Conflict for a continent

Posted: Jul 04, 2006 12:01 AM

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.

Under the leadership of the courageous Samuel de Champlain, French objectives were the rich fur trade and the conversion of the Indians. Champlain made the hazardous passage across the Atlantic no less than twenty times between 1603 and 1633. He founded Quebec City in 1608. From this outpost, trappers and traders—known as coureurs de bois (forest runners)—ranged deep into the interior of the continent. These adventurous French Canadians traveled as far as the Dakotas before the English had advanced to the crest of the Appalachians.

Far ahead of his time, Champlain saw Canada as an ideal location for New France, for the building up of a distinct society in the New World. But the royal government at Versailles was unwilling to send political or religious dissidents, or even criminals, to populate New France. Thus, French colonization never achieved the impact that massive English emigration did in the Atlantic colonies. This fact also contributed to the generally more favorable relations the French enjoyed with the Indian tribes. Their settlements, largely trading posts, intruded less on the Indian way of life. Unlike the English, where the marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas was an exception, the French coureurs were more likely to take Indian wives.

French missionary efforts saw notable success among the Huron Indians but met the hostility of the Iroquois Confederation. Young, zealous Catholic priests of the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits—were especially active among the tribes. Father Isaac Jogues ventured from Quebec City in 1636. He preached the gospel a thousand miles in the interior, as the historian George Bancroft noted, “five years before [Protestant missionary] John Eliot addressed the Indians six miles from Boston Harbour.” He proposed to convert the Indians of Lake Superior and even to send missionaries to the Sioux in the distant Dakotas.

But Isaac Jogues’s bold vision was not realized. He was taken captive in 1642 by Mohawks, members of the Iroquois Confederation. He was seized some forty miles from the Dutch settlement at Fort Orange, present-day Albany. Tortured and held in slavery for months, Jogues finally escaped. He made his way to New Amsterdam, where he was kindly treated by the Dutch. Making his way back to France, Jogues was treated as a virtual Lazarus, a man returned from the dead. He created a sensation in France. Despite the fact that several of his fingers had been eaten by his captors, he was allowed by the pope to celebrate Mass.

Disregarding his wounds, Father Jogues returned to Canada and set out once again in 1646 as a missionary to the Mohawks. As a result of his ordeal, he had learned several Indian languages. At first, he was well received by his former captors. Soon, however, disease broke out among the tribes and their crops failed. Some among the Mohawks blamed this on the “black robes”—as the Jesuits were known to the Indians. Jogues and a companion were recaptured. Stripped naked, beaten, slashed with knives, Jogues was led into the Indian village. As he entered a cabin, he was killed with a tomahawk. This, and the very similar fate of Jean de Brebeuf and several other young Jesuits, led the Catholic Church to declare Isaac Jogues and his brothers martyrs and saints.

The French mastered the internal waterways of the North American continent. Voyageurs—who succeeded the coureurs—set forth in birch bark canoes with nearly the same skill as the Indians. In 1682, the Sieur de La Salle managed an incredible feat: he sailed and rowed down the Mississippi River to a point below the site of present-day New Orleans. La Salle claimed the whole region for France and named it for King Louis XIV—Louisiana. (On a second voyage, this time to the Texas coast, La Salle was murdered by his own men. They were themselves then massacred by the Comanche tribe—a testament to the continued dangers of exploration.)

The French sought control of the Ohio River, a major tributary of the Mississippi. The region was rich in furs. To get them, they had to ward off the English. With the aid of Indian allies, the French staged raids against the neighboring colonies. The governor of New France was the fierce Louis de Bouade, the comte de Frontenac. He used his Indian forces to terrorize the English settlements on the frontiers of New York and New England in 1690–92. Frontenac reasoned if he could terrorize the English in their home colonies, they would not move west into the Ohio Valley. Massacres of women and children, accompanied by scalping and the torture of victims, embittered the two nations against one another—and their colonists were especially hostile.