Louis XIV sought to humble the pride of the Iroquois in 1687, but instead set the stage for 76 years of bitter war and the ultimate loss of New France.
In 1687 the new governor general of France’s Canadian colony, Jacques-René de Brisay, marquis of what would one day be New York state. Leading a French army of three thousand men, de Denonville, invaded the quiet hills he defeated the Senecas in one battle, burned four Indian towns and all the food in them, and leveled whatever crops were in the fields. He then led his army back across Lake Ontario before the Senecas, reinforced by warriors from the rest of the Iroquois Confederacy, could retaliate.
An Iroquois who was a Christian convert had told Denonville before his departure that if he overset a wasps’ nest, he must crush the wasps or they would sting him. Denonville left the wasps alive, and they lived to sting him and the French who followed him to New France. For the next seventysix years, French militia and regulars clashed with Iroquois warriors beneath the canopy of trees that covered New York.
What was at stake was the future of North America. Although the fighting was nominally about beaver fur, it was in fact about whether the French or the English would come to dominate the continent and shape the government that would take form there.
The French had been in what is now Canada since 1534, when Breton sea captain Jacques Cartier discovered the St. Lawrence River. They settled along that great waterway. New France was an agricultural colony, as King Louis XIV wanted, spread between and around the large settlements at Québec and Montréal. In the seventeenth century, however, lured by the clamor for beaver and the wealth it promised, New France began to expand to the west. The architect of this expansion was Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac, governor general of the colony. (A triumvirate led New France, each appointed by the king: the governor, the bishop, and the intendant, who was responsible for finance, economic development, and the administration of justice.) Frontenac changed the direction of New France—without royal approval—steering it from settlement and agriculture to fur gathering.
The English, however, also had designs on the same rich western lands and the wealth of beaver they contained. The two European antagonists would be in competition on the American frontier.
As a step toward this western expansion, in 1673 Frontenac built Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario at the site of modern Kingston, Ontario. The Iroquois considered this area their hunting grounds. At the time Fort Frontenac was built, however, the Iroquois were involved in a war with the Andastes (a branch of the Susquehannocks living along the Allegheny River) and the Mohicans, and in keeping with a traditional Seneca policy of fighting only one enemy at a time, they did nothing about Frontenac’s incursion. From the earliest, relations between the French and Iroquois had been strained because of French friendliness toward traditional Iroquois enemies, and the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy tended to deal with the Dutch and the English in the Hudson River valley rather than the French in Québec.
Those five nations—the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Cayuga—had voluntarily formed a cooperative league in which each Indian tribe maintained its integrity but joined with the others in mutual defense. A common council governed the league with a set number of tribal delegates, and the nations celebrated in common ceremonies. There was no head of the league, and they reached major decisions by unanimity. Modern historians place the forming of the league roughly in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but Iroquois tradition has it as much older than that— possibly as old as the eleventh century. The five nations stretched east to west across New York, an area over which the English claimed jurisdiction, with the Seneca to the west (Keepers of the Western Door) and the Mohawk on the eastern flank (Keepers of the Eastern Door).
Abetted by Frontenac, French fur traders—voyageurs—ignored royal edicts against trading outside the colony of New France and continued to push farther west, making Fort Michilimackinac at the juncture of Lakes Michigan and Huron their main base. From there they pushed into the interior, forging trading alliances with western tribes such as the Sioux and building cabins and trading posts near Indian villages until the area between the Ohio River and Hudson Bay became dotted with such settlements, forming a French empire in the Americas.
It was a curious and unique form of empire, however. The French did not claim or occupy this land. They simply mined it for the furs it produced. The Indians were the important links, the laborers who pulled the wealth from the woods. For their part, the Indian tribes who participated received French trade goods and eventually became dependent on those goods just as the Iroquois and other eastern tribes had come to need English trade goods.
In 1679 the Iroquois war with the Andastes and the Mohicans ended, freeing them to pursue other aims. First they turned their attention to the Illinois and Miamis, tribes that had taken advantage of the war to occupy what the Iroquois considered their hunting grounds in the Ohio Valley. Since the French had established trading posts in the Illinois country, they in effect put the Illinois and Miamis under French protection. When early Iroquois raids in the West went unpunished, the emboldened Iroquois continued aggressively attacking and pillaging trading parties.
Governor General Frontenac was aware of the increasing Iroquois threat but did nothing to defend the colonies or deter the Iroquois. Eventually, the French government recalled him; not, however, because of his dealings with the Indians, which he had covered over in his reports home, but for his poor handling of administrative affairs. In 1682 his replacement, LeFebvre de LaBarre, arrived in Québec. For the first time LaBarre involved the French military in the West, sending French regulars to garrison posts.
Additionally, in the spring of 1684, when the Iroquois attacked Fort St. Louis in the Illinois country, LaBarre took an assortment of eleven hundred militiamen, regulars, and Indians to Fort Frontenac, preparing to invade Iroquois territory. The deeper he went into enemy-controlled country, however, the more difficult the task appeared to him. His courage ebbed when he and his men were stricken with an epidemic of influenza. When the Iroquois offered to negotiate a treaty of peace, he immediately accepted.
The resulting treaty favored the Iroquois, allowing the French expedition to return safely to Montréal, but leaving the Iroquois free to attack the western Indians. The French and LaBarre had abandoned their Indian allies. Louis XIV declared the treaty ignominious and recalled LaBarre to France. “[LaBarre’s] abandonment of the Illinois in this manner has deeply displeased his majesty,” Louis XIV wrote in “Instructions of the King to Denonville,” referring to himself in the royal third person.
The marquis de Denonville replaced LaBarre in 1685. The marquis had been born on December 10, 1637, the oldest son of a military family that traced its lineage to Torquatus Byrsarius, who had fought with Charles the Bald in 852 against Vikings and Bretons. Blood connected his family with the counts of Anjou and the Plantagenet kings of England. Denonville had taken part in France’s campaign against the Algerian pirates in 1664 and had served in Holland, making a name for himself as a brave and capable soldier. A member of the Queen’s Dragoons, he was promoted to a brigadier in 1683.
Denonville’s orders from Louis XIV called for the “reestablishment of the tranquility of the colony by means of a firm and lasting peace, but in order that this peace may be lasting, [Denonville] must humble the pride of the Iroquois…and begin by a firm and vigorous conduct to teach the said Iroquois that they will have everything to fear for themselves if they do not submit to the conditions which he may wish to impose on them.” Denonville was also warned that the English were giving aid to the Iroquois and trying to extend their power north to the St. Lawrence.
Denonville, who was to become known as one of the best governor generals of New France, departed his homeland in June. Among other sailing companions was Bishop Jean Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrière de Saint-Vallier, who thought highly of the new governor general. “He spent nearly all his time in prayer and reading good books,” the bishop wrote. “In all the voyage, I never saw him do anything wrong, and there was nothing in words or acts which did not show a solid virtue and a consummate prudence.”
On August 1, 1685, Denonville arrived in Québec with his pregnant wife, the former Catherine Courtin, and his two daughters, ages fourteen and three. His troops arrived about a month later, although 150 of the five hundred who left France had died on the journey, largely from scurvy. Within weeks Denonville had traveled to Fort Frontenac and returned to Québec, upset with what he had seen of the colony’s defenses.
Before confronting that problem, however, Denonville turned his attention to difficulties within the colony. He regulated taverns, instituted punishments for public drunkenness (mainly the stocks), and tried to check the sale of liquor to the Indians. He established a school of navigation at Québec for the colony’s young men, had new charts of the St. Lawrence drawn, and petitioned Paris to keep more indigent French nobles from coming to the colony.
Nevertheless, bad as he believed the colony’s social problems were, he still considered the external situation far more serious. Denonville was concerned that the French settlements, scattered for two or three hundred miles along the St. Lawrence, were nearly defenseless because of the isolation of the farms and villages. “If we have a war,” he said, “nothing can save the country but a miracle of God.”
Denonville realized that it wasn’t only the Iroquois threatening the colony. English traders were also infringing on trade with the western Indians, from bases to the north on Hudson Bay and from Albany to the south. At the same time, these English traders threatened French efforts to expand their fur trade to the west. Some of the western Hurons seemed to be edging away from the French toward the English. As Denonville wrote, “They like the manners of the French, but they like the cheap goods of the English better.” He also realized there was little chance of the Iroquois abiding by the terms of the treaty they had made with LaBarre. Denonville needed to take action.
In the winter of 1686, he sent Pierre de Troyes, chevalier de Troyes, north with eighty Canadians to attack the three English forts at the tip of Hudson Bay: Forts Albany, Hayes, and Rupert. The French captured all three lightly manned forts as well as a vessel anchored near Fort Rupert. They sent their captives to England, but the exploit led to the signing of a treaty of neutrality between France and England.
Denonville then turned to face the Iroquois—prepared to follow his instructions from the king, to humble the pride of the Iroquois. Nervous about Denonville’s intentions and fearful of impending hostilities, the Iroquois went to Colonel Thomas Dongan, English governor of the New York colony, for help. Dongan supplied them with lead and gunpowder, but he said he dared not supply them with soldiers. The Iroquois in turn agreed to recognize King James as their sovereign.
Meanwhile, Dongan had sent an expedition to Michilimackinac to trade with the Ottawas, the largest tribe among France’s trading partners. When the French in Québec found out about this expedition, they were enraged; they realized they could not allow the defection of this ally to the English. Denonville also learned that Dongan planned to send another such expedition the next year.
Denonville was aware that he did not have enough troops to take on the Iroquois Confederacy, but he thought a crushing blow dealt against them might protect the Illinois from destruction and firm up the wavering allegiances of the Indian tribes. He believed his best military option would be to attack both flanks of the Confederacy, forcing the Indians toward the center and making them stand and fight. Because of his limited number of troops, however, he decided he could attack only one flank. He chose the western flank, the Senecas, the strongest and most aggressive of the five nations.
Denonville tried to prepare for the expedition in secret at Fort Frontenac. He feared that if word of his intentions reached the Iroquois, they would ambush his troops before they ever arrived in New York—possibly at the St. Lawrence rapids. Word of the preparations did, however, reach Governor Dongan, who wrote warning Denonville that the Iroquois were English subjects and any attack on them would be a breach of the peace then existing between the two nations. Denonville responded politically—and evasively—saying that the French had been in possession of the New York lands long before there were any English in the region. He reminded Dongan that their two countries were at peace.
Denonville sent word west for Henri de Tonty, French commander in Illinois at Fort St. Louis, and Oliver Morel de la Durantaye, commander at Fort Michilimackinac, to raise as many coureurs de bois (or voyageurs) and Indians as possible and meet him in July 1687. On June 13, Denonville’s main force with 832 regulars, nine hundred militiamen, and some four hundred Indians left Montréal, traveling up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario and Fort Frontenac. A few days earlier, ships had arrived from France bearing eight hundred more regulars, but it was too late to include them. Their commander, Philippe de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil, did join the expedition, however.
“Our troops were arranged for the march as follows,” Denonville wrote. “Eight platoons of 200 men each were under the command of the eight best officers….Six bateaux formed a company, each bateaux carrying eight men. Each commandant of 200 men had charge of 24 bateaux, which were arranged and numbered up to 24 and carried in the first the flag by which the 24 bateaux were distinguished.” Shortly after leaving Montréal, the force met up with Athasata, a Christian Mohawk chief known as Kryn to the Dutch, who joined the expedition with about two hundred warriors even though the Mohawks were one of the five nations of the Iroquois.
On June 16, the small fleet reached the St. Lawrence rapids, and over the next few days the troops had to portage their supplies and tow the boats. “We found our Indians of great service on this occasion,” Denonville wrote. Once they had passed the rapids, it was smooth going into the lake and then to Fort Frontenac, and Denonville was satisfied with the progress they had made through the most difficult part of the river: “We had but three bateaux carried down by the current, which were safely brought to land, having escaped with only a few pails of water in them, some biscuit wet, and guns lost. It cost the life of a poor soldier, who being less expert than the rest, was drowned after surmounting all these rapids.”
Meanwhile, the newly installed intendant of New France, Jean Bouchart de Champigny, had captured and imprisoned those Iroquois living in the neighborhood of Fort Frontenac. It is possible that Denonville, still concerned about word leaking out of his expedition, had urged Champigny to control the natives. Denonville also was acting under instructions from Paris to capture Iroquois and send them back to France for service as galley slaves. He may have feared it would be too difficult to take prisoners later in the campaign and decided to stockpile while he could. The Indians residing close to the fort, however, in the neutral villages of Kente and Ganneious on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, supplied fish and game to the fort. Certainly they were not the Iroquois against whom the expedition had been launched.
Champigny, who arrived at Fort Frontenac ahead of Denonville, invited the neighboring Indians to a feast. About thirty men and ninety women came and were immediately captured. Since these all were from Kente, Champigny immediately sent a party to Ganneious, where another eighteen warriors and sixty-nine women and children were taken prisoner.
At this point, Champigny became concerned about a Jesuit missionary, Father Jacques de Lamberville, then serving among the Onondaga nation of the Iroquois. He feared the Iroquois, when they found out about the Iroquois around Fort Frontenac being taken captive (or about the raid against the Senecas), would retaliate against the priest. Champigny’s fear was resolved, however, when he saw Lamberville paddling a canoe toward the army. Onondaga chiefs had arranged for Lamberville’s escape, satisfied he was unaware of Champigny’s (or Denonville’s) deception, which apparently already wasn’t as secret as the French hoped. The chiefs feared their young men would kill the French cleric when they heard about the captives.
Denonville’s modest flotilla arrived at Fort Frontenac on June 29, 1687, where it was joined by three barks that had been ferrying supplies and collecting all the French beaver trappers and whatever Indians could be persuaded to join them. When the force arrived at the fort, wrote Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, baron de la Hontan, a French noble traveling with Denonville, they found a row of posts set inside the main gate. At each post one of the Iroquois captives was tied by the neck, hands, and feet “in such a way that he could neither sleep nor drive off the mosquitoes.” According to Hontan, a number of Indians, all of whom were Christian converts from the mission villages, were amusing themselves by burning the fingers of the captives in the bowls of their pipes, while the tied Indians were singing their death songs. Many of these prisoners died at the fort. The remainder were baptized, and the men were sent to Québec, where some were released to their relatives and some were sent on to France and the galleys. The women and children were distributed among the mission villages in the colony.
The day after Denonville’s arrival at Fort Frontenac, his troops intercepted two parties of Albany traders en route west. Denonville sent the Englishmen to Montréal, where they were jailed, and executed the Canadians who had guided them.
On July 4, 1687, the marquis de Denonville left Fort Frontenac with some seventeen hundred men in four hundred bateaux, designed to carry eight men each, and in canoes. They mounted cannons in each of two large bateaux. Both also carried some long guns, and twenty men staffed each of these bateaux, to cover the landing once they arrived in New York. The force crossed the east end of the lake, following the shore and moving west along the south shore until they reached Irondequoit Bay, at the current site of Rochester, New York, on July 10. At the time Denonville’s force reached the bay, the western reinforcements were just coming into sight, a coincidence the Indians took as a good omen. The combined force of about three thousand was the largest army up to that time launched against the continent’s indigenous tribes.
The army cut down trees and erected a fort they named for Denonville—with palisades, fascines, and pickets—to guard the three barks and other boats while the main force marched inland. While constructing the fort, they captured woodsman La Fontaine Marion. Having been refused a trading license by the French, Marion had instead served as a guide, leading English traders into French territory. Denonville pronounced a death sentence on Marion, and the man was led to the water’s edge, where he was dispatched with a war club. The story of Marion’s demise is recorded in Hontan’s journal as “inexcusable, for we were at peace with the English.”
That night some Seneca braves approached within shouting distance of the camp. They demanded to know what the army wanted. The two sides traded insults, as well as a few ineffectual musket shots, before the Senecas disappeared. At 3 p.m. the next day, July 13, the army started inland, leaving four hundred men to guard the fort and boats. The Christian Mohawks under Kryn formed an advance guard, followed by companies of about two hundred Canadian militia, dressed in the varied clothes of voyageurs, followed by a company of two hundred French regulars in green uniforms, some in light armor. The army proceeded with alternating companies of militia and regulars, an arrangement intended to take advantage of the regulars’ discipline and the militia’s knowledge of the land. The rest of the Indians brought up the rear.
They marched three leagues that day and camped. In the morning the heat was intense, but the army again headed south and passed safely through two defiles before entering a third with dense forests on both sides.
Despite Denonville’s attempts to keep the expedition secret, word had reached the sizable Seneca town of Ganondagan, capital of the Seneca Nation, weeks before, and the Senecas had debated how to receive the invasion—either with an ambush as the French marched south, a favorite Indian tactic, or by gathering behind the fortifications of the Ganondagan granary about one mile from the village. More experienced Seneca warriors believed the latter course would be a fight to the last man and one they would probably lose. With that in mind, they decided to ambush the French.
There is a tradition among the Seneca that Denonville attacked while many of the Seneca warriors were away in the west. Some even claim the attack was a Seneca victory. It seems clear, however, that far fewer than the twelve hundred warriors Denonville expected met his advance on July 13. The Senacas were probably at a strength of about eight hundred, according to French sources. Most were young men, but some were old and a few were women. (The Iroquois put the number at four hundred to four hundred fifty warriors.)
Meanwhile, Seneca runners went to notify absent warriors of the attack, and others sought help from other tribes of the five nations. Fearful of the strength of the combined five nations, which both the French and the English consistently overestimated, Denonville was pushing his army to complete its mission and leave the area before the nations could be mustered against him.
Preparing their ambush, the Seneca deployed their forces in a ravine near current New York State Route 96, about 11⁄4 miles from the Seneca village of Ganondagan and west of the current village of Victor, New York. They placed about five hundred warriors on one side of the ravine and three hundred on the other. The plan was for the smaller group to fire on the French as they descended into the ravine, forcing the remainder of the French to hasten forward to offer aid. The larger group of warriors would then attack from behind, trapping the entire French force.
About 3 o’clock that hot July day, Kryn’s Mohawks were following a path through the narrow defile toward a swamp when, as they made their way through a heavy thicket, Iroquois fired a ragged volley of shots from their right. The shots came from too great a distance to do any harm, but then, with war cries, the Senecas charged. The Mohawks stood their ground and returned fire while confusion swept through the rest of the army. The French fired wildly, reportedly hitting some of their allies, and the Ottawas fled toward the rear, only to run into the second body of Senecas that had been hidden to close the trap.
The Senecas had made a fatal mistake. They supposed Denonville’s large vanguard was the whole army, unaware he was close behind with sixteen hundred additional men. The French ranks in the defile broke. However, Denonville, in his shirtsleeves because of the heat, was able to halt the retreat. With drums rolling, he led his men into another ravine to encircle the Seneca attackers. Before the maneuver was completed, however, the Senecas—discovering not all the French were in the trap—fled, carrying away as many of their dead and wounded as possible. They fled east to Cayuga Lake (one of New York’s Finger Lakes) to regroup and await Iroquois reinforcements.
Denonville recorded that only five French militiamen, one soldier, and five Indian allies were killed. Senecas had wounded another dozen in the melee, including Jesuit Father Engelran. Prisoners who escaped from the Senecas reported about forty Senecas had been killed and another fifty wounded, Denonville wrote. Hontan, however, put French casualties at ten Indians and one hundred Frenchmen, with another twenty or twenty-two wounded.
Ignoring the urging of his Indian allies, Denonville did not pursue the Senecas. “Our troops,” he wrote, “were all so overcome by the extreme heat and the long march that we were forced to remain where we were till morning. We had the pain of witnessing the usual cruelties of the Indians [Denonville’s allies], who cut the dead bodies into quarters, like butcher’s meat, to put into their kettles, and opened most of them while still warm to drink the blood.”
The next day, July 14, Denonville and his army marched to Ganondagan. In his Histoire du Canada, Abbé François Vachon de Belmont, who was with the expedition, described the town as “the famous Babylon of the Senecas, where so many crimes have been committed, so much blood spilled, and so many men burned. It was a village or town of bark on the top of a hill…we found nothing in it but the graveyard [and] a great mask with teeth and eyes of brass with a bearskin drawn over it.”
The Senecas had burned the town, except for its stores of food, before they abandoned it eight days earlier. Denonville’s Indian allies remained anxious to pursue the Senecas, but Denonville, still fearful of the Senecas returning with reinforcements, ordered no pursuit. Instead he put his troops to work destroying the corn stored at the village and cutting down the crops in the fields around it.
According to Hontan, the Indians thought such behavior cowardly and a waste of time because the Iroquois could rebuild the bark village within days and the rest of the Iroquois League would keep the Senecas from starving. Some French soldiers reportedly dug up and looted Seneca graves in the area.
On the morning of July 15, Denonville’s army marched on the picketed granary a mile from the town but found it also abandoned. It was situated on a flat-topped hill of about forty acres. They burned the granary and its supplies. The allied Indians, besides feeling the French were cowards because of Denonville’s refusal to pursue the Senecas, again were displeased at the laying waste of the corn stores and the destruction of the fields. Some went off on their own, searching for the missing Senecas, and in fact captured several women and two men. The granary was also swarming with chickens, pigs, and other domestic animals, which they slaughtered and ate.
The army next moved three miles south and attacked the smaller town of Ganongarae (or Gandougarae), which was inhabited mostly by Seneca captives waiting to be admitted as members of the Seneca Nation. Members of as many as seventeen different tribes lived at Ganongarae, many of them Christians. The army burned the town and on July 17 returned to Ganondagan. The following day they marched eight miles west to the village of Totiakton, a town of about a hundred dwellings, which they also burned while laying waste to the surrounding fields.
On July 21, the army marched south from Totiakton, burned the village of Gannondata, and destroyed its crops. Then on July 23 they headed back to Lake Ontario, still concerned that the routed Senecas had had time to gather Iroquois reinforcements. When they reached Irondequoit Bay on July 24, the allied Indians abandoned the army and began paddling home, disgusted with the French. Denonville’s Canadian and French troops boarded the boats on July 26. After burning the fort built to guard the boats, the army set sail for Niagara. Meanwhile the Senecas had indeed gathered warriors of their own—said to be one of the largest Indian forces ever gathered in the Northeast—only to arrive at Irondequoit Bay in time to see Denonville’s fleet sailing away.
Once at Niagara, Denonville ordered another fort built—again called Fort Denonville—on the site of the abandoned fort built by René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, nine years earlier. Denonville left Pierre de Troyes there, in charge of a hundred men, and headed his bateaus for home. The supplies he left at Niagara were not good, however, and the men suffered from hunger, scurvy, and other illnesses. Iroquois prowled around the fort, attacking anyone who wandered away from its confines and preventing the garrison from getting fresh supplies.
When a French party returned for the Troyes detachment in May 1688, they found only three healthy officers and four able enlisted men, as the detachment of a hundred men had been reduced to ten or twelve left alive. Troyes was among the dead. They abandoned the fort—as the English governor Dongan had demanded when he learned of its existence—and burned it later that summer.
Denonville led the main body of the army back to Fort Frontenac, arriving on August 9, and he reached Montréal on August 13. Denonville retained twenty-two of the fifty-eight prisoners he had taken, keeping them for bargaining chips. He sent the remainder to France, asking that they be well treated so that they might be returned to New France if needed.
French Canada meanwhile was sinking into despair. The fur trade had been virtually suspended for two years during the Seneca campaign, depriving a great many colonists of their sole means of support. Disease—including smallpox—had been stalking the colony. More than fourteen hundred people from a total population of about eleven thousand had died. In addition, the Iroquois were striking back. With English assistance, they came against the French during late 1687. They attacked outlying farms, forcing farmers to abandon their homesteads and seek the security of settlements.
With the threat of war, first between France and the League of Augsburg in Europe and then between France and England, it seemed unlikely that France could send any additional troops to New France. Denonville moved to alleviate at least one problem by making peace overtures to the Iroquois. The influential Iroquois chief Big Mouth traveled in 1688 with several other chiefs and some twelve hundred warriors to Montréal. Big Mouth, a shrewd politician, seemed to think it was time to lean away from the English and back toward the French, putting the Iroquois between the two powers—to be pursued and courted by both. Denonville accepted a peace proposal in which the Iroquois pledged peace with the French but again left themselves free to attack the colony’s Indian allies, so this treaty also abandoned the western Indians.
The Indians promised to send ambassadors in the spring to complete the negotiations. The Canadians were now in a bad way, having suffered from Indian attacks, smallpox, and the interruption in the western fur trade. In addition, supply ships from France failed to arrive when expected. Throughout the spring and summer of 1689, the people of New France waited, but neither the promised Indian negotiators nor the French supply ships arrived.
Then on August 5, 1689, the uneasy quiet was broken when fifteen hundred Iroquois attacked Lachine on the St. Lawrence, six miles from Montréal. They burned buildings and killed about two hundred settlers in the worst massacre in Canadian history. The next day, Indians set upon eighty men sent to join French regulars at nearby Fort Roland. They killed most of them within sight of the fort.
Montréal’s residents were terrified, but the Indians did not attack the city, which was protected by palisades. Instead Iroquois roamed over a twenty-mile area along the river, killing, burning, and scalping their victims. Rather than risk having Fort Frontenac captured, Denonville ordered it burned.
Meanwhile, Seneca warriors—in retaliation for desecrations they believed had happened at Ganondagan—dug up graves in French cemeteries. This turned out to be a fatal mistake, since some of the graves held victims of smallpox. The warriors infected by the disease carried it back to their villages, where an epidemic was to rage for the next few months.
After several days, while the French seemed paralyzed with fear, the Indians withdrew, taking ninety French prisoners with them. As they paddled their canoes across Lake St. Louis below Montréal, they uttered ninety yells—one for each of their frightened prisoners. That night they camped on the far side of the lake and began to torture their captives while the surviving residents of Lachine stared across at the fires and listened to the screams.
In October 1689, Denonville was recalled to France, where he became a tutor to the royal children at court, the dukes of Burgundy, Anjou, and Berri. Frontenac returned to Québec to replace him.
Denonville’s expedition had been successful in accomplishing its immediate aims, but the war was far from over. His attack against the Senecas had brought the war to the Iroquois, had kept the western Indians from defecting to the English, and may have temporarily increased Indian respect for the French, although that respect died during the campaign.
His foray did not intimidate the Iroquois, however, and did not lessen their threat. Their fighting capacity was unaffected, and the peace the French king sought had instead brought savage reprisals.
The French colony was now on the brink of ruin. In England James II, a friend of France, had been replaced by William of Orange. Soon war between England and France became likely, and indeed the War of the League of Augsburg broke out. In October 1689, when Denonville returned to France, the Iroquois were in full control of their own country, and were enemies of the French colony.
Denonville had failed to follow the Christian Indian’s advice. He had indeed kicked over a wasps’ nest but failed to crush the wasps. Those wasps remained to sting him and generations of those who followed him.
What had begun with Denonville and the Iroquois would continue for the next seventy-six years and would ultimately determine the future of North America. The resolution of that struggle—and the future of the continent—was not decided until the Seven Years’ War, known in North America as the French and Indian War. That fateful conflict reached its peak when Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst captured the fortress of Louisbourg in 1758 and General James Wolfe defeated the French beneath the walls of Québec in 1759.
The resulting Treaty of Paris in 1763 ceded Canada to the English, and the French relinquished all claims in North America other than the islands of Guadeloupe, St. Pierre, and Miquelon. France, which had begun the century as a power on the new continent, had ceased to be a political or military force there.
For their part, about two thousand Iroquois warriors had kept the French to the north and west from flanking the English colonies, no small achievement. But their growing alliance with the English was to prove disastrous to them when they supported Britain a decade later in the American Revolution. That prompted George Washington to send General John Sullivan against the Iroquois in a 1779 raid, similar to Denonville’s, that effectively destroyed the Confederacy’s power.
The English had been left without a rival in the northern part of the New World. However, as historian Francis Parkman wrote, the British victory may have undermined relations between the mother country and its colonists. During the struggle with the French, the value to the colonies of a close alliance with Britain was obvious, but after 1763 the French threat had been removed. When Great Britain raised taxes on its colonists—in part to support its new possessions—the colonists revolted.
CHUCK LYONS, a retired newspaper editor, lives in Rochester, New York, near where the Denonville raid occurred.
Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.