Manataka American Indian Council







Algonquian History

Part 2


The Algonquian maintain that their ancestors originally migrated to the upper St. Lawrence Valley from the east, a tradition they share with the closely related Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. The timing of this seems to have been sometime around 1400, but when Jacques Cartier made his first visit to the St. Lawrence River in 1534, he found Haudenosaunee-speaking peoples living along the river between Quebec (Stadacona) and the rapids at Montreal (Hochelaga). It is unclear whether these people were Haudenosaunee or Huron, but by the time the French made their first permanent settlement in this area seventy years later, these so-called "Laurentian" Haudenosaunee had disappeared, the apparent casualties of a Haudenosaunee-Algonquian war which had occurred in the interim. 


Some Algonquian say that they lived in peace with the Haudenosaunee at Hochelaga and may even have absorbed some of them. The Haudenosaunee version is significantly different and tells of an earlier time before they united under the Haudenosaunee League when the Algonquian dominated the badly-divided Haudenosaunee and forced them to pay tribute. This situation changed with the formation of the League, and after 50 years of warfare, the Haudenosaunee had driven the Adirondack and their allies from the Adirondack Mountains and the upper Hudson Valley.

This was where things stood when Samuel de Champlain established the first permanent French settlement on the St. Lawrence at Tadoussac in 1603. Towards the end of May, he met with a Montagnais chief and was invited to attend a feast celebrating the success of a recent raid against the Haudenosaunee. Dressed in his finest, Champlain attended and was introduced to the Montagnais allies, the Etchemin (Maliseet) and Algonquian. He soon learned that there had been continuous war between these three allies and the Haudenosaunee since 1570. Despite the fact that he was entering a war zone, Champlain was so impressed with the Algonquian's furs that in July he explored the St. Lawrence as far west as the Lachine Rapids. 


Champlain left for France shortly afterwards, but upon his return in 1608, he immediately moved his fur trade upstream to a new post at Quebec to shorten the distance that the Algonquian were required to travel for trade. He soon discovered that Algonquian victories over the Haudenosaunee were not that common, and it was the Mohawk, not the Algonquian, who dominated the upper river. At the time, it was possible to travel the entire length of the upper St. Lawrence without seeing another human being. The Algonquian usually avoided the river because of the threat of Mohawk war parties.

Champlain was anxious to conclude treaties with both the Algonquian and Montagnais to preclude competition from his European rivals. However, the Algonquian, Montagnais, and their Huron allies were reluctant to commit themselves to the long, dangerous journey to Quebec unless the French were willing to help them in their war against the Mohawk. In June, 1609 Champlain was leading a French exploration west of Quebec when he encountered a group of 300 Algonquian and Montagnais under the Weskarini sachem Iroquet and 100 Huron led by their war chief Ochasteguin, Champlain seized this opportunity to show his support for his new trading partners and unwittingly allowed the French to be drawn into an intertribal war. In July the French joined the Algonquian, Montagnais, and Huron at the mouth of the Richelieu River for an invasion of the Mohawk homeland. The warriors enthusiasm for this venture had already cooled, and many of them departed once they had completed their trading with the French.

Champlain, however, was determined to see it through to the end. Tensions increased as the combined war party moved south, and when the French boat was stopped by shallow water, Champlain allowed nine of his men to turn back while he and two volunteers climbed into the Algonquian canoes. By the time it reached Lake Champlain in northern New York (which Champlain promptly named for himself), the war party was down to 60 warriors and three Frenchmen in 24 canoes. At the south end of the lake, they encountered Mohawk warriors massing in anticipation of a battle. However, it was late in the evening, and after some negotiation, both sides decided to wait until morning when the light would be better. The next day the Mohawk massed for battle, but French firearms shattered their formation killing two of their war chiefs. Confronted by strange new weapons, the Mohawk turned and fled.

The Algonquian were delighted with their victory, and the French got the treaties and fur trade they had wanted. The following year, Champlain participated in a second attack against a Mohawk fort on the Richelieu River. Although they were not given any firearms during the early years, the steel weapons received through their trade with the French were sufficient for the Algonquian and their allies to drive the Mohawk well south of the St. Lawrence River during 1610. The Algonquian advantage was only temporary. The Haudenosaunee soon found another source of steel weapons through their trade with the Dutch along the lower Hudson River to the south. Fur from the Great Lakes flowed down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to the French at Quebec during the years which followed, and the Algonquian, led by their great war chief Pieskaret dominated the St. Lawrence Valley. However, the Haudenosaunee remained a constant threat, and in winning the trade and friendship of the Algonquian, the French had made a dangerous enemy for themselves.

It did not take long, for the focus of the fur trade to move farther west, because the French had already learned of the Huron who were allies of the Algonquian against the Haudenosaunee. In 1611 ╔tienne Brule visited the Huron villages and spent the winter with them at the south end of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. Champlain's initial impressions of the Huron had not been favorable, but BrulÚ's glowing reports about the quality of their fur soon altered this opinion. Champlain made his first exploration of the Ottawa River during May, 1613 and reached the fortified Kichesipirini village at Morrison Island. Unlike the other Algonquian, the Kichesipirini did not change location with the seasons. They had chosen a strategic point astride the trade route between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence and had prospered through the collection of tolls from native traders passing through their territory. They pointed with great pride to their corn fields, a skill that they seemed to have acquired just before the arrival of the French.

They welcomed Champlain but, anxious to protect their trade monopoly with the French, were reluctant to allow him to proceed farther. However, the quantity and quality of the fur coming from the Huron could not be ignored, and in 1614 the French and Huron signed a formal treaty of trade and alliance at Quebec. The following year, Champlain, accompanied by four Recollect missionaries, made his second journey up the Ottawa River and, ignoring the Kichesipirini protests, proceeded to the Huron villages. While there, he participated in a Huron-Algonquian attack on the Oneida and Onondaga villages confirming in the minds of the Haudenosaunee (in case they still had doubts) that the French were their enemies.

After 1614, the focus of the French fur trade shifted from the Algonquian to the Huron, but because the Haudenosaunee, the French found it prudent to make the long detour up the Ottawa Valley, then portage to Lake Nipissing and the French River, follow the east side of Lake Huron to the Huron villages. Although the French continued to trade with them, the Algonquian were somewhat annoyed by their demotion to secondary trading partner. 


The Kichesipirini, however, continued to profit by charging tolls for both French and native traders to pass through their territory. The effect obviously fell more heavily on natives, since firearms insured that the French usually paid less. Meanwhile, to the south in New York, the Mohawk had fought a series of wars against the Mahican whose location on the Hudson allowed them to control the access of the Haudenosaunee to the Dutch. Because warfare was detrimental to trade, the Dutch had been quick to arrange peace between these rivals, but in 1624 the Mohawk discovered that the Mahican were attempting to act as middlemen by arranging trade between the Dutch and the Algonquian and Montagnais.

The Haudenosaunee had never accepted their loss of the St. Lawrence Valley in 1610 as permanent. When they became involved in wars with the Mahican, the Mohawk had made several attempts to settle their differences with the Algonquian and Montagnais. However, with the exception of a brief truce arranged at Trois Rivieres in 1622, fighting had continued between the Mohawk, Algonquian, and Montagnais. The possibility of the Mahican joining forces with their northern enemies was something the Mohawk were not willing to tolerate, and a war erupted in 1624 between the Mohawk and Mahican that the Dutch could not stop. After four years, the Mahican had been defeated and forced east of the Hudson River. 


The Dutch were forced to accept the outcome, and the Mohawk afterwards dominated the trade in the Hudson Valley. Unfortunately, the Haudenosaunee by this time had exhausted the beaver in their homeland and needed additional hunting territory to maintain their position with the Dutch. Their inability to satisfy the demand for beaver was the very reason the Dutch had tried in 1624 to open trade with the Algonquian and Montagnais. The obvious direction for the Haudenosaunee expansion was north, but the alliance of the Huron and Algonquian made this impossible. The Haudenosaunee at first attempted diplomacy to gain permission, but the Huron and Algonquian refused, and with no other solution available, the Haudenosaunee resorted to force. In what is generally considered the opening battle of the Beaver Wars (1630-1700), the Mohawk attacked the Algonquian-Montagnais trading village at Sillery (just outside Quebec) in 1629.

By 1630 both the Algonquian and Montagnais needed French help to fight the Mohawk, but this was not available. Taking advantage of a European war between Britain and France, Sir David Kirke captured Quebec in 1629, and the British held Canada until 1632 when it was returned to France by the Treaty of St. Germaine en Laye. Those intervening three years were a disaster for the French allies. Since their own trade with the Dutch was not affected, the Mohawk were able to reverse their defeats during 1609-10. 


They reclaimed the territory surrendered in 1610 and drove the Algonquian and Montagnais from the upper St. Lawrence. When they returned to Quebec in 1632, the French attempted to restore the previous balance of power along the St. Lawrence by providing firearms to their allies. However, the initial sales were restricted to Christian converts which did not confer any real advantage to the Algonquian. The roving Algonquian bands had proven resistant to the initial missionary efforts of the "Black Robes, and the Jesuits had concentrated instead on the Montagnais and Huron.

But the Kichesipirini's permanent village made them more susceptible to missionaries, and Jesuits were not above using the lure of firearms to help with conversions. Tessouat, the Kichesipirini sachem, could see that the new religion was dividing his people and opposed the Jesuits, even to the point of threatening to kill Algonquian converts. This not only earned him the active dislike of the French priests, but forced many of his people to leave their island fortress. Between 1630 and 1640, many of the Kichesipirini and Weskarini converts left the Ottawa Valley. They settled first at Trois Rivieres and then Sillery after a mission was built for them during 1637. 


The effect was to weaken the main body of traditional Algonquian defending the trade route through the Ottawa Valley, and the consequences quickly became apparent. The Dutch had reacted to the French arming their native allies with large sales of firearms to the Mohawk who passed these weapons along to the other Haudenosaunee, and the whole ugly business of the fur trade degenerated into an arms race. After seven years of increasing violence, a peace was arranged in 1634 which allowed both sides to catch their breath. Unfortunately, the Algonquian used the pause to start trading with the Dutch in New York, a definite "no-no" so far as the Haudenosaunee were concerned, and the war resumed.

Weakened by the departure of their Christian tribesmen to Trois Rivieres and Sillery, the Algonquian could not stop the onslaught which followed. Haudenosaunee offensives during 1636 and 1637 drove the Algonquian farther north into the upper Ottawa Valley and forced the Montagnais east towards Quebec. Only a smallpox epidemic, which began in New England during 1634 and then spread to New York and the St. Lawrence Valley, slowed the fighting. The real escalation occurred in 1640 when British traders on the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts attempted to lure the Mohawk from the Dutch with offers of guns. 


The Dutch responded to this latest threat to their trade monopoly by providing the Mohawk with as many of the latest, high-quality firearms as they wanted. The effect of this new firepower in the hands of Haudenosaunee warriors was immediate. The Weskarini along the lower Ottawa River were forced to abandon their villages on the lower Ottawa River during 1640. Some moved north to the Kichesipirini fortress and continued to resist the Mohawk's occupation of their homeland. Others moved east and settled among the Christian Algonquian at Trois Rivieres and Sillery. By the spring of 1642, the Mohawk and Oneida had succeeded in completely driving the last groups of Algonquian and Montagnais from the upper St. Lawrence and lower Ottawa Rivers, while in the west, the Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga concentrated on their war with the Huron.

To shorten the travel distance for Huron and Algonquian traders, the French in 1642 established a new post at Montreal (Ville Marie) on the large island near the mouth of the Ottawa River. However, this only seemed to make matters worse. The French were attacked while building Fort Richelieu, and the Haudenosaunee soon bypassed the French settlement and sent war parties north into the Ottawa Valley to attack the Huron and Algonquian canoe fleets transporting fur to Montreal and Quebec. Through all of these years, the Haudenosaunee had never dared to attack the Kichesipirini fortress, but in 1642 a surprise winter raid hit the Algonquian while most of their warriors were absent and inflicted severe casualties. The Haudenosaunee tightened their stranglehold the following year. Trying to bolster their defense in the west, the French sent soldiers to the Huron mission at Sainte Marie and ordered the non-Christian Algonquian at Trois Rivieres and Sillery to return to the Ottawa Valley. However, with Haudenosaunee along the lower river, most did not go beyond Montreal. Meanwhile, Tessouat had ended his opposition to Christianity and, to the delight of the Jesuits, requested baptism in March, 1643.

During 1644 many of the Weskarini abandoned the struggle with the Mohawk for the lower Ottawa River and moved west to the Huron. Decimated by recent epidemics, the Huron by this time were under attack from the western Haudenosaunee (Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca), so the Weskarini, who the Huron called the Atonontrataronon, were a welcome addition. They could not, however, reverse the deteriorating situation. With the departure of the Weskarini, the Mohawk were free to operate in force along the river and captured three large Huron canoe fleets bound for Montreal. This brought the French fur trade to a complete standstill, and Champlain's successor Charles Huault de Montmagmy (known to the Haudenosaunee as Onontio "Big Mountain") had little choice but to seek peace. He ordered the release of several Mohawk prisoners and sent them to their people with the message that he wanted to talk. Having suffered severe losses from warfare and epidemic, the Mohawk were receptive, but they were also aware that the French were in serious trouble and therefore were prepared to drive a hard bargain.

In July a Mohawk delegation arrived at Trois Rivieres for a preliminary discussion of the peace terms and requested a private meeting with the French. Montmagmy had as his advisors the Jesuits Barthelemy Vimont and Paul Le Jeune, and it soon became apparent that, while the Mohawk were willing to make peace with the French, they had no intention of extending the truce to the French allies. The Mohawk also had not been empowered to speak for other members of the Haudenosaunee League which meant that any agreement would not protect the Huron and their allies in the west. Earlier that year, a combined Mohawk, Sokoki, and Mahican war party had attacked Sillery, the main Montagnais and Algonquian mission village outside Quebec. Vimont and Le Jeune were convinced that, with these new allies, the Mohawk were on the verge of destroying the Jesuit missions on the lower St. Lawrence. On their advice, Montmagmy finally agreed to a treaty permitting the French to resume their fur trade but containing a secret agreement requiring French neutrality in future wars between their allies and Haudenosaunee in exchange for a Mohawk promise to refrain from attacks on the Algonquian and Montagnais villages at the Jesuit missions.

Tessouat was now a Christian, but it is doubtful that he would have accepted any agreement which abandoned his non-Christian tribesmen to the Haudenosaunee. By the time Tessouat and the other French allies signed the public version of the treaty signed at Trois Rivieres that September, Montmagmy, Vimont and Le Jeune had not bothered to inform them of the secret provisions The French allies were not the only ones kept in the dark. Well aware that the treachery would encounter strong objections from their fellow Jesuits, Vimont and Le Jeune did not disclose the full details of agreement to them for another year, and by then it was too late. Meanwhile, the Jesuits took advantage of the peace with the Mohawk to send Father Issac Jogues and two other Frenchmen to build a mission at the Mohawk villages. Accused of sorcery, they were murdered in October of 1646.

Despite this incident, the Mohawk upheld their end of the bargain with the French, but the Oneida did not consider themselves bound by the agreement, and one of their war parties along the lower Ottawa River almost succeeded in killing Tessouat. Still, there was a pause in the fighting during which Huron and Algonquian furs flowed east to Quebec in unprecedented amounts, while the Haudenosaunee renewed efforts to gain the permission of the Huron to hunt north of the St. Lawrence. Refused after two years of failed diplomacy, the Haudenosaunee resorted to total war, but this time with the assurance that the French would remain neutral. While their Sokoki (western Abenaki) and Mahican went after the Montagnais, the Mohawk chose to ignore the distinction between Christian and non-Christian Algonquian. On March 6th (Ash Wednesday), 1647, a large Mohawk war party hit the Kichesipirini living near Trois Rivieres and almost exterminated them.

With the Algonquian bands on the lower Ottawa River gone, not even a last-minute alliance of the Micmac, Montagnais and Nipissing could stop the Mohawk. Only the Haudenosaunee League's preoccupation with their war against the Huron brought some measure of relief to the French allies in the east, but this ended in 1649 after the Haudenosaunee overran and completely destroyed the Huron. As French and Indian refugees streamed down the Ottawa Valley to the relative safety of Montreal, Tessouat was still trying to collect tolls and ordered one of the Jesuits who refused him to be strung up by the heels. 


However, the Mohawk did not allow much more time for toll collections, and during 1650 the remaining Algonquian in the upper Ottawa Valley were attacked and overrun. The survivors retreated, either far to headwaters of the rivers feeding the Upper Ottawa River where the Cree afforded a certain amount of support and protection, or west to the vicinity of the Ottawa and Ojibwe. During the next twenty years, the Algonquian pretty much dropped out of sight so far as the French were concerned. Tessouat, however, visited Trois Rivi╦res in 1651 and was promptly tossed in a dungeon for a few days because of his manhandling of the Jesuit priest two years earlier.

During the years following the disaster of 1649, the French tried to continue their fur trade by asking native traders to bring their furs to Montreal. Protecting a fragile truce with the western Haudenosaunee signed in 1653, the French avoided travel west of Montreal. The Haudenosaunee never occupied the Ottawa Valley, but their war parties roamed its length during the 1650s and 60s making travel extremely dangerous for anything but large, heavily-armed convoys. 


Few tribes were willing to run the gauntlet that the Haudenosaunee established along the river. War between the Haudenosaunee and French resumed after the murder of a Jesuit ambassador in 1658. By 1664 the French had decided they had endured enough of living in constant fear of the Haudenosaunee. The arrival of regular French troops in Quebec that year and their subsequent attacks on villages in the Haudenosaunee homeland brought a lasting peace in 1667.

Learning from their earlier mistakes, the French insisted that this agreement also include their allies and trading partners. This not only allowed French traders and missionaries to travel to the western Great Lakes, but permitted the Algonquian to begin a gradual return to northern part of the Ottawa Valley. Conquest and dispersal had been hard on them, and not many were left (perhaps 2,000). The epidemics which struck Sillery in 1676 and 1679 had reduced the Christian Algonquian survivors to only a handful, most of whom were subsequently absorbed by the Abenaki at St. Francois after the closure of the Sillery mission in 1685. During the 20-year absence of the Algonquian from the Ottawa Valley, the Ottawa had come to dominate the French fur trade with the western Great Lakes. So much so that any native fur trader visiting Montreal during this period was routinely referred to as an Ottawa even though many were Algonquian and Ojibwe. 


A even greater insult occurred when the name of the Grande Riviere des Algoumequins (Grand River of the Algonquians) was changed on French maps to the Riviere des Outauais. The change was permanent and persists today, although no Ottawa, other than the Kinounchepirini (Keinouche), were ever known to have lived along the Ottawa River.

During the next fifty years the French established trading posts for the Algonquian at Abitibi and Temiscamingue at the north end of the Ottawa Valley. Missions were also built at Ile aux Tourtes and St. Anne de Boit de Ille, and in 1721 French missionaries convinced approximately 250 Nipissing and 100 Algonquian to join the 300 Christian Mohawk at the Sulpician mission village of Lake of Two Mountains (Lac des Deaux Montagnes) just west of Montreal. 


This strange mix of former enemies, both of whom had converted to Christianity and allied with the French, became known by both its Algonquian name Oka (pickerel), and the Haudenosaunee form, Kanesatake (sandy place). For the most part, the Algonquian converts remained at Oka only during the summer and spent their winters at their traditional hunting territories in the upper Ottawa Valley. This arrangement served the French well, since the Algonquian converts at Oka maintained close ties with the northern bands and could call upon the inland warriors to join them in case of war with the British and Haudenosaunee League.

Because of the Algonquian converts at Oka, all of the Algonquian were committed to the French cause through a formal alliance known as the Seven Nations of Canada, or the Seven Fires of Caughnawaga. Members included: Caughnawaga (Mohawk), Lake of the Two Mountains (Haudenosaunee, Algonquian, and Nipissing), St. Francois (Sokoki, Pennacook, and New England Algonquian), Becancour (Eastern Abenaki), Oswegatchie (Onondaga and Oneida), Lorette (Huron), and St. Regis (Mohawk). The Algonquian remained important French allies until the French and Indian War (1755-63) and the summer of 1760. 


By then, the British had captured Quebec and were close to taking the last French stronghold at Montreal. The war was over in North America, and the British had won. The Huron of Lorette were the first to understand this and signed a separate treaty with British that summer. In mid-August, the Algonquian and eight other former French allies met with the British representative, Sir William Johnson, and signed a treaty in which they agreed to remain neutral in futures wars between the British and French.

This sealed the fate of the French at Montreal and North America, and further French efforts to keep their Canadian native allies in the war failed. After the war, Johnson used his influence with the Haudenosaunee to merge the Haudenosaunee League and the Seven Nations of Canada into a single alliance in the British interest. The sheer size of this group was an important reason the British were able to crush the Pontiac Rebellion west of the Appalachian Mountains in 1763 and quell the unrest created by the first white settlements in the Ohio Country during the years which followed. 


Johnson died suddenly in 1774, but his legacy lived on, and the Algonquian fought alongside the British during the American Revolution (1775-83) participating in St. Leger's campaign in the Mohawk Valley in 1778. The Algonquian homeland was supposed to be protected from settlement by the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774, but after the revolution ended in a rebel victory, thousands of British Loyalists (Tories) left the new United States and settled in Upper Canada.

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