The War in the Forest II

In New England, the brief span of peace was drawing to a close. The Abnakis had pledged their allegiance to Queen Anne, but their true loyalties lay with the French. Provoked by the English settlers who kept pushing into their territory, the Indians were urged on by French agents who kept them well supplied with ammunition. One of these men, a Jesuit priest named Sebastian Rale, had lived for years among the Norridgewock tribe on the Kennebec River in Maine. A trusted adviser who spoke their own tongue, Rale incited the Indians to strike back at the English, who were dotting Abnaki lands with blockhouses and farms. In the autumn of 1721, his charges began attacking isolated farmsteads.

The Massachusetts authorities reacted particularly strongly to these raids; Rale, living among the Indians in their forest home, was the embodiment of all the English feared and loathed. In 1723, a force of 230 men moved up the Penobscot and burned the mission town of Passadumkeag, but they failed to capture the soldier-priest. The next summer, another expedition struck north at Rale’s headquarters in the town of Norridgewock and took the village completely by surprise. The English held their fire while the Indians got off a wild, scattered volley, and then killed twenty-six of the panicked natives with a well-aimed fusillade. The surviving Norridgewocks jumped into the river and swam to safety, but Rale refused to surrender, forcing the English to shoot him although they had hoped to take him alive.

His death had the predictable results: The Abnakis struck back not only along the Maine frontier but in Massachusetts and New Hampshire as well. The English counterattacked with forces raised by the colonial governments and with companies of volunteers who offered to fight Indians in return for pay, scalp bonuses, and booty. Captain John Lovewell, a resident of Dunstable, raised one such company after the Indians burned his Massachusetts border town in the autumn of 1724. He petitioned the General Court in Boston to pay five shillings a day for his volunteers. The court would not put up more than two and a half, but it offered a bounty of £100 on every male Indian scalp. Late in February 1724, Lovewell and his eighty-seven men surprised a small encampment of ten Indians, killed them all, and went home to collect £1,000.

Cheered by his success and the easy money, Lovewell immediately embarked on a summer campaign accompanied by forty-seven volunteers. On May 8, the company sighted a single Indian on the shore of Saco Pond. Lovewell gave chase, suspecting that he had been posted to lure the company into an ambush but confident that the English could handle any assault. He was wrong. A large party of Indians ambushed the company and boldly closed to within a few yards of the English. “The battle continued fiercely throughout the day,” said a contemporary account, “the Indians roaring and yelling and howling like wolves, barking like dogs, and making all sorts of hideous noises; the English frequently shouting and huzzaing, as they did after the first round.” But the shouting and huzzaing died away as one Englishman after another went down. Lovewell himself died late in the afternoon, and though the Indians finally abandoned the field, they left only a few of their opponents unhurt.

The survivors retreated at once, leaving the badly wounded behind, among them a lieutenant who asked that his gun be charged and left with him. “The Indians will come in the morning to scalp me,” he said, “and I’ll kill one more of ‘em if I can.” Only fourteen soldiers eventually made it home to receive barren solace from such ministers as the Reverend Thomas Symmes of Bradford, who declaimed that the reason “so many brave men should descend into battle and perish” was clearly the general backsliding and irreverence of New Englanders, which had aroused the wrath of a vengeful God. Nevertheless, further English campaigns in Maine once more forced Abnaki chiefs to the treaty table in 1725, where they again acknowledged their submission to England.

Except for an occasional isolated atrocity, the New England frontier remained quiet for the next two decades, then boiled up again in 1744 when England went to war over who should succeed to the throne of Austria. This time, George II gave his name to the struggle in the colonies, and King George’s War saw the frontiers again convulsed from New York to Maine by Indian raids and white counterraids. The most significant part of the colonial war, however, was not the Indian fighting but an extraordinary expedition, mounted by New Englanders without any help from England, against the great fortress-rock of Louisburg, the anchor of France’s right flank in the New World. Built on Cape Breton Island, the fort guarded the approaches to the vital St. Lawrence River with the strongest concentration of cannons in North America. Nevertheless, 4,200 Massachusetts militiamen took it in June 1745. England, astonished and delighted at this unprecedented triumph of provincial arms, repaid Massachusetts for the cost of the expedition but then enraged the colonists by handing the fort back to the French in return for Madras when the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the European phase of the war in 1748.

The peace that followed King George’s War was a truce, a brief respite before the culminating struggle for supremacy in North America that would have bagpipes and French battle horns challenging one another in virgin pine forests. This final clash of arms would come to be known as the French and Indian War, an inadequate title that fails to distinguish it from all the wars, large and small, that preceded it. Lawrence Henry Gipson, the most thorough historian of the climactic struggle, chose a far better name – the Great War for Empire.

As before, Indian support would be crucial to both French and English in the coming fight, and one who saw that fact clearly was a cheerful, indefatigable Irishman who had come to America in the 1730s to manage his uncle’s estates in the Mohawk Valley. His name was William Johnson, but the Iroquois knew him as their brother Warraghiyagey – “He-Who-Does-Much.” He opened a small trading post in 1738 and immediately won a reputation among the Indians as one of the few white men who would deal fairly with them. By the 1750s, this reputation had made him the largest trader in the area. He kept his home, which he shared with his wife, a Mohawk woman, open to his Indian friends at all times. In 1756, he wrote of the people he knew so well: “Whoever pretends to say, as some have fatally imagined, that the American savages are of little or no account to our interest on that continent, and that, therefore, it is not of great consequences, whether or no we endeavour to cultivate friendship with them must be so extremely ignorant, or else so wilfully perverse, that it would be wasting time to expose the absurdity of such preposterous suggestions.”

Johnson’s conviction was borne out by the demography of North America on the eve of the war. The French, concentrated in a thin line stretching down the St. Lawrence from Louisburg through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, numbered only about 55,000 in 1754. But their Indian neighbors in the Great Lakes region alone could field perhaps as many as 70,000 warriors.

The English colonies, with well over 1 million white inhabitants, enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in numbers, but the population was confined to the seaboard. The French controlled the interior, largely by dint of their policy of befriending Indians whenever possible rather than fighting them. In some cases, the French commitment to coexistence became so strong that one observer wrote, “Those with whom we mingle do not become French, our people become Indian.” Despite close ties, the French were never wholly successful in their efforts to secure their southern flank with allies in the southeastern tribes. They formed strong bonds with the numerous and powerful Choctaw Indians who occupied the lands along the coast north of the French bases at Biloxi and Mobile, but they never won over the Chickasaws, who lived to the north of their ancient Choctaw enemies in lands east of the Mississippi River. The English retained Chickasaw loyalty, and despite a series of hard-fought battles, the French never subdued the tribe.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1750s, the French had seized the initiative and begun advancing into the Ohio Valley just when Virginia speculators were beginning to take a strong interest in the same rich region.

Robert Dinwiddie, the determined sixty-year-old governor of Virginia, saw which way the wind was blowing, and in October 1753, sent a twenty-one-year-old militia major named George Washington to the recently begun Fort Le Boeuf (now Waterford, Pennsylvania) to tell the French commander there that his garrison was on English lands. Washington arrived after a long, cold journey. Having received him courteously, the commander bluntly informed Washington that he was on French soil and that thenceforth any Englishmen who set foot in the Ohio Valley would be taken prisoner.

Acting promptly on Washington’s news, Dinwiddie sent a small force of men to build a fort at the crucial junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers – where Pittsburgh stands today – and early in April 1754 dispatched 120 reinforcements under Washington.

The undertaking was wretched from the beginning. Hacking their way across Pennsylvania’s endless ridges, the men under Washington soon became exhausted. Supplies of food and arms failed to arrive; what did get through was the disheartening news that the men Washington was marching to support had been chased from the fort by the French. But most serious of all was the failure of Washington’s command to enlist the aid of more than a handful of friendly Indians. Dinwiddie knew the value of Cherokee, Catawba, and Chickasaw support for the expedition, but those Indians had long been accustomed to dealing with South Carolina, whose governor was outraged that Virginia might think of enlisting “his” Indians without first getting his permission. So Washington began his march without Indian support and only belatedly received native detachments.

On May 24, Washington reached a place called Great Meadows, where a Mingo chief known as the Half-King told him that the French were nearby. Washington took forward a detachment of forty men and, joined by a dozen of Half-King’s warriors, surprised a party of thirty-three Frenchmen. The English killed ten, and the rest surrendered after a brief defense during which, for the first time in his life, Washington heard bullets whistling past him, a sound he described as “charming.” The French later charged that Washington had murdered innocent soldiers in time of peace; the young militia officer responded that they had brought it upon themselves by shadowing his forces in a surreptitious and apparently hostile manner. Whatever the truth, the Great War for Empire had begun, as Gipson put it, in an “isolated mountain ravine on the western slopes of the Alleghenies.” It would spread like a forest fire “to leap over oceans, to illuminate continents, and to end by reducing to ashes the bright dreams of Frenchmen of a great future in the New World.”

Washington fell back on Great Meadows, where he had his men throw up a stockade he named Fort Necessity. Reinforcements had brought the strength of his command up to about 400, a considerable improvement, but nowhere near enough to hold off the 900 French troops who moved out from Fort Duquesne to avenge the death of their comrades. They attacked the English fort on July 3, fighting in a steady downpour that turned Washington’s entrenchments to soup and rendered his swivel guns useless. With nearly half his men dead, sick, or wounded, Washington surrendered. He and his men were allowed to march from the fort with full honors of war. The French could afford to be generous – they had swept the English from the Ohio Valley.

The English struck back the next year. This time, there would be no inept campaign by provincial troops, but a well-planned attack by two regiments of British regulars under the command of General Edward Braddock. A tough, competent officer, Braddock had spent forty-five of his sixty years in the army. He was brave, popular, and considerate of his men. If he had a failing, it was his confident determination to prove that his troops had nothing to fear from “naked Indians . . . [or] Canadians in their shirts.”

Braddock moved out of Fort Cumberland, Maryland, at the head of some 2,500 men in June. There were no Indians with him as he plunged into the 100 miles of forest that separated him from Fort Duquesne; Governor Dinwiddie had promised the support of the southern tribes, but their help had failed to materialize. The French, on the other hand, had successfully courted their Indian allies and sent them to harry the English settlements along the route of Braddock’s march. Braddock had such trouble chopping his way through the dense forest that, at last, he detached some 1,500 of his best troops and led this flying column quickly toward the fort. He had little fear of the French: Fort Duquesne had only 800 defenders, and they would be powerless against the British artillery. On July 7, Braddock’s men made camp less than ten miles away from their objective.

The French, however, had no intention of waiting for the British to roll over them. On July 8, a captain named Hyacinth de Beaujeu took a detachment of 200 men out of the fort and persuaded an equal number of reluctant Indians to join him by crying, “I am determined to go against the enemy! What! Will you allow your father to go alone?”

On the morning of July 9, the British army splashed across the Monongahela with the fifers shrilling out “The Grenadiers March.” Washington, who had resigned his command and was serving without pay as an aide to Braddock, thought it the most splendid sight he had ever seen. As the troops pushed on through the woods, they suddenly heard war whoops. The English vanguard formed a skirmish line, sent a volley crashing into de Beaujeu’s troops, and then fell back. The Indians and French scattered to the ravines that ran along both sides of the English forces. Posting themselves behind trees, they raked the milling, panicked British with a murderous crossfire. As the English in the van fell back, they collided with troops coming up, and in the confusion men began to drop by the hundreds. Braddock, wildly and vainly trying to rally his men, had five horses shot out from under him before he was himself brought down with a mortal wound. The slaughter went on for three hours.

With British troops flinging away their muskets and fleeing and the drums rattling out retreat, Washington found a wagon, got Braddock into it, and pulled the stricken general away from the carnage. The afternoon had cost the French fewer than sixty casualties; of the 1,373 English noncoms and privates involved, only 459 escaped being killed or wounded, and three-quarters of the eighty-six officers became casualties. “Who would have thought it?” the wounded Braddock kept muttering, He died two days later, and Washington had him buried in an unmarked grave in the road so that the Indians would not mutilate his remains.

The debacle threw Virginia into a panic and left the frontier of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania open to French and Indian raids. To the north, the English had better luck, thanks to the efforts of William Johnson, whom the king had appointed superintendent of northern Indian affairs. Johnson led 3,000 New Englanders against Crown Point, a French stronghold at the southern end of Lake Champlain. The French marched to meet him and, getting word of their advance on September 8, Braddock sent forward a detachment of 1,000 militiamen and 200 Mohawks under Chief Hendrick, a canny old warrior who had visited Queen Anne in 1710. Hendrick was dubious about the detachment: “If they are to be killed, too many; if they are to fight, too few.” The command marched straight into an ambush where French musketry ripped it apart. Chief Hendrick was among those killed.

The survivors fled back to the English lines, where, incredibly, Johnson succeeded in rallying them behind a log barricade. When the French regulars attacked, the provincials beat them off. Johnson never got to Crown Point, but he did build Fort William Henry on Lake George and received a knighthood for his part in the campaign.

In the spring of 1756, a formidable new commander named Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm joined the French in America. Short, nervous, brilliant, and brave, Montcalm moved quickly and skillfully. He threw 3,000 troops at Oswego, the English fort on the south side of Lake Ontario, and captured it in August 1756. His victory encouraged the western Indians, whom the English had hoped to secure as allies, to support the French. One Indian delegation to Montreal said, “We wanted to see this famous man who tramples the English under his feet. But you are a little man, my father. It is when we look into your eyes that we see the greatness of the pine-tree and the fire of the eagle.” Throughout the colonies, Indians began to pull away from any associations they might have had with the English. In January 1757, Washington, training a Virginia regiment, wrote that “the French grow more and more Formidable by their alliances, while our Friendly Indians are deserting Our Interest.”

The year 1757 dawned bleakly for the English. Seven years before, the French had had 800 regular troops in America; now they had 6,600. Everywhere, England was on the defensive. In the spring, Montcalm prepared to attack Fort William Henry. He recruited 2,000 Indians from the upper Great Lakes, and, sensitive to the diplomatic niceties required, presented many of them with belts of wampum in the name of the king of France. At last, the French and Indians marched toward Lake George, 8,000 strong, destroying several British parties on the way. The Indians scalped and even practiced cannibalism on some of the English dead, behavior the French justified on the grounds that they could not prevent it without losing the Indians.

Montcalm besieged the fort early in August. The hopelessly outnumbered garrison put up a spirited defense before surrendering. Montcalm allowed the men to keep their arms and promised to protect them from his Indian allies. But the English had no sooner left the fort than the Indians fell on them and, berserk with plundered brandy, began to strip and murder the captives. Unable to check the chaos, Montcalm finally bared his breast to the Indians and cried, “Since you are rebellious children who break the promise you have given to your Father and who will not listen to his voice, kill him first of all.” His officers finally restored some order, but not before 200 of the 2,000 prisoners had been murdered. Montcalm’s Indian allies immediately abandoned him, and the French destroyed Fort William Henry and then withdrew to their posts at Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Montreal.

These events had marked the nadir of British fortunes in the war; the next year saw the British taking the offensive and redressing the balance with powerful strokes. On July 26, Louisburg fell to 12,000 British regulars under Lord Jeffrey Amherst, and a month later, a provincial force of 3,600 men captured Fort Frontenac, on the north side of Ontario, giving the British control of the lake. Indians took only a minor part in these battles, but they were to play a major role in the campaign that began to take shape in the Ohio Valley late that spring. Rankling over their two ill-starred attempts to seize Fort Duquesne, the British had appointed General John Forbes to lead a new assault. Though only fifty-one, Forbes, wracked with disease, was a dying man – he had to be carried on a litter – but his capacity for intelligent, meticulous planning had not deserted him. Forbes’s campaign differed from the earlier failures of Washington and Braddock not only in the general’s choice of a new route, but in his vigorous efforts to secure Indian support.

That support was difficult to get and to control. Washington, commanding the Virginia regiment, wrote in disgust: “The Indians are mercenary; every service of theirs must be purchased; and they are easily offended, being thoroughly sensible of their own importance.” The natives often arrogantly demanded food, supplies, and presents, and sometimes left in a huff when they felt the provisions were inadequate. But they were not drawing regular military pay, and despite the moralizing of the frustrated white commanders, they could hardly be expected to serve Europeans in a European manner for no good Indian purpose.

By April 10, 1758, more than 500 southeastern Indians had gathered at the English camp, eager to go into the field on scalp-seeking parties. As summer came on, however, and the campaign failed to get under way, they became disgusted and went home, carrying their presents with them. By July, most of the Cherokees and Catawbas had drifted away.

When Forbes finally moved out of the main supply base he had built, at what was to become Bedford, Pennsylvania, he had few Indian allies with his 5,000 provincial troops and 1,400 Scots Highlanders. Newcomers arrived, however, including some Cherokees under their chief Little Carpenter, whose demands Forbes met, though he termed them “sordid and avaricious.” The army moved forward with care, leaving a string of fortified posts behind it. Despite their precautions, the English suffered a setback in September when Forbes sent out some 800 Highlanders to scout around Fort Duquesne. The Scots got themselves badly cut up, losing a third of their number. The French had relied heavily on their Indian allies in the light, and the natives were shaken by the number of casualties they had sustained. When more of them were killed in a skirmish in October, they began to leave the French camp. They were sick of dying for their allies, and they had begun to get word of a series of peace conferences between English and Indians in Philadelphia.

Forbes and the colonial authorities had convened the conferences to recapture the allegiance of the Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos and to reassure the western Indians that the English did not intend to dispossess them of their lands. At the same time, Christian Frederick Post, a Moravian missionary who had twice been married to Indian women, carried out a delicate mission in the country of the western Indians, assuring them of English good will and inviting the Delawares to return to their original home in the Susquehanna Valley. Post managed to counter a good deal of legitimate skepticism: “You intend to drive us away and settle this country,” the Indians said, “or else, why do you come to fight in the land that God has given us?”

“I am your flesh and blood,” Post replied, “and sooner than I would tell you any story that would be of hurt to you, or your children, I would suffer death . . . I do assure you of mine and the people’s honesty.”

Some 500 Indians, Iroquois among them, attended another treaty conference at Easton, Pennsylvania, in October, where several colonial governors discussed and redressed many native grievances. The proceedings, subsequently ratified by the king of England in Council, returned land west of the Appalachians – which had been deeded to the Pennsylvania proprietors by the Iroquois – to the other tribes that lived on it. Colonel Henry Bouquet, Forbes’s chief of staff, issued a proclamation prohibiting English movement west of the mountains without special authorization. The Easton treaty, Bouquet said, was a blow that “knocked the French in the head.”

When, a little later, a French officer from the threatened Fort Duquesne approached an Indian camp with a string of wampum and offered it to one of the Delaware chiefs with whom Post was conferring, the Indian refused it. The Frenchman thereupon threw the belt to a nearby group of Delawares, who treated it like a snake, kicking it from one to the other until one of them picked it up with a stick and flung it away.

By November 24, the English forces had advanced to within a few miles of Fort Duquesne. As they approached they heard a terrific explosion, and when they arrived at the fort the next day, they found it gutted and the defenders gone. Inside the ruined fort, the English troops came upon a row of stakes on which were fastened the heads of Highland troops who had been taken in the earlier engagement, each with a Scottish kilt tied beneath it.

For all its savagery, there was a note of despair in the grisly taunt. The French were losing the war, and they knew it. The final blow came the following September when British troops under General James Wolfe faced off against French regulars commanded by Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, near Quebec. Both commanders died in the battle – surprisingly brief, considering all the years and wars that had led up to it – but Wolfe lived long enough to know he had won. The peace treaty would not materialize for three years, but after Quebec, New France never had a chance.

Still, the fighting went on. While Wolfe was taking Quebec, the back country of the Carolinas was again in an uproar. The Cherokee nation, about 10,000 strong and scattered through some forty villages along the frontiers of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, had taken up the hatchet against the English. The war apparently began when Cherokee warriors, returning home from Forbes’s campaign against Fort Duquesne, appropriated several horses they found running wild in the woods. A group of frontiersmen, claiming the horses as their own, ambushed and killed a dozen of the Cherokees. The Cherokees retaliated by murdering twenty or thirty settlers, and soon a full-scale war engulfed the frontier. The fighting lasted for two years, ending in the winter of 1761 after a long, devastating campaign conducted against the Indians by regular and provincial troops. The harsh terms of the treaty included the establishment of a boundary line between Indian and white settlements.

Three years before, when the English had set up a similar line, they had done so in hopes of placating a valuable ally. The contrast between that boundary and the one forced on the Cherokees at gunpoint indicated how Native Americans had fared in the war. No matter which side the Indians chose, their true interests lay in a continued stalemate between the English and the French. With the French forces driven from the New World, the natives could no longer be of any use to the colonists. Just as much as the French, the Indians lost the long struggle that had begun with a bloodless scuffle at a Maine trading post seventy years before.

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