What Went Down on the Plains of Abraham? The Loss of French Canada 1759 CE – 1760 CE

The French and Indian War [1754 CE – 1763 CE], a component of the Seven Years’ War, is rightly seen as a watershed in American history, though many citizens of the United States and Canada are a bit hazy on the details. One common illusion is the belief that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec on September 13, 1759 was decisive in the transfer of control of Canada from France to Great Britain.

Coming as it did as the apparent apogee of the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, with British victories in North America, Europe, India, and various naval engagements, such a view of the victory before the walls of Quebec was widely shared in England at the time. The news was seized upon for propaganda purposes by William Pitt, who immediately published a Gazette Extraordinary consisting of Brigadier George Townshend’s letter describing the fight for the city. The drama of the battle was crystalized in Benjamin West’s depiction of The Death of General Wolfe [1770 with a second almost identical painting and further copies and revisions to 1776], which for better or worse remains an icon of the conflict.

The history is predictably more complex and illuminating than the popular myths.

French Canada’s fate was not militarily determined until months after the first Battle for Quebec. To understand this, it helps to examine the some of the context and details of the British campaign leading to the combat on the Plains of Abraham and the French response to the loss of Quebec City.

New France’s Governor General Vaudreuil saw the city of Quebec as expendable. In his eyes, French strength in Canada resided in Montreal and in the considerable capabilities of backcountry aboriginal allies for guerilla warfare.

Montcalm, the leader of France’s military in Canada, held views that were the opposite of Vaudreuil’s. Montcalm planned for French troops to hold Quebec until a peace treaty could be negotiated in Europe. He had seen the atrocities tribal warriors were prone to, including torture and cannibalism, and knew from bitter experience their antipathy to European modes of command.

In May 1759 orders from Versailles clearly put Montcalm in charge of the defense of New France. He built his plans on numerous militia forces and volunteers to supplement his small corps of overextended veterans from France.

His opponent, Major General James Wolfe, had a number of high quality British troops. A pitched battle or formal siege, if he could get close enough to Quebec, would work to Wolfe’s advantage.

Montcalm hunkered down in Quebec. The city’s position on high ground protected by steep bluffs rising from the shores of the St. Lawrence River enabled him to engineer imposing defenses. His fieldworks were in many cases superior to the city walls.

Montcalm consciously decided to depend on food being supplied from Montreal. He thought that by doing so, he would not have to transport or abandon his provisions, or worse, lose them to the English if he had to retreat from Quebec. He did not seem to consider seriously enough the possibility that English ships could run past Quebec and interdict French shipments descending the St. Lawrence River.

The French had received reinforcements and supplies in May 1759 before a British fleet transporting Wolfe and his troops ascended the St. Lawrence. Montcalm demonstrated no inclination to leave Quebec’s defensive positions, leaving Wolfe frustrated. In anger, Wolfe ordered the devastation of some 1400 farms in the region. Food was already scarce because of a poor Canadian harvest in 1758.

Wolfe had been given the command of the attack on Quebec largely on the basis of his contributions to the campaign that captured the fortress of Louisbourg in 1758. His health and behavior were not good. He was seriously ill with debilitating fevers, suffering severe pain from kidney stones, dependent on opiate painkillers, moody, and intensely disliked by his Brigadiers, three officers of ability.

Their distrust of Wolfe’s judgment increased as he unproductively wasted the summer of 1759 burning farmsteads near Quebec and launching an ill-considered frontal attack on French lines that utterly failed at the cost of over 400 British casualties, approximately half of whom died.

Wolfe did not increase his military reputation with moping letters to Amherst or his recitation of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard to his officers before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, especially as he is reported to have said that he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec the next day. Short of George Armstrong Custer, it is difficult to think of a commander acting more eccentrically before he achieved a dubious martyrdom.

By September, time was running short for the English. Wolfe knew he had until the end of the month to achieve a military decision before the weather forced the British ships, on which he was dependent, to withdraw.

He met secretly with Captain Robert Stobo, who had lived in Quebec for four years as a prisoner of war. Stobo informed Wolfe of a narrow footpath up the riparian bluffs just to the west of the city. The bluffs were roughly 175 feet [50 m] high.

After weather delays, Wolfe’s attack on Quebec began the night of September 12th.

The first English soldiers up the trail under cover of darkness made short work of the small French camp near the path’s end. Although Wolfe in a moment of confusion issued a command to stop more troops from climbing up, he was ignored. By daylight about 4,000 British troops had formed a line of battle less than a mile from Quebec’s west wall.

Montcalm erroneously thought Wolfe’s men were entrenching. The walls of Quebec were less formidable defensively than the fieldworks Montcalm’s forces had erected. The city had too little food to withstand any protracted siege, and British ships blocked resupply from Montreal.

Montcalm decided to meet Wolfe’s lines on an open field of battle with the troops he had on hand. The French attacked with vigor, but the militia were hopeless in terms of maintaining ranks. The British held their fire until the disorganized French attackers had closed to forty to sixty yards. Then the redcoats unloosed devastating volleys. The French soldiers ran back to the city.

Wolfe, shot three times, expired on the battlefield shortly after the British victory became evident. Montcalm, hit by grapeshot, expired the following day. The number of British and French casualties was relatively small: about 600 wounded on either side, and roughly 60 killed on the English side, 120 on the French.

The British prepared a formal siege of Quebec. Lacking strong leadership and adequate food, Quebec surrendered on September 18th before the British began their bombardment.

Detached French forces under the command of the Chevalier de Lévis lacked the cannons required to attack the English immediately, but were well positioned to spend the winter in relative comfort and retake Quebec the following spring with reinforcements and supplies from France. The farms around Montreal had produced an early and bountiful harvest.

The British, cooped up in Quebec, possessed only what they had brought with them from Europe. Wolfe’s scorched earth tactics during the summer meant there were no local supplies to be had. The French population of rural Quebec by and large fled towards Montreal, where Lévis welcomed the extra manpower for his planned campaign against the English the following spring.

When the British fleet left in October to avoid becoming bound in river ice, Lévis sent a messenger to France urgently requesting cannons, powder, ammunition, and supplies for the recovery of Quebec. If France could send a supply fleet up the St. Lawrence before the English, Lévis could take the city easily. He planned to put Quebec under siege in April 1760.

The British occupiers of the city suffered badly though the winter. Inadequate clothing, disease and malnutrition killed about a thousand men and incapacitated twice as many more, leaving less than four thousand soldiers fit for duty out of a force of seven thousand.

A second and bloodier Battle of Quebec [also known as the Battle of Sainte-Foy] was fought in April 1760. The French pushed the English back into the city, capturing the cannons the redcoats had tried to wheel through the snow and sucking mud underfoot. There were over 800 casualties on the French side and 1,100 on the English side. Lévis completed his siege lines by May 11th 1760.

France had enough confidence in its Atlantic fleet to plan a seaborne invasion of England in early 1759. But in August of 1759 a British fleet mauled a French fleet off the coast of Portugal, near the Bay of Lagos, capturing three battleships and forcing two more to run aground.

Even worse for France, on November 20th 1759 British Admiral Sir Edward Hawke caught the French warships and transports for the invasion of England at Quiberon Bay on the Atlantic coast of France. In a raging storm, he set his captains on the French fleet. A melee ensued. The English fleet lost two ships and approximately 300 men. The French lost seven ships in battle, and nine more that fled up a shallow estuary only to get stuck in the mud. About 2,500 French sailors were lost.

After Quiberon Bay the British fleet blockaded and attacked French ships pretty much at will. French plans for an invasion of England or Scotland were abandoned with the loss of the last effective French fleet in the Atlantic.

The French government sent five ships with 400 reinforcements and supplies for Lévis, but with only a frigate to guard the convoy. British blockaders took three of the transports near the coast of France. On May 14th the remaining French ships reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence only to learn that British warships had headed up the river on May 8th. The French ships anchored in territory defended by Acadians on the southern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where two squadrons of British warships found them. The French burned their ships to prevent their capture.

The first ships to reach Quebec in the spring of 1760 were English, not French. Lévis had no option but to draw back from Quebec. The British, reinforced, pressed him relentlessly. The bravery and heroic efforts of Lévis and his men could not stave off defeat. Vaudreuil surrendered at Montreal in August.

Wolfe’s taking of Quebec in September of 1759, dramatic and poignant as it was, left the final outcome of the war in Canada in doubt. Lévis would almost certainly have recaptured the city if the French reinforcements had arrived earlier than the British ships. The decisive victory was Hawke’s at Quiberon Bay in November. The British Navy redeemed the reputation of the British Army, not for the first or last time, providing the essential military advantage required to add Canada to the Empire.

Not even the astounding failure of the British navy at Plattsburgh in September of 1814 could reverse Hawke’s victory.

Further Reading:

• Francis Parkman’s multivolume France and England in North America is epic narrative history in a grandiloquent style no longer in fashion, but still thrilling. Montcalm and Wolfe stands as the capstone to the series.

• Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America 1754 – 1766 is a judicious and concise treatment of the determining conflict between Great Britain and France for dominion in the Americas.

• Ian Steele writes perceptively about the cultural misunderstandings between Native American warriors and European officers in Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the Massacre.


Young George Washington Sparks a World War: 1754 CE

If asked how many World Wars there have been, the average educated American will confidently answer two, specifying the Great War of 1914 CE – 1918 CE, and the conflict between Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Allies, which most will date 1939 to 1945, though the fighting started in Asia in 1931 and continued in Eastern Europe until at least 1947.

Some will punningly identify the proxy conflicts in developing nations sponsored by the Soviet Union and the United States in the second half of the 20th century as the Third World Wars. Few will include the global conflicts of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, though these are widely understood to be World Wars by historians of the periods.

Global wars before the 20th century include:

• Nine Years War: 1688 – 1697 [King William’s War in North America]
• War of the Spanish Succession: 1701 – 1714 [Queen Anne’s War in North America]
• War of the Austrian Succession: 1740 – 1748 [King George’s War in North America]
• Seven Years War: 1756 – 1763 [French and Indian War in North America]
• War of American Independence: 1775 – 1783
• Wars of the French Revolution: 1792 – 1802
• Napoleonic Wars: 1803 – 1815

The Mongolian wars of the 13th and 14th centuries might be thought to qualify as pre-modern global conflicts, a category into which the Nine Years War is sometimes shoehorned, but in any case it is clear that worldwide war is not an invention of the 20th century.

The Seven Years War was triggered by a 22-year-old American colonial named George Washington. He held the distinction of being the youngest man to spark a world war until Gavrilo Princep beat his record by a year when he murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his beloved spouse Sophie on June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo. The magnitude of Washington’s youthful achievement is seldom properly acknowledged. Before it ended, the Seven Years War saw fighting in Europe, North America, India, Africa, and Cuba, among other places.

In the first half of the 18th century, Great Britain and France saw each other as being in a competition for expansion into and possession of the Ohio River territory, by which name they generally referred to the entire Mississippi basin.

Both European powers identified the struggle for the Ohio lands as key to dominance in North America, and both were ready to use violence and aboriginal allies to further their interests. For most of the previous 200 years, France had shown more skill in managing the indigenous people of North America to their advantage in empire building, with the notable exception of the Iroquois.

This exception was significant. The Iroquois not only ruled the lands that were to develop into Upstate New York, but also projected power successfully enough to devastate France’s Canadian tribal allies of choice, the Hurons, in 1649, and dominated the various Algonquian peoples inhabiting the underpopulated Ohio region, which was in large part used as an Iroquois hunting ground.

The Iroquois who moved into the Ohio territory in the mid-18th century were commonly called Mingo, derived from an Algonquian term of opprobrium meaning treacherous or stealthy. In the 18th century the English hoped to use the Iroquois to counter the French and their numerous native allies. Neither Great Britain nor France seems to have given enough consideration to the possibility that their Indian allies were hoping to exploit the antagonism of the European imperial powers to their own advantage.

In 1753 a 21-year-old George Washington was sent by the Governor of Virginia to deliver a letter to the French in the Ohio territory demanding they desist their activities and vacate the area. Washington presented himself to the 52-year-old local commander of the French, Legardeur, whom Washington underestimated with all the confidence of youth, seeing only “an elderly gentleman with much the air of a soldier.” Legardeur had more than 30 years of service in North America, with postings among other places in Acadia, Saskatchewan, and what is now Indiana and Tennessee. Legardeur politely declined to accept the authority of the King of England, Governor of Virginia, or the stripling they had sent to deliver the message.

Washington hurried back to Virginia. The French expelled a group of English colonials who were attempting to fortify the Forks of the Ohio [the site of present day Pittsburgh], and began their own efforts along those lines, which they called Fort Duquesne.

In 1754 Washington, newly made a Lieutenant Colonel, hurried back to the Ohio country with a rag-tag band of about 160 men and renewed orders from the Governor of Virginia to stop French activity there. One member of Washington’s company was a Mingo guide Washington seems to have considered to be a personal friend: the Half-King Tanaghrisson. The title Half-King was used for a number of Iroquois leaders west of the Appalachians whose treaties and decisions needed to be confirmed by the Onondaga before they were considered binding.

Tanaghrisson had staked his personal reputation on the dominance of the English over the French in the Ohio territory, and he took it hard when the French dismantled the partially constructed English fortification: he “stormed greatly against the French … and told them that he order’d that Fort, and laid the first log of it himself.” French control of the Forks of the Ohio would mean the end of Tanaghrisson’s power there.

As Washington and his band made their noisy way towards the French, Legardeur’s successor, Contrecouer sent Ensign Jumonville with a band of 35 men to parley with the English, warn them that they were trespassing, and gather intelligence about the capabilities and intentions of Washington’s expedition. Contrecouer’s instructions to Jumonville were carefully designed to prevent provocation on the part of the French. Washington’s orders from the Governor of Virginia were bellicose to a degree unsupported by any policy or directives from London.

As Jumonville’s small group approached Washington, the young Virginian first sent 75 men under the command of Captain Peter Hogg to intercept the French. Unfortunately Washington sent Hogg in the wrong direction. When Tanaghrisson arrived in the English camp with the alarming news that Jumonville’s party was about seven miles away, Washington and the Mingo quickly planned an ambush.

Washington took 47 men to confront the French while Tanaghrisson and a select group of Native Americans worked their way around the French, cutting off any retreat.

The fighting lasted about 15 minutes. Washington’s terse and misleading report is not the only description of what happened. We also have a report provided by a member of the French party who escaped; an even more complete account, accurate in verifiable details, from an English colonial private who had been provided with specifics by soldiers present that day; and a key summary of what happened provided by an Iroquois who deserted to the French shortly after the ambush.

It appears that Jumonville was shot in the ambush, but managed to deliver the letter he was carrying to Washington, who withdrew to read it. Tanaghrisson approached the wounded French ensign, mocking him using the language of diplomatic communications between the Iroquois and the leaders of New France before chopping open Jumonville’s skull with a hatchet. Tanaghrisson then extracted some of Jumonville’s brains with his hands before he and his men dispatched most of the wounded French. One account described Tanaghrisson as washing his hands with Jumonville’s brains.

Washington, like many inexperienced young officers leading a heterogeneous group of soldiers, had lost control of his men and the situation.

He returned to his former campsite and erected a risibly inadequate defensive palisade called Fort Necessity. He had received reinforcements and planned an offensive action against the French in Fort Duquesne at the Ohio River Forks. His march was a logistical disaster, made worse by the refusal of many of his Ohio territory Indian allies to join him in the attack.

Warned by Indian allies of the approach of a much larger French force, Washington retreated and concentrated his forces in Fort Necessity, where he and his badly deployed men, many of whom were drunk after breaking into the rum supply, were overwhelmed by French forces led by Jumonville’s older brother.

Short on supplies and almost out of ammunition, the French allowed Washington’s forces to withdraw to Virginia after Washington had signed a capitulation document he could not read that specified that Washington was responsible for the “assassination” of Ensign Jumonville.

Tanaghrisson was not interested in fighting to enable militarily incompetent English to seize and settle the Ohio region. He retired to a frontier trading post in Pennsylvania, where he criticized Washington’s inexperience in warfare and his arrogance and ignorance in insisting that the Native American allies fight by his directions, before dying in October of a disease attributed to witchcraft by his followers.

As they retreated towards Virginia, the colonial English soldiers realized that many of their native “allies” had joined with the French forces against them. Washington may have begun to understand that while both the English and the French thought they were using the Indian tribes, the Indians were intent on using both the French and English for their own purposes.

France was furious at what they proclaimed was Washington’s assassination of Jumonville on a diplomatic mission. Both France and England reinforced their troops in the New World in 1755. War was formally declared in 1756. This conflict is known in Europe as the Seven Years War, and in North America as the French and Indian War.

Washington’s immaturity at the time is evident in a letter he wrote to his brother after the ambush of Jumonville’s mission, in which he wrote “I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound.” He had frequent and prolonged opportunities to revise his judgment in the following years.

Further Reading:

• In The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War, Fred Anderson provides a detailed and well documented description of Washington’s activities on the Ohio River frontier in the 1750s, setting them in the context of English, French, colonial, and aboriginal efforts to achieve dominance in the region.

• Edmund S. Morgan’s essay on George Washington’s contributions to American independence and the founding of the United States in The Genuine Article is a model of clarity, concision, and judicious evaluation that avoids the usual perils of writing about Washington, neither indulging in hagiography nor descending into exposé.

One Reason More Americans Do Not Speak French: The Hurons in the 17th Century CE

Although the pre-Columbian peoples native to the lands that later became Canada and the United States of America did not generally form polities of the size and stability of their contemporaries in Mexico and the Andes, some of their tribal confederations were large, powerful, and profoundly influential on the European colonists that invaded in numbers in the 17th century CE. The combination of European diseases and warfare eventually effectively destroyed the power of the native peoples, but not before they played a decisive role in determining the direction of the development of history in North America.

The Huron Nation [also known as Wyandot or Wendat] was critical to French plans to dominate the continent. These plans failed partly because of a reckless French provocation in the summer of 1609.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries a look at the map of North American colonies would seem to indicate that the French were in an unassailable position. They held the St. Lawrence Valley in the north, and had no serious European rivals along the Great Lakes. By 1673 the French were exploring the Mississippi River while English colonies were still establishing footholds along the Atlantic coast, and a scattering of traders for Britain were freezing along the shores of Hudson’s Bay.

But upon closer observation weaknesses in the French colonies loomed large. The key one was demographic: English colonial population was larger than the French, and growing much faster.

The Great Migration to New England in the 1630s gave the English a good start on a significant population advantage in the New World. English religious and political malcontents fled their native land in large numbers and moved to North America in pursuit of the right to worship as they wished, land, opportunity, and greater personal freedom.

The authorities in England were generally glad to see them go. Their co-religionists eventually fought in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, establishing a Puritan-dominated Commonwealth in 1649 that developed into Cromwell’s Protectorate before the monarchy was restored in 1660. With the Stuarts back on the throne, North America was an even more appealing option to Englishmen of a Puritan leaning.

New France, by contrast, made a serious effort to limit immigration to people who would support the Catholic Church, which held a favored position both in the homeland and the colonies. The French Protestants who wanted to leave for the New World were not welcome. Catholics had little reason to leave France and brave the dangers of Canada. Furthermore, young men in New France had a troubling tendency to abandon farming and run off to become coureurs des bois seeking their fortune in the fur trade, and making alliances with aboriginal women. This was eventually to lead to the creation of the Métis people and the rebellions of Louis Riel [1869-70, 1885]. In the short term it left the Governors and Church of New France short of manpower.

The Church, ever ingenious, figured it could use aboriginal converts to fill in the ranks. High on their list of target peoples, faute de mieux, were the Hurons concentrated in what is now Southern Ontario. They had settled villages and spoke an Iroquoian language.

There were several factors that worked against the French plan. From 1634 on, successive waves of European epidemics drastically reduced the number of Hurons. Half to two-thirds of the population died, leaving about 12,000 survivors.

The Jesuits addressed the conversion of the Hurons with their usual high intelligence, extraordinary bravery, and fierce dedication. They labored under certain disadvantages, however. They would not provide a Huron with a firearm unless convinced the warrior was a sincere convert. The Dutch traders in what is now New York State, by way of comparison, usually found a way to get a gun in the hands of any Iroquois brave who could provide them with a lot of beaver pelts.

Crucially, the French had earned the lasting enmity of the Iroquois Confederation [Haudenosaunee, Rotinonshionni], which dominated what was to become Upstate New York, when on July 29, 1609 Samuel de Champlain in alliance with an invading force of Algonquins killed two Iroquois chieftains with a harquebus, another member of his party killing a third. This, combined with a victory by Champlain over the Mohawks, the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederation, in the next year earned New France the lasting hatred of the Iroquois. The Mohawks had long memories, and the other members of the Iroquois confederation were generally as inimical to the French for complex strategic and commercial reasons. Some of the following years were not marked by battles, but it would be naïve to characterize them as periods of peace.

In March of 1649 the Iroquois hit hard. They burned two sizeable Huron mission villages and struck terror into the whole Huron nation. By May the panicked Hurons had abandoned and burned 15 of their settlements to deny supplies to the Iroquois, after which the Hurons dispersed as refugees to neighboring tribes.

Eventually about 10,000 fled to Christian Island in Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, where most starved or succumbed to disease over the winter, having tried to subsist on a diet consisting largely of acorns mixed with ashes and meat scavenged from corpses. This form of cannibalism seemed very different from the traditional Huron ritual anthropophagy of tortured war captives. Remnants of the population survived, but the Huron Nation never really recovered.

France’s plans to overcome its demographic deficit vis-à-vis the English colonies never really recovered either.

Before returning to their villages, the Iroquois effectively destroyed the Neutral Nation and the Petun [Tionotati]. The Iroquois expanded and dominated their territory until the battles and scorched earth tactics of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition of 1779, much criticized as ineffective at the time, broke the power of the Confederacy irremediably.

Further Reading:

• Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America details the Iroquois-Huron conflict and its implications for the European colonial powers. It is part of his series France and England in North America, epic narrative history in a grandiloquent style no longer in fashion, but still thrilling.

• The only thing more enjoyable than reading Parkman on this period is luxuriating in Reuben Gold Thwaites’ magnificent 73 volume edition of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791.

• Francis Jenkins provides an emphasis on aboriginal perspectives in The Founders of America, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest, and The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire, among other titles.

• Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America 1754 – 1766 is a good introduction to its topic.

• Barbara Graymont’s The Iroquois in the American Revolution deals with the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition among other things.

The Nuclear Option in Colonial North America: Aboriginal Allies 1609 CE – 1814 CE

I was raised in a small town that was the home of an atomic energy research facility. Among other things, this facility designed America’s first nuclear submarine engines.

When as a student I heard the phrase “the nuclear option,” it was not a metaphor for a political maneuver in the United States Senate. It designated contemplation of use or the ability to use atomic bombs, with all of the diplomatic, military, and political ramifications of delivering and detonating such devices. The phrase soon extended its meaning to include any extreme, disproportionate, or “unthinkable” strategy or tactic that was held to be out of bounds by the vast majority of civilized opinion.

This concept of the “nuclear option” has direct applicability to the wars of empire in North America from the early 17th century CE to the early 19th. From the perspective of most of the Old World powers and their colonists, the deployment of aboriginal American warriors against European military organizations and settlers constituted use of uncontrolled forces of nature threatening total destruction. It was generally held to be as morally dubious as a nuclear first strike is now.

The cataclysmic power of the indigenous tribes both horrified and fascinated the architects of empire. Several attempted to exercise the “nuclear option” of loosing warriors on the colonial settlements and troops of their rivals. It was a technique of terror. Tribal war party raids on colonial settlements did terrorize, but did not ultimately achieve the strategic results intended.

It should be emphasized that each colonial power had a preferred strategy for dealing with the military potential presented by the natives. A few aboriginal warriors could find employment as guides or irregulars working with the European troops, but the remainder constituted a problem.

To oversimplify a bit, the Spanish response was direct: genocidal conquest followed, if there were sufficient survivors, by brutal slavery in mines or on large agricultural estates that mimicked Roman latifundia.

The French, frequently short of Gallic manpower for their colonies, often attempted to Christianize the tribes and turn them into military allies.

The British tended to ignore or exterminate their indigenous neighbors until some factions of the American colonials forced them to consider adopting a course of action that had already failed the French imperialists a generation earlier.

The Dutch, eager to turn a profit, treated the Native Americans as useful trading partners, angering both the English and the French by their willingness to barter firearms, powder and shot for furs.

And a few Native American tribal confederations from the 17th century onwards, notably the Iroquois, competed with the Europeans for dominion on an imperial scale.

In 1609 Samuel de Champlain meddled in a native war, earning the longstanding enmity of the Iroquois towards New France. This culminated in the effective destruction of Quebec’s most promising ally, the Huron [Wyandot, Wendat] nation, in 1649 – 1650. The Iroquois scarcely needed Dutch and English encouragement to raid the French and their native allies.

The French also helped organize Algonquian attacks along the New England border from settlements like Saint-Francis in Quebec, famously destroyed by Robert Rogers and his Rangers in 1759.

Even if such revenge attacks are excepted, the terror was not one-sided. In 1637 Native American guides disapproved of the English colonists’ massacre of Pequots during the obliteration of their fortress near the Mystic River in Connecticut. The Pequot settlement had the bad luck of being on land the English colonists coveted. The English colonial soldiers killed an estimated 400 to 700 natives in the attack, mostly women and children.

The French and Indian War [1754 – 1763] made a long-standing problem for the colonizers of Quebec even more urgent. New France was chronically short of manpower. Huguenots eager to escape France were not generally welcome in the colonies, and the young men recruited to emigrate to New France were prone to run off to pursue the fur trade, rather than settle down to a life of drudgery tilling the land in order to fill the coffers of New France’s civil and military administrations. It seemed necessary to some French authorities to enlist warriors from the wild tribes to augment the inadequate number of troops sent from Europe.

New France’s Governor General Vaudreuil was ready to rely on backcountry tribes to fight the English. Montcalm, the leader of France’s military in Canada, was not. He had worked hard to honor the terms under which the English had surrendered Fort William Henry [1757], explaining the arrangements to his aboriginal allies at length, only to have the braves butcher English sick and wounded before the warriors attacked a column of surrendered English who had neither powder nor shot. About 200 of the surrendered troops were killed. Shortly thereafter outside of Montreal several groups of back country aboriginal allies of the French made a show of cooking and eating some of their English captives rather than handing them over to the French authorities. Montcalm was appalled, and disinclined to use tribal warriors afterwards.

That exercising the colonial equivalent of nuclear warfare had not provided victory to the French did not deter the English from adopting similar methods during the American Revolution [1775 – 1783]. It backfired badly, perhaps most notoriously in the Saratoga campaign [1777].

St. Leger’s progress in the Mohawk Valley stalled when many of his native allies deserted, forcing St. Leger to retreat back to Lake Ontario.

As disastrous to the British campaign that ended at Saratoga was the fallout from the murder of Jane McCrea. She and Sarah McNeil were being escorted to Burgoyne’s camp by two Indians, one of whom was known as Wyandot Panther or Le Loup. Details of what happened are debated, but it is clear that McCrea was killed and Wyandot Panther returned to Burgoyne’s camp with her scalp. The fatal sequence of events may have been initiated by an argument between McCrea’s two Native American escorts regarding who was entitled to the reward for bringing McCrea to her fiancé in Burgoyne’s camp, David Jones.

Her scalp was recognized. Burgoyne went to the Native American camp, demanding they give up the guilty party and threatening execution. Burgoyne’s officers with the Native American forces told him that pursuing such a course would cause the aboriginal allies to desert en masse, and possibly to seek revenge on the British forces. Burgoyne dropped the matter, and no punishment followed. David Jones, embittered, never married.

American newspapers and reports turned the incident into effective recruiting propaganda, intensifying with each retelling. American militia from as far as Virginia flocked to Upstate New York to confront Burgoyne and his savage allies.

When Burgoyne complained about the treatment of British prisoners of war after the Battle of Bennington, the American general Horatio Gates responded:

“That the savages of America should in their warfare mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners who fall into their hands is neither new nor extraordinary; but that the famous Lieutenant General Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar, should hire the savages of America to scalp europeans and the descendants of europeans, nay more, that he should pay a price for each scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will be believed in England…. Miss McCrae, a young lady lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition, engaged to be married to an officer of your army, was … carried into the woods, and there scalped and mangled in the most shocking manner…..”

It is notable that the British seem to have learned as little from their failures in using Native Americans as a “nuclear option” during the American Revolution as they learned from the French failures during the French and Indian War. A significant cause of the War of 1812 was raiding by British supported Native Americans into the Old Northwest: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Tecumseh’s death in the Battle of the Thames [1813] was a severe loss to the Native American coalition he helped create. The defeat of the Creeks by Andrew Jackson in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend [Alabama] in 1814 was as disastrous for the tribes of the Southeast.

The peace that ended the War of 1812 was not as it is often described status quo ante bellum: the Native Americans lost big in terms of territory, power, and independence.

Ultimately, exercising the “nuclear option” of tribal allies in the struggle for North America did not work for France or Britain. There are limits to the effectiveness of terrorism.

Further Reading:

• Bartolomé de las Casas recorded the genocidal destruction of Native Americans by the Spanish in the 16th century. Modern scholarship fills in statistics, but his histories provide indispensable details and moral outrage.

• Francis Jennings’ The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire provides a necessary corrective perspective to Eurocentric histories of the struggle for imperium in colonial North America.

• Patrick Malone’s The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians examines how firearms changed the mode of warfare of the New England Indians, and how their mode of forest combat was adopted by the European settlers, with emphasis on King Philip’s War, tracing the influence of such tactics to the American Revolution and beyond.

• David Hackett Fisher’s Champlain’s Dream provides insights into the mind and activities of the founder of New France and his remarkable attitude towards the aboriginal tribes he encountered.

• Eric Schulz and Michael Tougias’ King Philip’s War gives a useful overview. Jill Lepore’s The Name of War provides insights into King Philip’s War. Douglas Leach’s Flintlock and Tomahawk is a classic narrative history of the conflict.

• Ian Steele’s Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the Massacre is the best study of this incident, clearly explaining how the different military cultures of the Native American, Colonial, and European forces resulted in misunderstandings, atrocities, and a feeling by all three parties that they had been betrayed. His Warpaths: Invasions of North America chronicles Native American resistance to European conquest

• Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga provides a useful overview of the campaign.

• John Elting’s Amateurs to Arms: A Military History of the War of 1812 is a clear and detailed account of the American side of the conflict.