In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Colonial Wars

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Indian Wars

Military History American Colonial Wars
James C. Bradford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0074


The colonial period of US history was rife with military conflict between European immigrants and Native Americans/Indians, among rival European imperial powers, among groups of European settlers, and among groups of Indians. Little has been written about conflict among Indians because sources of information concerning them are so few. The remaining three types of warfare often overlapped as settlers of European origins, Indians, and imperial governments all sought allies for support in their wars. In addition, tensions with Indians and differing views on Indian policy contributed to the outbreak of violence among colonists.

General Overviews

Textbooks on the colonial period of US history tend to be descriptive rather than analytical in their treatment of colonial war. Leach 1973 and Peckham 1964 survey these conflicts with emphasis on the wars between British and French colonists and their Indian allies. Davies 1974 provides context for the wars for maritime empire during the 17th century. Richter 2001 views the colonial era from the Indian point of view. The final three volumes of Parkman 1865–1892, a massive history of France and England in North America, focus on warfare between the imperial rivals. Indian relations receive attention though the various groups are usually treated in their roles as allies of England and France. Washburn 1988 covers the colonial era in a cursory fashion. Nester 2000 traces a century and a half of imperial rivalry that culminated in the French and Indian War. Grenier 2010 provides graduate students and nonspecialists with an excellent historiographical analysis of major works on the subject. Anderson and Cayton 2005 differs from the narrative nature of most surveys. The authors survey three hundred years of American military history in arguing that war has been as essential an ingredient in the formation of American culture and the development of the US political system as it has in the nation’s rise to world power.

  • Anderson, Fred, and Andrew Cayton. The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500–2000. New York: Viking, 2005.

    The determination of settlers to expand led to warfare that became characteristic of American society. Views the colonial era through the relations between Samuel de Champlain and William Penn and the Indians each encountered.

  • Davies, K. G. The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974.

    Focuses on the Dutch, French, and English in the Caribbean and North America.

  • Grenier, John. “Warfare during the Colonial Era, 1607–1765.” In Companion to American Military History. Edited by James C. Bradford, 9–21. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Historiographical essay that identifies the most significant works and points out lacunae in coverage and interpretation.

  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

    A sophisticated account of both European and American military institutions and the major wars Europeans and Americans conducted.

  • Nester, William R. The Great Frontier War: Britain, France and the Imperial Struggle for North America, 1607–1755. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

    Nester demonstrates that British dominance of North America was far from inevitable, that Indian allies played a crucial role in the outcome, and that each side had both inept and able commanders. Thematic chapters on “Trade and Conquest,” “Economies and Societies,” and “Armies and Navies” that trace developments prior to 1754 are followed by chapters on developments during 1754 and 1755.

  • Parkman, Francis. France and England in North America. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1865–1892.

    Often-reprinted classic history for which the author traveled to the places where events took place. The prose now seems stilted in places, but the volumes contain important information not found elsewhere.

  • Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars, 1689–1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

    Descriptive narrative with a focus on operations in the period after 1689; designed for undergraduate readers.

  • Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    Uses the lives of Pocahontas, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, and Metacom/King Philip as a lens through which to view the European settlement of eastern North America. Describes Native-American culture east of the Mississippi River and the complexities of relations between the native groups and English, Spanish, and French settlers, concluding that the native societies were far safer during the 17th and 18th centuries than later, when the culture of the new United States virtually destroyed their way of life.

  • Washburn, Wilcomb E., ed. History of Indian-White Relations. Vol. 4 of Handbook of North American Indians. Edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

    Includes fifty-seven essays divided into six sections, the shortest of which, “Military Situations,” contains three essays; the first of which, on colonial wars, by Douglas Leach, focuses on the Atlantic seaboard.

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