The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson

Professor Anderson is the author of Crucible of War, a 900-page history of the Seven Years War and its effect on North America. This is a shorter version of the same history. It’s not a great book, but it tells an interesting story.

Like most Americans, I know very little about the Seven Years War. For example, I didn’t realize that: the French and Indian War that occurred in North America between 1755 and 1763 was one part of the Seven Years War, which is considered to be the first “world war”; an inexperienced George Washington, leading a troop of soldiers as a representative of England, tried to remove the French from the area now known as Pittsburgh, and this failed attempt was the spark that set off the global Seven Years War; various Indian nations engaged in complex diplomatic relations with both the English and the French, and Indian warriors were crucial  participants on both sides of the war; The Last of the Mohicans was based on a battle and subsequent massacre that occurred near Lake George in upstate New York; the battles fought in America and Canada often involved thousands of troops and sometimes fleets of warships; in 1763 the victorious English formally declared all of the territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi to be, in the words of one cartographer, “Lands Reserved For The Indians” (we know how that worked out).

According to Anderson, the French and Indian War had two major effects: revolution and westward expansion. The victorious English concluded that they could “exercise power over the colonists without restraint”, while the colonists, having participated in the victory as loyal Englishmen, concluded that they were “equal partners in the empire”. These conflicting views helped set the stage for the American revolution a decade later. And, with the disappearance of the French, the Indians lost an important counterbalance to the English, in particular, access to French-supplied guns and ammunition. The colonists wanted more land and the Indians lacked the power to resist.

Hence, Anderson’s subtitle: “the war that made America”.  (8/2/11)

The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore

The Name of War is a study of King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict in New England that began in 1675. “King Philip” was a name given to Metacom, an Indian who lead the fight against the English colonists. Lepore doesn’t focus on the war’s chronology. She is concerned with the war’s meaning, which she discusses in relatively academic terms (“the consequences of literacy, the power of print, the negotiation of identity, the suppleness of memory”). Her principal conclusion is that the Indians never got a chance to tell their side of the story — they didn’t win and didn’t write books. Many of those who survived the war didn’t even get to stay in America — they were loaded onto ships and sold into slavery in the West Indies. 

King Philip’s War was the subject of popular memoirs, histories and theatrical performances (none written by Indians) for almost 200 years. But it’s not clear how much the war affected American perceptions of the Indians as the years went by. Many residents of New England opposed Andrew Jackson’s policy of removing Indians from their homes in the South during the 1830’s, even though their English ancestors had accomplished pretty much the same thing years before.  (7/11/11)

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Pilgrims sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620. Mayflower tells the story of the voyage but mainly concerns what happened after the Pilgrims landed. The story ends in 1676 with the conclusion of King Philip’s War between the English and the American Indians (also known as Indians and Americans). 

I didn’t know that the Pilgrims were supposed to land near the Hudson River, not in Massachusetts (that famous meal might have been in Hoboken, New Jersey). I also didn’t know that the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod and spent a month there before settling in Plymouth. Or that most of them died of starvation and disease. Or that there was a second ship (the Fortune), the arrival of which doubled the population of Plymouth. Or that the Puritans considered marriage to be a civil ceremony, not a religious one, since the Bible doesn’t mention ministers conducting weddings. 

I did know that many of the Pilgrims lived in Holland before coming to America and that they came to America seeking religious freedom for themselves, not for other people. They wanted everyone to practice religion as they did. 

I kept wanting to tell the Indians to be careful. It is surprising to read how much the Indians did for the Pilgrims, how many Indians converted to Christianity, and how many of them were willing to fight with the Pilgrims against other Indians. If only they had known that they were going to be overrun by their new neighbors. But that result was probably inevitable, since America was such a tempting target for colonization by the English, French, Spanish and Dutch. 

The book is unnecessarily long and contains too much detail, too many names, and too many comings and goings. The most interesting character in the book is Benjamin Church, who is considered the unofficial founder of the US Army Rangers. He was an Indian fighter who learned from the Indians and treated them with respect and compassion. 

The Pilgrims were lucky to survive. It might have been better if they hadn’t, since the Indians (the Americans) were in some ways more honorable and civilized than they were. (5/23/11)