One Reason More Americans Do Not Speak French: The Hurons in the 17th Century CE

Although the pre-Columbian peoples native to the lands that later became Canada and the United States of America did not generally form polities of the size and stability of their contemporaries in Mexico and the Andes, some of their tribal confederations were large, powerful, and profoundly influential on the European colonists that invaded in numbers in the 17th century CE. The combination of European diseases and warfare eventually effectively destroyed the power of the native peoples, but not before they played a decisive role in determining the direction of the development of history in North America.

The Huron Nation [also known as Wyandot or Wendat] was critical to French plans to dominate the continent. These plans failed partly because of a reckless French provocation in the summer of 1609.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries a look at the map of North American colonies would seem to indicate that the French were in an unassailable position. They held the St. Lawrence Valley in the north, and had no serious European rivals along the Great Lakes. By 1673 the French were exploring the Mississippi River while English colonies were still establishing footholds along the Atlantic coast, and a scattering of traders for Britain were freezing along the shores of Hudson’s Bay.

But upon closer observation weaknesses in the French colonies loomed large. The key one was demographic: English colonial population was larger than the French, and growing much faster.

The Great Migration to New England in the 1630s gave the English a good start on a significant population advantage in the New World. English religious and political malcontents fled their native land in large numbers and moved to North America in pursuit of the right to worship as they wished, land, opportunity, and greater personal freedom.

The authorities in England were generally glad to see them go. Their co-religionists eventually fought in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, establishing a Puritan-dominated Commonwealth in 1649 that developed into Cromwell’s Protectorate before the monarchy was restored in 1660. With the Stuarts back on the throne, North America was an even more appealing option to Englishmen of a Puritan leaning.

New France, by contrast, made a serious effort to limit immigration to people who would support the Catholic Church, which held a favored position both in the homeland and the colonies. The French Protestants who wanted to leave for the New World were not welcome. Catholics had little reason to leave France and brave the dangers of Canada. Furthermore, young men in New France had a troubling tendency to abandon farming and run off to become coureurs des bois seeking their fortune in the fur trade, and making alliances with aboriginal women. This was eventually to lead to the creation of the Métis people and the rebellions of Louis Riel [1869-70, 1885]. In the short term it left the Governors and Church of New France short of manpower.

The Church, ever ingenious, figured it could use aboriginal converts to fill in the ranks. High on their list of target peoples, faute de mieux, were the Hurons concentrated in what is now Southern Ontario. They had settled villages and spoke an Iroquoian language.

There were several factors that worked against the French plan. From 1634 on, successive waves of European epidemics drastically reduced the number of Hurons. Half to two-thirds of the population died, leaving about 12,000 survivors.

The Jesuits addressed the conversion of the Hurons with their usual high intelligence, extraordinary bravery, and fierce dedication. They labored under certain disadvantages, however. They would not provide a Huron with a firearm unless convinced the warrior was a sincere convert. The Dutch traders in what is now New York State, by way of comparison, usually found a way to get a gun in the hands of any Iroquois brave who could provide them with a lot of beaver pelts.

Crucially, the French had earned the lasting enmity of the Iroquois Confederation [Haudenosaunee, Rotinonshionni], which dominated what was to become Upstate New York, when on July 29, 1609 Samuel de Champlain in alliance with an invading force of Algonquins killed two Iroquois chieftains with a harquebus, another member of his party killing a third. This, combined with a victory by Champlain over the Mohawks, the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederation, in the next year earned New France the lasting hatred of the Iroquois. The Mohawks had long memories, and the other members of the Iroquois confederation were generally as inimical to the French for complex strategic and commercial reasons. Some of the following years were not marked by battles, but it would be naïve to characterize them as periods of peace.

In March of 1649 the Iroquois hit hard. They burned two sizeable Huron mission villages and struck terror into the whole Huron nation. By May the panicked Hurons had abandoned and burned 15 of their settlements to deny supplies to the Iroquois, after which the Hurons dispersed as refugees to neighboring tribes.

Eventually about 10,000 fled to Christian Island in Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, where most starved or succumbed to disease over the winter, having tried to subsist on a diet consisting largely of acorns mixed with ashes and meat scavenged from corpses. This form of cannibalism seemed very different from the traditional Huron ritual anthropophagy of tortured war captives. Remnants of the population survived, but the Huron Nation never really recovered.

France’s plans to overcome its demographic deficit vis-à-vis the English colonies never really recovered either.

Before returning to their villages, the Iroquois effectively destroyed the Neutral Nation and the Petun [Tionotati]. The Iroquois expanded and dominated their territory until the battles and scorched earth tactics of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition of 1779, much criticized as ineffective at the time, broke the power of the Confederacy irremediably.

Further Reading:

• Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America details the Iroquois-Huron conflict and its implications for the European colonial powers. It is part of his series France and England in North America, epic narrative history in a grandiloquent style no longer in fashion, but still thrilling.

• The only thing more enjoyable than reading Parkman on this period is luxuriating in Reuben Gold Thwaites’ magnificent 73 volume edition of The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791.

• Francis Jenkins provides an emphasis on aboriginal perspectives in The Founders of America, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest, and The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire, among other titles.

• Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America 1754 – 1766 is a good introduction to its topic.

• Barbara Graymont’s The Iroquois in the American Revolution deals with the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition among other things.

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