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The French and Indian War in Pittsburgh: A Memoir

May 2024
13min read

She played the war, learning to creep through the woods without leaving footprints or snapping twigs. She read and dreamed about the war, lying on her bed, limp with horror and delight. The history of the war was a drug and she was an addict.

The French and Indian War! This was a war of which I, reading stretched out in my bedroom, could not get enough. The names of the places were a litany: Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, Fort Frontenac on the St. Lawrence, Vincennes on the Wabash. The names of the people were a litany: Captain Claude-Pierre Pécaudy, Sieur de Contrecoeur; the Swiss commander of Fort Pitt, Simeon Ecuyer; the great Indian fighter Col. Henry Bouquet; Maj. Robert Rogers of the Rangers; the Sieur de Marin; the Marquis de Montcalm; the Seneca chief Half-King. There was an outlandish-sounding Miami chief on the Ohio whom the English called “Old Britain” and the French called “La Demoiselle.”

How witless in comparison were the clumsy wars of Europe. On some open field at nine o’clock sharp, soldiers in heavy armor, dragged from their turnip patches in feudal obedience to Lord So-and-So, met in long ranks the heavily armored men owned or paid for by Lord Such-and-Such and defeated them by knocking them over like ninepins. What was at stake? The succession of Maria Theresa at the death of Charles VI. Phooey.

In the French and Indian War a whole continent was at stake, and it was hard to know whom to root for as I read. The Indians were the sentimental favorites, but they were visibly cruel. The French excelled at Indian skills and had the endearing habit of singing in boats. But if they won, we would all speak French, which seemed affected in the woods. The Scotch-Irish settlers and the English army were very uneasy allies; but their cruelties were invisible to me, and their partisans wrote all the books that fell into my hands.

It all seemed to take place right here, here among the blossoming rhododendrons outside the sun-porch windows just below my bedroom, here in the Pittsburgh forest that rose again from every vacant lot, every corner of every yard the mower missed, every clogged gutter on the roof. Here our own doughty provincials in green hunting shirts fought beside regiments of Rangers in buckskins, actual Highlanders in kilts, loyal Iroquois in war paint, and British regulars in red jackets. They came marching vividly through the virgin Pittsburgh forest; they trundled up and down the nearby mountain ridges by day and slept at night on their weapons under trees. Pioneer scouts ran ahead of them and behind them; messengers snuck into their few palisaded forts, where periwigged English officers sat and rubbed their foreheads, while naked Indians in the treetops outside were setting arrows on fire to burn down the roof.

Best, it was all imaginary. That the French and Indian War had taken place in this neck of the woods merely enhanced its storied quality, as if that fact had been a particularly pleasing literary touch. The war was part of my own private consciousness, the dreamlike interior murmur of books.

Costumed enormous people, transparent, vivid, and bold as decals, as tall and rippling as people in dreams, shot at each other up and down the primeval woods, race against race. Just as people in myths travel rigidly up to the sky, or are placed there by some greater god’s fingers, to hold still forever in the midst of their loving or battles as fixed constellations of stars, so the fighting cast of the French and Indian War moved in a colorful body into the pages of books—locked into position in the landscape but still loading muskets or cowering behind log doors or landing canoes on a blackened shore. They were fabulous and morally neutral, like everything in history, like everything in books. They were imagination’s playthings—toy soldiers, toy settlers, toy Indians. They were a part of the interior life: they were private; they were my own.

In books these wars played themselves out ceaselessly; the red-war-painted Indian tomahawked the settler woman in calico; and the rangy settler in buckskin spied out the Frenchman in military braid. Whenever I picked up a book, the war struck up again like a record whose music sounded when the needle hit. The skirling of Highlanders’ bagpipes came playing again high and thin over the dry oak ridges. The towheaded pioneer school-children were just blabbing their memorized psalms when from right outside the greased parchment window sounded the wild and fatal whoops of Indian warriors on a raid.

Behind each tree and parked car, I saw Indians.

The wild and fatal whoops, the war whoops of the warriors, the red warriors whooping on a raid. It was a delirium. The tongue diddled the brain. I could dream it all whenever I wanted — and how often I wanted to dream it! Fiercely addicted, I dosed myself again and again with the drug of the dream. Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: they are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world.

The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where one dwells, and goes to school, and eats, the body, the boring body that houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of children’s inner lives makes them immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

Throughout these long, wonderful wars I saw Indian braves behind every tree and parked car. They slunk around, fairly bursting with woodcraft. They led soldiers on miraculous escapes through deep woods and across lakes at night; they paddled their clever canoes noiselessly; they swam underwater without leaving bubbles; they called to each otherthey called to each other like owls. They nocked their arrows silently on the brow of the hill and snuck up in their soft moccasins to the camp where the enemy lay sleeping under heavy guard. They shrieked, drew their Osage bows, and never missed—all the while communing deeply with birds and deer.

I had been born too late. I would have made a dandy scout because I had taught myself to walk in the woods silently: without snapping a twig, which was easy, or stepping on a loud leaf, which was hard. Experience taught me a special rolling walk for skulking in silence: you step down with your weight on the ball of your foot and ease it to your heel.

The Indians who captured me would not torture me, but exclaim at my many abilities, and teach me more, all the while feeding me handsomely. Soon I would talk to animals, become invisible, ride a horse naked and shrieking, shoot things.

I practiced traveling through the woods in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park without leaving footprints. I practiced tracking people and animals, such as some pedigreed dachshunds that lived nearby, by following signs. I knew the mark of my boy hero’s blunt heel and the mark of my younger sister’s sharp one. I practiced sneaking up on Mother as she repotted a philodendron, Father as he waxed the car, saying, as I hoped but doubted the Indians said, “Boo.”

La Belle Rivière, the French called the Ohio and its tributary, the Allegheny. The Forks of the Ohio, the English rather ploddingly called these rivers’ juncture with the Monongahela at Pittsburgh. Both the French and the British needed to control the point where the rivers met in order to control the interior of the continent. The nation that held sway where Pittsburgh was to be built was the nation that would rule the land all the way from the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence downstream to New Orleans, and all the way from the Potomac in the east out west to the Missouri, the Platte, and the Yellowstone at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

In the early 1750s, when no one but a few Indian traders lived at the point where the rivers come together, and only the toughest of pioneers lived nearby on the rivers and creeks, the French and the English moved simultaneously to claim and seize it. The French idea was to build a chain of forts from Lake Erie to the head of the Ohio and on down to New Orleans. The British idea was not to let them.

So they had begun their war here at the site of Pittsburgh —the British war against the French and some of their mostly Canadian Indian allies. The British were stuck hacking twelve-foot-wide roads through the forest, from Wills Creek on the Potomac northwest or later from Shippensburg due west over the mountains—all to get armies and rolling artillery to that point Major Washington had pronounced “extremely well situated for a fort.…” In Europe the struggle was the Seven Years’ War.

When the fighting began at the Forks of the Ohio in 1754, the English greatly outnumbered the French in North America (1,225,000 to 80,000). Even the Great Lakes Indians preferred English trade goods to French ones. But the French controlled the interior waterways. The English condescended to the Indians; the French made them pretty speeches. Abroad the British controlled the seas.

Along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes the French organized their armies shrewdly and swiftly; their power was centralized and military. The English had quite enough to do to govern diverse interests in thirteen scattered colonies. This war provided the colonies’ first occasion to act together, and they wasted four years before various kings, parliaments, and colonial assemblies could raise an army big enough to drive the outnumbered French from North America. It was during this time that Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia published a famous cartoon; it pictured a snake in eight fragments and read JOIN, OR DIE.

In the winter of 1754 the British, moving up from Virginia, began throwing together a fort in the virtual wilderness at the point where the rivers met. They named it Fort Prince George. Two months later superior French forces came down from Lake Erie and overwhelmed it. They built Fort Duquesne on its ashes. The war was on. For the next four years a British priority in North America was recapturing that spot.

For those four years the French controlled the Ohio country from Fort Duquesne. If they could keep it, they would confine the British on this continent to the Eastern seaboard. They supplied the fort at great pains from the Great Lakes via an overland portage to an Allegheny River tributary; up and down this rocky route they poled, paddled, and shouldered their pirogues. Their cargoes were beeves and salt, soldiers, arms, priests, and white women.

From Fort Duquesne the French set their Indian allies to raiding far-flung English-speaking settlements and homesteads. (The few nearby settlers had fled back over the mountains.) In 1756 the French commandant at Fort Duquesne bragged in a letter that his men had “succeeded in ruining the three adjacent provinces, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, driving off the inhabitants, and totally destroying the settlements.…The Indian villages are full of prisoners of every age and sex.”

From Fort Duquesne the French marched out and defeated George Washington at nearby Fort Necessity—really not a fort but only an earthworks hastily thrown up to defend the handful of Virginia troops trying to cut a military road. It was a battle fought south of Pittsburgh in a natural meadow at long range in the rain.

Most vividly, from Fort Duquesne the French marched out and defeated Gen. Edward Braddock. Braddock’s 1755 attempt on Fort Duquesne, the best the English could do, was not good enough. From Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac, the stiff old soldier drove his English and colonial troops over the wretched mountain track in June and July, ridge after ridge, building bridges over every creek for wagons and cannon. In one four-day period they covered only twelve miles. George Washington was aide-de-camp and complained bitterly about the frequent halts. Indian scouts were, of course, picking off Braddock’s scouts and any stragglers. Finally the English abandoned half their troops, artillery, and supply wagons, pushing on toward Fort Duquesne with light infantry.

The outnumbered French and Indians met them ten miles from the fort, along the Monongahela at the later site of the Thompson works of U.S. Steel. It was the first battle in a new kind of warfare, a kind of warfare that the English found monstrously unfair: opponents fired from cover. You couldn’t see them.

The English line of march was deployed under a long hill. The French seized that hill, crouched behind tree trunks, and fired down at leisure. The Indians spread out along their flank, ducked behind tree trunks, and fired at leisure. It was a rout. The panicked English couldn’t retreat because their own arriving soldiers blocked the road. Only 459 British survived, out of 1,386. It was one of the very few battles dominated by Indian warriors; later the French and English armies would meet each other minus Indians. As Braddock was dying of a hole in his lung, he said with old-style aplomb, “We shall better know how to deal with them another time.”

After the battle the Indians brought their prisoners back to their villages outside Fort Duquesne. An English boy inside the fort—a former Indian captive—saw them come in. The Indians were firing muskets into the air. Some were wearing red coats and officers’ hats. They began stretching “hundreds” of scalps on hoops. The prisoners were naked. The Indians had already painted the prisoners’ faces black, with ashes, to mark them for torture.

Just off the point where the rivers met, there was a low bar called Smoky Island. It was there that the Indians routinely tortured their prisoners. The French liked it ill but judged that if they failed to hand over prisoners for torture, the Indians would lose interest and go away. (British officers would also be known to turn prisoners over to their Indian allies for torture.)

At sunset all the Indian families accompanied the prisoners in canoes to Smoky Island. The men tied the prisoners to stakes and piled coals on their feet. Women heated ramrods over fires until they glowed, then drove them into the prisoners’ nostrils or ears. The children practiced shooting arrows into them.

Inside Fort Duquesne the English boy found the dying men’s screams upsetting. Trying to comfort him, a kind French soldier gave him a volume of sermons. The sermons were in English; the soldier had picked up the volume that morning after the battle, from among the bodies of his enemies.

One canny soldier, the story goes, devised a way to cut his captivity, and torture, short. He told his Indian captors that he knew a plant whose juices conferred invulnerability. They didn’t believe him. He picked up a few leaves and, with as much hocus-pocus as he could muster, squeezed their juices in a broad ring around his own bare neck. The Indians were having none of it. He laid his head and neck on a chopping block. The most disbelieving Indian seized a good ax and, sure enough, chopped off his head.

Before Braddock’s defeat the local Delawares and Shawnees threw in their lot with the French. Their own land east of the mountains had been ruined by immigrant farms. They joined the Canadian Indians around the fort. Other tribes moved in: Foxes from Wisconsin; Chickasaws from the lower Mississippi. Together, supplied by the French, they raided settlements, tomahawking or bashing infants, and killing or capturing men, women, and children. They crossed the mountains and killed settlers who had fled to the Juniata Valley. They moved down into Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina, killing, taking prisoners, and burning cabins, mills, fields, and barns. They almost never raped.

That year of Braddock’s defeat a German family carried one man’s Indian-mutilated body sixty miles and left it as a plea on the steps of the Assembly in Philadelphia. Belatedly the governor of Pennsylvania declared war on the Delawares and Shawnees, enabled to do so when four of the purest of the Quakers in the Assembly, fearing for their souls, stepped down.

In 1757 Gen. Louis de Montcalm forced the English to surrender Fort William Henry, in New York. After the terms of capitulation had been agreed upon, the Indians broke rank and attacked the departing soldiers and settler families. They killed more than one hundred on the spot; they dragged two hundred men, women, and children back to Montreal to torture; they stripped and beat many more and left them to die in the woods. (Montcalm was able to rescue more than four hundred of these.) They killed the sick and wounded left at the fort. In Montreal, French witnesses testified, the Indians boiled one captive in a public ceremony and “forced his wretched countrymen to eat of him.” And they “compelled mothers to eat the flesh of their children.” “What a scourge!” wrote the flowery French commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville. “Humanity groans at being forced to use such monsters.”

We made quivers out of string and cigarette cartons.

After three years the British in London under the Great Commoner, William Pitt, determined to prosecute this war in earnest. Pitt raised the rank of colonial officers. To knock the French out of their North American base, he sent the English navy to the Great Lakes; there it broke the French fleet. The English army under Gen. Jeffery Amherst took major Great Lakes and St. Lawrence forts. The French had been supplying Fort Duquesne and points west from France via the St. Lawrence route and from Lake Erie via the Allegheny River. The English victories cut off the French chain of supplies to the interior. In November 1758 Gen. John Forbes and his mixed army took Fort Duquesne from the French. That winter the English began building Fort Pitt. To the north, Quebec fell. Except for some mopping up, it was all over for the French.

Seventeen years later, in 1776, Pontiac’s war on settlers had come and gone too—a war in which at least two thousand settlers died in raids. The Indian wars were virtually over in the Eastern woodlands. Scotch-Irish and German settlers crept back over Laurel Ridge, the last ridge in the Alleghenies, to farm and trade in peace at the Forks of the Ohio near Fort Pitt. In Philadelphia the Scotch-Irish controlled the new government; they had allied themselves with East Coast revolutionaries to throw the Indian-loving, monarch-loving Quakers out. They moved at once for another war, against England, for independence.

Where we live and work today
    Indian children used to play—
    All about our native land
    Where the shops and houses stand.

On a quiet dead-end street in our Pittsburgh neighborhood, among the still stone and brick houses under their old ash trees and oaks, we playing children paced out the ritual evenings. Capture the Flag was, essentially, the French and Indian Wars. The dead-end street (Europe) saw open combat at its fixed border. Brute strength could win. We disdained the street, although, of course, we had to guard its border. We fought the real war in the backyards (America)—a limitless wilderness of trees, garbage cans, thickets, back porches, and gardens, where no one knew where the two sides’ territories ended and where strategy required bold and original planning, private initiative, sneaky scouting, and courage.

If someone cheated at any game or incurred the group’s wrath in any way, the rest of us gave him, or her, Indian burns: we wrung a bare arm with both hands close together till the skin chafed. Worse—reserved practically for capital crimes—was the dreaded but admired typewriter torture, which we understood to be, in modern guise, an old Indian persuader. One of us straddled the offender, bared his or her breastbone, and lightly tapped fingertips there—very lightly, just where the skin covers the bone most closely. This light tapping does not hurt at all for the first five minutes or so.

In another game I saw us as if from above, even as I stood in place living out my childhood and knowing it, aware of myself as if from above and behind, skinny and exultant on the street. We were silent, waiting or running, spread out on the pale street like infantry, stilled as scouts, relaxed and knowing. Someone hit the ball, someone silent far up the street caught it on the bounce; we moved aside, clearing a path. Carefully the batter laid down the’bat perpendicular to the street. Carefully the hushed player up the street rolled the ball down to the bat. The rolled ball hit the bat and flew up unpredictably; the batter missed his catch; he and the fielder switched positions: Indian Ball.

And there were no roads at all. And the trees were very tall.

By day my friend Pin Ford and I played at being Indians. She was my age, an only child who lived two doors up.

As Indians Pin and I explored the wooded grounds of the Presbyterian seminary at our backyards. We made bows and arrows; we peeled and straightened deadfall sticks for arrows and cut, stealthily, green boughs to bend for bows. With string we rigged our mothers’ Chesterfield cartons over our shoulders as quivers. We shot our bows. We threw knives at targets and played knife-throwing games. We walked as the Indians had walked, stirring no leaves, snapping no twigs. We built an Indian village, Navajo-style, under the seminary’s low copper beech: we baked clay bricks on slate roofing tiles set on adobe walls around a twiggy fire. We named trees; we searched the sky for omens, inspected the ground for signs.

We came home and found our blonde mothers tanning on chaises longues by the backyard pool. They held silvered cardboard reflectors up to their flung-back chins. Over their closed eyelids they had placed red and blue eye-shaped plastic cups, joined over the nose.

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