Sept. 15, 2022

The Battle of Signal Hill

The Battle of Signal Hill

September 15, 1762. The Battle of Signal Hill ends the French and Indian War and establishes Britain as the dominant power in North America.


Cold Open

It’s the early morning of June 21st, 1752 in the Ohio River Valley.

21-year-old Charles Michel-Mouet de Langlade crouches in the woods outside of a Miami Indian village. With him are 240 French-allied Ottawa warriors, their faces and arms painted with the patterns of war.

Charles is the son of a French fur trader and a native Ottawa woman. Today, he’s about to lead these Ottawa warriors in a surprise attack against the Miami tribe.

From his vantage point, Charles sees groups of Miami Native Americans leave the village to start their work for the day. He waits as they file out. Then, he signals for the warriors around him to attack.

Charles and the Ottawa rush out of the woods and charge toward the village with muskets and hatchets raised. The Miami scramble for their weapons, but they are caught off guard and are severely outnumbered.

Shots ring out, and screams fill the air. Within minutes, 13 Miami warriors lay dead, and their chief is captured.

But Charles and the Ottawa aren’t here to kill Miami men. Near the center of the village stands a fortified building, a British trading post, and thisis the real reason for Charles’s attack today.

As the Ottawa surround the building, Charles pounds on the door. He knows there are British traders inside.

After a short pause, the door to the trading post swings open. Three British traders come out with their hands up. Charles calls for the Miami chief to be called forward and stand with the traders at gunpoint.

To the rest of the village, he shouts a warning, saying that today is a lesson of what happens when you side with the British. Then, he gives the order for his men to fire. 

In 1752, tensions between France and Britain were rising rapidly over trade and territory disputes in North America. For decades, France has occupied much of the inland territories and has been the primary trade partner of native tribes living in North America. But the French worry that that’s beginning to change. Recently, British settlers have established their own trading posts in French territory, like the one in the Miami Indians’ village.  France believes Britain is trying to expand west and steal their trading partners.

Charles de Langlade’s attack was supposed to send the message to British leaders and stop Native Americans from allying with them. But instead of deterring the British from encroaching on their land, the slaughter will only escalate tensions. Within two years, the conflict will erupt into the French and Indian War. It will start with just a small skirmish. But, by its end, the war will completely shift the balance of power in North America after a British victory at the Battle of Signal Hill secures Britain’s regional dominance on September 15th, 1762.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 15th, 1762: The Battle of Signal Hill.

Act One

It’s May 27th, 1754 near the Ohio River Valley; two years after Charles de Langlade’s attack on the British trading post.

A group of 160 men marches toward the Appalachian Mountains. At their helm is 22-year-old British lieutenant colonel George Washington. Today, the young commander leads the way to a newly-built British fort that was recently taken over by the French. For Washington, the journey is a familiar one.

Over a year ago, the French built three forts along the Allegheny River in the Ohio River Valley. This upset the British who claim the territory as their own. So late last year, the British sent Washington to one of the forts to deliver a letter commanding the French to vacate.

But the French refused. And during his visit, Washington saw supplies and equipment that indicated they were even planning on building a fourth fort at the forks of the Ohio River.

Upon learning this, the British sent a small group of builders to construct a fort at the Ohio Forks before the French could. But the French seized it. And now, Washington and his men are on their way to take the fort back.

But as Washington leads his men through the mountains, a messenger runs up to him with alarming news. A British fur trader saw a company of French soldiers the previous day. By now, the French could be within five miles of Washington and his men.

Washington is shocked and quickly orders half his men to head west until they find the enemy.

But a few hours later, another messenger arrives from Tanaghrisson, an emissary for the Native Americans in the Ohio Valley who accompanied Washington on his prior visit.

Washington’s face falls as Tanaghrisson’s messenger describes the exact location of the French troops. He realizes that they aren’t where they thought they were; the troops he sent to the west are going in the wrong direction.

Quickly, Washington forms a new course of action to take their enemy by surprise. He splits up his men again taking half of his remaining number and heads to Tanaghrisson’s camp. They travel through the night and reach their destination just before sunrise. There, he and his 40 men combine forces with Tanaghrisson and twelve of his warriors.

Then, Tanaghrisson leads the way to the French camp. As they grow near, they crouch behind a rocky ridge. They can see about 35 French soldiers, most of them making breakfast. It's clear that they will have the element of surprise.

Tanaghrisson takes his men to circle the back of the French camp and cut off any soldiers that try to flee. But as they move into position, a French soldier spots them and shouts a warning to the camp.

Washington hears it and yells for his men to fire. The French dive for cover and scramble for their guns. They fire back, but Washington’s men already have another round of shots lined up. A few of the Frenchmen run but they’re met by the muskets and hatchets of Tanaghrisson and his warriors. In less than 15 minutes, the French drop their guns and surrender.

After fighting ceases, Washington walks into the camp toward the captain of the French, who lies wounded on the ground. He shouts at Washington that the French were not sent to attack Washington’s men. They were sent to deliver a letter of warning the British to evacuate the land claimed by the French.

Washington’s heart sinks. He worries he's made a serious mistake. If what the captain is saying is true, then Washington has needlessly escalated tensions by attacking an armed, but diplomatic party.

Washington listens as the French captain procures his letter and begins to read it aloud to the British soldiers. But halfway through, Tanaghrisson steps forward and raises his hatchet. The native American emissary is losing control of the Ohio River tribes, and he’s desperate to secure the British as ally. So before the French captain can finish reading the letter, Tanaghrisson kills him with a blow to the head.

Washington watches in horror as the captain's body goes limp and his blood spills in the dirt. He knows he’s already made a grave mistake by attacking a diplomatic party, and now Tanaghrisson has compounded the error by killing their leader. As he stares at the French captain’s lifeless body, Washington wonders what political fallout will come.

In the end, Washington’s raid will prove pivotal. It will become the first battle in what will be a years-long conflict between the British and French in North America. Later that year, both countries will officially declare war. Soon, various Native American tribes will also pick sides and join the fight. For almost a decade, the French and Indian War will rage on, until a surprise attack by the British will finally put an end to the fighting.

Act Two

It’s September 15th, 1762 in Canada, 8 years after Washington’s surprise attack on the French.

On the island of Newfoundland, 30-year-old Lieutenant Colonel William Amherst stands on a rocky outlook near Quidi Vidi Lake. Two hundred British troops are at his side. Together, they survey a French fort in the distance and prepare for what will hopefully be a final attack against France.

Over the past couple years, fighting between Britain and France in North America has largely ceased. Britain’s large colonial population as well as its powerful navy has contributed to a host of British victories.

To both sides, it seems obvious by now that the British will emerge as the war’s winner. So, France has largely given up on trying to beat them. Instead, the French have been looking for bargaining chips to bring to the peace negotiations.

To this end, the French recently captured St. John’s, a British enclave in Newfoundland that’s important for moving ships from Europe further inland. With St. John’s under their control, the French have at least some pull over the British. But, today, William is here to take away that leverage.

Still, it won’t be easy. Protecting the city is a fort on Signal Hill, the highest elevation in the area. To get there, William and his men face the daunting task of marching up hundreds of feet of elevation in clear view of the French enemy.

To prepare, William directs his few hundred men into formation and outlines their plan. A small creek runs down the hill where it meets with Quidi Vidi Lake. If they can successfully cross the creek, a densely forested area can give the men cover to climb to a higher point on the hill. From there, the French will have less of an advantage, and the British will have a much greater chance of taking the fort. 

As soon as William finishes explaining the plan to his men, they begin marching toward the creek. Against the dull, rocky terrain, their bright red uniforms stand out sharply. From Signal Hill, the French can see their every move, and soon a group of them take up firing positions.

William yells at his men to take cover. They scramble behind boulders and small cliffs as French artillery shatters the ground. William assesses the situation. The creek is close, but they would be easy targets if they tried to cross in full view of the French.

So, William sends a group of men to distract his enemy. The chosen troops head straight up the hill behind the cover of a rocky outpost. There, they fire at the French to prevent them from getting clean shots at the rest of the men crossing the creek.

William’s plan succeeds. His men get over the creek and into the woods on the other side without a single casualty. But now, the French know they are coming and are waiting on the other side of the woods.

Nevertheless, William motions for his men to march onward.

As they cross through the forest, the thick trees break up their tight formation and slow them down. But the men trudge forward.

Hundreds of British troops creep through the trees, guns ready. William gives a signal for his men to take caution. Then, he orders his men to form a firing line as they exit the woods. Together, they rush toward the French troops, muskets blazing. 

For several days, the fighting continues. The French outnumber the British by almost a hundred troops. But without the advantage of higher ground or time to prepare, the French struggle to hold their line. Eventually, William and his men overwhelm their defenses. And within three days, the French surrender.

Though short, the Battle of Signal Hill will prove decisive. While the British will lose only 4 to 5 men, the French will suffer between 20 and 40 casualties. But this bloodshed will be the last of the French and Indian war. 

With Signal Hill secured, the British will soon take back St. John’s, completing their conquest of Canada and securing Britain’s dominance in North America. A few weeks later, both countries will send diplomats to negotiate the terms of peace in Europe. And without St. John’s to use in the bargaining, France will prepare for a dramatic forfeit.

Act Three

It’s November 1762, less than a month after the Battle of Signal Hill.

John Russell, a British diplomat, is in Paris. Sitting across from him at a large wooden table is César Gabriel de Choiseul, a French statesman.

The two men are here to discuss the terms of peace in North America. Both have come from their respective countries with objectives to accomplish. Britain is here for all of North America. France is here for any portion they can get.

On the table between them is a map illustrating the pre-war division of the continent. It shows the small strip of land on the east coast where Britain has established colonies. And to the west, New France takes up almost one-third of the continent from north to south.

The British diplomat, John, grabs a quill, dips it in ink, and draws an x on all of the French forts that Britain took over the last seven years, including Signal Hill. The picture is clear: the French have no defensible positions left.

French diplomat, César, is quick to offer all of Canada, and John accepts, but it isn’t enough. He points to the Mississippi River on the map. Britain wants everything from the Mississippi all the way to the east coast. César knew this was coming, and he has an amendment to propose. He takes the quill from John and circles the city of New Orleans. There is still a significant French population there, and César wants the city to be left in French hands.

After a pause, John agrees. Knowing that John and the British also want an end to the war, César pushes a little further. He circles two tiny islands near St. John’s and Signal Hill. Though small, they are important fishing spots for French merchants, César says. Eventually, John nods in assent.

And with that, negotiations end and the two men shake hands. Soon, they write up a formal treaty and sign it in February of 1763.

In the end, the French and Indian War will provide the British with enormous territorial gains in North America. But the victory will come at a heavy cost. In need of money to cover the war’s expenses, Britain will begin taxing the American colonies. And this taxation will cultivate deep colonial resentment toward the British crown.

Soon, Britain will find itself in another war against its own colonies, with an older and wiser George Washington leading the American charge. By the end of the Revolutionary War, Britain will lose much of its land to a newly formed United States; a fate that seemed unlikely after the British victory at the Battle of Signal Hill on September 15th, 1762.


Next onHistory Daily.September 16th, 1620. The Mayflower departs England and sets sail for the New World, carrying the first Pilgrim settlers to America

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.