Coalition Warfare in mid-Eighteenth Century Canada: The Franco-Amerindian Alliance during the War of the Austrian Succession.

read at the annual meeting of The Society for Military History, Royal Military College, Kingston, 22 May, 1993.


When you look at a map of eighteenth century North America in a survey text, you will generally find that there is a large section marked French empire.

This is in fact, rather misleading.

The French themselves occupied only the St. Lawrence valley.

The remainder of this territory was occupied and controlled by the Amerindian allies of the French Crown.

This afternoon, I am going to be speaking on some of the military aspects of the Franco- Amerindian alliance.

In particular, on the use of this alliance to mobilize Amerindian military support for French imperial objectives during the War of the Austrian Succession, between 1744 and 1748.

The Three Fires and the French

Among the most important of the allies of the French were the Ojibwas, Ottawas, and Potawatomis, of the Great Lakes region.

By the mid-eighteenth century, these nations had formed an alliance which was known as "The Three Fires Confederacy" or "Council of the Three Fires."

A French enumeration in 1736 credited the Three Fires with a total of about twelve hundred fighters

four hundred and eighty Ojibwas, four hundred and sixty Ottawas, and two hundred and twenty Potawatomis.

in contrast, in 1748, the French regular garrison in Canada numbered only seven hundred and twenty-four.

the Three Fires were thus a formidable entity, whose assistance carried real weight in the balance of power.

The French in the mid-1740s badly needed this assistance.

In their wars with the British in North America, the French consistently relied upon their Amerindian allies to provide military support.

This support helped to compensate for the numerical advantage of their British rivals.

But the most important thing to remember about the Three Fires with regard to Anglo-French rivalry is that they themselves had no interest in conflict with the British.

Other Amerindian groups, like the Abenakis in the east, had been under pressure from the British of New England since the seventeenth century.

They shared with the French a common desire to limit British territorial expansion.

The Three Fires, on the other hand, were threatened by neither New York, nor New England, nor Pennsylvania.

The British in New York and New England were far away.

Pennsylvania traders operating south of Lake Erie were valued commercial partners.

The result was that their alliance with the French was an alliance between parties with different strategic interests.

between parties who could not cooperate to achieve a common goal, since they did not share one.

The Three Fires were, nonetheless, linked to the French by a complex web of reciprocal obligations

these obligations included the right to request military assistance from an ally.

Moreover, participation in war as allies of the French conferred positive benefits upon the Three Fires.

These nations lived by a combination of hunting, fishing, and agriculture.

but adult males saw themselves as warriors.

War, for Amerindian men was an activity in which participants sought status and personal fulfillment.

They could attain this status and fulfillment equally well from fighting a rival native group, like the Dakota, or the British enemies of the French.

There was, however, one important difference between fighting on their own account and fighting for the French.

War was expensive.

Its cost to Amerindians was measured both in terms of foregone production, since men who were off fighting were not hunting and fishing, and the expenditure or destruction of ammunition, weapons, clothing, and other equipment.

The French, however, paid the expenses of warriors fighting the British on their behalf.

They supplied and repaired weapons; provided food, munitions, and equipment; and cared for the families of fighters.

The goods and services supplied by the French thus subsidized traditional military practices used by warriors for recreation and prestige.

So, during the War of the Austrian Succession, when the French approached the Three Fires for help, these communities were prepared to listen.

The Three Fires and the White River

This afternoon, I am going to very briefly outline two requests made by the French to the Three Fires in the 1740s, and the Amerindian responses.

During the War of the Austrian Succession, the French faced the British on two fronts in the interior of North America.

First, to the south of Lake Erie, there was the area in the vicinity of modern Cleveland known to the French as the White River.

Here, over a period of several years, the French had become steadily more alarmed by the presence of traders from Pennsylvania.

These traders had crossed the Appalachians and established a commercial sphere of influence south of the Great Lakes.

the French first attempted to persuade the Amerindians of the White River, to expel the Pennsylvanians

this proved unsuccessful, and in 1744, the French turned to the use of force.

They looked to their allies among the Three Fires living in the vicinity of Detroit to provide the military power for this operation.

Both the governor general, at a conference in Montreal, and the commandant of Detroit, asked the Three Fires to attack the Pennsylvanians on the White River.

In each case, the response of the Three Fires was a diplomatic expression of willingness to cooperate with the French.

"I am," wrote the governor general, "persuaded that they will take action this winter ... against the English establishments."

However, the tangible response of the Three Fires to this request was in fact very limited.

On 17 September, 1744, a single war party of thirty-five Ottawas from Detroit, left for the White River.

They were expected, said the governor general, to seek out the Pennsylvania traders and "to pillage them, destroy them, or make them prisoners."

In the event, however, the Ottawas made no attempt to interfere with the activities of the Pennsylvanians.

Upon their arrival at the White River, they found that the local Amerindians were strongly opposed to this venture.

Had the Ottawas taken unilateral action against the Pennsylvanians, they could easily have found themselves involved in war with the Amerindians of the White River.

The Ottawas were apparently disinclined to take this risk simply to oblige the French.

No amount of personal fulfillment was worth the costs of incurring the enmity of close neighbours.

By inviting the Three Fires to fight in the White River, the French had created a situation where French and Amerindian interests diverged.

The Amerindians of Detroit wanted peace with their immediate neighbours.

The French wanted them to attack the Pennsylvanian trading partners of these neighbours.

Moreover, many Amerindians from the Detroit area themselves traded with British on the White River or at Oswego, on Lake Ontario.

they had no particular objection to their presence in the west.

The French continued to attempt to persuade The Three Fires to attack the Pennsylvanians on the White River, but without success.

the French did not manage to send an effective Amerindian expedition into the region south of Lake Erie until 1752.

then, they made use of Ottawas from Michilimakinac, comfortably distant from the Amerindian trading partners of the Pennsylvanians.

—French efforts to mobilize the Three Fires in the west in the 1740s were thus a complete failure.

This did not, however, indicate any breakdown of the alliance between the French and the Three Fires.

The Three Fires in Canada

For between 1745 and 1748, even as the Three Fires continued to refuse to fight on the White River, contingents of Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi warriors were travelling to Canada to fight alongside the French.

—these fighters came in response to annual French requests to participate in the war on the Canadian frontier.

the leader of the French delegation to the Three Fires in 1747 summed up their response to these requests when he reported that:

"...all of the nations that he visited displayed considerable good will, and [agreed] with pleasure to descend to Montreal."

In 1745, at least sixty Ojibwa and Ottawa warriors from Michilimakinac took part in preparations for the defence of Quebec against an apprehended invasion after the fall of Louisbourg.

throughout the remainder of the war, fighters from the Three Fires were active on Canada's Lake Champlain frontier.

in 1746, for example, at least seventy-nine Ojibwas, one hundred and eleven Ottawas, and sixty- four Potawatomis participated in operations in this area.

they took part in patrols near French forts, scouting parties, and raids against the forts and settlements of New York and New England.

So in each year of the War of the Austrian Succession after 1744, the Three Fires were active participants in the war on the southern frontier of Canada.

Now just why were the Three Fires so willing to travel to Canada to fight, when they refused to do so on the White River.

The answer appears to be that they could fight in Canada without risk or expense to themselves.

They were willing to fight for the French for as long as doing so did not threaten their own interests.

Fighting on the White River did threaten these interests.

fighting in Canada did not.

For the Three Fires, the British of New York and New England were ideal enemies.

They themselves had no particular quarrel with these colonies ...

... but the economic costs of participation in war against the British were borne by the French.

Moreover, they could be reasonably certain that the British would not retaliate.

Not only were New York and New England comfortably distant from the Great Lakes, but the British themselves sought the trade and alliance, not the enmity, of the nations of the Three Fires.


So what do these two incidents reveal about the military aspects of the Franco-Amerindian alliance.

First of all, they demonstrate the effectiveness of this alliance in generating Amerindian military support for French imperial goals.

In the course of the War of the Austrian Succession, the alliance mobilized annual contingents of warriors willing to fight alongside the French.

These warriors stood by the French to defend Quebec against an expected British invasion, and took part in French-sponsored raids into British territory.

Second, these incidents reveal something of the conditions under which this mobilization could occur.

The French were able to mobilize a large and effective Amerindian force, but only if it were directed against a target that was acceptable to their allies.

The French were the allies, not the masters, of their Amerindian partners, and issued invitations, not orders to go to war.

Amerindian acceptance depended upon whether or not the proposed French course of action accorded with their interests and their inclinations.

At times, they elected to comply with French requests.

But this seeming passivity stemmed not from subordination but indifference.

As long as their real concerns lay elsewhere, Amerindians were content to allow the French to lead for as long as French objectives did not conflict with Amerindian goals.

They were thus quite willing to travel hundreds of kilometres to go to war on Canada's southern frontier, but refused to allow the French to involve them in conflicts closer to home.

The ability of Amerindians to grant or refuse French requests to go to war gave them a veto over French military action, insofar as this action depended upon their cooperation.

The French were thus able to mount a successful partisan campaign against New York and New England, while Pennsylvania traders on the White River went about their business undisturbed.

In other words, military alliance with the French did not entail any loss of sovereignty or independence for Amerindians.

Instead, it provided them with an opportunity to demonstrate the power that they wielded and the influence they could exercise over the course of events in eighteenth century North America.

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Copyright © 1993, 2001 D. Peter MacLeod

The bottom center image is a detail from David Rickman, Eastern Woodland Indians, middle of the eighteenth century, Department of National Defence.