major General Edward Braddock, an officer of the Coldstream Guards, a duellist, a veteran of the Austrian Succession War, and, to his contemporary Horace Walpole, “a very Iroquois in disposition.” On arrival he conferred with the governors of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland and agreed on a strategy so aggressive as to make the official peace between the kingdoms of Britain and France appear a fiction.

There were to be attacks from Nova Scotia into Acadia, from New York on Fort Niagara, and from the Hudson on Fort St. Frédéric, while Braddock himself was to lead the regulars he had brought from Ireland through the wilderness to the Forks of the Ohio and there storm Fort Duquesne.

That last enterprise required cannon, which were too heavy to be boated and portaged via the Potomac and Monongahela. A road would have to be cut for wagons, longer and wider than the track Washington had hacked the previous year. Benjamin Franklin helped to procure enough wagons from his fellow Pennsylvanians, and on 21 June 1755, Braddock, his two regiments (today battalions of the Royal Anglians), and a force of provisional militia, including Washington himself—gravely compromised in French eyes—set out for Fort Cumberland, the extreme western point of Maryland. The distance between them was only about a hundred miles—the route paralleled that taken today by U.S. 40 from Cumberland via Frostburg to Smithfield and then U.S. 19 to Mount Pleasant—but the journey, which might last two hours by motor car, took nineteen days; Braddock complained of “an uninhabited wilderness of steep rocky mountains and almost impassable morasses.”

His slow progress ensured that the French learnt of his approach, informed by Indians who hung about the British flanks. Shawnees and Delawares, they were encouraged by the French commander, Contrecoeur, to remember that the British had always been told not to cross the line of the Appalachian Mountains. Contrecoeur’s force, even including his Indians and always supposing they could be motivated to fight, was smaller than Braddock’s, eight hundred to his thirteen hundred; nevertheless, he had the initiative and, more important, knowledge of the skills of wilderness warfare. Braddock’s 44th and 48th Foot were new regiments, full of raw East Anglian farm boys trained in close-order musketry drill. The French and Indians were raiders, ambushers, and skirmishers, and it was a forest skirmish that developed when the advance parties of the two little armies met just short of Fort Duquesne on the morning of 9 July.

The British managed to unlimber one of the cannon they had dragged so far, got off one round, and killed a French officer. Then, as their scarlet-coated regulars tried to form a front, their flanks were enveloped by the French and Indians working through the woods. The British front ranks fell back, jamming up against those on the narrow road behind. “Such was the confusion,” wrote a survivor, “that the men were sometimes twenty or thirty deep, and he thought himself securest who was in the center.”

From such disarray, no organised fire could be returned, and by midday the British were in panic-stricken retreat. French fatal casualties were twenty-three, which included fifteen Indians. The British suffered nearly five hundred, including Braddock himself. Washington got away unwounded, and other survivors included an extraordinarily large number of those later to be notable in the War of Independence and the life of the young United States: the most famous were Thomas Gage, who was to command the British troops at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Horatio Gates, the American victor of Saratoga, and Daniel Boone, pioneer of the wilderness trail through the Appalachians and founder of Kentucky. It is an exhibition of both the vastness and smallness of eighteenth-century North America that this varied cast of characters should all have found themselves together in an unsurveyed patch of woodland several hundred miles from civilisation at the same time and for the same purpose.

The purpose of the powers was now for war. While Braddock was going down to defeat on the Monongahela, the New Yorker William Johnson was winning a battle for control of the south of Lake Champlain and the Nova Scotians for dominance in Acadia. France and Britain had been locked in negotiation over their respective rights in North America since January 1755, which Louis XV’s government, conscious of Britain’s naval superiority and of the demographic imbalance in its disfavour in America, was willing to conclude on conciliatory terms. Their proposal was for the neutralisation of the Ohio country and a return to the status quo before the Austrian Succession War. The British, knowing their advantage, wanted nothing less than the destruction of the line of French forts built in Acadia, Canada, and Louisiana since the end of the Spanish Succession War in 1713, including St. Frédéric in the Hudson–Richelieu corridor, Niagara, Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio, and Toulouse on the lower Mississippi. When the French demurred, the British pressed their demands harder. Both countries were readying fleets to sail for American waters, and when news came that Admiral Boscawen, then off Newfoundland, had intercepted a convoy carrying French troops and bullion to Canada, the French ambassador abandoned the talks and left London. Months of undeclared naval warfare ensued, culminating in a French expedition against Britain’s Mediterranean base at Minorca. In June 1756, what was to be the Seven Years War was formally declared.

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