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The origins of the French and Indian War

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Fred Anderson, in Crucible of War, summarizes the causes of the French and Indian War as follows:

In fact, events had reached a stage at the beginning of 1755 that made war between Britain and France all but inevitable.  The origins of that war lay in a skein of developments so tangled that neither Newcastle nor any other diplomatist in Europe could fully have unraveled, let alone controlled, them.  The decay of the Iroquois Confederacy’s netrality policy and the rising independence of the Indians of the upper Ohio Valley; the surge of Anglo-American traders and land speculators into the region; the fears of the French for the loss of contact by way of the Ohio between the growth of French influence both in the interior of America and on the European Continent; the personalities of Dinwiddie, Duquesne, Newcastle, Cumberland, and even such obscure figures as Washington, Croghan, and Tanaghrisson: in the interaction of all these lay the beginnings of a conflagration that in fact already smoldered on the eastern fringe of the Ohio Valley.  The realignment of the European alliance system, the posting of British and French troops to America, and the dominance of aggressive British politicians would take such comparatively minor episodes and Jumonville’s death and the Battle of Fort Necessity and make of them something much larger, much more dangerous, then even Newcastle at his most pessimistic could have foreseen.  How the clash of tiny numbers of men in a frontier conflict would grow into a world war, how that war would redraw the map of Europe’s empires, and how it would transform the relationship between England and her American colonies—such a chain of events would have defied the most exuberant imagining.  But in a very real sense, as Braddock’s force sailed for Virginia in the first days of 1755, everything had already come to depend upon what it would accomplish, or fail to accomplish, in the depths of the American wilderness.

Written by uncudh

April 8, 2009 at 10:13 pm

The decline of Iroquois influence

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We have seen previously that the initial phase of the Iroquois Wars (1640’s to 60’s) was marked by the stunning miltary sucesses of the Iroquois against their enemies—e.g., Huron, Tobacco, Neutrals— north of the Great Lakes.  They were also successful in actions taken against various nations of the Ohio valley.  By the 1660’s however, this continuous warfare began to take its toll on the Iroquois confederacy.  The mid-1660’s was also marked by the English conquest of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which had been the principal supplier of arms and ammunition to the Iroquois.  Under these circumstances, the Five Nations made peace with the French and ceased hostilities for a time.

During the subsequent period of peace, the Iroquois began to form connections with the English, which eventually led to the creation of the so-called Covenant Chain between the Iroquois confederacy and the English colonies.  In the meanwhile, the French were no less assiduous in seeking out alliances.  In particular, the French formed strong connections with the Algonquian peoples of the upper Great Lakes.

The renewal of the conflict in the 1680’s and 90’s was following by devastating reversals of fortune for the Iroquois.  We have briefly noted earlier that the strong French alliances and increased military presence of the French in the Canadas combined to inflict serious losses on the Iroquois.  The Iroquois made peace once more with the French in 1701—the so-called Great Peace of Montreal—which committed them to neutrality in any future conflicts between the English and French.

There was now a tenuous balance of power in the region, with the Iroquois Confederacy acting as a buffer between the two empires.  Developments in the Ohio valley, however, threatened to destabilize this balance of power.  The Ohio valley was important to each of the three major players for different reasons.  The French wanted control of the Ohio country because they needed the Ohio waterways to connect their forts and settlements in the Canadas to those along the upper Mississippi valley in the so-called Illinois country.  The English wanted that land for future expansion and settlement; futhermore, they could not allow the French to occupy the Ohio valley, as that would seal the English off from the interior of the continent and restrict them to the land east of the Appalachians.  The Iroquois, for their part, claimed authority over the various nations—such as Shawnee, Mingo, and Delaware—that had moved into the Ohio country in response to the pressure of European expansion in the east.

By the 1750’s, the French had begun to establish a significant presence in the Ohio valley, building several large forts at strategic locations along the waterways.  Moreover, the nations of the valley, supposed to be Iroquois dependents, were increasingly coming under French influence.  The Iroquois, dismayed at the decline of their influence among these nations, were inevitably being driven closer and closer to a position which would require them to abandon their neutrality and take action against the French.  The English also could not possibly tolerate such French incursions.  This powderkeg in the Ohio valley would eventually set off the last and most significant of the French and Indian Wars, which would last from 1754 to 1763 and would end with the decisive defeat of the French and the complete and irretrievable loss of their Canadian possessions to the English.

Written by uncudh

March 28, 2009 at 8:53 pm

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Motivations for Iroquois warfare

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Hunt, in his 1940 book, The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study in Intertribal Trade Relations, described the Iroquois Wars as being fought principally so that the Iroquois could establish themselves as middlemen in the fur trade. For instance, according to this interpretation, since the Hurons had established themselves in this role in the trade between the nations living further west in the Great Lakes regions and the French at Montreal, the Iroquois made war on the Hurons in the 1640’s in order to drive them out of this preferential position and divert the fur trade southward, through the Iroquois country, to the Dutch (later English) at Albany. In this way the Iroquois could control the west-east flow of furs. Hunt presents these economic forces as the central impulse driving Iroquois policy.

As a non-expert, after reading Hunt’s account his arguments seemed rather convincing to me. However, many later historians have severely criticised his explanations of Iroquois behaviour. For example, Brandao’s book, ‘Your fyre shall burn no more’: Iroquois Policy towards New France and its Native Allies to 1701, rejects such economic motivations and instead presents the thesis that the principal motivations behind Iroquois warfare were cultural in nature. For instance, in his view, motives for Iroquois warfare included the need to acquire captives for adoption into Iroquois society in order to recoup losses due to epidemics or previous military conflict, or the desire of Iroquois men to acquire prestige in the only way available to them, namely by displaying prowess in battle.

Brandao therefore takes an almost diametrically opposite point of view to that of Hunt. Again, as a non-expert, after reading Brandao I found his arguments to be rather convincing. However, other historians do not subscribe to his interpretation either. Trigger writes in the preface to the 2000 printing of The Children of Aataentsic:

Very different in its objectives is Jose Brandao’s rancorous and polemical book […] Like his mentor, William J. Eccles, Brandao accuses the majority of Iroquoian ethnohistorians, myself included, of being economic reductionists who underestimate the resilience and importance of traditional Iroquoian culture and fail to interpret Iroquoian behaviour in ways that would have made sense to these peoples. A wide range of materialist approaches are caricatured as being based on the false belief that during the period of the fur trade the Iroquois were motivated by a universal desire for economic gain. While it is true, as I observed long ago, that the economists George Hunt and Harold Innis paid little attention to indigenous beliefs, Brandao’s claims seem based on biased and selective readings of even these scholars. He certainly misrepresents the more nuanced, multifaceted, and culturally informed arguments of most anthropologists and historians who have written about Iroquoian groups in recent decades.

Other interpretations of the Iroquois Wars are out there as well: Jennings suggests a desire on the part of the Iroquois to acquire hegemony over the nations of the Ohio, Susquehanna, and Hudson River valleys, etc.

Written by uncudh

December 10, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Allies and enemies

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Champlain’s new settlement was founded in the summer of 1608 at “Kebec” or the “narrows” of the St. Lawrence.  (Thus making this the year of its 400th anniversary.)  The same year he was invited by a Montagnais-Algonquin-Huron coalition to join forces with them in an raid on their old enemies, the Iroquois.  The attack was to take place the next year.  Champlain agreed to join the coalition, expecting that a sufficiently impressive demonstration of force against the Iroquois would deter them from future attacks against his Indian allies.  Establishing such a peace would in turn be congenial to the development of the fur trade.

In 1609 Champlain set out with his Indian allies and began his journey to the Iroquois country.  They traveled up the St. Lawrence, then, just below Montreal, took the Richelieu River southward into Lake Champlain.  They encountered a Mohawk war party at the southern end of the lake.  Only two other Frenchmen had made it this far with Champlain.  The allies engaged the Mohawks on shore.  The battle began with Champlain discharging his arquebus to devastating effect: a single shot took out three Mohawk warriors.  When the other Frenchmen fired their weapons with similar effects, the Mohawks turned and fled.  The allies pursued, winning a remarkable victory and capturing several prisoners.  The victory was followed by the standard (among the particular nations involved) torture and cannibalism of (some of) the captives.

After his return from Mohawk country to Quebec, Champlain left the colony in the hands of subordinates and returned to France.  He returned the following year, 1610, to Quebec, and again, when his Indian allies requested his aid, fought another battle against the Mohawks.  The allies were again victorious.  After suffering two severe defeats, the Mohawks avoided further conflict with the French for many years.

Written by uncudh

November 29, 2008 at 3:16 am

The Ile-Ste-Croix settlement

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The French made several attempts throughout the 1500’s to establish colonies in North America.  Without exception they all failed.  Champlain’s exploratory expedition of 1603 was followed in 1604 by a new French project to establish a colony in the Americas.  This expedition was led by Pierre Dugua, sieur de Mons.  He established in 1604 a settlement on the tiny island of Ile-Ste-Croix, just off the American coast at approximately the Maine-New Brunswick border.  The location was poorly chosen.  After a terrible winter, the settlement was relocated across the Bay of Fundy to Port-Royal, in what is now Nova Scotia.  In each of the years 1604, 1605, and 1606, the French sent out ships to explore the New Brunswick and New England coasts.  The expeditions were led by Champain, de Mons, and Poutrincourt respectively.  Only Champlain’s was reasonably successful; the latter two were spoiled by certain . . . unpleasantness with the Indians that the French met during the expeditions.

Unfortunately for the settlement at Port-Royal, the fashion of hats changed in Paris.  Beaver pelt hats were now wildly popular.  Increased demand for beaver furs allowed certain business interests to pressure King Henri IV to revoke de Mons’s monopoly of the fur trade, which had allowed him to provide financial backing for the settlement project.  With the loss of the monopoly, de Mons’s company failed.  The settlers were recalled to France and the settlement abandoned in 1607.

in 1608 de Mons convinced the king to give him another chance.  The king complied, granting him a 1 year monopoly.  De Mons put together a new expedition, this time led by Champlain, who planned his new settlement in the St. Lawrence valley rather than the coast of Acadia.

Written by uncudh

November 28, 2008 at 6:11 pm

Posted in history

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The Tabagie at Tadoussac

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Samuel de Champlain made his first voyage to Canada in 1603 as part of an expedition led by Pont-Gravé.  The expedition sailed up the St. Lawrence, stopping at the harbour of Tadoussac, at the junction of the Saguenay River and the St. Lawrence.  By a curious coincidence, at the same time a large number of Montaignais, Etchemins and Algonquins had gathered nearby to celebrate a great victory over their enemies, the Iroquois.  They were celebrating with a great tobacco-feast, or tabagie.  The French were invited to participate: they smoked tobacco with the leaders, joined in the feasting, and watched the celebratory dances.  Of this chance meeting between the French and the Indians, David Hackett Fischer writes in Champlain’s Dream:

Here was a moment of high importance in the history of North America.  Nobody had planned these events, but both French and Indian leaders were quick to see an opportunity.  The Great Tabagie marked the beginning of an alliance between the founders of New France and three Indian nations.  Each entered willingly into the relationship and gained something of value in return.  The Indians acquired a potential ally against their mortal enemies, the Iroquois.  The French won support for settlement, exploration, and trade.  The alliance that formed here would remain strong for many years because it rested on a mutuality of material interest.

Written by uncudh

November 24, 2008 at 10:23 pm

The Great Peace of Montreal

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The French and Iroquois wars of the 1600’s came to an end in 1701 with the Great Peace of Montreal.  In the late 1680’s and throughout the 1690’s the Iroquois suffered devastating losses in attacks by the French and their Indian allies, notably the Ottawa.  They were ready to make peace with the French, but New York was insistent that the Iroquois not enter into any negotiations with the French that did not go through the mediation of Albany.  The French insisted that the Iroquois treat directly with them and not involve the English.  The English were very much opposed to the idea of a separate peace between the French and the Iroquois.  Any such peace might allow the French to claim the Iroquois as French subjects by right of conquest, which would manifestly be contrary to the interests of New York.  Moreover, New York needed the Iroquois as a “buffer” between them and the western Indians.  The Iroquois were in an untenable position: either they would continue to suffer the raids of the French allies or they would risk losing the alliance and the trade with New York by making a separate peace with the French.  In the end they decided that they could not continue to fight and they entered into negotiations with the French.  An agreement was reached in 1701 at Montreal whereby the war would end and the Iroquois were required to remain neutral in any conflict between the French and English.

Written by uncudh

November 21, 2008 at 6:44 pm