The Real First World War and the Making of America

Two hundred and fifty years ago this winter, European courts and diplomats were moving ever closer to war. It would prove larger, more brutal, and costlier than anyone anticipated, and it would have an outcome more decisive than any war in the previous three centuries.

Historians usually call it the Seven Years’ War. Modern Americans, recalling a few disconnected episodes—Braddock’s defeat, the Fort William Henry “massacre,” the Battle of Quebec—know it as the French and Indian War. Neither name communicates the conflict’s immensity and importance. Winston Churchill came closer in The History of the English-Speaking Peoples when he called it “a world war—the first in history,” noting that unlike the previous Anglo-French wars, this time “the prize would be something more than a rearrangement of frontiers and a redistribution of fortresses and sugar islands.”

That prize was the eastern half of North America, and the war in which Britain won it raised, with seismic force, a mountain range at the midpoint of the last half-millennium in American history. On the far side of that range lay a world where native peoples controlled the continent. On the other side we find a different world, in which Indian power waned as the United States grew into the largest republic and the most powerful empire on earth. In that sense it may not be too much to give the conflict yet another name: the War That Made America.

Seeing what north america looked like on the far side of the Seven Years’ War illuminates the changes the war wrought and its lingering influences. The traditional narrative of American history treats the “colonial period” as a tale of maturation that begins with the founding of Virginia and Massachusetts and culminates in the Revolution. It implies that the demographic momentum of the British colonies and the emergence of a new “American character” made independence and the expansion of Anglo-American settlement across the continent inevitable. Events like the destruction of New France, while interesting, were hardly central to a history driven by population expansion, economic growth, and the flowering of democracy. Indians, regrettably, were fated to vanish beneath the Anglo-American tide.

But if we regard the Seven Years’ War as an event central to American history, a very different understanding emerges—one that turns the familiar story upside down. Seen this way, the “colonial period” had two phases. During the first, which lasted the whole of the sixteenth century, Indian nations controlled everything from the Atlantic to the Pacific, north of the Rio Grande, setting the terms of interaction between Europeans and Indians and determining every significant outcome. The second phase began when the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English established settlements in North America around the beginning of the seventeenth century, inaugurating a 150-year period of colonization and conflict by changing the conditions of American life in two critical ways. First, permanent colonies spread disease in their immediate vicinities; second, they radically increased the volume of trade goods that flowed into Indian communities. The results of this transformation were many, powerful, and enduring.

Epidemic diseases—smallpox, diphtheria, measles, plague—dealt a series of deadly blows to native populations. Ironically, the Indians nearest the European settlements, and who sustained the earliest and worst losses, also had the closest access to trade goods and weapons that gave them unprecedented advantages over more distant groups. As warriors raided for captives to prop up their dwindling populations and pelts to exchange for European weapons, wars among native peoples became ever more deadly. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, in what is now upstate New York, grew powerful in the mid-seventeenth century by trading with the Dutch at Fort Orange (Albany) and seizing captives from Canada to the Ohio Valley to the Carolinas. Iroquois power, of course, had its limits. Tribes driven west and north by their attacks forged alliances with the French, who supplied them with arms, and encouraged them to strike back.

The Iroquois were already under pressure when England seized New Netherland from the Dutch in 1664. This deprived the tribes of an essential ally when they could least afford it. Iroquois fortunes spiraled downward until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the battered Five Nations finally adopted a position of neutrality toward the French and British empires.

The Iroquois soon found that this neutrality gave them a new form of power. They could play Britain and France off against each other in the wars that the contending empires fought during the first half of the eighteenth century. By the 1730s a half-dozen Indian groups—Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Abenakis, and various Algonquians, as well as the Iroquois—were engaging in balance-of-power politics that made any maneuverings of the French, the British—and the Spanish too—indecisive. While it lasted, this balance permitted Indian and European groups to develop along parallel paths. When it ended, however, the whole edifice of native power came crashing down.