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America's forgotten war

Smithsonian exhibition on the French and Indian conflict fills out a chapter of U.S. history.

January 05, 2007|Joel Achenbach | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — For most people, the French and Indian War is one of those distant, foggy, inscrutable, eye-crossing wars that seem to exist primarily as fodder for history textbooks written to bore the bejabbers out of sixth-graders. Most of us know only that it happened sometime before the American Revolution and involved the French, and possibly the last of the Mohicans.

The very phrase "French and Indian War" is punch line material (e.g., "He hasn't had a hit movie since the French and Indian War").

But this may change. The Civil War has always been popular, the Revolution has been on a hot streak, and now it may be the French and Indian War's turn.

Thus the first thing we ask the historian at the new French and Indian War exhibit down at the Smithsonian is "Who won?"

"That's a good question," says Andy Masich, president of the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. "I take the long view. We'll find out in another 100 years or so."

It wasn't the French or the Indians. On paper the British won, decisively, which may be one reason this sentence is written in English. But the British victory carried an asterisk: The complications of possessing so much territory in North America turned the British into tax-crazed tyrants (to hear the uppity Colonials tell it), and the crown soon had a revolution on its hands. Which, as you recall, it lost. Thus we're free today to forget about the great British triumph in the French and Indian War.

"Clash of Empires," at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, was first presented in May 2005 at the Heinz History Center to mark the 250th anniversary of the war. The exhibit, which traveled from Pittsburgh to Ottawa before coming to Washington, includes artifacts (wampum belts, rifles, tomahawks, powder horns) gathered from collections around the world, destined to be returned when the exhibition closes in March. The most dramatic elements are the nine life-size figures, created by artist Gerry Embleton, that put human faces on the story.

A quick summary: It's the 1750s. The North American continent is in play, coveted by European powers. The French are in Canada and Louisiana, the British along the Atlantic seaboard. Meanwhile there are tens of thousands of Indians, of many different tribes and bands, who hold the balance of power.

"They're not background artists, skulking in the woods. They're players in this international drama. The prize is North America," says Masich.

The French stake their claim to what was known as the Ohio country by placing lead plates along the Ohio River and its tributaries (one of the plates is in the show). The British, alarmed, send forth an emissary to warn the French to stay away: a strapping young Virginian who happens to be George Washington.

At a fort near the Great Lakes, the French tell young Washington to get lost. But he pops up again the next year, leading a group of soldiers and Indians that ambushes French troops from Canada. The French are laid to waste. Washington's Indian ally, Tanaghrisson, the "Half-King," sees the wounded leader of the French party, a certain Ensign Jumonville, and says, "Thou art not yet dead, my father." Then he tomahawks him in the skull, and -- well, let Masich, the historian, take over:

" ... washes his hands in the man's brains, sending an unambiguous message that this is war and he is with the British."

Press a button and you can hear a life-size figure of Tanaghrisson speak in English, French or Seneca. Standing a few feet away during the exhibit's media preview was Paul Winnie, a Seneca Indian of the Wolf Clan and the physical model for the Tanaghrisson figure. The French and Indian War isn't obscure to him: "That was the turning point in our history."

Back to 1754: Washington's luck runs out, and he and his men are soundly defeated by the French and their Indian allies at Ft. Necessity, in what is now Pennsylvania. Washington is forced to sign a capitulation letter. In the exhibit hall we see a life-size Washington, hunched over, his clothes muddy, his hand covering a weary brow as he reads a surrender document in which he admits to assassinating Jumonville. (But it was in French! Couldn't read it! Also they had the bad habit of writing the letter "s" as if it were an "f," which makes it hard to read words like "assassinate.")

"This is a private moment after he signed the capitulation letter. His public career is over almost before it's begun. To me, that is a very human George Washington," says exhibit curator Scott Stephenson.

This backcountry drama has global repercussions as news of the Jumonville affair reaches Europe. Britain and France are soon in a full-blown war, one that spreads around the globe and becomes engulfed in the larger conflict known as the Seven Years' War.

"The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire," wrote historian Horace Walpole.

As for what to call the war, the companion book to the exhibit is subtitled "The British, French & Indian War."

Eventually we'll figure this thing out.

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