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A surprising and sweeping history that reveals the fur trade to be the driving force behind conquest, colonization, and revolution in early America
Combining the epic saga of Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder with the natural history of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, popular historian Alan Axelrod reveals the astonishingly vital role a small animal—the beaver—played in the creation of our nation. The author masterfully relays a story ...
A surprising and sweeping history that reveals the fur trade to be the driving force behind conquest, colonization, and revolution in early America
Combining the epic saga of Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder with the natural history of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, popular historian Alan Axelrod reveals the astonishingly vital role a small animal—the beaver—played in the creation of our nation. The author masterfully relays a story often neglected by conventional histories: how lust for fur trade riches moved monarchs and men to launch expeditions of discovery, finance massive corporate enterprises, and wage war. Deftly weaving cultural and military narratives, the author chronicles how Spanish, Dutch, French, English, and Native American tribes created and betrayed alliances based on trapping and trade disputes, producing a surprisingly complex series of loyalties that endured throughout the Revolution and beyond.
“In A Savage Empire Alan Axelrod does for the beaver what Mark Kurlansky accomplished in Cod and Salt. This is first-rate narrative history.”—Thomas J. Craughwell, author of Stealing Lincoln's Body
"In A Savage Empire, Alan Axelrod brings to life a time when empires were built on control over beaver pelts. Before Europeans imposed a new economic system on America, they digested the trapping, tanning and trading system of the Native Americans. Axelrod adeptly outlines the wars in which the French, British and Spanish battled each other and swindled Indian tribes out of the furs on their backs."—Alex Storozynski, Fraunces Tavern Book Award winning author of The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution
"Magnificent….Filled with feats of superhuman endurance and heroism, as well as stories of horror and unimaginable cruelty.”—Joseph Cummins, author of First Encounters
"Alan Axelrod takes a dramatic story - the carving of a new nation out of a formidable wilderness, and the motivations for doing so - and tells it with all the richness and historical accuracy that it deserves. A Savage Empire is at once well researched, thorough, and well written. It's the kind of page-turning history that should be written about this utterly unique period in time, America's colonial frontier experience."—James L. Nelson, author of With Fire and Sword
"Axelrod weaves it all into a whopping good story, an epic saga of exploration, cutthroat trade wars, international intrigues, Indian confederations and the hard life in the North American wilderness, a place perilous for everyone, not least the humble and industrious beaver." —The Washington Independent Review of Books
In a conversational style, Axelrod (Generals South, Generals North: The Commanders of the Civil War Reconsidered, 2011) explains how the beaver's pelt was the impetus that brought the English and French to North America and instigated their quarrels as they strove to control the New World.
The author effortlessly explores the connections from Samuel Pepys' hat to the first true "world war," the Seven Years' War. Without the Native Americans, there would never have been a fur trade. The six nations of the Iroquois played the largest part in helping both the French and English establish their trade, cleverly playing each nationality off the other. As the French king put more emphasis on the establishment of agrarian societies in the New World, the English stepped in and took advantage of the Indians' vast knowledge. Where the French sought to integrate with the Indians, the English preferred to replace them. Still, the Indians knew a great deal more of the diplomacy of divide and conquer than the Europeans. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the colonizers treated the Indians alternately as clients, trading partners, allies, rivals or enemies—whichever would help establish their claim on the areas rich in beavers. Their ambitions were alternately imperial, military, territorial and/or commercial. Ultimately, though, profit and land acquisition was the motive. As the English and French fought through a series of wars, the degree of alliance with the different Indian tribes easily drew the advantage to one side or the other. Axelrod deftly navigates the many shifting alliances while delivering a readable history.
A solid exposition of the struggles for the peltries of North America as they established the economy and the politics of the new country and wrote its history.
The Middle Ground
FROM 1492 TO 1580, the year Philip II, king of Castile and Aragon, united for the time being the bulk of Spain with Portugal, thereby consolidating the vast New World holdings of all Iberia, Spain held a monopoly on American conquest and thereby came to control the largest empire in geographical extent the planet has ever known. Founded mainly on agriculture, the cultivation of cotton, sugar, and tobacco, and the raising of cattle, it was maintained by slaves, black as well as Indian. The empire was based on slave labor in one form or another, yet the lure that drew Spain westward was neither vegetative nor fleshly, but metallic overlaid with something resembling divinity. Driving the many Spanish voyages into the sunset lands was gold, gold plated with the thinnest layer of God.
Never mind that few of the Spanish expeditions actually returned with the coveted ore. A handful of discoveries was quite sufficient to inspire many more, the most seductive of which were those of Hernán Cortés. When in 1519 he landed a small force at what is today Veracruz, Mexico, he was greeted by ambassadors of the Aztec king Montezuma II, who bore dazzling gifts, mostly of gold. Doubtless, they were intended to appease the newcomer. Cortés, however, was anything but sated.
“Send me some more of it,” he reportedly told Montezuma’s minions, “because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.”
From this point on, the story is a familiar one, perhaps too familiar any longer to generate much excitement. Driven by this sickness at the heart, a disorder all of us understand, Cortés and his companions marched on Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital known today as Mexico City. The conquistador took care first to bore holes in the hulls of his ships (“Shipworm!” he told his men) so that none of them, least of all he himself, could turn back. He recruited allies among the ever-warring city-states of the far-flung Aztec realm, winning some by promising to make common cause against the Aztecs, others by sheer terror, as when he slaughtered three thousand Cholula tribespeople in the space of two hours, stopping only when volunteers answered his call to arms. Perhaps it was word of this and other bloodbaths that made Montezuma go weak in the knees. Or perhaps he believed the Spaniard to be the incarnation of the birdlike god Quetzalcoatl, who created man out of his own blood. In response to whatever prompting, the Aztec ruler threw open Tenochtitlán to Cortés and his conqueror band.
For Montezuma, it meant his death; for his people, their ruin. For Cortés, it meant mountains of gold. For those in Spain who spoke to Cortés—he returned twice to his homeland—or who heard of the reward of his audacity, it inspired envy and emulation. So powerful yet so familiar did the story of Cortés and the conquest of Mexico become that for a long time gold outshone all else as a motive for risking everything on a voyage to the New World. Its glow suffused sober history itself, and generation after generation has been satisfied with this formulaic justification for New World exploration and conquest: It was all about gold.
Gold and spices.
In every grade-school text, a dash of spice completed the recipe. European exploration and settlement of the Americas was all about gold and spices.
Naturally, the gold was always easier to understand. Universal shorthand for value and worth, when monetized, it is value and worth themselves: a commodity fully fungible, capable of instant conversion into real property, the service of slaves or kings, and the satisfaction of every desire.
Spices—well, that requires explanation. Food is life, but food is also dead, and, like all things dead, food rots. Spice fights rot, slows rot, and what it can neither fight nor slow, it disguises with strong taste and intoxicating aroma. Like gold, then, spices possessed power, and their power exercised allure. Ounce for ounce, pound for pound, spice, sovereign against the rot of death and therefore an elixir of life, was even more valuable than gold.
Yet as a motivator of contact and commerce between people uprooted from the Old World and those rooted in the new, neither gold nor spice was as enduring as fur.
* * *
Between 30,000 and 130,000 years ago, a member of the subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis—Neanderthal man—compared himself to a furry mammal, found his own nakedness wanting, and began clothing himself in fur. The physical advantages are obvious enough. Animal hide provides protection against superficial injury, and fur, which traps air in the spaces between its fibers, is a superb insulator, enabling the wearer to conserve one of life’s most precious commodities: the energy represented by body heat.
The symbolic, emotional, and cultural advantages of fur are far more speculative. Anthropologists and historians have pointed out that Native American (among other) hunters frequently made it a practice to consume the heart of a freshly killed animal in the belief that by doing so they would take on some of the beast’s strength, ferocity, and courage. The early hominid hunters who appropriated animal fur certainly derived the physical advantages of their prey’s coat, but perhaps they were driven as well by a belief—at some level of consciousness—that they were also taking on certain aspects of the animal’s being, spirit, nature, or virtue.
Through history, fur has been associated with warriors, conquerors, and kings. Such modern trappings as the fur trim on the highly ornamented pelisse (jacket) of the hussar—the type of light cavalry soldier that emerged in Hungary in the fifteenth century and rose to prominence in the early nineteenth—and the busby (tall fur headdress) of the British Horse Guard are meant to convey a kind of animal ferocity. In a far more general context, clothing made of leather or fur connects the wearer to the natural world (though vegans and antifur activists are quick to point out the paradox that this connection comes at the price of nature’s destruction). The value of gold is so universally perceived as inherent that it is readily monetized. Although today the value of spices is as a flavor enhancement, for most of history they were inherently valued as powerful food preservatives. The inherent value of fur is chiefly in the warmth it provides, rendering the coldest climates survivable. Yet, as with gold and spices, fur has always had a value beyond its inherent physical properties. Its emotional allure may well be rooted in the intimate connection fur creates between the wearer and the animal world, but, in the course of history, it also became a widely sought emblem of cultural and economic status. Like other badges, articles of fur both denote and confer authority, power, and status. For men of the time and place Samuel Pepys occupied, for example, a fine beaver hat was both token and mojo, symbolic of as well as productive of cultural and economic stature above the ordinary. So the material commanded a sufficiently high price to drive people to cross the ocean, to penetrate the frontier, and to dare death in the many forms the wilderness deals it.
* * *
In The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire (1984), a study of the “confederation” between Indian tribes and the English colonies, Francis Jennings dismisses “the fur trade” as a “misnomer” for “what is usually meant,” namely “exchange between Indians and European, Euramericans, or Euro-Canadians.” Jennings observes that there “were many kinds of such exchange, involving many different commodities,” not just fur. True, of course. Yet Richard White, in his history of “Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815,” The Middle Ground (1991), explains that the fur trade “bound people to each other” in unique ways. “Furs … acquired a special social meaning because, more than any other goods produced by the Algonquians [by which White means the largely French-allied Indians of the Great Lakes region], they could be transformed into [the] European goods” the Indians so strongly desired.
By the seventeenth century, the fur trade was transforming American civilization in ways more profoundly consequential than the trade in gold, spices, or other commodities. For both suppliers and buyers, for Indians and Europeans/Euro-Americans alike, fur was so culturally charged a commodity that it drove the creation of what White calls the “middle ground,” a society, culture, and civilization that blended Native, European, and Euro-American destinies, creating a network of cultural, economic, genetic, and military relationships—blends, alliances, and enmities—that would ultimately express themselves in the revolution by which the colonies broke free from Europe to create a new American nation.
However, it was not to America that Europe looked first to find the furs it craved.
During the early Middle Ages, before Europe knew of the New World, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Scandinavia were the major suppliers of pelts not only to Western Europe but to Asia. Before the seventeenth century, Russian furs were hunted primarily in the west and included wolf, fox, rabbit, squirrel, and marten in addition to beaver. By the mid-seventeenth century, Russian trappers and hunters were venturing into Siberia, and their exports accordingly expanded to include lynx, Arctic fox, sable, and ermine (stoat). Sea otter also came into demand, prompting the Russians to push beyond the Siberian coast and across the Bering Sea to Alaska, the only Russian exploitation of North American peltries.
Russian and Northern European fur so stimulated the Western European demand for the commodity that it soon exploded beyond the capacity of the Old World to supply the market. When this happened, Europeans at last looked west, to America, with which they were already familiar as the source of yet another living commodity: cod.
* * *
At least since approximately A.D. 800, Vikings had been fishing, eating, and trading in cod. Norwegian fishermen perfected the art of drying the fish, and by the eleventh century a vigorous market in dried cod had developed throughout Europe, well down to the south. It was a Norwegian, Bjarni Herjulfsson in 986, who is generally believed to be the first European to set eyes on North America, though, according to the medieval Grœnlendinga Saga (Greenlanders Saga), he did not go ashore, and no one back in Norway took much interest in this New Found Land—except for the Iceland-born Greenlander Leif Ericson, who about 1002 or 1003 landed at a place he named Vinland, believed to be the present L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Ericson and his crew of thirty-five erected a clutch of huts in which they wintered before returning to Greenland in the spring. A few years later, Thorfinn Karlsevni, another Greenlander some believe was Ericson’s brother, settled in Vinland, passing two years there, exploring the Newfoundland coast and battling a local people who called themselves the Beothuk, but whom Thorfinn and the other Norsemen dubbed Skrælings, an Old Norse word meaning “dwarfs” or, even less flatteringly, “wretches.”
After Thorfinn was killed in an encounter with a Skræling, the Norsemen were discouraged from making further settlements, but they did take notice that cod was the staple food of the Beothuk, and that may have further spurred exploitation of the cod fisheries along the coast of north Norway, trade that was, by the fourteenth century, monopolized by the powerful Hanseatic League. As for the New World, for some five hundred years before Columbus’s first voyage in 1492, the Old World largely ignored it. Some historians do believe that Basque fishermen began exploiting the Canadian cod fisheries by the early fifteenth century, before Columbus set sail, but the main phase of the European cod fishing in North America began here shortly after the Great Navigator’s voyages. On June 7, 1494, Spain and Portugal concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas, which resolved a dispute between the two kingdoms over possession of claims in the New World. The treaty drew a line of demarcation that divided all “newly discovered” lands outside of Europe along a meridian halfway between the Cape Verde Islands (already claimed by Portugal) and Cuba and Hispaniola, islands claimed by the Spanish crown. Lands lying east of the meridian would henceforth be Portuguese; those to the west, Spanish. Four years after the treaty was concluded, King Manuel I of Portugal granted a letter patent to João Fernandes, giving him leave to explore the Atlantic east of the Tordesillas line. In company with another Portuguese mariner, Pêro de Barcelos, Fernandes discovered and probed Labrador in 1498—a name derived from the Portuguese lavrador, “landholder,” which was thereafter appended to Fernandes’s name, so that he is known to history as João Fernandes Lavrador. He did not long enjoy his acquisition or his title. In 1501, this time bearing letters patent from England’s Henry VII, João Fernandes Lavrador embarked on a new voyage in search of lands to claim in the name of England. He never returned.
The discoveries of the ill-fated Portuguese mariner inspired Manuel I to send Gaspar Corte-Real to follow in the earlier navigator’s wake, specifically to search for a Northwest Passage to Asia. For the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century monarchs of Spain as well as Portugal—and for many powerful and influential men who followed them—the New World did not seem a discovery sufficiently valuable in itself. While it might offer many attractive commodities, not the least of which was cod, the land mass was also regarded as an obstacle between Europe and Asia, a proven source of spices and other very fine things. So, like many men after him, Corte-Real, with his brother Miguel, explored Labrador and Newfoundland for the purpose of finding the shortest possible water route to Asia. In the process, he captured sixty Natives to sell as slaves—for, as Columbus himself had pointed out to his patrons Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand—the “Indians” of America were among the most valuable commodities the New World offered. After packing his human cargo onto two of his three ships, Gaspar Corte-Real sent them back to Portugal under the command of Miguel while he continued to explore. Like João Fernandes Lavrador, Gaspar Corte-Real went missing. In 1502, Miguel returned to search for him. Neither brother was ever heard from again.
Nevertheless, though Newfoundland and Labrador seemingly consumed those who sought to possess them, Manuel I sent yet another voyager, João Alvares Fagundes, to Newfoundland and what is today Nova Scotia, enticing him to set off on the hazardous voyage in March 1521 with a grant of exclusive rights to and ownership of whatever he might find.
* * *
Unlike the other Portuguese who came before him, Fagundes did not disappear without a trace. In 1607, the French explorer, diplomat, and entrepreneur Samuel de Champlain stumbled upon “an old cross, all covered with moss, and almost wholly rotted away,” which he believed Fagundes had erected eighty years earlier at a Nova Scotia village now called Advocate.
Champlain, however, was not following in the footsteps of the Portuguese explorer, but in those of a fellow Frenchman. Jacques Cartier was born on December 31, 1491, in Saint-Malo, on the coast of Brittany. Unlike many of his seafaring brethren, Cartier enjoyed a certain respectability and even prominence in his community; he was frequently called upon to bear witness at local baptisms and was more than once even enlisted as a godfather. Indeed, he was highly enough regarded to merit the hand of Mary Catherine des Granches, daughter of one of Saint-Malo’s leading families, in 1520, and in 1534, when Brittany was united with France by the Edict of Union, Cartier was thought sufficiently important in the community to warrant an introduction to King Francis I. He was presented by the bishop of Saint-Malo, Jean le Veneur, who informed the king that Cartier possessed ample ability to “lead ships to the discovery of new lands in the New World.”
Veneur well knew that Francis had, ten years earlier, invited Giovanni da Verrazano to explore North America in the name of France, and he also understood that Cartier had accompanied the intrepid Italian and had therefore seen a long stretch of the eastern seaboard, from South Carolina north to Nova Scotia. With Verrazano, he had also sailed to Newfoundland. The king was sold, and later in 1534 he commissioned Cartier to—what else?—seek out a Northwest Passage to Asia, admonishing him to take care as well to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found.”
On this first voyage, which explored parts of Newfoundland and parts of what are now Canada’s Atlantic provinces, Cartier and his men encountered a New World bounty of natural abundance—the profusion of birds at what today is called Rocher aux Oiseaux (Bird Rock) in the Magdalen Islands—and responded to the wonder by wantonly slaughtering perhaps a thousand birds of all kinds. On a note of greater humanity and hope, Cartier and his crew briefly made two contacts with some Micmac Indians on the north side of Chaleur Bay and, in what was the first exchange of its kind, traded knives for their furs.
These exchanges were peaceful and productive, but when, on July 24, Cartier planted on the shore of Gaspé Bay a large cross inscribed with the legend “Long Live the King of France,” the Indians who looked on—members of an Iroquoian tribe—were clearly displeased. Noting signs of their growing hostility, Cartier summarily kidnapped the two sons of the Indian he referred to as “their captain,” apparently intending to hold them hostage to ensure the good behavior of the locals. Surprisingly, the “captain” told Cartier that he could take his sons with him back to France on condition that he return not only with them but with goods to trade.
Cartier did return in the spring of 1535, with a crew of 110 (and the “captain’s” sons) in three vessels, which carried a modest cargo of trade goods. This time, he called on an Iroquoian chief, named Donnacona, then ventured to Hochelaga—the site of Montreal—arriving there on October 2, 1535. He was met by more than a thousand Indians, with whom he did some trading. Here, he noted, at Hochelaga, the St. Lawrence River roiled into a wild rapids, which prevented further navigation, yet also, however incongruously, persuaded Cartier that he had discovered the Northwest Passage. The idea that, once a way was found to negotiate the rapids, the river would set a person en route to China proved enduring. Sometime in the mid-seventeenth century, the town that sprang up along the riverbank at this point, along with the rapids, was named Lachine—la Chine, French for China—and today is a Montreal neighborhood still known by that name.
Cartier spent a bitter winter in the area, during which scurvy broke out both among the local Indians and among his own crew, all but ten of whom fell seriously ill. Domagaya, one of the hostages Cartier had taken to France and returned, introduced Cartier to a native medicine made from the bark of the arborvitae tree, which he called annedda, and promised it would cure the scurvy. It did. Eighty-five of 110 Frenchmen survived the winter.
When he returned to France in May 1536, Cartier took Chief Donnacona with him. The Indian told King Francis I of the existence of the Kingdom of Saguenay, north of his own realm, where there was to be found an abundance of rubies, gold, and other wonders. This was quite sufficient to prompt the French monarch to send Cartier back to Canada in the spring of 1541. The objective this time was to locate not the Northwest Passage but the “Kingdom of Saguenay” and also to establish a permanent settlement on the St. Lawrence. Cartier built a fortress town at the site of present-day Cap-Rouge, Quebec, and set up a modest fur-trading operation there, concentrating on obtaining the kinds of fur that were used to trim cloth coats. That he largely ignored beaver, the stuff of hats, coats, and other major articles of clothing, suggests that he was more interested in dispatching his men into the countryside to look for jewels and gold rather than seek out Native hunters with beaver pelts to offer.
Cartier’s men soon returned with quartz and fool’s gold, which, taking them for diamonds and real gold, the eager Frenchman immediately sent back to France aboard one of his five ships. At this point, however, the local Iroquoians suddenly called a halt to the friendly trading that had so recently begun. There was apparently a battle, in which something like thirty-five Frenchmen were killed before everyone was able to retreat into the safety of the fortified town. Cartier returned to France, disheartened, but cheered by the prospect of the boatload of “gold” and “diamonds” that was waiting for him. There is no record of his disillusionment, but that this proved to be the final voyage of the still-vigorous fifty-year-old suggests he had written off Canada.
* * *
Although Cartier made tentative French inroads into general trade with the Indians of the Montreal area and also began dealing specifically in fur, the great European demand for beaver fur that developed during the mid-sixteenth century came not from Cartier and other river-borne and overland explorers but from those who worked the cod fisheries off the Newfoundland coast. The Basque fishermen in particular developed advanced drying techniques that made these remote fisheries economically viable by preserving the fish well enough so that the cargo could withstand the long voyage from the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic to Europe. The Basque cod industry depended on volume, and that meant securing suitable harbors with ample supplies of lumber for the fires required to dry large quantities of cod. This need increased both the opportunities for and the necessity of contact between the fishermen and the local Indians. Trade naturally followed.
The fishermen were fishermen, not traders, but they learned to equip themselves with the mostly metal items—knives, axes, pots and pans, and other implements—the Indians wanted. These were traded for beaver robes, finished items of apparel fashioned from sewn-together tanned pelts. The fishermen used the robes to fortify themselves against the icy North Atlantic on their return voyages to Europe, then, upon arrival in port, unstitched the robes and sold the individual beaver pelts, which the French called castor gras (“coat beaver”), to furriers and, especially, hatmakers.
For the Basque fishermen, the beaver trade was always a sideline, but its profitability was highly instructive, first to the French and then to the English. By the sixteenth century, European demand for fur, especially beaver, had already outrun the capacity of Russian and Scandinavian producers, and the North American beaver sold off the backs of fishermen was hardly sufficient to meet the demand. The increased availability of pelts, therefore, served to stimulate rather than satisfy the clamor.
Cartier and the Basque fishermen traded with Iroquoians, who, by the sixteenth century or perhaps earlier, were members of five tribes, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, loosely confederated and living in what is today upstate New York and parts of Canada. When the French, increasingly cognizant of the growing demand for fur, decided to make another run at trading with the Indians for the pelts, they turned not to the Iroquois but to the Hurons and Petuns, who were rivals of the Iroquois and, by the end of the first third of the seventeenth century, on the verge of a ruinous war with them.
The leader of this second wave of French fur trading was Samuel de Champlain. Born into a family of mariners in Brouage, a port town in the French province of Saintonge, sometime between 1564 and 1580 (the year is much disputed), he accompanied his uncle-in-law on voyages to the West Indies and Mexico during 1598–1600. The enterprising young man covertly took extensive notes on operations in these Spanish colonies, which he turned over to King Henri IV on his return, receiving by way of reward a generous royal stipend. This money nicely supplemented a large inheritance from his uncle-in-law, who died in 1601, giving Champlain something few other explorers have ever had: independence.
Not that he forgot his duty to his king. From 1601 to 1603, he served as royal geographer, gleaning much information from fishermen who worked the waters off northern New England to Newfoundland. He became acquainted with the colonization efforts of Pierre de Chauvin de Tonnetuit, to whom Henri had granted a fur-trading monopoly for New France in 1599. In 1602, the monopoly passed to Aymar de Chaste, whom the king appointed his viceroy in Canada and lieutenant governor of New France. Aymar de Chaste quickly exploited his royal fur monopoly to create the Canada and Acadia Trading Company, the first formally constituted, investment-backed fur-based trading enterprise in the Americas. With the king’s endorsement and blessing, Champlain secured from de Chaste a place aboard one of his North America–bound ships.
The leader of de Chaste’s fur-trading expedition was François Gravé Du Pont, who had been Chauvin’s partner. His long hair and longer beard gave him the air of a teacher more than of an explorer, and in America Du Pont took Champlain under his wing, tutoring him in everything from riverborne navigation to bargaining with Indians. Champlain proved a quick study. With Du Pont to guide him and following in the footsteps of Cartier, he drew the first detailed map of the St. Lawrence River, destined to become the great avenue of the North American fur trade, and he wrote a narrative to accompany it, which was published in 1603 as Des Sauvages; ou, Voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouage, faite en la France nouvelle l’an 1603 (Concerning the Savages; or, Travels of Samuel Champlain of Brouage, Made in New France in the Year 1603). Strikingly evident in this book are the friendly relations the French established with the Montagnais (also called Naskapi or Innu people) along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This was in stark contrast to the hostility of the Iroquoian Indians Cartier had encountered. In particular, Champlain managed to kindle a personal friendship with a Montagnais chief, Begourat.
Champlain joined a second expedition to New France in 1604, spending several years exploring the region south of the St. Lawrence River, the area that would later be known as Acadia. He was attached to the dashingly handsome Pierre Dugua, sieur de Mons, to whom Henri IV granted a fur-trading monopoly in Acadia. At Dugua’s behest, Champlain scouted out and selected a site for winter settlement, St. Croix Island in the St. Croix River. After that first winter, the settlement was moved across the bay as Port-Royal, the place from which Champlain launched several exploratory expeditions.
In 1608, Dugua financed a flotilla of three ships bearing as passengers a small army of workers for the purpose of establishing a new colony on the St. Lawrence. He put Champlain in command of the flagship, Don-de-Dieu (Gift of God), with Du Pont—by now a close friend—in command of the Lévrier (Hunting Dog). After landing at the so-called point of Quebec on July 3, 1608, Champlain hastily built three two-story wooden buildings and surrounded them with a wooden stockade and moat. This was the beginning of Quebec City. From here, in 1610, Champlain sent Étienne Brûlé—he would have been about eighteen years old at the time—to live among the Hurons in exchange for a young Huron youth Champlain called Savignon, who lived among the French. Champlain had a radical plan. He meant for Brûlé to learn as much about the Indians as possible, including their language and their customs, and, for his part, he intended to teach Savignon the ways of the French. Champlain offered a military alliance with the Hurons against their Iroquois enemies, especially the Onondaga and the Seneca, but he wanted to establish an even deeper relationship with them through Brûlé—and, later, other young men as well—founded on intimate cultural knowledge. In this, Champlain set the pattern for French-Indian relations that would endure through at least the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike the Dutch and the English, who (with some exceptions) held themselves aloof from the Indians with whom they traded, Champlain sought to embrace them and deal with them on an equal footing.
* * *
Of Étienne Brûlé little is known. He was born about 1592 in Champigny, France, and he came to New France aboard a ship Champlain commanded, sailing from Honfleur on April 13, 1608. Some records suggest that he was Champlain’s servant; in his own writings, Champlain refers to him only as “the young lad Brûlé.” In 1609, Brûlé was with Champlain when he helped a group of Montagnais, allied with the Hurons, defeat a band of some one hundred Iroquois near his Quebec settlement. Aided by Champlain’s military advice, the Montagnais prevailed, capturing fifteen Iroquois. The rest of the enemy were either killed in battle or drowned trying to escape. The unlucky prisoners were slowly tortured to death, save one, for whose life Champlain successfully argued. Of the other fourteen, at least one was not only tortured and quartered but also eaten. Far from horrifying Brûlé, the savage spectacle apparently awakened in him a desire to live among the Indians. He got his chance in 1611, when Champlain negotiated Brûlé’s swap with Savignon. Champlain believed that this cultural exchange would put him in an advantageous position to establish profitable trade. Not only would Brûlé become familiar with the Indians’ country, including the location of the great peltries, he would also earn their trust and learn their language, thereby staking out the “middle ground,” the part Native, part European cultural space in which untrammeled trade could take place.
For most of the next twenty-two years, Étienne Brûlé accompanied the Huron and their chief, Iroquet, on journeys throughout much of Quebec, Ontario, and Michigan. He was almost certainly the first European to see all of the Great Lakes. He was gone for years at a time, though he reported faithfully and amply to Champlain whenever the two managed to meet. His success living among the Huron persuaded Champlain to establish as a regular policy the integration of young men among the Indians, “to make the acquaintance of the people, to learn their mode of living and the character and extent of their territory.”
On September 8, 1615, Brûlé set off with twelve Hurons to make contact with the Carantouannais, potential French and Huron allies who lived under constant threat from the surrounding Onondaga and Seneca in what is now Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Brûlé was not only willing but apparently eager to risk death among the Hurons’ enemies. As the late nineteenth-century historian Willshire Butterfield observed, “Savage life had positive pleasures for [Brûlé], and its perils only intensified his liking for it.” Whatever thrill it gave the young man, his hazardous mission produced a firm alliance between the Carantouannais and the Hurons, with Champlain and his French contingent participating in it.
Thanks to Brûlé, some five hundred Carantouannais warriors joined Champlain and the Hurons in combat against the Onondaga and Seneca. In October 1615, Brûlé returned with the Carantouannais to Carantouan, their village in present-day Bradford County, and, restless for new adventure, he set out alone on a birch bark canoe voyage southward on the Susquehanna River. He had become an expert navigator in this native vessel, stout ribbed but ultralight, its sweepingly upturned beaks fore and aft making for both speed and shallowness of draft, so that the canoe could negotiate the fiercest of rapids as well as the most still of shallows. Moreover, depending on its size, the birch bark canoe could be easily carried by one or two men, who could thus transport it overland from one river to another—making a portage, the French would say—which meant that travelers did not have to limit their long journeys strictly to the routes and junctions of rivers. Just as Champlain recognized the need for cultural as well as economic exchange, using agents like Brûlé, so he was quick to see the utility of the birch bark canoe. Thanks to him, this Native conveyance became the primary vehicle of French exploration and trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In his canoe, Brûlé traveled as far south as the Chesapeake Bay and saw both Maryland and Virginia, then returned to Carantouan. Early in April 1616, he set out from here to return to the Huron villages, with five or six Carantouannais serving as guides. En route, they were set upon by Seneca in a violent exchange that seems to have tested the limits of the bond between Brûlé and the Carantouannais.
This much is certain. In the melee, Brûlé became separated from his guides. Far less certain is whether or not the separation was an accident. It seems highly likely that Brûlé made a purposeful decision to separate himself from the Carantouannais in the belief that doing so increased his chances of survival.
Perhaps Brûlé was right. Whether due to a stratagem of every man for himself or dumb luck, the Frenchman survived (as did the Carantouannais). Yet he survived only to realize quite suddenly that he was (in the words of Butterfield) “now alone in the interminable woods and greatly bewildered.”
Whatever else the wilderness might do to a man, it could always “bewilder” him. Brûlé was unable to find any trail leading in any direction, neither forward to the Hurons nor back to the Carantouannais. After wandering aimlessly for days, without food and on the verge of despair, he happened upon an Indian footpath. He had no way of knowing whether it led to friends or enemies, but he concluded that any fate was better than dying lost and alone in the wilderness. He therefore followed the trail and, at length, encountered three Indians loaded down with fish. They were Seneca. They were the enemy.
No matter. Brûlé ran after them and “made the depths of the forest ring with a shout, according to the custom of savages, to attract their attention.” If his objective in this was to show that he meant no harm, it worked. The three Seneca laid down their bows and arrows, and Brûlé likewise set down the Indian weapons he carried. He then unfolded his story to them. By way of response, he was offered food and a pipe, and he accompanied the men back to their village.
In forest depths, men were equals, it seemed, and could be friendly. Once Brûlé was in the Seneca village, however, he was swarmed by those curious to see an Adoresetoüy—a “Man of Iron,” as the Seneca called the French, referring not to will or physical strength but to the metal implements the Frenchmen carried with them and offered in trade for beaver and other goods. Brûlé was bombarded with questions: “How did you happen to lose your way? Do you not belong to the Adoresetoüy, who make war on us?”
Brûlé replied that he belonged to a “better nation than the French, which nation was yearning to make their acquaintance and to make them their friends.”
The villagers did not believe him. With good reason, of course. On the face of it, it was a lie. Yet on another level, it was a profound truth. Brûlé had by this time lived for years among the Indians. He had learned their language and their ways. He had fought beside them. He was certainly no Indian, but neither was he any longer simply a Frenchman. He was a citizen of another nation, and perhaps, given the time and place in which he lived, it was indeed a better nation than the French.
This, however, did not occur to the Seneca villagers, who threw themselves upon Brûlé, bound him, tore out his fingernails with their teeth, set glowing firebrands upon his flesh, and, hair by hair, plucked out his beard.
Such torture was ritual, and it was inevitably the prelude to—often the means of—death. Yet everything changed when a Seneca grabbed for the crucifix the Frenchman wore around his neck. Brûlé was by no means a religious man, and he would have gladly traded the ornament for his life, but, writhing as he was, Brûlé nevertheless retained the presence of mind to notice that before the Indian reached for his crucifix, he asked what it was.
“If you take it,” Brûlé gasped out, “and kill me you will yourself immediately die—you and all your kin.”
The threat bought but a moment’s hesitation. That turned out to be just enough.
According to the account Brûlé later gave Champlain, the day had been fair, clear, and sunny when, suddenly, “darkness brooded o’er the scene.” Thick clouds gathered and were instantly accompanied by lurid lightning and fierce thunder “so violent and long-continued that it was something strange and awful.”
Without even taking time to unbind Brûlé, his torturers fled. He did not exult, however, but instead called after them in the gentlest tone he could summon. The Great Spirit was indeed angry for the torment they had caused him, he said, but he would intervene with the Spirit and save them all.
* * *
His tormentors now bound up his wounds, fed him, and nursed him. Before he left the Seneca village, Brûlé swore to them all that he would bring peace between them, the French, and the Hurons as well as their allies.
By the time he returned to the Hurons in 1618, Brûlé had been in the far wilderness almost continuously for eight years. Champlain soon approached him and asked him to return to “the savages.” So, in company with another Frenchman, known only as Grenolle, Brûlé journeyed farther west than any white man had yet ventured. He was in search of two things Champlain badly wanted: copper mines a Montagnais had told him about and the “North Sea,” the ocean that would take him to China. The copper mines turned out to be real, but the North Sea was a freshwater lake of staggering size—Lake Superior—though certainly no ocean.
While Brûlé was swallowed up in the world of the Native, Champlain was swept up in the tide of French history. Armand-Jean du Plesis de Richelieu, cardinal-duc de Richelieu, artfully intrigued against Charles, duc de La Vieuville, chief minister to the feeble King Louis XIII, exposed him as corrupt, and swiftly fell into his place as the king’s principal minister. The king was weak, without will, and that was just the way Richelieu wanted it. He was the archetypal power behind the throne, bent on consolidating and centralizing power in France while simultaneously elevating the country to European dominance at the expense of the Hapsburgs, monarchs of Austria and Spain. Unlike Louis XIII and his father, Henri IV, before him, neither of whom had shown interest in New France except as a source of reward for pliant nobles, Richelieu regarded the New World as the very key to an imperial greatness that would eclipse that of ancient Rome. Accordingly, he supported Champlain in his efforts at building the French colonies, but he also ensured that no man—not even Champlain—would ever again control a monopoly of French trade and colonization. In 1627, he created the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, consisting of one hundred wealthy investors and therefore universally known as the Compagnie des Cent-Associés: the Company of One Hundred Associates. Champlain was appointed the company’s commander in New France, and he prepared to welcome its great fleet of colonization and supply.
Those ships sailed from France in April 1628, over the fretful objections of some of “the hundred,” who pointed out that war with England, which had commenced in 1627, put the fleet at great risk. It was known that King Charles I of England had issued letters of marque, creating a flotilla of privateers—state-sanctioned pirates—dedicated not only to seizing French shipping but also to raiding French colonies.
While Richelieu had voiced support for Champlain, the winter of 1627–28 was nevertheless marked by critically low supplies at Quebec. Come the summer of 1628, English merchants descended on Cap Tourmente on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in what is today the Charlevoix region of Quebec. They looted supplies intended for Champlain and his struggling colony. On July 10, the Kirke brothers, powerful English merchants armed to the teeth, demanded that Champlain surrender Quebec.
The Frenchman had almost nothing. Food was dwindling, and a mere fifty pounds of gunpowder stood between him and utter defenselessness. Should he not now throw himself and his colony on the mercies of the English merchants?
He did nothing of the kind. Instead, Champlain assumed a haughty air and deigned to make no response to the Kirkes’ demand, refusing even to see them. This grand bluff persuaded the merchant brothers that Quebec’s defenses were stout, and instead of storming the settlement, they withdrew.
It was, however, only the slightest of reprieves for New France. The Kirkes and their mercenaries took ship, intending to set up shop farther to the south, but once off the coast they ran into the Compagnie supply fleet, which they handily pirated. Supplies intended to sustain Quebec for a full year were now in English hands. Champlain and his people struggled through the summer and fall and weathered the winter of 1628–29, but spring brought what looked to be the final crisis. Supplies ran so low that Champlain sent some of his colonists to Gaspé to live among the Indians. Fortunately, thanks to “lads” like Brûlé, the Native community did not turn the refugees away.
In the meantime, Champlain sent word to France for help, but the Kirkes intercepted the ship carrying his dispatch, and on July 19, 1629, the brothers, now fully aware of the desperate straits of the French, renewed their demand for surrender. Champlain this time complied and was taken by the Kirkes, along with many of his colonists, back to England. Whereas the colonists were soon packed off from London to France, Champlain remained in the English capital working to regain his colony. He had learned that a peace treaty had been signed between the English and the French in April 1629, fully three months before his surrender. This meant that Quebec and everything else the Kirkes had taken that summer were supposed to be returned; the brothers, however, as well as every English crown official Champlain confronted, demurred, and it took nothing less than an entirely new treaty, that of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, signed on March 29, 1632, to compel England to live up to the original treaty of 1629. Quebec was returned to France, and Champlain returned to Quebec; lest the Kirke brothers be left out in the cold, King Charles I knighted David Kirke in 1633 and four years later presented him with a charter to colonize Newfoundland.
* * *
By the time Samuel de Champlain reclaimed his position as commander in chief of New France in March 1633, Étienne Brûlé, vanguard of the young men Champlain had cast into the wilderness to compound a new civilization out of French and Native culture and blood, was dead.
He had been killed—and not by the Iroquois, the Onondaga or the Seneca, but by his friends, the Hurons. No one knows why his friends turned on him, but Gabriel Sagard, who lived and worked during 1623–36 among the Hurons as a missionary of the Franciscan Recollect Order, wrote in his L’historie du Canada (1636), that, once slain, Brûlé was eaten, “eaten by the Hurons, whom he had so long served as interpreter.… I do not know what offense he committed against them.” John Gilmary Shea, the nineteenth-century Irish American father of American Catholic history who (among many other projects) collected and collated the annals of North America’s Catholic missionaries, upped Sagard’s ante. He did not blandly observe that Brûlé had followed “the customs of the country” when he lived among the Hurons but boldly opined that the Frenchman had “given himself wholly to savage life.” Moreover, this new identity had not only failed to save him, it may have led to his death when “at last he gave offense to his new countrymen, and they not only killed, but ate him.” Shea’s implication is clear. Brûlé had shed his racial and national identity to become himself a “savage”—to make them “his new countrymen”—and for this he reaped a savage reward.
The place of his death and the consumption of his flesh was Toanche, on the southeastern tip of Georgian Bay in what is now Simcoe County, Ontario, at the time well beyond the pale of European settlement, though not out of the reach of missionary-borne religion. Some have guessed that his downfall was related to his capture in 1616 by Seneca after he separated himself from his Huron-allied Carantouannais guides. Others believe that it was the consequence of a later, unchronicled, contact with or capture by Iroquois. In either case, some have speculated that the Hurons failed to believe the story of his escape from death. Who could blame them? Everyone knew that once captured by the Iroquois, no one escaped death. So the Hurons of Toanche believed Brûlé had betrayed them and intended to steal the French trade away from them and give it to the Iroquois.
Alternatively, it may be that Brûlé spent at least some of the years between 1616 and 1632 trying to make good on his pledge to his Seneca captors, that he would make peace among them, the French, the Hurons, and the allies of the Hurons. In that case, blessed though the peacemakers may be, they often suffer cruelly on account of their efforts.
As for Toanche and its people, in 1634, Father Jean de Brébeuf tried to reestablish a mission in this most remote of Indian communities, where he himself had lived from 1626 to 1629. When he arrived, however, he found nothing except “the vestige of his little bark chapel.” All else was desolation, burned to the ground, the people having fled “to a spot some distance away, where they had built a new town—all because they feared some terrible judgment would overtake them if they longer remained where Brûlé was killed.” This, at least, was what Brébeuf believed as he located what he thought was the very spot on which “poor Brûlé” had died.
Perhaps in looking at this spot and pondering the fate of “poor Brûlé,” Brébeuf had some premonition of his own death, which would come at Iroquois hands in 1649 and cause his elevation to sainthood. Who can say? What is certain is that Father Brébeuf saw Brûlé as the victim of a people who needed to be changed—converted—from what they were into what they should be, transformed from heathen into Christian, from savage to civilized. What is also certain is that this was not what Samuel Champlain had intended when he sent “the lad” to live among the Hurons. His intention, his hope, had been to create a middle ground, a place in which both Native and Frenchman would be converted, changed into something entirely new, a new people compounded of two peoples, who would bring by means of beaver fur, copper, cod—by whatever else the New World had to offer—all the profit and more that the Frenchman Cartier and the Spaniards before him had in vain hoped to reap from gold, spice, and a shortcut to China. In this new, hybrid civilization, upon this middle ground, Champlain became the first of a select succession of traders, trappers, and entrepreneurs who labored to redeem America, staking their lives in this struggle, not for the pious sake of religion or the patriotic cause of empire but for wealth and power, sustained, perhaps even everlasting.
Copyright © 2011 by Alan Axelrod
Overture: Mr. Pepys's Hat 1
1 The Middle Ground 23
2 Employees, Martyrs, and Four Hundred Rifles 45
3 Beaver Wars 63
4 Inland Empires 80
5 "This New Man" 94
6 Fires in the Wilderness 109
7 Colonel Washington's Mission 126
8 "Property of the Crown" 146
9 "Set the World on Fire" 164
10 Fort Necessity 179
11 Mercenary War 199
12 "All North America in the Hands of a Single Power" 222
13 White Savages 241
14 Big Knives and Red People 257
15 Anthony and Astor 275