Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Family Affair

On June 11, 1636 a family of French immigrants arrived in Québec. The principal members of this family, the LeGardeur family of Normandy, were destined to become some of the most powerful men in New France. But the most interesting person in the group, at least from my perspective, was a little girl named Anne LeNeuf. I am descended from her.

Four years old, Anne arrived in New France with her thirty-five year old father Michel LeNeuf, her widowed grandmother Jeanne Le Marchand LeNeuf, her aunt Marie LeNeuf and her uncle Jacques LeNeuf de la Poterie and his family.

Anne’s uncle Jacques was married to Marguerite LeGardeur and that is why Anne and her family were with the LeGardeur family. The LeGardeurs and the LeNeufs were not by any means the first French persons to set foot on North American soil; they may not even have been the first members of my family to come to North America. They were, however, among the first European settlers to arrive in North America as a family with a young child.

Anne's father and uncle were fur traders. They were not traders in the style of the later 19th century Mountain Men, roaming the wilds of North America in search of furs. No, the French did not, at first, travel deep into the continent in search of furs. It was not encouraged by the French government. The continent was to be left to the "savages" and the missionaries, Frenchmen would set up small civilized posts and trade from these posts. Only a few explorers, licensed to look for the mythic Northwest passage, would head into the interior.

And, for a time, this worked. The Huron and the Algonquian were the principal trading partners of the French, acting as middlemen between the French and the northern and western tribes who did not travel to the St. Lawrence river valley. As far as the French government was concerned, the Huron would control their own territories and their own alliances, and would conduct trade throughout the winters with these northern and western tribes. In the spring they would bring furs to Québec and to the newly established Trois-Rivieres, the two principal settlements along the St. Lawrence. They would return with European trade goods that they would then use to barter for more furs. That, at least, was the plan.

The French tried to look at the relationship with the Huron and Algonquian as a purely business relationship. But relationships are two sided and the French were a small minority dealing with a vast Huron/Algonquin majority; they realized quite early that all trade took place on Indian terms. "Trade" for the Huron/Algonquian generally consisted of exchanges of gifts between friends. They did not look upon "trade" as a business enterprise that could take place among peoples who were otherwise unrelated to each other. If you weren't a friend, you were an enemy and "trade" never happened with enemies.

So, if the French wanted to trade with the Huron/Algonquians they were constantly required to prove their friendship with them. The most effective way of proving this friendship was by by siding with the Huron/Algonquians against the powerful Iroquois Confederation. In fact, the Huron demanded French assistance against the Iroquois as a condition to trade. And the French gave it.

The Iroquois Confederation lived to the south of the St. Lawrence River in what is now upstate New York. Commonly known as the Five Nations, this alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca was the strongest military power in eastern North America in the 1600’s. The Huron were determined to keep the Five Nations south of the St. Lawrence river. The Five Nations, in turn, were determined to incorporate the Huron and all other local tribes into their alliance. The warfare was constant. The introduction of European arms into the conflict was devastating.

Things didn't work out as either the French or their Indian allies expected. More than half of the Huron were dead by the end of the 1630’s from exposure to European diseases such as smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and influenza. The Huron who survived sickness fell victim to the Iroquois. By 1639, the original Huron population of thirty thousand had been reduced to about nine thousand. The Algonquins would migrate to the western Great Lakes area now known as Wisconsin. French policy for years was to entice them back to the St. Lawrence to regain their status as middlemen of the fur trade so that Frenchmen would NOT have to travel away from the St. Lawrence river valle. The Algonquians, no fools, could not be lured back to a land of constant warfare and disease.

But this was all in the future when Anne LeNeuf stepped off that ship in Quebec. Anne would spend the rest of her long life in the area in and around Trois Rivieres. But her sons, beginning in the 1680's, would set out on trading expeditions to the west in search of the migrating Indians and the furs they could trade. Some of their sons would leave the relative safety of the St. Lawrence and live in the new French settlements at Detroit and Vincennes (in what is now Indiana). Eventually France would abandon them, conceding the land east of the Mississippi to the English, and the descendants of Anne LeNeuf would cross the Mississippi River to the last French settlement, St. Louis, only to find that France had ceded that territory to Spain. Finally the United States would come to them.

The complicated relationship between the French and their Indian allies and the 100 years long dispute with the Iroquois usually receive short shrift in American history books. For the full story, you must look back to the original French records. Or to Canadian historians.