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.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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