The Northeast Natives of Wendat and Iroquois, and the French Newcomers

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Although they had shared attributes, including language, agricultural practices, and social organization, the Natives of Wendat and Iroquois were often at odds with each other. Did the French newcomers take advantage of this fact in the 17th century? And, how did the Natives make sense of their presence?

A statue of Samuel de Champlain in Paris, France.
French navigator Samuel de Champlain reached the Native Northeast in 1603. (Image: Kiev. Victor/Shutterstock)

Despite their commonalities, all was not peaceful between the Iroquois and Wendat peoples. Hostilities were escalating just as the Europeans began establishing their presence along the Eastern Seaboard.

The French Enter the Scene

Rumors of great riches brought French navigator Samuel de Champlain to the Native Northeast in 1603. However, upon reaching, he witnessed devastation, which was, without doubt, the consequences of disease and intensifying intertribal warfare.

To promote trade and compete with the Dutch, Champlain forged alliances; and, the Wendat around the Great Lakes became intermediaries in a far-flung trade network.

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Natives and Europeans Become Intertwined

Given the intensifying hostilities with the Iroquois and a desire for trade goods, Wendat civil leaders forged political and military alliances with the French. As early as 1609, they convinced Champlain to join them in an attack on a Mohawk war party south of Lake Champlain.

Following this early alliance, the French continued to meet Native expectations for diplomatic protocol—from patterns of speech to the giving of gifts.

Native Influence on Europeans

Native people transformed colonialism in many ways. French traders, or coureursdesbois, adopted Native clothing and traveled in birchbark canoes, which were swift, agile, and able to carry up to 5 tons of cargo.

An illustration of Sioux woman carrying a child on her shoulder.
Kinship ties were forged when Native women married the Europeans and their children later became intermediaries. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

The French also commissioned Indian guides who showed them the preestablished and well-worn trade routes through familiar territory. As coureurs des bois moved deep into Indian country, they often served as agents as well as interpreters. They, like French political leaders, thought and spoke of their relationships in terms of kinship.

But kinship ties could also be literal, as when Native women married French traders to incorporate them into indigenous societies. In time, the children born of these latter relationships frequently became intermediaries or go-betweens in their own right.

Native–European Mutual Transformation Via Religion

In 1633, Champlain made the continuation of trade with the Wendat contingent on their accepting Jesuit missionaries in their villages. Jesuits were members of the religious order called the Society of Jesus. Their flowing pitch-black gowns led Native people to call them Black Robes.

It’s important to acknowledge that when the Wendat accepted the presence of missionaries, allowed them to construct their churches and hold Mass, they did so on Wendat terms.

The Wendat, like other Native people, indigenized Christianity, or at least approached it in a way that didn’t necessarily conflict with their own conceptions of what is sacred and of how power works.

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Natives and the Mourning Wars

The Wendat and Iroquois believed that families lost power when a son, father, mother, or daughter died. To restore this power, the surviving kin needed to replace the lost person or “requicken” the dead through rituals of adoption and reincorporation.

This was very much a physical and literal replacement, but also symbolic, as the adoption of the deceased’s name suggests.

Warfare, then, was typically small-scale. The objective of seizing captives meant that you were to take people alive, and casualties were to be avoided, since losing too many of one’s own essentially defeated the purpose of restoring balance. In this sense, warfare was meant to be integrative, not destructive.

Yet, war was still war. And ritual torture, which both the Wendat and Iroquois practiced, was still ritual torture. It’s important to remember, though, that the point of war, captive-taking, and ritual torture was much more than mere cruelty. They’re better thought of, in the words of one ethnohistorian, as “a controlled release of mourners’ emotions”.

Mourning Wars and Disease Create Chaos

A few decades into the 17th century, the mourning wars escalated, and were transformed by population collapse, political chaos, dislocations, and increased competition over the control of resources.

Also, diseases ripped through Iroquois communities intermittently throughout the 17th century. By the 1630s, smallpox made its way to the Mohawk and Seneca. Ten years later, the Iroquois population had fallen by half to about 10,000 people.

What Motivated the Warring Natives?

Drawing of an Iroquois warrior with a musket.
The Iroquois had forged an alliance with the Dutch. (Image: J.G. de St. Sauveurand Library and Archives Canada/Public domain)

Trade introduced things that became attractive to Native people: Copper refashioned into ornaments; cloth made into fashions of their own; metal could be worked into tools. And, metal-tipped arrowheads probably were more influential initially, but guns, too, soon made inroads.

Thus, driven by the needs to requicken the dead and increase trade, the Iroquois launched military campaigns against their neighbors in every direction.

Thus, by the mid-1630s, the Wendat, devastated by three waves of epidemics, sent emissaries to forge an alliance with the French in hopes of defending themselves from the Iroquois.

Meanwhile, the Iroquois forged their own alliance with the Dutch that resulted in their gaining a decisive firearms advantage.

The Wendat Forced Out of Their Homes

By the 1640s, mourning wars predicated on the idea of restoring balance had given way to the Beaver Wars, which were about access to resources and control of trade.

The Wendat were blown out of their homelands. During the 1680s and 1690s, the Beaver Wars brought further dislocation to the Wendat.

Learn more about the Native South and Southwest in the 1600s.

Natives Form Alliances with the French

To withstand the Iroquois onslaught, the Wendats forged alliances with the French. Built upon Native expectations of gift giving, generosity, respect, and reciprocity, the alliance bore fruit by the end of the 17th century, as combined Native and French forces delivered a series of defeats to the Iroquois and British, who had by then supplanted the Dutch.

The peace that followed, however, merely represented the beginning of a new phase in the complex relations between the Natives and newcomers.

Common Questions about the Natives of Northeast and the French Newcomers

Q: Who was Samuel de Champlain?

Samuel de Champlain was a French navigator who arrived in the Native Northeast in 1603.

Q: What could be an example of the kinship ties between the Natives and the Europeans?

An example of kinship ties could be that when Native women married French traders to incorporate them into indigenous societies, the children born of these relationships would frequently become intermediaries or go-betweens.

Q: What were the Beaver Wars in the Native lands about?

The Beaver Wars in the Native lands were about access to resources and control of trade.

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