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The Beaver Wars, also called the Iroquois Wars or the French and Iroquois Wars, commonly refer to a series of conflicts fought in the mid-17th century in eastern North America. Encouraged and armed by their Dutch and English trading partners, the Iroquois sought to expand their territory and monopolize the fur trade and the trade between European markets and the tribes of the western Great Lakes region. The conflict pitted the nations of the Iroquois Confederation, led by the dominant Mohawk, against the French-backed and largely Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Great Lakes region.
The wars were brutal and are considered one of the bloodiest series of conflicts in the history of North America. The resultant enlargement of Iroquois territory realigned the tribal geography of North America, destroying several large tribal confederacies—including the Hurons, Neutrals, Eries, and Susquehannocks—and pushing some eastern tribes west of the Mississippi River, or southward into the Carolinas. The Iroquois also controlled the Ohio Valley lands as hunting ground, from about 1670 onward, as far as can be determined from mostly French (Jesuit) accounts. The Ohio country and the Lower Peninsula of Michigan were virtually emptied of Native people, as refugees fled west to escape Iroquois warriors. (This region would be repopulated not long after, although generally in multi-ethnic indigenous "republics", rather than homogeneous, discrete "tribes".)
Both Algonquian and Iroquoian societies were greatly disturbed by these wars. 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. After the Iroquois became trading partners with the English, their alliance was a crucial component of the later British expansion. They used the Iroquois conquests as a claim to the old Northwest.
Written records for the St. Lawrence valley begin with the voyages of Jacques Cartier in the 1540s. Cartier wrote of encounters with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, also known as the Stadaconans or Laurentians, who occupied several fortified villages, including Stadacona and Hochelaga. Cartier recorded that the Stadaconans were at war with another tribe known as the Toudamans, who had destroyed one of their forts the previous year, resulting in 200 deaths. Continental wars and politics distracted French efforts at colonization in the St. Lawrence Valley until the beginning of the 17th century. When the French returned, they were surprised to find that the sites of both Stadacona and Hochelaga were abandoned—completely destroyed by an unknown enemy.
Some historians have suggested the Iroquois Confederacy destroyed Stadacona and Hochelaga, but there is little evidence to support that claim. (Although Iroquois oral tradition, as recorded in the Jesuit Relations, speaks of a draining war between the Mohawk Iroquois and an alliance of the Susquehannock and Algonquin sometime between 1580 and 1600.) When the French returned in 1601, the St. Lawrence Valley had already been the site of generations of blood-feud-style warfare. When Samuel de Champlain landed at Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence, he and his small company of French adventurers were almost immediately recruited by the Montagnais, Algonquin, and Huron to assist in attacking the enemies.
Before 1603, Champlain had formed an offensive alliance against the Iroquois. His rationale was commercial; the Canadian Indians were the French source of valuable fur and the Iroquois interfered with that trade. The first battle in 1609 was fought at Champlain's initiative. He wrote, "I had come with no other intention than to make war". In the company of his Algonquin allies, Champlain and his forces fought a pitched battle with the Iroquois on the shores of Lake Champlain. Champlain killed three Iroquois chiefs with an arquebus. In 1610, Champlain and his arquebus-wielding French companions helped the Algonquins and Hurons defeat a large Iroquois raiding party. In 1615, Champlain joined a Huron raiding party and took part in a siege on an Iroquois town, probably among the Onondaga in present-day New York. The attack ultimately failed, and Champlain was injured.
In 1610 the Dutch established a trading post on the edge of Iroquois territory, giving them direct access to European markets and removing their need for reliance on the French and the tribes who functioned as middlemen in the trading of goods. The new post offered valuable tools that the Iroqouis could receive in exchange for animal pelts. This began the Iroquois' large-scale hunting for furs.
At this time, the conflict began to quickly grow between the Iroquois and Indians supported by the French. The Iroquois inhabited the 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 nations, including the Shawnee to the west in the Ohio Country. Their enemies included the Iroquoian-speaking Huron and Neutral_Nation Confederacies, who lived on the southern shore of Lake Huron and the western shore of Lake Ontario, respectively, but who were not part of the Iroquois Confederation.
In 1628 the Mohawks defeated the Mahicans and had established a monopoly of trade with the Dutch at Fort Orange,New Netherland. The Iroquois, particularly the Mohawk, had come to rely on the trade for the purchase of firearms and other European goods for their livelihood and survival. By the 1630s, the Iroquois had become fully armed with European weaponry through their trade with the Dutch. They began to use their growing expertise with the arquebus to good effect in their continuing wars with the Algonquins, Hurons, and other traditional enemies. The French, meanwhile, had outlawed the trading of firearms to their native allies, though arquebuses were occasionally given as gifts to individuals who converted to Christianity. Although the initial focus of the Iroquois attacks were their traditional enemies (the Algonquins, Mahicans, Montagnais, and Hurons), the alliance of these tribes with the French quickly brought the Iroquois into fierce and bloody conflict directly with the European colonists.
The introduction of firearms had enabled overhunting and accelerated the decline of the beaver population. By 1640 the animal had largely disappeared from the Hudson Valley. Some historians have argued that the wars were accelerated by the growing scarcity of the beaver in the lands controlled by the Iroquois in the middle 17th century. The center of the fur trade shifted northward to the colder regions of present-day southern Ontario, which was controlled by the Neutrals; as well as by the Hurons, who were the close trading partners of the French. The Iroquois were displaced in the fur trade by other nations in the region. Threatened by disease and with a declining population, the Iroquois began an aggressive campaign to expand their area of control.
With the decline of beaver, the Iroquois began to conquer their smaller neighbors. They attacked the Wenro in 1638 and took all of their territory. Survivors fled to the Hurons for refuge. The Wenro had served as a buffer between the Iroquois and the Neutral tribe and Erie allies. These two tribes were considerably larger and more powerful than the Iroquois. With expansion to the west blocked, the Iroquois turned their attention to the north. The Dutch also encouraged the Iroquois in this strategy. At that time, the Dutch were the Iroquois' primary European trading partners, with their goods passing through Dutch trading posts down the Hudson River and from there sent to back to Europe. As the Iroquois' sources of furs declined, so did the income of the trading posts.
In 1641, the Mohawks traveled to Trois Rivieres in New France to propose peace with the French and their allied tribes. They asked the French to set up a trading post in Iroquoia. Governor Montmagny rejected this proposal because it would imply abandonment of their Huron allies.
In the early 1640s, the war began in earnest with Iroquois attacks on frontier Huron villages along the St. Lawrence River; their intent was disruption of the trade with the French. In 1645 the French called the tribes together to negotiate a treaty to end the conflict. Two Iroquois leaders, Deganaweida and Koiseaton, traveled to New France to take part in the negotiations. The French agreed to most of the Iroquois demands, granting them trading rights in New France. The next summer a fleet of eighty canoes carrying a large harvest of furs traveled through Iroquois territory to be sold in New France. When the Iroquois arrived, the French refused to purchase the furs and told the Iroquois to sell them to the Huron, who would act as a middleman. Outraged, the Iroquois resumed the war.
The French decided to become directly involved in the conflict. The Huron and the Iroquois had similar access to manpower, each tribe having and estimated 25,000–30,000 members. To gain the upper hand, in 1647 the Huron and Susqehannock formed an alliance to counter Iroquois aggression. Together their warriors greatly outnumbered those of the Iroquois. The Huron tried to break the Iroquois Confederacy by negotiating separate peaces with the Onondaga and the Cayuga, but the other tribes intercepted their messengers, putting an end to the negotiations. The summer of 1647 saw several small skirmishes between the tribes. In 1648 a more significant battle occurred when the two Algonquin tribes attempted to pass a fur convoy through an Iroquois blockade. Their attempt succeeded and they inflicted high casualties on the Iroquois.
During the following years, the Iroquois strengthened their confederacy to work more closely and create an effective central leadership. Although the workings of their government remain largely unknown, by the 1660s the five Iroquois ceased fighting among themselves. They also easily coordinated military and economic plans among all five nations. In so doing, they increased their power and achieved a level of government more advanced than those of the surrounding tribes' decentralized forms of operating.
Although Indian raids were not constant, they terrified the inhabitants of New France. Initially, the colonists felt helpless to prevent them. Some of the heroes of French-Canadian folk memory are of individuals who stood up to such attacks. An example was Dollard des Ormeaux, who died in May 1660 while resisting an Iroquois raiding force at the Long Sault, the confluence of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers. According to legend, he succeeded in saving Montreal by his actions. Another hero was Madeleine de Verchères, who in 1692 at age 14, led the defense of her family farm against Iroquois attack. Viewing the Iroquois as pawns of the Dutch and English, their traditional Protestant enemies, the French refused to make peace with the natives.
In 1648, the Dutch authorized selling guns directly to the Mohawks rather than through traders, and promptly sold 400 to the Iroquois. The Confederacy sent 1,000 newly armed warriors through the woods to Huron territory. With the onset of winter, the Iroquois warriors launched a devastating attack into the heart of Huron territory, destroying several key villages, killing many warriors and taking thousands captive, for later adoption into the tribe. Among those killed were the Jesuit missionaries Jean Brebeuf, Charles Garnier, and Gabriel Lallemant. Each is considered a martyr of the Roman Catholic Church. The surviving Huron fled their territory to seek assistance from the Anishinaabeg Confederacy in the northern Great Lakes region. The Odaawaa Nation (Ottawa) temporarily halted Iroquois expansion further northwest. With the Hurons' withdrawal, the Iroquois controlled a fur-rich region and had no more native tribes blocking them from the French settlements in Canada.
European diseases had taken their toll on the Iroquois and neighbors in the years preceding the war, however, and their populations had drastically declined. To replace lost warriors, the Iroquois worked to integrate many of their captured enemy by adoption into their own tribes. They worked to keep their captured enemies happy. They invited Jesuits into their territory to teach those who had converted to Christianity. One priest recorded, "As far as I can divine, It is the design of the Iroquois to capture all the Huron...put the Chiefs to death...and with the rest to form one nation and country." The Jesuits also reached out to the Iroquois, many of whom converted to or added Catholicism to indigenous belief. They would play an important part in the years to come.
In the early 1650s, the Iroquois began to attack the French. Some of the Iroquois Nations, notably the Oneida and Onondaga, had peaceful relations with the French but were under control of the Mohawk. The latter were the strongest nation in the Confederacy and were hostile to the French presence. After a failed peace treaty negotiated by Chief Canaqueese, Iroquois war parties moved north into New France along Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River. They attacked and blockaded 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, and wielding a tomahawk and a scalping knife to attack the inhabitants. In many cases, prisoners, especially women and children, were brought back to the Iroquois homelands and were adopted into the nations.
Using a strategy of stealth attacks similar to those described above, the Iroquois launched an attack on the Neutral in 1650. By the end of 1651, they had completely driven the tribe from traditional territory, killing and assimilating thousands. At the time, the Neutrals inhabited a territory ranging from the present-day Niagara Peninsula, westward to the Grand River valley.
In 1654 the Iroquois launched a similar attack against the Erie, but with less success. The war between the Erie and the Iroquois lasted for two years. By 1656 the Iroquois had almost completely destroyed the Erie confederacy, who refused to flee to the west. The Erie territory was located on the southeastern shore of Lake Erie and was estimated to have 12,000 members in 1650. Greatly outnumbered by the tribes they had subdued, the Iroquois had been able to achieve their victories through the use of firearms purchased from the Dutch.
With the tribes to the north and west destroyed, the Iroquois turned their attention southward to the Susqehannock. 1660 marked the zenith of Iroquois military power, and they were able to use that to their advantage in the decades to follow. The Susqehannock had become allied with the English in the Maryland colony in 1661. The English had grown fearful of the Iroquois and hoped an alliance with Susqehannock would help block the northern tribes' advance on the English colonies. In 1663 the Iroquois sent an army of 800 warriors into the Susqehannock territory. They repulsed the army, but the invasion prompted the colony of Maryland to declare war on the Iroquois. By supplying Susqehannock forts with artillery, the English made it impossible for the Iroquois to triumph by superior arms. The Susqehannock took the upper hand and began to invade Iroquois territory, where they caused significant damage. This warfare continued until 1674 when the English changed their Indian Policy, negotiated peace with the Iroquois, and terminated their alliance with the Susqehannock. In 1675 the militias of Virginia and Maryland captured and executed the chiefs of the Susqehannock, whose growing power they feared. The Iroquois made quick work of the rest of the nation. They drove the warriors from traditional territory, and absorbed the survivors in 1677.
During the course of this conflict, in 1670, it appears the Iroquois also drove the Siouan Mannahoac tribe out of the northern Virginia Piedmont region. The Iroquois claimed the land by right of conquest as their private hunting ground. The English acknowledged this claim in 1674 and again in 1684, but finally acquired it from the Iroquois by a 1722 treaty.
The Iroquois continued to control the countryside of New France, raiding to the edges of the walled settlements of Quebec and Montreal. In May of 1660 an Iroquois force of 160 warriors attacked Montreal and captured 17 colonists. The following year, an attack by 250 warriors yielded ten captives. In 1661 and 1662 the Iroquois made several raids against the Abenakis, who were allied with the French. With such danger in the heart of New France, the French Crown ordered a change to the governing of Canada. They put together a small military force made up of Frenchmen, Huron, and Algonquin to counter the Iroquois raids. When the militia ventured into the countryside, they were attacked by the Iroquois. Only 29 of the French survived and escaped. Five were captured and tortured to death by the Iroquois in retaliation for the attack. Despite their victory, the Iroquois also suffered a significant number of casualties. Their leaders began to consider negotiating for peace with the French.
The tide of war in New France began to turn in the mid-1660s with 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 present-day Canadian soil. A change in administration led the New France government to authorized direct sale of arms and other military support to their Indian allies. In 1664, the Dutch allies of the Iroquois lost control of the New Netherland colony to the English in the south. In the immediate years after the Dutch defeat, European support waned for the Iroquois.
In January 1666, the French invaded the Iroquois homeland. The first invasion force was led by Daniel de Remy, Sieur de Courcelle. His men found themselves greatly outnumbered by the Iroquois and were forced to withdraw before any significant action could take place. The second invasion force was led by the aristocrat Alexandre de Prouville the "Marquis de Tracy" and viceroy of New France, they encountered little resistance while invading Iroquoia as many of their warriors were engaged fighting the Susqehannocks. Although the invasion was abortive, they took Chief Canaqueese prisoner. With their immediate European support cut off, the Iroquois sued for peace to which France agreed.
Once peace was established with the French, the Iroquois returned to their westward conquest in their continued attempt to take control of all the land between the Algonquins and the French. As a result of Iroquois expansion and war with the Anishinaabeg Confederacy, eastern Nations 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 nations in the region. In the Ohio Country the Shawnee and Miami tribes were the dominant tribes. The Iroquois quickly overran Shawnee holdings in central Ohio forcing them to flee into Miami territory. The Miami were a powerful tribe and brought together a confederacy of their neighboring allies including the Pottawatomie and the Illinois tribe who inhabited modern Michigan and Illinois. The vast majority of the fighting was between this Anishininaabeg Confederacy and the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Iroquois improved on their stealth attack techniques as they continued to attack even farther from their home. They would man a large fleet of canoes and speed down river in the darkness, they would sink their canoes and hold them to the bottom with rock to conceal them and proceed into the woods around their target. Then at the appointed time they would burst from the wood in all directions to cause the greatest panic among their enemy. They could then return quickly to their boats and return from where they came before any significant resistance could be put together. Without firearms the Algonquin tribes were at a severe disadvantage. Despite their larger numbers, they were unable to withstand the Iroquois. Several tribes ultimately fled west beyond the Mississippi River leaving much of Indiana, Ohio, southern Michigan, and southern Ontario depopulated, although leaving in place several large Anishinaabe military forces, numbering in the thousands to the north of Lakes Huron and Superior, which would later prove to be decisive in rolling back the Iroquois advance. From west of the Mississippi, displaced groups continued to arm war parties and attempt to retake their homeland.
Beginning in the 1670s the French began to explore the Ohio and Illinois Country. There they discovered the Algonquin tribes of that region where locked in warfare with the Iroquois. The French established the post of Tassinong to trade with the western tribes, but it was destroyed by the Iroquois who insisted on controlling trade between the tribes and the Europeans. In 1681 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle negotiated a treaty with the Miami and Illinois tribes. The same year France lifted the ban on the sale of firearms to the native tribes. They were able to quickly arm the Algonquin tribes, evening the odds between the Iroquois and their enemies.
During a raid into the Illinois Country in 1689, the Iroquois took a large number of prisoners and destroyed a sizable Miami settlement. The Miami were able to quickly call for help from others in the Anishinaabeg Confederacy and a large force was put together to track down the Iroquois. Using their new firearms the Confederacy laid an ambush near modern South Bend, Indiana where they attacked and destroyed most of the Iroquois army. Although a large part of the region was left depopulated, the Iroquois were unable to establish a permanent presence. Their own tribe lacked the manpower to colonize the large area. After their setbacks, and after the local tribes gained firearms, the Iroquois' brief control over the region was lost and the former inhabitants of the territory began to return.
As the English began to move into the former Dutch territory they began to form close ties with the Iroquois and sought to use them in much the same way the Dutch had, as a buffer and force to hinder the French colonial expansion. They soon began to supply the Iroquois with firearms much as the Dutch had and encouraged them to disrupt French interests. With the renewal of hostilities the local militia of New France 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—the same kind of warfare that was practiced against them by the Iroquois.
In September 1687 another invasion was launched with three thousand militia and regulars. They proceeded down the Richelieu River and marched through Iroquois territory a second time. Unable to find an Iroquois army, they resorted to burning their crops and homes, destroying an estimated 1.2 million bushels of corn. Many Iroquois died from starvation in the following winter In 1689 the Iroquois moved into New France to launch a series of reprisal attacks, including what became known as the Massacre of Lachine. The Iroquois where able to breach the gates of Montreal and killed several colonists and burned large stores of goods before escaping into the countryside. The war between the French and Iroquois resumed in 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.
During King William's War, the French urged the Indians to attack the English colonial settlements in the same way that the English had been encouraging the Iroquois. Some of the most notable of these raids in 1690 were the Schenectady massacre in the Province of New York, Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine. As in the Iroquois raids, the inhabitants were either indiscriminately slaughtered or carried away captive.
Finally in 1698, the Iroquois began to see the English as becoming a greater threat than the French. The English had begun colonizing Pennsylvania in 1681, the continued colonial growth there began to encroach on the southern border of the Iroquois territory. The French policy began to change towards the Iroquois. After nearly 50 years of warfare, they began to believe that it would be impossible to ever destroy them. They decided that befriending the Iroquois would be the easiest way to ensure their monopoly on the northern fur trade and help stop English expansion. As soon as the English heard of the treaty they immediately set about to prevent it from being agreed to. It would result in the loss of Albany's monopoly on the fur trade with the Iroquois and without their protection the northern flank, of the English colonies were be open to French attack. Despite English interference the treaty was agreed to.
The peace treaty, Great Peace of Montreal was signed in 1701 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. The Miami tribe returned to take control of modern Indiana and north-west Ohio. The Pottawatomie to Michigan, and the Illinois tribe to Illinois. With the Dutch long removed from North America, the English had become just as powerful as the French. The Iroquois came to see that they held the balance of power between the two European powers and they used that position to their benefit for the decades to come. Their society began to quickly change as the tribes began to focus on building up a strong nation, improving their farming technology, and educating their population. The peace was lasting and it would not be until the 1720s that their territory would again be threatened by the Europeans.
Also in 1701, the Iroquois nominally gave the English much of the disputed territory north of the Ohio in the Nanfan Treaty, although this transfer was not recognised by the French, who were the strongest actual presence there at the time. In that treaty, the Iroquois leadership claimed to have conquered this "Beaver Hunting Ground" 80 years previously, or in ca. 1621.
The Illinois Country's former inhabitants returned shortly after the war ended; the Miami, Potowatomie, Sauk, and Fox tribes became dominant in the region. The Ohio Country, which was nearer to the core of Iroquois territory, remained depopulated for longer, as the Iroquois controlled it by right of conquest as a hunting ground. The Lenape settled along the Allegheny River beginning in the 1720s. It was not until the 1740s and 1750s that the Shawnee began to return to the southern and central areas of the region, and the Miami began to resettle the western portions.
Through various European treaties, the English control over the Iroquois and their territory had been recognized before the war had ended. The English exaggerated the extent of Iroquois control in the west as a means to dispute French control of the Illinois and Ohio country. In 1768 several colonies officially purchased the "Iroquois claim" to the Ohio and Illinois Country. The colonies created the Indiana Land Company to hold the claim to all of the Northwest. It maintained a claim to the region using the Iroquois right of conquest until the company was dissolved by the United States Supreme Court in 1798.
Because a large part of the conflict between the native tribes took place far beyond the frontier and in locations that had yet to have European contact, the full extent and impact of the war is unknown. Most knowledge of the western parts of the conflict comes through accounts of French explorers and the tribes they encountered during the early years of exploration. Even the effects in the eastern regions are not fully known, as large parts of the region remained unexplored. The resident tribes did not have direct contact with Europeans, so no accounts were passed on about the wars.