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Founding New Kanienkehaka Communities, 1666

image name: founding_kahnawake.jpg

This is an artistic rendering of Kahnawake on the St. Lawerence River after 1682 when the village was reported to have 60 longhouses.
Illustration copyright Frank Gregory.


Beginning in 1609, the Kanienkehaka waged intermittent warfare against the French and their Native allies, especially the Montagnais, Algonquin, and Wendat. The next fifty years were a period of unprecedented bloody conflicts in which the French supported and encouraged the Kanienkehaka's Native enemies. When the Kanienkehaka defeated the Wendat confederacy in 1649, the French and Kanienkehaka began fighting one another directly.

At various points, the other nations of the Rotinonsionni (Iroquois Confederacy) urged their brethren to join them in peace negotiations with the French, but the Kanienkehaka refused. The Kanienkehaka did not need a French alliance; they already had ready access and close trading ties with first the Dutch, and then the English in the Hudson Valley. Furthermore, the Kanienkehaka harbored a deep distrust of the French, stemming from previous wars and their encounters with Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, both of whom had kidnapped and killed a number of Kanienkehaka.

By 1666, unremitting warfare and epidemics had reduced Kanienkehaka population and weakened their position. The fall of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands to the English rendered Kanienkehaka trade and alliance with European powers uncertain. At the same time, Kanienkehaka suffered considerable losses as the French burned their crops and villages. These conditions forced the Kanienkehaka to join the rest of the Confederacy in making peace with officials in New France.

Peace With New France

Among the most important conditions of the fragile peace was the requirement that the Kanienkehaka permit Jesuit priests to establish Catholic missions in their villages. These missions gave the French and the Catholic faith a foothold in Kanienkehaka communities that would eventually divide many Kanienkehaka people from their Confederacy brothers and sisters. These subtle divisions gradually increased over time as the French used Catholicism as a wedge to sever ties between people within and between Kanienkehaka communities.

In the decades following contact with Europeans, the Kanienkehaka, like many Native groups, experienced great population losses from new epidemic diseases to which they could offer no natural resistance. This was further exacerbated by alcohol abuse after the introduction of rum by the Dutch in trade for furs. The Iroquois compensated for these deaths by taking unprecedented numbers of enemy captives as a part of their traditional mourning wars. In an earlier time, the number of captives subsumed into Kanienkehaka communities was small, and the adoptees were easily assimilated. Now, disease and warfare escalated the scope and frequency of mourning wars. The Kanienkehaka were less able to effectively assimilate their growing numbers of captives into their villages. This task was made still more difficult by the presence of Jesuits, who encouraged adoptees to retain their own identity, an identity which often included devotion to Christianity and a pro-French position. When the Jesuits entered Kanienkeh in 1666, the communities were susceptible to conversion because they were full of captives, who, like the Wendat, had been previously converted to Christianity by the Jesuit missionaries in their home communities. Such converts, integrated into Kanienkehaka families, became the core of Jesuit acceptance in Kanienkeh and contributed to a growing cleavage between pro-English and pro-French members of the Kanienkehaka nation.

Move to the St. Lawrence River Valley

This same scenario unfolded across the Confederacy, causing great tension as converts under Jesuit influence refused to participate in the traditional ceremonies that held Iroquois society together. Throughout the Confederacy, rising hostility toward the Jesuits and their converts eventually contributed to a number of Christians leaving southern Iroquoia. As conflicts intensified, Father Jacques Bruyas, who was working among the Oneida, arranged for Iroquois converts to relocate to La Prairie south of the St. Lawrence River so they could more freely practice their new religion. La Prairie was originally envisioned as a retreat for Jesuit missionaries with French farmers settled nearby. The Jesuits then saw the location as an appealing site for Iroquois converts were they could farm, hunt and trade in furs with Montréal, only six miles distant.

First Settlement

In late fall of 1667, a small group of Oneidas set out with Father Bruyas' assistant, Charles Boquet, arriving in Kentake (at the fields,) or as the French called it, "La Prairie," just south of the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. This region marked the western edge of French settlement for most of the 1600s. King Louis XIV of France "granted" these lands in the Kanienkehaka territory to the Jesuits decades earlier, but no Europeans dared lived there for fear of Kanienkehaka attacks defending the northern edges of their homeland. When Father Pierre Raffeix of Montreal extended an invitation to Native converts to stay on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, his action not only placed them in land claimed by France and thus under at least nominal French influence, but also created a buffer between New France and the rest of the Iroquois Confederacy. In the first year, the new arrivals wintered at Kentake with Father Raffeix and a few French families who would soon settle nearby farms. The mission established there was named Saint Francois Xavier des Pres.

Although the settlement attracted only a handful of converts each year after the initial group had arrived at Father Pierre Raffeix's threshold, those who did come were zealous in their newly adopted faith. Oneidas and some Kanienkehaka from the Mohawk Valley came first, but since many among them were adopted captives, they included individuals originally from Wendat, Erie, Susquehanna, Ottawa, and other locations. The Jesuits noted that over 20 Native groups were represented among the adopted Iroquois who came to Kentake in those early years.

These first Kentake inhabitants were noted for their extreme devotion. Other Natives stopping at the community often decided to remain there with them. By 1670, only three years after the initial settlement, over 20 Native families resided in Kentake. At least 180 people arrived between 1673 and 1674 alone. By this time, the majority of the people in Kentake were Kanienkehaka, and the fact that Kentake's location was within the northern boundaries of its traditional hunting grounds gave Kentake a Kanienkehaka identity. In 1673, it was said that there were more Kanienkehaka warriors living near the St. Lawrence River than in the lower part of their homeland, a fact that caused great concern not just among Kanienkehaka, but to their English allies, as well.

Reasons for the Move North

While Christianity remained an important reason for the migration north, a number of other factors influenced the decision by some Kanienkehaka to settle near the St. Lawrence River. Kanienkehaka oral history says that a major reason for the move north was to assert the northern boundaries of Kanienkeh. As the French moved westward up the St. Lawrence River, they had angered the Kanienkehaka by placing settlements in Kanienkeh at Hochelaga (Montreal) and Ft. Chambly on the Richelieu River in the 1640s. By increasing the Kanienkehaka population in the region, they could better monitor French movements and secure the boundaries of their homeland.

In addition, Kentake's location near the confluence of the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers, made it an important cross-roads for traders and allowed the Kanienkehaka to control the vibrant fur trade on the rivers. This enabled the Kanienkehaka to be successful fur traders in both Montreal and Albany. The village on the St. Lawrence River was also closer to rich northern hunting territories where the furs were thicker and more valuable than those from their villages in the Mohawk Valley. Another important reason many Kanienkehaka went north was to escape the trade in alcohol prevalent in dealings with Dutch and English traders. The alcohol trade led to drunkenness and unprecedented violence in the southern part of their homeland. In addition, a number of people reported moving to Kentake specifically to live in a temperate community. Finally, some people wanted to be closer to family members who were slowly moving away from the Mohawk Valley as English settlement encroached deeper into their territories.

The Community Moves

In a short time, Kentake was no longer an alcohol-free zone. By the mid 1670s French individuals residing in the village began setting up "dramshops" and tempting their Native neighbors to trade in liquor. The Jesuits were also limiting the Kanienkehaka's practice of Catholicism to that of silent followers. In 1676, the Kanienkehaka decided to move west along the St. Lawrence River, away from the French at La Prairie. They explained that the soil had become depleted, but a desire to distance themselves from their French neighbors was the more likely reason. With their removal, the Kanienkehaka had weaker ties to the French, but maintained their connections. Although the French claimed that the people of Kahnawake were subjects of the French king, the Kahnawakerónon remained politically autonomous and asserted their independence throughout their history.

French Jesuits established another mission in the new location, which they called Saint Francois Xavier du Sault," calling its inhabitants "Indians of the Sault." The Kanienkehaka, however, called their community Kahnawake (Caughnawaga) and viewed it first as a Kanienkehaka village, rather than a "mission village."

Splitting Off

As early as 1671, the people then at Kentake, organized the community according to the traditional Iroquois Confederacy governmental system so they could officially participate in the Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy. At that time, the Kanienkehaka and Onondaga selected their chiefs. The Wendat, who were living among the Iroquois as adopted members, yet retaining their identities, also selected a chief to represent their families. When the groups began this process again in 1676, some, mostly Huron and Algonkian at Kentake, decided to separate themselves from the community, so they left to establish a village on the island of Montreal.

image name: new_france.jpg

This map shows the basic locations of Kanienkehaka villages on the St. Lawrence around 1690.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. All Rights Reserved.

The Sulpicians soon erected a mission at Mount Royal near this new Iroquois village, which became known as La Montagne. The French came to call this group "Iroquois of the Mountain." La Montagne remained a small village, and the people were closely tied to the Sulpician priests. Unlike the Jesuits, the Sulpicians worked in accord with the French governmental policy of Native assimilation to a French lifestyle. Unlike most of their cohorts in Kahnawake, Native families at La Montagne lived in French-style log houses, learned animal husbandry, grew European crops and adopted French dress. They had close economic links to nearby Montreal making canoes, snowshoes and moccasins for the French, and marketing the wheat they grew.

Within 10 years, the Jesuit priest Father Belmont changed his position on the benefits of converts living near lay Frenchmen's corrupting influence. He also wanted his followers to distance themselves from harassment and enticements from Kahnawake peoples, to return to the community. In 1689, Belmont obtained more distant lands on the north side of Montreal Island at Sault-au-Récollet; over the next decade many Native families moved from La Montagne to Sault-au-Récollet at the Sulpicians' behest. At first, the Sulpicians lured the people to move from La Montagne with the promise of better lands away from French influence. In reality, the Sulpicians planned to profit from the cleared land at La Montagne by selling it to French colonists. The move from Sault au Récollet was supposed to be the last with Native title “recognized” and “protected” by French encroachments.


Despite the efforts of the Jesuits to get converts to adopt a Christian patriarchy, the people of Kahnawake remained society where women retained their influence in the longhouses as heads of extended family households. Well into the eighteenth century, the people preserved many of their traditional ways of life, including extended family longhouses, and a gendered division of labor where the women worked the fields. They also maintained their ties to their kin in the southern part of their homeland.

Kahnawake emerged as an important diplomatic center. The village became the "capital" of the alliance of Native villages on the St. Lawrence River that came to be known as the Seven Council's Fire. The Kanienkehaka of Kahnakake, along with the peoples of La Montagne and Sault-au-Récollet, successfully balanced their position as allies of the French, while successfully maintaining their own autonomy. They thus played a crucial role in negotiations with their kinsmen in the Iroquois Confederacy.

By 1682 Kahnawake flourished with 60 longhouses with up to 150 families. Kahnawake continued to grow; in keeping with traditional Kanienkehaka practices, the community moved a short distance up the St. Lawrence River two more times until, in 1716, it reached its present-day location.

image name: Kahnawake.jpg

This image was rendered in the mid-1700s and is the earliest known picture of Kahnawake.
Courtesy Cliche Bibliotheque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes, Paris.

Although Kahnawake had taken on a Kanienkehaka identity, there also was much diversity within the community. Some members were zealously Christian, while others were indifferent to the new faith and followed traditional Kanienkehaka spirituality. Some kept close ties and alliances with their brethren in southern Iroquoia, while other individuals helped the French against their kinsmen in the Confederacy. There were varying degrees of assimilation of French or English lifeways and culture; some rejected this altogether. In all, Kahnawake forged a political role and identity distinct from its French, English and even Iroquoian counterparts.


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