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LOUNT, SAMUEL – Volume VII (1836-1850)

b. 24 Sept. 1791 in Catawissa, Pa


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Indians of Northeast North America

[The terms used in this essay reflect the language employed at the time it was written, the early 1960s, and are thus representative of an earlier historiographical era.]

This volume of the Dictionary contains the biographies of 65 Indians. In many ways they are a group apart. For almost all of them the information is fragmentary. Like fireflies they glimmer for a moment before disappearing again into the dark forest of unrecorded history. More important, their stories must be extracted almost entirely from records which are not their own. The history of the Americas as we know it is the white man’s history, written of necessity from his own records. The Indians’ oral tradition has added a little, but not a great deal; archaeology in recent years has added much, but most significantly on the pre-white period. We can now begin, however, to understand more fully the tremendous drama of interracial and intercultural conflict, with all its tragic consequences, which followed the white man’s “discovery” of the Americas. Here biography can help us, since the stories of individual Indians often give us clearer glimpses of these conflicts and tensions than we might otherwise have, for they are revealed to us in human terms and not as impersonal forces. For this reason the number of Indians included in this volume has on the whole leaned to the generous side.

Of the first natives met by Europeans in what is now Canada we have no individual records, though there are numerous references to such meetings in explorers’ accounts. Amongst the Amerinds the Inuit belong to a distinct linguistic and cultural family and were mainly encountered in the explorations of Hudson Bay, though they are mentioned also in the Norse sagas. Contacts with them were, however, brief and sporadic [see Baffin, Best, Hall, Knight, Snorri Thorfinnsson, Thorfinnr karlsefni Thordarson, White].

At the beginning of the historical period the Inuit had penetrated as far south as Havre-Saint-Pierre (formerly Pointe‑aux‑Esquimaux), on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. The first Indians of the Gulf region encountered by the early explorers [see Hore, Parmenius, Wyet] were the Beothuks. Probably belonging to a distinct linguistic family, with a population of about 500 persons at the time of their discovery, they were entirely confined to Newfoundland. Their treatment by the whites in the early period was deplorable, members of the tribe being regarded as little better than animals by the Newfoundland fishermen who hunted them down. No missionaries were ever sent to the Beothuks and no colonist of the island ever learned their language. The tribe finally disappeared about the middle of the 19th century (see J. P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians, the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge, 1915); Jacques Rousseau, “Le dernier des Peaux-rouges,” Cahiers des Dix, XXVII (1962), 47–76).

It is when we come to the Amerinds of the mainland that we find records of large numbers of identifiable persons from whom a representative selection for a volume such as this can be made. Northeastern North America was, however, a very large area stretching from Acadia westward through the entire region of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes; and it is essential, as a background for the Indian biographies, that we recall that in the 17th century the Indians of this region present an often confusing mosaic of shifting tribes and bands at various levels of culture and with great differences in their ways of life. Beyond this also, if we are to have any true appreciation of the tension and tragedy in which both the Indian and the white man became involved, we must have some understanding of the basic rhythms and patterns of life which affected Indian thought and action.

In the northeastern region there were, broadly speaking, two linguistic groupings of Indian tribes: the Algonkian, migratory and primarily dependent on hunting and fishing; and the Iroquoian, semi-sedentary and semi-agricultural. Occupying the northern, and by far the larger, part of the region, were the many tribes of the Algonkian family. Farthest to the east were the Micmacs and the Malecites, inhabiting at the time of their discovery what is now the province of Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton Island, northern New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The boundary between them was the height of land separating the waters that flow into the Saint John River from those that enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence; the Malecite territory extended to the shore of the St. Lawrence opposite present-day Tadoussac, and included also part of the state of Maine. The Malecites and several Algonkian tribes to the southward formed the Abenaki Confederacy (including, among others, the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and possibly the Sokoki Indians), which allied itself in the 17th century with the French against the Iroquois Confederacy and the English colonists of the Atlantic seaboard.

North of the St. Lawrence and east of the St. Maurice were the Montagnais; while further east along the north shore of the Gulf and stretching north into Labrador over a very great area were the roving bands of the closely related, and at times almost indistinguishable, Naskapis. West of the St. Maurice and occupying the Ottawa River basin were the Algonkins. Still further west were the Ottawas, on the route toward Georgian Bay; the Nipissings in the vicinity of Lake Nipissing; and the Chippewas or Ojibwas to the north around Lake Superior. North also of the Algonkins and Ojibwas, occupying the watershed of James Bay and stretching westward into present-day Saskatchewan, were the many roving bands of Crees.

The Algonkian peoples are usually described as migratory because so many individual tribes ranged more or less continually over wide expanses in search of game – moose, deer, caribou, smaller animals which were trapped – and fish. They also used wild plants to augment their diet and in certain places they gathered wild rice and made maple syrup in season. A few tribes also practised horticulture on a small scale, planting maize, beans, and squash [see Tessouat, fl. 1603–13]. Food was generally plentiful during the summer months but many of the tribes experienced severe food shortages in the winter.

Because the Algonkians were migratory, their material possessions were, of necessity, portable. Baskets and other containers were woven or made out of bark or wood. The single-family peaked or dome-shaped lodge or wigwam, as it is called, was the basic form of shelter used throughout the area. With its covering of birch-bark rolls, woven rush mats, or skins, this type of house was easy to assemble and dismantle. For winter travel, the Algonkians used the toboggan and snow-shoes and for summer expeditions, the graceful birch-bark canoe, one of the great Indian contributions to water transportation in North America.

The important socio-economic unit was the band, although there were tribal divisions which were known and recognized. Bands varied in size from a few families to several hundred individuals. In many ways, the Algonkian peoples inclined to individualism – so much so that they have been described by many authorities as “atomistic.” The recognized leader of the band was usually an experienced hunter, noted for his astuteness and good judgement. In some instances, these positions were hereditary in a powerful family (descent among these people was through the male line). A particularly gifted man might become chief of the tribe when a number of bands joined in the conduct of war, in negotiations with other tribes, or with the white men’s governments. At the local level, however, it was more often the shaman who exerted the greatest influence [see Carigouan, Pigarouich].

With the rise of the fur trade, the Algonkians found their knowledge of the forest and the habits of the fur-bearing animals most valuable, as trapping became their major occupation. It was the European traders who introduced them to iron tools, guns, kettles, brandy, and other facets of white culture. In exchange, the traders received the pelts of lynx, otter, marten, fox, and, most important of all, beaver. In becoming trappers, the Algonkians had to relinquish much of their traditional woodland economy as they settled around the trading-posts. Thus they became dependent on the fur market, with all its vicissitudes, and were exposed to many evil aspects of European civilization, alcoholism in particular. Their participation in the fur trade as allies of the French involved them in conflicts with the Iroquois and, ultimately, dragged them into the struggle between England and France for North America itself.

In considerable contrast to the life of the Algonkians was that of the Iroquoian tribes, most prominent among whom in the early 17th century were the Hurons located south of Georgian Bay, and the Iroquois of the Five Nations Confederacy occupying the territory south of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario from the Richelieu River almost to Lake Erie. Situated in these well-watered and fertile regions of present-day southern Ontario and western New York, they had an hospitable environment for an extensive agricultural economy. Here they were able to grow maize, their principal crop, as well as beans, squash, pumpkins, tobacco, and other vegetable products, some in considerable quantity. The surrounding woodlands furnished them with a number of wild plants, game animals (deer in particular), and fish.

A rich, well-documented ethnohistorical literature describes the role of these peoples in the 17th century but their history before contact with the white man evokes considerable debate among archaeologists. It is now believed that the Hurons and the Iroquois shared a common origin in the south, having pushed into the region of the Great Lakes from the southwest, following the line of the Ohio and splitting on lakes Erie and Ontario, some going to the north side of these lakes, some to the south. In 1534 Cartier found Iroquois on the lower St. Lawrence; but, in the interval between then and the coming of Champlain in 1608, they went back to the position south of the river which in the 17th century became a “buffer zone” between New France and the English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard.

Leagued in the Huron or Wyandot Confederacy were four tribes: Attignaouantan (Bear), Attingueenougnahak (Cord), Ahrendarrhonon (Rock), and Tahontaenrat (Deer). Adjoining the Hurons were other Iroquoian tribes: the Tobacco Nation or Petuns to the west, and the Neutrals to the south along the north shore of Lake Erie. The famous Iroquois Confederacy consisted in the 17th century of five tribes: the Mohawks farthest east toward the Richelieu River, and westward from them the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. South and west of the Senecas were the Eries, another Iroquoian tribe.

All these Iroquoian peoples lived in rather permanent villages which were abandoned after an occupancy of 10 to 15 years. These villages were usually situated on high ground near some source of water and were fairly large, attaining populations of several hundreds or more. Most were protected by a log palisade. The houses were multiple-family units, appropriately called “longhouses” because of their rectangular shape, and usually accommodated eight to ten families each, although some have been reported to house from 20 to 30 families.

The household was the basic unit of Iroquoian social organization, which may be described technically as a maternal lineage, with descent reckoned through the female line. The core of any household consisted of a number of females descended from a common ancestress. When a man married, he occupied his wife’s house. Authority in these households was vested in an old woman. While not constituting a true matriarchate, these older women did exert a great deal of influence, particularly in the political sphere.

The clan, a larger kin group, consisted of a number of households and resembled somewhat a great family. Clansmen considered themselves siblings, intermarriage between them was prohibited, custom dictated that they aid one another in time of need, they held property as a corporate group, they redressed injuries to one another and avenged deaths. Most of the clans bore animal names, Bear, Wolf, and Turtle being almost universal.

The significant political unit was the tribe. It had a name, occupied a defined territory, and possessed a council of chiefs or sachems. Linguistic affinity and a common way of life did not, however, necessarily imply friendly intercourse. The Hurons, who became the irreconcilable enemies of the Iroquois, their linguistic and cultural kin, were on much better terms with the Algonkians, originally migratory hunters, speaking an alien dialect. Thus it was that by the time the white man arrived confederacies had been founded, the purpose of which was to maintain peace among the member tribes. The Five Nations referred to their confederacy as the “League of the Iroquois” or “the great peace.” Its founders were the half-legendary Dekanahwideh and Hiawatha. In this system those tribes which were not members of the League were theoretically considered at war with it.

The institutional structure of the League of the Iroquois was described in symbolic terms derived from the long-house, certain tribes being “keepers of the door,” etc. [see Flemish Bastard]. The kinship bonds of the maternal line, representing the household, were extended across the member tribes, which were themselves divided into clans. Since certain clans extended across various tribes, it then followed that quarrelling between clan “brothers” would theoretically be unthinkable.

The decisions of the league were made by a federal council composed of 50 sachems, whose positions were hereditary in the female line. It was the old women who decided which eligible male relative would actually inherit. Indeed the older women, the heads of the households, made most of the decisions, while the men holding the titles of authority carried them out. The five tribes comprising the league did not, it might be noted, enjoy equal representation. The Senecas, for example, were represented by 8 sachems and the Onondagas by 14, with the three remaining tribes ranging in between. The requirement that decisions be unanimous offset this unequal representation, however. Sachems enjoyed high repute. Indeed, aside from warfare, the office of sachem was the only means whereby a man might gain prestige.

Eloquence was one of the prime qualifications for a great sachem [see Kiotseaeton, Otreouti]. Oratory and the recitation from memory of the great legends surrounding the founding of the league were outstanding attractions at the annual meeting of the Federal Council held at Onondaga, New York. As an aid to memory, wampum belts were used, combinations of black and white beads (made from clam and other shells), signifying important ideas and events. At times wampum was also used as a form of currency.

Although members of the league did, on occasion, join one another to wage concerted war (the destruction of the Hurons is a case in point), the greater part of their military activities smacked of the vendetta. A few warriors would combine to conduct a raid, making the most of surprise attack. Scalps were taken and prisoners brought back to the village, where they were either killed or adopted. Each household which had lost a member had the right to select a captive to fill the vacancy. Death by torture was the fate of the remainder. To die without showing the slightest indication of pain was considered ideal behaviour and victims were supposed to exhibit contempt for their captors by presuming to enjoy the tortures they received. Whatever their warfare, small- or large-scale, during the historic period, the Iroquois suffered great losses: witness a passage in the Jesuit Relations to the effect that Huron and Algonkian captives made up two-thirds of the Oneida tribe in 1668 (JR (Thwaites), LI, 123).

Such in sketchiest outline are a few suggestions about the nature of Indian society at the time of the white man’s arrival, but even these will help us to understand why the impact of 17th-century European culture on that of the Indian profoundly altered every aspect of Indian life and thought. That any remnants of Indian culture survived is a tribute to its strength and to the loyalty of the Indians to their traditions. The nature and devastating effects of this clash of cultures can be understood better now than by any observer at the time, though there are many penetrating recorded observations by both Indians and whites, especially by persons like Marie de l’Incarnation [see Guyart] and some of the Jesuits, for example, in their letters, relations, and journals.

For the Indians of northeastern North America there were three vital areas where they suffered the full impact of the culture clash: first, the ideological, in which their religious beliefs and tribal organization were shaken to their very roots and the authority and influence of chiefs and medicine-men were gravely weakened; second, the economic, in which the fur trade caused a revolution affecting every aspect of daily life, sowing discord among the tribes, and finally erupting into the fur-trade wars; and third, political, where the imperial rivalries of French and English relentlessly dragged the Indians into the white men’s struggles for military supremacy. In each of these areas the results were inevitably far more profound and tragic for the Indians than for the whites. From the first limited contacts with the early explorers, subsequently multiplied a thousand-fold across the whole continent, the Indians found their ancient ways completely disrupted, and social and moral disintegration, aggravated by brandy and disease, began to haunt them. M. Andre Vachon in his “L’eau-de-vie dans la société indienne,” CHA Report (1960–61), 26‑27, has vividly described this revolution:

“Indian society, which was extremely primitive, was in no way prepared for contact with Europeans. The Indian’s first meeting with the white man was a brutal shock for him. Suddenly he discovered a world, the dimensions of which bore no relation to his own: the iron blades of the white men had more cutting power than the Indian’s flint knives; their canoes were immense; their fire-arms killed from a distance with a noise like thunder. Surely the spirits on the side of the white men were infinitely more powerful than any others the Indian had ever encountered. Accustomed as he was to explaining natural phenomena in supernatural terms, the Indian recoiled from this first clash with western and Christian civilization, profoundly shaken in the very core of his existence – his religion.

“As these contacts with the white man became more frequent and prolonged, the Indian soul suffered a corresponding attrition. At first the French gave knives, axes, and kettles to the Indians in order to win their friendship. But this contact with European goods completely upset the Indian way of life. They could not resist the metal tools, so superior to their own in utility and convenience, which were, in their minds, imbued with power and strength, and they adopted them immediately. In consequence, they forsook their traditional crafts, they ceased to make their own weapons and utensils, they modified their methods of hunting to suit the new weapons. The French traded clothing, as well, in return for furs, also food and brandy. Each time the Indians accepted a European product, they abandoned a portion of their own culture. Little time elapsed before they became the slaves of the fur traders, for they were forced to bring more and more furs to the company stores in order to get all the new goods they needed. The Indian who, hitherto, had hunted only to satisfy his own limited needs, faced the brutal fact that he now lived in a competitive society which already had completely altered his life pattern … little by little, certain fundamental traditions were forgotten; and the demoralized Indian, conscious of his decline, gradually lost the will to live.

“Brandy, without question, played its part in this disintegration of the Indian culture. But we must guard against the temptation to isolate this element and to exaggerate its importance. Brandy was only one of the many factors which combined to bring about the physical and spiritual deterioration of the Indian.”

The predominant influence in the ideological sphere was the impact made by the missions, initiated by the Recollets and later taken over by the Jesuits. The primitive Indians found it well-nigh impossible to reconcile the two dominant motives for the white man’s penetration of their continent: the search for material wealth and the conversion of pagan souls. Neither motive seemed reasonable to men who provided merely for the material needs of the moment and who possessed an integrated system of belief peculiarly adapted to the natural environment in which it had evolved. Moreover, the Indians were further confused by a secular authority which revealed its will to them, sometimes through the black-robes, sometimes through Onontio (the governor), and sometimes through the traders. This multiple standard in the ideologies and behaviour of the white men was to make an indelible impression on the Indian. The ensuing clash of interests and cultural values was to beget a fatal violence at the very foot of the altar [see Brébeuf, Gabriel Lalemant] and does much to explain the obstacles encountered by both the missionaries and those whom they sincerely wished to aid in bridging the gulf separating the palaeolithic from the modern age. Many persons, both Indians and whites, whose lives are described in this volume found themselves struggling, often helplessly, with complex and almost insoluble problems created by this pioneer phase of Canadian history.

The Hurons and their fate, as allies of the French, provide perhaps the best and most tragic example of the results which followed the deep penetration of a primitive, indigenous culture by a European one, so far removed from it by centuries of civilization. Coming in a spirit of the utmost devotion and willing to suffer every hardship, even torture and death, the missionaries found themselves facing the baffling problem of bringing new concepts, religious and secular, to a people whose ways and language, in the beginning at least, they did not understand. And, an added difficulty, they soon found themselves, as important representatives of the small, educated minority in the colony, inextricably and often unwillingly involved in civil and commercial policy; in the disputes over the fur trade and the sale of brandy; and in the bitter Indian military conflicts which destroyed the Huron country and, for a time, threatened even the existence of New France itself.

Despite a high mortality rate, the native population had maintained its equilibrium before the arrival of the white men. Infectious diseases, hitherto unknown, were introduced by the Europeans, causing a catastrophic drop in population.

A too hasty judgement might attribute to warfare the numerical decline of the Indians. The majority succumbed first of all to these new diseases carried by the whites. When the Huron nation first allied itself with the French, its population numbered 30,000 in contrast with the Iroquois total of 15,000. Measles raged among the Hurons in 1634, which was soon followed by smallpox and some other unnamed epidemic. In 1640 the Hurons numbered no more than 12,000, while the Iroquois population remained substantially the same. This epidemiological disparity has its own explanation. The Huron and Algonkian allies, with their families, paid regular visits to the trading-posts of New France, camping there for weeks at a time, in contact with the colonists and thus exposed to fresh contagion. The French missionaries and traders, on their part, freely frequented the Indian villages, whereas the Dutch and English more rarely penetrated to the Iroquois country. The Mohawks lived in the forest heart and many a long portage was necessary before their emissaries arrived to complete their brief transactions at Fort Orange (Albany, N.Y.). Solitary and on foot, in a hurry to return home, they were better able to avoid contagion than were entire households, travelling in canoes and prepared to stay for an extended period. The Iroquois family was not welcome at Fort Orange, a fact which saved it. The Dutch supplied firearms to the Iroquois after 1643 but the French, fearing revolt, refused to arm their non-Christian Indian allies. In 1649, when the Five Nations gave the final blow to the Hurons, disease had already conquered them. History often overwhelms its victims. The Hurons and the Iroquois had been equal, both belonging to the same race, speaking the same language, with the same characteristics and social structure (see Jacques Rousseau, “Les premiers Canadiens,” Cahiers des Dix, XXV (1960), 9–64).

The geographical location of the Iroquois in the western part of what is now the state of New York gave them an important military advantage, enabling them to attack from the south, with relative impunity, the routes along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, both vital links in the French communications with the pays d’en haut (the up-country), their major fur supply, to which the Iroquois also sought access. Thus the Iroquois had a motive for aggression and the base from which to launch it, whereas the Hurons had no interest in attacking their neighbours to the south.

Unlike the Hurons, the Iroquois were in a strategic position for diplomatic bargaining with more than one European government. Although the Iroquois were caught, against their will, in the conflicts and rivalries between the French on the St. Lawrence and the Dutch (after 1664 the English) of the Hudson River valley and New York, their strong military position (though it proved vulnerable in the long run) allowed them through most of the 17th century to play off the Dutch or the English against the French and thus to gamble for high stakes in the fur trade, with all the diplomatic and oratorical arts in which their leaders excelled.

“Are there practical persons who believe that Champlain would have done better to form an alliance with the Iroquois? Others maintain that his idealism led him to take the side of the Hurons and Algonkins, exposed as they were to the foul deeds of the cruel Iroquois. Neither of these views is well founded. Champlain wanted to explore west from New France, to discover the route to China, and to create an agriculturally self-sufficient colony; but in the beginning he favoured the fur trade, the economic base for the young nation and the justification for the existence of the Compagnie des Cent-Associés, at that time masters of Canada. The north country harboured the finest furs – and the water routes leading into it were controlled by the Algonkins and the Hurons. The latter were, therefore, much more useful to the colony than were the Iroquois. The Hurons, moreover, profited from the same social structure as the Iroquois and they exceeded them by 10,000 to 15,000 men. The facts of the situation dictated Champlain’s choice. But these tribes also had their problems. To participate in the fur trade they needed military aid against the Iroquois, with whom they had been at war for a half-century. Their enemies wanted to force them to join the Confederacy of the Five Nations. Independence is a prize for which a high price must be paid” (Rousseau, “Les premiers Canadiens,” ibid., 50).

For the fur trade the geographical location of the Iroquois during the 17th century was less favourable than that of the Hurons. They could not fall back on the rich resources to the west when their own fur supply became exhausted, and occupying the coveted Indian position of middleman between the hunting tribes or bands and the European purchasers, French, Dutch, or English, was thus beyond their reach. From the 1620’s on, the European demand for furs was insatiable and the Hurons controlled access to the northern and western fur supply. They carefully prevented even the French from contacts at first hand with the Tobacco and Neutral nations which were their trading partners and with the Nipissings to the north who provided them with furs. For a brief period, the Allumette Island tribe (Algonkin), which inhabited an island in the Ottawa River, athwart the Huron-French trade route, cherished commercial ambitions, in spite of its numerical inferiority, but it was never successful in supplanting the Hurons, although its members were sufficiently powerful to exact tribute from the river traffic [see Tessouat, d. 1636]. Indian manoeuvres to control the fur trade are well illustrated by the career of the infamous Oumasasikweie.

In the 1630’s and 1640’s, however, it was the Hurons who demonstrated, collectively and most strikingly, the powerful position of the middleman. Located just south of the Precambrian Shield they were able to build up a trading empire among the Algonkian tribes stretching from the Great Lakes to the St. Maurice River, and even beyond it to the Saguenay, and northward to Hudson Bay. Their trading canoes loaded with their own and European goods, they threaded their way through the lakes and rivers of this great area, bartering for furs which would then be carried down to Montreal and Quebec, the Ottawa being the principal convoy route. From their neighbours, the Neutral and Tobacco nations, who were jealously guarded against contact with the French, the Hurons obtained native products such as corn and tobacco to supplement their own articles of barter with the Algonkian tribes.

It was this Huron trading empire, already weakened by disease, which, along with the Jesuit missions, the Iroquois destroyed in 1649–50, so completely indeed that the Hurons ceased to exist as a people, their remnants being dispersed among the tribes north and west with some seeking refuge on the Île d’Orléans, later moving into Quebec itself and then, after ten years, to Notre-Dame-de-Foy, three or four miles west of Quebec.

“Of the 50,000 Hurons, Neutrals, and Eries who were in existence at the time the colony was founded, there remained only a remnant; in Oklahoma the Wyandots, their descendants, numbered scarcely 378 in 1905 and at Lorette, in the neighbourhood of Quebec, there were 835 Hurons in 1953. The majority of the fugitives merged with the Iroquois; Father [Simon] Le Moyne encountered 1,000 among the Onondagas in 1653. Three years later, the Iroquois presented an ultimatum to the vanquished in the vicinity of Quebec: assimilation or war to the death? The majority of Hurons bowed before this threat” (Rousseau, “Les premiers Canadiens,” ibid., 51). So completely did they lose their identity that the Iroquois fighting against Dollard at the Long Sault in 1660 could include adopted Hurons in their ranks. The dialogue between Dollard’s Hurons and those of the enemy, as reported by Louis Taondechoren, an Indian who escaped from the massacre, would tend to confirm this.

After 1650 the Iroquois never fully reaped the reward of replacing the Hurons in the fur trade, for the Ottawas fell heir to much of the Huron trade. The fierce forays of the Iroquois continued, however, far to the north and east, with ambuscades which at times closed the Ottawa to the fur convoys and with attacks on the settlements along the St. Lawrence which threatened the very existence of New France. Not until the arrival and campaign (1665–66) of the Carignan-Salières regiment under the Marquis de Tracy [see Prouville] did the colony gain even a partial security in the military sense. Even then the long record of negotiations, treaty-making, and alternate intervals of war and peace did not end. It spanned, in fact, the entire 17th century, and spilled over into the 18th, for the Iroquois were then no less deeply involved in the Anglo-French wars and in the campaigns of the American Revolution. Thus the Iroquois provide the most striking example of the impact made on the Indians of northeastern North America by the white man’s imperial rivalries, which dominated the new continent as well as the old.

What part geographical location and the fur trade played in the 17th century Iroquois history is impossible to determine exactly. That both had a very great influence there is no question, even if one cannot accept the too rigidly deterministic explanation put forward, for example, by George T. Hunt in The wars of the Iroquois (Madison, 1940). Between Hurons and Iroquois, even though they were linguistically and culturally closely related, there were important contrasts in ideologies and institutions. The Iroquois, for example, never responded as deeply to Christianity as did the Hurons. Missionary projects were not attempted by the Dutch and English, while French efforts, religious as well as secular, were centred north of the St. Lawrence and from this base expanded into the Mississippi regions. The devoted but tragic and unsuccessful attempt of Father Jogues to found a mission in the Mohawk country was too slight and temporary an episode to affect the course of Iroquois cultural development. Whatever the explanation, the Iroquois were successful in defending themselves to some extent against catastrophic cultural changes, so that even today their descendants form a distinct cultural entity. Doubtless geographical location, leadership, the internal strength of Iroquois tradition and institutions, and other less tangible factors all played a part in their survival as a people. Of particular institutional significance was the famous Confederacy of the Five Nations. Although it was a voluntary association and its members acted with great freedom both in war and in peace, it undoubtedly had a cohesive influence, especially, it would appear, after 1660.

The clash of cultures, while affecting the Indian more drastically, also had its impact on the European, a stranger at first in the unfamiliar environment of the New World. Indeed, he owed to the Indian his own survival in these harsh surroundings. Cartier’s description of his voyage of 1534 is our first authentic account of Indian-European contacts in northeastern North America. In it he described the Iroquoians whom he met in Gaspé Bay, explained their customs, and mentioned maize, a plant under cultivation there. The two young Indians, Domagaya and Taignoagny, taken to France with the reluctant permission of their father, Donnacona, became in the next year the first Canadian interpreters at Stadacona. Through their good offices Cartier was able to learn something of the Great River of Canada, notably that it was not a strait leading into the Sea of Cathay. The cartographers of the Old World, drawing the first maps of Canada, were greatly indebted to the invaluable information collected from the Indians. From the Indians also, Cartier learned the spectacular cure for scurvy which beset his men in the winter of 1535–36 (Jacques Rousseau, “L’annedda et l’arbre de vie,” RHAF, VIII (1954), 171–212).

The first and probably the most important contribution of the Indian to the white man was in exploration. It was the Indian, his canoe, his snow-shoes, and his interpreters (many of them children of the first unions between the French and Indian women) that enabled Champlain, Jolliet, La Vérendrye [Gaultier*], and many others to thread their way towards les pays d’en haut, sometimes by streams which were little more than a trickle, and thus to discover a continent. It was also through the lore of the Indian and his knowledge of the fur-bearing animals that the coureurs-de-bois were able to make themselves at home in the forest and ultimately to build a commercial venture of world-wide importance, the development of which forms a dominant theme in early Canadian history.

The Indians’ knowledge of native plants became of great importance to the European. Tobacco, maize, all types of squash or pumpkin, and beans were unknown in Europe before Columbus. The Hurons made oil from the sunflower which they used to grease their hair. Champlain discovered the Jerusalem artichoke in eastern Canada but it was the historian Marc Lescarbot who introduced it into Europe. The Canadian Indians were familiar with maple syrup though maple sugar, the sucre du pays, was unknown to them. Some Indian foods have been incorporated into the European-American cuisine, such as corn cooked on the cob and in other ways, for example, as succotash (a mixture of Indian corn and boiled beans, a favourite dish in New England); game cooked with wild rice; and, finally, certain methods of making bread stuffs which have been perfected in the northern forests, much to the benefit of the modern explorers. The native peoples of Central and South America alone have given more than 100 plants to world agriculture and thus transformed the commerce and cuisine of the Old World. The potato, called patate in French-Canada and in several provinces of France, comes from Peru. Carib Indians contributed the manioc and the sweet potato. The pimento provided the principal condiment in Mexico and was highly esteemed there as a vegetable. Some species of cotton were cultivated in New Mexico. And among other species which came from the recently discovered continent were the tomato, cocoa, peanuts, the pineapple, the avocado, and arrow root.

The French and English languages have also borrowed from the Indian dialects; in English, for example, pow-wow, canoe, tepee, chipmunk, moose, hominy, squash, tamarack, etc. In French no fewer than 100 words have been adopted, among them canot, tobagane, wigwam, and more than 25 names of plants and animals in the province of Quebec alone.

Thus the 65 Indian biographies in this volume are only a slight reminder of the part played by the Indians in Canada’s early development, a token tribute to a host of other unnamed Indians. Unknown contributors to today’s culture, obscure heroes who fell in many battles, interpreters and canoe-men, they helped literally to haul half a continent into the modern age. It is to this anonymous multitude that Canadian history owes some of its most striking pages.


† George W. Brown

First General Editor, Dictionary of Canadian Biography/Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, University of Toronto Press, 1959–63; Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario.


Jacques Rousseau

Professeur d’ethnobiologie et chargé de recherches à l’université Laval, Québec, Québec.


G. W. Brown and Jacques Rousseau, “The Indians of Northeast North America,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, revised edition 1986, http://admin.biographi.ca/en/special.php?project_id=49&p=3.


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