The Beaver Wars

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The French and Iroquois Wars (also called the Iroquois Wars or the Beaver Wars) commonly refer to a brutal series of conflicts fought in the mid-17th century in eastern North America. 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 Artwork by Benjamin Westpitted the nations of the Iroquois Confederation, led by the dominant Mohawk, against the largely Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Great Lakes region.

The wars were of extreme brutality 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 other eastern tribes west of the Mississippi River. 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 by these Ohio people not long after, although generally in multi-ethnic indigenous "republics" rather than homogenous, 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. Subsequently, the Iroquois became trading partners with the British, which was a crucial component of later British expansion.


Written records for the St. Lawrence valley begin with the voyages of Jacques Cartier in the 1540s. Cartier tells of encounters with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, also known as the Stadaconans or Laurentians, occupying several fortified villages, including Stadacona and Hochelaga. Cartier records 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 further 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 attempted to implicate the Iroquois Confederacy in the destruction of Stadacona and Hochelaga, but there is little evidence to support that claim. Iroquois oral tradition, as recorded in the Jesuit Relations, speaks of a draining war between the Mohawk Iroquois and an alliance of the Susquehannocks and Algonquins sometime between 1580 and 1600. Thus, when the French reappeared on the scene in 1601, the St. Lawrence Valley had already witnessed generations of blood-feud-style warfare. Indeed, 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, Algonquins and Hurons to assist them in attacking their enemies.

Relations between the Iroquois and the French were not harmonious in the early 17th century. The first encounter was in 1609, when Champlain, in the company of his Algonquin allies, engaged in a pitched battle with the Iroquois on the shores of Lake Champlain. Champlain himself 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 the siege of an Iroquois town, probably among the Onondagas. The siege ultimately failed, and Champlain was injured in the attempt.

musketBy the 1630s, however, the Iroquois had become fully armed with European weaponry through their trade with the Dutch, and 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 bloodly conflict with the European colonists themselves.

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. At the time of the conflict, the Iroquois inhabited a 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, as well as by Iroquoian-speaking Huron on the north along the St. Lawrence River, who were not part of the Iroquois Confederation.

With the establishment of Dutch trading posts in the Hudson in the 1620s, the Iroquois, and in particular the Mohawk, had come to rely on the trade for the purchase of firearms and other European goods. The introduction of firearms, however, had accelerated the decline of the beaver population such that by 1640 the animal had largely disappeared from the Hudson Valley. The center of the fur trade thus shifted northward to the colder regions along the St. Lawrence River, controlled by the Hurons, who were the close trading partners of the French in New France. The Iroquois, who considered themselves to be the most civilized and advanced people of the region, found themselves 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.

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