Imperial Rivalry III: France & England in the Northeast
Spain was not the only country nervously watching as the French explored the Mississippi River in the 1680s; so was England. The northern English colonies increased the competitive pressure on New France for control of the fur trade and other commerce on the Great Lakes and along the upper Mississippi valley. In response, the French built new forts on the Great Lakes and hastened their plans to settle the Mississippi River valley and "Louisiana." With the outbreak of war in Europe between France and England in 1689, the competition in North America escalated into a subsidiary war.* Although the English colonial population far surpassed the French in North America250,000 to 12,000 in 1682the competitive edge lay not with numbers but with alliances, strategy, and execution. After eight years of attacks and counterattacks, however, the French and English negotiated a fragile peace in 1697, neither side the victor.
The strategic center of the war was Albany, New York, situated 150 miles due north of Manhattan and 225 miles due south of Montreal, the fur trading center of New France. This north-south line along the Hudson River marked the boundary at the time between the New England colonies and Iroquois territory to the west. "Albany's fur trade competition," writes historian Alan Taylor, "merged into both the imperial rivalry between England and France for commercial dominance and the Iroquois' struggle to maintain their edge in a violent and disrupted world of native peoples"† [italics added]. For the Indians are the third major party in this war. The Iroquois allied with the English and the Algonquian with the French, all anxiously aware that their fates had become inextricably linked.
This shared awareness is the main point to glean from the two histories excerpted hereside-by-side French and English accounts of King William's War published in the mid 1700s. Each historian presents the imperial rivalry from his country's perspective, detailing the strategic intricacies necessitated by its Indian alliances. Each reviews the attacks upon and by the other, including the Schenectady massacre of 1690 in which the French and their Mohawk allies killed most of the English and Dutch inhabitants of the settlement near Albany.
Don't try to keep track of names, titles, and places (endnotes identify the principal players). Focus on each side's awareness of its strategic vulnerabilities and unclear fate in North America in 1690. Follow the power, especially each side's estimate of the power share of the other at any moment. Again, we recommend that you view the two maps before reading the histories, the French map published just before King William's War and the English map published two decades after the war. (9 pages, excluding the maps.)
- FRENCH PERSPECTIVE. Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix was a French Jesuit priest in New France in the early 1700s, sent to teach in Quebec and also to travel in the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River in search of the elusive waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Known as the historian of New France for his three-volume history published in 1744, he concludes his review of the 1680s by affirming an official's statement that "the English and French are incompatible in that part of the continent of America."
[Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, S.J., Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle-France (History & General Description of New France), 1744]
- ENGLISH PERSPECTIVE. William Smith, Jr., was a member of the landed gentry in New York, a Yale graduate, legal scholar, historian, and member of the colonial council. In his two-volume history of New York published in 1757, he introduces his account of the English-French rivalry of the 1680s with an overview of the Iroquoian Indians because, as he writes, "of all those innumerable tribes of savages which inhabit the northern part of America, [the Iroquois] are of most importance to us and the French."
[William Smith, Jr., The History of the Province of New-York, 1757]
- What power relationships between France and England are reflected in these documents?
- How does the dominant power work to keep its dominance?
- How does the challenging power work to establish dominance?
- If the countries are equal rivals, how do they position themselves to gain power?
- How does each country justify its actions? How does each feel entitled to its claims?
- What role do Native Americans play in the European rivalry? At any point are they the dominant power?
- What role do other European countries play in the rivalry?
- What role do suspicion, rumor, and fear play in the rivalry for power?
- What is the final result of the rivalry as presented in these documents and maps?
- Who "won" or "lost" land, status, influence, allies, or strategic options? Does one side have the upper hand?
- How does the rivalry in the 1690s position the countries for later North American competition in the 1700s?
- How do the perspectives of the two authors, writing from fifty to seventy years after the events, affect their interpretations?
- How do the maps reflect each country’s perspective on the rivalry and its outcome?
- Compare the European-European power relationships in the northeast mainland with those in the Caribbean (#1) and Tejas (#2).
- Compare the European-Indian power relations in the northeast mainland with those in the Caribbean (#1) and Tejas (#2).
Topic Framing Questions
|What power relationships had been forged among the peoples of North America by 1690?
|How did the European rivalries of the 1690s in North America set the stage for the later imperial conflicts of the 1700s?
|What did "North America" signify to Europe in 1690? to the inhabitants of North America?
|*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.
|National Humanities Center
|Library of Congress
Image: Canadiens en Raquette allant en guerre sur la nege (approximate) [Canadians wearing snowshoes going to war on the snow], engraving, ca. 1700. Reproduced by permission of the Canadian War Museum, Ontario.
*Known in Europe as the Nine Years War or the War of the Grand Alliance, and in North America as King William's War, the 1689-1697 conflict was the first of four European wars from 1689 to 1763 with concurrent North American conflicts between France and England. The four wars are known collectively in Quebec as the Intercolonial Wars and in the United States as the French and Indian Wars. ("French and Indian War" is also the name of the fourth North American war from 1754 to 1763.)
†Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2001), 261.