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Ethnohistory 51.4 (2004) 725-750

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From the Mohawk-Mahican War to the Beaver Wars:

Questioning the Pattern

State University of New York, College at Oneonta
Western Michigan University

The Beaver Wars of the seventeenth century have long been viewed as part of a pattern of economic warfare waged by the Iroquois to wrest control of the fur trade from the Hurons, the northern Algonquians, and their French allies.1 After years of discussion and debate, the conventional view was that the Iroquois fought to acquire furs not only for material profit and to keep themselves supplied with the European goods on which they had become dependent but also because they lacked their own furs, a sufficient supply of furs, or the right kind of furs to continue the trade. Moreover, it was the Iroquois who determined how and with whom the trade was conducted. Recent scholarship has cast doubt on this view of events and at the same time expanded these motives to include important cultural factors such as the need of the Indians to replace people lost to warfare and disease.2

In spite of the shift in thinking about Iroquois warfare, there has not been a reexamination of what is still considered by historians to be the first and defining example of a conflict fought in direct response to the European-introduced fur trade—the Mohawk–Mahican war of the mid-1620s.3 Viewed by many as the precursor event to the Beaver Wars or, indeed, as their starting point, the Mohawks are said to have attacked the Mahicans to force open a desperately needed corridor to the Dutch trading post at Fort Orange; to obtain the trade goods on which they had become dependent; to control and restrict, when necessary, the access of surrounding Indians to the trade at Fort Orange; and to put themselves in the best possible position to pirate furs that other Indians carried to the French on the St. Lawrence River.4 However, claims that the diplomatic, military, and, [End Page 725] hence, economic strategies employed by the Mohawks in this war presaged or established the pattern for Iroquois involvement in the Beaver Wars cannot be sustained. Instead, the actions of the Mohawks were but a continuation of the enmity that characterized Indian relationships throughout the St. Lawrence and the lower Great Lakes region, and they were only loosely tied to any of the economic concerns of the fur trade.5

By about 1580, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians had been driven from their villages by the Hurons, the Mohawks, and perhaps other Iroquois groups.6 Their remaining populations were absorbed by the Huron-Petuns, the eastern Iroquois, the Abenakis, and possibly the Ottawa River Algonquians.7 Also about this time, noticeable quantities of European goods entered the St. Lawrence Valley and began to appear among the eastern Iroquois.8

The valley above Tadoussac, formerly the home of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, remained essentially devoid of permanently residing Indians into the seventeenth century, although it was not devoid of conflict. Indian warfare in the valley was part of a historical pattern, the origins and duration of which are lost in time, and it did not end with the defeat of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Hostilities continued, pitting the Iroquois against the Hurons, Ottawa Valley Algonquins, and the Montagnais. Algonquian fishing parties visiting this stretch of the river did not stay long, subject as they were to attacks by the Iroquois warriors who appear to have controlled the area.9 By 1603 and Samuel de Champlain's arrival, the Iroquois made any attempt by native groups to pass through the St. Lawrence region a risky endeavor. What is more, they claimed the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, and Lake Ontario as their own.10

The reasons for Iroquois dominance in the upper St. Lawrence at this time are uncertain. It may be that these Indians, primarily Mohawks, simply filled the void left by the now-scattered St. Lawrence Iroquoians, gaining access...


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pp. 725-750
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Archived 2004
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