War on the North America’s Northern Frontier, 1689–1713


The Attack On Old Deerfield.

The North Americans who suffered most as a result of the imperial wars were not European settlers but Native Americans, especially those who lived north and west of New York and New England and on the border with New France. A larger proportion of the Native American population than of Europeans was drawn into the fighting, and Indian villages were raided and destroyed at least as often as the villages of the English and the French. At the same time the northern Indians were not simply war’s victims, for many groups took advantage of wartime conditions to promote their own interests. The Iroquois in particular, thanks to their strategic location and their ability to coordinate with one another, were able to forge a central role for themselves in both wars as they developed strategies to maximize their own chances for survival in a colonial world.

Indians were vital to North American warfare during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as we have seen. Neither English nor French colonial governments had sufficient resources to defend their territories alone, so they relied on their Native American allies to provide considerable military support. For their part, the Indians understood that they were indispensable to the colonists. They expected that their participation in the colonizers’ conflicts would benefit them in the long run, both economically and politically. However in the end, especially for the English-allied members of the Iroquois League, those expectations would be disappointed.

By the 1680s, the French had long since established a successful fur-trading economy in Canada, along with a small but growing population of farmers, merchants, and clerics. By this time, French trade with various Indian groups extended west to the Great Lakes and south through much of the Mississippi Valley. New France had towns or villages at Québec, Montréal, and Trois-Rivières on the St. Lawrence, as well as Port Royal and a number of smaller settlements in Acadia. Yet the French colonies still had a far smaller population than their English neighbors to the south, with only about 12,000 settlers in 1690. The French government provided only a few hundred soldiers to man its Canadian garrisons. Meanwhile, English competition for the fur trade was growing both in northern Canada and on New York’s northern and western frontiers. That economic competition, along with the ever present threat of invasion from the south, created a need for a system of defense.

Because of the numerical weakness of its population, New France depended heavily for its own survival on military alliances with Hurons, Algonquians, and Montagnais in the St. Lawrence region, the Abenakis in northern New England, a number of western tribes around the Great Lakes, and the Catholic Iroquois. Canadian militias developed strategies that were compatible with those of their Native American allies, who generally fought alongside them. They used surprise attacks, and made effective use of cover whenever possible before beginning to fire on their enemies. They limited engagements in order to keep their casualties low. The royal government in New France worked to preserve their alliances by inviting allies to settle in the reserves.

Although it might seem anomalous from a Western point of view, French-allied Iroquois did not forfeit their membership in the Iroquois League by moving to New France or by siding with the French. They were always in the minority, for most League Iroquois favored the continuation of the Covenant Chain alliance with the English. Nevertheless, by the late1680s, members of that pro-French minority had begun to argue at League councils that a peace agreement with the French would better serve Iroquois interests in the long run than the alliance with the English. After all, the English had asked the Iroquois to fight for them in several needless wars. Now the Iroquois were increasingly being drawn into conflicts with the French for which they risked much but gained little. The arguments of the pro-French groups gained considerable force after 1687, when the French governor Denonville made his devastating raid on Seneca settlements.

Conflicts escalated considerably with the beginning of King William’s War. In May 1690, Massachusetts determined to organize an expedition under William Phips to attack Port Royal in Nova Scotia and thus secure its eastern frontier. Jacob Leisler suggested that New York take part in a joint offensive against Québec and Montréal. Assured by officials in Albany that the English were going to use their great military might to defeat the French, approximately 1,000 Mohawks and other Iroquois warriors joined the New York forces for the assaults on their long-term foes. To their chagrin, Massachusetts bungled the plan. Instead of bringing their forces immediately to join the combined assault on Canada, Massachusetts insisted on carrying out the Port Royal expedition first. As a result, Phips and his men did not reach Québec until October 15, far too late to begin a siege. In any case Phips’s force of 2,300 militia was insufficiently equipped and had to retreat. Fitz-John Winthrop, commanding the forces marching by way of Lake George, made even less progress. His forces were too small, lacked supplies, and were then beset by smallpox. After reaching Wood Creek he determined to withdraw, although he dispatched a raiding party towards Montréal.

This failure was a costly one for the Iroquois, who probably had no more than 2,000 warriors in total at this point. Not only did they have to reckon the costs of this loss, but they were still reeling from the combined effects of continuing attacks by the French. Meanwhile the Iroquois had for the past decade been engaged in conflicts on their western frontiers with Miamis, Ojibwas, Illinois, Shawnees, Fox, and Ottawas.

Moreover the English continued to ask them for more assistance. After Henry Sloughter assumed the governorship in New York, his officials urged the Iroquois to provide still more warriors for another raid into Canada alongside English forces led by Peter Schuyler. This effort, too, was a disaster. English-allied Iroquois ended up exchanging fire with French-allied Iroquois, threatening the very existence of their confederacy. Iroquois warriors at League councils increasingly questioned the benefits of the alliance with the English.

English colonial governments possessed a limited capacity to defeat the French in North America, as these failed military operations revealed. The home government was unwilling to supply military resources, while the colonial governments themselves lacked unity. For these reasons the initiative passed to the French and their Indian allies, who meted out retaliation against English settlements in Maine and New Hampshire in attacks that came nearly every winter between 1692 and 1697. Not only the English settlers suffered; the French also attacked the English-allied Iroquois. The Mohawks lost 300 of their people in 1693. Then in 1696 it was the turn of the Onondagas and Oneidas to have their villages razed, in retaliation for an Iroquois raid in 1689 on the French settlement at Lachine.

Slowly the fighting died out. The provincials on both sides did not have the resources for sustained warfare, while their respective mother countries were much too engrossed in Europe to send assistance. Hostilities formally ended with the signing of the Peace of Ryswick in September 1697, and the prewar status quo was restored. Meanwhile the Iroquois were becoming increasingly reluctant to support the English, who by the end of the war had come to seem less like powerful military allies and more like bunglers. The Iroquois were still being attacked from the west and many tribal leaders believed they should husband their resources and avoid further bloodshed. The French-allied Iroquois group based near Montréal gained considerable support within the League by the mid-1690s for its arguments in favor of Iroquois neutrality and peace with the French.

The government in England made another attempt to organize colonial governments and their Iroquois allies for military purposes in 1698, when the Board of Trade appointed Richard Lord Bellomont not only governor of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire but also commander of the Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey militias. In 1700 Bellomont invited the governors of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to New York for a conference with members of the Iroquois League, the first time that so many officials had gathered together. Although Bellomont was a capable leader, the task of coordinating all these governments was too great. Colonial distrust of anything that smacked of the Dominion of New England remained strong, and the Iroquois representatives remained noncommittal. The French meanwhile increased their presence along the upper Mississippi and began the construction of a series of forts, among them Detroit, to exclude the English from the western fur trade. At the same time French Jesuits used their influence among the Indians of the St. Lawrence Valley and Great Lakes to secure support for the French cause.

Finally the members of the Iroquois League decided to take action on their own. A drastic reduction in their numbers – from 2,550 to 1,230 braves – had at last convinced a majority of Iroquois leaders that peace was essential. In 1700 Iroquois leaders entered simultaneous negotiations with both the French and the English, and in 1701 signed a separate treaty with each. The treaty with the French promised that the Iroquois would remain neutral in wars between England and France. The treaty with the English gave up Iroquois claims to a huge tract of land in the west (land which the Iroquois did not in fact control) in exchange for a promise of English military protection there. The second treaty’s effect was mostly symbolic, in that it gave the impression that the Iroquois were still firmly bound to the English. In reality, of course, the Iroquois had just agreed to peace with the French. Meanwhile the Iroquois made peace with their enemies to the west as well.

When war broke out once more in Europe in 1702, the English and the French renewed their hostilities. This time, however, the Iroquois mostly stayed out of the conflict. Instead of being drawn into costly battles, they avoided conflicts with the French even when urged to engage in them by the English.

For their part the French aggressively pursued hostilities against the English, taking advantage of the fragmentation and lack of unity among the various English colonies, along with the English government’s lack of commitment to the colonial war effort. The French-allied Abenaki, in retaliation for encroachments on their land and various attacks on their own people, first raided several Maine settlements in August 1703. Then in February 1704 they attacked Deerfield in Massachusetts. Coming in the depths of winter, the attack was a surprise. Forty-seven colonists were killed and over 100 captured, among them the local minister, the Reverend John Williams. All attempts to convert him to Catholicism failed, but his daughter Eunice married an Indian and became a Catholic convert.

Massachusetts attempted to regain the initiative by countering with another attack on Port Royal in Acadia, destroying several French villages but failing in its main objective. In 1707 Massachusetts made another unsuccessful attempt on Port Royal. The fiasco finally led to the realization by the English government that its colonies needed help. Accordingly plans were made in 1709 for the dispatch of a force from across the Atlantic to sail up the St. Lawrence. They were to be supported by 1,200 Massachusetts men, while another 1,500 recruits from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania advanced overland under Nicholson. In one of the few exceptions to the new Iroquois policy of neutrality, the English force was accompanied by a small contingent of Mohawks led by a chief named Theyanoguin, who was anxious to demonstrate his attachment to the English despite the recent agreement of other tribal leaders with the French. Again, the expedition failed when at the last minute the troops in England were diverted to Portugal.

Finally, Massachusetts sent Nicholson to England early in 1710 to argue the case for a further renewal of the assault on Port Royal. He returned the following June with several frigates and 400 marines. This time Nicholson was able to put his military training to good effect. Port Royal fell in October 1710.

His achievement duly impressed the government in London, as did the dispatch of four Indian “Kings,” led by Theyanoguin, who was introduced as “Emperor” of the Iroquois; his presence was used to convince the English government that the Iroquois remained loyal to their colonies.12 The Tory administration in London agreed to another expedition up the St. Lawrence in conjunction with a colonial advance by way of Lake George. The amphibious force was to comprise 15 warships and seven regular regiments under the overall command of Admiral Walker. The colonists were to be led by Nicholson advancing north from Albany. Once more, Massachusetts voted £40,000 for the project, while all the other northern colonies contributed either men or money – including £2,000 from Quaker Pennsylvania “for the Queen’s use.”

As it turned out, this operation was even less successful than that of Winthrop and Phips in1690. Admiral Walker’s fleet with 7,000 troops on board arrived in Boston in June 1711, but received a lukewarm reception from colonists offended by the visiting army’s airs of superiority. Although the required supplies and shipping were assembled, and the expedition proceeded for the St. Lawrence in good time, the navy had no charts of the river. On the night of August 23, Walker lost eight ships and 700 men. This misfortune unnerved him and he sailed back across the Atlantic. Nicholson was left waiting to advance at Lake George until news of Walker’s departure finally reached him in October, by which time it was too late to do anything except throw his hat on the ground in frustration, shouting “rascals, damned rascals.”

When the European conflict finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in April 1713, the French retained control over most of Canada, although they had been forced to make some important concessions. The English gained jurisdiction over Acadia, renamed Nova Scotia, along with its French and Indian inhabitants. The English also gained Newfoundland, previously claimed by both the English and the French, as well as French recognition of their claims to Hudson Bay. Finally, the English gained the right to trade with tribes in the west who had previously had ties to the French. In fact, however, most of these concessions meant little. England could not effectively exercise power over these new territories without occupying them, and they lacked the manpower to do so. And though a new English fort at Oswego would begin to open up trade between the English and western tribes, any real English dominion over the West remained elusive.

Meanwhile the Iroquois League had emerged from the war in a stronger diplomatic position than they had begun. Having made peace with the French, League members no longer had to worry about attacks from French-allied western peoples. In fact they could now lawfully act as intermediaries in the western fur trade without fear of reprisals. They had simultaneously preserved the friendship of the English. The result was the maintenance of their freedom from either European empire, which gave them space to rebuild their own empire and replenish their populations without interference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *