Teach PA History
A Shot in the Backwoods of Pennsylvania Sets the World Afire
Background Information for Teachers

The French philosopher Voltaire said of the events of May of 1754 that "a shot fired in the wilderness, set the world ablaze." It is strange to think that the genesis of the first truly world war started in the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania. But in the years leading up to 1754, the conflicting claims to the sovereignty over the Ohio Country began to increase the tension between France and Great Britain, as well as the Native Americans who lived there.

By 1750, the French and English colonies in North America were more than a 150 years old, but most of the interior of the continent was unknown to Europeans. The French, through their voyagers (traders) had a better understanding of the Native Americans who peopled this area than did their English counterparts. Setting up trading posts through out the Ohio Country, the French linked their North American Empire together with forts and Jesuit missions. This French web covered an area from the St. Lawrence River to present day state of Minnesota, and as far down the Mississippi River as New Orleans. The French traders, the coureurs de bois (runners of the woods) recognized that the French foothold over this vast area was very weak. There was simply too much forest and too few Frenchmen to hold it.

For the British colonists along the Atlantic coast, their growing population (they had about ten times the population of New France) caused them to cast longing eyes at the lands that lay west of the Allegheny Mountains. At this time the majority of British colonists were small farmers, they looked at the rich land that lay beyond the mountains and saw, at least in their minds, at how poorly used it was by the Native Americans. The British colonists saw the opportunity that could be gained by opening up this new land and bringing their idea of "civilized use" to these virgin areas. Throughout the early 1720s, English traders had begun to cross the Alleghenies into the Ohio Country and trade with the Native Americans there. The Native Americans were attracted by the cheap cost of the English manufactured goods and started to demand more of them. This English intrusion into what had at one time been a strictly French monopoly was bitterly resented by the French.

To the Native Americans who lived in the Ohio Country, the disputes between the European powers over who actually owned the land and trading rights placed them between the proverbial "rock and a hard place." Both French and English settlement and the resulting trade brought change to the Native Americans, and this change would ultimately end in disaster for them. European traders brought fantastic things with them: metal tools and weapons, cloth, iron pots and pans, needles, buttons and beads, as well as mirrors and cosmetics. All of these manufactured goods impacted the Native American culture in ways that they could not foresee. Quite simply, the Native Americans would be fighting to save their culture, their lands and their right to simply exist.


"George Washington: The Unknown Years." Discovery Channel Videos. "When The Forest Ran Red." Paladin Communications Videos.

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