Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios