New lands on a plate: British vs French in eighteenth-century North America

08 July 2016

Area Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

'A map of the countrey of the Five Nations belonging to the province of New York... ' (MPG 1/958), a later copy of a map of 1718 showing the Ohio River towards the bottom-left. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


In the popular imagination colonial-era America is equated with settlement by the British, and indeed our Colonial America resource, module 2 of which has just been released, is made up exclusively of archive material sent back and forth between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. But the reality is that the territory that is now the United States was contested in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by rival European powers, each vying for land, resources, trade, military superiority and advantageous relations with indigenous peoples.

The most implacable opponents of the British in North America, as in Europe, were the French, and Colonial America is full of material related both to war – there were four major wars between the British and French colonies spanning some eighty years – and to expeditions into the interior of the continent to advance claims to disputed lands.

Part of a transcription of one of Céloron's plates (CO 5/1087). Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.


On 15th June 1749 Pierre Céloron de Blainville, a former commander of the fort of Detroit, led 271 followers from Montreal south and into the valley of the Ohio River to bolster French designs on the area, which was also claimed under the Virginia charter of 1609. As his band followed the river west towards the Mississippi they left at intervals evidence of their passing. To trees prominently located, usually where tributary rivers joined the Ohio, they would nail a tin or copper plate bearing the royal arms of France. And under the tree, a lead plate with a ponderous inscription would be… buried. Why buried? Why not – for example – nailed? They obviously carried nails, and hammers. And the only words on the arms of France of that time are a battle cry, Montjoie! Saint Denis!, and not something more helpful, such as, say, Dig here.

According to Charles Galbreath, writing in 1921, one of Céloron’s plates was immediately abstracted by local Indians (were they hiding behind the tree?) and in time made its way to the British. This is presumably the plate referred to by Governor George Clinton of New York in a letter to the Lords of Trade in London of January 1751, ‘touching a pretended claim of [… the French] to lands near the River Ohio’ and with a transcription of its text. Galbreath mentions that two other plates were unearthed in the nineteenth century, long after the French claim had been abandoned and the presence of France in mainland North America ended. Which raises the question: if Clinton’s plate had not happened to come into British hands when it did, what would have been the purpose of the burials, if the plates’ intended readers did not know they were there to read?

George Clinton's letter to the Lords of Trade, 17th January 1751, informing them of the plate (CO 5/1087). Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.


On his return home Céloron was reappointed to Detroit, but his claims to the Ohio valley did not bear lasting fruit. His attempts to shoo away British traders he found along his route caused sufficient irritation in colonial capitols to begin a chain of events, plates or no plates, that led Robert Dinwiddie, governor of Virginia, to send an expedition (led by George Washington) to enforce his charter’s prescriptions at bayonet-point. The result of the French and Indian War (1754-63) was the cession of all French land east of the Mississippi to the victorious British. Perhaps, reflecting in the Motor City avant la lettre as the fighting raged, Céloron wished that he had just buried the plates, maybe buried the coats of arms for good measure, and returned home with his claims ‘of the possession we have taken of the said Ohio River and of all those which empty into it’ kept under his, no doubt capacious, colonial hat.

A monument to Céloron’s expedition in Marietta, Ohio. Image: Snoopywv. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


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About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.