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Colonial American military history is the military record of the Thirteen Colonies from their founding to the American Revolution in 1775.

George Washington in 1772 as colonel of the Virginia Regiment; painting by Charles Willson Peale


Rangers in North America served in the 17th and 18th-century wars between colonists and Native American tribes. The British regulars were not accustomed to frontier warfare and so Ranger companies were developed. Rangers were full-time soldiers employed by colonial governments to patrol between fixed frontier fortifications in reconnaissance providing early warning of raids. In offensive operations, they were scouts and guides, locating villages and other targets for task forces drawn from the militia or other colonial troops.

The father of American ranging is Colonel Benjamin Church (c. 1639–1718).[1] He was the captain of the first Ranger force in America (1676).[2] Church was commissioned by the Governor of the Plymouth Colony Josiah Winslow to form the first ranger company for King Philip's War. He later employed the company to raid Acadia during King William's War and Queen Anne's War.

Benjamin Church designed his force primarily to emulate Native American patterns of war. Toward this end, Church endeavored to learn to fight like Native Americans from Native Americans.[1] Americans became rangers exclusively under the tutelage of the Indian allies. (Until the end of the colonial period, rangers depended on Indians as both allies and teachers.)[3] Church developed a special full-time unit mixing white colonists selected for frontier skills with friendly Native Americans to carry out offensive strikes against hostile Native Americans in terrain where normal militia units were ineffective. Under Church served the father and grandfather of two famous rangers of the eighteenth century: John Lovewell and John Gorham respectively.[4] Rogers' Rangers was established in 1751[5] by Major Robert Rogers, who organized nine Ranger companies in the American colonies. These early American light infantry units, organized during the French and Indian War, were actively called "Rangers" and are often considered to be the spiritual birthplace of the modern Army Rangers.


The beginning of the United States military lies in local governments which created militias that enrolled nearly all free white men. British regular army and Royal handled international wars. In major operations outside the local jusrisdiction, the militia was not employed as a fighting force. Instead the colony asked for (and paid) volunteers (i.e., Rangers), many of whom were also militia members. After the local Indian threat ended (in most places by 1725), the militia system was little used, except for local ceremonial roles. At the end of the colonial era, as the American Revolution approached, the militia system was revived, weapons were accumulated, and intensive training began. The militia played a major fighting role in the Revolution, especially in expelling the British from Boston in 1776 and capturing the invading British army at Saratoga in 1777. However most of the fighting was handled by the Continental Army, comprising regular soldiers.[6]

Indian wars

In the early years of the British colonization of North America, military action in the colonies that would later become the United States were the result of conflicts with Native Americans, such as in the Pequot War of 1637, King Philip's War in 1675, the Susquehannock war in 1675–77,[7] and the Yamasee War in 1715. Father Rale's War (1722–1725) happened in Maine and Nova Scotia. There also occurred slave uprisings such as the Stono Rebellion in 1739. Finally, there was Father Le Loutre's War, which also involved Acadians, in the lead up to the French and Indian War.

Dutch wars

Kieft's War was a conflict between Dutch settlers and Indians in the colony of New Netherland from 1643 to 1645. The fighting involved raids and counter-raids. It was bloody in proportion to the population; more than 1,600 natives were killed at a time when the European population of New Amsterdam was only 250.

Spanish wars

The British fought the Spanish in the War of Jenkins' Ear, 1739–1748. After 1742 the war merged into the larger War of the Austrian Succession involving most of the powers of Europe. Georgia beat back a Spanish invasion of Georgia in 1742, and some sporadic border fighting continued. The war merged into King George's War, which ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

France and Britain at war

Beginning in 1689, the colonies also frequently became involved in a series of four major wars between Britain and France for control of North America, the most important of which were Queen Anne's War, in which the British won French Acadia (Nova Scotia), and the final French and Indian War (1754–1763), when France lost all of Canada. This final war was to give thousands of colonists, including George Washington, military experience which they put to use during the American Revolution.

Britain and France fought a series of four French and Indian Wars—followed in 1778 with another war when France joined the Americans in the American Revolution. The French settlers in New France were outnumbered 15–1 by the 13 American colonies,[8] so the French relied heavily on Indian allies.

The wars were long and bloody, causing immense suffering for everyone involved. In the long run the Indians were the biggest losers; many were on the losing side, as Spain and France were defeated. When the British finally won full control the Indian power was sharply limited. Frontier settlers were exposed to sudden Indian raids; many were killed or captured, and even more were forced back from the frontier. One profitable form of wartime activity in which colonists engaged was privateering—legalized piracy against enemy merchant ships. Another was hunting enemy Indians for the purpose of scalping them and claiming the cash bounty offered by colonial governments.[9]

King William's War: 1689–1697

"I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouth of my cannons and muskets." Frontenac famously rebuffs the English envoys at the Battle of Quebec (1690)

King William's War (1689–97), also known as the "Nine Years War" and the "War of the League of Augsburg" was a phase of the larger Anglo-French conflict for colonial domination throughout the world. By raiding settlements in south of present-day Maine, New France and the Wabanaki Confederacy were able to thwart New England expansion into Acadia, whose border New France defined as the Kennebec River in southern Maine.[10] With his New England militia, Sir William Phips moved in 1690 to take the French strongholds at Port Royal and at Quebec, the latter commanded by Comte de Frontenac, the governor of New France. Phip's conquered the capital of Acadia and various other communities in the colony (e.g., Battle of Chedabucto). (Present-day Maine and New Brunswick remained contested territories between New England and New France.) Phips's written ultimatum demanding Fontenac's surrender at Quebec prompted Frontenac to say his reply would come only 'from the mouths of my cannon and muskets.' Having to reckon with Quebec's formidable natural defenses, its superior number of soldiers, and the coming of winter, Phips sailed back to Boston with his hungry, smallpox-ridden, and demoralized force. His failure shows a growing recognition of the need to replicate European combat techniques and move closer to England's war policy in order to achieve military success.[11]

Iroquois Six Nations c. 1720

The Iroquois suffered heavily in King William's War and were brought, along with other western Indians, into the French trading network. The colonist treatment of Indian tribes after King Philip's War led directly the Wabanaki tribe's involvement in the war. Unlike tribes in southern New England, it retained significant power relative to the colonists and rejected attempts to exert authority over them. Treaties made during 1678–84 included concessions to Indian sovereignty, but such concessions were largely ignored in practice. Expanding settlements fueled tensions and led to Indian threats of a repeat of the violence of King Philip's War and offered an opportunity to the French, who wanted to counter English influence in the region. The lack of stability and authority evidenced by the imprisonment of Governor Andros in 1689 combined with existing grievances and French encouragement led to Wabanaki attacks on settlements on the Northeast coast, a pattern that would be repeated until the withdrawal of the French in 1763.[12]

Queen Anne's War

Francis Nicholson, commander during the Conquest of Acadia

Queen Anne's War (1702–1713) was the second war for control of the continent and was the counterpart of the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe. The conflict also involved a number of American Indian tribes and Spain, which was allied with France.

Carolina governor James Moore led an unsuccessful attack on St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish Florida, in 1702, and led one of several raiding expeditions that wiped out much of Florida's Indian population in 1704-6. Thomas Nairne, the Province of Carolina's Indian agent, planned an expedition of British soldiers and their Indian allies to destroy the French settlement at Mobile, and the Spanish settlement at Pensacola. The expedition never materialized, but the British did supply their allies with firearms, which the Tallapoosas used in their siege of Pensacola. Although these warriors proved their effectiveness in combining native tactics and European arms, the English failed to compensate them adequately and seriously underestimated their importance as the key to the balance of power in the southeastern interior. Consequently, by 1716 the Tallapoosas and other tribes had shifted allegiance to the other side and prepared to use what they had learned against South Carolina settlements.[13]

The French and Wabanaki Confederacy sought to thwart New England expansion into Acadia, whose border New France defined as the Kennebec River in southern Maine.[10] Toward this end, they executed raids against targets in Massachusetts (including present-day Maine), starting with Northeast Coast Campaign. In 1704 French and Indian forces had attacked a number of villages and Deerfield, Massachusetts, was prepared for an attack. The attack came during the night of 28 February 1704; much of the village was burned, many were killed, and others were taken captive. Seventeen of the captives were killed along the way to Canada as they were injured and could not keep up, and starvation took additional lives. Major Benjamin Church retaliated by raiding Acadia (see Raid on Grand Pre) and captured prisoners for ransom. The most famous Acadian captive being Noel Doiron. Eventually, 53 New England captives returned home, including one of the targets of the invaders, the Reverend John Williams. His accounts of the experience made him famous throughout the colonies.[14] South Carolina was especially vulnerable, and Charleston repulsed an attempted raid by French and Spanish fleets in the summer of 1706. French privateers inflicted serious losses on New England's fishing and shipping industries. The privateering was finally curbed in 1710 when Britain provided military support to its American colonists resulting in the British Conquest of Acadia (which became peninsular Nova Scotia), the main base used by the privateers.[15] The war ended with a British victory in 1713. By the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain gained Acadia, the island of Newfoundland, the Hudson Bay region, and the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. France was required to recognize British authority over the Iroquois.

Following Queen Anne's War, relations between Carolina and the nearby native populations deteriorated, resulting in the Yamasee War of 1715 and Father Rale's War a few years later, which very nearly destroyed the province.

Father Rale's War

In Acadia, however, war continued. Father Rale's War (1722–1725) was a series of battles between New England and the Wabanaki Confederacy, who were allied with New France. New France and the Wabanaki Confederacy defended against the expansion of New England settlements into Acadia, whose border New France defined as the Kennebec River in southern Maine.[16] After the New England Conquest of Acadia in 1710, mainland Nova Scotia was under the control of New England, but both present-day New Brunswick and virtually all of present-day Maine remained contested territory between New England and New France. To secure New France's claim to the region, it established Catholic missions among the three largest native villages in the region: one on the Kennebec River (Norridgewock); one further north on the Penobscot River (Penobscot) and one on the St. John River (Medoctec).[17][18] The war began on two fronts: when New England pushed its way through Maine and when New England established itself at Canso, Nova Scotia. As a result of the war, Maine fell to the New Englanders with the defeat of Father Sébastien Rale at Norridgewock and the subsequent retreat of the native population from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers to St. Francis and Becancour, Quebec.[19]

King George's War

The Capture of Louisburg, 1745 by Peter Monamy

King George's War, 1744–48, was the North American phase of the 1744–1748 War of the Austrian Succession. In 1745, naval and ground forces from Massachusetts in the Siege of Louisbourg captured the strategic French base on Cape Breton Island. During the war, the French made four attempts to regain Acadia by capturing the capital Annapolis Royal. The most famous attempt being the failed Duc d'Anville Expedition. The French regained fortress Louisbourg at the peace treaty. The French led Indian allies in numerous raids, such as the one on Nov. 28, 1745 which destroyed the village of Saratoga, New York, killing and capturing more than one hundred of its inhabitants. The war merged into War of Jenkin's Ear against Spain, and ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

Father Le Loutre's War

Within Acadia and Nova Scotia, Father Le Loutre's War (1749–1755) began with the British founding of Halifax. During Father Le Loutre's War, New France established three forts along the border of present-day New Brunswick to protect it from a New England attack from Nova Scotia. The war continued until British victory at Fort Beausejour, which dislodged Father Le Loutre from the region, thereby ending his alliance with the Maliseet, Acadians and Mi'kmaq.[20]

French and Indian War: 1754–63

Provincial troops, as distinct from the militias, were raised by the 13 colonial governments in response to annual quotas established by the British commanders-in-chief. These troops saw service in most campaigns and employment throughout North America during the Seven Years' War.


The war began in 1754 as Virginia militia led by Colonel George Washington advanced into French-held territory near modern-day Pittsburgh. Washington was captured at Fort Necessity after ambushing a French company and released. He returned with the 2,100 British regulars and American colonials under British General Edward Braddock, which was decisively destroyed at the Battle of the Monongahela in July 1755.[21]

Acadia/ Nova Scotia

St. John River Campaign: Raid on Grimrose (present day Gagetown, New Brunswick). This is the only contemporaneous image of the Expulsion of the Acadians

Despite the British Conquest of Acadia in 1710, Acadia/ Nova Scotia remained dominated by Catholic Acadians and Mi'kmaq. The British did not make a concerted military effort to control the region until 1749 when they founded Halifax, which sparked Father Le Loutre's War. The French and Indian War spread to the region with a British victory in the Battle of Beausejour (1755). Immediately after this battle the New England and British forces engaged in numerous military campaigns, which became known as the Expulsion of the Acadians.

New York

At Fort William Henry (at the southern end of Lake George) in August 1757, British defenders were surrounded by an overwhelming French force and their Indian allies from many tribes. The British surrendered to the French after having been offered generous terms that included protection from the Indians. Nonetheless, the Indian warriors, whose customs permitted the enslavement of some captured enemy soldiers and the scalping of others, ignored French efforts to prevent the massacre and killed or captured hundreds of the surrendered British force, including women, children, servants, and slaves. Some of those scalped had smallpox, and the scalps were brought to numerous Indian villages as trophies, where they caused an epidemic that killed thousands of Indians. In early July 1758, British General James Abercromby with a force of over 15,000 attacked General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and his garrison of 3,500 French and Canadian troops at Fort Carillon, which overlooked Lake Champlain. The British had 44 cannons, the heaviest weighing more than 5,000 pounds. The fort, later called Ticonderoga by the British, controlled access to French Canada. Abercromby's force included 5,825 red-coated British regulars including the Royal Highlanders. He had 9,000 colonials from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Some 400 Mohawk warriors joined in. Abercromby's attack became disorganized and he suffered the worst British defeat of the war, with over 2,000 killed. He retreated and the campaign ended in failure.


Siege of Louisbourg (1758)

Meanwhile Lord Jeffrey Amherst captured the great French stronghold of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (now part of Nova Scotia). Amherst's large British naval force of over 170 ships and 13,000 men came under furious attack by French defenders until British General James Wolfe found a safe landing spot out of sight of the French. The ultimately successful siege lasted seven weeks. With the fall of Louisbourg, the New England and British forces engaged in the second phase of the Expulsion of the Acadians from the region.


In London, Prime Minister William Pitt named Amherst as his new commander-in-chief of North America for 1759. The Louisbourg victory opened the St. Lawrence River to British incursions, and Amherst devised a three-pronged attack against French Canada: a push up the St. Lawrence to attack Quebec, another northward invasion from Albany by way of lakes George and Champlain, and pressure against the French in the west at Fort Niagara. The 1759 battle for Quebec City, fought on the Plains of Abraham decided the future of Canada as British forces under General James Wolfe defeated the French army of General Louis-Joseph Montcalm. Both generals were killed.


Anderson (2006) suggests the war played a pivotal precipitating role in the American Revolution, helped the United States to become an imperial nation, and should perhaps be known as "the War That Made America." The Fort William Henry massacre has shaped American cultural attitudes toward Indians. It was only the best known episode of indiscriminate bloodshed and captive-taking and deranged relations between Indians and Anglo-American colonists. Even in Pennsylvania, a colony that had never known an Indian war before 1755, indiscriminate hatred of Indians became something like a majority sentiment by 1764. When most native groups sided with the British in the Revolution, the animosity only grew.[22] The American novelist James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, a widely read novel that was adapted for several Hollywood films. Cooper refers to the dangerous "savages" and shows their willingness to kill. The book creates a lasting impression of the untrustworthiness and dangerousness of Indians in general. One long-standing theme in American popular culture has portrayed the Indians as revenge-seeking savages looking to scalp their enemies.[23]

The victory of Wolfe over Montcalm was a decisive moment in shaping the self-image of British Canada, while Francophone Canada has refused to allow commemorations.[24]

Pontiac's rebellion

Zone of action in Pontiac's Rebellion

In 1760 British commander Lord Amherst abruptly ended the distribution of gifts of ironware, weapons and ammunition to the Indians, a French practice that the Indians had come to rely on. Chief Pontiac (1720–1769), a chief of the Ottawa tribe assumed leadership in the Detroit area; other chiefs in the loose confederation of tribes directed attacks on all British forts in the Great Lakes area in the spring of 1763. Eight outposts were overrun, and English supply lines across Lake Erie were cut; assaults on Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt failed. At this point news arrived of the complete French capitulation and withdrawal from North America, and the uprising quickly collapsed. Few American military units were involved, as British regulars handled the action. London issued a proclamation in October 1763 forbidding whites to enter Indian territory west of the Appalachian Mountains, hoping to minimize future conflict and laying plans for an Indian satellite state in the Great Lakes region.[25] By expelling the French Empire from North America, the British victory made it impossible for the Iroquois and other native groups to keep their autonomy by playing rival powers against one another. The Indians who had been allied of France realized their weak position when the British began to treat them as if they, not the French, had been conquered. They reacted with violence to Britain's abrupt changes in the terms of trade and suspension of diplomatic gift giving, launching an insurrection to teach the British a lesson in the proper relationship of ally to ally. By driving British troops from western forts in and sending raiding parties that caused panic as refugees fled east, the Indian coalition forced the British to rescind the offending policies and renew giving gifts. By 1764, as the various tribes came to terms with Britain, Indian leaders realized that their war-fighting ability was crippled. Without a competing empire to arm and supply them, they simply could not keep fighting once they ran out of gunpowder and lead.[26]

The Proclamation of 1763 angered American settlers eager to move west; they largely ignored it, and saw the imperial government as an ally of the Indians and an obstacle to their goals. As Dixon (2007) argues, "Frustrated by their government's inability to contend with the Indians, back country settlers concluded that the best way to insure security was to rely on their own devices" Such actions eventually pushed them into direct conflict with the British government and ultimately proved one of the main forces leading to backcountry support for the American Revolution.[27]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 John Grenier. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier. Cambridge University Press. 2005. p. 35
  2. John Grenier. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier. Cambridge University Press. 2005. p. 33
  3. John Grenier, p. 33-34
  4. The first way of war: American war making on the frontier, 1607–1814 By John Grenier, p. 38
  5. Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception, 1914–1945 (Rankin, Nicholas). p. 454 (2008 paperback)
  6. John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (2nd ed. 2008)
  7. See "The Susquehannock War 1675-77"
  8. In 1690 New France had about 12,000 inhabitants, while the American colonists numbered over 200,000. By 1760 the numbers were about 60,000 and 1.6 million, respectively.
  9. Anderson (1960)
  10. 10.0 10.1 William Williamson. The history of the state of Maine. Vol. 2. 1832. p. 27; Griffiths, E. From Migrant to Acadian. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2005. p.61; Campbell, Gary. The Road to Canada: The Grand Communications Route from Saint John to Quebec. Goose Lane Editions and The New Brunswick Heritage Military Project. 2005. p. 21.
  11. K. A. J. McLay, "Wellsprings of a 'World War': an Early English Attempt to Conquer Canada During King William's War, 1688–97," Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 2006 34(2): 155–175,
  12. Jenny Hale Pulsipher, "'Dark Cloud Rising from the East': Indian Sovereignty and the Coming of King William's War in New England," New England Quarterly 2007 80(4): 588–613
  13. Steven Oatis, "'To Eat up a Village of White Men': Anglo-Indian Designs on Mobile and Pensacola, 1705–1715," Gulf South Historical Review 1998 14(1): 104–119,
  14. John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1995)
  15. Verner W. Crane, "The Southern Frontier in Queen Anne's War," American Historical Review Vol. 24, No. 3 (Apr., 1919), pp. 379–395 JSTOR 1835775
  16. William Williamson. The history of the state of Maine. Vol. 2. 1832. p. 27; Griffiths, E. From Migrant to Acadian. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2005. p.61; Campbell, Gary. The Road to Canada: The Grand Communications Route from Saint John to Quebec. Goose Lane Editions and The New Brunswick Heritage Military Project. 2005.p. 21.
  17. "Meductic Indian Village / Fort Meductic National Historic Site of Canada". Parks Canada. Retrieved December 20, 2011. 
  18. John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008, p. 51, p. 54.
  19. While New Englanders safely settled the land, not until the treaty of 1752 did Massachusetts officially lay claim to the entire Penobscot watershed, and in 1759 the Pownall Expedition, led by Governor Thomas Pownall, established Fort Pownall on Cape Jellison in what is now Stockton Springs.
  20. John Grenier. The Edge of Empire: War In Nova Scotia. 2008.
  21. "The Battle of the Monongahela". 1755. Retrieved 2013-08-03. 
  22. Anderson (2006)
  23. Michael Hilger, From Savage to Nobleman: Images of Native Americans in Film (1995); Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, eds., Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film (1998).
  24. See Desmond Morton, "Who really won on the Plains of Abraham?" Financial Post Nov. 10, 2009
  25. Howard H. Peckham, Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947); Richard Middleton, Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course, and Consequences (2007)
  26. Anderson (2006); David Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac's Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America (2005).
  27. David Dixon, Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac's Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America (2005), quoting p. xii

Further reading

  • Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (2006), excerpt and text search
  • Carp, E. Wayne. "Early American Military History: A Review of Recent Work," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 94 (1986) 259–84
  • Ferling, John E. Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America (1993), to 1763
  • Gallay, Alan, ed. Colonial Wars of North America, 1512–1763: An Encyclopedia (1996) excerpt and text search
  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763 (1973)
  • Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars (1965), excerpt and text search
  • Rodger, N. A. M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815 (2006)

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