Howard Peckham on the American Colonial Wars

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A Narrative of Forgotten Wars

The Colonial Wars: 1689–1762
Howard H. Peckham
University of Chicago Press, 1964

The North American colonial wars between Great Britain and France that flared repeatedly through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have long been hidden in the great shadow cast by the American Revolution. How many people today remember King William’s War (1689–97), or Queen Anne’s War (1702–13), or King George’s War (1744–48), or the French and Indian War (1755–62)? But these conflicts should be better known, because in actual fact they determined the cultural fate of most of North America. Howard Peckham’s volume, first published in 1964, is the best short survey of all of them.

Beginning in the 1600s, Great Britain began to colonize the eastern seaboard of North America from Maine to Georgia. Even earlier, France had begun to occupy the valley of the St. Lawrence and to spread westward into the Great Lakes and then south to the Mississippi. From the late 1600s to the mid-1700s, conflicts in Europe between these two colonial powers (and between the Protestant and Catholic worlds they represented) spilled over into North America. Indian tribes played both sides off against each other, forming shifting alliances in an attempt to retain their own independence. Because of disputes over who should occupy the Spanish throne, for example, farmhouses were burned in the New England countryside, and Indian villages were destroyed in the woods of Maine. In the end, Great Britain and her colonies gained ascendancy, and France was forced to cede all of her Canadian possessions. The last of these imperial conflicts, the French and Indian War, set the political and military stage for the American Revolution which began only thirteen years after the French and Indian War had ended.

Why should anyone remember these ancient battles? One simple reason is that they have left their mark all over the cultural landscape of eastern North America. They explain why there are lakes with names like “Champlain” along the borders of states like New “York”; why the eastern United States is dotted with towns named “Amherst” and “Pepperell” and “Shirley” (all generals in the colonial wars); and why so many people in French-speaking Quebec, more than 300 years after the colonial wars began, are still trying to secede from English-speaking Canada.

© RJO 1995–2016