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Champlain Among The Mohawk, 1609
A Soldier-Humanist Fights a War for Peace in North America
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
These men all shared a common bond as Christian humanists. While a few were Protestants, most embraced the literal Catholic idea of a universal faith. Men of learning, they were full of curiosity about the world and all its peoples. In their broad spirit of humanity, they had inherited the values of the Renaissance; in time, their work would inspire the Enlightenment. In a difficult time, they kept the idea of humanism alive; in doing so, they became important world figures.
Together they carefully prepared for a new sort of European presence in America, one that stressed peaceful cohabitation with the Indians, trading actively, and exploring the continent together. Pont-Gravé made a voyage in 1602 and persuaded Indian leaders to allow two young Montagnais “princes,” as the Pont-Gravé called them, to come to France, learn the language, and serve as translators. In 1603 they all sailed to the St. Lawrence on a voyage of reconnaissance, arriving on May 26, 1603, at the little port of Tadoussac near the Saguenay River. Champlain and Pont-Gravé looked across the river and saw a huge gathering of Indians from many nations, including Montagnais, Algonquian, and Etchemin, the latter being Champlain’s name for the nations living in what is now the state of Maine.
The two Frenchmen and the young Montagnais translators crossed the river, walked unarmed into the camp, and were invited to join a tabagie, or tobacco feast. Champlain, Pont-Gravé, and the representatives of these many Indian nations talked together through the night and into the next day. The informal alliance they formed would last for many generations, and the legacy of this first tabagie still lives on. All were warriors in search of peace, who were open and candid, learned to respect each other’s vital interests, and created an alliance founded on cohabitation, trade, and mutual support against attacks by others.
After this beginning, other voyages followed. Champlain helped to found French settlements on the St. Croix River in 1604, in Acadia (now Nova Scotia) in 1605–6, and at Quebec. He explored the country, met with many other Indian nations, and forged alliances with more than 50 of them—more than any European leader of his time.
Champlain’s special pattern of relating with the Indians made the history of New France fundamentally different than those of New Spain, New England, New Netherland, and Virginia. The Spanish conquistadors sought to subjugate the Indians. The English pushed the Indians away, built a big “pale” in Virginia, and forbade Indians from crossing it unless they presented a special passport. Only the French established a consistent policy of peaceful cohabitation, and something of its spirit persists in North America to this day.
A major threat to Champlain’s design for New France was incessant warfare among the Indian nations in the St. Lawrence Valley. Much of it pitted the Iroquois League, and especially the Mohawk nation, against the Algonquian and Montagnais to the north, the Huron to the west, and the Etchemin to the east. As long as it continued, there could be no peace in the St. Lawrence Valley, no security for trade, and no hope for the dream of American Indians and Europeans living together in peace.
Champlain believed that a major cause of war was fear, and his remedy was to seek peace through diplomacy. To that end he had built alliances among the Montagnais, Algonquian, Huron, and other nations. But the Iroquois League proved difficult to work with. One historian of the Iroquois observes that by the start of the 17th century they were “at odds with all their neighbors—Algonquin and Huron to the north, Mahican on the east, and Susquehannock to the south.” Many Indian nations in the Northeast were at war with some of their neighbors. The Iroquois, however, were at war with nearly all of theirs. They had a reputation for skill in war, among many warrior nations; they were also known for cruelty in a cruel world.
In 1608 Champlain had promised to aid the Indian nations of the St. Lawrence Valley when the Iroquois attacked them. At the same time, he understood that the Iroquois were victims as well as aggressors, so he sent peace feelers through a captive Mohawk woman. These overtures accomplished nothing. Mohawk war parties continued to attack the St. Lawrence Indians.
After a long and difficult winter of 1608 and 1609 in Quebec, Champlain decided that peace could be achieved only by concerted military action against the Mohawk. He did not intend a war of conquest. Instead he envisioned that a coalition of Montagnais, Algonquian, and Huron, with French support, might deliver one or two sharp blows that could deter future Mohawk attacks by raising the cost of their raiding to the north.
When Champlain met Pont-Gravé at Tadoussac on June 7, he laid out a bold plan for “certain explorations in the interior” and made clear his intention to enter “the country of the Iroquois” with “our allies the Montagnais.” Both men knew that this plan would mean a fight with some of the most formidable warriors in North America. It was an act of breathtaking audacity, considering the small size of Champlain’s force. But what Champlain lacked in mass, he made up in acceleration. He also had the early firearm known as the arquebus, and the Mohawk did not. The sieur de Mons had sent him a few good men who were trained in the use of that difficult weapon. Champlain also had many Indian allies with hundreds of warriors.