First Quest for the Northwest in Canada, 1615—1760

Feb 19th, 2015 | By | Category: Heritage Now

If you place a large map of North America on a table, and then turn it so that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is your central point of vision, your eye can easily move south and west, traveling the St. Lawrence River to the lower Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, all the way down to New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

On the same map your eye can also move north and west, traveling the St. Lawrence to the upper Great Lakes and the Lake of the Woods, and then on to Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River, eventually all the way to the Arctic and Pacific oceans.

Jacques Cartier went no further than present-day Montreal — as far as a European ocean-going vessel could travel on the interior wilderness waterways in the 1530s. But almost a century and a half later (utilizing native guides and the Indigenous transportation technology of the canoe and portage) René Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle and Henri Tonti made it all the way from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 1682, having extravagantly claimed all the territory they passed through for Louis XIV, the Sun King of France.

Champlain had traveled as far west as what is now south-central Ontario as early as 1615. And the French Fort Detroit was established by Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac in 1701. But it took longer for the ultimate northwest path to even begin to reach present-day Western Canada.

By the 1730s, however, the fur trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, from the canoe-manufacturing town of Trois Rivieres, had begun to open up the area west of Lake Superior, to the Lake of the Woods and beyond (also helped by native guides, the canoe and portage, and his own four sons). In the 1740s two of La Vérendrye’s sons were probably the first people of European descent to see the Rocky Mountains.

In The Fur Trade in Canada Harold Innis somewhat poetically (and whimsically) summarized the northwestern interior adventure with: “La Vérendrye … laid down the [western] boundary of Canada in the search for the better beaver of the northern areas.” (It was one of Innis’s theories that the northwest fur trade frontier in what is now Canada was more important than the southwest fur trade frontier in what is now the United States, because the best pelts for the European beaver hat industry of the day — the North American fur resource industry’s best customer — came from the colder northern regions of the continent.)

* * * *

In both the northwest and southwest, the French monarchy never seriously controlled most of the vast swath of North American geography it claimed in any conventional European military sense. As the constitutional lawyer Brian Slattery has explained, again: “In most cases, Aboriginal nations were never conquered militarily. In the early years, they frequently entered into alliances and trading partnerships with incoming European states.”

Yet the extent of France’s comparatively striking success in working with Indian allies in the North American interior is reflected in a surviving provocative speech by the still mysterious “War Chief of the Ottawa,” who led the ultimate denouement of the French empire in America, dramatically recounted in Francis Parkman’s early book of 1851, The Conspiracy of Pontiac.

“I am a Frenchman, and I wish to die a Frenchman,” Chief Pontiac is said to have told the Canadians settled along the Detroit River in the spring of 1763, during the last bold campaign to keep France’s American wilderness empire alive, masterminded by the Indigenous allies themselves.

Canada in the northwest, on the other hand, was only one of the two geographically largest parts of the French American empire at its height, in the first half of the 18th century.

It was the territory that surrounded (and then extended) the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, and had its capital at Quebec City.

The other main part of the empire was the southwestern territory that surrounded the Mississippi River, and had its capital at New Orleans. It was known as Louisiana (after Louis XIV) — but was much vaster than the present US state of that name. It would finally be purchased from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson for the new United States in 1803, having just been returned to France, after a long alleged sojourn with the King of Spain.

* * * *

It may be that French Canada proved more enduring than French Louisiana, because its wilderness hinterland was anchored by the more developed New World metropolitan centres of Quebec City, Trois Rivieres, and Montreal, in the St. Lawrence valley.

New Orleans in the first half of the 18th century was already an interesting place. But it had a later start, and remained on a smaller scale. (Although there was a small Fort St. Jean in the vicinity as early as 1701, Nouvelle Orléans was not officially founded until 1718.)

At the same time, the new Canada that had put down its first modern roots in the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries is, in many respects, more properly called French and Indigenous (or in the old lexicon “French and Indian”) than just French Canada. (As illustrated by the Anglo-American settlers to the south, and east, who called the Seven Years’ War that finally ended the French empire in America, the “French and Indian War.”) And the new French and Indigenous Canada did not just include the lower St. Lawrence valley, or the southern part of the present-day province of Quebec.

There, more than anywhere else, it was much more “French” than “Indian.” But even in this earliest incarnation of its modern history Canada took in the upper country to the west of Montreal – and finally ventured almost to the Rocky Mountains. And there it was much more Indigenous than French (and finally mixed in with other diverse global origins too).

It is no doubt not easy to recapture any realistic sense of the 17th and 18th century Canadian upper country west of Montreal (le pays d’en haut), in the very different Canada of the early 21st century (in many respects at any rate). But a now considerable body of historical writing over the past several decades has at least begun to try.

Just as the classic early history of the old French America came from the American historian Francis Parkman in the later 19th century, it could be said, the new early history of the old “French and Indian” America has probably been sketched most provocatively in the US historian Richard White’s study of 1991, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650—1815. (And this book also won both the 1992 Francis Parkman Prize, and the Albert B. Corey Prize for the “Best Book in Canadian-American History,” awarded by the Canadian Historical Association and the American Historical Association.)

Perhaps partly because of his US citizenship, Richard White is most interested in the part of his story that takes place in the Ohio valley of the present-day United States. He cannot deal with the North American Great Lakes region from the middle of the 17th to the early 19th centuries without giving some important attention to “Canada.” But he focuses on a Canada in conflict with both the adjacent but different French American realm of Louisiana, and the early westward expansions of the increasingly populous English-speaking (or British) American colonies on the Atlantic coast.

Even in this context White deals only with the upper country or pays d’en haut of Canada in the Great Lakes region. The earliest Canadian far westerly expansion beyond the Lake of the Woods lies outside his frame of reference. (And the name La Vérendrye does not appear in his index.)

* * * *

Whatever else, Richard White’s treatment of early Canadian history west of the Ottawa River remains provocative.

As W.H. Eccles also relates, for much of the 17th century the French regime in the lower St. Lawrence valley was in a near perpetual state of war with the Five Nations Iroquois confederacy in what is now northern New York State — on behalf of both the Sun King and his native North American allies. But by the early 18th century the French and “the Algonquians” north of the Great Lakes (in White’s shorthand) had turned back the invading New York Iroquois (and their first Dutch and then English allies).

Then, in White’s words: “Out of the French and Algonquian triumph over the Iroquois there evolved during the eighteenth century a Janus-faced alliance” between the northern Algonquians and “Onontio, the French governor at Quebec.”

It was this alliance that, in the midst of much often bloody conflict, ultimately “preserved Canada” in the Great Lakes and (again, though White himself is not concerned with this part of the story) finally allowed the early Canadian fur trade to venture still further west, almost to the Rocky Mountains by the middle of the 18th century.

What Richard White has to say about the “Janus-faced” quality of the 18th century French-Algonquian alliance is intriguing as well: “Facing east, the French appeared at the head of an Algonquian host. This was the alliance armed and breathing fire in the service of imperial France, the alliance that cowed the Iroquois and repeatedly fought the far more numerous British to a standstill.”

Yet this “eastern face of the alliance is too often the only one that appears in histories of the eighteenth century,” and “by itself it is incomplete and inscrutable.” Why did the Algonquian host, e.g., remain loyal to the French? Because, White urges, on its “neglected … western face” the alliance was “largely Algonquian in form and spirit.” The aboriginal allies saw Onontio — the governor general of Canada at Quebec (and resident representative of the French monarchy across the sea) — as a fountain of “patriarchal benevolence.” As the price of their loyalty the Algonquians demanded that Onontio be “a father who mediated more often than he commanded, who forgave more often than he punished, and who gave more than he received.”

White carries on: “These demands frustrated the French even as they preserved Canada, and they longed for — and sporadically tried to create — an alliance that was a simple extension of the French state.” Yet from “the Grand Settlement of 1701” with the Iroquois “until the demise of French Canada there would persist an unresolved tension between the Algonquian ideal of alliance and mediation and the French dream of force and obedience … The Algonquians had to compel Onontio to act as an Algonquian father or the pays d’en haut would be awash in blood as Onontio’s children slaughtered each other” (in the great dislocation and destabilization that the arrival of Europeans brought to the Great Lakes).

On the other side of the alliance: “Onontio complied, for he needed to maintain Algonquian loyalty and at least the form of their participation in the defense of New France. The result was an odd imperialism where mediation succeeded and force failed, where colonizers gave gifts to the colonized and patriarchal metaphors were the heart of politics.”

* * * *

The economic base of the French-Algonquian alliance in Canada was the expanding Indian-European fur trade of the north and west. Yet as Sylvia Van Kirk stressed in another pioneering book, first published in 1980 (“Many Tender Ties” : Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670—1870), the “fur trade … was not simply an economic activity, but a social and cultural complex that was to survive for nearly two centuries.”

As the fur trade in Canada expanded, Van Kirk carries on, the “growth of a mutual dependency between Indian and European trader at the economic level could not help but engender a significant cultural exchange as well. As a result, a unique society emerged which derived from both Indian and European customs and technology.”

The ultimate legacy of the Indigenous-European middle ground in this context had already been quietly noted by Harold Innis, in still more language that would raise at least some eyebrows today: The “existence of small and isolated sections of French half-breeds throughout Canada,” Innis wrote in 1930, “is another interesting survival” of the unique society of the 17th and 18th century Canadian fur trade. Just over a half century later, section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 would more formally acknowledge “the Métis peoples of Canada.”

In the early 18th century, Thérese de Guyon, wife of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founder of the French upper country wilderness metropolis at Detroit, had traveled west of the Ottawa River to join her husband, accompanied by the wife of Alphonse Tonti (Cadillac’s second in command, and the younger brother of the Henri Tonti who had followed La Salle on his Mississippi valley adventures). But it was rare for European women to make such journeys at that time. Lonely fur-trading European men in the pays d’en haut usually became involved with Indigenous women. This led to the “many tender ties” celebrated in Sylvia Van Kirk’s book of 1980, whose “major concern … is to show that the norm for sexual relationships in fur-trade society was not casual, promiscuous encounters but the development of marital unions which gave rise to distinct family units” and “the emergence of a large number of mixed-blood children.” (And then, again, this led to the “Métis peoples of Canada” who, after many further adventures, still survive in the Constitution Act, 1982 today.)

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries the practical status of Métis peoples had declined drastically in a more technologically obsessed North America — and on a new wave of over-aggressive racial chauvinism in many parts of the world. But during the last bold blossoming of the old French and Indian Canada, in the middle of the 18th century, mixed blood children could have large and distinguished careers on the Indigenous-European middle ground west of the Ottawa River.

A case in point is Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade, born in 1729 at the upper country outpost of Michilimackinac, north of Detroit where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet. He was the son of Augustin Mouet de Langlade, a prominent fur trader, and Domitilde, sister of the Algonquian-speaking Ottawa chief Nissowaquet. The adult Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade excelled as a fur trader and a soldier — for both the French-Algonquian alliance against the British (and the Iroquois) in the 1750s, and then for the British (and the Algonquians and so forth) against the revolutionary Anglo-American settlement frontier in the 1770s and 1780s. The Métis Langlade “remained active until his death” in the winter of 1800–1801, and he “enjoyed telling about 99 battles in which he had participated. A companion, recalling Langlade’s actions, said he ‘never saw so perfectly cool and fearless a man on the field of battle.’”

* * * *

Even under the French monarchy, the multiracial diversity of the more westerly new Canada that put down its first modern roots in the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries had begun to expand somewhat beyond native North Americans and Europeans. And the northern fur-trade society that lived on into the 19th century would move further in this direction.

In the early 21st century there is still much to be learned about people of African descent in the deep Canadian past. Mathieu Da Costa, a so-called “Portuguese African,” was with the French party that included Champlain at the beginnings of Acadia in 1604. A very young African slave ultimately known as Olivier Le Jeune accompanied the Kirke brothers when they invaded Quebec City in 1629, and remained when they left. A few Black African slaves from the French West Indies and elsewhere subsequently appeared in the lower St. Lawrence valley as domestic servants. And it seems clear that some young black men worked in the multiracial Canadian fur trade, west of Montreal. (“Black Voyageurs,” as some have said. The history of people of African descent in the Detroit area may even have begun with Cadillac in 1701.)

When the Canadian fur trade headquartered in Montreal finally expanded all the way west to the Pacific coast, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Asians from Hawaii would add another dimension to its multicultural heritage. This was still almost a half-century away at the end of the French regime. But the Tonti brothers who accompanied La Salle and Cadillac had Italian rather than French origins. Like the Basque fishermen on the Atlantic coast, they had begun to diversify the European side of the old French and Indian Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. And Francis Parkman’s “domain of savage freedom” in the “great interior wilderness,” to which the “St. Lawrence and the Lakes were the highway,” had already confirmed its attractions for people who were neither French nor Indigenous, before the ultimately global military struggles of the mid 18th century brought at least the political structure of France in America to an end.

It is certainly true that the early multicultural numbers were not large. At the time of the Peace of Paris in 1763, to take just one case in point, there were far more people of African descent in the more southerly British colonies on the Atlantic coast than there were in any part of French Canada. Yet this was true of non-aboriginal people more generally as well.

The French monarchy lost its American empire at the Peace of Paris in 1763. But only two decades later the British monarchy would lose its American empire at the Peace of Versailles in 1783. In both cases what are now the two countries of Canada and the United States would live on. And already Canada — a colder geography that probably did produce better furs for the European trade, but offered fewer opportunities for human expansion — was a quite vast but only thinly populated place.

Setting aside the very slippery North American Indigenous population numbers of the day, there were no more than 70,000 non-aboriginal people in the St. Lawrence valley in 1760 — and perhaps no more than 1,000 non-aboriginal (and/or non-Métis) people in the Canadian upper country of the Great Lakes and all points still further west. (Where the latter case included fur traders, voyageurs, engagés, missionaries, and a few hundred recent settlers from the St. Lawrence valley in the Detroit area, living beside “a well-established Indian population of some 2,600 people.”)

There were an additional few thousand people in the old French Acadia and New British Nova Scotia (and Newfoundland). But by this same time in the middle of the 18th century there were well over 1 million non-Indigenous people in the British “Thirteen Colonies” to the south.

A mere generation later, the British monarchy had lost its sway over the increasingly populous, vast, and spectacular new world enterprise to the south, and (somewhat haphazardly) assumed responsibility for the harsher and more marginal but equally vast northern adventures – that both the French monarchy and the Great Lakes middle-ground alliance between Onontio and the diverse Algonquians had begun.


Children of the Global Village

Democracy in Canada since 1497

Randall White

eastendbooks 2023

(For background on the larger series of which this is a part, see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.)



La Salle and La Vérendrye, Canada and Louisiana, Richard White’s Middle Ground, The Janus-faced alliance between the Algonquians and Onontio, Many Tender Fur Trade Ties : the Métis peoples of Canada, Black Voyageurs and the first multiculturalism

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