New France and New Netherland in the Iroquois World


Within a short time span, other European powers joined Spain in the competition to colonize North America. French Catholics established their own missions for spreading the faith in the northern part of the continent, primarily around the Great Lakes and in what is now Québec in Canada. But unlike the Spanish colonies, New France in the seventeenth century was organized primarily around trade relationships with Indians. The same was largely true for the new Protestant outposts the Dutch established farther south. Located in areas where Indians were numerous, small settlements of French and Dutch colonists sought initially to collaborate with local powers rather than to subjugate them or exploit native laborers. Nonetheless, these modest trading posts exerted a significant impact. They transformed indigenous communities and cultures throughout a vast region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes—in ways Europeans could not have anticipated, let alone intended. For native North Americans as much as for northern European migrants, the seventeenth century saw the making of a new world.


In the northeastern part of the continent, Europeans entered a region dominated by a powerful bloc of nations known as the Haudenosaunee, the “People of the Longhouse.” This League of the Iroquois, as Europeans came to call it, was a political alliance among five native groups located south of Lake Ontario: Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas, and Onondagas. The league was governed by a council of chiefs appointed by clan matrons in each of the five nations and was designed to accommodate the addition of new members. Native peoples in other parts of North America had been dispersing on the eve of European contact, but the Great Lakes region was an exception. Both the Hurons (who lived on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario) and the Iroquois were consolidating. When northern Europeans arrived in the area, Iroquois Indians described their League as ancient, but most scholars believe it formed in the era immediately preceding European contact as a mechanism for ending a period of constant small-scale warfare. Internal peace also enabled league members to wage much wider and more destructive battles with external enemies.

As the number of French, Dutch, and English colonists arriving in the Great Lakes region grew in the early 1600s, microbes that had been introduced to the coastal areas a century before spread into Iroquois country. Furthermore, because the settlers now included more children, who had acquired fewer immunities than their parents, so-called childhood diseases such as measles and whooping cough wreaked havoc among adults in the nations of the Iroquois League. A deadly smallpox outbreak wiped out more than half of the league’s population in the early 1630s. Iroquoian nations responded to such catastrophic losses by raiding other tribes and villages. Scholars refer to these raids as mourning wars, since they were intended to bring comfort to the bereaved by striking back in some way at the forces that had slain their loved ones. But the ultimate goal of Iroquois warfare was to obtain captives, adopt new warriors, and preserve the league’s power. During the middle of the seventeenth century, Iroquois nations fought battles with old and new enemies throughout the region. By midcentury, a series of mourning wars with the Huron Confederacy utterly destroyed that nation.


The harsh climate of the northern parts of the continent discouraged early European settlers from trying to grow staple crops or build agricultural colonies, but cold weather presented a particular commercial opportunity. To adapt to their environment, several species of Canadian animals had grown long, luscious pelts. Humans discovered that they could wear these pelts for comfort or prestige. Of all these fur-bearing animals, the most important to the course of North American history was the beaver.

In the early seventeenth century, broad-brimmed beaver-felt hats became fashionable in Europe. Before 1600, Dutch traders had imported beaver pelts from Russia, but with the growing demand, Russian beavers had been hunted to the point of extinction. In North America, beavers were abundant in 1600, and unlike timber, ice, and other export items in demand in Western Europe and its colonies, pelts were relatively light and easy to transport. Indians had hunted beaver for centuries, but because native people sought pelts strictly for immediate use, animal populations had remained high. Indians expanded their hunting practices only after developing a need for European goods. After all, as one native leader pointed out to a French missionary, the beaver served many purposes well; “it makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread.” And as the Iroquois learned quickly, beavers could also be exchanged for firearms. Whole villages consequently would devote their entire hunting seasons to tracking beaver, neglecting other economic activities and becoming even more dependent on European trade and the political alliances necessary to sustain it.

American Beaver This small furry rodent, depicted here in John James Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (mid-19th century), played a powerful role in the ecology of the Northeast. Overhunting in the seventeenth century remade the American landscape.

Because beavers reproduce slowly and lead relatively sedentary lives, they disappeared rapidly from several

regions. Areas farther south and closer to the coast were stripped of their beaver populations by the middle of the seventeenth century. The species as a whole proved resilient, but local extinctions altered the landscape in complex ways. Beaver dams played a powerful role in many ecosystems by trapping soil runoff and controlling the water flow. Damming typically had the effect of raising water temperatures and supporting more insects, fish, and waterfowl. The trees that beavers felled, moreover, also supported life forms that nourished larger animals. But once the beavers were removed from the picture, everything changed. Dams disappeared, water flowed freely, soil eroded, and animal protein sources vanished. In their place grew rich fields of tall grass that would become perfect grazing grounds for cattle. Overhunting beaver, in other words, had the remarkable and unintended ecological consequence of creating a landscape that was better suited to cows, pigs, and sheep than to deer, moose, and bears—and thus more hospitable and attractive to European farmers.

Think About It

1. What distinguished European and Indian uses of beaver pelts?

2. Why were Europeans unable to supply their own beaver needs?

View this related post: New Spain in North America.

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