What were the French and Indian Wars (1688-1763)?


The French and Indian Wars were a series of conflicts that occurred in North America between 1688 and 1763, some of which indirectly were related to the European dynastic wars. The title French and Indian War in the singular is used in the United States specifically for the warfare of 1754-1763, which is mostly coincident with the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The French and Indian Wars were preceded by the Beaver Wars (1609-1701).

In Quebec, the various wars are generally referred to as the Intercolonial Wars. Some conflicts involved Spanish and Dutch forces, but all pitted the Kingdom of Great Britain, its colonies, and their Indian allies on one side against France, its colonies, and its Indian allies on the other. A major cause of the wars was the desire of each country to take control of the interior territories of America, as well as the region around Hudson Bay; both were deemed essential to domination of the fur trade.


The North American wars, and their associated European wars, in sequence, are outlined below.

Time PeriodNorth American WarEuropean WarTreaty
1688-1697King William’s War (1st Intercolonial War)War of the Grand Alliance
War of the League of Augsburg
Nine Years’ War
Treaty of Ryswick (1697)
1702-1713Queen Anne’s War (2nd Intercolonial War)
Dummer’s War
War of the Spanish SuccessionTreaty of Utrecht (1713)
1744-1748King George’s War (3rd Intercolonial War)
War of Jenkins’ Ear
War of the Austrian SuccessionTreaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748)
1754-1763The French and Indian War (4th Intercolonial War or War of Conquest (in Quebec))
6th Indian War
Father Le Loutre’s War
Seven Years’ WarTreaty of Paris (1763)

Naming conflicts after the British monarch of the day is a convention in United States history related to its early European settlement as majority-English colonies. Canadian convention uses the name of the larger European conflict (e.g. the “War of the Grand Alliance” rather than “King William’s War“) or refers to the wars as the Intercolonial Wars.

As the wars proceeded, the military advantage moved toward the British side. This was chiefly the result of the greater population and productive capacity of the British colonies compared with those of France. In addition, the British had the greater ability to resupply their colonies and project military power by sea. In the first three conflicts, the French were able to offset these factors largely by more effective mobilization of Indian allies, but they were finally overwhelmed in the fourth and last war.

The overwhelming victory of the British played a role in the eventual loss of their thirteen American colonies. Without the threat of French invasion, the American colonies saw little need for British military protection. In addition, the American people resented British efforts to limit their colonisation of the new French territories to the west of the Appalachian Mountains, as stated in the Proclamation of 1763, in an effort to relieve encroachment on Indian territory. These pressures contributed to the American Revolutionary War.

The first three of the French and Indian Wars followed the same basic pattern: they all started in Europe and then moved to North America. Once the conflict broke out in North America, it was mostly fought by colonial militias. The final conflict broke this pattern by beginning in North America. In addition, the British used more regular troops alongside colonial militia. They returned almost none of the French territory seized during the war. France was forced to cede its extensive territory in present-day Canada and Louisiane. The British victory in the French and Indian Wars reduced France’s New World empire to St. Pierre and Miquelon (two islands off Newfoundland), a few West Indian islands, and French Guiana.


Operational Goals

The belligerents strove in general to control the major transportation and trade routes, not just the sea routes that connected the colonies with the mother country, or the land routes that existed between the different colonies, but also the major fur trade routes leading to the interior of North America. These were normally along lakes and rivers and stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Many Native American Nations lived by these routes, and became involved in the wars between the great powers of Europe. The belligerents built fortified positions at major transportation hubs and requested the help of the local Native population to defend these, and to attack enemy positions.

European Tactics

A common view is that European combat methods and military tactics were not adapted to the American forests and to the Native American art of war. It is therefore conjectured that the English colonists designed new combat techniques, inspired by the Indian combat methods. These techniques, which included cover and stressed ambushes, is supposed to have been the reason why the colonists finally defeated the French, and then the British army during the American Revolutionary War. In reality, however, the French and Indian wars were finally won by Britain through the application of traditional European tactics. The Fortress of Louisbourg surrendered twice after sieges conducted according to the rules of European warfare, and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham 1759 was a European battle fought in closed formations in the open.

Petty Warfare

Although ultimately futile, the French fought according to the tactical doctrine contemporaries called la Petite guerre, or today’s guerrilla warfare. The numerical inferiority of the French forces in North America made it impossible to fight a war according to standard European tactics. Hence the French to a large extent made use of indigenous allies (see below). The small French population; New France’s dependence on the fur trade, mutually profitable for both Frenchmen and Native Americans; and the common threat from the British colonies, made the indigenous peoples willing allies. The Battle of the Monongahela was the largest achievement of the petty warfare tactics. But at the end of the French and Indian War British numerical superiority became overwhelming, in spite of almost the whole male population of Canada being mobilised, and standard European tactics won the day and the war.

European Military Forces

The British

The British military forces consisted of the British Army’s regular regiments and independent companies; the provincial regiments raised by the several colonies in British America, and the colonial militia.

British Army

The British Army had two types of units in North America: regular regiments serving in the colonies for a longer or shorter period of time, normally sent there only after the war had begun, and independent companies, permanently based in the colonies as garrisons of forts and fortresses. The British Army was largely recruited among the poor and the criminal classes; yet, the independent companies had lower status. Their ranks were often filled with people who had left the regular service – former soldiers mainly, but also deserters. The officers were often promoted non-commissioned officers. The independent companies became rooted in the local society, often transforming the military service into a sideline of a civilian occupation, and remaining in the colonies after expiration of the enlistment period.

Provincial Troops

When war began, the several colonies organised their own military forces, provincial troops, through temporary enlistments. The soldiers came from the lower orders of society, which did not strengthen their reliability or efficiency. Massachusetts Bay, New York and Connecticut usually mobilised large contingents, while the southern colonies always very reluctantly contributed to the imperial cause. The British Army did not have high opinions of the battleworthiness of the provincial troops, with the exception of the ranger units. During conjoint operations the provincial troops were subject to the very strict British Articles of War. The officers of the provincial troops had lower relative rank than the officers of the regular army; a provincial field officer ranked as a senior British captain, although these officers were members of the colonial elite, often members of colonial legislatures. Disputes concerning rank and precedent between regular and provincial officers were common. Junior provincial officers were often popular militia officers, who easily could recruit a company of men.

Colonial Militia

Each colony had its own militia, which in principle contained all able-bodied men 16 to 60 years of age. In reality, however, membership in the militia was restricted to the more substantial members of society, since every militiaman had to provide himself with a musket, knapsack, powder, bullets, flints, and sword. Each local community organised its own militia. The officers were either appointed by the governor or elected by the men. The main task of the local militia was local defence, rarely serving in the field but acting as a more or less efficient home guard.

The French

The Compagnies Franches de la Marine, the colonial marines, contained the core of the military forces of New France. It was only during the French and Indian War that units from the Royal French Army were transferred to Canada. The colonial militia was more important than its counterpart in British America.


The French colonies were administrated through the secretary of state for the navy, and naval troops garrisoned New France. The French marines were organised into independent companies called Compagnies franches. During the French and Indian War, naval gunner-bombardier companies were also stationed in North America. The other ranks of the marines were enlisted in France, but the officer corps became increasingly Canadian through recruitment of officers’ sons. All promotions were by merit; purchase of commissions was prohibited. The British rangers were an attempt to replicate the tactics of the French colonial marines. The Swiss regiment de Karrer also operated under the Royal French Navy. Its depot was in Rochefort, but its companies served in North American and the Caribbean.

French Army

In 1754 six battalions from the regiments Artois, Béarn, Bourgogne, Guyenne, Languedoc, and La Reine were transferred to New France. In 1757 two additional battalions arrived from Royal Roussilon and La Sarre, followed the next year by two battalions from de Berry. An artillery company was also sent over the Atlantic.

Colonial Militia

The Canadian colonial militia enjoyed a substantially higher morale and battleworthiness than the British provincial troops and the militia of the British colonies. This was only true, however, when they were employed as home guard or as wilderness warriors. Besides a combat role, the Canadian militia also fulfilled important tasks behind the lines, such as transportation and road building.

Indian Allies

British Allies

The Iroquois League played an important strategic role in the struggle between Britain and France over northeastern America because of its location east and south of Lake Ontario. The League’s aggressive military and commercial policy gave the Iroquois control over large parts of the country, forcing many smaller Indian nations into submission. The Covenant Chain joined the Iroquois with the colony of New York and other British colonies in a compact that generally benefitted the parties and ultimately was disastrous for France.

French Allies

France recognised the independence of the Indian tribes while claiming sovereignty over their territory at the same time, as well as the right to plead the cause of their Indian allies in the face of other European powers. The French allies accepted this protectorate since it permitted self-government and a traditional lifestyle. The Mi’kmaq and the Abenaki accepted Catholicism as it confirmed their brotherhood with the French in the struggle against the British. Alongside the Mi’kmaq and the Abenaki, France’s chief allies were the indiens domiciliés (resident Indians) who lived at the Catholic missions in New France. Religious reasons and the need for a refuge from the English attack motivated their dislocation to French territory. At the end of the French and Indian wars, all resident Indians were joined in the confederation of the Seven Nations of Canada.

Indian-White Warfare

A pattern of warfare emerged during the clashes between the European colonial powers and the American Indians which characterized the four major French and Indian wars. The complex network of relations was fundamental between some Indian tribes and some colonies, the Indian tribes becoming the allies of the colonial powers. These alliances were a result of the economic ties that had been formed by the fur trade and by the Indian tribes’ need for allies against their Indian rivals. The warfare included the widespread and escalating abuse of civilians on all sides, in which settlements were attacked, both Colonial and Indian, the residents killed or abducted, and houses and crops burned.


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