Culture of War: French and Indian War (Part 1)

"French attack St. John's Newfoundland 1762". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“French attack St. John’s Newfoundland 1762”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the British Empire and France once again went to war in 1754, scarcely five years after the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of the Austrian Succession (or King George’s War, as it was known in America), Britain and her colonies were exceedingly well positioned for victory in North America. Numerically, the English presence on the Continent far outnumbered the French. And while the most powerful Indian presence in the east, the Iroquois Confederacy, had declared neutrality half a century before, the seat of the Native American union rested in New England, which facilitated a valuable strategic relationship and lucrative trade.[1] So why, then, did this war last nine years? Certainly, the so-called French and Indian War was only one theater in a larger, global struggle. Both empires had to make bold decisions on when, where, and how to execute warfare, and these decisions naturally affected operations in North America. However, this latest conflict was not simply a “continuation of the preceding war.”[2] This clash of empires playing out in the backwaters of the Ohio River Valley and the adjacent English colonies was shaped by an intriguing mix of cultures far more nuanced that simply “European” versus “Indian.” [3] These cultural differences between allies and enemies alike would complicate the already grueling business of warfare. In fact, we will see that cultural forces not only shaped the way each side fought, but a lack of understanding of these cultures arguably extended the war. This article will look more specifically at the effects of culture on the English and Native American forces before and during the conflict.

In the years prior to the outbreak of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Ohio Valley became increasingly volatile as English colonists began asserting themselves in territory long claimed by the French. To make matters even more combustible, the power of the Iroquois Confederacy, which had acted in many ways as a mediator between the two colonial powers, began to fragment. By 1652, controversial land sales by the Iroquois Confederacy (dominated by the Six Nations of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscarora peoples) pushed disgruntled Delaware and Shawnee tribes west, and many settled in Ohio among the Mingo and Miami Indians, traditional allies of the French.[4] This growth of displaced people resentful of both the Anglo-Americans and Iroquois leaders responsible for their relocation contributed to an increasingly hostile environment that eroded what authority the Iroquois Great League held over them and the valley region.[5]

As English colonists sought land deals (legitimate and illegitimate) to secure additional territory further to the west, they were constantly frustrated by the fact that Indian society rarely formed central authorities that resembled European-style governments. This made it difficult to negotiate with a single leader or group to authorize land purchases. Although the powerful Iroquois Confederacy in many ways stands out as an exception, this union of six nations only emerged in response to the arrival of European colonists in the 17th century.[6] At a town or tribal level, leadership of a people was often divided between a “war chief” and a “peace chief,” with the latter generally able to exercise power for longer periods than the former (war chiefs could lose their position if his people lost a battle or two).[7] This de-centralized governance was a reflection of a larger culture shared by most native peoples. The Cherokee, for instance, scattered throughout the southern Appalachian region, were linked by a base-Iroquoian language, and not much else.[8] Archeological evidence indicates that linguistically and materially, Cherokee towns shared little in the way of a shared identity and way of life.[9] This lack of a shared identity often meant that neighboring Cherokee towns did not join to fight with other Cherokee towns if they were engaged in war.[10] This diffusive tribal identity would only start to coalesce into something more cohesive when English settlers recklessly lashed out at friendly and neutral Cherokee, triggering the Anglo-Cherokee War (1759-1761).[11] We will see this in more detail when we discuss the war period.

Although historians guard against broad-brush generalizations of Native American culture, there are some similarities when it comes to warfare that are applicable to most eastern Indian tribes. As stated by historian Wayne Lee, “societies at war with each other tend to converge…in their techniques and values of war…”[12] The original peoples of the Americas fought each other for centuries before Europeans ever stepped foot in the New World. Over time, practices and certain expectations of conduct in war were widely adopted. In some instances European and Native American cultures created similar practices considered acceptable in warfare. Differences were more common, however.

Lee postulates that Native American warfare served three primary cultural functions: to administer political lessons to opposing groups (in other words, to demonstrate dominance over another tribe); to exact blood revenge in response to the killing of a member (or members) of a tribe; and to achieve glory or personal stature.[13] This last function, personal glory, sometimes encouraged young men to volunteer to help the colonists in their wars. For example, during King George’s War (1744-1748), although the Iroquois were generally firm in their declared neutrality, some did break away to join the French simply to fight, gain reward, and take prisoners.[14]

Warriors preparing for combat were expected to ready themselves spiritually, and though the requirements of such spiritual cleansing varied from region to region, participation in these rituals was required. One particular manifestation of this spiritual cleansing, which typically included abstinence from any sexual intercourse, was the effective removal of rape as a weapon from Native American warfare. [15] This cultural phenomenon will actually be a source of conflict with European warfare, as we will see.

Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West
Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West

Central to Native American warfare was the “mourning war.” This ancient practice enabled Indian tribes to grieve for deceased family by replacing them with the captives of another tribe.[16] This loss could be the result of warfare, but also could be because of famine or even disease. This replacement did not have to be literal (although it often was). Women and children taken from enemy populations were often adopted, while captured men were tortured to death in vengeance.[17]

These three practices of Indian warfare – taking prisoners, torture, and avoidance of rape – contrasts starkly with the European model of warfare. Of course, European warfare recognized significant value in taking of prisoners, especially with the intent to ransom them. But this monetary or political value differed significantly from the “mourning war” need to absorb the prisoners into the conquering society. As previously stated, women and children were preferred prisoners in regards to adoption, while men were often tortured. Both of these points contravened what was acceptable to European warfare.[18] Conversely, the European tendency to tolerate rape during war was reprehensible to the Native Americans. The disparities between what European colonists and Native American peoples considered taboo were a source of considerable friction and numerous misunderstandings leading up to the period of the French and Indian War. We will see that during the war, these misunderstandings will be at least partially responsible for turning once-allied Native Americans against the English, and will stoke English fear and hatred of Indians that were once neighbors.


[1] The Covenant Chain, established in 1677, was a commercial alliance that had the potential to enable the English to break into the closed French trading network in the continental interior. Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 – 1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 14-16.

[2] Patrice Louis-René Higonnet, “The Origins of the Seven Years’ War.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Mar.1968), 57.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fred Anderson, ibid, 22-23.

[5] Ibid, 23.

[6] Ibid, 12.

[7] Wayne E. Lee, “Peace Chiefs and Blood Revenge: Patterns of Restraint in Native American Warfare, 1500-1800.” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), 706.

[8] Tyler Boulware,”The Effect of the Seven Years’ War on the Cherokee Nation,” Early American Studies, Vol 5, No. 2 (Fall 2007), 402.

[9] Ibid, 403.

[10] Ibid, 404.

[11] Ibid, 398-399.

[12] Wayne E. Lee, ibid, 703.

[13] Ibid, 713.

[14] Jon Parmenter, “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois as Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns,

1676-1760,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 64, No. 1, Free to Enslave: Politicsand the Escalation of Britain’s Translantic (Jan., 2007), 58.

[15] Wayne E. Lee, ibid, 720, 722.

[16] Fred Anderson, ibid, 12-13.

[17] Wayne E. Lee, ibid, 730, 732.

[18] Ibid, 732.

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