Beaver Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Iroquois Five Nations challenged the French-Huron trade monopoly in pelts, leading to large-scale intertribal warfare.

Summary of Event

During the seventeenth century, the principal mode of subsistence for the Iroquois changed from farming to trapping. After the Iroquois Iroquois Confederacy had traded successfully with the Dutch for several decades, a seemingly insatiable demand for furs to make fashionable top hats for European gentlemen had depleted the Iroquois’s source of beaver pelts. Trade;furs Furs, trade in Meanwhile, the French had become allies with the Algonquians Algonquians and Hurons Hurons to the north, establishing a lucrative monopoly on the fur trade in the upper Great Lakes. Acting as middlemen, the Hurons bought huge quantities of furs from the Ottawa then sold them to the French. Seeking an expedient solution to the problem of a diminishing supply of furs, the Iroquois began attacking Huron villages and intercepting and confiscating fur shipments along trade routes, provoking a series of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars. [kw]Beaver Wars (1642-1684) [kw]Wars, Beaver (1642-1684) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1642-1684: Beaver Wars[1450] Trade and commerce;1642-1684: Beaver Wars[1450] Colonization;1642-1684: Beaver Wars[1450] American Colonies;1642-1684: Beaver Wars[1450] Canada;1642-1684: Beaver Wars[1450] Beaver Wars (1642-1684)

The name “Iroquois” refers both to the members of the Iroquois Confederacy, or League of Five Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk), and to their common language. Consolidation of the league in 1570 (although it had existed informally for several decades before that) helped end centuries of warring among these neighboring tribes and protected them from attacks by surrounding tribes. Although known throughout the woodlands as fierce warriors, the Iroquois had met European advances into their territory peacefully and created profitable alliances, such as their trade agreement with the Dutch at Albany.

In 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain Champlain, Samuel de established Quebec Quebec at a deserted Iroquois site on the Saint Lawrence River. In that area, the Huron Confederacy of four tribes and their Algonquian allies began a trade agreement with the French that was coveted by the Iroquois. This rivalry increased long-existing hostility between Hurons and Iroquois.

In July, 1609, Champlain, two soldiers, and sixty Algonquians and Hurons followed a war party of two hundred Mohawks Mohawks along what is now called Lake Champlain. In the traditional manner, both sides agreed to engage in battle in the morning. Iroquois warriors preferred close, hand-to-hand fighting with wooden clubs and leather shields, and they were accustomed to using bows and arrows only for ambushes. As the battle began, both sides advanced, but the French remained hidden among the Hurons. Advancing closely, the French fired their guns, killing two Mohawk chiefs instantly and mortally wounding the third. Many Mohawks died and a dozen captives were taken, one of whom was tortured during the victory celebration. This dramatic battle was the Iroquois’s first encounter with Europeans and their dreadful weapons. Their humiliation left the Iroquois with a fierce hatred of the French. A few weeks later, Henry Hudson Hudson, Henry arrived at Albany to initiate the Dutch fur trade, which eventually brought guns to the Iroquois.

In the next three decades, the Hurons and Iroquois lost many warriors in battle. Moreover, the Jesuit priests who brought Christianity to Quebec also brought European diseases. By 1640, through warfare and epidemics, only ten thousand Hurons remained, less than half of their previous number. However, they retained their alliance with the French. Iroquois offers of peace with the Hurons were dissuaded by the French. In 1640, five hundred Iroquois approached a French village to negotiate for peace and trade a French captive for guns. When French offers were not acceptable, the council disbanded and the Iroquois began planning for war.

Early Iroquois warfare was guerrilla-style fighting by small bands, so the beginning date of the Beaver Wars is difficult to determine with certainty, but an attack by a Seneca Senecas war party on the Huron village of Arendaronon in 1642 is commonly marked as the first event of the war. In that year, Iroquois also raided the Algonquian village of Chief Iroquet Iroquet on the Ottawa River, capturing and later releasing Saint Isaac Jogues Jogues, Saint Isaac .

In 1645, the French bargained for peace, using Iroquois captives. The Iroquois wanted to share the middleman role with the Hurons and continue trading with the Dutch. At the council, the great Mohawk orator Kiotsaeton Kiotsaeton appealed to the French, Hurons, and Algonquians, presenting fifteen wampum belts. He translated the symbolic messages coded in the shell beads. After the council, Father Jogues and Father Paul Le Jeune Le Jeune, Paul continued to support the peace effort.

Months later, some Mohawks reported to Huron chief Tandihetsi Tandihetsi about secrecy and intrigue involving the possible exclusion of the Algonquians. The chief had a wife and many relatives among the Algonquians. Finally, a trade-related treaty was made, honored for a time, then broken when a huge shipment of furs passed down the Ottawa River and the Iroquois were given no share. In retaliation, the popular Father Jogues was killed when he next returned to visit a Mohawk village.

European presence in North America affected Iroquois social and cultural systems that had provided earlier stability. Ecological balance was upset by the high demand for beaver pelts, economic balance was upset by the shift from farming to trapping, and political balance was upset by rivalries among tribes. The Iroquois had become dependent upon the Dutch for food, metal tools, weapons, and ammunition. Since the primary commodity valued by both Indians and colonists was beaver pelts and the agreement had been broken, the Iroquois began attacking Huron villages and intercepting travel along their trade routes, confiscating whole shipments of pelts. In times of warfare, one gun was well worth the price of twenty beaver pelts.

By March of 1649, the Iroquois had declared open warfare, and one thousand Iroquois set out for the Huron homeland. The starving Hurons, fearing annihilation, burned their villages and escaped into the woods, some to a Jesuit encampment, others divided into clan groups. Eventually, several thousand Hurons were adopted into the five Iroquois tribes themselves. By late 1649, the Iroquois had defeated the Tobaccos; from 1650 to 1656, they warred against the Neutrals on the Niagara peninsula and the Eries on southern Lake Erie, devastating both and taking over their hunting territories. They successfully maintained trade with the Dutch under Director-General Peter Stuyvesant Stuyvesant, Peter .

By 1654, the Ottawas Ottawas had taken over the Hurons’ position as middlemen for French pelt traders. When the Iroquois attempted to displace them, the Ottawas moved westward to the Straits of Mackinac. For the next thirty years, they supplied two-thirds of the furs sent to France. By 1670, the Iroquois controlled the woodland territory surrounding the eastern Great Lakes, while the French claimed Lakes Huron and Superior.

In 1680, several hundred Iroquois invaded the territory of the Illini Illinis and Miami Miamis tribes. In 1684, an unsuccessful attempt to take Fort Saint Louis from the Illinis marked the end of the nearly century-long Iroquois campaign to overturn the French-Huron trade monopoly.


During the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois had established a political agreement with the English through Governor Edmund Andros Andros, Edmund . This Covenant Chain was forged for two purposes: safe access to Albany for Iroquois traders and easy entry into the Indians’ affairs for the English. By 1685, the League of Five Nations had been consolidated to deal with external affairs.

Native American leagues, alliances, treaties, covenants, and confederacies all worked against the Europeans’ ability to establish a niche in the New World. The powers of France and England had been balanced almost equally for many years, but the long-held Iroquois hostility unleashed in the Beaver Wars turned the scale against the French, and their magnificent schemes of colonization in the northern part of America were lost. Had it not been for the determination of the Iroquois, the official language throughout North America might have become French.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brandão, José António. Your Fyre Shall Burn No More: Iroquois Policy Towards New France and Its Native Allies to 1701. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. In this book about the Beaver Wars, Brandão refutes the conventional wisdom that the Iroquois fought to secure their position in the fur trade. He maintains they fought the war to replenish their population, safeguard their hunting territories, protect their homes, and regain their honor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleland, Charles E. Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan’s Native Americans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. A multiethnic, regional approach to the history of the Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, describing their lives from the period before their contact with Europeans until the late twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grinde, Donald A., Jr. The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation. San Francisco, Calif.: Indian Historian Press, 1977. Provides cultural and historical background, and discusses Iroquois relationships with colonists before and after the American Revolution. Constitution of the Five Nations and Albany Plan of Union are included as appendices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harvey, Karen D., and Lisa D. Harjo. Indian Country: A History of Native People in America. Golden, Colo.: North American Press, 1994. Written and illustrated by American Indians. Presents ten culture areas, historical perspectives, contemporary issues, major ceremonies, and time lines from 50,000 b.c.e. to the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magill, Frank N., and Harvey Markowitz, eds. Ready Reference: American Indians. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1995. Comprehensive survey of Indians of the Americas, prehistory to late twentieth century. Discusses archaeology, architecture, arts, crafts, culture, history, language, religion, and social organization of tribes in ten culture areas. Contains features on well-known persons, events, acts, and treaties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1922. Describes the political, social, and economic life of the Iroquois League during the colonial era, including their experiences in the Beaver Wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Discusses American Indian-European warfare in eastern North America, from the defeat of Juan Ponce de León (1513) to negotiated peace with the British (1765). Combines social and military history for a balanced perspective.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Samuel de Champlain; Henry Hudson; Saint Isaac Jogues; Peter Stuyvesant. Beaver Wars (1642-1684)

Categories: History