The Beaver Wars, during the 17th century, had a positive impact on the economy of the colonies in North America. However, these wars had a negative impact on the lives and culture of the Native Americans. The impact of these wars, which would last from around 1620 to 1701, would have a lasting affect on the continent and later expansion in North America by beginning relationships with Europeans and Native Americans, whether those relationships were negative or positive (Gallay 315). We will here concentrate primarily on the opposing sides of the Iroquois tribes and the French during the early years of these wars, and the later impacts of these conflicts, both positive and negative
The Beaver Wars began because of a large market in Europe for beaver furs. Due to overhunting, beavers had become extinct almost everywhere in Europe and Russia by the end of the 16th century. Beavers were in high demand because the fur was extremely costly, and therefore a symbol of wealth and status in many European countries (Millward 281).
Hats like this one were not at all uncommon at the time, and were representations of wealth.
Once European powers found the beaver in North America and Canada, colonization of the eastern regions of North America by large European powers, including the French, English, and Dutch, became common. This colonization, as far as trade for the beaver, was mostly in northeastern North America and on and around the modern-day border with Canada. Traders and leaders from these different countries were drawn to the fur trade because the beaver fur took little effort on the trader’s part. Traders simply traded goods with the Native Americans in the region in order to get pelts and other goods derived from the beaver back to their mother country. It was mostly this trade that had the largest negative effect on the Native Americans at the time.
Many Europeans imagined that the Americas had immense numbers of beavers. This is a depiction of America by one European who travelled to this area. It is interesting to note the large numbers of beavers. This points towards the fact that the European was very enticed by the beaver.
Before the Beaver Wars, and the race for fur in North America, the Native Americans had little conflict or communication with large European powers. Native American tribes had consistent conflicts with one another that were most likely due to competition over hunting grounds and other territorial disputes (Starna 726). However, as more Europeans came to North America and began trading European goods, such as tools, tobacco, liquor, sugar, and European clothes, with these Native Americans, there was a shift to more negative consequences and larger conflicts than before. This trade between the Native Americans and the traders created an unhealthy dependency on both parties. This trade and dependency led to alliances between European powers and Native American groups, which complicated the war and helped to usher the conflict into a war. These alliances became stronger because of competition between Native Americans for more trade. The objective for the Native Americans was almost always for more European goods. In order to get these goods, the Native Americans had to continue to trade with the European powers, which became more difficult as more and more tribes became involved. The competition for good hunting grounds continued and were a huge influence on beginning the war. France’s allies were the Algonquins, Montagnais, and Hurons, while the Iroquois found themselves allied with the English and the Dutch, although the Dutch played a smaller role in these conflicts and will eventually switch to ally with the French and their Native American allies (Starna 727). The traders became dependent on the Native Americans for their fur, and the Native Americans became dependent on European goods that could only be received through these European traders. These goods were mostly made of iron and other metals uncommon to their cultures, as well as other things like tobacco and liquor that will eventually lead to other problems for the Native Americans. As these dependencies grew for the Iroquois, and other tribes, on this trade for European goods, so did the competition between them and other tribes located nearby for good hunting grounds. This dependency that helped lead to conflict, only continued the wars. Over prolonged time of using European goods,
“survival skills that were learned over generations would be lost,” (Millward 277).
This is an artist’s rendition of trade between Europeans and Native American tribes.
Another artist rendition of the Iroquois enjoying European goods. Note that the people in this picture are wearing distinctly European clothes, not their traditional clothes.
While previously, young Iroquois boys were taught skills that would enable them to live in the wilderness for extended periods of time without assistance, these skills diminished over a relatively short period of time due to the introduction of newer tools and inventions into their culture (Millward 277). This is another negative product of the trade of the beaver. Native American customs and traditions were lost with their growing dependency on European goods.
As alliances grew and the wars continued on, the trading of firearms did not at all become uncommon. The trading of firearms not only complicated the relationships between the different tribes and between the different European powers, but it also worsened the conflicts between them. The use of firearms by the Native Americans made the Beaver Wars unnecessarily and gruesomely bloody. This dependency on firearms also took Native Americans away from their traditional forms of conflict, and therefore the long history of their style of war was lost.
An artist rendition of a conflict between Champlain (France) and the Iroquois.
Another European good that Native Americans were introduced to was liquor, which many grew unhealthy addictions to. Traders also used liquor in order to exploit the Native Americans that they were trading with. Wilbur Jacobs writes that the traders would often give Native Americans liquor during talks of trade because the Native Americans would become inebriated and the traders could take advantage more easily.
“The warriors could be literally robbed of their skins and furs while the rascally trader stole off into the night with his prize,” (Jacobs 138).
This exploitation of the Native Americans led to feelings among the tribes of vengefulness, and not wrongly so. W. A. Starna wrote about the traditional warfare of the Iroquois and relates it to the warfare fought during the Beaver Wars when he wrote,
“[the wars] fundamentally were fought to avenge perceived wrong committed by one people against another,” (Starna 727).
W. A. Starna used Iroquois traditional warfare in order to draw comparisons to their conflict with other Native American tribes, and their European counterparts, which in this case were the French. The Iroquois, throughout the war, felt an intense sense of ownership over their hunting ground, which was worsened by their need for more and more goods.
While this may, in the big picture, be a small part of a large, complex war, it is important in understanding the negativity and consequences of the introduction of these European goods to Native tribes. Historians have used vengefulness as a motive for the Iroquois and other tribes to continue these wars. There was an idea among the Iroquois tribesmen that if someone was murdered, it was justifiable to kill or capture the murderer. This led to many problems among the alliances. The Beaver Wars were not only spurred on by this moral thinking of the Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, but also led groups of Native Americans to seek for alliances with European powers. As alliances grew and became more and more complicated, so did the negative relationships between different Native groups. For these reasons, the wars continued on and continued to have negative consequences on North America and the people living there.
While there are many negatives to the Beaver wars and the trade that was done during this time, trade did bring about some positive consequences, mostly for certain European powers and the Iroquois, as well as positive long-term affects. The most substantial benefit of the Beaver Wars was the opening up of trade with the Great Lakes region. This trade not only economically benefitted European traders, but also benefitted European nations as a whole back home (Millward 281). The fact that this fur was so valuable meant the demand was extremely high. The beaver brought economic growth to European countries like England and France, as well as their colonies in Canada and America, by giving people in the colonies a steady income as fur traders. While being a fur trader was not necessarily easy, it had high pay-offs if the trader was successful. Bringing more money to individual families in the colonies benefitted the entire community.
Beaver hunting grounds of the Iroquois after the Nanfan Treaty.
The Beaver Wars did not end all conflict in the region for very long, but the Nanfan Treaty and Great Peace of Montreal are the treaties that officially ended the Beaver Wars in 1701 (Gallay 315). These treaties gave the English the control of the fur trade, and therefore dominance in America. These treaties did not push the French out of North America, but made their presence much smaller. The treaties not only gave the English dominance in trade, but also gave the Iroquois the dominance as their allied trade partners. This dominance by the English of America is the most important impact of the Beaver Wars. While there are many more wars fought between Europeans and Indians during and after this time period that led to the complete dominance of England in North America, the Beaver Wars solidified the British as dominating the North American continent, which will play an important role in North America much later with the formation of the thirteen colonies and later expansion (Gallay 315).
The Beaver Wars led to an important alliance between the Iroquois and the English that was extremely important in later politics. With the French and Indian War starting around 1750 and ending in about 1763, the relationship between the Iroquois and English played an important role in the outcome of future wars (Tucker 1031). The Iroquois, according to an account by William Johnson in 1763, were an important ally to the English against the French (Tucker 1032). William Johnson writes back to England that he was happy to,
“employ many parties of them [Iroquois] against the Enemy [French], who greatly harassed them,” (Tucker 1032).
With the help of the Iroquois, the English were able to win future wars and gain dominance in the North East of North America, finally pushing the French out of the colonies permanently.
The Beaver Wars were some of the most influential wars fought in North America because of the involvement of so many different countries. These wars had large influences on later years and wars fought in North America and the history of the United States. The impacts of the Beaver Wars are both positive and negative, but one the most important things that came from the Beaver Wars was the growing economy in Europe and North America, as well as the dominance of the English in North America.
Barr, Daniel P. “Born from Blood.” In Unconquered: The Iroquois League at War in Colonial America, 1-18. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006.
Barr, Daniel P. “Guns and Furs.” In Unconquered: The Iroquois League at War in Colonial America, 19-36. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006.
Francis, Daniel, and Toby Elaine Morantz. Partners in Furs a History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay, 1600-1870. Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983. 23-32.
Gallay, Alan. Colonial Wars of North America, 1512-1763: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1996.
Jacobs, Wilbur R.. 1953. “Unsavory Sidelights on the Colonial Fur trade”. New York History 34 (2). New York State Historical Association: 135–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23153301.
Millward, Robert. 2010. “How Could a Beaver Start a War?”. The History Teacher 43 (2). Society for History Education: 275-82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40543293.
Murray, L. J. “Fur Traders in Conversation.” Ethnohistory, 2003, 285-314.
Richards, John F. “Furs and Deerskins in Eastern North America.” In The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals, 1-54. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014.
Shannon, Timothy J. “Peace in the Balance.” In Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier, 11-46. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.
Sleeper-Smith, S. “Women, Kin, and Catholicism: New Perspectives on the Fur Trade.” Ethnohistory, 2000, 423-52.
Starna, W. A. “From the Mohawk-Mahican War to the Beaver Wars: Questioning the Pattern.”Ethnohistory, 2004, 725-50.
Taylor, Alan. 2002. “The Divided Ground: Upper Canada, New York, and the Iroquois Six Nations, 1783-1815”. Journal of the Early Republic 22 (1). University of Pennsylvania Press: 55–75. doi:10.2307/3124858.
Tucker, Spencer. The Encyclopedia of North American Colonial Conflicts to 1775 a Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Tucker, Spencer, James R. Arnold, and Roberta Wiener. 2011. The Encyclopedia of North American Indian wars, 1607-1890: A Political, Social, and Military history. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.
By Harper Snowden