The War of the Conquest (1756–1760)

In spring of 1756, the Seven Years' War broke out in Europe (1756–1763). Most of the major powers of Europe were involved, with Prussia, Great Britain, and Hanover on one side, and Austria, Saxony, France, Russia, Sweden, and Spain on the other. In India, it was France against Great Britain, and in North America, the British Crown and colonial New England against the French and their Amerindian allies. In North America, it was actually the French and Indian War, which coincided with the Seven Years' War in Europe but ended three years earlier, in 1760.

This war, which had a critical impact on language in North America, goes by many names. In French, it is usually called Guerre de la Conquête (War of the Conquest), but sometimes Guerre de Sept Ans (Seven Years' War). In English, it is often called the French and Indian War, the Seven Years' War, the War for Empire, or the British Conquest. Some historians also talk about a kind of "first world war," because the war spanned the globe from Europe to India, from the West Indies to the Philippines, and from North America to Asia. Of all these names, the French and Indian War is the most appropriate, because it points to the French-Indian alliances in this decisive crusade. In French Canada, the war is usually referred to as La Conquête, and La Conquête always means the conquest of 1760.

Main Figures

In North America, four figures were at the forefront—one Canadian (Marquis Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil), one Frenchman (Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm), and two Englishmen (William Pitt and James Wolfe). In 1755, the Marquis de Vaudreuil became Canada's first Canadian governor. He knew the troops in the small North American war, and his priority was Canada, not France. Montcalm was a French general in a professional army and did not take kindly to being subordinate to a "colonial" (Vaudreuil). He considered Canada a French battlefield like any other and was not interested in saving the colony at all costs. He even wrote in 1757 that Canada would not be "an irreparable loss," as long as France could save its fisheries in Newfoundland. From a strategic standpoint, the French soldiers preferred battle on open land, while the Canadians and Amerindians preferred forest combat and ambushes.

William Pitt (known as "Pitt the elder"), who became prime minister of Great Britain in 1757, was firmly committed to waging the war against France in the colonies, not in Europe. He believed that the war would be won or lost in North America. The first phase of his plan was to seize Louisbourg, the French fortress that defended the entrance to the St. Lawrence. The prime minister also knew that the conquest of Canada would cost many vessels, arms, and troops. He had to borrow huge sums from abroad—into the hundreds of millions. Lastly, James Wolfe was a serious young brigade general who had played an active role in the capture of Louisbourg and St. John's Island (Prince Edward Island) and the plundering of the region's lands and farms. When he left England, he declared, "I must admit, I will enjoy seeing the Canadian vermin sacked, pillaged, and repaid for their appalling cruelties." Satisfied with Wolfe's previous successes, William Pitt chose him as general to command British land forces in the assault on Quebec.

There were also American figures involved in the war: George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Prior to the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, was an active proponent of expanding the New England colonies. He dreamed of a white Anglo-Saxon protestant America. In general, politicians, merchants, and speculators agreed with Franklin, but had their eye more on the Ohio Valley. In his 1751 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "This Million doubling suppose but once in 25 Years, will in another Century be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water." He believed that the French had to be eliminated from the future of English America:

The French population [...] will incite the Indians to harass us at our borders, in times of peace or war [...] They will murder and scalp our people and drive out the colonists; they will discourage our countrymen from marrying, and the population will cease to grow; by doing so (if I may speak as such), they will kill thousands of our children before they are born.

Benjamin Franklin campaigned for the war: "The safety of all English colonies in North America, their very survival as English colonies, makes these measures imperative and pressing." As for George Washington, he got involved very early in the war against New France in the Ohio Valley. The battle of Fort Necessity in 1754 was the first major incident in George Washington's military career and his only defeat to the enemy, but the battle triggered the war between France and Great Britain for control of North America. Washington was proclaimed the winner of the war that preceded the American Revolution.

Great Britain, Mistress of the Seas

Because of Great Britain's mastery of the seas, it was able to send troops and equipment in much greater supply than France. Over 20,000 soldiers (out of 140,000) served in North America, alongside a substantial colonial army of 12,000 regular and 21,000 provincial soldiers. France had only 6,800 regular soldiers and 15,000 Canadian militiamen in Canada and relied heavily on the support of its Amerindian allies. In Louisbourg, the British army had 28,000 men up against 6,000 French (supported by 500 Indians). The contest was far from equal.

Governor Vaudreuil dispatched a number of emissaries to Paris to ask for reinforcements, ammunition, and rations, but naval minister Nicolas-René Berryer answered, "You don't try to save the stables when the house is on fire." Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Montcalm's flag lieutenant, retorted "At least you don't speak like a horse." The defeats, France's idleness, and, above all, famine led more and more Canadians to hope for an English victory.

The Fall of the French Empire

British government waged the North American war against France on several fronts: the Ohio Valley, Louisbourg, and Quebec.

The Ohio Valley

In North America, the French and Indian War began in the Ohio Valley, where France and Great Britain both claimed ownership of the same land. In 1750, the French decided to buttress their forces in the south and west, from Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. The governor of Canada sent companies of colonial troops, "Compagnies franches de la Marine." The French drove New England merchants out of the region.

In 1753, Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie sent an expedition under the command of Colonel George Washington to force the French out of Fort Presque-Isle (near Lake Erie) and Fort Le Boeuf (the part of Ohio claimed by Virginia). But the French defeated Washington's troops, who were forced to surrender, then burned Fort Necessity and returned to Fort Duquesne. The English were driven back to Virginia, but the Indians took and massacred hundreds of captives, mostly women and children. The Anglo-American defeat caused an uproar in New England and made the English more aggressive against Canada and the French. The following year (1755), 250 Canadian militiamen and 600 Amerindians defeated an army of 1,500 soldiers under the command of Edward Braddock. The colonial authorities of New England offered a reward of 50 pounds to anyone bringing back the scalp of a Frenchman (or Canadian colonist) or French-allied Indian.

After the battle of Fort Necessity (1754), the French thought the British would no longer contest their claim to the Ohio Valley, but Great Britain would not accept defeat, instead dispatching forces against the French strongholds Fort Duquesne (later Fort Pittsburg) in Ohio, Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario, Fort St. Frédéric (at Crown Point) on Lake Champlain, and Fort Beauséjour in Acadia. The battle of Fort Necessity in 1754 was part of the chain of events that led Great Britain to declare war on France in 1756 for control of North America. Four years later, in April 1758, the French lost Fort Frontenac and Fort Duquesne (Canada). Niagara was taken on July 25, 1759, by Anglo-American troops backed by Six Nations Iroquois warriors—a catastrophic loss for the Canadians and French.

A map of the battle locations and the traveling direction of the British troops in North America during the Seven Years' War


On July 27, 1759, Louisbourg, Acadia, fell after a two-month siege in the greatest naval landing to that date in North America, under the command of young brigadier James Wolfe. The French population on Île Royale (now Cape Breton) plummeted from 2,500 to 700. Two-thirds (68%) were deported to France (La Rochelle), while the remainder stayed on the island or went into hiding on St. John's Island (now Prince Edward Island). Two years later, the British secretary of state ordered the fortress torn down, since it stood as a symbol of France's ambition to colonize North America. Of the some 5,000 people living on St. John's Island, about 2,000 Acadians were deported to France, and the remainder withdrew into the woods.


Marquis de Montcalm led a number of victories in Canada, notably Carillon in 1758. The following year, General Wolfe laid siege to Québec after devastating the surrounding countryside over a distance of at least 100 km downriver, as well as all the Acadian settlements in the Saint John River area (New Brunswick). Then Montcalm suffered crushing defeats, including the battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759) in Québec, where he died together with his conqueror, General James Wolfe, who has been a British hero ever since. In the Québec siege, General Montcalm had a military force of 15,000 men, compared to General Wolfe's 8,500. When the British army took up positions on the Plains of Abraham on the morning of September 13, 1759, it was only 4,800 men strong, compared to Montcalm's 4,500 men, including 2,500 Canadian militiamen. As eager for battle as Wolfe, Montcalm did not wait for his full forces, instead ordering Canadian militiamen to fight like regular French troops. In less than twenty minutes, Montcalm's army was in retreat. According to historians, the French defeat on the Plains of Abraham could not have been due to a weak French Canadian army, but rather to an error in judgment by General Montcalm, who could have defeated the British if he had had the patience to wait two or three hours for reinforcements from Bougainville and Vaudreuil. Some historians call September 13 the "day of mistakes." Wolfe risked it all and was willing to sacrifice his troops before an army he knew could be larger, but he was up against a general even more inept than he.

Obviously, September 13, 1759, was a decisive date for Canada and a day that would change the course of North American history. The efforts of Montcalm's successor, Chevalier de Lévis, and Governor Vaudreuil could not forestall Montréal's surrender. To prevent the massacre of his colonists, Governor Vaudreuil decided to sign Canada's surrender on September 8, 1760, in Montréal, and, in the process, the capitulation of New France.

The Québec and Montréal surrenders were drawn up in French. In accepting the surrender, General Wolfe's successors guaranteed the civil and religious rights as well as the property of Canadians who laid down their arms. New France passed into British hands, except for Louisiana, which was officially declared Spanish territory in 1763 in the Treaty of Paris. General Amherst named James Murray temporary military governor of Québec; Ralph Burton, of Trois-Rivières; and Thomas Gage, of Montréal. Nobody knows exactly how many Canadians died in the French and Indian War, but historians estimate some 6,000 or 7,000—a tenth of the total population.

Regardless of the figure, the war exhausted the colony, and the population fell by 10,000 (from 70,000) from death due to disease and famine. After the war, Great Britain found itself with a land made up of an entirely French-speaking, white, Catholic population and a native population largely converted to Christianity and very superficially to French.

Meanwhile, Catherine the Great had ascended to the throne of Russia and was dreaming of an empire that would include North America. She wanted to extend the Russian fur trade along the western coast of North America, establish Russian colonies, and assert her sovereignty over the region. But Russia would have to settle for Alaska, where it established colonies in 1784. The Russian language was spoken in Alaska until 1867, when the colony was sold to the Americans and the language gave way to English.