Hidden Corners of History The Beaver Wars

Jim Heald

The Ashland Beacon


   The age of exploration introduced Europe to a whole new world of opportunities. While the route to Asia was proving to be elusive, what was discovered in the New World proved to be quite the consolation prize, resulting in stiff competition between England, France, Spain, and Holland. Unfortunately, their rivalries had a significant impact on the indigenous peoples they met.

   During the 17th century, beaver pelts and deer skins became very popular materials for new fashions for the continental Europeans. Beaver pelts were turned into a variety of hats, including top hats worn among the gentlemen of England and France, and the popular tricorner hat associated with pioneers and settlers in the colonies.

   The popularity of the pelts and skins nearly drove the animals to extinction in the lands of the Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Hadenosaunee or Five Nations). The search for a land where beaver and deer were in abundance resulted in 61 years of war between the Iroquois Confederacy and the French colonists and their native allies.

   The Iroquois Confederacy was made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes found throughout the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence waterway. Through trade with the Dutch, the Mohawks had access to firearms.

   The French allies included the Huron Confederacy (also known as the Wyandot or Wendat or Huron Nation), Erie, Susquehannock, Algonquin, Petin, and other Indian tribes.

   In the Ohio Country, the Iroquois Confederacy drove several tribes west. The tribes were competing against each other for resources and inter-tribal alliances fell apart. The same was true between the colonies. However, between relationships between colonists and tribes were strengthened.

   During the Beaver War, the Susquehannock managed to defeat the Seneca and Cayuga, but were severely weakened. By 1678, the surviving population was reduced from possible exposure to a disease carried over from Europe. It is believed that part of the tribe escaped to the west and became part of the Shawnee tribe. It is also believed that those who did not migrate were involved in Pontiac's War and were killed sometime around 1763 by the Paxton Boys, a vigilante group of Scots-Irish settlers seeking revenge against American Indians for the French and Indian War as well as Pontiac's War.

   However, under the Covenant Chain Treaty, a large number of survivors accepted an offer from the Iroquois Confederacy and were assimilated into the Seneca and Onondaga who lived in New York. It was a tradition with the Iroquois Confederacy to absorb defeated enemies into their population.

   While the Iroquois Confederacy was able to trade with the Dutch for guns, it was not that simple for the French allies. To get a gun from a French trader, one had to convert to Catholicism. This resulted in many casualties, including Catholic missionaries, and burned villages.

   In return, the French took the battle to the Iroquois Confederacy, destroying crops and homes, resulting in many dying from starvation.

   Though the Treaty of Great Peace was signed between French, British, and the Iroquois Confederacy in 1701, peace was not the result to be found. A few years later the British and French and their Indian allies would again be at war.

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