Writing The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years' War

read before the Six Nations Band Council, Six Nations Administrative Building, Oshweken, 18 February, 1997.


Good evening.

-Could I just begin by saying that I considered it a real honour to be invited to address this group, and I am very glad to be here this evening.


-Before I get in to actually talking about my book, The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years' War, there are a few points I'd like to raise.

-first of all, you will quickly find that my pronunciation of Iroquois words is not all that it could be.

-now I've found that most of the time, Iroquois can make out what I'm the words I'm using are supposed to mean, and are too polite to say anything.

-but I'd just like to apologize in advance.


-next, there are a few expressions that I'll be using, that some people find confusing, and I thought that it would be a good idea to just set out what I mean.


-to begin with, "Canadian Iroquois."

-these are, very simply, the members of the Iroquois communities located in the vicinity of Montreal, along the western limits of the French colony of Canada

-the men and women of Akwesasne, Kahnawake, Kanesetake, and Oswegatchie

-these groups are most often referred to as "domiciled" Iroquois, because the French considered them to live within the borders of the French empire, or "mission" Iroquois because they were Catholics.

-I consider that "domiciled" implies that they were living as guests of the French and "mission" implies that they were ruled by their priests, neither of which is in fact the case

-so I chose "Canadian" Iroquois as the best available alternative.

-it's meant to be a geographic rather than ethnic or national designation.

-it can be confusing, however, because after the American Revolution, a considerable number of Iroquois who had fought alongside the British were forced to leave their homes and relocate in what is now Canada, particularly here, along the Grand River.

-but it was the best I could do.


-next, there is the word "Amerindians."

-it just happens that there no single accepted expression for indigenous people of North America, First Nations, First Peoples, Indigenous People, Native Americans and so on.

-among historians of the Seventeenth and eighteenth century, it just happens that "Amerindians" is the most popular term.

-unfortunately, "Amerindian" can be even more confusing than "Canadian Iroquois," because it is not a word that you hear very often outside of academic circles.

-but once again, it was the best I could do.


-now, as for the book itself

-I got started on this project when I was asked to write a general history of the Seven Years' War for the Canadian War Museum

-now, when you get involved in something like this, the first thing you do is look around and see what has already been written on your topic

-and when I did, I discovered that some very important aspects of the war had never been studied at all

-in particular, no one had ever produced a book about the role played by the Canadian Iroquois

-so I decided that it was more important to write about the Canadian Iroquois than the war as a whole.

-I changed my topic and the War Museum agreed to go along with this.


-now the major point that I try to make about the Seven Years' War is that there were not one but two wars in progress in north america

-that French soldiers and Mohawk warriors might march and fight side by side, but they were fighting two different wars.


-the French fought to advance the interests of the French empire

-they wanted to run around and fight battles and capture English forts, and at the same time defend their own forts and towns

-battles like Monongahela in 1755, Ticonderoga in 1757, Quebec in 1759


-the Canadian Iroquois, on the other hand, didn't care about all that

-they had no problems with the British

-they traded with the British of New York and New England

-and, when the war began, their national territories were not threatened by the British

-they only became involved in the war because the French were their allies, and one of the obligations of alliance was to fight alongside your allies.


-however, when it came to actually fighting the war, the Canadian Iroquois went their own way

-judging from their actions throughout the conflict, as far as they were concerned, just showing up meant fulfilling their obligations as allies.

-they didn't care about French military objectives, they wanted to succeed on their own terms

-for the Canadian Iroquois, success in war meant coming home with prisoners

-prisoners who could be adopted into Canadian Iroquois families and communities or sold to the French

-actually killing enemies was all right too, but what was really important was prisoners

-so when the French marched off to capture a British fort or to defend a French outpost, the Canadian Iroquois went along, but they treated it like any other military venture

-as, in the words of one fighter from Kahnawake, "an opportunity of distinguishing ourselves, and of getting some prisoners ... to show our people that we had been at war."


-this caused some problems with the French several campaigns

-either the Canadian Iroquois would want to take their prisoners and go home before the French captured a British fort

-or else the French would accept the surrender of a British fort without consulting the Canadian Iroquois, who would keep on fighting until they got their prisoners

-on the whole, however, Canadian Iroquois and the French, along with other Amerindian nations, made a formidable combination, and kept the British on the run for the first five Years' of the war.


-But in the end, the British had more soldiers, more ships, more food, and more money, and by 1759, they were about to invade New France

-this meant, that for the first time, Canadian Iroquois lands and communities were threatened with invasion

-and that the French alliance was no longer serving their national interests

-an ally that involves you in a war that might lead to the conquest of your territory and the killing of your people is not much of an ally

-in any event, this occurred in August of 1759, when the British captured fort Carillon on Lake Champlain and Fort Niagara on Lake ontario

-it was very clear to the Canadian Iroquois that if the British were to follow up their success on Lake Ontario by attacking Montreal from the west, they would overrun Oswegatchie, Akwesasne, and Kahnawake on the way

-and that the consequences for the Canadian Iroquois could be very serious, given that the British had already displayed considerable ruthlessness in North America

-they had expelled the Acadians from the maritimes, destroyed literally thousands of French farms during the siege of Quebec, and ordered the mass murder of the Abenakis of Odanak

-by the end of 1759, the survivors from Odanak were living as refugees near Montreal, living reminders of the danger of the Canadian Iroquois position


-under these conditions, allowing fighters to go out and seek personal achievement by capturing prisoners or even the maintenance of the French alliance itself became secondary considerations

-Instead, the priorities of the Canadian Iroquois shifted to securing the safety and integrity of their communities in an increasingly dangerous and rapidly changing geopolitical environment.


-as a result, they opened negotiations with the British and began to consider becoming neutral in the intra-european war

-yet at the same time they avoided an overt break with the French

-the Canadian Iroquois thus contrived to place themselves on reasonably amicable terms with both european powers, while keeping their options open

-This deferred the necessity of making a final commitment to either European power until the last month of hostilities, when the outcome of the war had become virtually certain.


-when the last British invasion began, representatives of the Canadian Iroquois and other nations of the St. Lawrence valley met the British commander in chief at Fort LÚvis, now the westernmost French position and negotiated neutrality

-from this point on, they would remain on the sidelines and let the Europeans fight it out.

-they sent word of the results of these negotiations to the last Canadian Iroquois force that was still serving alongside the last French army, and the Amerindian fighters withdrew from the field.

-shortly thereafter, the French surrendered Montreal


-finally, in a meeting at Kahnawake in september, the Canadian Iroquois formally renounced the French alliance and established a new alliance with the British

-this was an alliance of necessity rather than choice, but the Canadian Iroquois had managed to make the best of a very difficult, potentially catastrophic, situation.

-Caught between two European powers and their armies, they acted successfully to ensure their own survival, and emerged from the war with their rights acknowledged and their communities intact


-I'll just make one final point, and here I'm going back to the beginning and talking about words

-you very often hear the word "conquest" used to describe the results of the British invasion of the St. Lawrence valley

-I would argue that this is dangerously misleading

-The British certainly defeated and conquered the French of the St. Lawrence valley, and the French government subsequently ceded the region to the British

-but the Amerindians of the region, including the Canadian Iroquois, were not defeated on the battlefield and did not surrender their lands or their rights

-instead, they took advantage of their standing as independent nations to negotiate a new relationship with the British

-instead of conquered subjects, they entered the new era as British allies.

-and it was this peaceful transition that represented the major Canadian Iroquois achievement of the Seven Years' War.


-thank you.



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The bottom center image is a detail from David Rickman, Eastern Woodland Indians, middle of the eighteenth century, Department of National Defence.