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King William's War: The Canadien Perspective 2

In Europe, France and England were at peace. But in North America there was tension. In 1670, the French totally controlled the fur trade in the north. All this changed when the English established their own trading posts north-west of Quebec.

The need for a new trade route became evident after the destruction of Huronia. With the Huron middlemen out of the picture, the fur trade's organization disintegrated and profits declined. The Cree trappers who had been dealing directly with the Huron suggested to the French that a new trading center be established on the Hudson and James Bay. Two French traders, Pierre-Espirit Raddison and Medard Chourt des Groseilliers, approached the French court in Paris with the idea.

The main opponents to Radisson's proposal were the merchants of Montreal. They did not like Radisson because he was a coureurs des bois; it is surprising the he even approached the French to support his plan in the first and place. French merchants rightly feared that trade in the Great Lakes region would decline in importance with the introduction of a more northerly trading route. And since money is what makes the world go around, the French court sided with the merchants. There was to be no new system of trading posts (at least not for France).

Disappointed but not likely surprised by the French decision, Radisson and Groseilliers approached English businessmen with their idea. The English agreed to finance the venture. In 1668, Radisson and Groseilliers built a trading post at James Bay. Their first expedition was a resounding success. The French traders returned to England in 1669 with a boatload of furs for the English and "I told you so's" (for the French court). The first expedition led to another, and then another, and finally the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was formed in 1670.

The king of England gave the newly formed HBC a charter to all the land of the northwest (without comprehending how vast an expanse these territories occupied). The chartered territory became known as Rupert's Land (so named after the HBC's first governor, Prince Rupert).

As predicted, the new trade route cut into the profits of Montreal, i.e. Cree hunters opted to trade their furs at James Bay instead of traveling hundreds of miles further to trade in the Great Lakes region. The French merchants responded by sending "portable trading posts" to intercept the natives while they were en route to the English. This interception technique worked for a short time. But the English responded by establishing no fewer than five trading posts and forts along the new trade route. The French had no choice but to "buy out" the English. And by the phrase "buy out" I mean it in the Bill Gates sense (as it applied to Gate's buying out Homer Simpson's computer company Compu-global Hyper-mega-net, I.e. Get some hired goons and then physically destroy the competition).

In 1682, the Montreal merchants banded together to form the Company of the North (Capagnie du Nord). The company's purpose was to eliminate the English competition. You have to remember that this was taking place before television or radio. So the Company of the North couldn't rely on simply making clever commercials to gain an edge on the competition. Nope. This was a period of time when scalping people spoke volumes.

The Cunning de Troyes

In 1682, the Capagnie du Nord hired Pierre de Troyes to lead a military expedition against the HBC forts on James Bay. His force consisted of some 350 French officers and voyageurs.

De Troyes did not want to wait until the summer to hit the English. If he struck during the winter he would have the element of surprise. So he and his men began an epic 400 mile journey overland from Montreal to James Bay during the dead of winter. The trip would end up taking 12 weeks to complete. By his own account it was a punishing journey.

Here are some facts about de Troyes' force once they reached their objective:

  1. The French were exhausted. They seemed likely to expire before a blow could be struck at the English.
  2. The English were rested, better equipped, and they lived securely within the protection of forts.
  3. The French had the element of surprise. (I think I'd rather have a fort.)

As previously hoped, de Troyes caught the English off-guard. At one of the English forts, there weren't even any guards on watch. Everyone was asleep. Ultimately, the French captured three forts with minimal damage to themselves.

By mid-spring, the last remaining James Bay fort was captured. De Troyes' men were in terrible shape both physically and mentally. However, the Frenchman shrewdly made every effort to conceal the sorry state of his men. If the English would've known about the weakness of the French, they would have been encouraged to make a more rigorous defense of their forts.

One story is worth recounting at this point: de Troyes met with the leader of one of the English forts to negotiate a truce. The English host offered de Troyes some wine during the peace talks. The Frenchman, in a move that would've made even Erwin Rommel snicker, took a sip of the wine and then commented how he had better wine back at his own camp. In reality, de Troyes' camp consisted of blankets thrown over some twigs. Apparently de Troyes invited his host to visit the French camp for a drink of this special wine. The Englishman declined. De Troyes masterfully bluffed his way to victory.

In addition to hitting the English forts, de Troyes was also supposed to arrest Radisson and Groseilliers. The two coureurs des bois responsible for establishing the English presence on the Hudson could not be found. Yet, the de Troyes expedition was a success because it did give France control of the lower Hudson and James Bays.

Return of the Iroquois

With the Huron out of the picture the balance of power in the Great Lakes region shifted. And filling the vacuum left by the Huron were the vacuum's creators (the Iroquois). Remember the Iroquois destroyed Huronia in 1648.

The Iroquois expanded their territory to include the north shore of Lake Ontario. Technically speaking this land already belonged to the French. But the Iroquois didn't really care. They benefited from their new position as they were able to divert much of the northern fur trade south to the English colonies. And making war between the French and Iroquois inevitable was the fact the Iroquois were ambushing Cree trappers on their way to Montreal.

To this end the governor of New York was actively encouraging the Iroquois to attack New France. He had even gone so far as to spend his own money to purchase weapons and ammunition for them. The Iroquois had replaced England as New France's primary enemy. In their own right, the Iroquois wanted to control the fur trade; and to control the fur trade Montreal would have to be attacked and reduced.

In 1684, Governor Frontenac of New France launched a series of raids against the Iroquois Confederacy. The raids took place over three or four years and had limited success. In 1687, the French sent an army of several thousand regular troops and Canadien militia deep into the homeland of the Seneca. The Iroquois responded with an attack of their own on New France's vulnerable trading partners.

The French were in no position to both defend themselves and their native allies. In reality, the Iroquois had been wiping out the allies of the French one-by-one and the French did nothing to stop them. The situation got so bad that France's allies considered making a separate peace with the Iroquois. Frontenac's raids had upset the peace in North America. This led to his being recalled back to France and replaced by Jacques-Rene de Brisay.3

France's Reputation Takes a Beating 4

King Louis XIV gave the new governor two jobs: defend the colony and repair the damage caused to France's alliances due to Frontenac’s neglect. Brisay therefore sent a former coureur des bois named Nicholas Perrot to visit the Ottawa, Illinois and Miami First Nations, convincing them that: “When the English [want] to entice them with presents, I made them understand that they were going to ally themselves with traitors who had poisoned some of the nations that lived among them. And that after intoxicating the men, they had sacrificed and kidnapped their women and children to send them to islands far away, from which they never returned.”

Perrot's stories of English treachery convinced New France’s allies to remain loyal. But the French had to put their money where their mouth was. Therefore the French launched an attack against the Tsonnontouan (a member of the Five Nations) in 1687. Brisay wrote to his king the reasons for the attack: “It was time, Your Majesty that we did to the Iroquois what we came to do, to re-establish France’s reputation, which had been lost among all the savage nations. It is common knowledge that if we had not marched on Tsonnontouan, and [we had not] humiliated [the Iroquois], then all the Ottawa...would have yielded to the Iroquois and settled under the protection of the English.”

The attack on the Tsonnontouan was a nice gesture; but what the Natives really wanted was, to quote the famous historian/valley girl Susi Parker, "Gag me with a spoon. Like New France should've totally annihilated the Five Nations. Totally."

Instead of annihilating the Iroquois, Brisay entered into secret peace negotiations with them. Kondiaronk, a powerful Huron chief, rightly felt betrayed once he found out about the French attempt to sign a separate peace. He believed that once the Iroquois made peace with the French, the Five Nations would then be free to attack what few Huron remained in the Great Lakes region.

In 1688, Kondiaronk captured members of an Iroquois peace delegation bound for Montreal. He killed a few of them freeing the rest but not before saying: “Go my brothers, I am freeing you, and sending you back among your people, even though we are at war with you. The Governor of the French himself forced me to commit such a black deed, and I will only be consoled when your Five Nations have rightly taken vengeance.” When asked by a French priest why Kondiaronk had ambushed the Iroquois, the “Rat” (as Kondiaronk came to be called) admitted: “I destroyed the peace. Let’s see how Ononthio [the Governor] gets out of this one.”

Massacre at Lachine 5

In 1689, the Iroquois were bolder than ever and they certainly weren't afraid of French retaliation. In one particular brutal attack, the Iroquois Confederacy sent over 1,000 warriors against the tiny farming community of Lachine. The community and its citizens were entirely destroyed. Those that did survive the initial attack were carried off to another location where they were ritualistically tortured and executed (and I presume eaten).

A survivor of the attack described the situation following the devastation at Lachine: “After this total victory, the unhappy band of prisoners was subjected to all the rage which the cruelest vengeance could inspire in these savages. They were taken to the far side of Lake St. Louis by the victorious army [Iroquois], which shouted ninety times while crossing to indicate the number of prisoners or scalps they had taken saying, we have been tricked, Ononthio [the French governor], we will trick you as well. Once they had landed, they lit fires, planted stakes in the ground, burned five Frenchmen, roasted six children, and grilled some others on the coals and ate them.”

Yup, they got eaten.

For the French they saw a need to either outright destroy or become friends with the Iroquois. (If I were a Frenchman living at this time, I'd be looking for a new place to live or finding ways to make myself less delectable.)

Let's Get Ready to Rumble: Phips vs. Frontenac

Frontenac had been removed as governor because of his constant fighting with the Iroquois. After the massacre at Lachine, Frontenac approached Louis XIV and asked if he could return to New France and deal with the Iroquois problem "once and for all." Louis made the fateful decision to send Frontenac back to Canada to deal with the Iroquois.

Upon his return to Quebec Frontenac approached the Iroquois to make peace. The Five Nations were not interested. They had everything to gain by continuing their raids upon French settlements. In fact, the French request encouraged the Iroquois to believe New France was too weak to defend itself any longer. Frontenac knew the Thirteen Colonies were encouraging the Iroquois to be aggressive. If Quebec was to have peace, then something would have to be done about New York.

A Canadien force attacked the English village of Schenectady on February 14th, 1690. The mayor of nearby Albany, New York, described the French attack in a letter to the governor of New York: “We deeply regret to inform you of our deplorable situation, which is the result of a horrible and murderous massacre, simply without precedent in this part of America. Two hundred Frenchmen and Indians swooped on the village and assassinated sixty men, women and children in the most barbarous fashion. The cruelties committed in this place cannot be described, neither by spoken word nor in writing. Pregnant women were disemboweled, their children thrown live into the flames, and their heads smashed against doors and windows.”6

The attack on Schenectady had the desired effect: the Thirteen Colonies were terrified. The English response was swift. On October 16th, 1690, a fleet of thirty-four ships commanded by Admiral William Phips appeared on the horizon of the St. Lawrence. The English had already conquered Port Royal and now were postured to attack Quebec City. But the French had time on their side. The English had arrived relatively late in the summer. If the city could just hold out long enough, the enemy fleet would be forced to leave to avoid being locked in ice.

Phips sent a messenger to Frontenac with the ultimatum: surrender in one hour or your toast. Frontenac was an exceedingly proud man and not easily intimidated. (He'd be the type of guy who would send you angry emotes >: ) in a MSN chat room and TYPE IN ALL-CAPS.)

globe Click here to watch the "Frontenac" video from the Historica web site.

Aside from understanding the persuasive power of emoticons, Frontenac knew he did not have to actually defeat the English. He just had to wait them out. Winter would do the rest. Frontenac told the English messenger: "I have no reply to make to your general other than from the mouth of my cannon and muskets! He must learn it is not in this fashion that one summons a man such as I. LET HIM DO THE BEST ON HIS SIDE, as I will do on mine. : P."

Winter set in early that year. Before withdrawing his force Phips organized a feeble attempt to take the city. The keyword here is feeble, folks. The attack failed miserably. On October 24th, after eight days of siege the English fleet left to avoid being trapped in the ice.

The conflict in both North America and Europe was officially brought to a close on September 30th, 1697, with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick. The treaty restored all territories to their former owners; however, the agreement was more a truce than a treaty. Moreover, the Iroquois Confederacy and New France remained at war.