The Great War for Empire

Both France and Great Britain claimed to own the Ohio country, but until the middle of the eighteenth century neither nation had done much to substantiate those claims. Moreover, Native Americans living in the region had their own claims to it. In the 1740s, the French became concerned that Native Americans were strengthening their commercial ties with Pennsylvania and Virginia traders at the expense of those in New France. To stall this trade, the French built a number of forts from Lake Erie to the Forks of the Ohio.

Also in the 1740s, a number of enterprising Virginians and their British partners decided to take advantage of the colony's charter claims to the Ohio country by creating several land companies to gain title to it. One of them, the Ohio Company (of which a third of its members lived in England), in May 1747 received a patent for 500,000 acres near the Forks of the Ohio River. In 1748, the Virginia Council granted 800,000 acres in the Ohio Valley to the Loyal Company. In 1749, the Privy Council, the members of which were impressed with the Ohio Company's potential to check French encroachment, ordered Virginia's lieutenant governor, William Gooch, to grant a further 200,000 acres to the Ohio Company-whether he liked it or not. Virginia's next lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie (who, unlike Gooch, was an Ohio Company shareholder), followed an order from the British government to determine the French presence on the Ohio and, if found trespassing on British claims, to order the French to leave. If they refused to, Dinwiddie was directed to drive them out. After sending George Washington on an unsuccessful mission to warn them away, Dinwiddie raised a force to remove them. Part of those troops, lead by a young George Washington, met a larger French and Native American force at Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania. Forced to surrender, Washington unwittingly admitted to assassinating a French envoy. France protested, but Great Britain's response was unapologetic. The British government then sent a small army, under the command of Major General Edward Braddock, to America with orders to retake the Forks of the Ohio. Within five miles of the French fort at the Forks (Fort Duquesne), Braddock's army suffered a disastrous defeat. Braddock was killed and his army was forced to retreat. In May 1756, when Great Britain declared war on France, what began as a frontier skirmish became a world war.

Until the war's end in 1763, Great Britain waged war against France in central Europe, on the Mediterranean Sea, in the West Indies, on the Indian subcontinent, and in eastern North America. For several years after Braddock's defeat the war did not go well for Britain and its American colonies. Native Americans allied with New France ranged freely along the frontier. Initially, the French and their native allies outfought British and colonial troops. Britain was hard-pressed to raise the men and money necessary to fight the war. The outlook for the war in America changed with the rise to power in Britain of William Pitt. He pushed for much more aggressive-and expensive-measures to combat the French and, more importantly, lifted the entire financial burden of the war off the backs of the colonials. As a direct result, the war swung in favor of the British. 1759 became Britain's Annus Mirabilis, its "Year of Victories," with the capture of Quebec and major victories in Europe, at the battle of Minden, and at sea, at Quiberon Bay. The French surrendered Montreal the next year.

A preliminary peace treaty (The Treaty of Paris) was signed on November 3, 1762, in which France resigned any claims to North America, provided that the British allowed French Catholics to either freely practice their religion or leave the country. It was approved by both houses of Parliament (despite Pitt's vociferous opposition) on December 9, 1762, and agreed to by George III the following day.

When news of the Paris peace treaty reached the Native Americans of the Ohio country in 1763, many were shocked to learn that France had ceded all their lands to Great Britain. Not seeing themselves as defeated, or as parties to any agreement between France and Britain, surprise gave way to anger, outrage, and, ultimately, Pontiac's Rebellion.

For the American colonies, there were short term gains but considerable long term costs. Not forgetting the substantial contributions of the colonies in the war, Parliament voted in March 1763 to compensate them for all the costs they incurred. However, Pitt's considerable price tag, along with the mounting cost of maintaining troops to defend British colonials against disaffected Native Americans, would have to be paid eventually and the English people were already overburdened with taxes that went to support the empire. In 1764, the British government looked to America for more revenue and thereby began the American Revolution.

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