French-Indian Alliance, 1673-1712

by James E. Lewis Jr., Ph. D., Kalamazoo College


 

During the last quarter of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries, the native peoples of the Great Lakes region and the French in Canada and Louisiana crafted a complex relationship that would continue to shape native expectations of European-Indian interactions for decades to come. What the French needed were allies against the Iroquois and English and trading partners. What the Indians of the pays d'en haut (the "upper country" around the Great Lakes) needed was protection against the Iroquois, access to European trade goods, and assistance in mediating the differences between the tribes, clans, and villages that had been thrown together by the Iroquois Wars. The alliance--what one historian describes as "the middle ground"--that came together in the pays d'en haut looked very different from anything seen in European diplomacy. The French gained influence over their various allies through methods that were much more in keeping with Indian diplomacy and culture than their own. Holding the alliance together and making it serve their purposes required the French to meet the needs of their Indian allies at a great expense of time and effort and in ways that were entirely alien to their thinking.

The alliance between the French and the Indians in the pays d'en haut was easily shaken. The French occasionally decided that they no longer needed assistance against the Iroquois or the English. Or they decided to save money by cutting back on their gift giving. Or they failed to provide sufficient trade goods at the customary prices. The alliance was temporarily disrupted whenever a new governor was sent to Canada; he had to learn what his predecessors had learned about how to manage things. It also suffered whenever the French decided that they should be able to dominate their Indian allies, particularly when they attempted to destroy, rather than just chastise, their opponents within the alliance. And there were also times when the Indians opposed French mediation efforts or decided that they did not need French protection.