My Weekly Reader 19 December 2018.

What we think of as the British Empire of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries did not yet exist in 1763.  It was aborning, however.  Britain had defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).  Britain then took possession of French North America between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  British North Americans saw their long-standing hopes of expanding beyond the Appalachian Mountains fulfilled.  These hopes failed at first.  The British Empire’s managers in London saw themselves juggling a diverse American community.   British “America” contained largely Protestants, mostly of Anglo-descent; Canada contained Catholic former French subjects; and in the Wilderness, the Native Americans offered access to the riches of the fur trade.  Containing the British North Americans offered the best path to peace and prosperity, especially after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) showed how difficult it might be to conquer the Native Americans.

The conflict crystalized in two remarkable figures.[1]  George Croghan (1718-1782), an Irish immigrant fur trader and land speculator, had become the vastly influential deputy to Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  James Smith (1737-1813), a Pennsylvania farmer, had been an Indian fighter and then became  a charismatic figure.  Both had lived among the Indians, and knew their languages and culture.  Their fundamental dispute gave human faces to the essential difference between the Anglo-American colonists and the British government.  Croghan saw the path to prosperity for himself and for the Empire running through peaceful trade with the Indians.  Smith saw the path running through driving away the Indians and expanding farming settlements.

To seal the deal with the Native Americans, in February 1765 the British dispatched a huge column of gifts to a peace treaty ceremony with Pontiac in the Ohio country.  Croghan added in many of his own trade goods from a desire to revive trade after the war and Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The Pennsylvania settlers[2] saw the presents—including rum and gunpowder–as the basest form of appeasement and as likely to provoke another Indian war as to forestall one.

Smith formed many of the settlers into an impromptu militia called “The Black Boys” after their use of bunt cork to disguise their faces.  The “Black Boys” tried to stop the caravans.  The 42nd Highlanders provided the hard core of the British escort, so the rebel settlers tended to steer around them.[3]  For a time, the rebels even blockaded Fort Loudon.  The British, short of supplies, abandoned the fort in November 1765.  Then peace with the Indians came and the “Black Boys Rebellion” died down.

In “Patriot,” Mel Gibson’s character announces that “the [coming] war [with England] will be fought not on the frontier or on some distant battle-field, but here among us…”  In truth, it was fought everywhere.  The wars on the frontier played a vital role in determining the American victory.  However, the frontier fights began well ahead of the formal “Revolution.”

[1] What follows is a part of the story told by Patrick Spero, Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776 (2018).

[2] Now in central Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, but then the far West.

[3] The 42nd had seen a good deal of service in North America, having fought at the first—disastrous—and second battles of Fort Ticonderoga, in the siege of Montreal, and in the bloody Indian fight at Bushy Run during Pontiac’s Rebellion.

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