Perils of the Trail

I spoke previously of Jacques Beauchamp, voyageur, an ancestor who had traveled with Alexander MacKenzie on his voyage to the Pacific in 1793 and was later killed by Eskimos (see A Dangerous Business)  Today I came across an account of his widow from the book North of Athabasca edited by Lloyd Keith. The account is taken from the journals of James Porter, factor of the Slave Lake Post from 1798 to 1801.

After dark on a cold and blowing November day, a woman arrived with her two children, apparently seeking sustenance and shelter from the weather. She was the widow of Jacques Beauchamp, one of the men who accompanied Alexander Mackenzie on his trek in 1793 to the Pacific Ocean.  Afterwards, he apparently remained in the north, for he was one of the engages who served under Duncan Livingston at the Trout River Post over the 1798-1799 trading season. In June of 1799, Beauchamp acted as Mckenzie’s steersman on the way down the Mckenzie River to establish the trade with the Esquimaux. As mentioned in the previous section,  the traders were attacked ( by whom is still controversial), and all the Nor’Westers including Beauchamp were killed. As sometimes happened in the fur trade, the family was left unprotected and had to fend for themselves. In this case, the woman and her children remained at Slave Lake Post , presumably receiving sustenance form Porter for eleven days. She then left with an unidentified Indian who arrived at the post the day before. At least she had found some protection for herself and her children.”

There remained some controversy over the murders of Livingston and his men. Was it really the Esquimaux who he intended to trade with or some of the Indians he had hired as labourers?  Attacks like this were common and paint a less romantic picture of the life of a voyageur. What happened to Jacque’s wife and children? More hours of research.

An Eloquent Racism

If you are Canadian, you may have grown up with a subliminal awareness of the differences between us and our American neighbors. You would be hard-pressed to find it described more eloquently than in the writings of Francis Parkman. Parkman was the son of a wealthy Boston family who attended Harvard. He spent time living with the Sioux in 1846  where he saw the effects of disease and alcoholism. He also suffered from ill health and lived through the Civil War.  His descriptions of native people and pioneering French  are a bit jarring though he does make feeble attempt to counter that along the way. To some degree it was like reading a western novel. All his books are wonderfully descriptive especially of the forest environment which was his passion.

From The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian Wars (published in 1887) ;
With steady and well ordered march, the troops advanced into the great labyrinth of woods which shadowed the eastern borders of the river. Rank after rank vanished from site. The forest swallowed them up and the silence of the wilderness sank down once more on the shores of the Monongahela.”

His descriptions of  “the Indian”,
” … Some races, like some metals, combine the greatest flexibility with the greatest strength. But the Indian is hewn out of a rock. You can rarely change the form without destruction of the substance . . . . . it is this fixed and rigid quality which has proved his ruin. He will not learn the arts of civilization, and he and his forest must perish together.”
He is never jovial in his cups, and maudlin sorrow or maniacal rage is the sole result of his potations.”

Then the author redeems himself,
And our interest increases when we discern in the unhappy wanderer the germs of heroic virtues mingled among his vices,  — a hand bountiful to bestow as it is rapacious to seize,  and even in extremest famine,  imparting its last morsel to a fellow-sufferer;  a heart which,  strong in friendship as in hate, thinks it not too much to lay down life for its chosen comrade;  a soul true to its own idea of honor, and burning with an unquenchable thirst for greatness and renown.”

He is trained to conceal passion and not subdue it. . . . . This shallow self-mastery serves to give dignity to public deliberation and harmony to social life.  Wrangling and quarrel are strangers to an Indian dwelling.”

He looks up with admiring reverence to the sages and heroes of his tribe;  and it is this principal, joined to the respect for age, springing from the patriarchal element in his social system, which, beyond all others,  contributes union and harmony to the erratic members of an Indian community.” 

He is able to distill down a description of the differences between the French and English colonies.
In the valley of the St. Lawrence, and along the coasts of the Atlantic,  adverse principles contended for the mastery.  Feudalism stood arrayed against Democracy;  Popery against Protestantism;  the sword against the ploughshare.  The priest, the soldier, and the noble, ruled in Canada.  The ignorant light-hearted peasant knew nothing and cared nothing about popular rights and civil liberties. Born to obey, he lived in contented submission, without the wish or the capacity for self-rule. “

“The settlements along the margin of the St.Lawrence were like a camp, where an army lay at rest, ready for the march or the battle, and where war and adventure, not trade and tillage, seemed the chief aims of life. . . . . Over every cluster of small white houses glittered the sacred emblem of the cross. . . . .and in the towns and villages, one met at each moment the black robe of the Jesuit, the gray garb of the Recollet, and the formal habit of the Ursuline nun.”

“Buoyant and gay, like his ancestry of France, he made the frozen wilderness ring with merriment, answered the surly howling of the pine forest with peals of laughter, and warmed with revelry the groaning ice of the St. Lawrence. Careless and thoughtless, he lived happy in the midst of poverty, content if he could but gain the means to fill his tobacco-pouch, and decorate the cap of his mistress with a ribbon. The example of a beggared nobility, who proud and penniless, could only assert their rank by idleness and ostentation, was not lost upon him. “

Again, the author admits to some redemption when he writes that the Canadian is ” a rightful heir to French bravery and French restlessness “,  and found  “ ample scope in the service of the fur-trade, the engrossing occupation and chief source of income to the colony.” He states that the fur-trade engendered a peculiar class of restless “bush-rangers” more akin to Indians than white man which allowed him to explore and gain for France tremendous territory, establishing forts and missions all through the western wilderness.  Surrounding these outposts, were small villages of Canadians who lived under their protection. Here agriculture was given up to the fur-trade and the “restless, roving Canadians, scattered abroad on their wild vocation, allied themselves to Indian women and filled the woods with a mongrel race of bushrangers.

Meanwhile the English settlers below them, burgeoned and grew in industry but “the independence of authority, which were the source of their increase, were adverse to that unity of counsel and promptitude of action which are the soul of war. In Canada, “the priest and the soldier went hand in hand; and the cross and the fleur de lis were planted side by side.” 

Making Good

I am in receipt of a translation of the book,  “Habitants and Merchants in Seventeenth Century Montreal”, the original written in French in 1974 by Louise Dechêne a professor at McGill university. This version was translated by Liana Vardi in 1992. I won’t go into the trouble I went to to find a copy as well as avoid exhorbitant fees for it.  All I can say is thank you Amazon.com. Note it was the American site that worked for my purposes. Fortunately, I don’t live too far from the border. The book is considered to be somewhat of a “holy grail” in researching New France. It has much quantative information in it to give a more certain idea of what it was actually like in Montreal at that time.

Imagine my surprise when I was doing an initial browse through the book and I came upon the name of my 5th great uncle, Jacques Beauchamp! This was not the first time I got a sense of the type of person he was. He just seems to be well-known in the community. With a dit name like Le Grande (as opposed to Jean’s dit name of le Petite), one imagines a rather boisterous personality. To quote Madame Dechêne, speaking of an inventory, of death assetts,

“Jacques Beauchamp of Pointe-aux-Trembles owned such a house. He died at the age of fifty-eight, leaving behind a widow, five married daughters, two boys aged fifteen and seventeen, and a net worth of 3000 livres. ” Then after describing living conditions, she states ” Beauchamps’ wardrobe consisted of the basics: a coat, a jerkin (a sleeveless leather jacket), and because nothing  was ever thrown out, a second worn out and worthless jerkin, a pair of hide hose, woollen breeches, a hat, a pair of shoes, stockings, four used shirts and two nightcaps worth altogether no more than 40 or 50 livres.”  At this point, the author is disputing the reputation the habitants had for strutting about in their finery, illustrating their ignorance of agricultural life.  She wonders how people who lived with so little could possibly have the means to own such clothing. At any rate, 3000 livres was a fairly good sum for the times according the table of assets she presents.

In her opening chapter, Dechene says that until 1668, the settled population of aboriginals at the fort was nearly double that of the French. Some came for protection, some to attend the Jesuit or Supulcian missions. In the summer there would be a huge fur trade fair where hundreds of people from the different nations would visit and trade for fur. The governor would greet the native leaders with great ceremony. Care was supposedly taken to prevent the molestation of the native people by the French but did not preclude them dropping half the value of their trade goods on liquor even after the fair.

At Sunday Mass, the colonists would again be in contact with the aboriginal people. Their children attended the same school, each sex being trained in useful skills. This did not apply to the country children who were only taught catechism or the Christian doctrine. Native people near the fort were allowed to grow subsistence crops but could never own land. The movement to new land when the soil wore out was not possible for them once the surrounding land was granted to French colonists. This caused a migration away from the fort the land further away. So although initially, the King had granted the right to farm for subsistence, the lands returned to the Jesuits and Supulcians in this way and they could then collect dues from the French. Some were encouraged to build in the European way but problems arose there also. Cattle grazed in the cornfield once the wheat was up and the native men went away hunting in winter leaving the women with farm chores they could not do on their own. The French kept them in debt by supplying them with the things they needed which was repaid with furs.  Many did military service for mere subsistence. The concensus was that to actually pay them would be a waste since they would only drink it away. When they did drink there was often violence but justice was stalled to keep relations going.

There were few known inter-racial marriages in Montreal, neither race accepted it. Some women were kept in the country, the “country wives” but generally immoral behaviour was not sanctioned by either the French or native. An illegitimate child might be born occasionally but there was no racial blending as there would be later in the West. In the end, the colony of New France served itself. The emigrants were at least given a vehicle to establish themselves in the colony but the native people found no way to win . Both started in poverty but it would only change for one group. The other would be displaced.

The Ending of Hostilities

The story of how peace came to be between the Five Nations varies but I will tell the one most interesting to me. The Holy Man, Dekanawidah, born of a virgin mother in the 16th century, had a vision telling of peace among the Iroqouis nations. He travelled the land in a white canoe telling the people that they must cease their mourning wars and unite under the Great Tree of Peace. One day, he found his way blocked by a man who had sunk to extreme depths after the death of his family and had become a cannibal. Dekanawidah went to the man’s cabin and climbed onto the roof to wait for his return. When he returned with his latest victim, Dekanawida peered down into the cooking pot from a smoke hole above. The man saw the reflection  in the water and thought it was a noble and peaceful version of himself. Feeling remorse, he emptied the kettle and resolved to stop killing.

Dekanawidah climbed down from the roof and spoke the message of peace. The man offered himself as a disciple and was named Hiawatha, meaning “he who combs”, symbolizing the combing and straightening of people’s minds. Hiawatha took his message to the fierce Seneca, the last to yield. Finally, his diplomacy won and the Five Nations clasped hands. Then Dekanawidah planted a white Tree of Peace whose roots spread to the four corners of the earth so all could follow them and seek shelter. On the top of the tree, he placed the Eagle That Sees Afar, a symbol of military preparedness. He put antlers on the heads of the 50 Iroqouis chiefs and gave them the Words of the Law, said to help set the framework of the American Constitution, notably that of government by representation. With confederacy, the Iroqouis became the most powerful tribes on the continent, confident and strong., though not strong enough to fight the diseases and military power of the white man.

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Lords of the Forest Part 2

The land of the Iroqouis was one of great fertility and beauty and formed a large rectangle which was divided into five north-south strips, one to each tribe. Each area had its own lake or river system and was governed by it’s own council. Each council had a ceremonial fire, the smoke of which together was seen as a giant longhouse, more than 200 miles from end to end. The eastern door of this symbolic longhouse was guarded by the Mohawk tribe. The western door was protected by the Seneca’s. In between were the Oneidas and Cayugas and between them were the Onondagas. By the late 1600’s, as other tribes were defeated, the influence of the Longhouse spread from New England to the Mississippi and from Ontario to Tennesseeiroquois-five-nations-1650

The Seneca in 1680, numbered near 5,000 and that population contained 1,000 of the fiercest warriors in America. The settlement contained four main villages with 150 longhouses. The longhouse was a rectangular structure made from poles and sheets of bark.  It could measure up to 150 feet long and 25 feet wide. At each end would be painted the symbol of that particular clan. Inside, every 12 feet, a small fire burned, the smoke rising up through vents in the roof.  Along the walls, were platforms, one upper for storage and one lower for sleeping, each partitioned off to accomodate a whole family. From the rafters hung braids of corn, strings of dried apples and squash, hanks of tobacco and bundles of roots. Each family occupied a position in the whole, part of a family descended down from the mother’s line for the Iroqouis were a matrilineal society. The women owned all material goods except for the men’s personal belongings. When a boy married, he moved into his brides house and when a girl married, her husband joined her family.

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Longhouse Interior

The lineage ran from family to clan to half-tribe and then whole tribe. Children had to marry outside of their own clan and preferably not to a blood relation. It was in the power of a woman, if her husband was killed to demand compensation in the form of an enemy captive. When the captive was brought, she could adopt him or have him tortured or even killed.

A matriarchal society was the natural outcome of the life of the men in the tribe who spent vast amounts of time away, at war, hunting or searching for beaver to trade. They could be away as long as three months. This left most of the camp maintenance up to the women who worked tirelessly, harvesting up to a million bushels of corn a year as well as squash, beans and sunflower seeds. Corn, squash and beans were known as “the three sisters” and were planted with each other.  Corn would provide the stalk for beans to grow up and squash would shelter the earth from the heat.  Surplus food was stored in underground granaries. When their husbands came home loaded with meat from deer, elk or beaver carcasses, a feast would be held with stews made with meat and vegetables, corn dumplings, mushrooms, baked apples, nuts and berries. (It is interesting to note that these people were among the first Amerindians to have tooth decay as corn turned to sugar in their mouths. The northern peoples had strong cavity free teeth, though their gums may have suffered.)

Of course, the most important role of an Iroqouis woman was to bear children. When her time came, she would quietly slip off and the baby would be born in the privacy of trees and shadow. The child was washed, wrapped and carried back to the waiting village. The mother would nurse him until three or four years of age. When the mother must travel or was otherwise busy, she would place the baby in a “tikinaagan” or cradleboard which could be attached to a horse or stood on the ground while she worked. If she carried a pack, the strap would be across her forehead, otherwise on her chest or arms. Below an older child who probably did not enjoy being constrained. Being confined in these cradleboards often resulted in hip displacement as it forced the femur into an unnatural position.

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Mohawk Cradleboard

As the Iroqouis child grew, often with his father absent, his mother would be sure that he was loved but not spoiled. Children were taught from an early age their gender role, boys fighting each other with pretend clubs and girls learning their role by following their mothers to the fields. They were taught to eat sparingly and were bathed in cold water to toughen them. Corn played a large part in the care of children, being used to bandage fingers, deworm with a brew from corn ashes and scrub with the cob when they were dirty.

From the age of eight years, each child began to practice the role they would play. At puberty,  a boy would make a trip into the forest with an elder to find his guardian spirit, a vision quest. He might throw himself against rocks repeatedly to prove his manhood and recount his dreams in detail to determine with the elder,  what his guardian spirit would be. There was no greater day for a young man, than when he rode off to his first battle at around age eighteen.

The Seneca, “keepers of the western door” were rivaled in their ferocity only by their eastern brothers, the Mohawk. The name “Iroqouis” was given to them by the Algonquian, meaning “Nation of Snakes”. Their style of fighting was ambush, their weapons as silent as the mocassined runners themselves;  tomahawk, bow, arrow and knife often made of flint sharpened to a razors edge.  The sound of the hatchet in a tree meant it was time to go on the warpath, generally to avenge the death of one of the tribe. After a raid, a tree would be emblazoned with the clan symbol and a count of victims and captives.

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Weapons Used by the Woodland Indians

The fate of a captive was not a happy one. At first, his wrists would be tied in a symbolic slave band, then he might be beaten, bitten or burned. When they arrived at the village he would have to “run the guantlet”. If he survived this, he might be adopted by the tribe as the women and children were.  If the tribe’s women were still bitter about the loss of their loved ones, the prisoner was doomed.  They might poke him with red hot embers, tear his hair out and set fire to the cords he was bound with. They might pull out his nails and take slices of flesh, perhaps eating some of them to symbolically ingest his wisdom and strength.

Something would have to happen to stop the inter-tribal warfare that could decimate the whole Iroqouis population.

Lords of the Forest

Who were the aboriginal people that the early explorers and immigrants met in New France? In the beginning, around 11,000 BC, depending on which school of archaelogical thought you follow, Asian hunters from Siberia crossed over the Berengia land bridge created during the last Ice Age. That was between Russia and Alaska. They then followed an ice corridor all the way down to Patagonia. When the ice retreated, they travelled back north bringing with them many of the things they had used in the south, such as the corn, beans and squash, the Iroqouis grew.

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Routes of the First Americans

The earliest evidence of human existence in Canada is found 10,000 years ago in Nova Scotia,  Alberta and British Columbia. Again, this is using the conservative school of thought which says there must be material that can be carbon-dated.  About 8000 BC, the climate started to change drastically. The ice started to melt and raise the sea-level which covered Beringia. 5000 years ago, the climate stabilized to what it is today and the Bering Straight gained its present width of 80 km. Land animals and people from inner Asia no longer crossed, rather, it was sea mammal hunters and fishers that traded across the strait. Now, the population grew through natural increase rather than migration.

Between 3500 and 2000 years ago, the Mayan society developed using highways and building temples, all with stone tools. The Incas developed irrigation systems and built bridges and roads. They farmed more than 100 species of plants. In Ohio, giant mounds were built in different shapes and large towns were developed. Those people were replaced by the Missippians whose agriculture methods were later used by the Iroqouians. By the mid 15th century the Amerindian population reached 1,000,000 people. Half a million  of these people lived in what was to become Canada. That population would drop by 90% after European contact because of disease.

By 1492, northeastern America was covered by a dense canopy of trees which swept from the frozen north to the swampy south. The soil was rich and fertile. This was the home of the Algonquian people who were primarily hunter-gatherers. They hunted moose, beaver, fish and duck which were often preserved by smoking. Their nomadic way of life required a portable shelter or wigwam. Four saplings were tied together and covered by long strips of bark which were sewn together. Swamp grass lined the inside to keep out moisture. Fir branches covered with moose hides made both floor and beds. Moose hide also provided clothing which was decorated with quills, eagle feathers and shells. They also wore beaded jewellery.

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Clothing of the Woodland Indians

The Iroquois people lived on land which stretched from upper New York state and desended on the west to the St. Lawrence Valley, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. They were known as ” the romans of the new world” and “kinsmen of the wolves” for their savagery. The tribes that arose in the early 14th century in New York state were mutually hostile which in the end, was part of the reason for their decline. They eventually grew and formed a confederacy of five tribes that terrorized the Algonquian and dissident Iroquois tribes including the Huron. By the 17th century, they controlled an area from Maine to the Mississippi River.

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Iroqouis Confederacy 1600

The Intrepids

Canada would indeed not exist without the courage and persistance of a few intrepid souls. From the explorers Cabot and Cartier to Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec,  who himself went to the great Richelieu for help in establishing the foundling colony. The Canada that my ancestors came to was hardly different than it had been for hundreds of years. It was primarily inhabited by aboriginal peoples who had migrated here following the melting glaciers. As they came, they developed means of survival appropriate to their surroundings, fishing on the coasts, hunting first the giant mammoths and then the bison on the prairies, learning to cultivate corn in the east. Among them trade networks developed and wars were fought.

When explorers and fishermen sailed from Europe to Canada, they brought disease with them, measles, tuberculosis and smallpox which soon decimated the aboriginal populations. Rats poured off the ships and the seeds of foreign plants were carried in on the bottoms of shoes. In 1603,  Champlain arrived at Stadacona, later to be called Quebec and set up a small fort. The men soon got scurvy but were helped by the Montagnais, who brought them pine tea to drink. They also brought furs to trade which would keep the little company going. Champlain embraced the aboriginal way of life and was soon going with them on their travels. As he travelled he drew maps and pictures of what he saw.

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                    Habitation at Quebec                            Charny-Wikimedia

In 1615, he travelled 1000 miles to the home of the Huron people. What he saw surprised him, the Huron people were farmers and they were settled. They grew squash, corn, beans and tobacco which they traded along the lakes and rivers of northern Ontario and Quebec. The Huron homeland was on a small peninsula on Georgian Bay, in Lake Huron where more than 20,000 people lived. This was the Huron Confederacy, a nation of matriarchal tribes. The women chose the chiefs.

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The enemies of the Huron were the Iroquois which means “rattlesnake”,  a name given them by the Huron. They called themselves the People of the Longhouse. The Iroquois spoke the same language and lived the same lifestyle but were age-old enemies. Since the French had arrived they were fighting for control of the fur trade routes. Atironta, the Huron war leader,  had asked Champlain to fight alongside the Hurons to which he agreed since the colony was dependent on the furs brought to them.  The attack failed and Champlain was wounded in the knee but the French were now Huron allies. At the same time, Catholic missionaries started to come to Huron country looking for conversions, among them, Jean de Brebeuf.

Champlain was determined to make New France a permanent settlement believing it would bring wealth and honor to his King and country. Soon labourers, artisans and farmers began to arrive, among them Louis and Marie Hebert, the first settlers of Quebec. A sailor named Abraham Martin also arrived in 1620 and farmed where the Plains of Abraham stand. Soon, religious orders began to arrive, the Ursuline teaching  nuns and Paul de Maissoneuve founder of Ville Marie,  to whom my ancestors would be connected.

Champlain for his part was kept very busy up to his death in 1635, he was continually sailing back and forth to France looking for support from the King or to publish his books. His marriage to Helene Boullé, 31 years his junior had been made mainly to gain him respectability. She spent most of her life in France, spending only 4 years in Quebec after which she entered a convent. Champlain became known as the Father of New France.

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    Samuel de Champlain           H.D. Holmfeldt

If your are interested in how the Woodland people lived you can watch this film.