The Great Peace of 1760

(Speech delivered at the Conference on Iroquois Research, Cornwall, Ontario, October 1-3, 2010)

by Darren Bonaparte


The summer of 2010 marks the quarter millennial of the Great Peace of 1760, which ended the major hostilities of the French and Indian War.

If you could go back in time to September 1st, 1760, and stand where we are now, you would have seen eleven thousand British troops in row galleys, whaleboats and batteau pass by here on their way to conquer Montreal.

If you were across the river, in the village of Kanatakon, less than two and a half miles to the southeast, you would have seen Sir William Johnson and 175 Rotinonshionni warriors coming ashore to smoke the pipe of peace with the early residents of Akwesasne.

It was one stop on a peacemaker’s trail that began at Oswegatchie and led to Kahnawake, the Great Council Fire of Tsiatak Nihononwentsiake, the Seven Nations of Canada.

At a peace council held in Kahnawake a week after the capitulation of Montreal, Sir William Johnson welcomed the Seven Nations back into the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship with the British.

Warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy and the Seven Nations formally “buried the hatchet” between them.

This was a pivotal moment in Rotinonshionni history, second only to the founding of the confederacy centuries before.

I can’t think of a better time or place to share the remarkable story of the Great Peace of 1760.

Tsiatak Nihononwentsiake: The Seven Nations of Canada

I once wrote about the Seven Nations of Canada as the “other” Iroquois Confederacy, but it could also be said that it was a Mohawk confederacy. Three Mohawk communitiesKahnawake, Kanehsatake, and Akwesasneformed the heart of it.

Another thing that defined the Seven Nations was Roman Catholicism, or rather, the Mohawk version of it.

Two of our largest, most important wampum belts had a big white crucifix in the center.

We called ourselves Onkwehonwe Teiaiasontha…the Original People Who Make the Sign of the Cross.

We had our own saint.

Jesuits ruled. At least we let them think they did.

And we were trading partners and military allies of the French.

Our alliance with the colony of New France sometimes brought us into conflict with the Mohawks we left behind.

It has been said that the Iroquois Confederacy “renounced” the so-called “praying Indians” for joining the French in campaigns against our own kin.

Yet it has also been said that the colonists never fully trusted their native allies because of those same family bonds.

The French and Indian War stretched those bonds almost to the breaking point.

Before I discuss this war, I must first address some of the confusion that naturally arises when people first encounter the Seven Nations.

It’s all about the name. Particularly, the use of the term nations.

The Seven Nations of Canada were really just five mission villages scattered throughout the St. Lawrence river valley. They’re called Seven Nations because one of those villages, Kanehsatake, had people from three different nationsthe Mohawk, Nipissing, and Algonquinliving in separate neighbourhoods.

Apparently the French found it less intimidating to tell the English “we’re here with the Five Villages,” than it was to say “we’re here with the Seven Nations.”

Membership in the alliance fluctuated over time, with communities coming and going, but the number seven eventually reasserted itself. Some Christians consider seven to be the number of spiritual perfection, God having rested on the seventh day of Creation.

But there may be a more aboriginal explanation.

Kahnawake once had a great wampum belt, given to them by the Huron in 1677.

The belt had a purple background and a white cross at the center with three rectangles on each side formed by the negative space of parallel rows of white.

This belt was displayed in a place of honor, above the altar in Kahnawake’s church.

1677 was long before there even were seven nations in this alliance, but one can see how such an important cultural icon, affixed as it was in such a holy place, might have served to inspire those who saw it.

I have already mentioned that Kahnawake, Kanehsatake and Akwesasne were part of this alliance.

The remaining members were the Onondagas of Oswegatchie, at what is now Ogdensburg, New York; Abenakis of Odanak, or St. Francis, near Trois-Riviere; the Hurons of Wendake, or Jeune-Lorette, near Quebec City; and eventually Wôlinak, an Abenaki community on the Becancour river.

Although these were not actually nations in the way that we understand the term today, we were large enoughand far enough away from the councils in our homelandsto warrant our own council fires.

We were frequently called domiciled Indians, but this is not the same thing as cultural assimilation.

The Seven Nations maintained our traditional languages, the clan system, clan mothers, life chiefs, condolence rituals, a calendar of ceremonies, and used wampum belts and strings when conducting official business.

In other words, we were not required to dump out our cultural pouch in order to put a rosary in.

Today there is a tendency to de-emphasize the role of Christianity in the establishment of these St. Lawrence communities. There were economic motivations as well.

By having Mohawk access to Montreal and Albany, the fur trading posts of two competing colonies, we gained an advantage over those who could only trade at one post or the other.

Colonial officials considered our use of the Lake Champlain corridor to be illicit, but there was little they could do about it without risking the loss of our people as allies.

Keep this “illicit trade” in mind, because this is one of the reasons why the Great Peace of 1760 is so relevant for us today.

The Bloody Morning Scout

A few years ago I had the opportunity to serve as a consultant on a PBS documentary about the French and Indian War called The War That Made America.

I urged the filmmakers to tell the story of what happened to the Mohawk Nation in the war, with our warriors fighting on both sides.

They went for it.

The following summer I found myself in the woods of Pennsylvania, watching my war party of 20 Rotinonshionni warriors marching down a trail to film a scene about a battle known as the “Bloody Morning Scout.”

In the real battle, there were some three hundred Mohawks led by the elderly chief known as King Hendrick, or Taiennoken. They were at the head of colonial militia, searching for French soldiers, Canadian militia, and their native allies in the woods near the southern end of Lake George, New York.

They found them.

The Journal of Major John Norton tells us that Hendrick and his warriors walked straight into an ambuscade. According to Norton,

In this Situation, they were surprised by a Caghnawague Man rising up and calling out in their Language, Of What Nation are you? They answered, We are Mohawks and Five Nations, of what People are you? He replied, We are Caghnawagues & other Tribes, the Children of Onontio; Stand aside, for our Father only makes War against the English, and does not desire to hurt any of his Children, the Native Tribes.

Someone behind King Hendrick grew tired of all this talk and fired his weapon. Everyone else fired theirs. The native allies of the French descended on the Mohawks for fierce, hand-to-hand combat with those who survived the volley.

I continue with Norton:

In this confusion, a Mohawk Warrior happened to encounter his friend, a Caghnawague, they saluted each other, and shook hands, in the meantime another came up, who making a Blow at the Mohawk, the latter parried it and killed him, a Second instantly rushed on, making similar attempt, he killed him also; His Friend stood a passive Spectator of the Slaughter of his Comrades: so strong was the Band of Friendship, that even when meeting in hostile array, it obliged them to spare each other.

The Caghnawague then exclaimed Oh my Friend, We have met in disagreeable circumstances: Let us then part. The Mohawk mixed in the Crowd, who could not distinguish him from their Friends, until he found a convenient opportunity of rejoining his party.

Not all of the encounters were this friendly. When the smoke cleared, some sixty Mohawk warriors lie dead on the battlefield, including King Hendrick. Thirty of the native warriors of the French were also killed.

It was one of the darkest days of Mohawk history. I say one of because there were other days like this in wars to come.

Sir William Johnson

The survivors of the ambush turned back and ran as fast as they could to the rest of their forces, who where busy making fortifications.

The man in charge of this was William Johnson, the Irish fur trader turned “Colonel of the Six Nations.”

When the French reached his fort, he opened fire with cannon, and in the words of one contemporary, blew “lanes, streets, and alleys” through them.

Johnson took a bullet in the backside, but still managed to win the day and capture the French commander. His victory got him knighted, and he was henceforth known as Sir William Johnson.

Now let us just pause for a moment and really consider this Sir William Johnson.

There were many Europeans throughout colonial history who successfully integrated themselves into aboriginal societies, usually as adopted captives. Johnson charmed his way in.

He had at least two sets of children with two Mohawk women, Elizabeth and Molly Brant, and possibly with one of Elizabeth’s younger sisters. It said that he is the sole reason why the name Johnson is so common throughout the confederacy.

Someone asked at the time if it was true that Johnson had more than a thousand kids among the Indians, and he was told that this was just frontier gossip and exaggeration. The real number couldn’t be more than three or four hundred!

The secret to Johnson’s success was that he made friends with the influential King Hendrick. He learned to speak Mohawk. And he gave better prices than the merchants of Albany.

Johnson’s Mohawk name was Warraghiyahgey. He understood it to mean “He Accomplishes Great Things” but it probably meant “He Cuts Down A Lot of Trees.”

Johnson was eventually adopted by the Mohawks and became so well-versed in our culture that he was able to conduct our condolence ceremony, as he did for the Onondaga chief Red Head.

But in spite of all that, he was still of the English world, and everything he did among the Indians was ultimately for the English. Grand councils were held in the back yard of his manor, but he spoke for the Crown as Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs.

In spite of the Mohawk losses at Lake George, he managed to persuade the rest of the confederacy to join in the war on the side of the British.

Johnson and his warriors could have prevented the British defeat at Fort William Henry in 1757, but General Webb told him to stay put.

It is said that Johnson was dressed Indian style in this meeting with Webb and tore off his clothing in disgust, something he had seen an old chief do in the past.

The Last of the Mohicans would have had a completely different ending if a naked and screaming Mel Gibson had come charging out of the woods with a tomahawk in hand with several hundred Iroquois warriors behind him!

In 1759, after his superior officer was killed in action, Johnson assumed command and conquered Fort Niagara with his warriors. Okay, there may have been some British troops involved as well.

The Great Peace of 1760

Leading up to the war, Johnson worked hard to get those of us living on the St. Lawrence to quit the French and return to our homelands.

In February of 1760, while the British made plans for their final march on Montreal, Johnson intensified those efforts. He sent delegates from the Iroquois Confederacy to talk peace with the native allies of the French.

We responded by saying that we couldn’t abandon the French because it was they who taught us to pray.

In the summer a massive invasion was launched against New France. It was a three-pronged attack.

One force came up the St. Lawrence from Quebec. Another came north via Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River.

Sir William Johnson and his Iroquois warriors descended the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario with eleven thousand troops under Major-General Jeffrey Amherst.

It was Amherst who ordered the infamous Roger’s Rangers to wipe out Odanak the year before. Abenaki survivors found refuge at Akwesasne.

By the time the British troops reached Oswegatchie and the small French Fort Levis on a nearby island, the Seven Nations of Canada sent runners to meet with Sir William Johnson.

The bulk of Johnson’s Iroquois warriors abandoned the British when they were refused the spoils of war when Fort Levis fell. He was left with 175. Joseph Brant, Cornplanter, and Handsome Lake were among them.

British forces would be vulnerable to attack when they reached the rapids that lay ahead.

On August 30, Johnson spent the whole day in council with them. A deal was struck. British troops were able to advance without opposition.

On September 1st, the main part of the British troops camped at Sir William Johnson’s Point, now known as Cornwall, Ontario, while detachments were sent ahead to Lake St. Francis.

The journal of Captain John Knox tells us,

Sir William Johnson and his Myrmidons went to Hasquesashnagh, a small Indian village of the five nations, to smoke the pipe of peace, and to assure them of our protection, upon their future good behavior.

Ten Akwesasne warriors joined Johnson and helped guide the British through the treacherous rapids between Lake Saint Francis and Montreal. Johnson would march into Montreal with a contingent of Seven Nations warriors as his bodyguards.

On September 6th, 8 chiefs surrendered themselves and their villages to General James Murray. Two Mohawks stormed into the room where all of this took place and threatened to kill them.

After five years of war, the bonds of brotherhood that prevented Mohawk from killing Mohawk at Lake George had reached their breaking point.

British officers stepped between them before the two sides came to blows.

Their native allies gone, the French surrendered Montreal without a shot fired in its defence.

A week later, on September 15th and 16th, Sir William Johnson held a great peace council at Kahnawake.

He formally confirmed the peace treaties made along the way to Montreal, and welcomed the Seven Nations of Canada back into the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship with Great Britain.

The transcripts of what Johnson said on the first day have not yet been found. The second day’s record was found and published in the Sir William Johnson Papers.

We know that Johnson assured the Seven Nations of the same things the French colonists had been promised in the capitulation. They could keep their land, keep their priests, and go about their business as formerly.

We know this because the English later reneged on that last bit. Their troops began to accost our people as they went paddling on the Lake Champlain corridor going about that business.

Johnson reminded Amherst of the promises made to the Seven Nations. Amherst ordered Johnson to assure them that

whatever promises have been made, they shall be strictly adhered to, and so long as they behave well, they shall have full liberty for a free and open trade.

You have to hand it to our ancestors. They not only saved their own hides by making a deal with the British, but they made a treaty right out of what was considered “illicit trade.”

The Six Nations gave a speech after Sir William Johnson on that first day. Based on the reply of the Seven Nations the next day, we know that they evoked the Great Law metaphor of “burying the hatchet.”

Here is what the Seven Nations said:

We heard and took to heart the good Words you spoke to us yesterday; We thank you most heartily for renewing and strengthning the old Covenant Chain which before this War subsisted between us, and we in the Name of every Nation here present assure you that we will hold fast the Same, for ever hereafter
We are greatly oblidged to you for opening the Road from this to your Country, we on our parts assure you to keep it clear of any Obstacle & use it in a friendly Manner
You desired us to deliver up your People who are still among us - As you have now settled all matters with us & we are become firm Friends. We who are present here as Representatives of 8 Nations do assure you that what you desired shall be fully agreed to as soon as possible
We also agreeable to your Desire yesterday will burry the french hatchet we have made Use of, in the bottomless Pit, never to be Seen more by us or our Posterity

According to the oral traditions of the Hurons of Lorette, a predominantly purple wampum belt held by the McCord Museum in Montreal was given to the Seven Nations at this time.

It shows a hatchet beneath a diamond. In other words, the hatchet was buried at the treaty of Kahnawake.

The Iroquois Confederacy have a white wampum belt in their possession that has seven purple crosses on it. The oral tradition, recorded in the 19th century, suggests that it may have been given to them at the Great Peace of 1760.

The Wolf Belt

There is a third belt that seems to be associated with this event.

It is a white belt with two figures with joined hands at the center. Two wolves face outward toward seven rows at the end.

Figures with joined hands were common in Covenant Chain belts of the era.

General Henry B. Carrington, a researcher for the census of 1890, recorded an oral tradition about this belt in the late 19th century. He wrote:

One wampum, now owned by Margaret Cook, the aged aunt of Running Deer, represents the treaty of George I with the Seven Nations. The king and the head chief are represented with joined hands, while on each side is a dog, watchful of danger, and the emblem is supposed to be the pledge: We will live together or die together. We promise this as long as water runs, skies do shine, and night brings rest.

Carrington doesn’t say so, but Margaret Cook refused to sell him the belt. He later went on to buy several other wampum belts from an Onondaga, including the Hiawatha belt.

Presumably, Margaret Cook then passed away, and the belt was then sold in 1896 by her nephew Chief Running Deer to anthropologist Harriet Converse, who then sold it to the New York State Museum. It was she who upgraded the dogs to wolves.

This wampum belt was repatriated in recent years to Akwesasne, thanks to the efforts of the three councils and their technicians.

On September 17th of this year, a day after the 250th anniversary of the conclusion of the Great Peace of 1760, it was carried across the St. Lawrence River by canoe from the Ronathahon:ni Cultural Centre on Kawehnoke to the Akwesasne Cultural Center on the opposite shore.

Before the journey began, the last of the Seven Nations life chiefs, Rotinonkwiseres Ernest Benedict, gave an opening address with the Wolf Belt across his lap. In his comments, he acknowledged the belt’s connection to Tsiatak Nihonowentsiake, the Seven Nations of Canada.

Throughout his long life, Ernest Benedict worked tirelessly to restore those family bonds I talked about earlier. In his calm, soft-spoken way, he showed us the path back to our rightful place in the longhouse. He has continued the work of the Peacemakers of 1760.

For those of you who have heard my words today, may the spirit of peace and friendship be with you as long as waters run, skies do shine and night brings rest. Niawen-kowa.