Stories from PA History
The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania
The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania
Overview: The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania

In 1758, a party of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchmen attacked the homestead of the Jemison family on Marsh Creek, near modern-day Chambersburg. The Jemisons had emigrated from Ireland sixteen years earlier and settled on the Pennsylvania frontier. Like many of their Scots-Irish countrymen, they were drawn to Pennsylvania by its reputation as "the best poor man's country:" the land was cheap and plentiful, taxes were low, and no state church hounded religious dissenters.
This painting by Robert Griffing depicts the kidnapping of colonist Mary Jemison by Shawnee Indians and French raiders.
The Taking of Mary Jemison, by Robert Griffing.

Approximately 100,000 Scots-Irish emigrants came to North America from Northern Ireland between 1718 and 1775, the vast majority of them stepping ashore in the Delaware River ports of Philadelphia or New Castle. They did not stay there for long. The quickest way to acquire the property and independent livelihood these newcomers craved was to move west, into the frontier region of the lower Susquehanna Valley.

Emigrants such as the Jemisons faced a hardscrabble life on the frontier. Pennsylvania had a thriving commercial economy, but settlers would be hard pressed to find evidence of that prosperity once they crossed the Susquehanna. New arrivals like the Jemisons lived in log homes far removed from centers of trade and survived on the corn and livestock they raised. They formed churches in their Presbyterian faith, but ministers were hard to find and even harder to keep. Nor did the colony's courts or government seem to have much authority on this frontier; the Scots-Irish quickly acquired a reputation for lawlessness among Pennsylvania's German and English inhabitants. The Jemisons may have lived within 150 miles of Philadelphia, but in terms of their culture, economy, and society, they lived in a world apart from Pennsylvania's other colonial inhabitants.

Some of those other Pennsylvanians half-jokingly suggested that the Scots-Irish had more in common with their Indian neighbors than other colonists. The Indians would have disagreed. Indian peoples from a number of nations-Delaware, Susquehannock, Conoy, Tuscarora, and Shawnee-had settled in the Susquehanna Valley in the early eighteenth century. Most came there after being displaced by expanding colonial populations elsewhere in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. They formed new communities in villages such as Conestoga and Shamokin and became important participants in Pennsylvania's fur trade. In diplomatic councils with colonial leaders, these Indians often reminded their counterparts of William Penn's pledge to always deal peacefully and fairly with them.
A 1756 map of the Pennsylvania area, with an enlarged detail of the territory in dispute during the war, then considered the western frontier. The path highlighted in red shows the approximate route General Braddock followed towards Fort Duquesne in his failed attempt to defeat French forces there. The route in blue shows the primitive Raystown Indian and Traders Path that General Forbes followed in 1758 to successfully capture the fort.
A 1756 map of the Pennsylvania area, with an enlarged detail of the territory...

Penn's successors were not so principled. Fraudulent land purchases by Penn's heirs, such as the Walking Purchase of 1737, had disillusioned eastern Delawares, and the incoming tide of Scots-Irish newcomers convinced many Indians in the Susquehanna Valley to relocate further west to the Ohio Country, where they could live apart from colonial neighbors and still find bountiful game for the fur trade.

By the time the Jemisons arrived in Pennsylvania in 1742, the professions of friendship that Indians and colonists exchanged at treaty conferences in Conestoga, Lancaster, and Philadelphia had started to ring hollow, and shady land purchases and unchecked settlement on the frontier were souring European-Indian relations within the colony.

The Jemison family discovered just how badly those relations had deteriorated on that fateful morning in 1758. The French and Indian raiders spared sixteen-year old Mary, but they killed and scalped her mother, father, and three of her siblings. So began an odyssey for Mary that would take her even deeper into the Pennsylvania wilderness. Her captors carried her to Fort Duquesne, the French post at "the Forks," where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio.

There, two sisters of the Seneca nation who had lost a brother in the war adopted Mary as his replacement. They took her downriver to an Indian village, where they washed and dressed her and gave her a new name, Dickewamis. Within a year, her new sisters arranged her marriage to a Delaware Indian, with whom she had two children. A few years later, Mary moved from the Ohio Country with her new family to the Genesee Valley of New York. She never returned to Pennsylvania or European society.

Jemison's story renders in miniature the multifaceted conflict that tore apart colonial Pennsylvania between 1754 and 1764. Historians generally refer to this conflict as the Seven Years' War, a name that derives from a European rather than American perspective on the hostilities: Britain and France declared war on each other in 1756 and made peace in 1763. Americans of the Revolutionary Era called it "the Old French War" or "the French and Indian War," but those names obscure the conflict as much as clarify it, because there were several Anglo-French conflicts in North America prior to the Revolution and Indian peoples participated in them in no uniform manner: in each conflict, some Indians were pro-French, some pro-British, and some neutral.

The British had promised to withdraw from the Ohio Country after they defeated the French, but instead constructed Fort Pitt and turned the land around it into settlements. This painting by Robert Griffing depicts the Indians looking down upon the fort and the beginnings of the city of Pittsburgh, and realizing the British are not leaving, but instead are taking over.
The Eastern Frontier, by Robert Griffing.
Of course, debates over the proper name of the conflict mattered little to the people who lived through it. For someone like Mary Jemison, this decade of warfare involved a variety of peoples who fought in a variety of ways, from European armies that cut roads through the wilderness to build forts on strategic waterways, to Native Americans who conducted raids against colonial homesteads for scalps and captives, to colonial militias and vigilantes who attacked and in some cases murdered Indians regardless of their political sympathies.

Mary Jemison's story illustrates this confusion of peoples, motives, and tactics. She was taken captive by Shawnee warriors, adopted by Seneca sisters, and married to a Delaware husband. These three groups – the Shawnee, Delawares, and Senecas – claimed the region surrounding the Forks of the Ohio as their own. The British referred to them collectively as the "Ohio Indians". That designation reflected not a cultural or linguistic uniformity, but a common claim to the land of western Pennsylvania and a shared interest in defending it from interlopers.

The first of those interlopers were the French, whom Mary encountered with her Shawnee captors and at Fort Duquesne, their base of operations in the Ohio Country. For the French, the Allegheny-Ohio watershed was a highway that linked their imperial dominions in Canada and Louisiana. By asserting their possession of the Forks of the Ohio, they would be able to secure a passageway through North America that would make the continent's interior their own.

The British, however, had their own designs on the Ohio Country. Pennsylvania and Virginia were populous colonies overflowing with newcomers like the Jemison family, pushing west for new land to settle, but these two colonies were too busy competing against each other to mount a coordinated response to the French. Virginia claimed that the Ohio Country fell within its western borders, and wealthy speculators were anxious to assert ownership of lands there before squatters pre-empted them.

Pennsylvania also claimed the Ohio Country as part of its territory, and fur traders from that colony had been doing business in the region since the late 1740s. When a young Virginian militia officer named George Washington led an expedition to the Forks of the Ohio in 1754, he was moving against the Pennsylvanians as much as the French, trying to secure his colony's claim to the region against all others, whether they be Indian or European, French or British.

Washington's humiliating defeat, at the hands of the French, touched off an international crisis that became the Seven Years' War. While this war had many theaters around the globe, much of its blood and treasure were spilled in the contest between the British, French, and Indians for control over the Ohio Country. In 1755, General Edward Braddock led a British army into the Pennsylvania wilderness to take Fort Duquesne, only to be decimated by a French and Indian force a few miles from the fort. In 1758, General John Forbes cut his own route across southern Pennsylvania from Carlisle to the Forks, forcing the French to abandon Fort Duquesne and making possible the construction of Fort Pitt, a fortress designed to cement British supremacy in the region. 
Illustration of the fort
Fort Pitt (Pennsylvania), map published in 1765, drawn by John Rocque.

The Ohio Indians were still intent on defending their homelands. The British had promised to withdraw from the Ohio Country after they defeated the French, but the construction of Fort Pitt and the occupation of former French posts by British troops indicated otherwise. As the Seven Years' War ended in the Ohio Country, Indian prophets such as the Delaware Neolin emerged, preaching a rejection of European trade goods and religion and a return to old ways and rituals, so that the Indians might wean themselves from dependence on the fur trade and return proper balance to their material and spiritual worlds.

One Indian inspired by Neolin's message was Pontiac, an Ottawa who encouraged Algonquian Indians from the Great Lakes region to take up arms against the British who now occupied former French posts. Pontiac's siege of the British fort at Detroit inspired a wave of similar Indian resistance throughout the Great Lakes and Ohio regions that once again plunged western Pennsylvania into violence and chaos. This time, British rhetoric and tactics escalated to the point of endorsing germ warfare and calling for the total destruction of all Indians, regardless of their disposition toward the British.

Like so many other colonial and native inhabitants of the Pennsylvania frontier, Mary Jemison was swept up into the maelstrom that shook western Pennsylvania from 1754 to 1764. Her home was pillaged, her family destroyed, and her life irrevocably changed. She passed through Fort Duquesne as a colonial captive one year and returned the next to Fort Pitt as a Seneca Indian. Unlike many of her fellow captives, Mary was never redeemed; she was not among the approximately 300 captives recovered by the British when hostilities finally ceased in 1764.

Even in that exception, Mary Jemison's story is emblematic of the transformation the Seven Years' War wrought in Pennsylvania. She had crossed a line between European and native societies and could not turn back. Likewise, the violence of these war years was so severe that Pennsylvania's Indian and colonial inhabitants could no longer live peaceably together. William Penn's colony would never recover its founder's vision of brotherly love between native and newcomer. After the British planted themselves at the Forks of the Ohio, Mary Jemison and the rest of the Ohio Indians would have to look elsewhere for a home. As for the British, they would find that governing an American empire was more difficult than conquering one.

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