Three wars are most noted in American historythe American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War IIbut other conflicts have become part of the grand narrative of American culturethe French and Indian War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Indian wars, and the Spanish-American War. The great conflicts were fought for the cause of freedom and liberty, the minor ones for empire. Then came the wars of interventionKorea, Vietnam, Iraqthe unintended consequences of outsized imperial ambitions.
The earliest moments of exploration and colonization were marked by war. When Samuel de Champlain first came to Canada to foster trade and quiet missionary activity, his American Indian contacts insisted on his supporting their wars against the Iroquois for control of the fur-trapping regions. In doing so, Champlain unwittingly emulated the Spanish policy of freeing oppressed tribes from barbaric Aztec rule. However, unlike Hernán Cortés, who replaced the Aztec empire with a Spanish one, Champlain found himself the hostage of Indian policies. When his traders provided some tribes with hatches, knives, swords, and arrowheads, other tribes swiftly turned hostile. Then they turned to other Europeans.
When the Dutch began supplying the Iroquois Confederation with weapons, the entire balance of power was changedthe Iroquois swept west, destroying or displacing fifty-one tribes. Defeated tribes begged the French and English for help. Meanwhile, the British, French, and Dutch, having learned that they could not rely on Indians or on supply ships for food, had encouraged the immigration of farmers. Thereafter, the colonial powers had to protect those immigrants, who were not prepared for forest warfare. Often, however, the British left their colonials to their own devices, thus unintentionally fostering a sense of liberty and self-reliance.
The Iroquois had not been interested in furs alone but also in prisoners to replace tribesmen lost to disease, alcohol, and retaliatory attacks. The Iroquois rampage came to an end in 1664 when the British navy seized the Dutch colonies and imposed the pro-French policies of Charles II on the traders. Soon thereafter a French regiment was sent to Canada to assist the Hurons; this relatively small force routed the Iroquois, who appealed to the British for help. Within years the Iroquois Confederacy had been reduced to a fraction of its earlier size. It still dominated the frontier militarily but could do so only as long as the French and British did not disturb the status quo.
Into this situation came William Penn with the intent of creating a refuge where all cultures and religious beliefs could flourish. His colony succeeded beyond expectations, attracting not only dissenting Protestants but also many Native Americans. In fact, the pacifist Quaker state was sheltered by allied Indian tribes who relied on Pennsylvanians for weapons and ammunition. Meanwhile, the dynamics of tribal and colonial economics and politics were reorganizing the frontier. Native American tribal groups played one colonial power off against another, until at last the struggle for the depopulated hunting grounds of the upper Ohio River brought Native Americans against Native Americans, whites against whites.
The Pennsylvania tribes had not intended to move west into Ohio, much less seek French assistance in expelling the Iroquois, but the Penn family’s infamously unfair purchase of land moved tribes away from their homes at the same time that the local deer population was overhunted. At no time were the Indians passive observers of their fate, but their options were limited. War was their only means of forcing settlers to abide by their understandings of treaties.
It was in this French and Indian War that George Washington rose to prominence. He had grown up in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where growing tobacco had enriched the planter class temporarily while impoverishing the soil. Far-thinking residents understood that the future lay inland, and that the wealthy landowners, such as Washington’s friends the Fairfaxes, could thrive only by obtaining, then selling, lands there. In the course of Washington’s life, the balance of power...
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