French, Dutch, and English relations with the native peoples of the Northeast were characterized by a confusing and shifting labyrinth of commercial, diplomatic, and military alliances. On the part of the Indians, these alliances were often forged or given new life by preexisting tribal rivalries, while the Europeans’ motives were frequently fueled by Old World wars and disputes.
The first attempts at French settlement and trade in the St. Lawrence Valley were largely failures, and it was not until Champlain arrived in 1608 that New France began to really take shape. Champlain was able to form a military alliance with the Huron, who “used him as an effective secret weapon.”1 In 1609, Champlain and a handful of Frenchmen traveled south with a large group of Huron and Montagnais to the northern reaches of Mohawk territory and engaged the Huron’s enemies at Lake Champlain. In the battle, Champlain and his musketeers surprised the Mohawk with their European weapons, against which their light shields were no match. The Huron easily carried the day, and the victors secured from Champlain promises of further martial aid. In return, Champlain and subsequent French arrivals to New France were brought into a lucrative fur trade that spanned from the mouth of the St. Lawrence northward to Hudson Bay, and south and west to the western end of the Great Lakes.2 Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1626, and were very successful in their proselytizing. Half the Huron tribe had been converted to Christianity by 1649, with at least some of those converts won over by the French policy of selling muskets to Christian Indians. However, the schism that developed between converts and traditionalists among the Huron would help speed the destruction of the tribe when the Mohawk began their campaign against their traditional enemies.3
The Dutch were situated farther south, along the Hudson River from its mouth at Manhattan Island northward to Fort Orange. They staked their claim to this territory about the same time as Champlain was wooing the Huron, when Henry Hudson in 1609 sailed up the river that bears his name. Dutch traders began doing business with the local Amerindians, first the Mahican and then the Mohawk and other members of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Dutch, in contrast to the French, were not particularly interested in converting the Indians to Christianity, nor did they get involved in inter-tribal conflicts. They recognized that the Mohawk were the most powerful tribe in the Hudson Valley, and consequently struck up a close diplomatic and commercial relationship with them. The Mohawk were more than happy to participate in this joint venture, as it supplied them with the muskets they needed to compete with their Huron enemies. The Dutch for their part appreciated the fact that the Mohawk were putting pressure on the Huron and by extension their French allies, and they used the Mohawk to help suppress native revolts downriver nearer Manhattan and New Amsterdam.4 The English seized control of Dutch claims along the Hudson in 1664, renaming both New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, which became New York and Albany, respectively. Though the Iroquois were at first suspicious of the English, and indeed many of them sought to make peace with the French, eventually pro-English Iroquois came to dominate. This dominant sentiment, along with the continued presence of Dutch traders who had been friendly with the Mohawk all along, and within a couple of decades the old balance was more or less restored.5
The Beaver Wars were precipitated by the Iroquois Confederacy, and their ultimate cause was Iroquois survival. The Iroquois had seriously depleted the furs in their own territory, while the Huron to the north still enjoyed a robust trade with the French. In order to maintain economic and military dominance, the Iroquois needed a new source of furs, and an attack on their traditional enemies seemed like their only viable alternative.6 The French and the Dutch, in allying themselves separately with these old rivals and supplying them each with muskets and metal knives and hatchets, had set the stage for a much more lethal war than would otherwise have been the case. Furthermore, the symbiotic French-Huron and Dutch-Iroquois relationships spawned much larger and more extensive trade networks and alliances than had existed precontact. All these forces collided in a showdown that ultimately led to the near-extinction of the Huron and many of their native allies.
Obviously, the musket was the most revolutionary piece of European technology to make its way into the hands of Amerindians, and its spreading use forced the native peoples to change the way they fought each other. Previous massed attacks on one another and “gladiatorial combat” were unthinkable when the other side possessed such destructive power.7 The combatants began to engage in more guerilla tactics, and even began to launch attacks at night and outside the traditional summer campaigning season, actions that had been unthinkable in the past.8 Furthermore, both the Huron and the Iroquois adhered to a tradition of “mourning wars,” and the combination of greater firepower and long-simmering blood feuds made the game much more lethal than it ever had been.9
1. Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 64.
2. Ibid., 64-65; Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 98-99.
3. Steele, Warpaths, 70.
4. Ibid., 112-16; Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 128-29.
5. Steele, Warpaths, 119-23.
6. Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 127.
7. Steele, Warpaths, 66.
8. Ibid., 71.
9. Ibid., 113.