The Beaver Wars
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What Were The Beaver Wars?
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While doing some basic research one day, I noticed a line in a Wikipedia entry that made my spidey-senses go off. The Beaver Wars theory claims that, in order to gain a monopoly over the fur trade with Europeans, Iroquoian peoples engaged in warfare and attempted to expand their territory through conflict. This interpretation was put forth by historians in the mid-twentieth century to explain the cycle of recurrent violence that involved the Native American nations of the Northeast and the European colonialists from France, England, and the Netherlands and, for a short time, Sweden.
And while the motives for war put forward by this theory may well have proven true for the European colonists, whose ancestors had been fighting wars over land and trade for millennia, this was a wholly foreign concept for the Native Americans of the area. The Beaver Wars theory has come to dominate the way the wider public views this period of history, even if it is a slightly nerdier niche of the wider public.
As Europeans, and the diseases they carried with them, made their way into Quebec and northern New York, Iroquoian and Algonquian nations underwent a demographic catastrophe. But just the opposite happened, and the depth of the Winter was also the severest period of the disease, so that from the 10th or the 12th of November we saw ourselves almost surrounded by it on every side. But disease was only one of the plagues brought on by European incursions into North America. Another huge factor in the demographic crises among the Iroquoian peoples of the seventeenth-century was the changing rules of warfare. Europeans were far more apt to kill enemy combatants on the battlefield than Iroquians were; so, as the Native Nations of the northeast came into violent conflict with French, English, and Dutch men armed with arquebuses who were shooting to kill, they suffered far more casualties than in the wars fought against their traditional enemies that pre-dated European arrival.
Writing in , Samuel de Champlain recorded the events one such engagement in which he took part. The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly, although they were provided with shields made of cotton thread woven together and wood, which were proof against their arrows. This frightened them greatly. As I was reloading my arquebus, one of my companions fired a shot from within the woods, which astonished them again so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took to flight, abandoning the field and their fort, and fleeing into the depth of the forest, whither I pursued them and laid low still more of them.
Our Indians also killed several and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder fled with the wounded. Of our Indians fifteen or six-teen were wounded with arrows, but these were quickly healed. Admittedly, to a modern reader of Western descent, this theory is probably most appealing for its simplicity, as it ascribes a motive often found in the annals of Eurasian history — battles for land and wealth. As such, historians of colonial North America, who for decades have focused far more on European agency in the white colonization of the Americans than the Native Americans whom those colonists sought to displace, couched Iroquoian motives for warfare in these terms.
This theory was most famously put forward in by a historian named George T. Despite the Euro-centricity of this argument, many still accept this interpretation, which comes through in the Wikipedia entry on the Beaver Wars. Lawrence River valley in Canada and the lower Great Lakes region… between the Iroquois trying to take control of the fur trade from the Hurons [Wendat], the northern Algonquians, and their French allies. While Dutch, French, and English colonists operating under the paradigms of mercantilism and nascent capitalism may well have thought of economic reasons to go to war and attempt to acquire territory, for the Native Nations of the area, this world view did not exist.
Though the Iroquoian and Algonquin peoples of the northeast were well known as traders and had extensive exchange networks to bring in furs from the less sedentary nations that lived farther north, or beads for wampum from peoples who lived closer to the sea , their economies were wholly different than the modern notion of supply and demand that fuels the Beaver Wars argument. The main reason that the Beaver Wars theory has come under attack is that the Native peoples of the northeast did not traditionally fight wars where the aim was to kill more of the enemy than the enemy killed of you, with the hope of gaining land or trade benefits. Far on the other side of the Atlantic, in the cobblestone capitals of Europe, hats made of beaver felt were all the rage.
The demand had already driven European beavers to the brink of extinction. Now, the furriers turned to the Americas to feed their ravenous sartorial appetite. The competition over the slaughter of the large, aquatic rodents plunged the Great Lakes into more than a century of bloodshed and violence. By the end of the s, a series of conflicts had been raging for decades on end. Thousands of warriors fought bloody battles over control of the fur trade. They called them the Beaver Wars. As far as they were concerned, this was New France. But barely any Europeans had ever set foot on this land: only a few early explorers, fur traders and missionaries. Where skyscrapers and condo towers now reach into the clouds, there was an ancient forest of towering oak and pine, home to moose, wolves and bears.
But there were plenty of people here, too — just not French ones: the First Nations and their ancestors had been living here for thousands and thousands of years. In the east, Ganatsekwyagon had a commanding view over the Rouge. They were both very important places. The Humber and the Rouge were at the southern end of a vital fur trade route: the Toronto Carrying Place trail, which gave our city its name. The rivers stretched north from Lake Ontario toward Lake Simcoe. From there, fur traders could reach the Upper Great Lakes, where the beaver population was still doing relatively well. Now that the Seneca controlled the Toronto Carrying Place, they could ship beaver pelts south into the American colonies and sell them to their British allies.
That pissed the French right off. By then, they had already spent decades fighting over the fur trade. They were on one side of the Beaver Wars, generally allied with the Wendat the Europeans called them the Huron and a variety of Algonquin-speaking nations, like the Odawa. On the other, the British supported the Haudenosaunee who they called the Iroquois : a confederacy of five nations, including the Seneca. And things were only getting worse for the French. They had tried to expand their control west into the Great Lakes, establishing a trading post — Fort Frontenac — where Kingston is today. But their efforts ended in humiliating failure.
They were beginning to worry that they were going to lose the Beaver Wars entirely — and all of New France with them. Thousands of kilometers away, in his new royal palace of Versailles, King Louis XIV — the famous Sun King, who reigned over France longer than any monarch has ever reigned over a major European nation — decided it was time for a change. The Governor of New France was fired. In his place, a new Governor was sent across the Atlantic to run things. He was a career solider: a respected officer from an old, rich family with deep ties to the throne. Upon his arrival in Canada, he would wage even more bloody war. It was a rout. Now, they controlled the northern trade.
Next, Denonville turned to treachery. In the summer of , he proposed a peace council : a great feast with the leaders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Fifty chiefs came to Fort Frontenac that June to meet under a flag of truce. But it was a French trap. Many would be shipped across the Atlantic in chains to serve King Louis as galley slaves. He led them across Lake Ontario, a sprawling fleet of hundreds of canoes and bateaux sailing toward the southern shore, where New York State is today: the heartland of the Seneca. His ultimate goal was laid out clearly in letters sent back and forth across the Atlantic between Denonville, his boss at Versailles , and King Louis himself.
Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi. To do it, they said, they would have to destroy the Haudenosaunee. If they failed, they feared the ruin of New France. The army landed near where Rochester is today, at Irondequoit Bay. Then, they headed south toward Ganondagan , the biggest of the Seneca villages. Three columns of French soldiers marched through the forest with their First Nations allies. They carried swords and torches and arquebuses — an early forerunner of the musket. But Denonville would have trouble finding anyone to capture or to kill.
There was only a single battle fought during the entire campaign. One afternoon, as the French army was approaching Ganondagan through a narrow pass, hundreds of Seneca warriors opened fire on them from behind. There were dozens of casualties on both sides, but the attack failed. Outnumbered, the Seneca warriors retreated. After that, they disappeared. And every time his army arrived at a Seneca village, they found it already abandoned.
So the Governor adjusted his plan. For the next ten days, the French army was hard at work burning fields of maize. Kilometer after kilometer went up in smoke. Vast stores were destroyed, too; everything that had been saved for the winter. Plus, they burned beans and other vegetables. Entire villages were burned to the ground. Against the entire Seneca people. It had been weeks since they left Montreal, making the long and dangerous journey up the rapids and waterfalls of the St.