Touring French and Indian War America

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In the spring and summer of this year I vacationed in Missouri, Western New York and Southwestern Pennsylvania. While visiting family and friends was the main focus of my trips, my journeys intersected with the French and Indian War period repeatedly while driving hundreds of miles of back roads throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The hilly regions of the East were  formative in the first half of my life and the flat plains of the Mississippi River have been a presence in the past twenty years after marrying my wife from Missouri.

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National Park Service map with French and Indian War era sites I’ve visited

These regions also played a large role in the origin story of what would become the United States of America. The 18th-century American continent was the New World front in the worldwide competition between the French and English for worldwide colonial control. In the Americas, native peoples were inserted into the European conflict with the various Indian Nations shifting alliances among the European powers.

From 1754-1763, the Seven Years War stretched around the globe and occupied the colonial regions of America with the French and Indian War. From the Great Lakes and mountains of Upstate New York to the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania to the western rivers frontier, French, British, Native American and American colonists fought for the future of the what would become the modern United States and Canada.

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit numerous sites from this contested Anglo-French period. Family day trips when I was a kid took me to just about every major fort and battlefield in New York state and nearby Canada, including Fort Niagara, Fort Ontario, Fort William Henry, Fort Ticonderoga and Fort York at present day Toronto. During graduate school in Michigan, I spent a weekend at the northern tip of the state and visited Fort Michilimackinac. After graduate school, my time in Pennsylvania included visits to Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity and the site of Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh. Since meeting my future wife while in Pennsylvania, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Missouri, getting married in the historic French town of St. Charles and visiting other colonial era towns and sites.

With the French and Indian War on my gaming mind this past year with the excellent A Few Acres of Snow, here’s a few of the places I’ve managed to visit (or revisit) this past year.

French Settlements on the American Western Colonial Frontier

Over the Easter weekend, I visited my in-laws in St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri. After a bit of time in and around St. Louis, we headed south along the Mississippi River to Ste. Genevieve. Settled in the 1730s, Ste. Genevieve showcases a remarkably intact collection of distinctive French colonial-influenced buildings. We were particularly fortunate in being allowed to walk through the Bequette-Ribault House which I had read about in one of my graduate school classes. The building was under renovation, allowing us to view a rare surviving example of the “poteaux en terre” construction technique of posts sunk vertically into the ground.

From Ste. Genevieve we took a rickety ferry across the Mississippi and drove along the Illinois side to Fort des Chartres. Reconstructed in the 1930s, the fort today depicts a French outpost way out on the western boundaries of claims to French territory in the 18th-century which stretched from Canada to New Orleans. Standing in the middle of hundreds of miles of farmland all around, it’s amazing to imagine a small garrison of French soldiers at the fort watching over the far edges of a European empire over nearly 300 years ago. The well-interpretted partial reconstruction of the fort itself and the small on site museum captures the scope of the French empire’s commitment to taking a territorial stand on this edge of the New World.

Although the French would cede much control of North America to the British after the end of the French and Indian War, evidence of French culture remains in buildings and place names throughout the old colonial areas. Visitors from France and French-speaking Canada still flock to Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding area every year, and walking the streets of the town and the battlements of Fort des Chartres the French legacy still echoes today.

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Statue of King Louis IX of France, at the Saint Louis Art Museum

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The Bolduc House (c. 1770)  in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

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The Bequette-Ribault House (c. 1780) in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

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Fort de Chartres (c. 1720) near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois

Mary Jeminson, “The White Indian of the Genesee”

This summer I also took my family back to my hometown in Western New York which sits a quick drive from Letchworth State Park, home to deep river-cut gorges and spectacular waterfalls. The park also celebrates the story of Mary Jeminson, a young girl who was abducted from her family’s Eastern Pennsylvania farm in 1755, traded to Seneca Indians near Fort Duquesne and lived the remainder of her long life as a prominent member of the Iroquois in the area around present day Letchworth.

The legendary story of Jeminson is remarkable, and her life tells the story of the complicated territorial and military alliances between the various Native American and European peoples in the French and Indian War and subsequent American War of Independence. Jeminson is remembered at Letchworth with a monument marking where her remains were relocated in 1872 adjacent to a Seneca Council House which interprets the native people’s governance of the region during the colonial and post-Revolution period.
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The Mary Jeminson Monument at Letchworth State Park

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Seneca Council House relocated to Letchworth State Park in 1872

The National Road and Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Twenty years ago this summer I served as an intern researching and writing National Register of Historic Places nominations for three historic pike towns along the National Road (Route 40) in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t travelled back to the region in two decades, and touring Route 40 again brought back to me how rich the area is in early colonial American history.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield interprets a pivotal series of events that took place in this corner of the Pennsylvania wilderness in 1754 and 1755, arguably leading to the eruption and eventual escalation of the French and Indian War in North America. Commanding a force of Virginia colonial militiamen, British Lt. Col. George Washington encountered a small detachment of French Canadiens led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville in May 1754. After a brief firefight, Jumonville was killed by Anglo-allied Mingo warriors. Two months later, a large force of French, Canadiens and Indians led by Jumonville’s brother Louis Coulon de Villiers met Washington’s small group in a wet, open meadow. Washington hastily built a stockade – a “fort of necessity” – but was overwhelmed by the French force attacking from the woods in a driving rain. One year later, Washington’s mentor General Edward Braddock met his end nearby during his doomed attempt to lad a British force inland to seize the French Fort Duquesne.

In the years since I’ve been to the battlefield, the National Park Service has created a new, modern visitors center telling two important stories from the past. The French and Indian War and its beginnings in the area nearby is depicted through interactive maps, videos and some great exhibits that zero in on the individual nations who fought over the region over two hundred years ago. The construction of the nearby National Road in the decades after the conflict occupies second half of the museum’s narrative, depicting the importance it played in the push West and economic development of the new nation in the early 19th-century. By the time you’ve spent a couple of hours in the visitors center and exploring the hilly region, you can’t help but leave with a real sense of the massive importance this part of Western Pennsylvania played in setting the stage for American progress in the subsequent decades.

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Fort Necessity National Battlefield

As with most of the French and Indian War and Anglo-French colonial era sites I’ve visited, it is remarkable that such wide-reaching ripple effects through centuries of subsequent history took place in these tiny corners of what was then an open territory for Europeans and home to a rich culture of Native peoples. By the end of the French and Indian War, the British had laid claim to much of the Americas. In so doing, the seeds of descent had also been sown among a bitter population of American colonists who would eventually rise up in independence against their British rulers.

All my travel this past year, followed up by a rewatching of the PBS series The War That Made America, has definitely fuelled the French and Indian War bug in me. I’ve put a few books on my reading list, including Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, and Richard Berleth’s Bloody Mohawk. The period has also led me to pick up Wilderness War from GMT Games, the modern go-to board game on the period. With more than two-and-a-half-centuries between today and the fight for empire in the Americas, the French and Indian War is very much alive for me.

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2 thoughts on “Touring French and Indian War America

  1. Great post! Living on the other side of the pond as I do I envy you living so near to this historic battle ground, I’ve been interested in the French and Indian war for some time and it would be great to see the forts for real instead of just photos and via Google Earth.

  2. Pingback: New Game Weekend: Wilderness War | Brooklyn Wargaming

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