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The Seven Years' War: background and combatants

The Seven Years' War, also known as the French and Indian War, was a global conflict fought between 1754 and 1763. It influenced the American Revolution, led to Canada becoming British, and made England the world's leading empire. The war involved many nations, including Native American tribes, with battles taking place across continents.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] When we're talking about major wars in colonial North America, we tend to think about the American Revolution, not its earlier iteration, the Seven Years' War, and I think that's a shame because the Seven Years' War was incredibly influential not only on the American Revolution, but on the complexion of the world. Thanks to the Seven Years' War, Canada became a British country, not a French country. The Acadians moved down to Louisiana and became known as the Cajuns, and most importantly, England became the world's preeminent empire. So if you've been following along this far, you may have noticed two things. One, that the people who named this war seem to be very bad at math because 1754 to 1763 is nine years, not seven, and that this war seems to have two names, both the Seven Years' War and the French and Indian War, which is a name you perhaps have heard before. Well, lemme tackle those two oddities in reverse order. So not only does the Seven Years' War have two names, it has a whole number of names. It's called the Seven Years' War, the French and Indian War, the War of the Conquest, the Pomeranian War, the Third Silesian War, the Third Carnatic War. This is a war with a whole bunch of names, and the reason that it has a whole bunch of names is that it was fought in a whole bunch of places. The Seven Years' War was really the first global war, and we're talking 150 years before World War One. Aspects of the Seven Years' War, as you can kinda see from this map, were fought in Europe, in South America, the coast of Africa, in India, the Philippines, and of course, in North America. The many different names come from the many different fronts of this war, and I would say that French and Indian War is actually the name for the North American front of this war, or theater of this war. So there are two reasons why I think Seven Years' War is a better name than French and Indian War. One is that Seven Years' War gets at the idea that it was not just happening in North America. It was happening all over the world, so it shows that it was a global war, but I also think Seven Years' War is a better name than French and Indian War because I think French and Indian War is kind of confusing because you would think that it means that the principal parties in this war were the English versus the French and the Indians, when in fact it was the English and their Indian allies versus the French and their Indian allies. Native Americans fought on both sides of this conflict, so rather than the English and Indian versus French and Indian War, let's go with the shorter Seven Years' War, which brings us back to our awkward date range. So the reason that it's called the Seven Years' War is because the English didn't actually declare war on the French until 1756. So even though fighting started a little bit earlier in North America, the true range of dates, at least in legal terms, is from 1756 to 1763, or seven years. It's a complicated name for a complicated war, but really what it came down to was England and France duking it out over who was going to be the supreme imperial power in the world, and they were concerned about who was going to have the most territory in the world, therefore, their concern over who was going to control North America and their competing claims here, and also access to trade. So who was going to be able to trade with North Americans? Who was going to be able to trade with the lucrative Indian subcontinent, and who would be the leading power in Europe? So let's dial in a little closer on the North American theater of this war, which will have the most effect on the future United States. Alright, so here is map of territorial claims by European powers in North America before the Seven Years' War. Now you can see that there are some places where they overlap, which is really gonna be the heart of the problem in this conflict. So England, shown here in red, I'm gonna outline it a bit, was, as you know from your early American history, here along the eastern seaboard of what's today the United States, and also up into Canada. France claimed this interior region of Canada and today of the territorial United States, and Spain was in the mix here. Remember Spain has still been a fairly influential colonial power in Florida and in contemporary Mexico, and also down here in Cuba and South America. Alright, so we've got three major European powers in the mix here in North America, England, France, and Spain, but what this map doesn't show is the American Indian powers, who are also in this area. So most of this region really west of the Appalachian mountains, is Indian country, and the majority of inhabitants were Native Americans, and they really held the majority of power in this region as well. So major Native American groups that are in play in this conflict are Iroquois Confederacy, and also Cherokees, Hurons, Algonquians, Abenakis, and Mi'kmaqs, and that's just a small sampling. So you can see that there are a number of important Native American tribes who are specifically in this area of Canada, which is disputed, and also moving in the greater Appalachian region. So what does each of these groups want? Well, England definitely wants territory. They want to make sure that they're English settlers along the eastern seaboard, whom we'll soon be calling Americans, have room to expand. The French wanna make sure that they still have access to trade with Native Americans because their main concern is fur, which is a very valuable commodity in Europe, and Spain wants to make sure that they have access to their sugar islands and also their precious metals in the Caribbean and in South America. Now it's worth noting, 'cause I think this is really interesting to students of American history, that all of this territory, all of North America, was way less valuable than all of this territory because we're not talking about just value in land. We're talking about value in commodities, and what the Caribbean had was sugar, and sugar is the most valuable crop in this time period. So a tiny island down here in the Bahamas is probably worth more to a European power than the entire interior of North America, and what do these Native American groups want? Well, some of them want help with revenge on each other. Many other smaller Native American groups have been displaced by the Iroquois, who are here in upstate New York, kind of Quebec region. So the Iroquois is actually expanding and really defending their claim as the largest Native American empire, but the other thing that they want is to make sure that their territory is no longer encroached upon by English settlers in particular. Now one mistake I see early students of U.S. history making is thinking that all Native Americans kind of shared a cultural and political bond, right? That they saw themselves as one larger people who had to unite against the encroachment of Europeans, and that was definitely not the case. Native Americans had been living in this territory for thousands of years, and they had enemies and beef with other groups that went back way longer than the arrival of Europeans in North America. So when nations like England and France arrived with their weapons and their trade goods, the American Indians didn't look at each other and say, "Oh wait, now we're all one race. "We need to join together against "the encroachment of whites." They saw England and France and Spain as possible avenues to getting one up on their older enemies. So when an English trader sold a gun to, say, a Huron, he was way more likely to go after, say, the Iroquois with that gun than he was to go after a French trader. So another reason why the Seven Years' War is a better name for the French and Indian War than French and Indian War is because these Native American groups did not ally all with France. In fact, the Iroquois and Cherokee ended up allied with England, and most of the other Native American groups ended up allied with France, but they were fighting each other in addition to fighting England. Alright, so the stage is set for this conflict with all of these competing groups in this unclear territory, and how this turns into a war, we'll get to in the next video.