If nation- and state-building are core issues of modern history, then the principal features of the nation-state become the most important themes. Any list of such themes would have to begin with centralized political power—at the imperial heart or in the colonial capital—and its expression in military force. It is for this reason that intercolonial conflict looms large in histories of Canada and the United States in particular. French versus British, British versus American, Canadian versus American, American versus Spanish—these conflicts define the settler regimes because the participants are recognized (retroactively, if not at the time) as legitimate. Going to war against competing imperial interests defines one colony or state against another.
Obviously, these narratives have tended to obliterate Indigenous perspectives. Indigenous “nations” vanish in the long shadow cast by settler societies and their issues. The political and territorial perspectives and actions of Indigenous peoples are, however, key to making sense of North American history.
Whose War Is It Anyways?
One of the remarkably consistent themes in Indigenous histories is the hospitality shown to visitors. Tales of early contact seldom end badly for the foreigners. Once the outsiders begin to overstay their welcome, however, the situation changes.
From the Powhatan Confederacy (in what is now Virginia) through Mi’kmaki, English settlements were resisted everywhere in the seventeenth century. The more ambitious and land-hungry the settlers became, the more pitched the battles. Settler communities in Massachusetts and Maine threatened and even captured Wabanaki lands and resources, displacing the host community and offending the larger Wabanaki Confederacy. Prevailing winds and shipping lanes reliably brought Europe-bound vessels—and colonists—within reach of Mi’kmaq territory, including Newfoundland. Wars on the Avalon Peninsula in the 1690s pitted Abenaki and Mi’kmaq against English settlements and fleets; the active involvement of the French signals an inter-imperial agenda, but that does not obviate the fact of Wabanaki defense of their own “empire of islands” across an area as wide as 1600 km. Wabanaki leaders saw in the French, by contrast, a source of goods and a market for furs, and—best of all—the limited French presence could be restricted to tidal marshes, which their settlers, the Acadiens, drained and farmed. The host society was, therefore, not immediately at risk of losing territory to avaricious squatters.
Haudenosaunee relations with the Wendat and Algonquian were, as we have seen, fraught, perhaps for centuries. The Innu-Algonquain alliance with the French in 1603 and the subsequent attack they mounted in 1609 against the Kanien’kehá:ka (a.k.a. Mohawk) extended Haudenosaunee enmity to the Europeans on the St. Lawrence. The League would find allies among the Dutch and then the English as they extended their Mourning Wars against the French and the Wabanaki Confederacy to the East. The Haudenosaunee military tradition, already plenty strong enough, became so robust in the two centuries after contact that their territory was unassailable by the British and quick to recover from French assaults.
Farther west, the peoples of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes endured Haudenosaunee attacks in the seventeenth century that almost depopulated their region. No sooner were they able to retake ancestral lands in the eighteenth century than they were confronted by British-American incursions. Resistance to these invaders would continue until the 1820s.
Father Joseph François Lafitau (1681–1746) was a Jesuit missionary in Iroquoia. Here’s what he reported about Haudenosaunee militarism:
They may yield to some in advantages of the mind and body, vivacity in conversation, gentleness of facial expression, skill in different exercises, lightness in running and so on, but they do not yield to any one in courage. They pass incontestably as being the best soldiers and the quality of the courage cannot be disputed.
War is a necessary exercise for the Iroquois and Huron, perhaps also for all the other American Indians for, besides the usual motives which people have in declaring it against troublesome neighbours who offend them or furnish them legitimate causes by giving them just reasons for complaint, it is indispensable [sic?] to them also because of one of their fundamental laws of being.
The families . . . are sustained only by the number of those composing them, whether men or women. It is in their number that their main force and chief wealth consist. The loss of a single person is a great one, but one which must necessarily be repaired by replacing the person lacking by one or many others, according to the importance of him who is to be replaced.
It is not up to the members of the household to repair this loss, but to all those men who have marriage links with that house, or their Athonni, as they say; and in that fact, resides the advantage of having many men born in it. For these men, although related at home and limited to themselves, marry into different lodges. The children born of these different marriages become obligated to their fathers’ lodge, to which they are strangers, and contract the obligation of replacing them [those who are lost] so that the matron, who has the principal authority in this household, can force these children to go to war if it seems best to her, or keep them at home if they have undertaken a war displeasing to her.
When, then, this matron judges it time to raise up the tree again, or to lay again on the mat someone of her family whom death has taken away from her, she addresses herself to some one of those who have their Athonni at her home and who she believes is most capable of executing her commission. She speaks to him by a wampum belt, explaining her intention of engaging him to form a war party. This is soon done.
Assembling a simple list of conflicts and a timeline is by no means an easy task. The imperial colonial wars ostensibly between European parties can be reduced to a short list:
- War of the League of Augsburg (a.k.a. King William’s War) ca. 1688-97
- Mostly contained to the northeast mainland with some significant conflict along the Bay of Fundy and in Hudson’s Bay
- War of the Spanish Succession (a.k.a. Queen Anne’s War), 1701-13
- Principally fought in and around the Gulf of the St. Lawrence
- War of the Austrian Succession (a.k.a. King George’s War), 1739-48
- In North America contained to raids on British settlements in Nova Scotia, New York, and New England
- Seven Years’ War (a.k.a. French and Indian War), 1754-63
- Beginning in the Ohio Valley, this conflict spread throughout northeastern North America, culminating in the fall of New France.
Add to this list the American Revolution (a.k.a. War of Independence), 1776–83, which pitted British troops and “loyalists” and British-dominated French colonists against “Americans” throughout the Northeast, though not in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, or Hudson’s Bay. Looking at the century between 1688 and 1788, that’s 38 years of colonial wars. It was followed in 1812 by another three years of war, this time largely in the Great Lakes region, including the Niagara Escarpment.
From Indigenous perspectives, the history of conflict looks rather different.
Conflict between the English/British and the Wabanaki Confederacy began in earnest in the middle of the seventeenth century. The principal Pequot village to the south of the Penobscot and Abenaki was razed to the ground by the English in 1637, an act of brutality that shocked the Indigenous peoples of the East Coast. Forty years later, there were several attempts made to push the English back into the sea. But by the 1670s, their numbers in New England neared 80,000, and Indigenous populations were still recovering from early-seventeenth century epidemics. Metacomet’s War (1675–78) focused mostly on the New England settlements, but there were important clashes farther north and on the coast—in Wabanakiak—involving the Abenaki and Penobscot against the English. The northern violence was mostly contained to small raids on villages, but the Wabanaki also proved adept at stealing English vessels. By the end of the war, the Wabanaki fleet consisted of more than fifty ships of varying draughts. Following a brief respite, conflicts resumed in the late 1690s and continued past the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 because the Wabanaki were not signatories to the European peace agreement. With only brief interruptions, war was conducted by the Wabanaki through the first quarter of the eighteenth century. It resumed once more in the 1740s and continued through the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution (at which time many of the Wabanaki supported the Americans against the British). Throughout this period, the main focus of attacks by the Mi’kmaq in particular was British settlements in Mi’kmaki. All attempts at diplomacy with the British foundered on British unwillingness to be bound to Mi’kmaq limitations. While there were elements in these conflicts that reflect growing Wabanaki economic dependence on European materials (particularly gunpowder and shot), the overwhelming impression is that these were wars of resistance and sovereignty. There is barely a single generation of Wabanaki who, from 1637 to the 1780s, would not have experienced an anti-colonial war in their homelands.
Conflict involving the Haudenosaunee was less often about resistance to settler colonialism. Conventional descriptions of Haudenosaunee reactions to the French presence are typically lumped together as the “Beaver Wars.” Revealingly, the Battle of Sorel (1610) is often given as the first confrontation. It was, in fact, the third, all of which followed on French raids (alongside Wendat and Algonquian allies) into Haudenosaunee territory, but it was the first Haudenosaunee assault on a French colonial settlement. League attacks on the French would continue and intensify through the seventeenth century, abating only when the Haudenosaunee had other targets that demanded their attention. Occasionally the French would press back, a practice that accelerated with the arrival of French troops after 1663. The idea that these wars were an expression of Haudenosaunee frustration over French involvement in the fur trade or the League’s aspiration to conquer more fur-rich territories to the northwest has lately faced challenges from historians. Retributive motivations dominate new interpretations, as does hostage-taking that might figure into strategies to restore population numbers. As well, the Haudenosaunee resented French efforts to dictate diplomatic protocols in the League’s sphere of influence. League attempts to restrict French power and colonial resilience were conducted almost continually down to 1701. The Great Peace of Montréal was signed that year—in negotiations largely conducted by Wendat—and that had the effect of freeing up the Haudenosaunee northeastern front, thus allowing the League to pursue other conquests to the south and west instead.
The Haudenosaunee were consummate diplomats in these years as regards external affairs. As early as 1701, however, cracks were showing within the League itself. The Kanien’kehá:ka, the “keepers of the Eastern door,” were necessarily at the sharp end of conflicts with the Abenaki and other nations aligned with the French in Canada or Acadia, as well as the Mahican. The main Dutch and then English fur trade post was in Kanien’kehá:ka territory, and it was here that European rivalries were most keenly observed. The British were, in some instances, more reliable allies than the rest of the League when it came to conflicts with the Wabanaki. Moreover, Kanien’kehá:ka had adopted many former citizens of Wendake Ehen in the late 1640s, some of whom were traditionalists stridently opposed to what they regarded as the disruptive influence of French Catholic missionaries. No surprise, then, that the Kanien’kehá:ka were cautiously pessimistic about the Great Peace. By the 1770s, the Kanien’kehá:ka under the leadership of Konwatsi’tsiaienni (a.k.a. Molly or Mary Brant) and her younger brother Thayendanegea (a.k.a. Joseph Brant), were firmly connected to the British governing and merchant elite. When push came to shove between the British colonists and their imperial government, the League (now comprised of six nations) divided in two: Kanien’kehá:ka, Onondaga, Gayogohó:no (a.k.a. Cayuga), and Seneca sided with the British; the Oneida (a.k.a. Onyota’a:ka) and Tuscarora (a.k.a. Skarù:ręˀ) aligned with the colonists (as did the Mahican). The Kanien’kehá:ka-British alliance outlasted the Revolution, and the Kanien’kehá:ka were among the first “Loyalists” to seek refuge in Canada. When the dust settled in 1783, two thousand Kanien’kehá:ka withdrew from their traditional lands to take up settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley and, most importantly, along the Grand River in what we call Southern Ontario. (These were ancestrally Iroquoian lands, and the Kanien’kehá:ka regarded the move as a kind of restoration. But they were, as well, lands into which Anishinaabe people—the Mississauga—had moved sometime after the fall of Wendake Ehen and to which they too had a substantial claim.)
Conflict with the colonies in the Northeast was thus more common and had deeper historical roots than typically recognized in national narratives. Looking at the literature critically, Europeans (in which category we include those peoples who became “Canadians” and “Americans”) wandered into the middle of a movie and assumed that it began pretty much with their arrival. And these conflicts were much more complicated than long thought. Motives and loyalties shifted, and they did so within an Indigenous matrix. Centuries of diplomacy and warfare had created deeply embedded protocols and expectations, as well as grudges and histories of both trust and enmity.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the combination of European immigration and Indigenous populations’ decline due to attacks, virgin soil epidemics, and loss of necessary resources was a call to explore new tactics. From this point on, Indigenous peoples would strategize resistance in different ways. Direct confrontation would continue to occur, but so would new experiments in diplomacy, as the next chapter reveals.
The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:
Bahar, Matthew R. “People of the Dawn, People of the Door: Indian Pirates and the Violent Theft of an Atlantic World.” Journal of American History 101, no. 2 (September 2014): 401–26.
Baker, Emerson W., and John G. Reid. “Amerindian Power in the Early Modern Northeast: A Reappraisal.” William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2004): 77–106.
Brandao, Jose Antonio, and William Starna. “From the Mohawk- Mahican War to the Beaver Wars: Questioning the Pattern.” Ethnohistory 51, no. 4 (2004): 725–50.
Cook, Peter. “Dr. Peter Cook Question 3 – European Approach to Inter-cultural Diplomacy.” TRU, Open Learning. November 17, 2015. Video, 5:37. https://youtu.be/Em0YKSSH32E
Jaenen, Cornelius J. Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1976.
Loewen, Brad. Contact in the 16th Century: Networks among Fishers, Foragers, and Farmers. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of History & University of Ottawa Pres, 2016. See esp. pp. 57–76.
Lozier, Jean-François. Flesh Reborn: The St Lawrence Valley Mission Settlements through the Seventeenth Century. Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018.
Paul, Daniel N. We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations, 3rd ed. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.
Plank, Geoffrey. An Unsettled Conquest: The British Campaign against the Peoples of Acadia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Rushforth, Brett. “Slavery, the Fox Wars, and Limits of Alliance.” The William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2006): 53–80.
Richter, Daniel K. “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience.” In Trade, Land, and Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America, 69–96. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Wicken, William. “Mi’kmaq Decisions: Antoine Tecouenemac, the Conquest, and the Treaty of Utrecht.” In John G. Reid et al., The “Conquest” of Acadia, 1710: Imperial, Colonial, and Aboriginal Constructions, 86–100. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
- Father Joseph François Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, vol. 2, ed. and trans. William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moor (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1974–77): 98–103. Reprinted in James Axtell, ed., The Indian people of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes (NY: Oxford University Press, 1981): 161–2. ↵
- England and Scotland were united in 1707, after which it was possible to use “British” to define the nation-state as well as the peoples of the British Isles. ↵
- See, for example, the Canada list under “List of Conflicts in North America,” Wikipedia, accessed March 22, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/