The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

If in spite of all the Bicentennial reminders the Revolutionary War seems somewhat far away, the French and Indian War must seem so much more remote as to be irrelevant. The familiar Pennsylvania events of the Revolution – the battles of Brandywine and German­town, the Valley Forge encampment, the Declaration of Independence – took place in the settled parts of the State, the battles were fought between bodies of organized troops, the people and their leaders on both sides were of similar culture and background.

But the French and Indian War was fought in the back country of Pennsylvania, where unseasoned colonial sol­diers seldom met an enemy face to face, and hostile action usually took the form of a surprise Indian attack on poorly armed settlers.

Then we remember, perhaps, that George Washington served in both these wars; so they could not have been so remote from one another after all. In simple fact the French and Indian War began – in 1755, so far as Pennsyl­vanians were concerned – just twenty years before the Revolution, and the first of these wars and its sequel, Pontiac’s War, took up almost half of those twenty years; a youth who served in the French and Indian War might very well serve as a mature man (and experienced soldier) in the Revolution. George Washington himself was twenty­-three when he served with General Braddock in the French and Indian War, and forty-three when he took command of the Revolutionary army.

Washington, the most famous veteran of the two wars, was a Virginian, but obviously many other men of his time, Pennsylvanians as well as Virginians, served in the same conflicts. Of the three Pennsylvania colonels who served on the Forbes expedition of 1758, two became Revolutionary officers: John Armstrong (whose own fa­vorite exploit was his 1756 attack on the Indian town of Kittanning) was a major general in the Revolution and saw action at Brandywine and Germantown; Hugh Mercer, who moved to Virginia after the French and Indian War, was a brigadier general in the Revolution and died of wounds received at the Battle of Princeton in January, 1777. Armstrong and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania, both created in 1800, were named in their honor.

Because of the lack of service records, it is impossible to say how many less distinguished Pennsylvania veterans of the Indian war fought in the Revolution; so one or two random examples must serve our purpose. In 1758 Captain John Bull and another officer of the Pennsylvania Regiment escorted Christian Frederick Post and five Indians to the Ohio country to persuade the Indians there to cease hostil­ities. In 1779 John Bull, now a colonel superintending defenses on the lower Delaware but seeking another assign­ment, reminded the Supreme Executive Council that:

… in the year 1758, while the trench were in Posses­sion of Fort Duquesne, now Fort Pitt, I with five Indians went into their Country … there held a Con­ferance with them Drew them off Entirely from the trench Intrest, they Left the fort and we Possesd it without fighting ….

Had he forgotten his two white companions? In 1757 John Meetch and his family were frontier settlers at Fort Halifax (near present Halifax, in Dauphin County). They took refuge in the fort but were evicted when other residents complained of their behavior. Not the most illustrious patriots, perhaps, but we learn from William Henry Egle’s History of Dauphin County that “In the French and Indian war Mr. Meetch took up arms in aid of the frontiers, and when the storm of the Revolution burst upon the country he was an active participant, being in Capt. John Reed’s company during the Jersey campaign of 1776-77.”

This participation in both wars by a considerable number of Americans is not merely an interesting fact. Douglas Southall Freeman, the distinguished biographer of George Washington, states simply that, “As for (General) Forbes, that officer and Henry Bouquet were, all in all, the best soldiers with whom Washington had served. He could have learned much from them concerning many matters of military administration.” Freeman expresses regret that Washington did not make better use of the opportunity. If Washington received his best military training under these British officers in the French and Indian War, so did other colonial officers of lower rank. Two thousand Virginians and 2,700 Pennsylvanians served in Forbes’ campaign of 1758; and the training they received was especially valuable to the Pennsylvanians, whose colony had before this war not even a militia in which its citizenry might have learned a few rudiments of military organization and practice. The opportunity for military experience (not necessarily welcomed) was one of the areas in which the French and Indian War had an important impact on the Revolution.

In The First Rebel, published in 1937, the novelist Neil H. Swanson represents an episode of 1765 as the first skirmish of the Revolution, and if this interpretation could be taken seriously it would provide a very close connection, in Pennsylvania at least, between the Indian wars and the Revolution.

At the end of Pontiac’s War, resumption of the Indian trade was postponed until the Indians accepted terms of peace. George Croghan, hoping to steal a march on other interested parties, conspired to ship goods to Pittsburgh. ahead of time. Settlers in present Franklin County, embittered by late Indian attacks, interpreted this as traffic with the enemy; and a gang called the Black Boys, headed by James Smith, waylaid two shipments, on March 6 and May 7, 1765, and destroyed some of the goods. A quarrel that followed, between the rioters and the small British garrison at Fort Loudoun, continued even after the resumption of the Indian trade on June 6. Meanwhile, and also in con­sequence of the peace settlement, the British prepared to evacuate their Pennsylvania military posts, except Fort Pitt. Aware of these plans but hoping to settle with the garrison on their own terms, the Black Boys besieged the fort on November 16, and after two days under fire the commanding officer agreed to terms. Two hours later a British detachment arrived to escort him and his men to Fort Bedford.

To represent this as the first American victory over British troops-ten years before Lexington, as Swanson points out-is misleading. It is anachronistic to interpret the affair in terms of circumstances and viewpoints of a later date. James Smith himself (who, by the way, fought in the Revolution) saw the incident in no such light; his sober afterthought was that “This convinced me more than ever I had been before, of the absolute necessity of the civil law, in order to govern mankind.” The episode is best interpreted in terms of a weakening of civil government that enabled frontier groups like the Paxton Boys in 1763-64, the Black Boys in 1765 (and again in 1769). and the Fair Play Men in 1769 to defy the law and take things into their own hands. These events are in themselves related to the Revolution only to the extent that frontier disorder was a factor in that struggle.

They do, however, call attention to another very real link between the French and Indian War and the Revolution: the development of a political consciousness based on regional differences. In the peaceful era that preceded the French and Indian War, regional differences in Pennsylvania were largely a matter of religion and language. The country between Philadelphia and the Blue Mountain was not broken up geographically, and frontier life was characterized chiefly by the inconveniences of living in newer, less cultivated country and of having poorer access to centers of trade and government offices. Back-country settlers were the country cousins of the Philadelphians and not a separate race.

The Indian attacks that brought the French and Indian War home to Pennsylvanians brought also the first realization, intensified by the ten-year hostilities that followed, that the frontier had problems and interests quite different from those of the older, better established seaboard population. Specifically, in 1755, these were the problems of Indian hostility and of the consequent need for governmental help in defense. That the back-country settlers were themselves quite unprepared for armed resistance (“Not a Man in Ten is able to purchase a Gun,” wrote one of their clergymen) made their need the more pressing, and the government’s delay, occasioned by Quaker principles, the absence of a military tradition, lack of funds, and the slow workings of political machinery, created a quick and lasting resentment.

In time other distinctively back-country problems were recognized and added to the list: underrepresentation in government, land settlement, roads and other means of access, economic disadvantages. The frontier became and remained a distinct political entity; and the fact that all frontiersmen, in whatever colony, had much the same problems provided a basis for understanding and common action that was further stimulated by a considerable degree of mobility in the frontier population. At Fort Loudoun the Black Boys had threatened to spirit the garrison commander away to Carolina. Their threat may or may not have been serious, but it was not fanciful; there was more traffic between frontier Pennsylvania and Carolina than Philadelphia and Charleston realized.

In brief, this emergence of a new political identity with a pervasive distrust of uncomprehending and unresponsive government was a second important contribution of the French and Indian War to the American Revolution. Independence did not come suddenly or completely in 1776; nor was the struggle toward it begun either by General Forbes, though he made his inadvertent contribution, or by the Black Boys, whose wrought mischief may have reflected but did not further the growth of a distinctively American political awareness. The story of that growth, however, goes far beyond the French and Indian War and the Revolution.

 

Illustrations by Charles C. Dallas for The Pennsylvania Line: Regimental Organization and Operations, 1775-1783 by John B. B. Trussell, published by the PHMC.

 

William A. Hunter, the author of Forts on the Pennsylvania Frontier, 1753-1758, and of numerous articles on Indian and colonial history, has been chief of the Division of History, PHMC, since 1961.