Gouvernement du Canada - Commission des champs de batails nationaux Gouvernement du Canada - Canada

The National Battlefields Commission

Plains of Abraham




The Conflict in America: a General Survey


In America, the fighting between French and British forces began in 1754. However, the tug of war between the two powers over this territory had started much earlier. When the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713 (putting an end to the Spanish Succession War), a defeated France had to give up several of its North American possessions and recognize the supremacy of Great Britain over the Hudson Bay hydrographic network3. From then on, relationships between the two countries on the American continent steadily deteriorated.

To curb the British expansion over the territory, the French erected forts connecting Montreal to Louisiana and strengthened their alliances with the Amerindians4. However, American settlers, especially those from Virginia and Pennsylvania, wanted to trade furs in the rich Ohio Valley. In 1747, they established the Ohio Land Company and urged British and American merchants to settle in the area5. At the same time, the New England colonial authorities had set their sights on the St. Lawrence Estuary to increase their control over the fisheries. Sensing the threat, the French deployed 3,000 troops in the Ohio region to build forts and engage in battle if necessary6. The designs of Great Britain ran against the interests of the Canadian elite and middle-class7. The die was cast: war was inevitable.

It was in this context that, in 1754, the first event of the Seven Years' War took place on American soil. After having failed diplomatically the previous year by summoning the French to withdraw from the Ohio Valley, a Colonial Militia officer, George Washington, the man who was later to become the first president of the United States of America, took command of the Militia troops, whose mission was to assert British sovereignty over the territory. The target was Fort Duquesne, located where the city of Pittsburgh now stands.

To counter the threat, the commander of the French fort, Claude-Pierre Pécaudy de Contrecoeur, sent a detachment of some thirty men under the command of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, an ensign in the Troupes de la Marine, to demand the withdrawal of American troops from this land. At the crack of dawn, on May 28, 1754, the group was attacked by Washington's men. It was a total surprise. The young American officer gave the order to shoot without prior warning. Some of the men were still sleeping while others were getting breakfast ready. Ten Canadians were killed, including Jumonville, one was wounded and the others were taken prisoner8. Only one escaped and returned to Fort Duquesne safe and sound.

This event stirs controversy even today. According to some accounts, Jumonville was killed while trying to parley, which, if it was true, would more or less constitute murder9. For American historians, Jumonville was merely the unfortunate victim of a shoot-out. Be that as it may, the “Jumonville” affair found an echo in Europe and seriously shook the existing peace between Great Britain and France.

However, there was a historical development when Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, the victim's brother, seeking revenge, took command of some 600 troops and militiamen as well as a hundred or so Indians in order to drive out the Americans. On July 3, 1754, this manhunt ended up at Fort Necessity, which Coulon de Villiers succeeded in taking. In fact, during the shoot-out, approximately one hundred men were killed on the American side, and Washington had no choice but to capitulate10. These events are generally considered as the start of the Seven Years' War in America.

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