Iroquois Wars of the 17th Century

Within a generation of Columbus, the French had penetrated the St. Lawrence River and pointed their ships toward the interior. By 1630 they had built settlements at Quebec and Montreal, where they could easily communicate and trade with the Huron, Ottawa, and Ojibwe Indians around the Great Lakes. At the same time, the English and Dutch settled New England and New York, where they could easily communicate and trade with the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy via the Hudson River. In the 1640s, the Dutch demand for furs prompted the Iroquois to invade the rich fur-supplying territories to their north and west, and to subdue the Indians allied with the French. These were the so-called "Iroquois Wars" of the mid-seventeenth century.

A Jesuit priest reported at the time that "in their method of warfare the Iroquois are so stealthy in their approach, so swift in their execution, and so expeditious in their retreat, that one commonly learns of their departure before gaining any knowledge of their arrival. They come like foxes through the woods, which afford them concealment and serve them as an impregnable fortress. They attack like lions, and, as their surprises are made when they are least expected, they meet with no resistance. They take flight like birds, disappearing before they have really appeared." (Jesuit Relations 45:193-195).

One consequence of the Iroquois invasion was that nations friendly to the French were afraid to carry furs from the Great Lakes downriver to Montreal. In the words of a French reporter, the Iroquois war "thwarts all our pleasures, and is the sole affliction of New France, which is in danger of becoming utterly devastated."

More important, many Indian nations living in modern Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario fled for refuge into remote parts of the West such as Wisconsin. These groups included the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Mascouten, Kickapoo, Ottawa, Miami, Huron, Petun (Tobacco), and so-called Neutral Iroquois. The powerful Sioux nations blocked their flight across the Mississippi, so most of these refugees took up territory in Wisconsin and Illinois, where Iroquois military campaigners sometimes pursued them.

Their arrival strained the resources available to Wisconsin's original inhabitants, the Menominee and Ho-Chunk, and the Ojibwe, who had come to Wisconsin 150 years earlier. Competition for food and furs caused frequent combat and shifting alliances among the tribes. In a single lifetime (roughly 1640-1690), the traditional cultures of all these Indian nations were transformed by war, disease, European tools, and the need to trap animals to obtain trade goods such as metal utensils.

Although the French military temporarily restrained the Iroquois in the 1660s, the warfare continued for several decades. By the time it ended, Wisconsin was filled with new Indian nations competing for homelands with each other and the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Ojibwe, and Sioux, all of them more or less dependent on French traders for now-crucial technology such as firearms and ammunition.

[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to book: Jesuit missionaries describe the aftermath of Iroquois attacks.Jesuit missionaries describe the aftermath of Iroquois attacks.
Link to book: A priest journeys to a Wisconsin village of exiled Hurons in 1661.A priest journeys to a Wisconsin village of exiled Hurons in 1661.
Link to images: Iroquois warriors attack their enemies while huntingIroquois warriors attack their enemies while hunting
Link to images: Iroquois warriors ambush French troops in 1687.Iroquois warriors ambush French troops in 1687.
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