The French And Indian War In Pittsburgh: A Memoir

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The French and Indian War! This was a war of which I, reading stretched out in my bedroom, could not get enough. The names of the places were a litany: Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, Fort Frontenac on the St. Lawrence, Vincennes on the Wabash. The names of the people were a litany: Captain Claude-Pierre Pécaudy, Sieur de Contrecoeur; the Swiss commander of Fort Pitt, Simeon Ecuyer; the great Indian fighter Col. Henry Bouquet; Maj. Robert Rogers of the Rangers; the Sieur de Marin; the Marquis de Montcalm; the Seneca chief Half-King. There was an outlandish-soundine Miami chief on the Ohio whom the English called “Old Britain” and the French called “La Demoiselle.”

 

How witless in comparison were the clumsy wars of Europe. On some open field at nine o’clock sharp, soldiers in heavy armor, dragged from their turnip patches in feudal obedience to Lord So-and-So, met in long ranks the heavily armored men owned or paid for by Lord Such-and-Such and defeated them by knocking them over like ninepins. What was at stake? The succession of Maria Theresa at the death of Charles VI. Phooey.

In the French and Indian War a whole continent was at stake, and it was hard to know whom to root for as I read. The Indians were the sentimental favorites, but they were visibly cruel. The French excelled at Indian skills and had the endearing habit of singing in boats. But if they won, we would all speak French, which seemed affected in the woods. The Scotch-Irish settlers and the English army were very uneasy allies; but their cruelties were invisible to me, and their partisans wrote all the books that fell into my hands.

It all seemed to take place right here, here among the blossoming rhododendrons outside the sun-porch windows just below my bedroom, here in the Pittsburgh forest that rose again from every vacant lot, every corner of every yard the mower missed, every clogged gutter on the roof. Here our own doughty provincials in green hunting shirts fought beside regiments of Rangers in buckskins, actual Highlanders in kilts, loyal Iroquois in war paint, and British regulars in red jackets. They came marching vividly through the virgin Pittsburgh forest; they trundled up and down the nearby mountain ridges by day and slept at night on their weapons under trees. Pioneer scouts ran ahead of them and behind them; messengers snuck into their few palisaded forts, where periwigged English officers sat and rubbed their foreheads, while naked Indians in the treetops outside were setting arrows on fire to burn down the roof.

Best, it was all imaginary. That the French and Indian War had taken place in this neck of the woods merely enhanced its storied quality, as if that fact had been a particularly pleasing literary touch. The war was part of my own private consciousness, the dreamlike interior murmur of books.

Costumed enormous people, transparent, vivid, and bold as decals, as tall and rippling as people in dreams, shot at each other up and down the primeval woods, race against race. Just as people in myths travel rigidly up to the sky, or are placed there by some greater god’s fingers, to hold still forever in the midst of their loving or battles as fixed constellations of stars, so the fighting cast of the French and Indian War moved in a colorful body into the pages of books—locked into position in the landscape but still loading muskets or cowering behind log doors or landing canoes on a blackened shore. They were fabulous and morally neutral, like everything in history, like everything in books. They were imagination’s playthings—toy soldiers, toy settlers, toy Indians. They were a part of the interior life: they were private; they were my own.

In books these wars played themselves out ceaselessly; the red-war-painted Indian tomahawked the settler woman in calico; and the rangy settler in buckskin spied out the Frenchman in military braid. Whenever I picked up a book, the war struck up again like a record whose music sounded when the needle hit. The skirling of Highlanders’ bagpipes came playing again high and thin over the dry oak ridges. The towheaded pioneer school-children were just blabbing their memorized psalms when from right outside the greased parchment window sounded the wild and fatal whoops of Indian warriors on a raid.