When New York Was New: Chapter Four, The French


By the time Samuel de Champlain set foot on what would become New York State, the French had been visiting the St. Lawrence River Valley for 75 years.

Jacques Cartier had explored as far up the great river as the rapids just past Hochelaga, the Indian town where Montreal now stands.

He and another French explorer, Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, had traded with the natives along the river and attempted to build settlements, but between the harsh winters and the bad relationships they had each built with the Indians, their attempts failed.

After two trips to learn about the area, Champlain decided to try and, in 1608, he established a settlement that would become the city of Quebec.

He also made friends with several of the Indian nations in the region. To combine his exploration with that friendship, he agreed, in June, 1609, to travel with a group of Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais down the Iroquois River in search of their enemies, for whom the river was named.

Champlain re-named that river the Richelieu, in honor of a powerful French politician, and, when his group of Frenchmen and Indians reached the vast lake below it, he named that lake in honor of himself.

Then, at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, he went ashore and made what many historians say was one of the greatest mistakes in our region’s history.

The People of the Longhouse were powerful warriors, and Champlain’s group of 60 Indians was outnumbered by the 200 Iroquois they found somewhere near Crown Point.

But the explorer had a very large advantage: The Iroquois had never seen guns.

Battles in that part of the world involved a great deal of shouting and acts of bravery, but the Indians made shields and armor of sticks woven together with vines, and more people were captured than were killed by arrows during these fights.

Once captured, their fate was often a very unpleasant death, though we should remember that, in those days, the religious struggles back in Europe were also brutal and often involved torture and horrible deaths.

And the Iroquois would learn about European-style war that day. When the strange man leading this group of Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais fired his gun and killed two of the Iroquois leaders, the shocked and frightened Iroquois ran and Champlain’s allies were thrilled with the victory.
Perhaps they should not have been so pleased. The shock and fear did not last, and, in that moment, the French had made a powerful enemy.

The People of the Longhouse quickly realized that they needed to prepare for this new enemy, and for this new type of warfare.

It is important to realize that this did not mean that the Iroquois always hated the French and always attacked them, though they did send raiding groups up to the St. Lawrence to attack both Indians and Europeans there.

And a century and a half after the battle at Crown Point, the Iroquois would join with one of the European nations who had come to the area in a war that forced France out of New York, and out of Canada.

But, for now, it mostly meant that they never trusted them or considered them real friends, even when they traded with them or made treaties.

And when a second European nation appeared, and then a third, and wanted to purchase furs from the Iroquois, they were happy to trade for iron tools and other modern things.

But they also wanted guns and powder and shot with which to protect themselves, and to wage war, and not only against the French.

The new trade in furs sparked the Beaver Wars, in which Indian nations clashed over hunting grounds and attacked each other’s hunting parties to take furs that those hunters had collected.

Meanwhile, after that first battle, Champlain and his Indian allies left the Champlain Valley and traveled up the St. Lawrence River, where they explored the northern shore of Lake Ontario and the land on the other side of the Niagara from the western door of the Longhouse.

There were no lines on the map yet, and the French had claimed the St. Lawrence and all that flowed into it. Champlain wanted to see, and to map, the land his king now owned.

Over the next few decades, the French would begin settling the area around Quebec and Montreal, bringing colonists from France.

They also had another way of making the region their own: They wanted to make the Indians more like them, gathering them into towns near Montreal, and sending priests out to Indian towns to spread the culture and religion of France.

This created a conflict within the Longhouse: Some Iroquois were tolerant of the foreigners with their strange religion, others treated them as enemies.

In those more tolerant communities, traditional Iroquois lived alongside Christian Iroquois with few conflicts for a while.

But when followers of the new religion felt they should no longer participate in the important dances and other ceremonies that kept their clans and families close, they often chose to move to the settlements the French had created for them far north of the Longhouse.

For a people that based their culture on families, this separation was a true crisis.

By then, however, there were more than two nations sharing the region: Just a few months after the battle at Crown Point, another European nation had appeared.


Click here to read, Chapter One: Where did New York come from?

And here to read, Chapter Two: The People of the Longhouse

And here to read Chapter Three: The First Europeans

Return next week for Chapter Five: New Netherland

Text copyright 2016, Mike Peterson – Illustrations copyright 2016 – Christopher Baldwin

This project was made possible with the support of the New York Newspapers Foundation with funding from the New York State United Teachers.


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