The French and Iroquois Wars (1642-1698)

The French and Iroquois Wars (also called the Iroquois Wars or the Beaver Wars) were an intermittent series of conflicts fought in the late 17th century in eastern North America, in which the Iroquois sought to expand their territory and take control of the role of middleman in the fur trade between the French and the tribes of the west. The conflict pitted the nations of the Iroquois Confederation, led by the dominant Mohawk tribe, against the largely Algonquin tribes of the area and their French allies. The wars were ones of extreme brutality on both sides and considered one of the bloodiest series of conflicts in the history of North America. The resultant expansion in Iroquois territory realigned the tribal geography of North America, pushing several eastern tribes west of the Mississippi River. The conflict subsided with the loss by the Iroquois of their Dutch allies in the New Netherland colony, and with a growing French desire to seek the Iroquois as an ally against English encroachment.

Origins of the conflict

The wars were prompted in large measure by the growing scarcity of the beaver in the lands controlled by the Iroquois in the middle 17th century. At the time of the conflict, the Iroquois inhabited a region of present-day New York south of Lake Ontario, and west of the Hudson River. The Iroquois lands comprised an ethnic island, surrounded on all sides by Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Shawnee to the west in the Ohio Country, as well as by Iroquoian-speaking Huron on the north along the St. Lawrence River, who were not part of the Iroquois Confederation.

With the establishment of Dutch trading posts in the Hudson in the 1620s, the Iroquois, and in particular the Mohawk, had come to rely on the trade for the purchase of firearms and other European goods. The introduction of firearms, however, had accelerated the decline of the beaver population such that by 1640 the animal had largely disappeared from the Hudson Valley. The center of the fur trade thus shifted northward to the colder regions along the St. Lawrence River, controlled by the Hurons, who were the close trading partners of the French in New France. The Iroquois, who considered themselves to be the most civilized and advanced people of the region, found themselves displaced in the fur trade by other tribes in the region. Threatened by disease and with a declining population, the Iroquois began an aggressive campaign to expand their area of control.

Relations between the Iroquois and the French were not harmonious in the early 17th century. The first encounter was in 1609, when Samuel de Champlain, in the company by his Algonquin allies, killed three Iroquois chiefs with an arquebus on the shores of Lake Champlain. By the 1640s, however, the Iroquois had become fully armed with European weaponry through their trade with the Dutch, and were ready to match the strength of the French and their Algonquin allies. Although the initial intent of the war was not to exterminate the French but rather to assume the role of middleman in the fur trade, the Iroquois conflict with the allies of the French quickly brought them into fierce and bloodly conflict with the Europeans themselves.

Iroquois attacks in New France

The war began in the early 1640s with Iroquois attacks on Huron villages along the St. Lawrence, with the intent of disrupting the Huron trade with the French. By 1649, the Iroquois had driven the Huron from the lower St. Lawrence into regions farther north, leaving the Ottawa to fill the vacuum in the fur trade with the French.

In the early 1650s the Iroquois began attacking the French themselves. Although some of the Iroquois tribes, notably the Oneida and Onondaga, had peaceful relations with the French, but were under control of the Mohawk, who were the strongest tribe in the Confederation and had animosity towards the French presence. After a failed peace treaty negotiated by Chief Canaqueese, Iroquois war parties moved north into New France along the Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, attacking and blockading Montreal. Typically a raid on an isolated farm or settlement consisted of a war party moving swiftly and silently through the woods, swooping down suddenly, wielding tomahawk and scalping knife to slaughter the all the inhabitants. In some cases, prisoners were carried back to the Iroquois homelands. In the case of women and children, such prisoners were sometimes to be incorporated into the tribe. In the case of men, the prisoners were often subjected to a slow death by torture.

Although such raids were by no means constant, when they occurred they were bone chilling to the inhabitants of New France, and the colonists initially felt helpless to prevent them. Some of the heroes of French-Canadian folk memory are of individuals who stood up to such attacks, such as Dollard Des Ormeaux, who died in May 1660 while resisting an Iroquois raiding force at the Long Sault at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers. He succeeded in saving Montreal by his sacrifice. Another such hero was Madeleine de Verchères, who in 1692 at the age of 14 led the defence of her family farm against Iroquois attack.

Iroquois expansion in the west

At the same time that the Iroquois were attacking northward, they also began a major expansion to the west along Great Lakes. By the 1650 they controlled a region of North America extending from the Virginia Colony in the south up to the St. Lawrence. In the west, the Iroquois had driven the Algonquin-speaking Shawnee out of the Ohio Country and seized control of the Illinois Country as far west as the Mississippi River.

As a result of Iroquois expansion, eastern tribes such as the Lakota were pushed across the Mississippi onto the Great Plains, adopting the nomadic lifestyle for which they later became well known. Other refugees flooded the Great Lakes area, resulting in a conflict with existing tribes in the region.

The French counterattack

The tide of war began to turn the middle 1660s the arrival of a small contingent of regular troops from France, the brown-uniformed Carignan-Salières Regiment, the first group of uniformed professional soldiers to set foot on what is today Canadian soil. At the same time, the Dutch allies of the Iroquois lost control of the New Netherlands colony to the English in the south.

In January 1666 the French invaded the Iroquois homeland, led by the aristocrat Alexandre de Prouville the "Marquis de Tracy" and Viceroy of New France. Although the invasion was abortive, they took the Chief Canaqueese prisoner. In September they proceeded down the Richelieu and marched through Iroquois territory a second time. Unable to find an Iroquois army, they resorted to burning their crops and homes. Many Iroquois died from starvation in the following winter.

The Iroquois sued for peace, which lasted a generation. In the meantime, many from the Carignan-Salieres regiment stayed on in the colony as settlers, significantly altering the colonial demography. They were, after all, hardened veteran soldiers, who before coming to Canada had fought the Turks. They were rough in manners and speech and any hope that local churchmen might have had of fostering a quiet, pietistic society on the banks of the St. Lawrence evaporated. After the departure of the Carignan-Salières regiment in 1667, with the Iroquois temporarily pacified, the colony's administrators at last took steps to form an effective militia organization. Now all men in the colony between the ages of 16 and 65 (excluding the clergy and certain public officials) were issued with a musket and ammunition and became liable for military service.

Resumption of the war

The war between the French and Iroquois resumed in the 1683 after the governor, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, attempted to enrich his own fortune by pursuing the western fur-trade with a new aggressiveness, which adversely affected the growing activities of the Iroquois in this area. This time the war lasted ten years and was as bloody as the first.

With renewal of hostilities the local militia was stiffened after 1683 by a small force of regular troops of the French navy, the Compagnies Franches de la Marine. The latter were to constitute the longest-serving unit of French regular force troops in New France. The men came to identify themselves with the colony over the years, while the officer corps became completely Canadianized. Thus in a sense these troops can be identified as Canada's first standing professional armed force. Officers' commissions both in the militia and in the Compagnie Franches became much coveted positions amongst the socially eminent of the colony. The militia together with members of the Compagnie Franches, dressed in the manner of their Algonquin Indian allies, came to specialize in that swift and mobile brand of warfare termed la petite guerre, that was characterized by long and silent expeditions through the forests and sudden and violent descents upon enemy encampments and settlements - in fact the same kind of warfare that was practiced against them by the Iroquois. As they were seen to be urging the Iroquois on, some of the most infamous of these raids were made against settlements in the English colonies, most notably in 1690 against Schenectady in present-day New York, Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine. As in the Iroquois raids, the inhabitants were either indiscriminately slaughtered or carried away captive.

The Great Peace

Finally in 1698, increasingly seeing themselves as the convenient scapegoat in what was essentially an English inspired war, the Iroquois sued for peace ending the wars. The French, meanwhile, were eager to have the Iroquois as a bulwark between New France and the English to the south. The signing of the 1701 Grande Paix (Great Peace) in Montreal by 39 Indian chiefs, the French and the English. In the treaty, the Iroquois agreed to stop marauding and to allow refugees from the Great Lakes to return east. The Shawnee eventually regained control of the Ohio Country and the lower Allegheny River. At last, the Shawnee were at peace.

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