While doing some basic research one day, I noticed a line in a Wikipedia entry that made my spidey-senses go off. While I can’t recall the exact wording off the top of my head, it spoke of the idea of the ‘Beaver Wars’ as an historical fact. The Beaver Wars theory claims that, in order to gain a monopoly over the fur trade with Europeans, Iroquoian peoples engaged in warfare and attempted to expand their territory through conflict. This interpretation was put forth by historians in the mid-twentieth century to explain the cycle of recurrent violence that involved the Native American nations of the Northeast and the European colonialists from France, England, and the Netherlands (and, for a short time, Sweden). And while the motives for war put forward by this theory may well have proven true for the European colonists, whose ancestors had been fighting wars over land and trade for millennia, this was a wholly foreign concept for the Native Americans of the area.
While this theory no longer holds much water among historians, a quick Google search for ‘Beaver Wars’ yields articles, blog posts, YouTube videos, and educational resources for students. I couldn’t believe it! The Beaver Wars theory has come to dominate the way the wider public views this period of history, even if it is a slightly nerdier niche of the wider public. So, I’d like this post to serve as a counterargument to my Google search, and discuss the theory that has come to take its place – the Mourning Wars.
As Europeans, and the diseases they carried with them, made their way into Quebec and northern New York, Iroquoian and Algonquian nations underwent a demographic catastrophe. In 1637, the French Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune, living among the Wendat, wrote about an unnamed illness that affected the area of southern Ontario: “we [the Jesuit missionaries] had hoped that, as generally happens in France and elsewhere, the first frosts would arrest the progress of this contagious malady. But just the opposite happened, and the depth of the Winter was also the severest period of the disease, so that from the 10th or the 12th of November we saw ourselves almost surrounded by it on every side.”1 Episodes like this proved widespread, and by the 1640s the Native nations of the Northeast had witnessed untold loss.
But disease was only one of the plagues brought on by European incursions into North America. Another huge factor in the demographic crises among the Iroquoian peoples of the seventeenth-century was the changing rules of warfare. Europeans were far more apt to kill enemy combatants on the battlefield than Iroquians were; so, as the Native Nations of the northeast came into violent conflict with French, English, and Dutch men armed with arquebuses who were shooting to kill, they suffered far more casualties than in the wars fought against their traditional enemies that pre-dated European arrival.
Writing in 1609, Samuel de Champlain recorded the events one such engagement in which he took part. While Champlain claimed he told his Native allies (a combined force of Wendat, Algonquian, and Montagnais soldiers) that he planned to kill the enemies captains (leading men from the Haudenosaunee Confederation), he also admitted “they could not understand me.”2 Champlain went on to note the pandemonium that ensued after he unloaded his arquebus into oncoming Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian Five Nations) soldiers:
“I took aim with my arquebus and shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to the ground and one of their companions was wounded who died thereof a little later… As soon as our people saw this shot so favorable for them, they began to shout so loudly that one could not have heard it thunder, and meanwhile the arrows flew thick on both sides. The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly, although they were provided with shields made of cotton thread woven together and wood, which were proof against their arrows. This frightened them greatly. As I was reloading my arquebus, one of my companions fired a shot from within the woods, which astonished them again so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took to flight, abandoning the field and their fort, and fleeing into the depth of the forest, whither I pursued them and laid low still more of them. Our Indians also killed several and took ten or twelve prisoners. The remainder fled with the wounded. Of our Indians fifteen or six-teen were wounded with arrows, but these were quickly healed.”3
While leaving the field of battle if too many casualties occurred was typical of Iroquoian warfare, given that mass death wasn’t the larger aim, even Champlain’s allies seemed surprised that the Frenchman had fired every shot with the intent to kill, their alarmed yells sounding so loud that “one could not have heard thunder.” And as fights just like this one spread across the Northeast, Native nations began losing more and more men to war.
Beaver Wars: A Brief Description
I gave a brief overview of the Beaver Wars theory above – but I’d like to take a moment to really dive into it and get at it through the original scholarly sources that put forth this theory.
Admittedly, to a modern reader of Western descent, this theory is probably most appealing for its simplicity, as it ascribes a motive often found in the annals of Eurasian history – battles for land and wealth. As such, historians of colonial North America, who for decades have focused far more on European agency in the white colonization of the Americans than the Native Americans whom those colonists sought to displace, couched Iroquoian motives for warfare in these terms.
This theory was most famously put forward in 1940 by a historian named George T. Hunt. In his work, The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study of Intertribal Trade Relations, he reasoned that “some peculiarity of the Iroqouis position and the spread of the white trade may well have combined to produce a motivation sufficiently powerful to drive the Iroquois through a half century of bloody… conflict.”4 At its core, Hunt’s argument stated that various Iroquoian and Algonquian nations vied for control of European trade.
Despite the Euro-centricity of this argument, many still accept this interpretation, which comes through in the Wikipedia entry on the Beaver Wars. This page states that these conflicts “were battles for economic welfare throughout the St. Lawrence River valley in Canada and the lower Great Lakes region… between the Iroquois trying to take control of the fur trade from the Hurons [Wendat], the northern Algonquians, and their French allies.”5
The Mourning Wars
Funny enough, the reason Beaver Wars theory makes so much sense to modern Western readers is the exact reason why it doesn’t make complete sense in the proper historical context. While Dutch, French, and English colonists operating under the paradigms of mercantilism and nascent capitalism may well have thought of economic reasons to go to war and attempt to acquire territory, for the Native Nations of the area, this world view did not exist. Though the Iroquoian and Algonquin peoples of the northeast were well known as traders and had extensive exchange networks to bring in furs from the less sedentary nations that lived farther north, or beads for wampum from peoples who lived closer to the sea, their economies were wholly different than the modern notion of supply and demand that fuels the Beaver Wars argument.6
The main reason, however, that the Beaver Wars theory has come under attack is that the Native peoples of the northeast did not traditionally fight wars where the aim was to kill more of the enemy than the enemy killed of you, with the hope of gaining land or trade benefits. Rather, Iroquoian warfare tended to consist of smaller raids, aimed at abducting enemy soldiers. While, in extreme cases, enemy combatants were put to death, once abducted, these enemies, were typically adopted into the society of their captures in order to fill an emotional and demographic void left by the death of a loved one. In the passage from Champlain’s notes above, he recounted that while his Native allies (or ‘Our Indians’ as he called them), “killed several” of the enemy combatants, they also “took ten or twelve prisoners.” No doubt these prisoners were to serve as the subject of a Mourning War adoption, taking the place of lost loved ones back home. As Georges E. Siuoi, a historian of the Wendat, and himself of Wendat/Wyandot decent, put it, Iroquoian peoples “viewed an outsider as a perfectly acceptable replacement for a community member killed in battle, in an accident, or otherwise lost… War among these peoples could therefore take the form of expeditions in search of captive replacements. The Iroquois made a habit of doing this when seriously threatened with annihilation by the combined effect of war and epidemic disease.”7
Thus, as disease, war, and myriad other symptoms of Euorpean colonialism continued to wear away at Native American social structures, Iroquoian nations, like the Wendat and Haudenosaunee, increased the frequency of their Mourning War campaigns to offset the demographic losses. And as European colonialism only become a stronger force as the decades wore on, Mourning Wars continued to become more frequent and fierce.
- Paul Le Jeune, Jesuit Relations, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites Vol. XIII Chapter V, “OSSOSANÉ AFFLICTED WITH A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE. VARIOUS JOURNEYS THAT WE MADE THERE IN THE MOST DISAGREEABLE WINTER WEATHER. CONTINUATION OF THE SAME SICKNESS IN OUR VILLAGE, AND THE ASSISTANCE WE RENDERED TO THE NEIGHBORING PLACES ATTACKED BY THE SAME DISEASE.”
- Samuel de Champlain, “The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly,” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6594
- George T. Hunt,The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study of Intertribal Trade Relations (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1940), 4.
- “Beaver Wars,” Wikipedia
- “Economy of the Iroquois,” Wikipedia
- Georges E. Sioui, Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999), 172.