Chapter 6: Resistance I — 1750s to 1870s

The Seven Years’ War (referred to in the US as the French and Indian War) changed the balance of power in North America in ways that few Indigenous nations could have foreseen. Certainly, the French misread the situation and paid for their error at the treaty table: the price was New France. The British, too, thought they could forge new relationships in the Ohio Valley but were foiled by their own colonists. The revolt of the British Thirteen Colonies (leaving out Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Québec) engaged Indigenous troops, military leaders, and political leaders on both sides of the dispute. Despite that involvement, neither Treaties of Paris (not the one in 1763 nor the one in 1783) had Indigenous signatories. For all intents and purposes, the Seven Years’ War continued in Mi’kma’ki (a.k.a. the Maritimes) until 1779. It lasted even longer in the Ohio Valley, where it carried on from 1754 to 1814 with only one significant break.

This Sixty-Two Years’ War is another good example of how settler colonialism erases Indigenous narratives. Although there are several names for different fronts, Americans tend to lump together the 1783–95 conflicts as the “Northwest Indian War.” Wikipedia provides a wry insight on this score: “Many books avoid the problem of what to call the war by describing it without putting a name to it, or ignoring it.”[1] For the Indigenous resistance in the region—a zone that includes and impacted the Great Lakes, what we know as Southern Ontario, and peoples as far away as the Great Plains and the Canadian Shield—it was something that could not be ignored. Nations were expelled, pushed west and south and north, and large numbers died from direct conflict and indirectly from the diseases associated with war; others died from the traumatic effects of dispossession, loss of resources (both physical and spiritual), and the hardships of refugee status. From the 1740s through 1815, the Eastern Woodlands diaspora took in more and more nations. A large part of that uprooted population found itself in the St. Lawrence valley or north of Lakes Ontario and Erie.

On the eve of the nineteenth century, European involvement in colonial settlement and displacement had become the most pressing issue facing Indigenous peoples from the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes. Efforts to reassert Indigenous hegemony—what historian Daniel Richter calls “Native American wars of independence”—enjoyed brief but limited success. Some historical studies view the end of the Napoleonic Wars (which include the War of 1812 in North America) as the last conflict in which Indigenous forces might turn the tide; others disagree.

In this chapter, we explore three aspects of these conflicts and those that followed. The struggle for territories and attempts to brake the advance of colonial societies is at the heart of the matter. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Indigenous power was so weakened east of the Great Lakes that Euro-Canadian efforts to appease and recognize sovereign peoples quickly withered. Two centuries of neglect began, as did various efforts at assimilation into the colonial matrix. The armed struggle, the experience of marginalization, and the tensions and violence in the West are, then, the topics we explore in this chapter. Some of the issues involved in treaties around these conflicts will be considered in the following chapter. The West remained a stronghold for independent and powerful Indigenous nations until the 1880s, at which time Canada seized its chance to decapitate regional leadership and impose colonial authority in the region. These themes are reviewed in Part 2, Chapter 8.

Armed Resistance

Conventional historical accounts of the Seven Years’ War often lose sight of its immediate causes. In many respects, we can think of this era of conflict as two distinct realms: Mi’kma’ki and the Ohio Valley. In the former, the collapse of Acadian and French authority exposed the Wabanaki peoples to intensifying attacks by the British and the New Englanders (who, despite a related pedigree, often acted independently of one another). The British and their settlers repeatedly breached whatever treaties and agreements they reached with Indigenous communities and they ignored Mi’kmaq sovereignty, but this was part of a pattern that was, by the 1750s, nearly a century old. In the Ohio Valley, however, Indigenous societies—who were much less closely aligned than the Wabanaki—were witnessing a fresh invasion.

Armed Resistance 1: Mi’kma’ki

British authority on the Northeast Coast had been building since 1713, at which time the French presence was reduced to a rump: Louisbourg and some stations in Newfoundland. The Acadiens—French settlers with whom the Mi’kmaq in particular had established deep political, economic, social, and family relationships—enjoyed a “golden age” of population growth and economic prosperity down to the 1750s.[2] Their strategy in what was called by imperialists “the cockpit of North America”—that is, a battleground between two furious enemies—was to embrace neutrality. The “neutral French,” however, were always regarded with suspicion by the British and from time to time manipulated by the French, who were based nearby at Louisbourg. The Acadians also faced pressures from their Mi’kmaq neighbours and friends, who saw the French as a means to oust British invaders, particularly from Kjipuktuk (a.k.a. Halifax) and its vicinity.

Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral territories of the Mi’kmaq, cover most of the “Maritime provinces.” The rest of New Brunswick was principally Wolastoqiyik lands with some Abenaki territories in the Northwest. CC-BY-SA-3.0. Source: Mikmaq, The Mi’kmaq, June 9, 2014, map, Wikimedia Commons.

Mi’kmaq—and Wolastoqiyik (a.k.a. Wuastukwiuk, Malicite, Maliseet, Etchemins), Abenaki, and Penobscot—resistance was as aggressive and effective as anything witnessed farther inland. From the early eighteenth century, the Great Peace (1701) cleared the way for joint raids on English settlements like Deerfield.[3] Wabanaki forces and their French allies descended into Massachusetts and attempted to dislodge British settlers and military from positions in Maine as well.

The Seven Years’ War in Mi’kmaki is always eclipsed by the story of the fall of New France. Here is an important difference: while the French struggled to defend the St. Lawrence against the British, their efforts in Mi’kmaki were far less extensive and impressive than the Indigenous defense of the region. Assaults were launched by the Abenaki, Wolastoqiyik, and Mi’kmaq along the south coast, at Kjipuktuk and Punamu’kwati’jk (Dartmouth), and deep into New England. (These attacks began as early as 1752 and so push the start of the war even earlier than its putative beginnings in the Ohio Valley.) The Mi’kmaq created refugee camps in the Miramichi for Acadiens fleeing the Expulsion (a.k.a. Le Grand Dérangement) and mobilized some of the Acadiens in raids on British forts throughout the region. The fighting stuttered to an end in a process that began with the Treaty of 1752, signed by sakamore Jean-Baptiste Cope of the Shubenacadie Mi’kmaq, who spent the next six months trying unsuccessfully to create a consensus agreement among Mi’kmaq parties. A more effective peace was established in the Halifax Treaties of 1760–61, at which point the Mi’kmaq abandoned their goal of expelling the British. The period that followed was characterized by Mi’kmaq efforts to hold the British to their commitments.

Doing so inevitably involved further force. A Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq delegation sided with American revolutionaries against the British in the Treaty of Watertown in 1776. Insofar as Nova Scotia was poised to become the fourteenth colony in the American uprising, it was because of Mi’kmaq dissatisfaction with the British. Some Mi’kmaq in the Miramichi also rose up at this time, an indication that the British were mistrusted the length of the Maritime region. The outcome of the war reinforced British settler society in the region with an influx of nearly forty thousand Loyalist refugees. Competition for resources now required a strategy other than arms. Mi’kmaq delegations turned increasingly to diplomacy, negotiations, and the British courts.

Armed Resistance 2: The Ohio Valley

The Appalachian Mountains were the western limits of the thirteen British-American colonies. Most of the Indigenous people at tidewater—those who had not been enslaved or killed off in war or destroyed by foreign diseases—had been forced over the mountains in a process of removal that lasted about 150 years. In the middle of the eighteenth century, land-hungry plantation owners in Virginia sought to expand across the mountains into the Ohio Valley. At a Myaamiaki (Miami) village and British trading post in 1752, a party of Odawa and Ojibwe warriors launched an attack that revealed two things: Indigenous peoples in the region were not of a single mind about the disposition of the Ohio Valley, and there was a British presence that was not welcomed by the Council of Three Fires (whose representatives took four British traders hostage with them back to French-controlled Fort Détroit).[4] The Virginians responded with an advance party in 1753, which met with French military in the region and got sent home empty-handed. The next year, a larger American colonial force was sent in, made up of volunteer militiamen who had been promised shares in 200,000 acres of land on the Ohio River. They carried orders to meet opposition with lethal force. The Virginia governor made this last point very clear: “make Prisoners of or kill and destroy them.”[5]  

“Them” certainly included Indigenous opponents. The Ohio had been depopulated during the Beaver Wars of the seventeenth century, and refugee communities were reluctant to return—even after the Great Peace of 1701—because they continued to fear the Haudenosaunee. The effect was several decades of wilderness recovery: forests grew back and the numbers of large mammals and fur-bearers were replenished. By the 1730s, the Ohio and the southernmost Great Lakes were once again vital hunting lands. The Indigenous people who moved in included a variety of peoples with distinct histories: there were those evicted from the East Coast by British settlers, like the Lenape (a.k.a. Delaware); the long-term residents of the region, the Shaawanwaki (Shawnee) and the Myaamiaki (Miami); arrivals from the northwest, like the Kickapoo and Mascouten; and westward-moving Haudenosaunee drawn from the Gayogo:no and Seneca, together called “Mingo.” Members of the Council of Three Fires were also involved in this reshuffling of populations in the Ohio and its surrounding regions. The Potawatomi—originally resident on the southeastern drainage of Lake Michigan but having fled the Beaver Wars to the lake’s northwestern coast—found their way back into their homelands and established a presence around the French post at Fort Détroit by the 1750s. The upshot of this repopulation of the region was that many peoples had a stake in keeping out the British/Americans, but they were a disparate peoples suspicious of the agendas of many of their Indigenous neighbours as well. For some, like many of the Haudenosaunee, the French presence was as unappealing as the British-Americans. As historian J. R. Miller has underlined, “notions that one [Indigenous] nation or another took up arms to advance a commercial or strategical aim of the French or British were erroneous.”[6]  While earlier conflicts in which Indigenous nations sided with colonists involved common trade interests (as well as specifically Indigenous agendas), the conflicts of 1754–1815 were, first and foremost, about preserving territory. Indigenous people’s fear of an expanding British-American presence soon made strange allies.

The history of treaty-making is pursued in Chapter 7, but we can introduce here one that is often overlooked. In 1758—four years into what we generally regard as the Seven Years’ War—some thirteen Indigenous nations signed the Treaty of Easton with the British. Their number included the Haudenosaunee—even the reluctant Seneca/Mingo at the “Western Door” of the League. Easton purchased Indigenous support against the French (or at least a commitment to not side with the French against the British) at the price of British claims on the Ohio Valley. From an Indigenous perspective, title to the Ohio was no longer in dispute, and French entrenchment in the region might be viewed as the greater threat. American colonists were angered by this development. They’d be even more provoked in the decades ahead as the British tried to honour their commitments to the signatories at Easton.

In 1754–63, the Haudenosaunee sided with the British against the French, to good effect—at least initially. Haudenosaunee strategy had long involved whipsawing enemies against one another or bargaining for peace on one flank so as to better prosecute war on another. They may well have believed that the conflict would bloody some French noses but would not end with British control over the St. Lawrence and much of the rest of New France.

The geopolitics of the region were rapidly changing and continually in flux. With the fall of New France (on the battlefield in 1760 and at the treaty table in 1763), the League had British-Americans on one side and British-Québec on the other. The British military was in no hurry to depart from its newly-captured French forts in the west of the Great Lakes, either. And so long as settlers were kept at bay, the British could claim to be honouring the terms of Easton. Earlier internal division among the Haudenosaunee regarding the British continued to fester. The League had been joined in 1722 by the Tuscarora, Iroquoian speakers who sought refuge among the Haudenosaunee from British-led attacks on their homeland on the Southeast Coast. The Seneca/Mingo were also unhappy with both the war and its outcome. Anishinaabeg in the region to the northwest were even less pleased. Their interests were more aligned with those of the French, but the fall of New France changed nothing for them in terms of what might be called the big picture: keeping the British-Americans out of the region. They did not cease to fight in 1763. Carrying forward their effective campaigns of guerrilla warfare, the Odaawaa (a.k.a. Odawa, Ottawa) and the Potawatomi forged an alliance of nations that included the displaced Lenape, who provided spiritual leadership in the person of Neolin the Prophet. In 1763, the Potawatomi war leader Pontiac laid siege to British-held Fort Détroit as Neolin called on the region’s peoples to reject the cultural influences of European societies. This renaissance of Indigenous values targeted alcohol and materialism in particular, and served to bind together a large and complex alliance of peoples.

Of the Haudenosaunee, it was the Seneca who were most within range of British cannons along Lake Erie. Like their Algonkian-speaking neighbours, they bridled against the style of British diplomacy in the region. Where the French sought to build alliances with annual allowances, gifts, and tributes of many kinds and by “covering deaths” in war with further “gifts,” the British did not. Alienated by the new imperial presence, unlikely to believe entirely in the terms of the Treaty of Easton, and probably gambling that the American colonists would be weaker if they didn’t have the British backing them up, increasing numbers of Indigenous communities sided with the “Patriots” as the American Revolution broke out. The Kanien’kehá:ka were squarely in the opposite camp. They had a longstanding alliance with the British that they chose to continue. As was the case elsewhere, this was a commercial and military frontier in which intermarriage entangled the various parties. By the 1780s, then, the League of Five Nations was fractured between those who regarded the British as the greater threat and those who saw colonist ambitions as insatiable.

Armed Resistance 3: The Great Lakes War

These moves set up territorial conflicts that would be played out in warfare mostly in the lands south of the Great Lakes and which culminated on the Niagara Escarpment in 1813. These battles represent the last armed resistance against colonialism east of the Great Plains, and they constitute a tipping point in several ways. The distinctions Indigenous peoples had earlier drawn between British, French, Canadien, and American were starting to dissolve. The wars in the Ohio resulted in Indigenous peoples now thinking of these settler societies as, simply, “whites.” Likewise, Euro-Americans were increasingly uninterested in the subtleties of Indigenous identities: increasingly they applied the catch-all term “Indians.” What’s more, nations that were once adamantly opposed to the British found themselves fighting alongside them. The British were in full retreat from the Ohio, and the “Yankees” were now pouring in and pushing Indigenous peoples north and west in large numbers. War raged across the Ohio until 1794, at which point a fragile peace broke out. Epidemics in 1805, however, brought further crises and turmoil.

North of the Great Lakes, Indigenous peoples were assiduously attempting to secure what territory they could. Having lost the Ohio and other territories, they had to consider how best to create conditions that would stop further reductions. The Mississauga sale to the British of lands north of Lakes Ontario and Erie brought former enemies—the Kanien’kehá:ka—closer. The Mississauga calculated that the Haudenosaunee loyalists would prove to be an effective buffer against American attacks. Political and military responses were once again on the table, and alliances were, in the years after 1805, being forged anew. Two Shaawanwaki brothers—Tenskwatawa (alias “The Prophet”) and Tecumseh—were among a new cadre of leaders who echoed the goals of Neolin and Pontiac a generation earlier. In addition to rejecting the material culture of the whites, Tenskwatawa called on Indigenous nations to reject European clothing and Christianity. At the same time, Tecumseh sought to inspire a pan-Indigenous front against American expansion. Individual nations, of course, were not always receptive to the idea of this amalgamation and what it implied for their autonomy and heritage. The American Army’s bloody destruction of Prophetstown—Tenskwatawa’s traditionalist village near Lake Michigan—forced Tecumseh’s hand, and he turned to the British for support in protecting the region. By this stage, the British had been persuaded of the value of paying tributes and employing better diplomacy in the region, so they had become easier to trust. Tecumseh developed a strong—indeed warm—relationship with General Isaac Brock, and together they proved effective in the early stages of the War of 1812. At the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, however, Tecumseh and many of his followers fell before a massive American onslaught. With Tecumseh’s death, the alliance he built quickly fell apart. Although the British would go on to push the Americans out of Southern Ontario, an easily-mobilized Indigenous alliance in the region was no longer likely.

Armed Resistance 4: Moving West

There were several conflicts and organized acts of violent resistance to settler colonialism in the nineteenth century. All were consequential in some degree.

The Mica Bay War of 1848 saw frustrated Anishinaabeg on Lake Superior burn to the ground a fledgling settler mining operation on Lake Superior. The business had been established on Anishinaabe lands without permission and was part of a longer-term pattern of resource harvesting on reserves. These incidents led to the Robinson Treaties of 1850 (see the next chapter).

In 1858–64, the gold rush on the West Coast and deep in the interior of the Cordillera region introduced an immediate clash over resources, territories, and health.[7] Syilx peoples were among the first to confront American prospectors, many of them hardened in the genocidal vigilantism of the California goldfields. Unprovoked attacks on Syilx villages motivated a response that raised alarms throughout the region. The Nlaka’pamux were soon faced with European-American incursions up the Stó:lō (the Halq’eméylem name for the “Fraser River”). French miners raped a local woman; they were summarily captured, executed, and beheaded by her people. Their bodies were tossed into the river and later caught in eddies at the main goldminers’ village, Yale. These events launched the so-called Fraser River or Fraser Canyon War. The miners, led by veterans of the California Gold Rush, worked their way north to Camchin (a.k.a. Lytton), where they were instructed on the peace terms required by the Nlaka’pamux and their neighbours. Although this was more a panic than a “war,” it gave the settlers and settler society an excuse to raise armed militias and establish the ability to respond with courts and official colonial force to what they perceived as threats. These institutions were deployed in 1864 when members of the Tsilhqot’in nation attacked a road survey crew in their lands. The Tsilhqot’in leadership later made it clear that the assault was, in their eyes, an act of war and not random homicide. The road crew arrived not a year after one of the worst smallpox epidemics hit the whole north Pacific slope, and no one in the colonial regime had consulted with the Tsilhqot’in about the prospect of building a road through their lands to the goldfields of the Cariboo. Colonial troops were dispatched, but the Tsilhqot’in eluded capture and confrontation. Only a duplicitous promise of immunity lured the leadership into discussions, which proved to be a trap followed by a kangaroo-court trial and six executions. Smallpox and settler terrorism and murders obliged the Tsilhqot’in to cease their attacks.

A decade later, another “rush” was underway. The Eastern British North Americans, having bound New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (a.k.a. Ontario and Québec) together in a confederation in 1867, looked to the West and the prospect of annexing Rupert’s Land. Indigenous and Métis peoples at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers—at the heart of the Red River Colony (a.k.a. Assiniboia)—were not consulted, nor were the European settlers in the region. Many parts of this community banded together to present Ottawa with demands for a negotiated entry into confederation that would put the region on the same level as the other provinces. Ottawa resisted this idea, and the Métis and settlers responded with a provisional government and well-articulated demands. Led by a 25-year-old Métis with some basic legal training—Louis Riel (1844–85)—the provisional government attempted to meld the interests of all the local elements. Métis, country-born, and a large number of the Anglophone community were brought on-side, but the small Canadian (that is, Protestant and mostly Ontarian) population remained at odds with the resistance. Efforts to sabotage the provisional government failed, leading to the execution of a rabidly anti-Catholic Orangeman named Thomas Scott. While Ottawa eventually capitulated to the demand for a negotiated entry into confederation for “Manitoba,” it would not grant amnesty to the provisional government for Scott’s execution. Riel fled.

What might we generalize from all of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conflicts? First, that intercolonial wars are only part of the story, and that there is a long record of Indigenous engagement in resistance and conflict with an eye to securing rights and respect. Second, that these goals—rights and respect—were increasingly difficult to obtain. Third, that the overarching narrative of Canadian history—which is largely informed by an urban tradition of state- and institution-building—doesn’t leave a lot of room for alternative storylines. Some of the readings that follow will take you deeper into unfamiliar narratives.


The flight and exile of Riel, Canadian abuses of the agreements negotiated with the Métis in particular, and the arrival of more and more settlers were only part of the background to events farther west in 1885. Some of these elements are examined in the next two chapters.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:

Carleton, Sean. “Rebranding Canada with Comics: Canada 1812: Forged in Fire and the Continuing Co-optation of Tecumseh.” Active History. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Corbiere, Alan Ojiig. “Ojibwe Chief Shingwaukonse: One Who Was Not Idle.” Muskrat Magazine. June 6, 2013.

Lutz, John. “Dr. John Lutz Question 6 – Aboriginal-Settler Relations.” TRU, Open Learning. November 17, 2015. Video, 6:31.

Lutz, John. “The Tsilhqotin.” In Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations, 119–62. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.

“Nobody Knows Him: Lhatŝ’aŝʔin and the Chilcotin War.” Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Pegg, Brian. “The Archaeology of 1858 in the Fraser Canyon.” BC Studies 196 (Winter 2017/18): 67–87.

Plank, Geoffrey. “The Two Majors Cope: The Boundaries of Nationality in Mid-18th Century Nova Scotia.” Acadiensis XXV, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 18–40.

Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA)/Memorial Hall Museum. Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704. Accessed September 24, 2019.

“Remember/Resist/Redraw #14: The 1864 Tsilhqot’in War.” Active History. May 11, 2018.

Richter, Daniel K. “The Plan of 1764: Native Americans and a British Empire that Never Was.” In Trade, Land, and Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America, 177–201. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Stark, Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik. “Marked by Fire: Anishinaabe Articulations of Nationhood in Treaty Making with the United States and Canada.” American Indian Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 119–49.

Tsilhqot’in National Government. “We Meant War, not Murder: Continuing the Work of our Chilcotin War Chiefs of 1864/65.” March 21, 2018. Video, 5:16.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 2011. See esp. pp. 269–314.

  1. “Northwest Indian War,” Wikipedia, accessed April 5, 2018, Northwest_Indian_War#Aftermath.
  2. See, for example, Naomi Griffiths, From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604–1755 (Montréal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).
  3. An interesting and layered approach to the attack on Deerfield can be found here: “Assault on Peskeompskut,” 2004, Memorial Hall Museum..
  4. Michael McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), 3.
  5. R. Alonzo Brock, ed., The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1751–1758, vol. 1 (Richmond, 1883–84), 59, 82.
  6. J. R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 76.
  7. The Dakelh, Secwépemc, and Nlaka’pamux peoples were all involved in the hunt for gold, as well as in provisioning and freighting during the 1858–64 gold rushes. See Mica Jorgenson, “‘Into That Country to Work’: Aboriginal Economic Activities during Barkerville’s Gold Rush,” BC Studies 185 (Spring 2015): 109–36.


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada Copyright © by John Douglas Belshaw; Sarah Nickel; and Dr. Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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