Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Great Peace That Made No Peace

Indian treaties don’t receive much attention in the United States. Their dates sometimes adorn out-of-the-way plaques and monuments, and their terms repose in the historical memories of the Indian signatories (and their descendants), but none occupy a place in the mainstream American narrative comparable to the 1783 Treaty of Paris or the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In Canada matters are somewhat different: Indians appear in Canadian historical memory more as allies than adversaries, and at least one Native American treaty, the Great Peace of 1701, became memorable enough to inspire a postage stamp and a tercentenary celebration in the host community (Montreal). The pageantry of the treaty conference certainly must have impressed both the Montrealais and the Indian conferees: 1,300 Native Americans from forty nations canoed to the small town for three weeks of feasting, speech-making, wampum belt exchanges, and solemn promises. French officials constructed a meeting hall and a 9,000-square-foot open-air arena for the meeting, and both French officers and Native American leaders wore their best attire.

While some French demands, like the requirement that all of the signatories return their captives, proved difficult to meet, at length the Indian diplomats and French governor Louis-Hector de Callieres signed the agreement. The treaty ended the on-again, off-again war between France, its Indian allies, and the Five Nations of Iroquois, a conflict that had lasted for a century. New France now had a secure southern flank for the next fifty years, and more stability than it had enjoyed since its founding.

Whatever else the 1701 treaty may have established, however, a “Great Peace” did not really come out of it. French officials’ commitment to returning captives led Callieres and his successors to promise Indian slaves in place of those whom they could not return. This initiated New France’s sixty-year involvement in the North American Indian slave trade. Concurrently, New France took advantage of its new security arrangements to send troops and officials into its march lands, building up its outposts of Detroit, Michilimackinac, and Vincennes.  French officials’ desire to impose peace and order on this far-flung region drew France into the bloody Fox Wars (1712-30), which led to the death or enslavement of more than 2,000 Indians. And French authority began slipping nonetheless when Lakes Indians used the peace to travel to Albany or Oswego (via Iroquoia) to trade with the English. The lure of cheaper English goods undermined the commercial power of French traders, and in the 1740s some French allies openly rebelled against those traders and opened negotiations with the English colonies. 

It would be fairer to say the treaty marked a shift to a more openly imperialistic policy on France's part, whereby France sought to establish sovereignty over its Indian "subjects," and forcibly to prevent them from warring on one another or coming under the authority of another European sovereign. If so, the Great Peace of 1701 actually set New France on the road to a new confrontation with the English colonies, and ultimately to the war that brought about the empire's collapse. 

Sources: Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration (U. of Nebraska, 1983), 60-66; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance (UNC Press, 2012), 155-160.

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