From their Covenant Chain alliance with the English, Iroquoian peoples secured the southern and eastern limits of the Longhouse, obtained regular supplies of guns and ammunition, and played an important role in the functioning of the Anglo-American Empire. Seneca warriors joined the bands of Haudenosaunee men who traveled west to attack Great Lakes-area tribes allied with the French, people living throughout this vast Anishinaabewaki. Indeed, the Senecas expressed considerable discontent toward the Jesuit missionaries who had begun to probe their territory some years before. One priest reported that the Senecas and Cayugas he knew had “become so insolent that they talk only of breaking the missionaries’ heads.” New rounds of mourning wars began after 1677, all well chronicled by Jesuit observers.
The Iroquois expanded their attacks to the south as well. Perhaps at the urging of the Susquehannocks who earlier had settled in their midst, Senecas and other western Iroquois attacked the Conoys and Piscataways in Maryland and the Catawbas in Carolina. Other members of the Five Nations relocated to the north, settling in mission communities in the St. Lawrence river valley. Significant numbers of these emigrants converted to Catholicism, but it is important to realize that despite the presence of Catholic churches, the emigrants continued to live as they always had lived, and they remained in communication with their Haudenosaunee brethren. Indeed, the ties binding the St. Lawrence emigrants and the Five Nations remaining in New York played an important role in shaping the subsequent history of the Iroquois and their relations with France and England. All was not well in the Longhouse. Sixty Senecas died in one month during an epidemic that struck in 1676. Two years later, smallpox swept through all of the Five Nations. Iroquois warriors suffered some significant defeats. But the captives, furs and trade goods continued to flow in.
New France’s governor, Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre de la Barre, knew that his colony’s interests had come into conflict with Iroquois designs in the west. Attacks by Iroquois warriors, a significant number of whom were Senecas, limited the flow of pelts into Montreal. La Barre wanted to assert French control over the western Great Lakes, and provide French support to the native allies of New France. He led an expedition to punish the Senecas for their attacks in 1684.His 1200-man force moved slowly over the course of the summer; the 160 allied Iroquois who accompanied him showed little willingness to attack their brethren. Indeed, Iroquois orators saw through the French governor’s boastfulness. Speaking for all the Five Nations, the Onondaga Otreouti said La Barre was “raving in a camp of sick men.” The Iroquois would continue their attacks—on the Shawnees, the Miamis, the Illinois, and others in the Great Lakes, and this was not the concern of the French. Otreouti cautioned La Barre not to uproot the “Tree of Peace.” Easily employing the language of Haudenosaunee tradition, Otreouti assured La Barre that Iroquois warriors would remain quiet unless the French threatened their territory. The Iroquois had the right to wage war against all their enemies within “the limits of our Country.” The French should leave the Five Nations alone in the broad expanse of territory they claimed as their own.
The French refused to heed this warning. La Barre’s successor, Jacques-Rene de Brisnay, the marquis de Denonville, began preparations in the spring of 1687 to strike the Senecas, who the French viewed as most responsible for the destruction of the colony’s trade in furs. 1600 French troops crossed the Niagara River, and headed eastward toward the Seneca homeland. More than two hundred Indians from the St. Lawrence missions accompanied Denonville, but many of them deserted and warned the Senecas of his advance. On 13 August, the Senecas nearly ambushed Denonville’s force. The warriors mistook an advance guard for the entire French army. The Senecas then fled eastward, finding shelter with the Cayugas and Onondagas. Denonville’s allies did not pursue, so the French governor spent the next week burning abandoned Seneca villages and the food stores left behind. They burned crops and caches of corn, desecrated graves, and plundered items buried with the dead. The damage was considerable, but Iroquois warriors continued to strike the Indian allies of New France and damage the colony’s fur trade.
The relationship of the Iroquois to the French and the English became more complicated when the two empires formally went to war in 1689. To retaliate for Denonville’s invasion of the Senecas’ homeland, an Iroquois force attacked the French settlement at Lachine.Many Iroquois expected encouragement and assistance from the English to launch more raids against New France. The Five Nations, however, found the English a fickle ally, willing to employ Indians as military allies but uninterested in doing any heavy lifting themselves. French attacks on Schenectady, and an invasion of the Onondagas’ homeland, met with a muted response by the English governor of New York.
Iroquois warriors fought for both the English and the French in the ensuing conflict, but avoided fighting one another. Still, considerable losses came to the Five Nations.The Iroquois had seen their homelands invaded by French armies and disease outbreaks continued to prey upon the Longhouse. Attacks by France’s native allies took an additional toll. Perhaps as much as a quarter of the Iroquois population died between 1689 and 1698, when news of the peace treaty between France and England arrived.
The agreement brought no peace to the Five Nations. It did nothing to resolve the dynastic struggles that led to the imperial warfare in the first place, and did nothing to resolve the problems the Five Nations faced. Ojibwa warriors from the western Great Lakes, for instance, invaded Iroquoia and killed seven Senecas. Ottawa, Illinois, and Miami warriors killed fifty-five Senecas and Onondagas. The league could not continue fighting such costly wars.
So the Iroquois began to seek a peace agreement of their own with the French, the English, and the Indian allies of New France. Certainly a peace would benefit the French by allowing the free flow of peltries to New France. The Iroquois through peace could free themselves from a destructive cycle of warfare. Alliance with the English, moreover, would force the French to take the Five Nations’ concerns seriously, while Iroquoian efforts to secure peace with the French would pressure the English to hold fast to the Covenant Chain.
The Onondaga Teganissorens traveled to Montreal to treat with the French.Hundreds of French-allied Indians from the Great Lakes attended the council as well. The Five Nations pledged to remain neutral in any future conflicts between France and England. The French promised to enforce a peace between the Iroquois and their western allies, an arrangement that allowed these allies to trade unobstructed at Montréal and allowed the Iroquois to hunt in the west. League hunters could move into the western Great Lakes without fear. In Albany, meanwhile, an Iroquois party led by Sadekanaktie signed a “deed” to the lands that the Iroquois had “won with the sword” south of the Great Lakes. In return for this cession, the Iroquois expected the King of England to protect them as they hunted in the region, in the hope “that he might be our protector and defender there.” The Five Nations had deeded to the English lands over which they never exerted any significant control, and they certainly did not intend to give to the English dominion in any way over their lives. The combined treaties of 1701, it seems, which secured for the Five Nations a role as a respected and feared middleman between competing empires, and launched the Five Nations upon a challenging and difficult path of neutrality. If one empire offended the Iroquois, or attempted to limit their movement in the west, the Five Nations would aid the other. The “Grand Settlement” of 1701, as one historian called it, laid the fragile foundation for an intercultural arrangement, one in which the Five Nations worked to live in peace in the midst of competing European empires, free to trade with both, and free from the devastation that could accompany unrestrained armed conflict.
Brandao, J. A and William A. Starna, “The Treaties of 1701: A Triumph of Iroquois Diplomacy,” Ethnohistory, 43 (Spring 1996), 209-244.
Havard, Gilles. The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701: French-Native Diplomacy in the Seventeenth Century, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001).
Miquelon, Dale. “After Ryswick: The Five Nations Iroquois in French Diplomacy, 1699-1701,” Native Studies Review, 18 (no. 1, 2009), 5-23
Parmenter, Jon. The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010).
Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
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Trelease, Allen W. Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960).