“1758—YEAR OF DECISION?” by Fred Anderson


As those of you who have read Bernard DeVoto’s great book The Year of Decision: 1846, will have recognized, I stole the title to this talk. Partly I did so to pay homage that rarest of accomplishments in history, a scholarly work that is also a major literary achievement. Mostly, however, I wanted to make a point about how we think about the Seven Years’ War, and its significance. DeVoto meant his title to emphasize that 1846 was a turning point in American history—that it marked the beginning of the Mexican War, a conflict that launched the United States headlong into the events that would produce the Civil War, and it inaugurated the great shift from ―the Atlantic to the Pacific phase of American history.‖ I want to suggest that the same can be said of 1758, a year not normally associated with decision in either the Seven Years’ War or the larger history of North America. The year 1758 is usually seen as being important only to certain local histories: Fort Carillon (latterly Ticonderoga), of course, is one such place; Pittsburgh, and perhaps western Pennsylvania generally, is another. Those who see it in that way are quite right to do so, but it is not my purpose to tell those local stories today. Rather what I hope to do is to convince you that the year was of much more general importance to North American history, and to explain why it is that we’ve tended to miss that larger significance. Fundamentally we’ve missed it because of the way we usually tell the story of the Seven Years’ War—or indeed of the story of any war.

Historians who write about wars have a tradition of focusing on battles, and of looking for decisive battles. That tendency goes back (I suppose) to Herodotus and Tacitus, to whom it made a lot of sense to construct their narratives of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars in that way. They were after all contemporaries of playwrights like Aeschylus and Sophocles who wrote dramas with beginnings, middles, and ends; with characters, conflict, and a climax, or high point in the action that resolved the conflict, settled the fate of the characters, and left the audience with a feeling of satisfaction, of completion. Aristotle built his theory of drama, as expressed in tragedy at least, around the importance of the dramatic climax, which was supposed to leave the audience ―purged of fear and pity.‖ Just so the ancient Greek historians built their narratives of wars as stories with beginnings, middles, and ends; with conflict (lots of that), characters, and resolutions; and with moments of climax in battles like Thermopylae, which expressed all the dramatic unities of time, place, character, and action that tragedies did.

Because battles come as close as life allows to dramatic art, then, historians have been drawn relentlessly to them for the last 2,500 years. This has been great for history understood as literary art. It may have some drawbacks, however, for those of us who may look to history in the hope of actually understanding what goes on in wars, and grasping the larger meanings of past warfare for our own lives—the ones we live in a regrettably warlike present.

In the case of this war particularly, the case for a decisive battle has seemingly unassailable since the Battle of Quebec, on the 13th of September, 1759. The blood had barely finished soaking into the ground on the Plains of Abraham when the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew preached two sermons at Boston celebrating the victory of the British forces not only as evidence of God’s favor for Anglo-America, but as a turning-point from which it was possible to foresee a future in which the British and their colonists would predominate all across the eastern half of North America, with the Indians and the French pushed off to safe distance beyond the Mississippi (along with those other papists, the Spanish), leaving the American colonists of Great Britain to form a peaceful and ―mighty empire (I do not mean an independent one)‖—as he was quick to add, lest his audience get the wrong idea about what conclusions to draw. And there is even greater literary sanction for seeing the Battle of Quebec as decisive in Francis Parkman’s masterpiece, Montcalm and Wolfe, which more than any other work before or since has governed how we understand the Seven Years’ War in North America. Parkman’s account of the battle is without peer as a set-piece of dramatic narration. Even now, a century and a quarter after he wrote it, it makes absolutely compelling reading as the two tragic heroes of his tale face off and meet their fates, simultaneously, beneath the battlements of Quebec, high above the St. Lawrence River. That this is the climax not only of Montcalm and Wolfe, but of the whole of Parkman’s magnificent series, France and England in North America, there is no doubt. With his account of the battle concluded, Parkman winds up his tale in almost nothing flat, barreling through 1760 and the surrender of Canada, the Caribbean campaigns of 1761-62, and the conclusion of the European war at the Treaty of Paris, in all of about 60 pages—scarcely more than the 45 pages he gave to the battle and the fall of Quebec. It’s not that Parkman did so because he was old and chiefly blind, and worried about finishing his great work before he died. It was because once he had finished with the battle, he had nothing left to tell that mattered. The epic of France and England in North America was simply over, and the rest of the story was just so much tying up of loose ends—rather like what happens at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when J.K. Rowling jump-cuts from the battle for Hogwarts to a scene nineteen years later at Platform 9¾ of King’s Cross Station, that lets you know that Harry does in fact marry Ginny Weasley and with Voldemort vanquished at last, the wizarding world lives on in decency and peace.

But the problem with treating the Battle of Quebec in this way is that in fact it wasn’t decisive, even in the narrowest military sense. The Battle of Quiberon Bay (20 November 1759) mattered much more, because it destroyed the last significant French naval squadron on the Atlantic, and precluded the re-supply and reinforcement of French forces in Canada. That left Montcalm’s successor, the chevalier de Lévis, unable to follow up on his spectacular comeback victory at the Battle of Ste. Foy (28 April 1760), and force the surrender of the beaten, exhausted, diseased British garrison at Quebec—something he could easily have accomplished, had it only been a French ship of the line and a few transports that appeared on the St. Lawrence after the ice broke up, instead of H.M.S. Vanguard in advance of a British naval squadron.

By concentrating so heavily on the Battle of Quebec, we also obscure something even more important than the military dimensions of the conquest: the significance of native people in deciding the outcome of the war. Quebec was an extraordinary event in many ways, but in none more so than that it was an open-field battle fought in European style and decided, as such battles were supposed to be, by exchange of musket fire and a bayonet charge. The Battle of Quebec was essentially a battle between Europeans (and Euro-American colonists); few Indians took part, and the few that did merely skirmished around the margins of the battlefield or sniped at the thin red line of British troops that stretched from one side of the Plains of Abraham to the other. Insofar as it marginalizes native people and their influence in the outcome, assigning the Battle of Quebec decisive significance utterly distorts the real story of the war, which depended at virtually every turn on native peoples and native agency. Indeed, by far the most accurate way to understand the war’s turning point is to tell the story in a way that does not privilege a single battle, but rather in such a way as to make clear the character and consequences of a great shift in the North American balance of power that took place in the year 1758. To explain that, and to give you a sense of exactly how profound was the significance of 1758, I’ll need to fill in a bit of context, and that means I’ll have to back up a bit . . . about two and a half centuries.

I begin with the proposition that American history is in fact a 500-year story, beginning with contact, around the year 1500, which means that the 1750s falls right at the mid-point. What has usually been thought of as a ―colonial period‖ and mere prelude to the achievement of American independence in the Revolution in fact comprised half of American history—two and a half centuries in which native people occupied either all or the vast majority of North American territory from Atlantic to Pacific, north of the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico, and controlled all significant outcomes on the continent. This was a very different world from the one that succeeded it, and the great upheaval that was the Seven Years’ War in effect forms the watershed that divides that older world from our more familiar one. In our world native peoples are nothing if not marginalized; in that older world, beyond the great divide of the Seven Years’ War, exactly the opposite was true. Understanding how native peoples determined virtually all significant historical outcomes in North America prior to the American Revolution is the first step toward overcoming the immensely destructive myths of the Vanishing Indian and the Noble Savage.

This earlier American era, the ―colonial‖ age, was really two periods of very different characters—an ―Age of Contact‖ (roughly 1500-1600) and an ―Age of Colonization and Conflict‖ (c. 1600-1750)—that ended in a half-century-long upheaval that began with the Seven Years’ War. In Age of Contact native people set the terms of interaction with Europeans completely, appropriating European goods (and people, on a great many occasions) on their own, native, terms. In the Age of Colonization and Conflict, this changed because permanent European colonies introduced both pathogens and trade goods on an unprecedented scale into native communities, and those new items together had huge impacts on Native American life. Epidemics (especially smallpox, but also measles, plague, diphtheria, and others) wreaked havoc on the peoples in closest contact with such permanent European settlements as Quebec, Fort Orange (Albany), Plymouth, and Jamestown, destroying whole villages and precipitating an enormous demographic crisis—perhaps the worst that any human population had ever confronted. Yet contact also gave native peoples a way to respond, for it provided privileged access to trade goods and weapons to the peoples most severely affected by the epidemics. This especially gave the Five Nations of the Iroquois an ironic advantage in competition with other native groups, enabling them to stave off demographic collapse by raiding for captives to support their populations—and gaining at the same time the pelts (especially beaver) that they could trade to the Dutch at Fort Orange for gunpowder weapons, making them ever-more aggressive in their raids.

What historians call the Beaver Wars, from the 1640s-1660s, vastly exaggerated the impact of epidemic diseases on the interior peoples of North America. In effect they commercialized mourning warfare, and for a time they magnified Iroquois power out of all proportion to their numbers, as Iroquois raiders effectively emptied much of the trans-Appalachian West of human populations. Peoples like the Eries, the Neutrals, the Monongahelas, and the Hurons simply vanished as independent actors, either by being killed, or by being absorbed into Iroquois villages as captives and adoptees, or by fleeing as refugees far to the west, to the area beyond Lake Michigan where they eventually established trade, military, and cultural ties with the French. With their French allies to support them they gradually established a new cultural coherence and recovered from the shock of destruction. Many converted to Catholicism; all eventually fought back against the Iroquois as French allies.

When the Dutch lost control of New Netherlands to the English in 1664 (they regained the colony briefly in 1672, only to lose it again, permanently, in 1674), the balance of power in eastern North America shifted abruptly. The new English government of New York proved at best an inconstant and ineffective ally, and the diplomatic and military position of the Five Nations steadily eroded in the face of attacks by the French and their native (mainly Algonquian) allies. By the end of the seventeenth century the Iroquois League, reeling from defeat at the hands of the French and their native allies, and deeply divided among internally, faced disaster—potentially even annihilation. In the end Iroquois leaders climbed back from the brink of destruction by making simultaneous treaties with the French at Montreal and the English at Albany. This so-called Grand Settlement of 1701, which ostensibly created alliances with both the French and the British empires, in fact became the basis for a new policy of neutrality between the two European powers, and neutrality eventually became the key not only to Iroquois survival but a rebirth of Iroquois power over the next half-century.

Neutrality meant that the Five Nations of the Iroquois could take advantage of their geographical position on the borderlands between the increasingly competitive empires of France and Britain in the eighteenth century. By refusing to act exclusively on the behalf of one or the other European power the Iroquois found it possible to play one off against the other to their own decided advantage. Under the management of chiefs skilled in diplomatic negotiations, the Iroquois League was able to extract subsidies and favorable trade relations from both the French and the British simultaneously, even as they managed the flow and interpretation of intelligence between the adversaries in such a way as to prevent either from gaining the upper hand diplomatically in time of peace, or militarily in times of war.

The play-off system emerged first among the Iroquois but soon spread to other native nations, so that by the 1740s a half-dozen groups were practicing their own distinctive versions of it: the Abenakis, Cherokee, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws, as well as the Iroquois found that it enabled their people and colonizing European groups to develop along parallel paths, and to minimize the terrible destructions of warfare that had threatened the survival of native peoples in the preceding century. The new balance of power between the three remaining European empires in North America was effectively stabilized by native groups that acted like balance wheels, helping insure that competition between Britain, France, and Spain would remain indecisive by shifting their weight from one to another at critical junctures. (Thus for example in King George’s War, the Mohawks selectively passed intelligence between New France and the northern British colonies, eliciting gifts from both sides while foiling British overland military expeditions and acting as middlemen in a lively contraband trade between New York and Montreal. It’s worth noting that this illicit trade played significant part in the outcome of the war, for it allowed Canadians a kind of back-door access to the European manufactures they needed to maintain alliances with interior native groups between 1745, when an Anglo-American expedition seized Louisbourg, and 1748, when the war ended – a prolonged period when Canada had no direct trade with France via the St. Lawrence.)

The play-off system, however, was not especially favorable to the native peoples who were subordinated to one or another of the half-dozen major groups that dominated it. The Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingo Senecas of Pennsylvania and western New York offer a particularly important case in point. The Delawares, or Lenni Lenape, had had their land sold from under them in eastern Pennsylvania by chiefs of the Iroquois League, acting in collusion with Penn family, in the 1730s. They had moved to area around the Forks of Ohio in search of autonomy, or even of recapturing their independence. Their migration to the Ohio Country suited Iroquois purposes very well at first, because the presence of subordinated allies at the Forks strengthened Iroquois claims to ownership of the region. But the Delawares were unwilling to have their land sold from under them again, and once they resettled in the Ohio Country alongside the Shawnees and the westering Senecas known as Mingos they began to dream of freeing themselves from Iroquois diplomatic hegemony and participating on their own in the play-off system. The slide toward war that began in western Pennsylvania in 1754 can indeed best be understood as the result of efforts by an Iroquois headman, Tanaghisson, to arrest the independent actions of the Delawares and others at the Forks. The Seven Years’ War began, in other words, less because two European empires clashed over which of them would dominate the Ohio Country than because the Iroquois League and its representatives made a tremendous miscalculation concerning the limits of their power and the role of the Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos in the future of the region. The conflict that began in western Pennsylvania in 1755 was both traditional and wholly new in its scope. It was traditional in the sense that it reflected classic French and Indian asymmetrical warfare techniques, which used terrorism and surprise attacks to cause panic and massive refugee flight from the frontiers, and to throw the larger, less flexible Anglo-American population into a posture of more or less helpless defense. The war was traditional also in the way the Anglo-Americans sought for a military solution by launching expeditions against French strongholds, either by sea (against Louisbourg in 1758 and Quebec in 1759) or overland – something they could do only with permission from the native people whose country they had to pass through to invade French territory. What was wholly new was the war’s scope – for as it spread from North America to Europe, the Caribbean, West Africa, South Asia, and ultimately even the Philippine Islands, it became in a real sense the first world war – and its outcome, a decisive British victory that extinguished French imperial power in North America and transferred the claim to the continent’s eastern half to Britain in the 1763 Peace of Paris.

This was all clear enough to the generations of scholars who studied the dramatic events of the Seven Years’ War in America. In their concentration on expeditions and sieges and battles, however, they tended to miss the most obvious thing of all: that at every critical stage of the war it was native power made all the difference. I have already argued that in 1754 it was Tanaghrisson’s attempts to assert control over the fractious Delawares and others at the Forks of the Ohio that brought on a direct clash between the British and French empires in the region. In fact I was simplifying when I told you that, for the Canadian scholar Ian Steele has recently argued that the Shawnees of the Ohio Country had an entirely separate axe to grind against the British colonies, and went to war more in parallel than in coordination with the Delawares and the Mingos.1

In 1755 Indian actions and initiatives determined the development and course of the war. The defeat of General Braddock’s force at the Monogahela on July 9th was almost entirely attributable to the Indian warriors who operated autonomously throughout the battle. The attacks thereafter by Delawares and Mingos on the Pennsylvania frontier and by Shawnee warriors on the Virginia backcountry, created a state of chaos that put the central colonies on the defensive for the next three years. Further to the north, the decision of the Mohawks to withdraw from their initial alliance with New York and the New England colonies following the Battle of Lake George essentially stymied every effort of the Anglo-Americans to come to grips with French by invading Canada via the Lake George—Lake Champlain—Richelieu River corridor. During the whole of the period from 1755 through 1758 the absence of Iroquois cooperation doomed Anglo-American operations on the New York frontier as effectively as it had in the previous three colonial wars.

Throughout 1756 and 1757, the absolute nadir of British fortunes in North America coincided quite precisely with the height of the alliance between New France and its enormous network of native allies, a system that brought warriors from as far away as Minnesota and Iowa to join in attacks on the northern British colonies. Thanks to the Marquis de Montcalm’s efforts to make his Indian allies into irregular auxiliaries who would fight under his direction and in accordance with the values he associated with European warfare, this highly successful system faltered in the aftermath of the Fort William Henry ―massacre‖ in 1757, markedly diminishing the willingness of warriors from interior Indian groups to fight alongside the French in 1758. This shift can be seen quite clearly in the difference between the numbers of native warriors who participated in the attack on Fort William Henry in 1757 – about 1,800 – and the number who turned out to aid in the defense of Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) in 1758: fifteen. More would return to aid the French in the defense of Canada, the following year, but the pronounced lack of enthusiasm native people showed for helping the French in 1758 would prove an important factor in the direction of the war thereafter.

Seventeen fifty-eight was a year in which factors internal to Britain and its colonies would contribute to a shift in the direction of the war as well. In part this was because in 1758 William Pitt finally found a way to mobilize the vast demographic advantage and economic resources of the Anglo-American colonists by treating them, for the first time, as partners in empire, offering generous subsidies in return for voluntary participation in the war effort. It was a policy that stimulated a huge patriotic surge and mobilized American colonials for the war—as provincial soldiers, recruits in regular regiments, privateers, military contractors, artificers, wagoners, batteaumen, sutlers, and so on—in numbers that nearly equaled the entire population of French Canada. That was an immensely important development, but not a decisive one, for Indians still effectively held the balance of power on the frontiers and in the conduct of military operations. This was nowhere clearer than in Pennsylvania, the critical theater of operations in 1758.
The complexity of events in 1758 can obscure their overall shape, but the great shift came with arrival of John Forbes in Philadelphia in the spring to take command of operations against the French stronghold at the Forks of the Ohio, Fort Duquesne. At the age of 50 Forbes was an experienced regular officer, particularly gifted in matters of organization and logistics. As a newly appointed brigadier general he was determined not to repeat Braddock’s mistakes, which in his mind were two: ignoring Indians as savages (hence depriving himself of intelligence and allies), and hastening to come to grips with the French, which had led him to outrun his support column and deprived him of a secure base to retreat to when he found himself surrounded and overwhelmed at the Monongahela on July 9, 1755. In operational terms the way to avoid the latter problem was simple, though vastly expensive—to make a ―protected advance‖ against Fort Duquesne, building a road with major forts as bases of supply every 40 miles or so, with blockhouses interspersed between them. (This was a technique Forbes, a Scot, had seen used to good effect in suppression of the Highland Rebellion of 1745.) The problem of Indian allies was more complex and uncertain, requiring Forbes to regain connections with native people in a province that had been wholly in chaos for three years, with a frontier effectively constricted to a rough arc that was in some places no more than two or three days’ travel from Philadelphia.

Forbes’s first answer was to try to import Indians from South Carolina—Cherokees—and that proved an expensive failure, because he was slow to understand that while the Cherokees were willing to act as allies they would refuse to be treated as auxiliaries. When he tried to coerce them into serving on his terms, they simply went home, taking tens of thousands of pounds in arms and supplies with them. Eventually, however, Forbes came to understand the situation in Pennsylvania better by conferring with the least likely of allies—the Quakers. Or, specifically, one rich and influential Quaker, Israel Pemberton.

The Quaker merchant elite of Philadelphia had effectively controlled politics in Pennsylvania until 1756, when the war had made them decide between their pacifist principles and political power. Rather than authorize the arming of a militia and authorize bounties on enemy Indian scalps, Pemberton and others had withdrawn from the Assembly. He and his brother had then founded what amounted to a non-governmental organization called the Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures, which had opened an informal diplomatic channel with Teedyuscung, the chief of a band of Delawares living in the Susquehanna Valley, encouraging them to leave the war path in 1757. By exploiting this connection, and using yet another pacifist (Christian Frederick Post, a Moravian missionary who had married into the Delaware people) as a go-between, Forbes managed to extend that initial diplomatic channel to the Delawares on the Ohio. Through those connections he discovered that, under the right circumstances, the Delawares might be induced to withdraw from the French alliance, and make peace. Thereafter Forbes pursued two parallel approaches to the Ohio and its people simultaneously: building his fortified road, advancing expensively and slowly across Pennsylvania, and pressing ahead with a diplomatic initiative, depending on the good offices of Quakers and Indians, the kinds of people whom few conventional military officers would tolerate in their presence, let alone trust with carrying out the King’s business.

To pursue this path took both patience and enormous moral courage on Forbes’s part, but those were qualities he had in abundance. He had to hold out against his own subordinate officers, including George Washington, who constantly pressed him to come to grips with the enemy by hastening on changing his route; against powerful and well connected officials (the Northern Indian Commissioner, Sir William Johnson, and the Penn family) who were deeply unwilling to negotiate directly with the Delawares; and against military colleagues who disdained that Quakers as fools and believed that Indians were savages whom force alone could subordinate. But in the end, of course, Forbes proved right. The Ohio Delawares did agree to make a separate peace, and the other Indians in the upper Ohio followed suit, in return for the solemn promise that the British would open a trade on favorable terms with the Ohio peoples, would deal with them as diplomatic equals (in other words, not as Iroquois dependents), and would prohibit permanent white settlement beyond the Alleghenies after the war. And in the end, when Forbes completed his road, the French, bereft of native support, blew up Fort Duquesne and Forbes took possession of the Forks of the Ohio—without firing a shot.

Forbes had accomplished this military triumph by refusing to seek a climactic confrontation with his enemy. Instead of seeing the Indians who had made an abattoir of the frontier for the previous four years as savages and brutes, he had been able to understand them as human beings who could be dealt with as human beings. And he had done it, most remarkably, while he was dying of what seems to have been stomach cancer. Three months after his men seized the Forks, Forbes died at Philadelphia. To the very end he was writing letters to his superior, Jeffrey Amherst, urging him not to ―think triflingly of the Indians or their friendships,‖ but instead to take them seriously and settle Indian relations ―on some solid footing‖ that would preserve peace.
The willingness of the Delawares and other Ohio Indian groups to make peace changed everything on the central frontier, and in so doing it also altered the balance of power in ways that required the Iroquois League to respond. At some point late in 1758 it seems to have become clear to the chiefs of the Great Council at Onondaga that the Iroquois Confederacy would have to abandon its neutral stance in favor of an active alliance with the British. Why? Realpolitik offers the likeliest explanation: for the previous four years the alliance of the Ohio peoples with the French had effectively deprived the Iroquois of their claim to suzerainty over the Ohio Country; if they hoped to reassert control over the Ohio and its peoples they needed the British as allies, and above all they needed the British to recognize them as the rightful overlords of the Delawares and others in the region. If they did not reclaim control over the Ohio peoples they would de facto be recognizing their independence, and the Delawares, Shawnees, and others of the upper Valley would emerge from the war as competitors, ideally situated to take advantage of their own position to pursue the independent course they had tried so hard to steer, before the war.

Thus in the following year, 1759, more than 900 Iroquois warriors—perhaps four-fifths of the total fighting strength of the League—accompanied the British expedition against Fort Niagara, which surrendered on July 25, 1759, putting an end to the French ability to draw on Indian alliances from the upper Great Lakes. This was the case not just by virtue of British possession of the fort, but because following the surrender of the fort Iroquois diplomats, supported by English trade goods and subsidies, travelled the upper Lakes basin and the upper St Lawrence Valley, negotiating to neutralize the French-Indian alliances. The following year, 1760, when Amherst’s three-pronged campaign closed in on Montréal and the last defenders of new France from the east, the west, and the south, the invaders met no effective resistance from the erstwhile Indian allies of New France because Iroquois diplomats had preceded them. In the end Amherst, like Forbes, won his greatest victory without firing a shot, or losing a single man in battle.
So Indian agency, in the end, not only precipitated the clash of empires on the Ohio in 1754-55 but decided the war’s outcome in North America. The spectacular 15-minute clash of arms across the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, which bewitched the imagination of contemporaries and transfixed the attention of Francis Parkman, decided nothing, because 1758, not 1759, had been the year of decision. But so what? How does that change things in the way we understand the Seven Years’ War and its larger significance?

First of all, I think, it reminds us of something fundamental that is nonetheless too easy to forget: that it is only in the minds of metaphor-challenged sportswriters that military campaigns resemble football seasons, and battles resemble games. At least from the time that states established their monopolies on violence in the early modern era, wars have typically ended when one or all of the belligerents concluded that it was no longer possible to continue expending treasure and lives, and therefore agreed to make peace. Within this fundamental pattern, battles have been only the most spectacular and extravagant episodes of expenditure, and what has mattered most was not what happened on the field of battle but the state’s capacity—demographic, industrial, fiscal, psychological—to burn through lives and matériel until its enemy has found it impossible to continue. From the inhuman perspective of the state, victories in battle are significant insofar as they encourage populations to continue bleeding and paying; otherwise they are incidental. No matter how many battlefield victories Frederick the Great racked up, he would surely have gone down to defeat in the Seven Years’ War had it not been for a completely unmilitary event, the death of Tsarina Elizabeth I of Russia in January 1762, that saved Prussia from collapse.

Second, the absence of decision on the battlefield in the American phase of the Seven Years’ War should direct our attention to what did make the difference: the participation of native peoples. Indians have long been relegated to the margins of the story of the war not merely because historians have been racists or apologists for imperialism, but because in assuming that battles decide the outcomes of wars they have overlooked the critical role played by warriors who fought according to a value system that placed immense importance on avoiding the waste of lives in combat. Once we write a narrative of the war with native people included in roles that are not only active but decisive, we begin to see the war—and indeed American history as a whole—in a different light. Not least important, we see the decisiveness of the war as a whole in a new context, for the native people whose actions contributed so powerfully to the outcome were left flabbergasted by France’s withdrawal from North America in the Peace of Paris. The effect of that withdrawal, of course, was to deprive the Indians of their chief ally against the Anglo-Americans. Over time the result would prove to be the destruction of the balance-of-power politics that Indian groups had mastered over the first half of the eighteenth century, and the loss of their ability to control the terms on which they interacted with Anglo-Americans; in the end it would prove to be the most tragic result of all. Similarly, the unprecedented decisiveness in the war’s outcome would destabilize of the victorious British empire, which fell into civil war and revolution in just 12 years’ time after the Peace of Paris. Ironic though the results were for the Indians who found themselves in the path of a relentlessly expanding American republic, the act of recognizing the central role played by native people in the train of events that led to the Revolution marks the beginning of a radical, but in my view salutary and necessary, reorientation in our understanding of the origins of the United States of America.

1 Ian Steele, ―Shawnee Origins of their Seven Years’ War,‖ Ethnohistory 53 (Fall 2006), 4: 657-687. The specific grievance that set off the Shawnees’ war against the British colonists was the imprisonment of six warriors at Charlestown in 1753, an act outrageous to Shawnee sensibilities in any case, but which became a casus belli when it resulted in the death of the prominent war chief Itawachcomequa (The Pride). The resulting war, directed principally against settlers on the Virginia frontier, continued, on and off, until 1765 and spawned subsequent violence until 1813. This episode is particularly significant for our understanding of the Seven Years’ War because it emphasizes the parallel nature of various Indian groups’ participation in the conflict, and because without Shawnee participation the war might never have extended to the Virginia and North Carolina frontiers.