Native Diaspora and New Communities - By Kevin Sweeney


For Natives living in the region, the Northeast became a difficult new world during the 1600s as epidemics, missionaries, trade goods, and wars often divided and dispersed their communities. To survive in a world being transformed, Native peoples moved and started new communities such as Kahnawake, La Montagne, Lorette, Odanak, Sault-au-Récollet, Schaghticoke, and Pequawket at locations that were often already familiar to them. For some of these people adopting Christianity became a part of their new communities and their survival strategies.

Saint Lawrence Iroquoians

Among the first Native peoples to be affected by the arrival of Europeans were the inhabitants of the Saint Lawrence River valley. Knowledge of these people, who are today called the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, remains sketchy. In the 1530s they greeted the French explorer Jacques Cartier. Relations that were peaceful at first deteriorated as depredations and disease led to assaults and abductions. When the French returned in the early 1600s, a population that may have numbered about 14,000 had fallen to 4000, and Native villages at Stadacona (Quebec) and Hochelaga (Montreal) had been abandoned. The cause or causes of this dramatic change is unclear, but it may have resulted from the introduction of European diseases, the gradual cooling of the climate which made the cultivation of maize increasingly difficult in the region, and warfare possibly fueled by struggles for access to European trade goods. The Wôbanakiak, the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) and the Wendats (Huron) all believe that migrants from the Saint Lawrence valley settled in their communities, and they therefore view the establishment of villages at Odanak, Kahnawake, and Lorette in the later 1600s as a return to ancestral lands.

The Wendats

The Wendats, located originally in what is today southwestern Ontario, underwent an equally profound and better documented transformation in the first half of the seventeenth century. In 1600 approximately 25,000 Wendats lived in a series of agricultural villages that formed a powerful confederacy, rivaling that of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy to whom they were closely related by language and culture. During the 1640s this traditional rivalry turned into a deadly and destructive war as losses from disease and competition for control of the fur trade led to an Iroquois invasion of the Wendat homeland. At this critical juncture, the spread of European diseases and missionary activity by Jesuits weakened and divided the Wendats, some of whom embraced the Catholic faith while others opposed it and blamed French priests for the spread of deadly diseases. By 1650, the so-called Beaver Wars had destroyed the Wendat Confederacy. Some survivors were incorporated into Iroquois communities. Others fled west where they became known as the Wyandots, or moved east to settle near French communities.

image name: huron_couple.jpg

Wendat (Huron) woman and man wearing clothing of both traditional and European materials: European blankets, hat, and cloth for the skirt and shirt; Wendat jewelry and skin leggings and moccasins. 18th-century watercolor by an unknown artist.
Courtesy of City of Montreal Records Management and Archives.

One group of about 300 Wendats settled near Quebec in an effort to obtain protection from the Iroquois. The French, however, were barely able to defend themselves, and these Wendat refugees continued to suffer until the French and the Iroquois made peace in the late 1660s. With the arrival of peace the remaining Wendats eventually established a new village near Quebec at Lorette. Here approximately 150 survivors created a new life for themselves by maintaining traditional subsistence patterns that combined growing maize with hunting. They traded with the French, and many worshipped at the village's Catholic mission while simultaneously preserving their traditional beliefs.

The wars of the Iroquois to obtain people and plunder did not end with the destruction of the Wendat Confederacy, but continued into the 1650s and 1660s. While still fighting the French and the Wendats, members of the Iroquois League also fought their Native neighbors to their west, south, and east. Among the latter were Wôbanakiak living in what is today New England. Losses resulting from these conflicts profoundly affected the Iroquois as they struggled to replace those who died from combat and disease by incorporating captives into their villages. One observer claimed that by 1670, two-thirds of the Kanienkehaka were adoptees, some of them Catholic converts who brought with them new and divisive beliefs.

The Kanienkehaka

In the late 1660s, some Natives living in these Iroquois villages began moving north to settle near what had once been Hochelaga, now French Montreal. This movement was encouraged by French missionaries who sought to maintain the Catholic faith of the Natives. Some of these "Iroquois" were in fact Wendats, who had been captured and adopted. Those who headed north also sought to reclaim the northern parts of their homeland on the St. Lawrence river and to escape the wars, internal divisions and alcohol that made life difficult in Iroqouoia. After settling first at La Prairie, these refugees established a community just south of Montreal that was known as Kahnawake. In 1704 the village had 800 to 1000 residents which made it almost as large as Montreal.

Though Kahnawake's residents had come from different nations of the Iroquois League and included people who were not Iroquois by birth, Kanienkeha became the dominant language and the people saw themselves as Kanienkehaka. They also proudly identified themselves as the ongwe honwe tehatiisontha (real men who make the Sign of the Cross) and most were a "kind of half Roman Catholics." As at other Native villages, traditional beliefs persisted along side of the teachings they learned from Jesuit missionaries. The community remained in contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, using this connection to offset French influence and conduct a clandestine trade with Dutch and English merchants in Albany.

Iroquois of the Mountain

Not all of the Native people who traveled north from Iroquoia found the Kanienkehaka community at Kahnawke to their liking. In the 1670s, some of these people, including Christian Wendats living with Kanienkehaka, crossed over to the Island of Montreal and settled near Mount Royal. The French named this Native village La Montagne. In addition to Christian Wendats and those who were Iroquois by birth, the village of La Montagne and its mission, which was maintained by Sulpician priests, attracted a diverse collection of Algonkian peoples including Native refugees from New England such as Sokwakiak and possibly Pocumtucks. Over time, an Iroquoian, especially a Kanienkehaka, identity took hold, and the French called these people the Iroquois of the Mountain, even though the community remained ethnically diverse during the late 1600s and early 1700s. By 1704 there were a total of about 400 Natives living at La Montagne and a related village at Sault-au-Récollet.

Native Refugees from New England

Natives from New England who settled with the refugees from Kahnawake at La Montagne and Sault-au-Récollet represented only a fraction of those who fled southern New England during the 1600s as the region's Native population dropped from about 100,000 to approximately 7000. The arrival of European diseases, commerce, religion, and people profoundly transformed the homelands of the Algonkian-speaking peoples who lived in what is today southern and northern New England. Even before the first English settlers arrived in the region, disease had decimated Native populations along the coasts of what are today Maine and Massachusetts. Competition to form alliances with Europeans to obtain protection and trade goods led to conflict, not only with colonists, but with the members of the Iroquois League. The arrival of thousands of English colonists and their farm animals created an insatiable demand for land that pushed Native people out of their homelands. Natives attempted to preserve their ways of life by adapting aspects of English culture, resisting—sometimes violently—the newcomers, or moving to join with other Native peoples to form new communities.

Some Native people in southern New England moved north to settle with Wôbanakiak who lived in what is today Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. New settlements appeared in the interior of Maine, and older settlements like Cowass and Mississquoi in Vermont became places of refuge. In the 1660s the Sokwakiak, a Wôbanaki people living in the Connecticut Valley, moved north to Canada and established a village that is today known as Odanak. In the aftermath of Metacom's War (King Philip's War), more Native peoples sought refuge with the Wôbanakiak in Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Others settled in Schaghticoke, a new community established on the east bank of the Hudson River. Pocumtucks who had lived for generations on the site of the new English village of Deerfield moved to both Odanak and Schaghiticoke. This movement of peoples created new connections among Natives in the Northeast.


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"Plan du village des Abénakis levé en l'année 1704" (Plan of the Abenakis' village, drawn in 1704) by Levasseur de Néré. The plan shows the village at Odanak, surrounded by a fort or palisade and including Native dwellings, a Jesuit mission, and the home of Joseph Hertel de Saint Francois, the brother of the man who led the raid on Deerfield.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

By 1704 Odanak was a village with about 300 to 400 residents. Its inhabitants came from approximately twenty different Native communities, most located in New England, and a significant number of them preserved ties with their homelands. Wôbanakiak became the dominant language. In 1701, Jesuits moved their mission church, Saint-François-de-Sales, from its location on the Chaudière River to Odanak. With the outbreak of fighting in the Northeast in the summer of 1703 the population of the village grew with the arrival of more refugees who lived just beyond the frontiers of New England.

The Pennacooks

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Wôbanaki woman and man wearing clothing of both traditional and European materials: the woman's blouse and the hoods are made of cloth, while the leggings and moccasins are made of skins. 18th-century watercolor by an unknown artist.
Courtesy of City of Montreal Records Management and Archives.

Among the people who struggled to continue living in their traditional homeland were the Pennacooks, a Wôbanaki people who lived in a series of villages that stretched from Pequawket (near what is today Fryeberg, Maine) to Cowass (near what is today Newbury, Vermont). It was difficult for the Pennacooks to maintain peaceful relations with the English because of English encroachments on their lands, their war with members of the Iroquois League who were allies of the English, and their own alliances with the Sokokis and the Wôbanakiak of Maine who were fighting the English. To preserve a position of independence they made treaties with the English, sometimes fought beside their Native allies against the English, and occasionally withdrew from the fray by seeking refuge at Cowass and Schaghticoke or with allies and kin who lived at Odanak. This balancing act became impossible when the War of the Spanish Succession reignited fighting between France and England and between the Wôbanakiak and New England colonists.

Further Reading

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