Part One: NATIVE TRADE-WARS, SPAP Report No. I-3

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In concluding “Mapping Mawooshen” (SPAP Report No. 2), I stated that, even before the Wabanaki peoples were pulled or pushed into choosing sides (either French or English) in European squabbles over carving-up the Dawnland, “an intertwined triple-whammy hit the Natives, unexpectedly and repeatedly”. Herein, in Part One of “Hints”, I’ll discuss the first of these three calamities: Native trade-wars(wherein Native peoples fought each other for access to European trade-goods). The other two calamities–European-disease epidemics(whereby Native peoples “died in heaps” from lack of immunity to foreign contagions), and European usurpationof Native independence–will be the subjects of Parts Two and Three, respectively, later.

There is clear archaeological evidence that Native Americans regularly participated in widespread, orderly, trading networks since prehistoric times–but for Native American goods and materials. The shock of the new exotic European goods seems to have upset the traditional rituals of peaceful, even-handed, exchanges. Exploitative monopoly opportunities were seized by groups and individual leaders. An upstart Power-Elite suddenly challenged traditionally egalitarian societies. To better understand this phenomenon, consider (in our own time) these factors as similes: secret-weapons for their political-power potentiality; black-markets for their economic-scarcity high-prices; and Moon-rocks for their tangible-but-other-worldly spirituality. Whoever grasps control over such things as these has at least tentative Power-Elite status-symbols.

Apparently the earliest easy-access to European trade goods in the northeast occurred in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in the early decades of the 16th century. As supply/demand spread, and use/abuse developed, negative effects exploded in all directions. The two directions-&-cases of most concern to us were: 1) earlier, up the St. Lawrence River through Iroquoian Kwedech territory, inevitably involving Mohawk Iroquois; and 2) later, overland through Algonquian Micmac Wabanaki country, and onward to other Wabanaki peoples in the Gulf of Maine. It was not always simply redistribution of trade goods from Just-Gots to Have-Nots, but also Kill-the-Competition contests, that mark this period which began c. 1500 (or perhaps much earlier–whenever it was that secretive Basque cod-fishermen/whalers commenced “The Encounter”).

Kwedech & Mohawk

The Kwedech (a.k.a. St. Lawrence Iroquoians) were a settled gardening people of the St. Lawrence River estuary, living as far west as today’s Montreal, where French explorer Jacques Cartier found them in the mid-1530s. Yet between then and 1603, when the permanent colony of New France was begun on the St. Lawrence by Samuel de Champlain, the Kwedech disappeared and were replaced by Algonquian hunting peoples. It easily could be assumed that the Kwedech were early en-masse victims of Native trade-wars, with survivors being added into neighboring peoples, including their conquerors.

Friendly host communities sometimes welcomed permanent groups of outsider-guests, who might eventually intermarry. Adoption conferred full social status, even on enemy captives (who otherwise would be kept as slaves). There are some Wabanaki legends implying warfare with the Kwedech, yet St.-Lawrence-Iroquoian-styled pottery has been found in archaeological sites across today’s northern New England including Maine. Did residence regions change radically? Did Kwedech potters become Wabanaki captives, guests, or wives?–Or did non-foreign Wabanaki wives simply copy foreign styles they saw elsewhere while traveling during either peacetime or wartime? Combination of some of these possibilities is another alternative.

(The two basic assumptions are that women made the pottery and that pots–throughout the NorthEast–were far too cumbersome and fragile to transport successfully. Therefore, the concluding assumption is that the pots did not travel but the potters did.)

It also easily could be assumed that the Mohawk of today’s eastern upstate New York were largely responsible for the Kwedech disappearance. The Five Nations Iroquois peoples (especially the Mohawk) were known to be the preeminent war-makers of the 17th century, attempting to prevent their Native rivals from gaining middlemen-positions in the European fur-trade. The Mohawk may have started this trend early, by taking on the Kwedech. Perhaps the Kwedech succumbed to attacks from more than one source: Mohawk from the west, Micmac from the east, and/or rival factions of Kwedech.

Both Native legends and European records tell of frequent Mohawk raids on the Wabanaki peoples throughout most of the 17th century, to which the Wabanaki peoples retaliated. Iroquois reasons for raiding the Wabanaki were to gain: Furs (so the thieves could, and the victims could not, trade with Europeans); Captives (to adopt, to replenish war-losses, both of warriors and of wives); Vengeance (for the counter-raids made to gain exactly the same goals as the prior raids). All this caused ridiculous reciprocity, with no end in sight until other factors intervened, some of which will be discussed later.

Micmac / “Tarrantines”

While we do not know when the Micmac first became enmeshed in Native trade-wars, their coastal residency on the Gulf of St. Lawrence put them in very early contact with European fishermen. However it was not until 1604 that the first French colony in the Acadia portion of New France came to the Bay of Fundy in the Gulf of Maine. In 1605 Sieur de Monts settled “Port Royal” (now Annapolis Royal, NS), close by the village of Micmac sagamore Membertou.

Three French writers who knew Membertou well described in detail his opportunistic quick parlaying of his French connections to personal advantage. In 1610 Membertou even became the first northeastern Native American leader to become “converted” to Christianity at home, along with his entire family. For this he was lionized on both sides of the Atlantic, thus at least securing permanent French favor for his family, if not heavenly bliss. Was it praying or preying that Membertou had in mind?–Or both?

It seems clear that, by 1600, redistributive Micmac traders (called Tarrantines in some early-1600s English accounts–possibly from a Basque nickname for them) were sailing the Gulf of Maine. They demanded both furs and deference (in return for their second-hand European trade-goods) from their trading partners to the westward, especially fellow-Wabanaki peoples along the Maine coast. Tarratines wanted the furs to take back to the French trading posts, while the deference was directly for themselves, as agents’ fees–and they resorted to raiding their retrading partners if they didn’t get both in sufficient amounts to please them.

The earliest documented case of Tarrantine raiding occurred as revenge for insults that had led to a killing: the Micmac sack of Saco River-mouth Pennacook Chouacoet village, in summer 1607. Here Micmac chief Membertou brought in borrowed French firearms to use against Pennacook chief Onemechin and his people–an apparent first use of guns by one group of northeastern Native Americans against another. This and other battles immediately following it killed several leaders of Abenaki-Pennacook bands and their followers.

Later, other Tarrantine raiders killed Western Etchemin paramount-sagamore Bashaba and many of his followers, in the Penobscot Bay & River-estuary area, c. 1615. This broke up Bashaba’s major alliance of Wabanaki peoples in Mawooshen, and caused communities of both Bashaba’s refugees and Micmac invaders to relocate. And, even as late as 1632, a Tarrantine raid struck Pennacook Agawam village, in the very shadow of the new Puritan English Ipswich village in Massachusetts.

So, how did Tarrantines navigate across the Gulf of Maine? They acquired and sailed French or Basque or Portugese shallops (the ubiquitous open, row-&-sail, workboats of the Europeans, some up to 40′ long and with more than one sail), thus deserving the nickname of Red Vikings.

Shallop photograph courtesy of “Plimoth-on-Web: Plimoth Plantation’s Web Page!”, “The living history museum of 17th-century Plymouth”

Mohawk raiding from the west by land, and Micmac Tarrantine raiding by sea from the east were the life-size menaces besetting the Abenaki-Pennacook and Western Etchemin peoples. Yet simultaneously there were even more dangerous microscopic agents of death sweeping along the coast of the Gulf of Maine: European-disease epidemics–the topic of Part 2 (SPAP Report No. 4), upcoming.