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A Different Way of Fighting

In the 18th instalment of ‘Nations of Canada,’ Greg Koabel describes the confusion that resulted when French and Indigenous fighters jointly assaulted an Iroquois village in 1615.

· 28 min read
A Different Way of Fighting
A coloured engraving based on Samuel de Champlain’s original drawing of a 1609 battle against Iroquois warriors.

What follows is the eighteenth instalment of The Nations of Canada, a serialized Quillette project adapted from Greg Koabel’s ongoing podcast of the same name.

From early days, religion had been an awkward subject for Samuel de Champlain. On the one hand, any religious support for the exploration and colonization of Canada would have had to come from the Catholic Church—the official religious body of the French state. On the other hand, France’s Huguenots (members of the country’s Protestant minority) were over-represented among the experienced fur traders who’d been crossing the Atlantic for decades—men with no desire to take direction from Catholic priests. 

Though Champlain himself had been raised Protestant, he’d converted as an adult (possibly in the interests of furthering his career, even if his embrace of Catholicism did appear quite sincere). But it was only in 1614, more than a decade after his first trip to Canada, that he concluded the time had finally come for the Church to partner actively in colonial operations, notwithstanding Huguenot objections.

In coming to this important decision, at least two considerations were at play.

First, Champlain was eager to shore up the colony’s shaky position among France’s elites, most of whom were far more interested in European power politics than this largely unexplored hinterland on the other side of the Atlantic. Missionary work was popular among the kingdom’s elites, and might bring in financial contributions that outstripped those of investors who were driven by purely economic factors. The prospect of proselytizing the Catholic faith among Canada’s Indigenous peoples might even win support from the especially pious courtiers (the Dévots, as they were known) who surrounded the staunchly Catholic Queen Regent, Marie de' Medici.

Secondly, Champlain was thinking of the political dynamic on the Canadian side of the ocean. As Quebec matured from a seasonal trading post into a self-sufficient year-round colony, the French explorer found that his long-term vision was beginning to diverge from that of the fur traders who plied the St. Lawrence—men mostly focused on short-term profits.

At the time, only a handful of colonists lived in Quebec year-round—no more than twenty during a typical winter. None of the countryside on either side of the St. Lawrence had been cleared and turned into farmland, and so Quebec still depended on supply ships to provide food every Spring. Champlain wanted to bring over more French colonists, while the traders were content with the status quo. Settling the land and creating self-sufficient settlements would require huge up-front costs—an unnecessary expense, the fur traders reasoned, given that their business model wasn’t particularly labour-intensive (except, that is, for the Indigenous trade partners who supplied the fur).

Champlain saw this attitude as short-sighted: In the long-term, he knew, the French would need a well-populated colony to provide military security, as well as the resources required for the further exploitation of Canadian resources. A trans-Atlantic French empire could not be held together by a few dozen administrators, traders, and artisans huddled in a few shacks.

A trans-Atlantic French empire, Champlain realized, could not be held together by a few dozen European administrators, traders, and artisans huddled in a few shacks.

The traders were similarly opposed to a second option that had been considered for growing the colony—encouraging Indigenous nations to embrace European-style farming. This was a plan that Champlain saw as promising. And in time, so would the French state, which eventually encouraged intermarriage between French men and Indigenous women to speed along the process. As far as the fur traders were concerned, however, the Indigenous population was far more economically valuable as a source of fur. Encouraging these skilled hunters to switch over from trapping animals in the northern forests to farming along the St. Lawrence seemed like an inefficient use of human resources.

Champlain’s method of gaining leverage over his commercial trading partners was to invite a third voice into the colonial conversation—the Church. In particular, he reached out to the Récollets (in English, Recollects), a French reform branch of the Franciscan monastic order that had been founded in the early thirteenth century by Francis of Assisi.

Les Récollets accueillent les Jésuites (The Recollects Welcome the Jesuits), by artist Charles William Jefferys.

Champlain was encouraged to work with the Récollets by an old friend who’d served as the royal administrator of the salt works at Brouage in southwestern France, Champlain’s hometown. The Récollets had just opened a chapter in Brouage, and reportedly served as energetic partners in local affairs. The personal introduction came at the right time, as Champlain had returned to France to search for religious allies in the winter of 1613-14, at a time when France had just received news of the destruction of the short-lived Jesuit colony of St. Sauveur—part of France’s larger debacle in Acadia, which was covered in our last instalment. With the Jesuits’ stock in (temporary) decline, the Récollets seemed like the safer choice.

Moreover, the Récollets offered a vision for French Canada that resembled Champlain’s, as they believed that Indigenous conversions to Christianity could come about only through a parallel transformation in the fabric of Indigenous social and economic life. For European religion to take root, they came to believe, Indigenous North Americans would have to live like Europeans, which is to say, in French-style farming villages.

Make Way for the Jesuits
In the 17th instalment of ‘Nations of Canada,’ Greg Koabel describes how The Society of Jesus became a powerful player in the colonization of North America.

This approach stood in contrast to the early Jesuit model, by which it was imagined that Indigenous converts could be brought around to Christianity even as they otherwise maintained a traditional lifestyle (though, to be fair, neither group of missionaries would really flesh out their views until they encountered the realities of life in Canada).

By Spring, 1615, Champlain had struck a deal with the Récollets, and reconciled his Huguenot associates to the idea of bringing Catholic missionaries into their colony. An initial roster of four Récollet missionaries was dispatched, led by one Joseph Le Caron, a 29-year-old former tutor to the royal family. He recorded many of his impressions in written documents sent back to France over the years, some of which survived to become part of the historical record.

A modern statue honouring Joseph Le Caron in Penetanguishene, Ontario.

In the long run, Le Caron wanted to turn Quebec into a sort of model French-style community, which would show Indigenous neighbours a Christian society in its purest form (which meant, of course, that no Protestants would be allowed). He also sought to establish a seminary in Quebec, so as to attract future waves of missionaries.

But those reforms would take time. In the short term, Le Caron focused on gathering as much information as he could about Canada’s Indigenous societies. Learning the various languages of the Innu, Wendat, and Ottawa River Algonquins was an obvious first step, as was forging relationships with their leaders. From his conversations with Champlain, Le Caron likely understood the central importance of personal relationships in Indigenous diplomacy and economic life. The same principle surely held true of spiritual life, as well.

In the early summer of 1615, both Champlain and Le Caron headed to the rapids of the Upper St. Lawrence River, near modern Montreal—a regularly occurring annual ritual by which the French reaffirmed the “Laurentian Coalition” that France had forged with its Indigenous allies. By this time, Champlain had learned that, unlike European alliances, which tended to be static institutions based on signed documents, Indigenous alliances were living entities that had to be nourished by displays of goodwill, mutual hospitality, and shared military projects. Absent such gestures, the alliance could die.

The Wendat traders whom Champlain met at the rapids gave him a warm reception, and promised that they’d return home and assemble a large war party later in the summer, so they all could head south and reprise the successful joint attacks that France and its Indigenous allies had staged against the Iroquois in 1609 and 1610. Champlain returned to Quebec (modern Quebec City) to make his own preparations, while Le Caron joined the Wendat party on its trip home.   

What the Wendat made of the Récollet missionary isn’t entirely clear. There was no position in Wendat society analogous to a clergyman such as Le Caron. There were respected figures who could access spiritual knowledge through ritual, or who were otherwise esteemed for their powers of healing. But there was nothing like a European-style church hierarchy whose officials set down and enforced spiritual guidelines. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the Wendat, Le Caron seemed to be a well-respected member of French society, with apparent access to powers that even Champlain did not possess. And so hosting him for the winter would provide the dual benefits of strengthening the alliance and perhaps teaching them more about the source of French power.     

With the aid of Étienne Brûlé, the young French translator who’d been living among the Wendat for four years by this point, Le Caron immediately began studying Wendat language and customs. Aside from Brûlé, Le Caron was perhaps the first Frenchman to see Wendat society from the inside. Certainly he was the first to record his observations, which we’ll look at in more detail in the next instalment of this series. But some of his initial findings with regard to his missionary project are worth mentioning now.

A Canadian stamp honouring Étienne Brûlé.

Le Caron found that the Wendat had well-developed notions of the afterlife. Like other Indigenous peoples in the region, they believed that men and women had fully realized lives after death. For instance, the Feast of the Dead—in which all those who’d died in a village were interred together before the community moved on to its next location following the exhaustion of local soils—was based on a desire to ensure that everyone stayed together after death. (As noted in more detail below, a different fate awaited Wendat warriors who died in battle, or who otherwise suffered violent ends. Those unfortunate souls had their own more lonely cosmic journeys to make.)  

For Le Caron, these Wendat theories of the afterlife were both a help and a hindrance to his missionary project. Yes, it meant that the Christian idea of heaven was comprehensible to these potential converts. But grafting a European understanding of the afterlife onto pre-existing Wendat conceptions was a shortcut that led to problems of interpretation.

The primary concern of many who listened to Le Caron’s preaching was the fate of their communities in the afterlife he was describing. In the Christian tradition, it is taken for granted that the question of heaven or hell is one faced by individuals. His Indigenous hosts, on the other hand, didn’t see how heaven could be heavenly if you were there without your family and friends.

For Le Caron, this objection raised the tantalizing possibility of mass baptisms. After all, what better way to ensure communal integrity in the afterlife than to make sure that everyone follows the same pure religious path? But Le Caron also worried that such victories would be hollow—a repeat of the rushed attempts to score express baptisms in Acadia by Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt et de Saint-Just and his dubious hand-picked priest, Jessé Fléché.

There was another problem, too. Although both Indigenous and European cultures included the idea of life after death, the latter model was far more predicated on judgment. The heaven that Le Caron talked about was, in some sense, a reward for choices made in this life. It was a perfect kind of existence, one that made the struggles of the earthly world seem drab in comparison.

In the Christian imagination, in other words, death was a wonderful thing (at least, for those who’d lived in a godly way)—a release from the drudgery and agonies of daily life. This was a theme that Le Caron’s Indigenous audience found confusing. Death was an inevitable part of life, obviously, and perhaps it opened up another chapter of existence for one’s soul. But the celebration of death in Christian theology seemed odd, and even dangerous—especially since Le Caron was a man of influence who appeared to wield impressive powers.

The fixation on death in Christian theology seemed odd, and even dangerous, to Wendat listeners—especially since this priest was a man of influence who appeared to wield impressive powers.

Language was a big obstacle. Even with Brûlé’s help, it was difficult for the missionary to translate the fine points of Christian doctrine into Wendat terminology. And even when he was able to communicate his message, Le Caron had difficulty reading his audiences. On one hand, he never had trouble attracting attentive listeners. And on the surface, their reaction seemed positive. But then, once everyone left these sessions, they showed no sign of applying Christian teachings to their lives.

This would be a persistent pattern that other missionaries observed, as well: Their proselytizing was often greeted warmly in the moment, but seemed to have little lasting effect.

The misunderstanding resulted from the fact that Le Caron, like other Frenchmen, didn’t understand the unspoken rules of debate and discussion in these Indigenous societies. A primary goal was to avoid conflict—which is why, in their governing councils, it was considered inappropriate to interrupt or directly contradict another speaker. The goal was consensus, so the adversarial model of argument, in which two sides battled and one emerged victorious, was frowned upon.

In a way, Le Caron would have been happier to get direct pushback from his audiences. By this time, European missionaries had spread across many parts of the globe; and in many places, they’d faced staunch opposition from local religious and political leaders. Before setting out for Canada, Le Caron likely had read accounts of missionaries dealing with angry (and sometimes violent) populations in Africa, Asia, and South America. His missionary training would have been geared toward dealing with that kind of direct resistance to the Christian message.

A painting commemorating the February 5, 1597 crucifixion of 26 Catholic missionaries in Japan.

He was therefore surprised, and even perturbed, when he initially found no such resistance among Canadian audiences. “No one must come here in hopes of suffering martyrdom,” he complained, “for we are not in a country where savages put Christians to death on account of their religion. They leave everyone in their own belief.”

In some ways, the Wendat were correct to suspect that these missionaries had a morbid fixation, as many truly were motivated by a fervent desire to martyr themselves for the true faith. But in Canada, they found no pre-existing religious infrastructure or priestly class to engage with in a zero-sum battle for human souls.

In fact, it took some time for Indigenous listeners to even understand that these missionaries wanted Christianity to completely replace their existing belief systems, rather than merely supplement them. Sharing spiritual and cultural practices had long been a component of Indigenous trade relationships and alliances. In this spirit, many Wendat men and women were willing to strengthen their ties to the French by adopting certain European religious practices, or learning more about the impressive powers the priests seemed to wield. But these gestures fell short of the complete and heartfelt abandonment of traditional practices that missionaries such as Le Caron demanded.

The more time Le Caron spent with the Wendat, the more he became further convinced that Christianity could not thrive among them until the fabric of their society became more European: Since there was no neat division between religious and secular life in the Indigenous world, changing the former would require changing the latter. Rituals such as the Feast of the Dead, for instance, weren’t just religious rituals (as Europeans might use that term), but also fundamental practices that went along with the economically rooted pattern of moving a village from one location to the next as the soil became eroded.

Moreover, the chiefs of clan segments had combined roles as political and religious leaders—the two functions being inseparable. If a chief adopted Christianity and turned his back on traditional rituals or beliefs barred by his new faith, then it would become impossible for him to fulfill his day-to-day leadership duties.

Although the Wendat offered Le Caron a place to live within one of their longhouses, he requested a separate residence. His hosts obliged him, and the missionary spent most of his time in a cabin built for him outside one of their villages. This solitary lifestyle would make sense to Europeans, who knew that such solitude might be necessary for a priest’s prayer and study. But to his Indigenous hosts, the choice might have seemed odd and even antisocial.

An early-twentieth-century map of Jesuit Missions in Huronia, which was centered in the area between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe in modern Ontario (see provincial map, right).

In August, Champlain joined Le Caron in Huronia (which would later become the French term for the Wendat homeland), bringing with him a group of soldiers from Quebec who would take part in the planned campaign against the Iroquois.

(At this point, I need to introduce an important sidebar on terminology, one that I probably should have provided earlier in this series. I’ve been using the collective term “Iroquois” to refer to the Indigenous confederacy that is also described as the Iroquois League, the Five Nations—later, Six Nations—and the Haudenosaunee. In all cases, these terms describe Indigenous societies whose traditional lands included much of modern upstate New York; arrayed, from west to east, as the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. This usage of the word Iroquois should not be confused with the term “Iroquoian,” which can be used to describe a broader language group shared by other Indigenous nations, including the Wendat. This language type is distinct from the Algonquin language family, whose speakers were included in the polyglot Laurentian Coalition.)

A map, featuring additional annotations, originally produced by First Nations of Simcoe County, indicating the presence of First Nations in the eastern Great Lakes region circa 1640.

On his journey, Champlain had travelled up the length of the great Ottawa River route—a series of lakes, rivers, and portages that extended through Lake Nipissing to the shore of Georgian Bay, north of Huronia. Along the way, he’d met groups of Algonquin-speakers he’d never encountered before, including the Nipissing and the Ottawa, a group based on Lake Huron with trade links that extended far to the west, into Lake Superior. Champlain was beginning to get a sense of the enormous territory encompassed by (what we would now call) the Great Lakes Basin.  

Throughout August, Le Caron and Champlain were taken on a tour of Wendat villages, an important step in formalizing the Wendat alliance with the French. The party was hosted by as many chiefs as possible, signifying that the French relationship was a shared, national concern that spanned every clan within Wendat society.    

The diplomatic trip culminated at Cahiague, a village of over 3,000 residents, in the modern-day Ontario township of Oro-Medonte, on the north shore of Lake Simcoe. Cahiague was the principal village of the Ahrendarrhonon nation, the relatively junior Wendat tribe that had first made contact with the French. The Wendat Confederacy Council had taken over management of the French alliance as a national (which is to say, pan-Wendat) concern, but the Ahrendarrhonon maintained a privileged status as special friends of the French. Their primary spokesmen in that capacity was a chief named Atironta. In coming years, the name would be inherited by multiple successors, who remained important links between the French and Wendat.

Atironta organized a Wendat war party of more than 300 warriors—an enormous force by local standards—which was supplemented by the dozen or so French soldiers whom Champlain had brought with him. Also included was a group of Algonquin warriors that included Champlain’s ally from his previous raids, the Onontchataronon war-chief Iroquet.

The Wendat proposed expanding the scope of the expedition even further, by calling on the Susquehannock, who lived on the opposite side of Iroquois territory, in modern-day Pennsylvania and Maryland. As we will see, the geographical distances at play made it difficult to coordinate such a combined attack. But the Susquehannock were known to be rivals of the Iroquois, and a joint raid on their shared enemy was seen as a chance to forge a relationship.

A German artist’s depiction of a Susquehannock village, published in 1671.

Champlain, the cartographer-turned-diplomat, also saw this as an opportunity. The diplomatic delegation to the Susquehannock would have to travel through the heart of Iroquois territory, which lay to the south of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. These lands were uncharted by Europeans, and Champlain had his eye on the future development of his colony’s trade network. The Susquehannock might even be recruited as allies, and so could serve as France’s eyes and ears on the mid-Atlantic coast, where (as we’ve seen) Dutch and English traders were starting to make incursions.

Being the only Frenchman who’d be capable of keeping up with the Indigenous diplomatic party on its dangerous trip through the wilderness, Brûlé volunteered for this dangerous mission. While his absence would deprive Champlain of the one Frenchman capable of communicating with the Wendat in their own language, they both felt it was a risk worth taking.

Soon after Brûlé and the diplomatic party set out, the main force of warriors followed. Their goal was to reach the Iroquois homeland and score a significant victory before the onset of winter. But this time, they would not be sailing up the Richelieu River from modern Quebec. Rather, according to Champlain’s account, the war party followed a series of waterways east from Lake Simcoe, through the Kawartha Lakes, before heading down the Trent River to modern day Prince Edward County, on the north shore of Lake Ontario. They then crossed the lake at its eastern end, near modern-day Kingston, and hid their canoes on the south shore. From there on, they would proceed on foot, avoiding the main waterways, moving as silently as such a large body of men could. On October 9, after four days of marching, they sighted an Iroquois village.

Champlain was still ignorant of the five nations that made up the Iroquois Confederacy. As far as he knew, the residents of this village were the same Iroquois he’d battled on the shores of Lake Champlain in 1609. But that skirmish had been against the Mohawk, the eastern-most nation in the Confederacy, while this expedition probably targeted Oneida territory. (It’s also possible it was Onondaga land. But, for reasons described below, that seems less likely.)

Until this point, the 1615 Laurentian Coalition campaign had gone smoothly. But now that a battle plan had to be designed, misunderstandings between the European and Indigenous partners became a problem.

Champlain seemed to think that he was in a position of overall command. In his somewhat arrogant view, the French—and Champlain, in particular—provided the Wendat and Algonquin warriors with the firepower they needed to attack the Iroquois. And, to be fair to Champlain, the fawning reception he’d just received in Huronia was consistent with this conceit. The Wendat chiefs of several villages had fêted him as the key man in the Laurentian Coalition. And even during the expedition, Indigenous warriors always seemed to pay close attention to his strategic lectures.

But in fact, Champlain was dealing with the same rhetorical dynamic that Le Caron faced in his theological symposiums. Champlain was an esteemed friend and ally, and so he was shown great respect. But in the Wendat and Algonquin military traditions, neither Champlain nor any of the Indigenous war chiefs had the power to give orders in the style of a European field commander. As with all important decisions in their world, war strategy was a matter of consensus. Military leaders were great persuaders, not authoritarians.

The language barrier didn’t help either. Champlain’s proposed ideas lost focus as they moved through multiple filters from the French, to Algonquin, to Wendat tongues.

But the biggest gulf was the mutual incomprehensibility of European and Indigenous military cultures. Champlain saw their objective in European terms: They’d marched up to the enemy’s fortified village, and so the obvious next step would be to assault the fort, capture it, secure the surrounding territory, and, by extension, make Huronia and the Ottawa River safe from enemy raids. To Champlain (or, indeed, any conventional European military commander of the era), all of this would have been self-evident: War was about securing and possessing territory.

For his Wendat and Algonquin comrades, however, none of that made much sense. War wasn’t about territorial conquest, let alone the total eradication of the enemy. They were more interested in drawing the enemy warriors out of their fort and forcing a pitched battle in which prisoners could be taken. The village itself had little value to them.

For the French, war was about territorial conquest. But that goal made little sense to Champlain’s Indigenous allies, who were more interested in drawing the Iroquois into battle, taking prisoners, and then returning home. 

The differences between European and Indigenous military cultures are worth examining at this point, not just as a means to explain Champlain’s frustrations with this particular campaign, but also because similar misunderstandings would become a recurring feature of Franco-Indigenous relations.

For Europeans, it was especially difficult to grasp the central role that captives played in Indigenous warfare. Yes, prisoners were sometimes taken in European conflicts—but mostly this was done to secure ransom payments (especially in the case of nobles, who typically could fetch a high price). In Indigenous warfare, by contrast, it was the prisoners in their own right who supplied the real treasure.

Back in 1609, when Champlain participated in his first raid alongside Indigenous allies, he’d been disturbed by the torture and killing of Mohawk prisoners. Most European observers attributed this to the brutality of the “uncivilized” natives (though these same Europeans tended to ignore the brutal aspects of European culture that Indigenous peoples found shocking—such as the sadistic means used to punish criminals). In fact, torture, as practiced by Iroquoian and Algonquin warriors, had more complex sociological roots than most Europeans realized.

Historians refer to the prisoner-driven conflicts of the Indigenous world as “mourning wars” because they were used as an emotional outlet, by which a community could express grief for the losses incurred in past conflicts. Grief was seen as a potentially destabilizing force within these societies, and many aspects of Indigenous social life were geared toward controlling its impact. For instance, it was common to provide condolence gifts to people or communities who’d suffered a great loss. Europeans tended to see these gifts as compensation payments motivated by guilt and a desire to discourage retribution. But in reality, the focus was on soothing grief, as evidenced by the fact that these gifts did not always come from guilty parties looking to make amends.

In Indigenous societies, grief wasn’t just suffered on an individual level, but by the group as a whole. And when a community was unable to replace losses from within, captives were sought to take their place within the grieving society. The torture Champlain had witnessed back in 1609 was part of a deliberate process. Men and women captured on raids were potential adoptees, capable of replacing members of the community who’d died. Torture was a way of weeding out those who were unwilling to accept forced adoption, though it could also be a way of expiating grief through revenge.

For these reasons, a successful raid was usually measured by the number of prisoners taken; and returning war chiefs gained prestige by distributing these prisoners to families who’d suffered losses, and who would then decide the captives’ fate. Joint war parties comprised of multiple nations would often make arrangements beforehand so as to determine how prisoners would be distributed among them as war spoils.

The self-perpetuating dynamic of these mourning wars will become important as our story unfolds, especially once European diseases begin ravaging Indigenous populations. Mass death drove ever more violence, as communities sought to replenish their numbers through war, thereby causing more death, and pushing these societies into a vicious cycle. But during this initial phase of their alliance with the French, wars remained relatively limited and episodic.

The small scale of these battles (by European standards) reflected the manpower limitations that Indigenous societies faced. In seventeenth-century Europe, battles typically featured thousands of soldiers—or even tens of thousands—on each side. But in the Indigenous world, the loss of even a few dozen men in a single battle was often seen as a calamity. And so Indigenous combatants tended to place a high value on what modern generals would call force protection: If the goal of war was to replenish your population, then sacrificing the lives of one’s own warriors in pursuit of victory was counter-productive. The number of prisoners you brought home needed to exceed the number of warriors you lost in battle.

In Europe, dying on the battlefield was often seen as a noble sacrifice. Iroquoian warriors did not share this romantic view. Far from it: Ingrained within indigenous military culture was a tendency to avoid unnecessary risks. A violent death actually prevented a man from joining his family in the afterlife, according to Indigenous spiritual precepts. The angry emotions associated with such a death might even negatively affect members of the victim’s community in regard to their own heavenly journeys.

Like many aspects of Indigenous culture, this caused no end of confusion for Europeans, some of whom interpreted such behaviour as evidence of cowardice. But that impression was hard to square with the stoicism and bravery with which captured warriors faced torture and death at the hands of their enemies. For Europeans, the Indigenous warrior remained an enigma—seemingly timid in some situations, but unbelievably brave in others.

Champlain had seen the tactical consequences of this military culture back in 1609. When the raiding party he’s accompanied met the Mohawk enemy at (what is now called) Lake Champlain, the two sides assembled in mass formations protected by shields and wooden armour. This was probably standard practice in traditional Iroquoian warfare: The two forces would engage in hand-to-hand combat until one side broke and ran while the other rounded up prisoners. The number of men who died was relatively small.

But Champlain’s use of a firearm in that skirmish sparked a revolution in Indigenous warfare. Suddenly, massed formations didn’t serve to preserve lives, but rather compounded the risk that everyone would get shot. Guns (and armour-piercing metal-tipped arrows, fashioned with European technology) made the old tactics obsolete. Indigenous military leaders quickly adapted by moving in smaller numbers and adopting ambush tactics.

Detail from Champlain’s Battle with the Iroquois, a historical illustration comprising part of a collection produced by artists J.L.G. Ferris and F.C. for the Glens Falls Insurance Co.

But in the Fall of 1615, all of these changes in Indigenous military culture were still mostly in the future. And so Champlain’s allies saw his proposed battle plan—an assault on the Oneida (or Onondaga) village—through a traditional lens. Storming a fortified position carried a high cost in blood on both sides of the Atlantic. The difference was that in the European world, capturing the enemy’s stronghold was often worth the sacrifice. In the Iroquoian world, on the other hand, it just a waste of manpower.

At first, Champlain’s standing among the coalition forces was enough to sway his comrades. Drawing on principles of European siege warfare, he directed the men to build a rudimentary tower, topped by a protected platform. From there, they could rain bullets and arrows over the defenders’ palisade and down within the village.

The Wendat and Algonquin leaders saw the merits of the plan: Exposing the Oneida inside the village to such dangers would force their warriors to fight a pitched battle. The tower might also provide cover for men to approach the palisade and set it on fire, a traditional tactic that Indigenous attackers used to get defenders to come out from behind their walls.

After a day spent on construction, the tower was ready, and more than 200 warriors advanced on the village. The plan worked as Champlain had envisioned—at first. Snipers were able to pick off targets within the village, and provided cover for the torch-bearing men seeking to burn the palisade.

But as the fighting wore on, Champlain realized that his allies didn’t intend to assault the village. The day turned into an awkward stalemate, with the Wendat and Algonquin warriors unwilling to risk their lives unnecessarily by rushing the defences, while the Oneida were too intimidated by French gunfire to come out and do battle. When an arrow wounded one of the Algonquin war chiefs, the attackers retreated to a safe distance, and announced to Champlain that the fighting was over for the day.

Champlain was incensed, not only because they’d failed to capture the village, but also because his demand that they resume the battle fell on deaf ears. His delusion that he was the overall commander was shattered, and Champlain denounced his allies as cowards.

They politely replied by informing him that they could not afford to take casualties, especially since they were deep in enemy territory and would have to carry their wounded on a four-day hike to their canoes. Moreover, word of their presence may have already gone out to neighbouring Iroquois villages, which might soon be sending reinforcements.

Champlain’s determination to fight on seemed especially reckless because he was one of the wounded: He’d taken an arrow through the leg, and was in no condition to walk back to the canoes under his own power.

In the end, the contentious war council reached a compromise: They would wait a day or two to hear word from the Susquehannock, the potential allies they’d called upon to join them. But unless they were soon reinforced, the expedition would start heading home.

By the time the coalition war party was assaulting the village, however, Étienne Brûlé and the rest of the diplomatic delegation had only just met Susquehannock leaders near Chesapeake Bay. And rather than help lead a Susquehannock force to assist Champlain’s attack on the Iroquois, they spent the winter among their Susquehannock hosts.

On the way back home, the delegation wasn’t as lucky as it had been during the outgoing leg of their trip: They were captured while passing through Iroquois lands, and Brûlé’s Wendat colleagues were tortured and killed. However, the Iroquois captors were far more merciful with Brûlé himself, whom they saw as someone who might help them establish positive relations with the French. (After all, the Iroquois were just as interested in European goods as the Wendat or Algonquins.) Brûlé was treated as a guest and, after a brief stay, allowed to continue on his way home. 

The Indigenous members of the Laurentian Coalition were all too aware of the possibility that the French might take on the Iroquois as trade partners, and so would remain suspicious of Brûlé following his return to Wendat territory. What plots had he cooked up while enjoying the hospitality of the Iroquois, they wondered.

What was important for Champlain in the Fall of 1615, however, was that the Susquehannock weren’t coming. And once that became apparent, the war party packed its bags and turned for home. The wounded Champlain was packed into a makeshift stretcher and hauled back to Lake Ontario, sullen and resentful toward the men who were saving his life.

In his mind, the expedition had been a disaster. Had they captured the Oneida village, the benefits would have been enormous. The Iroquois may have been intimidated into accepting a peace, making the Ottawa and St. Lawrence safe for fur convoys. Champlain’s standing within the Laurentian Coalition (and that of the French more generally) would have been immeasurably strengthened. Instead, the opportunity had been squandered by what Champlain saw as cowardice and poor discipline among his colleagues. Champlain would never again join his Wendat and Algonquin allies on military expeditions (though, in the interests of maintaining the alliance, he’d make several pledges to do so).

And yet, the men dragging Champlain back to Lake Ontario didn’t think they were marching home from a defeat. Far from it: They’d ranged deep into the heart of Iroquois territory, and struck a blow where the enemy lived. Ideally, they would have captured more prisoners. But as it was, they still had a handful of captured fishermen they’d encountered on their march, as well as some enemy combatants they’d seized during an initial skirmish outside the (briefly) besieged village.

For the Oneida, meanwhile, there were no victory celebrations, as arrow fire from the siege tower likely caused significant loss of life within their village. (One of the reasons historians believe it was an Oneida community is that the neighbouring Onondaga lived in twin villages. If the coalition war party had attacked one of the Onondaga villages, the other would have likely come to its aid during the week-long quasi-siege.) It’s possible that the Oneida nation was unable to mount much military power for some time. Despite Champlain’s complaints about missed opportunities, the Iroquois Confederacy was reeling, and Wendat power was ascendant.

Champlain had originally intended to return to Quebec for the winter. But as the war party reached the north shore of Lake Ontario, his allies suggested that they instead bring him back to Huronia to spend the winter with the Wendat. The allies of the Oneida might be planning reprisals, so the St. Lawrence might not be safe—especially as Champlain was recovering from his wound. 

In reality, Wendat leaders were probably making a calculated political decision. To judge by the peevish tone of Champlain’s later reporting of events, it’s unlikely that he was going out of his way to hide his anger and disappointment in his allies. A falling out could be disastrous, and the Wendat likely wanted an opportunity to mend fences.

Champlain agreed to spend the winter in Huronia, and joined a Wendat hunting party as the coalition army split up north of Lake Ontario. For November, and most of December, Champlain hunted with Atironta, who’d remained the official liaison between the French and the Wendat Confederacy. The experience wasn’t entirely successful in repairing relations, however, as Champlain got lost following a strange bird through the woods (possibly a turkey). After three days on his own, and facing starvation, he was at last found by Atironta and his men. Embarrassment may have fueled Champlain’s growing resentment, while Atironta no doubt wondered how this Frenchmen could be so powerful and yet so helpless.

By Christmas, Champlain was back in Huronia, where La Caron was still studying the Wendat languages. Soon thereafter, a drama unfolded involving Iroquet, the Algonquin chief who’d originally brought the French and Wendat together. Iroquet had also been on the recent expedition, and had adopted one of the Oneida prisoners who’d been captured. This seems to have angered some of the Wendat, who’d apparently hoped that Iroquet would put this particular young man to death.

One Wendat warrior took matters into his own hands, and killed the Oneida prisoner—a provocative act given that, by this point, the victim had formally become a member of Iroquet’s Algonquin kinship group. (The fluid nature of identities was yet another aspect of Indigenous society that Europeans had difficulty grasping.) Iroquet responded by killing the murderer, and an outbreak of wider violence seemed possible, especially once Iroquet was wounded in a reprisal attack launched on his camp.

At this point, Champlain emerged as a potential mediator, and urged his Wendat and Algonquin friends alike to avoid threatening the coalition with internal violence. He added a European appeal to individual responsibility, and said it was foolish to hold whole communities responsible for the crimes of one man (who’d already been punished in the most severe manner possible). Both Iroquet and the Wendat chiefs responded positively, and agreed to renew their alliance in the Spring of 1616 with another large trade convoy to the St. Lawrence.

Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 on JSTOR
Trigger’s work integrates insights from archaeology, history, ethnology, linguistics, and geography. This wide knowledge allows him to show that, far from…

As Champlain saw it, he’d once again proven that the French could play a critical role in maintaining the Laurentian Coalition. But it’s also possible that Champlain’s allies were just flattering his ego. The conflict between Iroquet and the Wendat was real enough, but such disputes were hardly rare, and traditional systems of conflict resolution were designed to handle them.

Indeed, historian Bruce Trigger suggests that the dispute acted as a convenient excuse to keep Champlain in Huronia that winter. He’d been making plans to visit the Neutral Confederacy (the southern neighbours of the Wendat), and the internal crisis forced Champlain to abandon that trip. As had happened often in the past, France’s Indigenous trading allies found ways to block the development of other alliances without causing offence.

By now, the Wendat had played winter host to a number of French visitors—an arrangement that they saw as advantageous for various reasons. Not only would their show of hospitality strengthen the alliance, but these French residents would (in effect) serve as permanent hostages, ensuring the safe treatment of Wendat traders in Quebec. 

There were also opportunities for technological exchange. The specialization of labour that defined European economic life was foreign to Wendat sensibilities, which is why they were constantly confused by Champlain’s inability to work metal, or build firearms, despite his evident knowledge and skill in other areas. It was hoped that more French visitors would facilitate the spread of technological knowledge that men such as Champlain and Le Caron had so far failed to deliver.

And, if nothing else, a French presence in Huronia would improve local security. The firearms they brought with them would be useful against Iroquois raids. 

By the Spring of 1616, when Champlain returned to Quebec, he must have also been happy with the state of his alliance, notwithstanding his complaints about the 1615 military campaign. The trading on the St. Lawrence that summer reached its highest volume yet. And Champlain personally fêted Atironta in Quebec for much of July. The two men confirmed plans for other French visitors to spend extended periods Huronia, and Atironta encouraged Champlain to build a permanent settlement at the St. Lawrence rapids as a means to formalize the annual trading that took place in the area.

Yes, the Franco-Wendat alliance had been formed out of what Bruce Trigger called “mutual misunderstandings.” But it speaks to the value that both sides believed would flow from the relationship that they persevered in seeking to overcome them.

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