New York, New France: French Ambitions on Oneida Lake in 1634
Published in the New York Almanack, November 30, 2021
When a Dutchman, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, travelled from Albany (then Fort Orange) to the main village of the Oneidas in the dead of winter 1634, he was on a mission to thwart the French, who had found their way to Oneida Lake. In the struggle for influence in Iroquoia, there was no time to lose. The Dutch had a firm hold on the Hudson valley at this point and a profitable relationship with the Mohawks, but New Netherland’s trade was threatened by New France, which controlled the St. Lawrence River from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic.
The Dutch were in Fort Orange for fur. Indians from the Hudson valley and Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, people from the Mohawk valley and further west supplied pelts of beaver and other animals in exchange for European tools, wampum, and other commodities. The French had been doing the same along the St. Lawrence since the early days of New France, extending back (with some interruptions) to the voyages of Jacques Cartier in the first half of the sixteenth century. Indians in Canada brought pelts to French trading posts along the St. Lawrence which were taken back to France in a highly lucrative trade.
Early contact between the French and the Haudenosaunee who lived across what is now upstate New York was hostile. Haudenosaunee raids disrupted French trade in the early seventeenth century. Samuel de Champlain, the governor of New France, happily joined Native allies in war raids against the Haudenosaunee. In 1615, he went with a group of Indians from what is now Canada to attack an Oneida or Onondaga village. On the way, he crossed the Oneida River and took notes on Oneida Lake that he published in his Voyages de la Nouvelle France (1632).Champlain was injured in the failed attack and retreated, but not before using arquebus guns against the Haudenosaunee and attempting to burn their village.
Franco-Haudenosaunee animosity played into the hands of the Dutch. But in 1634, a truce was agreed between the Haudenosaunee and the French-Allied Indians. In the summer of that year, Frenchmen arrived on Oneida Lake to trade, presumably having come from Lake Ontario and via the Oswego and Oneida Rivers. The area was still only vaguely known to Europeans. Champlain’s map of New France of 1632 shows the extent of their geographic understanding at the time. Lake Ontario (called Lac St. Louis) is depicted with several rivers flowing into it. The one alongside which the number 93 sits may represent the Salmon River but is more likely (given the islands depicted near it) the Black River. In the map’s key, number 93 reads: “Chestnut forest where there are abundant chestnuts on the shore of Lake St. Louis, with meadows, vines, and nut-trees.” The number 89 reads: “Village fortified by four palisades, where Sieur de Champlain went in the war against the Antouhonorons, where several savages were taken prisoners.” Champlain identifies Antouhonorons with “Yroquois” or “Hiroquois” (Iroquois), who “make war on all other nations” around them. The lake shown above the number 89 may represent Oneida Lake, or Onondaga Lake.
A French trading post on Oneida Lake would have been disastrous for New Netherland as it could have deprived the colony of all pelts taken from points west of Mohawk territory. Van Den Bogaert noted that trade at Fort Orange was going badly in 1634 and travelled by foot to the Oneida village over a hundred miles away through snow and freezing temperatures to try to negotiate with the Oneidas. When he reached the village, he could see Oneida Lake in the distance and was told by the Indians that this is where six Frenchmen had come the previous August to trade. In the Oneida village, Van Den Bogaert found evidence of the visit – French-made shirts, coats, razors, and axes. The Indians said that the French were offering more than the Dutch for their pelts and called Van Den Bogaert and his companions “scoundrels.” Van Den Bogaert managed to negotiate a new deal with the Oneidas, which he promised to convey to his superiors in Manhattan.
The fascinating story of Van den Bogaert’s winter trek to Oneida is recorded in his diary, which is available with commentary in A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-5. But what of the French side of the story? If the French arrival on Oneida Lake was part of an orchestrated strategy to take advantage of the truce and to create Haudenosaunee trade partnerships, there is no indication of it in the extremely detailed records of New France known as the Jesuit Relations. The men who came to Oneida Lake may have been truchements, or interpreters, groups of whom Champlain had sent out to establish contacts with Native peoples in the Great Lakes region between 1611 and 1635. It is possible that the Frenchmen who came to Oneida Lake did so without any official instruction or mission from the administration of New France. As David Hackett Fisher explains in his biography of Champlain, the truchements and the coureurs de bois who followed them, often acted independently, sometimes in conflict with official orders.
In 1635, Champlain died. The truce between the Haudenosaunee and the French-allied Indians of Canada broke down and the so-called “Beaver Wars” carried on through most of the remainder of the seventeenth century. The idea of a permanent French trading post on Oneida Lake resurfaced several times, but never materialized. It is interesting to speculate, however, on what might have happened if the Dutch hadn’t reached out to the Oneidas in 1634. French influence among the Haudenosaunee could have gained the upper hand and a firm partnership with the French – rather than the one with the Dutch, and later, the English – could have been the result. If it had, much of what became New York might have been New France instead.