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The Lurid Interval

We have seen that during Frontenac's first term of office no urgent danger menaced the colony on the frontier. The missionary and the explorer were steadily pressing forward to the head of the Great Lakes and into the valley of the Mississippi, enlarging the sphere of French influence and rendering the interior tributary to the commerce of Quebec. But this peaceful and silent expansion had not passed unnoticed by those in whose minds it aroused both rivalry and dread. Untroubled from without as New France had been under Frontenac, there were always two lurking perils--the Iroquois and the English.

The Five Nations owed their leadership among the Indian tribes not only to superior discipline and method but also to their geographical situation. The valley of the St Lawrence lay within easy reach, either through Lake Champlain or Lake Ontario. On the east at their very door lay the valley of the Mohawk and the Hudson. From the western fringe of their territory they could advance quickly to Lake Erie, or descend the Ohio into the valley of the Mississippi. It was doubtless due to their prowess rather than to accident that they originally came into possession of this central and favored position; however, they could now make their force felt throughout the whole north-eastern portion of the continent.

Over seventy years had now passed since Champlain's attack upon the Iroquois in 1609; but lapse of time had not altered the nature of the savage, nor were the causes of mutual hostility less real than at first. A ferocious lust for war remained the deepest passion of the Iroquois, to be satisfied at convenient intervals. It was unfortunate, in their view, that they could not always be at war; but they recognized that there must be breathing times and that it was important to choose the right moment for massacre and pillage. Daring but sagacious, they followed an opportunist policy. At times their warriors delighted to lurk in the outskirts of Montreal with tomahawk and scalping-knife and to organize great war-parties, such as that which was arrested by Dollard and his heroic companions at the Long Sault in 1660. At other times they held fair speech with the governor and permitted the Jesuits to live in their villages, for the French had weapons and means of fighting which inspired respect.

The appearance of the Dutch on the Hudson in 1614 was an event of great importance to the Five Nations. The Dutch were quite as ready as the French to trade in furs, and it was thus that the Iroquois first procured the firearms which they used in their raids on the French settlements. That the Iroquois rejoiced at having a European colony on the Hudson may be doubted, but as they were unable to prevent it, they drew what profit they could by putting the French and Dutch in competition, both for their alliance and their neutrality.

But, though the Dutch were heretics and rivals, it was a bad day for New France when the English seized New Amsterdam (1669) and began to establish themselves from Manhattan to Albany. The inevitable conflict was first foreshadowed in the activities of Sir Edmund Andros, which followed his appointment as governor of New York in 1674. He visited the Mohawks in their own villages, organized a board of Indian commissioners at Albany, and sought to cement an alliance with the whole confederacy of the Five Nations. In opposition to this France made the formal claim (1677) that by actual residence in the Iroquois country the Jesuits had brought the Iroquois under French sovereignty.

Iroquois, French, and English thus formed the points of a political triangle. Home politics, however--the friendship of Stuart and Bourbon--tended to postpone the day of reckoning between the English and French in America. England and France were not only at peace but in alliance. The Treaty of Dover had been signed in 1670, and two years later, just as Frontenac had set out for Quebec, Charles II had sent a force of six thousand English to aid Louis XIV against the Dutch. It was in this war that John Churchill, afterwards Duke of Marlborough, won his spurs--fighting on the French side!

None the less, there were premonitions of trouble in America, especially after Thomas Dongan became governor of New York in 1683. Andros had shown good judgment in his dealings with the Iroquois, and his successor, inheriting a sound policy, went even further on the same course. Dongan, an Irishman of high birth and a Catholic, strenuously opposed the pretensions of the French to sovereignty over the Iroquois. When it was urged that religion required the presence of the Jesuits among them, he denied the allegation, stating that he would provide English priests to take their place. A New England Calvinist could not have shown more firmness in upholding the English position. Indeed, no governor of Puritan New England had ever equaled Dongan in hostility to Catholic New France.

Frontenac's successor, Lefebvre de la Barre, who had served with distinction in the West Indies, arrived at Quebec in September 1682. By the same ship came the new intendant, Meulles. They found the Lower Town of Quebec in ruins, for a devastating fire had just swept through it. Hardly anything remained standing save the buildings on the cliff.

La Barre and Meulles were soon at loggerheads. It appears that, instead of striving to repair the effects of the fire, the new governor busied himself to accumulate fortune. He had indeed promised the king that, unlike his predecessors, he would seek no profit from private trading, and had on this ground requested an increase of salary. Meulles presently reported that, far from keeping this promise, La Barre and his agents had shared ten or twelve thousand crowns of profit, and that unless checked the governor's revenues would soon exceed those of the king. Meulles also accuses La Barre of sending home deceitful reports regarding the success of his Indian policy. We need not dwell longer on these reports. They disclose with great clearness the opinion of the intendant as to the governor's fitness for his office.

La Barre stands condemned not by the innuendoes of Meulles, but by his own failure to cope with the Iroquois.

The presence of the Dutch and English had stimulated the Five Nations to enlarge their operations in the fur trade and multiply their profits. The French, from being earliest in the field, had established friendly relations with all the tribes to the north of the Great Lakes, including those who dwelt in the valley of the Ottawa; and La Salle and Tonty had recently penetrated to the Mississippi and extended French trade to the country of the Illinois Indians. The furs from this region were being carried up the Mississippi and forwarded to Quebec by the Lakes and the St Lawrence. This brought the Illinois within the circle of tribes commercially dependent on Quebec. At the same time the Iroquois, through the English on the Hudson, now possessed facilities greater than ever for disposing of all the furs they could acquire; and they wanted this trade for themselves.

The wholesome respect which the Iroquois entertained for Frontenac kept them from attacking the tribes under the protection of the French on the Great Lakes; but the remote Illinois were thought to be a safe prey. During the autumn of 1680 a war-party of more than six hundred Iroquois invaded the country of the Illinois. La Salle was then in Montreal, but Tonty met the invaders and did all he could to save the Illinois from their clutches. His efforts were in vain. The Illinois suffered all that had befallen the Huron in 1649.1 The Iroquois, however, were careful not to harm the French, and to demand from Tonty a letter to show Frontenac as proof that he and his companions had been respected.

Obviously this raid was a symptom of danger, and in 1681 Frontenac asked the king to send him five or six hundred troops. A further disturbing incident occurred at the Jesuit mission of Sault Ste Marie, where an Illinois Indian murdered a Seneca chieftain. That Frontenac intended to act with firmness towards the Iroquois, while giving them satisfaction for the murder of their chief, is clear from his acts in 1681 no less than from his general record. But his forces were small and he had received particular instructions to reduce expenditure. And, with Duchesneau at hand to place a sinister interpretation upon his every act, the conditions were not favorable for immediate action. Then in 1682 he was recalled.

Such, in general, were the conditions which confronted La Barre, and in fairness it must be admitted that they were the most serious thus far in the history of Canada. From the first the Iroquois had been a pest and a menace, but now, with the English to flatter and encourage them, they became a grave peril. The total population of the colony was now about ten thousand, of whom many were women and children. The regular troops were very few; and, though the disbanded Carignan soldiers furnished the groundwork of a valiant militia, the habitants and their seigneurs alone could not be expected to defend such a territory against such a foe.

Above all else the situation demanded strong leadership; and this was precisely what La Barre failed to supply. He was preoccupied with the profits of the fur trade, ignorant of Indian character, and past his physical prime; and his policy towards the Iroquois was a continuous series of blunders. Through the great personal influence of Charles Le Moyne the Five Nations were induced, in 1683, to send representatives to Montreal, where La Barre met them and gave them lavish presents. The Iroquois, always good judges of character, did not take long to discover in the new governor a very different Onontio from the imposing personage who had held conference with them at Fort Frontenac ten years earlier.

The feebleness of La Barre's effort to maintain French sovereignty over the Iroquois is reflected in his request that they should ask his permission before attacking tribes friendly to the French. When he asked them why they had attacked the Illinois, they gave this ominous answer: 'Because they deserved to die.' La Barre could effect nothing by a display of authority, and even with the help of gifts he could only postpone war against the tribes of the Great Lakes. The Iroquois intimated that for the present they would be content to finish the destruction of the Illinois--a work which would involve the destruction of the French posts in the valley of the Mississippi. La Barre's chief purpose was to protect his own interests as a trader, and, so far from wishing to strengthen La Salle's position on the Mississippi, he looked upon that illustrious explorer as a competitor whom it was legitimate to destroy by craft. By an act of poetic justice the Iroquois a few months later plundered a convoy of canoes which La Barre himself had sent out to the Mississippi for trading purposes.

The season of 1684 proved even less prosperous for the French. Not only Dongan was doing his best to make the Iroquois allies of the English; Lord Howard of Effingham, the governor of Virginia, was busy to the same end. For some time past certain tribes of the Five Nations, though not the confederacy as a whole, had been making forays upon the English settlers in Maryland and even in Virginia. To adjust this matter Lord Howard came to Albany in person, held a council which was attended by representatives of all the tribes, and succeeded in effecting a peace. Amid the customary ceremonies the Five Nations buried the hatchet with the English, and stood ready to concentrate their war-parties upon the French.

It must not be inferred that by an act of reconciliation these subtle savages threw themselves into the arms of the English, exchanging a new suzerainty for an old. They always did the best they could for their own hand, seeking to play one white man against the other for their own advantage. It was a situation where, on the part of French and English, individual skill and knowledge of Indian character counted for much. On the one hand, Dongan showed great intelligence and activity in making the most of the fact that Albany was nearer to the land of the Five Nations than Quebec, or even Montreal. On the other, the French had envoys who stood high in the esteem of the Iroquois--notably Charles Le Moyne, of Longueuil, and Lamberville, the Jesuit missionary.

But for the moment the French were heavily burdened by the venality of La Barre, who subordinated public policy to his own gains. We have now to record his most egregious blunder--an attempt to overawe the Iroquois with an insufficient force--an attempt which Meulles declared was a mere piece of acting--not designed for real war on behalf of the colony, but to assist the governor's private interests as a trader. From whatever side the incident is viewed it illustrates a complete incapacity.

On July 10, 1684, La Barre left Quebec with a body of two hundred troops. In ascending the river they were reinforced by recruits from the Canadian militia and several hundred Indian allies. After much hardship in the rapids the little army reached Fort Frontenac. Here the sanitary conditions proved bad and many died from malarial fever. All thought of attack soon vanished, and La Barre altered his plans and decided to invite the Iroquois to a council. The degree of his weakness may be seen from the fact that he began with a concession regarding the place of meeting. An embassy from the Onondagas finally condescended to meet him, but not at Fort Frontenac. La Barre, with a force such as he could muster, crossed to the south side of Lake Ontario and met the delegates from the Iroquois at La Famine, at the mouth of the Salmon River, not far from the point where Champlain and the Huron had left their canoes when they had invaded the Onondaga country in 1615.

The council which ensued was a ghastly joke. La Barre began his speech by enumerating the wrongs which the French and their dependent tribes had recently suffered from the Iroquois. Among these he included the raid upon the Illinois, the machinations with the English, and the spoliation of French traders. For offences so heinous satisfaction must be given. Otherwise Onontio would declare a war in which the English would join him. These were brave words, but unfortunately the Iroquois had excellent reason to believe that the statement regarding the English was untrue, and could see for themselves the weakness of La Barre's forces.

This conference has been picturesquely described by Baron La Hontan, who was present and records the speeches. The chief orator of the Onondagas was a remarkable person, who either for his eloquence or aspect is called by La Hontan, Grangula, or Big Mouth. Having listened to La Barre's bellicose words and their interpretation, 'he rose, took five or six turns in the ring that the French and the savages formed, and returned to his place. Then standing upright he spoke after the following manner to the General La Barre, who sat in his chair of state:

'Onontio, I honor you, and all the warriors that accompany me do the same. Your interpreter has made an end of his discourse, and now I come to begin mine. My voice glides to your ear. Pray listen to my words.

'Onontio, in setting out from Quebec, you must have fancied that the scorching beams of the sun had burnt down the forests which render our country inaccessible to the French; or else that the inundations of the lake had surrounded our cottages and confined us as prisoners. This certainly was your thought; and it could be nothing else but the curiosity of seeing a burnt or drowned country that moved you to undertake a journey hither. But now you have an opportunity of being undeceived, for I and my warriors come to assure you that the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk are not yet destroyed. I return you thanks in their name for bringing into their country the calumet of peace, which your predecessor received from their hands. At the same time I congratulate you on having left under ground the tomahawk which has so often been dyed with the blood of the French. I must tell you, Onontio, that I am not asleep. My eyes are open, and the sun which vouchsafes the light gives me a clear view of a great captain at the head of a troop of soldiers, who speaks as if he were asleep. He pretends that he does not approach this lake with any other view than to smoke the calumet with the Onondagas. But Grangula knows better. He sees plainly that Onontio meant to knock them on the head if the French arms had not been so much weakened...

'You must know, Onontio, that we have robbed no Frenchman, save those who supplied the Illinois and the Miamis (our enemies) with muskets, powder, and ball... We have conducted the English to our lakes in order to trade with the Ottawa and the Huron; just as the Algonquins. conducted the French to our five cantons, in order to carry on a commerce that the English lay claim to as their right. We are born freemen and have no dependence either upon the Onontio or the Corlaer [the English governor]. We have power to go where we please, to conduct whom we will to the places we resort to, and to buy and sell where we think fit... We fell upon the Illinois and the Miami because they cut down the trees of peace that served for boundaries and came to hunt beavers upon our lands. ...We have done less than the English and French, who without any right have usurped the lands they are now possessed of.

'I give you to know, Onontio, that my voice is the voice of the five Iroquois cantons. This is their answer. Pray incline your ear and listen to what they represent.

'The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawks declare that they buried the tomahawk in the presence of your predecessor, in the very centre of the fort, and planted the Tree of Peace in the same place. It was then stipulated that the fort should be used as a place of retreat for merchants and not a refuge for soldiers. Be it known to you, Onontio, that so great a number of soldiers, being shut up in so small a fort, do not stifle and choke the Tree of Peace. Since it took root so easily it would be evil to stop its growth and hinder it from shading both your country and ours with its leaves. I assure you, in the name of the five nations, that our warriors will dance the calumet dance under its branches and will never dig up the axe to cut it down--till such time as the Onontio and the Corlaer do separately or together invade the country which the Great Spirit gave to our ancestors.'2

When Le Moyne and the Jesuits had interpreted this speech La Barre 'retired to his tent and stormed and blustered.' But Grangula favored the spectators with an Iroquois dance, after which he entertained several of the Frenchmen at a banquet. 'Two days later,' writes La Hontan, 'he and his warriors returned to their own country, and our army set out for Montreal. As soon as the General was on board, together with the few healthy men that remained, the canoes were dispersed, for the militia straggled here and there, and every one made the best of his way home.'

With this ignominious adventure the career of La Barre ends. The reports which Meulles sent to France produced a speedy effect in securing his dismissal from office. 'I have been informed,' politely writes the king, 'that your years do not permit you to support the fatigues inseparable from your office of governor and lieutenant-general in Canada.'

La Barre's successor, the Marquis de Denonville, arrived at Quebec in August 1685. Like La Barre, he was a soldier; like Frontenac, he was an aristocrat as well. From both these predecessors, however, he differed in being free from the reproach of using his office to secure personal profits through the fur trade. No governor in all the annals of New France was on better terms with the bishop and the Jesuits. He possessed great bravery. There is much to show that he was energetic. None the less he failed, and his failure was more glaring than that of La Barre. He could not hold his ground against the Iroquois and the English.

It has been pointed out already that when La Barre assumed office the problems arising from these two sources were more difficult than at any previous date; but the situation which was serious in 1682 and had become critical by 1685 grew desperate in the four years of Denonville's sway. The one overshadowing question of this period was the Iroquois peril, rendered more and more acute by the policy of the English.

The greatest mistake which Denonville made in his dealings with the Iroquois was to act deceitfully. The savages could be perfidious themselves, but they were not without a conception of honor and felt genuine respect for a white man whose word they could trust. Denonville, who in his private life displayed many virtues, seemed to consider that he was justified in acting towards the savages as the exigency of the moment prompted. Apart from all considerations of morality this was bad judgment.

In his dealings with the English Denonville had little more success than in his dealings with the Indians. Dongan was a thorn in his side from the first, although their correspondence opened, on both sides, with the language of compliment. A few months later its tone changed, particularly after Dongan heard that Denonville intended to build a fort at Niagara. Against a project so unfriendly Dongan protested with emphasis. In reply Denonville disclaimed the intention, at the same time alleging that Dongan was giving shelter at Albany to French deserters. A little later they reach the point of sarcasm. Denonville taxes Dongan with selling rum to the Indians. Dongan retorts that at least English rum is less unwholesome than French brandy. Beneath these epistolary compliments there lies the broad fact that Dongan stood firm by his principle that the extension of French rule to the south of Lake Ontario should not be tolerated: He ridicules the basis of French pretensions, saying that Denonville might as well claim China because there are Jesuits at the Chinese court. The French, he adds, have no more right to the country because its streams flow into Lake Ontario than they have to the lands of those who drink claret or brandy. It is clear that Dongan fretted under the restrictions which were imposed upon him by the friendship between England and France. He would have welcomed an order to support his arguments by force. Denonville, on his side, with like feelings, could not give up the claim to suzerainty over the land of the Iroquois.

The domain of the Five Nations was not the only part of America where French and English clashed. The presence of the English in Hudson Bay excited deep resentment at Quebec and Montreal. Here Denonville ventured to break the peace as Dongan had not dared to do. With Denonville's consent and approval, a band of Canadians left Montreal in the spring of 1686, fell upon three of the English posts--Fort Hayes, Fort Rupert, Fort Albany--and with some bloodshed dispossessed their garrisons. Well satisfied with this exploit, Denonville in 1687 turned his attention to the chastisement of the Iroquois.

The forces which he brought together for this task were greatly superior to any that had been mustered in Canada before. Not only were they adequate in numbers, but they comprised an important band of coureurs de bois, headed by La Durantaye, Tonty, Du Lhut, and Nicolas Perrot--men who equaled the Indians in woodcraft and surpassed them in character. The epitaph of Denonville as a governor is written in the failure of this great expedition to accomplish its purpose.

The first blunder occurred at Fort Frontenac before mobilization had been completed. There were on the north shore of Lake Ontario two Iroquois villages, whose inhabitants had been in part baptized by the Sulpicians and were on excellent terms with the garrison of the fort. In a moment of insane stupidity Denonville decided that the men of these settlements should be captured and sent to France as galley slaves. Through the ruse of a banquet they were brought together and easily seized. By dint of a little further effort two hundred Iroquois of all ages and both sexes were collected at Fort Frontenac as prisoners--and some at least perished by torture. But, when executing this dastardly plot, Denonville did not succeed in catching all the friendly Iroquois who lived in the neighborhood of his fort. Enough escaped to carry the authentic tale to the Five Nations, and after that there could be no peace till there had been revenge. Worst of all, the French stood convicted of treachery and falseness.

Having thus blighted his cause at the outset, Denonville proceeded with his more serious task of smiting the Iroquois in their own country. Considering the extent and expense of his preparations, he should have planned a complete destruction of their power. Instead of this he attempted no more than an attack upon the Seneca, whose operations against the Illinois and in other quarters had made them especially objectionable. The composite army of French and Indians assembled at Irondequoit Bay on July 12--a force brought together at infinite pains and under circumstances which might never occur again. Marching southwards they fought a trivial battle with the Seneca, in which half a dozen on the French side were killed, while the Seneca are said to have lost about a hundred in killed and wounded. The rest of the tribe took to the woods. As a result of this easy victory the triumphant allies destroyed an Iroquois village and all the corn which it contained, but the political results of the expedition were worse than nothing. Denonville made no attempt to destroy the other nations of the confederacy. Returning to Lake Ontario he built a fort at Niagara, which he had promised Dongan he would not do, and then returned to Montreal. The net results of this portentous effort were a broken promise to the English, an act of perfidy towards the Iroquois, and an insignificant success in battle.

In 1688 Denonville's decision to abandon Fort Niagara slightly changed the situation. The garrison had suffered severe losses through illness and the post proved too remote for successful defense. So this matter settled itself. The same season saw the recall of Dongan through the consolidation of New England, New York, and New Jersey under Sir Edmund Andros. But in essentials there was no change. Andros continued Dongan's policy, of which, in fact, he himself had been the author. And, even though no longer threatened by the French from Niagara, the savages had reason enough to hate and distrust Denonville.

Yet despite these untoward circumstances all hope of peace between the French and the Five Nations had not been destroyed. The Iroquois loved their revenge and were willing to wait for it, but caution warned them that it would not be advantageous to destroy the French for the benefit of the English. Moreover, in the long course o their relations with the French they had, as already mentioned, formed a high opinion of men like Le Moyne and Lamberville, while they viewed with respect the exploits of Tonty, La Durantaye, and Du Lhut.

Moved by these considerations and a love of presents, Grangula, of the Onondagas, was in the midst of negotiations for peace with the French, which might have ended happily but for the stratagem of the Huron chief Kondiaronk, called 'The Rat.' The remnant of Huron and the other tribes centering at Michilimackinac did not desire a peace of the French and Iroquois which would not include themselves, for this would mean their own certain destruction. The Iroquois, freed of the French, would surely fall on the Huron. All the Indians distrusted Denonville, and Kondiaronk suspected, with good reason, that the Huron were about to be sacrificed. Denonville, however, had assured Kondiaronk that there was to be war to the death against the Iroquois, and on this understanding he went with a band of warriors to Fort Frontenac. There he learned that peace would be concluded between Onontio and the Onondagas--in other words, that the Iroquois would soon be free to attack the Huron and their allies. To avert this threatened destruction of his own people, he set out with his warriors and lay in ambush for a party of Onondaga chiefs who were on their way to Montreal. Having killed one and captured almost all the rest, he announced to his Iroquois prisoners that he had received orders from Denonville to destroy them. When they explained that they were ambassadors, he feigned surprise and said he could no longer be an accomplice to the wickedness of the French. Then he released them all save one, in order that they might carry home this tale of Denonville's second treachery. The one Iroquois Kondiaronk retained on the plea that he wished to adopt him. Arrived at Michilimackinac, he handed over the captive to the French there, who, having heard nothing of the peace, promptly shot him. An Iroquois prisoner, whom Kondiaronk secretly released for the purpose, conveyed to the Five Nations word of this further atrocity.

The Iroquois prepared to deliver a hard blow. On August 5, 1689, they fell in overwhelming force upon the French settlement at Lachine. Those who died by the tomahawk were the most fortunate. Charlevoix gives the number of victims at two hundred killed and one hundred and twenty taken prisoner. Girouard's examination of parish registers results in a lower estimate--namely, twenty-four killed at Lachine and forty-two at La Chesnaye, a short time afterwards. Whatever the number, it was the most dreadful catastrophe which the colony had yet suffered.

Such were the events which, in seven years, had brought New France to the brink of ruin. But she was not to perish from the Iroquois. In October 1689 Frontenac returned to take Denonville's place.


1 See The Jesuit Missions in this Series, chap. vi.
2 Grangula's speech is an example in part of Indian eloquence, and in part of the eloquence of Baron La Hontan, who contributes many striking passages to our knowledge of Frontenac's period.
 


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Chronicles of Canada, The Fighting Governor, A Chronicle of Frontenac, 1915

 

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