Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Bloody Beaver Wars & Toronto in the 1600s

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
In the late 1600s, the Seneca had two bustling villages within the borders of today's Toronto, with dozens of longhouses surrounded by vast fields of golden maize. In the west, Teiaiagon watched over the Humber River at the spot where Baby Point is now (just a bit north of Bloor Street and Old Mill Station). In the east, Ganatsekwyagon had a commanding view over the Rouge.

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.

And things were only getting worse for the French. By 1687, they still had only a few thousand settlers living in all of New France, most of them centered around Québec and Montreal. They had tried to expand their control west into the Great Lakes, establishing a trading post — Fort Frontenac — where Kingston is today. But their efforts ended in humiliating failure. They'd been forced to make peace with the Haudenosaunee and their British allies.

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. 

Thousands of kilometers away, in his new royal palace of Versailles, King Louis XIV — the famous Sun King, who reigned over France longer than any monarch has ever reigned over a major European nation — decided it was time for a change. The Governor of New France was fired. In his place, a new Governor was sent across the Atlantic to run things.

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
The new Governor's first move was to ignore the peace treaty. Denonville sent a hundred men north to Hudson's Bay to launch a surprise attack against British trading posts there. It was a rout. The French seized three posts run by the Hudson's Bay Company. Now, they controlled the northern trade.

Next, Denonville turned to treachery. In the summer of 1687, he proposed a peace council: a great feast with the leaders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Fifty chiefs came to Fort Frontenac that June to meet under a flag of truce. But it was a French trap. When the chiefs and their families arrived, Denonville's men captured them all, taking about 200 prisoners. Some were tied to posts, bound so tight they couldn't move; some were tortured. Many would be shipped across the Atlantic in chains to serve King Louis as galley slaves.

And Denonville still wasn't done. He'd brought an army with him to Fort Frontenac: 3,000 men, including professional French soldiers, militiamen from Québec, a few coureur de bois, and hundreds of First Nations allies. He led them across Lake Ontario, a sprawling fleet of hundreds of canoes and bateaux sailing toward the southern shore, where New York State is today: the heartland of the Seneca.

The Governor's plan was simple: an invasion to capture and kill as many people as he could. His ultimate goal was laid out clearly in letters sent back and forth across the Atlantic between Denonville, his boss at Versailles, and King Louis himself.

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."

The army landed near where Rochester is today, at Irondequoit Bay. Then, they headed south toward Ganondagan, the biggest of the Seneca villages. Three columns of French soldiers marched through the forest with their First Nations allies. They carried swords and torches and arquebuses — an early forerunner of the musket.

Ganondagan State Historic Site today
But Denonville would have trouble finding anyone to capture or to kill. There was only a single battle fought during the entire campaign. One afternoon, as the French army was approaching Ganondagan through a narrow pass, hundreds of Seneca warriors opened fire on them from behind. There were dozens of casualties on both sides, but the attack failed. Outnumbered, the Seneca warriors retreated.

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.

So the Governor adjusted his plan. If he couldn't kill the Seneca with swords and guns, he would starve them to death instead.

"I deemed it our best policy," he explained to Versailles, "to employ ourselves laying waste the Indian corn which was in vast abundance in the fields, rather than follow a flying enemy..."

For the next ten days, the French army was hard at work burning fields of maize. Kilometer after kilometer went up in smoke. Vast stores were destroyed, too; everything that had been saved for the winter. According to the Governor's own estimates, his men burned 1.2 million bushels of maize. Plus, they burned beans and other vegetables. A "vast quantity" of pigs was killed, too. Entire villages were burned to the ground.

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." 

Longhouse village
By the end of those ten days, Denonville's army was tired. It had been weeks since they left Montreal, making the long and dangerous journey up the rapids and waterfalls of the St. Lawrence River toward Lake Ontario. They'd marched through the woods for days on end, weighed down by their supplies, plagued by mosquitoes. Now, they were getting sick too. "It is full 30 years that I have had the honour to serve," the Governor wrote to Versailles, "but I assure you, my lord, that I have seen nothing that comes near this in labour and fatigue."
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.

In his dispatches, the Governor doesn't mention anything about the inhabitants of Teiaiagon or Ganatsekwyagon, the Seneca villages on those rivers. Some historians have suggested that Denonville's army must have destroyed them, too. But it's also entirely possible that the Seneca had voluntarily abandoned them years earlier. Communities usually moved to a new location every 10 to 15 years or so.

Pretty much all the information we have comes from the entry Denonville made in his diary that day — the day we think he woke up at the Humber and travelled to the Rouge. It's not much, but it's one of the very earliest written accounts of the place where Toronto now stands:

The mouth of the Rouge River today
"The storm of wind and rain, prevented us from leaving in the morning but at noon, the weather clearing up, we advanced 7 or 8 leagues and encamped at a place to which I had sent forward our Christian Indians from below. We found them with two hundred deer they had killed, a good share of which they gave to our army, that thus profited by this fortunate chase."

The next morning, the army continued east toward Montreal.

Denonville's campaign had succeeded in bringing death to the shores of Lake Ontario, but his greater goals would fail. The Seneca suffered terribly that winter, but the nation was far from destroyed. And the Haudenosaunee would fight back. The Five Nations of the Confederacy launched their own campaigns deep into the heart of New France. They raided French settlements and destroyed farms. Two years after Denonville's army slept on the banks of the Rouge, Mohawk warriors would travel all the way to the island of Montreal and attack the French settlers at Lachine, burning the town to the ground.

That same year, Denonville was replaced as Governor and returned home to France. He got a new job at Versailles: tutor to the king's kids.

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.

As for Toronto, in the decades that followed the Great Peace, the French established their own trading posts at the southern end of the Carrying Place trail. Fort Douville was built near Teiaiagon. Fort Toronto was at the mouth of the Humber. Fort Rouillé stood on the Exhibition Grounds. By then, their allies, the Mississauga, had moved south into the area; they had villages at Ganatsekwyagon and near Teiaiagon, too.

But the days of peace wouldn't last: there would be even bigger wars in the 1700s. The British eventually invaded New France, winning the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and conquering all of French Canada. The last of the French forts at Toronto — Fort Rouillé — was burned as their troops retreated.

Then it was the American Revolution. The British were overthrown in the United States and those who were still loyal to the Crown were driven from their homes. A flood of Loyalist refugees fled north. Many of them ended up on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the British created a new province for them. They called it Upper Canada.

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.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
You can read the documents sent between Denonville, his boss and the King as part of the Documentary History of New York State, which you'll find on Google Docs here.

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, the longhouse village comes via the Canadian Encyclopedia, and I took the photo of the Rouge River myself.

This post is related to dream
40 The Beaver Wars
Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, 1687


  1. Great telling, thanks for publishing this. BTW, St. Catharines is spelled with two 'a's and one 'e', not like "Catherine".

    1. Thanks for catching that and letting me know!