1687. A year of war and famine on the shores of Lake Ontario. That summer, on a night in early July, an army camped near the mouth of the Rouge River, at the very eastern edge of what's now the city of Toronto. A few thousand men — professional soldiers from France, militia from Québec and their First Nations allies — feasted on venison before bed. They were tired, finally heading home at the end of a bloody campaign against the Seneca.Their war was driven by a fashion trend. Far on the other side of the Atlantic, in the cobblestone capitals of Europe, hats made of beaver felt were all the rage. The demand had already driven European beavers to the brink of extinction. Now, the furriers turned to the Americas to feed their ravenous sartorial appetite. The competition over the slaughter of the large, aquatic rodents plunged the Great Lakes into more than a century of bloodshed and violence. By the end of the 1600s, a series of conflicts had been raging for decades on end. Thousands of warriors fought bloody battles over control of the fur trade. They called them the Beaver Wars.
This was long before the city of Toronto was founded, long before the British conquered Québec, all the way back in the days when the French still claimed the Great Lakes for themselves. As far as they were concerned, this was New France. But barely any Europeans had ever set foot on this land: only a few early explorers, fur traders and missionaries. Where skyscrapers and condo towers now reach into the clouds, there was an ancient forest of towering oak and pine, home to moose, wolves and bears. But there were plenty of people here, too — just not French ones: the First Nations and their ancestors had been living here for thousands and thousands of years.
|Beaver felt hats, 1776-1825|
They were both very important places. The Humber and the Rouge were at the southern end of a vital fur trade route: the Toronto Carrying Place trail, which gave our city its name. The rivers stretched north from Lake Ontario toward Lake Simcoe. From there, fur traders could reach the Upper Great Lakes, where the beaver population was still doing relatively well. Now that the Seneca controlled the Toronto Carrying Place, they could ship beaver pelts south into the American colonies and sell them to their British allies.
That pissed the French right off. They wanted those beaver pelts flowing east down the Ottawa River instead, toward their own relatively new towns of Montreal and Québec. By then, they had already spent decades fighting over the fur trade. They were on one side of the Beaver Wars, generally allied with the Wendat (the Europeans called them the Huron) and a variety of Algonquin-speaking nations, like the Odawa. On the other, the British supported the Haudenosaunee (who they called the Iroquois): a confederacy of five nations, including the Seneca.
They were beginning to worry that they were going to lose the Beaver Wars entirely — and all of New France with them. They were scared the Haudenosaunee might overrun their settlements in Québec, and that their own First Nations allies would soon abandon them to trade with their enemies instead.
His remarkably long name was Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville. He was a career solider: a respected officer from an old, rich family with deep ties to the throne. Upon his arrival in Canada, he would wage even more bloody war.
|Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville|
They wanted, they said, "the Establishment of the Religion, of Commerce and the King's Power over all North America." They wanted New France to stretch all the way from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi. To do it, they said, they would have to destroy the Haudenosaunee. If they failed, they feared the ruin of New France.
Denonville's boss — a government minister at Versailles — laid out the plan: "all their plantations of Indian corn will be destroyed, their villages burnt, their women, children and old men captured and their warriors driven into the woods where they will be pursued and annihilated by other Indians who will have served under us during this war."
"[His Majesty]," the minister wrote in a letter to Denonville, "expects to learn at the close of this year, the entire destruction of the greatest part of the Savages."
|Ganondagan State Historic Site today|
After that, they disappeared. Denonville didn't see another enemy warrior during the rest of the campaign. And every time his army arrived at a Seneca village, they found it already abandoned.
With winter coming in just a few short months, Denonville's scorched earth campaign was enough to cause a famine. It wasn't just Seneca warriors who would die thanks to the French: Denonville's war was a war against civilians. Against the entire Seneca people.
"We have, assuredly," the Governor boasted, "humbled the Senecas to a considerable degree, and seriously lowered their pride and raised the courage of their Indian enemies."
Meanwhile, some of his First Nations allies were already leaving. There were tensions. Denonville had been badmouthing them in his reports for their "barbarities" and "cruelties" (without even the slightest hint of irony). Some of them were from Haudenosaunee nations themselves — having allied with the French after converting to Christianity — and many seemed to have reservations about the scorched earth campaign. When Denonville asked them to burn the Seneca maize, they'd simply refused.
The Governor decided it was finally time to head home.
He took the long way around. First, the army stopped at Niagara. There, they built a new French fort on the spot where Niagara-on-the-Lake is today. Fort Denonville would give the French and their First Nations allies a base of operations to launch future attacks against the Seneca.
Then, they followed the shoreline as it wrapped all the way around the lake — passing future sites of cities like St. Catharines, Hamilton and Oakville — which brought them, eventually, to the place where Toronto now stands.
It's hard to tell from Denonville's reports exactly where they stopped each night. But most historians seem to think the army spent two nights within the borders of today's Toronto: the first near the mouth of the Humber River; the second near the mouth of the Rouge.
|The mouth of the Rouge River today|
The next morning, the army continued east toward Montreal.
Back in Canada, the wars raged on for another decade. But some leaders on both sides were working toward peace. By the end of the 1600s, the French had tracked down all of the surviving chiefs forced into slavery by Denonville's treachery. Thirteen of them were still alive. They were finally allowed to return home. Meanwhile, the Haudenosaunee were starting to worry about the growing power of their British allies. In 1701, a huge peace council was held at Montreal, with long negotiations leading to a treaty between New France and forty of the First Nations, including the Haudenosaunee. The Great Peace of Montreal became one of the defining moments in Canadian history.
The new province would need a new capital. It would be built on a sheltered harbour between the Humber and the Rouge: at the end of the ancient fur trade route where the First Nations and their ancestors had been living — and hunting beavers — for thousands upon thousands of years. A place they called Toronto.
You can read Denonville's biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography here and his Wikipedia page here. The page for the Beaver Wars is here, Ganondagan is here, the Great Peace of Montreal is here, Teiaiagon is here, Ganatsekwyagon is here, Fort Rouillé is here and some of the other French forts here.
David Wencer writes about Teiaiagon for Torontoist here and the Canadian Encyclopedia has more about it here. The Kingston Whig-Standard has more about Denonville's treacherous "peace council" here. And the Counterweights blog shares a history of Toronto before the modern city was founded here.
The image of the beaver hats comes via Wikipedia, the painting on Denonville comes via the Répertoire du patrimoine culturel de Québec, Ganondagan State Historic Site comes via FingerLakes.com, the longhouse village comes via the Canadian Encyclopedia, and I took the photo of the Rouge River myself.
A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now
|This post is related to dream|
40 The Beaver Wars
Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, 1687