10 Pivotal Facts About the French and Indian War

Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

When it comes to the founding of our country, we often focus on the American Revolution, and the French and Indian War has become just a footnote. The fact is, if things had gone a bit differently in the French and Indian War, there would be no United States, and we’d all be speaking French right now. Here are a few surprising facts about the war and how it shaped the country we live in today.

1. THE WAR HAS A MISLEADING NAME.

This was not a war between the French and Indians, but between French and British forces, who had been fiercely competing to control North America since the late 1600s. However, Native Americans played an important role. They allied with both the French and the British, and fought in many of the battles. Initially, French armies had greater success winning their support. Both groups shared a common and fruitful interest in trade, and the French more readily embraced Native American culture—they learned the languages and lived among them, sometimes marrying Native women and having children together. The French also adapted their war methods, launching surprise attacks and fighting in the wilderness with guerrilla tactics (including using camouflage). In time, though, the English colonists did ally with certain tribes, and the Native communities were forced to choose sides and decide how to best protect their territories.

2. THE FIRST POLITICAL CARTOON IN AMERICA WAS PUBLISHED DURING THE WAR.

Join or Die political cartoon
Benjamin Franklin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To encourage the colonies to unite in the battle against the French, Benjamin Franklin printed a comic depicting the colonies as parts of a chopped-up, writhing snake. The caption read “Join, or die.” Published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754, it was the first political cartoon in American history. The cartoon would become popular again prior to the American Revolution, when colonists called for unity to protest British taxation policies.

3. THE FRENCH USED SMALL PLAQUES TO PROTECT THEIR TURF.

In the spring of 1749, the governor of New France, Roland-Michel Barrin de la Galissonière, was concerned as more colonists came streaming into the Ohio Valley. To make it absolutely clear that these lands were part of New France and off-limits to English settlers, he ordered that six lead plaques be placed at strategic locations throughout the valley. Imprinted on each plate was a statement indicating that these lands belonged to France. Although in France this was a common way to show land ownership, the six plaques placed in the ground had little deterrent. (One has since been found.)

4. GEORGE WASHINGTON SPARKED THE WAR.

George Washington in uniform during the French and Indian War
Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of George Washington // Public Domain

In the fall of 1753, the French had expanded into an area that is now western Pennsylvania. Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia considered this region to be colonial territory, and he chose the young 21-year-old militia captain, George Washington, to give the French warning that they would have to leave or face the consequences. Washington received a polite refusal from the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf just south of Lake Erie. An enraged Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel, and in the spring of 1754, he sent him with a team of men to confront the French with a show of force. Early in the morning of May 28, Washington encountered a small French scouting party. A shot rang out and in about 15 minutes, 14 French soldiers lay dead, including their leader Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. The French were outraged and viewed his death as an assassination. From this point forward, the battles between the French and British escalated. Many consider this early battle led by Washington to be the unofficial beginning of the war.

5. THE FRENCH WON, AT FIRST.

Although Washington “won” the small skirmish that began the war, just over a month later he found himself outnumbered and surrendering to the French; as fate would have it, the date was July 4, 1754.

The King of England thought that the French could easily be defeated with superior British military might. In 1755, Major General Edward Braddock was sent to lead the charge on the French in western Pennsylvania. The arrogant Braddock had his men laboriously hack their way through about 122 miles of Maryland and Pennsylvania wilderness, creating a 12-foot-wide thoroughfare that became known as Braddock’s Road.

Braddock was accompanied by George Washington and Oneida chief Scarouady, who both warned him of the unconventional fighting style of the French and Indians. Braddock would hear none of it. As they neared the French line of defense in July 1755, he lined his men up in columns in a traditional manner of European warfare and marched them forward in their bright red coats. The French and Indians scattered behind trees and bushes and easily shot down the British.

Although the 23-year-old Washington was suffering from dysentery and hemorrhoids, he strapped cushions to his saddle and charged into the action. While Braddock died of a bullet wound, Washington seemed to have supernatural good luck. He later wrote to his brother: “I had four bullets through my Coat, and two horses shot under me, and yet escaped unhurt.” Of the 1400 men who marched with Braddock to battle, 500 did not return. Braddock’s charge became known as an example of how hubris and overconfidence could lead to defeat.

6. THERE WAS AN EXCHANGE OF PINEAPPLES AND CHAMPAGNE.

As much as the British and French were adapting to new ways of combat in the wilderness of North America, they also tried to be civil to each other. If one side lost a battle, they were still often given certain privileges, known as the honors of war. The defeated might be able to surrender, marching out with their colors flying. They might even be allowed to keep their rifles.

A striking example of civility came during the British attack on France’s Fort Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in June of 1758. At some point in the fighting, British Major General Jeffrey Amherst sent a messenger to the fort, bearing a gift of two pineapples for the French commander’s wife. The fruit came along with a note apologizing for the havoc that the battle must be causing on her home. In appreciation, Marie Anne de Drucour sent back several bottles of champagne. In a later exchange, the British sent more pineapples while the French sent back homemade butter. Commander Drucour also offered the services of his French surgeons to any wounded English officers.

7. THE WAR MADE LOUISIANA CAJUN.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Starting in the early 1600s, the French settled in a territory first known as Acadie, which was centered in Nova Scotia. After the British defeated the French in Nova Scotia in the summer of 1755, they decided to deport all the French settlers in that region. During “The Great Upheaval” or “Great Expulsion,” about 14,000 Acadians lost their homes and were forced to leave. Many found a home in French-controlled Louisiana, where they became known as Cajuns. (“Cajun” comes from “Acadian”—when pronounced in the Acadian dialect, it sounds like "a-cad-JYEN"). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the expulsion of the Acadians in his poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, the story of a woman in search of her long-lost love, Gabriel.

8. A MIGHTY BRITISH FORCE FELL TO SOME FRENCH INGENUITY.

As the war wore on, the British gained the upper hand, but the French occasionally had a victory despite dwindling forces. One example was in July of 1758 at Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain, just north of Lake George in New York. The French troops here numbered about 3500, and the British descended with about 15,000 men. The British soldiers headed north toward Fort Carillon, sailing along Lake George in hundreds of boats, which reportedly stretched the entire width of the lake, blanketing the water with a vast field of scarlet coats. The French general Montcalm didn’t think they had much of a chance, but he ordered his men to dig trenches and build log walls in front of them. In front of these entrenchments, the French then placed a sprawling tangle of felled trees with sharpened branches. The blockade of branches and trees was called an abatis, related to the French word abattoir, meaning slaughterhouse. The British used their standard assault and marched directly into the French trap. The abatis slowed down the British, and the French easily shot them down. It was a major victory for the French.

9. SPAIN LOST FLORIDA.

Toward the end of the war, Spain made the regrettable decision of allying with France. They joined the conflict in January of 1762, but by this time, the British were an unstoppable force. The Spanish had begun settling in Florida in the 1500s, but when Britain won the war, Spain was forced to give up Florida in accordance with the 1763 Treaty of Paris in exchange for Havana, which the British had captured the previous year. Spain would get Florida back 20 years later thanks to the American Revolution, but soon after would lose it again, this time permanently.

10. THE WAR SET THE STAGE FOR THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.

Although the British won the French and Indian War, the conflict was very costly. To dig itself out of massive debt, England initiated a series of taxes on the colonies. Because the colonists had no voice in British Parliament, this led to a protest of “no taxation without representation.” Resentment from the colonists also grew when King George III limited expansion westward with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, hoping to quell violence between the Native Americans and settlers. Many colonists saw this as further control by the Crown. These factors, which directly stemmed from the French and Indian War, led to the American Revolution.

14 Revolutionary Facts About Bastille Day

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 14, 1789, Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress, where Louis XVI had imprisoned many of his enemies—or those whom he perceived to be enemies of the state. For many, the place had come to represent nothing short of royal tyranny. Its sudden fall foretold the French revolution—along with a holiday that’s now celebrated throughout France and the world at large with cries of “Vive le 14 Juillet!

1. In France, nobody calls it "Bastille Day."

The day is referred to as la Fête Nationale, or “the National Holiday.” In more informal settings, French people also call it le Quatorze Juillet (“14 July”). "Bastille Day" is an English term that’s seldom used within French borders—at least by non-tourists.

2. Originally, the Bastille wasn't designed to be a prison.

The name “Bastille” comes from the word bastide, which means “fortification,” a generic term for a certain type of tower in southern France until it was eventually restricted to one particular Bastille. When construction began on the building in 1357, its main purpose was not to keep prisoners in, but to keep invading armies out: At the time, France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. The Bastille, known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoinewas conceived as a fortress whose strategic location could help stall an attack on Paris from the east.

Over the course of the Hundred Years' War, the structure of the building changed quite a bit. The Bastille started out as a massive gate consisting of a thick wall and two 75-foot towers. By the end of 1383, it had evolved into a rectangular fortress complete with eight towers and a moat.

Such attributes would later turn the Bastille into an effective state prison—but it wasn’t actually used as one until the 17th century. Under King Louis XIII, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu began the practice of jailing his monarch’s enemies (without a trial) inside; at any given time, the cardinal would hold up to 55 captives there.

3. The Bastille was loaded with gunpowder. 

In July 1789, France was primed for a revolt. Bad weather had driven food prices through the roof, and the public resented King Louis XVI’s extravagant lifestyle. To implement financial reforms and quell rebellion, Louis was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, a national assembly representing the three estates of France. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate held the nobility, and all other royal subjects comprised the Third Estate. Each estate had a single vote, meaning two estates could defeat the other estate every time.

The Estates-General met in Versailles on May 5, 1789. Arguments between the Third Estate and the other two boiled over on June 20. King Louis responded by physically locking the common people’s representatives out of the room. The third estate, now calling themselves the National Assembly, reconvened on an indoor tennis court and pledged to remain active until a French constitution was established.

The King sanctioned the National Assembly on June 27, but then sent troops into Paris to deal with growing unrest. He made his problems worse by dismissing finance official Jacques Necker, who supported the Third Estate. The National Assembly and everyday citizens began to take up arms. On July 14, 1789, revolutionaries burst into a soldiers’ hospital in Paris and seized 3000 guns and five cannons. Then, they broke into the Bastille where a stockpile of gunpowder lay. 

4. The July 14 "storming" freed only a handful of prisoners ...

The French revolutionaries who broke into the Bastille expected to find numerous inmates. In reality, the prison was almost empty except for seven captives who seemed to be in relatively good health. We may never be certain of their identities. Some accounts claim that four of the prisoners had committed forgery, two were regarded as lunatics, and one was a disgraced nobleman. Other sources are less specific. A report penned on July 24 agrees that four were forgers and another came from an aristocratic family—but that the other two vanished before anyone could definitively identify them.

5. ... and the Marquis de Sade was almost among them.

You probably know him as the man whose conduct and erotic writings gave rise to the word sadism. In 1784, the aristocrat was transferred from another prison to the Bastille, where he languished for the next five years. Within those walls, de Sade penned several books—including his notorious novel One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

He surely would have been freed when the Bastille was stormed. But on June 2, de Sade started yelling at the passersby beneath his window, claiming that people were being maimed and killed inside and begging the people to save him. The episode got de Sade transferred once again—this time to an insane asylum outside Paris. His removal from the Bastille took place on July 4, 1789. Ten days later, rebels stormed inside.

6. Thomas Jefferson donated money to the families of the revolutionaries.

As America’s minister to France (and a big fan of revolution), Jefferson took a lively interest in the Bastille incident—which broke out while he was living abroad in Paris. Although Long Tom didn’t witness the event firsthand, he eloquently summarized everything he’d learned about the siege in a detailed letter to John Jay. On August 1, 1789, Jefferson wrote in his diary, “Gave for widows of those killed in taking Bastille, 60 francs.”

7. A huge festival was held exactly one year after the Bastille was stormed. 

By July 14, 1790, the Bastille had been destroyed, its pieces scattered across the globe by souvenir collectors. France now operated under a constitutional monarchy, an arrangement that divided power between King Louis XVI and the National Assembly. Meanwhile, hereditary nobility was outlawed.

To honor these advances, the government organized a huge event called the “Festival of the Federation,” which was to take place on the first anniversary of the Bastille showdown. As July 14 approached, French citizens from all walks of life came together and set up some 40,000 seats in preparation. When the big day finally arrived, King Louis arrived with 200 priests and swore to maintain the constitution. The Marquis de Lafayette—who’d famously helped orchestrate America’s revolution—stood by the monarch’s side. Later on, Queen Marie Antoinette got a huge cheer when she proudly showed off the heir apparent. Among the spectators was dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who later said, “I saw 50,000 citizens of all classes, of all ages, of all sexes, forming the most superb portrait of unity." 

8. Several different dates were considered for the French national holiday.

Here’s a trick question: What historical event does Bastille Day commemorate? If you answered “the storming of the Bastille prison,” you’re both right and wrong. In 1880, France’s senate decided that their homeland needed a national holiday. What the French statesmen had in mind was an annual, patriotic celebration dedicated to the country and her citizens. But the matter of choosing a date turned into an extremely partisan ordeal: Every available option irked somebody in the senate on ideological grounds. For instance, conservatives were dead-set against July 14 (at least at first) because they felt that the 1789 Bastille incident was too bloody to merit celebration.

Alternatives were numerous. To some, September 21 looked attractive, since the original French Republic was created on that day in 1792. Others favored February 24, which marked the birth of France’s second republic. Another option was August 4, the anniversary of the feudal system’s abolishment.

Ultimately, though, July 14 managed to win out. After all, the date marks not one but two very important anniversaries: 1789’s attack on the Bastille and 1790’s peaceful, unifying Festival of the Federation. So by choosing July 14, the senate invited all citizens to decide for themselves which of these events they’d rather celebrate. As Senator Henri Martell argued, anyone who had reservations about the first July 14 could still embrace the second. Personally, he revered the latter. In his own words, July 14, 1790 was “the most beautiful day in the history of France, possibly in the history of mankind. It was on that day that national unity was finally accomplished.”

9. Bastille Day features the oldest and largest regular military parade in Western Europe.

This beloved Paris tradition dates all the way back to 1880. In its first 38 years, the parade’s route varied wildly, but since 1918, the procession has more or less consistently marched down the Champs-Elysées, the most famous avenue in Paris. Those who watch the event in person are always in for a real spectacle—2015’s parade boasted some 31 helicopters, 55 planes, 208 military vehicles, and 3501 soldiers. It’s also fairly common to see troops from other nations marching alongside their French counterparts. Two years ago, for example, 150 Mexican soldiers came to Paris and participated.

10. In France, firemen throw public dances.

On the night of July 13 or 14, people throughout France live it up at their local fire departments. Most stations will throw large dance parties that are open to the entire neighborhood (kids are sometimes welcome). Please note, however, that some fire departments charge an admission fee. Should you find one that doesn’t, be sure to leave a donation behind instead. It’s just common courtesy.

11. The Louvre celebrates by offering free admission.

If you’re in Paris on Bastille Day and don’t mind large crowds, go say bonjour to the Mona Lisa. Her measurements might surprise you: The world’s most famous painting is only 30 inches tall by 21 inches wide.

12. Bastille Day has become a truly international holiday.

Can’t get to France on Bastille Day? Not a problem. People all over the world honor and embrace the holiday. In eastern India, the scenic Puducherry district was under French rule as recently as 1954. Every July 14, fireworks go off in celebration and a local band usually plays both the French and Indian national anthems. Thousands of miles away, Franschhoek, South Africa, throws an annual, two-day Bastille celebration—complete with a parade and all the gourmet French cuisine you could ask for.

Then there’s the United States, where dozens of cities organize huge festivals on this most French of holidays. New Orleans hosts a doggie costume contest in which pet owners are encouraged to dress up their pooches in handsome French garb. Or maybe you’d like to visit Philadelphia, where, at the Eastern State Penitentiary museum and historic site, Philly citizens re-enact the storming of the Bastille while guards keep the rebels at bay by hurling Tastykakes at them.

13. A huge solar flare once took place on Bastille Day.

NASA won’t be forgetting July 14, 2000 anytime soon. On that particular day, one of the largest solar storms in recent memory caught scientists off guard. An explosion caused by twisted magnetic fields sent a flurry of particles racing toward Earth. These created some gorgeous aurora light shows that were visible as far south as El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, the particles also caused a few radio blackouts and short-circuited some satellites. Astronomers now refer to this incident as “The Bastille Day Event.”

14. You can find a key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon.

The Marquis de Lafayette, 19, arrived in the new world to join America’s revolutionary cause in 1777. Right off the bat, he made a powerful friend: George Washington instantly took a liking to the Frenchman and within a month, Lafayette had effectively become the general’s adopted son. Their affection was mutual; when the younger man had a son of his own in 1779, he named him Georges Washington de Lafayette.

The day after the storming of the Bastille, the Marquis de Lafayette became the commander of the Paris National Guard. In the aftermath of the Bastille siege, he was given the key to the building. As a thank-you—and to symbolize the new revolution—Lafayette sent it to Washington’s Mount Vernon home, where the relic still resides today

This story originally ran in 2016.

The Washington Monument Is Transforming Into a Full-Scale Saturn V Rocket for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.

Where better to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing than in front of a revered national monument that also happens to resemble a giant rocket?

Next week, DCist reports, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will project an image of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket that launched Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins into space on July 16, 1969, onto the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument. Underneath the monument, flanked by screens playing a 17-minute program about the Moon landing, will be a 40-foot-wide replica of the iconic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock that NASA has called “one of the most-watched timepieces in the world.”

Illustration of the Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument
An illustration of what the Saturn V projection will look like on the Washington Monument.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Projecting an image onto an irregular object is a little more complicated than doing so on a run-of-the-mill, rectangular movie screen. The process is called projection mapping, which uses augmented reality to conform the projection to the object, making it seem like the projection is actually just part of the object. 59 Productions, the company behind this program, also created the video design for London’s 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and won a 2015 Tony Award for the video design of Christopher Wheeldon’s stage revival of An American in Paris.

So who exactly has to approve transforming one of our nation’s most famous monuments into a really tall, skinny optical illusion? In this case, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the secretary of the interior, and the president himself. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed the bipartisan resolution, H.J. Res. 60 [PDF], in mid-June, and the president signed it on July 5.

According to Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the larger-than-life nature of the setting befits the occasion. “The Washington Monument is a symbol of our collective national achievements and what we can and will achieve in the future,” she told DCist. “It took 400,000 people from across the 50 states to make Apollo a reality. This program celebrates them, and we hope it inspires generations too young to have experienced Apollo firsthand to define their own moonshot.”

You can see the Saturn V projection from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on July 16, 17, and 18. The best view is on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the “Castle”) between 9th and 12th streets. The entire program, titled “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” will run at 9:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and 11:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19, and Saturday, July 20.

[h/t DCist]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER