Historic Caughnawaga Long Description

CA0296-DL - Historic Caughnawaga by E. J. Devine, S.J. published 1922.


NOTE:  In this description I use the word “Indians” freely.  There is no intent that this word be an insult or a denigrating term.  It is simply the word used freely in this book to identify an individual whose genealogical roots lie deep in the aboriginal peoples of North America, and includes those from other roots, who have chosen to fully share the Indian lifestyle.

The author of this book E. J. Devine, S.J., was a noted expert in Canadian history and by his association, could be expected to display the actions of the “Society of Jesuits” in a favorable light.  However, there is NO SUCH influence obvious in this very detailed history of the subject group of Indians.  In fact, he prefers to simply display the facts of the history of events (providing suitable citations) and to leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.  It must be admitted that this does not make this an easy book to read, BUT it probably will surprise many readers who have formed an opinion of the events based on general histories presented from the more Eurocentric opinions of others. 

This remarkable book carries the story, told from the point of view of a resident, of a “village” which originated as a Jesuit mission, but became a Settlement of (primarily) Mohawks - the Eastern most representative of the Iroquois nation.  The Indian people found the “Christian” teachings of the Jesuit missionaries answered the spiritual needs in their lives to the point where they wished to live by these principles - even though they were not ready to fully give up the traditions and practices of their native life.  What makes this particular village so remarkable is that its story can be traced from its early 1600’s beginnings right up to the present day without it having changed location significantly (geographically) in all those 400 odd years.

But first some necessary background:  By the accounts of this book the traditional Indian peoples lived in small groups (villages) and subsisted on a mixture of basic agriculture and “hunter - gathering” activities (including trapping and logging).  The welfare of the village was the primary objective of all its members so, when necessary, it would move location.  Should the warriors of one village find another village they would regard any “wealth” they see in it as an opportunity to improve their own village’s lot, so they would attempt a raid to take the food and goods.  These village were not entirely isolated from each other and this “raiding” behavior was averted in neighboring villages with common languages (or competent translators) by entering into mutual protection treaties, thus making them appear (to Europeans) more as Tribes and Even Nations.

This basic tradition of “raiding” however was still active when, in the mid 1600’s, European explorers began to establish “settlements,” so it is not surprising the Indians in that territory saw them as easy raiding sites with no treaties to protect them.  In addition to “settlers,” there was also an influx of European “Explorers” and “Fur Catchers/traders” who began to approached these bands of Indians (mostly in search of trade) and, while still struggling with the language barrier, they learned about the “mutual protection” treaties and realized they may have found the way to stop the “Settler” raiding (which was in danger of halting further European attempts to extract wealth from this new country.)  After some serious reprisal attacks by the French military, the Indians also began to see the advantages of making treaties with these new forces, resulting in the first Indian treaty of mutual defense in 1666.  

In an almost independent activity various European commercial entities were also venturing into the unexplored “new lands” seeking means to capture new and valuable trading opportunities.  The trade in furs was the most obvious as the Indians regularly hunted and were experts.  In trade, money was of no value to the Indians, but they were interested in European firearms and they also proved to be easily addicted to strong European distilled liquors.  Of course, the sale of both of these items to the Indians greatly encouraged the Indian’s raiding habits and so the European administrations tried to take action to make the commercial companies cease this trade.  Reluctantly most of the companies agreed to stop selling guns but they continued to sell spirits (openly or covertly) as this was the “most valuable” thing the Indians would trade for their furs.  Eventually most of the Independent companies saw the wisdom of NOT trading liquor to the Indians although it seems doubtful that all trading stopped.

In agreeing mutual protection treaties both the Indians and the Europeans were significantly ignorant of the background experiences, and habits of the other.  The Indians, for example had no concept of the political power and separation of largely similar European people into Nations which stood totally autonomously, but yet were sub-divided by State, Church, Military, and Political leadership, with little unified purpose other than that of expediently resolving the current local issues.)  The Europeans, on the other hand, with what appears to be arrogance, lack of interest, expediency or just plain laziness, considered the Indians to be ignorant “savages” without any background experience, who simply stood in total awe of the magnificently dressed European’s.  Basically these were treaties without understanding or true respect on either side. 

On the Indian side, this lack of understanding soon appeared when it became clear that the Indian warriors were to be used simply as “troops” in the European forces and would be expected to attack and kill any and all as directed.  This “misunderstanding” was immediately dissipated when the Indians proclaimed they would ONLY join forces as separate self commanding units, that they would need significant reason to kill (especially to kill other Indians) and even more particularly those of their own “families”.  (The European Jesuits were teaching it was wrong to kill and this was one of the fundamental teachings which had caused so many Indians to turn to, and espouse, the Jesuit Christianity.)

On the European side, conflict between France and Britain spread across the Atlantic turning the relationship between the French administration (mostly) in Montreal (but also in Quebec City) and the British administration (then) emanating from Albany, the New  York Colony.  Both administrations relied on the Jesuit missionaries to introduce the Indians to a Christian lifestyle and to gather them into peaceful villages BUT the the Indians were more attracted to the Catholic version, with its release from sin through confession, than to the Presbyterian version preached by the British Jesuits, and this resulted in a steady loss of “southern” converts to the “northern” villages - seen through military eyes as a loss of Indian forces to the French.

In the interests of brevity this description only brushes lightly on the events of the passage of history.  The book, however, thoroughly examines, in detail, how these events influenced the development of the village known variously as Caughnawaga, the Seigniory Sault du St. Louis, and Kahnawaké (and many different “anglicization’s” of this later Mohawk name.)  There are notes of its location changing a little, for several reasons and in response to several threats of direct attack but it remained on the South bank of the St. Lawrence just west of the city on Montreal throughout. (Today, metropolitan Montreal has expanded to completely envelope the village and its lands and yet it still maintains its name and its character and is a Mohawk / Iroquois, reserve.)

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) should have brought peace to the, now British, “Lower Canada,”  and as the settlement frontier moved west across “Upper Canada” and on into the Prairie Provinces, the events in Caughnawaga, should have become less dramatic. This, however, is not what is recorded in the book.

While the rights of exploration and settlement of “Lower Canada” were awarded to the British at Utrecht, the British themselves had no interest in tearing down the administrative network which the French had built up over many years, and so they left it mostly unchanged.  Since it was a “feudal” system each Seigniory was responsible for providing its own defensive forces and what was more natural that that they should continue using the existing forces - manned by French soldiers!  Similarly the Organization supplying the Jesuit Brethren to Christian Indian villages, was French based and observed the Catholic religion.  Without new disputes between the British and French interests this could have worked well enough.  What was NOT considered was the personal priorities of the individuals assigned by these bodies, and their local relationships with the Indians. 

The French administrations continued to regard “their” Indians as their children, to be instructed and guided as such.  The British administrations had a far more “arms length” relationship which extended only so far as the terms of their actual treaties.  

Another more practical difference was that the French had strict rules that their Indians could only trade the furs with the “Dutch West India Company.”  This company would not buy furs at the current rates of other companies, and would NOT trade for liquor with the Indians.  (For the strict enforcement of this rule the favored Trading Company paid generous “bonuses” to the French administrators.)  The British, on the other hand, had no such restrictions on the trade of fur or other goods including liquor (preferring the Indians trade with the “British” East India Company).  

This situation was brought to a head by the construction and occupation of a British administered fort at Oswego (effectively bordering onto the Caughnawaga Indians territory.)  It served to amplify the divided loyalty issues, and when the support of the Caughnawaga Indians was called for to assist a force from Oswego, (to “discipline” Indians under British control further to the West of Oswego, in the Ohio Valley) the Indians realized they were being to called to go to war with their own over a matter which was totally of the making of the “invading” British and the French.  This realization was the cause of much unrest in the established Christian Indian villages and resulted in an unwillingness to provide the “commanded” support.  This finally forced the British to rationalize their administrations structure to ensure that ONLY British rules and policies would be applied.

This long needed rationalization of the administration of the Indians led to a period of relative peace until movement towards Independence by the southern European colonists themselves, i.e., the War of American Independence, once again began to polarize the locally related Indians against each other, this time in support of the “British” or the “American” interests.  This was further complicated when the rebelling American received the support of the French, returning much of the destabilizing influence which had so recently been rooted out of the British colonial system. At this time, however the previously ever-present influence of the Catholic Jesuits was being severely undermined by lack of Missionary priests to take care of the Indian’s religious needs.  This time the Indians on both sides of the War of Independence took care that their own needs were served by their participation.  In other words they acted more as mercenaries that as regular soldiers.  So when the Independence issues were fully addressed the Indians were once again ready to take up the peaceful life they seemed to desire.

The next period is marked by explorers and trading companies seeking to expand their influence further westward over the Rockies and into the realms of the Flathead and Salish tribes in what is now the US North-West and British Columbia.  The explorers had bought Iroquois “guides” with them (some from Caughnawaga) and before long some of the “pagan” tribes were showing a desire to learn about the “Christian” way of life.  From these small beginnings there was a growing demand for representatives of the Jesuit church to be sent to oversee their religious development.  The significant difficulties of transmitting these requests back to the controlling Jesuit bodies were eventually overcome and the needed representatives arrived finding many Indians ready and willing to take up the Christian way of life.

In the meantime, back in the original  Caughnawaga village, the relatively peaceful times following the 1812 war - and other American incursions - was bringing its own changes into the lives of the residents.  Firstly, the arrival of European settlers was taking up more and more of the land the Indians had regarded as their hunting and trapping grounds - their traditional means of subsistence.   Although they were also used to farming they had not learned how to improve the yield of their fields as the settlers did, so with more mouths in the village to feed, the hunters started traveling further into the remaining wild areas. Unfortunately this took them into the hunting ranges of the other surrounding Indian villages who, of course, complained to their British supervisors.  At the same time the expanding population and building in Montreal bought more of the City’s “regular” citizens into direct contact with the villagers and very soon an irregular trade started bringing in a plentiful supply of strong liquor.  So, with the combined effects of the Indian’s inability to regulate their consumption of liquor and a shortage of available forage, the village’s food supplies and social conditions were seriously degrading.  The Indians were sustained by a series of annual “Gifts” and stipends allocated to the village over the years, although they found these were only useful when they came as goods, any money arriving in the village was quickly turned into liquor.

The Rebellion of 1837 was primarily between the European settlers and their European based administration.  The Indians, including those in Caughnawaga knew of the unrest but received no instruction or request to become involved until a group of “rebels” arrived in the village seeking weapons and requesting the village’s support.  Not wishing to take sides the Indians disarmed the men and marched them across the river and back into Montreal where they were arrested.  Although not intended as an act of support of one side or the other, their “law-upholding” action was taken as a sign that more attention should be paid to the advancement of the Indians as Citizens.  It was generally agreed that more attention should be given to their education, particularly in teaching them to speak English and French.  Surprisingly this met with opposition  from the Jesuit, and other Catholic, Priests who wanted to remain the only source of teaching by their ability to translate the Indian languages.  Once lit, the spark of wisdom that the Indian children should receive an education was not to be easily extinguished and despite continuing self serving interference from the priests, schools were established and soon valuable members of society were forthcoming adapting with ease to the social ways of the settlers.

In 1892, a Jesuit Priest, Father Forbes began drafting a genealogy of the village (from data recorded since the 1740’s approx.) showing how “English” names came to be present in village’s living population, following from the Indian’s ancient traditions of “adopting” anyone who came to live with them, no matter what their origins or the manner of their arrival.

The book, covering - as it does - such an enormous swath of time and development in relatively fine detail cannot avoid to mention many of the names of those individuals swept up in that history but there is little personnel information given, unless the persons actions or character took a part in shaping the villages history, however this digital format, and our care in ensuring the accuracy of the OCR results will find any individuals who were named.

The book ends with an “Analytical Index” of place and personal Names (mostly those  of “importance” or holding a “significant office”) appearing in the book, giving the page and context of the appearance.