The Franco-Amerindian Expedition to The Great Carrying Place in 1756

read at the eighteenth annual meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, McGill University, Montreal,23 May, 1992.

Throughout the Seven Years' War, the Iroquois of Akwesasne, Kanesetake, Kahnawake, and Oswegatchie fought as allies of the French.

you might note, by the way, that I will be referring to the inhabitants of these villages as Kanesetakes, Kahnawakes or whatever, but that these are geographical rather than ethnic designations

using these expressions is much the same as referring to Montréalais or Torontonians

warriors from these communities took part in every major campaign of the war, as well as raiding and scouting parties. Their assistance was indispensable to New France, both because the personnel that they provided supplemented that of the outnumbered French, and because of their particular military skills and local knowledge.

But although a French soldier and Mohawk warrior might be marching and fighting side by side, they were fighting two very different wars.

the French fought to secure the collective goals of their empire

even if individual soldiers and militiamen did not share these goals, they belonged to a society that treated them as disposable units, which could be expended to further the objectives of the government in versailles

During the Seven Years' Year, the French forces in North America sought to achieve these goals through a series of military operations directed against specific objectives, whose capture or destruction was expected to influence the actions of the British.

The Canadian Iroquois fought a different war. For the British were not their enemies.

On the contrary, they enjoyed longstanding and mutually profitable commercial relations with the British of New York.

participation the Seven Years' War was the tangible expression of their alliance with the French, rather than hostility to the British.

Yet although they fought in this war at the request of the French, in so doing they surrendered neither their independence, nor their freedom to wage war in their own way.

instead, they used participation in the Anglo-French conflict as a means of fulfilling personal objectives that could be met by taking part in any military action

in particular they sought to obtain status and prestige through military achievement and the taking of prisoners.

This pattern of Amerindians pursuing personal goals within the context of French military operations appeared in most Franco-Amerindian military ventures, but was particularly apparent in the spring of 1756

then, a force composed of Canadian militiamen, French soldiers, and Amerindian warriors, most of whom were Canadian Iroquois, took part in a major raid against the British on the New York frontier.

When the French component of this expedition left Montreal in February of that year, its commander, Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry, believed that the success of this venture was vital to the future of the French empire in North America

In the fall of 1755, the French had learned that the British had established two warehouses to store provisions and munitions at either end of the Great Carrying Place—— a major portage between Albany and Oswego.

This information was interpreted by the French as indicating that their enemies were stockpiling supplies in preparation for a major spring offensive on the Lake Ontario frontier.

An operation of this nature represented an ominous threat to New France.

Since waterways in New York opened about two weeks before those in Canada, the British could launch an attack against the small winter garrisons of Forts Frontenac and Niagara, at a time when the French, locked in by ice, would be unable to respond.

the French decided to counter this threat by striking first to destroy the warehouses, before the stores they contained could be used to support a spring offensive

this was not expected to pose a serious military problem, since the warehouses were reported to be unfortified and defended by only one hundred and forty guards living in bark huts and tents.

but to succeed, the French would need Amerindian cooperation

they needed the special skills of Amerindian warriors

and they needed Oswegatchie guides, since they were not familiar with the territory between the St. Lawrence River and the Carrying Place

when approached by the French, the Amerindians expressed some reservations on account of the weather, but did agree to come

so as the French advanced westward from Montreal towards Oswegatchie, councils were held at each Amerindian village, to formally invite any interested warriors to join the expedition and, in Léry's words, "strike the English together"

Two points were stressed during these negotiations.

First, that the expedition was directed against the British, not the Iroquois of the Six Nations, within whose territory the warehouses were located...

... and second, that the party would be attacking men in bark huts guarding warehouses

Under these conditions, both the French and Amerindians could expect to secure their goals.

The French, by destroying a particular target, would eliminate a threat to Canada

the Amerindians, by joining a French war party, could expect to find opportunities to seek prisoners and prestige.

French and Amerindian objectives and methods might not be the same, but they were at least parallel.

this harmony of interest would not, however, survive for long after the assembly of the expedition at the rendezvous at Oswegatchie.

On 9 March, just before the departure of the French and Amerindians from Oswegatchie, a party of Akwesasnes returned from Oswego with nine prisoners.

when questioned by the expedition's English interpreter, the prisoners provided Léry with startling new information about the British presence at the Great Carrying Place.

Instead of the unfortified warehouses that he had been ordered to attack, the munitions and provisions stored at the portage were now defended by two forts, Fort Bull at the west end and Fort Williams at the east

Léry reacted to the new situation by keeping this information to himself, and on 11 and 12 March, the expedition left Oswegatchie without incident.

Yet if Léry had hoped to conceal this news of the fortifications, he failed completely. On 13 March, the Amerindians encountered an Oswegatchie who informed them that the storehouses at the portage had been fortified. The expedition immediately ground to a halt.

In each campaign in which they took part, Amerindians seized every possible opportunity to remind the French that they considered the storming of fortifications to be an extremely dubious enterprise.

For the object of their war was to take prisoners and gain status, not to weaken their communities by sustaining unnecessary losses.

For French officers, an expedition could still be a success if half of the members of a detachment became casualties, providing only that it had achieved a sufficiently important objective.

For Amerindians, any amount of prestige was not worth the loss of a single life, and certainly not worth the risk of attacking British forts

The Amerindians of the expedition felt that the original plan was no longer viable, and proposed an alternative that suited their military customs and goals.

They suggested that the detachment should raid the settlements along the Mohawk valley, instead of attacking British forts

From their point of view, this was a very reasonable proposition. They had been asked to join in clearing away guards living in bark huts, not to besiege forts and risk heavy losses.

Although there had been, at least initially, no intent to deceive on the part of the French, the conditions under which the Amerindians had agreed to attach themselves to the expedition no longer existed.

Now that the initial objective of the Franco-Amerindian force was known to be far stronger than expected, they had every right, in their eyes, to chose a new, and more appropriate target

They were, moreover, acting in an entirely customary manner in suggesting that the target of a war party be adjusted in accordance with their particular goals and practices

Amerindians had found in the past that French officers had been willing to respond to these concerns

Léry, however, was less accommodating

he treated Amerindian misgivings as an obstacle to overcome, rather than a legitimate response to a changed situation.

Having failed to conceal the news of the new fortifications, Léry now sought to delay the moment of confrontation

he persuaded the Amerindians to defer a final decision, on the grounds that they would not know for certain about the forts until they reached the portage and could see for themselves.

what he did not do was to attempt to honestly explain the French plan to forestall a British invasion of New France by destroying the supplies that had been accumulated at the portage...

thereby establishing why it was necessary to attack the British at the Carrying Place, as opposed to any another location.

Léry's delaying tactics were only partly successful

several Amerindians responded to news of the construction of the forts by leaving the expedition and going home

others also left the detachment, but displayed continued willingness to fight the British...

they simply insisted upon doing so only on their own terms.

instead of returning home, they formed a series of smaller war parties which went to Oswego or the Mohawk valley in search of prisoners.

The remaining Amerindians reserved judgement and remained with the French until they reached the portage

by then, their French allies were out of food

The French and Amerindian leaders held a council, and decided to resupply the detachment by attacking a convoy on the portage.

This attack was entrusted to the Amerindians, who captured nine wagons and ten men.

A black teamster, however, escaped, and fled back towards Fort Williams.

Léry decided that this was the time to strike instantly, before the British could react to the warning. The Amerindians decided that this was the time to go home.

Their argument was simple and straightforward—— in overcoming the carters, they had achieved all that they desired to accomplish

As far as the French were concerned, the attack on the wagons was merely the penultimate step in a process that would lead to the destruction of the supplies stored at the portage.

But for the Amerindians, it represented the end product of their participation in the expedition.

The enemy had been engaged, and prisoners secured without loss.

They had done what they set out to do, and saw no need to continue, much less become involved in an attack on a fort.

Amerindians, had never been particularly impressed with European military practices

Léry himself had witnessed the reaction of Amerindian observers to the movements of French soldiers in 1754...

"I saw them laugh a lot, and none of them seemed impressed by a manoeuvre that they all regarded as useless."

The Amerindian leaders considered the frontal assault on Fort Bull proposed by Léry to be so ill-advised as to be suicidal

they informed the French officer that "if I absolutely wanted to die, I was the master of the French, but they were not going to follow me."

Faced with this refusal, and with the Amerindians about to depart, Léry sought compromise.

he managed to obtain their consent to guard the prisoners and watch the portage road

and, in the end, 6 Amerindians actually took part in the attack on Fort bull

Léry had hoped to take the British by surprise and seize the fort in a coup de main...

but the garrison was alerted by the war cries of the Amerindians, and managed to close the gate

after an attack lasting an hour, the French battered down the front gate

led by four men, one an Iroquois, the soldiers and militiamen stormed through the breach and proceeded to massacre the garrison and civilians

when the assault was over, and the french were destroying the stores, an Amerindian arrived with the news that the British at fort williams were making a sortie.

the black teamster who escaped from the attack on the convey had reached Fort Williams safely, and reported the presence of an Amerindian war party

the commanding officer sent out a patrol to investigate.

Five hundred metres from Fort Williams, they found themselves under fire from the Amerindians who were watching the road.

the survivors fled, but were pursued and quickly rounded up

These prisoners were stripped of their outer clothing and bound, but not otherwise mistreated.

Thus, while at one end of the portage, the occupants of Fort Bull, soldiers and civilians alike, were being massacred almost to the last man and woman by French soldiers and militiamen, at the other, British soldiers who ceased to resist were taken prisoner by Amerindians.

Although the French considered the ambush of this patrol to have been incidental to their own assault on Fort Bull, this view was not shared by the Amerindians.

Following the reunion of the detachment, the chiefs complimented Léry on his victory, but also spoke at length regarding their own.

—Moreover, they complimented Léry for the good fortune, rather than skill or prowess, that had allowed the French to incur so few casualties as they stood in the open and hammered at the gate of Fort Bull.

At no point did they appear particularly impressed with French tactics or intelligence.

the experience of those Amerindians who had taken part in the storming of Fort Bull can only have confirmed their prejudices against listening to the french and joining them in attacking fortifications

of the six, two were killed and three wounded in the fighting and in the subsequent explosion of the powder magazine

The actions and decisions of the French and Canadian Iroquois in the expedition to the Carrying Place mirrored their respective roles in the Seven Years' War.

For Europeans, the Anglo-French imperial struggle, with its large armies and tangible victories and defeats, was the more visible of the wars in progress in north- eastern North America in the later 1750s.

Yet for the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence valley this conflict was only a framework within which they conducted their own parallel war, with little regard for the military customs and aspirations of the French.

As the French fought to capture British strong points and defend their own, the Canadian Iroquois continued to fight their own war directed at their own goals for as long as so doing did not endanger their own collective interests.

This pattern would persist until the summer of 1759, when the fall of Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario and Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain provided the first tangible indications that New France might actually lose the war and suffer invasion.

Since this might have serious, even fatal, consequences for the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence valley, their own national interests became paramount.

Henceforth, their priority with regard to the war between the whites shifted from fulfilling their agreements with their allies to ensuring the survival and integrity of their own communities.

This was effected not by force of arms, but through skilful diplomacy

In fighting their own war parallel to that of their European allies, the Canadian Iroquois displayed the independence and freedom of action that characterized their relations with the French

Although they had shared the Montreal region since the late seventeenth century, the Canadian Iroquois and the French remained members of separate and distinct communities.

This distinctiveness was apparent even in a successful joint military venture like the expedition to the Great Carrying Place in 1756.

although the Amerindians and the French both succeeded, they succeeded as members of different groups pursuing different goals

in the end, each component of the expedition went to war in its own way, fought according to its inclinations, and succeeded according to its own standards.

Following the completion of this enterprise, members of each group appear to have felt that they had good reason to be as satisfied with their own efforts as they were unimpressed with those of their allies.

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Copyright © 1992, 2001 D. Peter MacLeod

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