The Natives of Great Lakes Region and the French Newcomers

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, there were great attempts by the Natives to make sense of the European newcomers. They tried to incorporate them into their world, but on their own terms. Did this system work out in the Great Lakes region? What was the process like? Let’s explore.

Map showing Great Lakes region of the United States.
The Great Lakes region’s many portages were natural places to locate towns, trading posts, and missions. (Image: Weredragon/Shutterstock)

With the advent of the Europeans, the Natives had started to practice a type of politics that was, in fact, a carefully constructed and managed playoff system. This was done to advance their own interests and preserve their own independence. Yet, various Native nations experienced various relations with the colonists.

Upper Ohio Country or Pays d’en Haut

The Upper Ohio Country stretched from the Mississippi River in the West to Lake Ontario in the East. Its northern boundary reached above Lake Superior. The Ohio River formed the southern border.

The rivers and lakes gave this space coherence, and the region’s many portages were natural places to locate towns, trading posts, missions, and the like.

As a center of commerce, the Upper Ohio Country provided a vast, though rapidly declining source, of deer and beaver, as well as rich agricultural land.

We can think of the Ohio Country of the late 1600s as comprising two zones.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Two Zones of Ohio Country

The first zone was located to the west of Lake Michigan and took the shape of an inverted triangle. This zone was filled with refugee peoples from the East and the North and were multi-ethnic polyglot that included the Wendat, Anishinaabeg, Odawa, Potawatomi, Myaamia, Shawnee, Sauk, and Fox.

The second zone was located from the southern edges of the Great Lakes to the Ohio River and might be thought of as emptied lands. These emptied lands were the former homelands of tribes that had been blown out by the Iroquois during the invasion from the East over the course of the 17th century.

The Commonality of the Ohio Country Villages

Map showing dates of Iroquois claims relinquished, 1701-1796.
Many nonstate villages shared a common enemy—the Iroquois, who had captured many Native lands in the 1700s. (Image: Codex Sinaiticus /Public domain)

If the Ohio Country was a place, it was also as a process. So let’s consider that aspect of the Ohio Country through Stanford historian Richard White’s important concept of the middle ground. The middle ground, in White’s conception, is a cultural, political, social, and economic phenomenon that rests “in between cultures, people, and in between empires and the nonstate world of the villages.”

So what was it that held this nonstate world of the villages together? What gave these diverse, fragmented, and destabilized tribes a sense of commonality and coherence?

Well, for one thing, they shared a common space, many of them due to the shared experience of being forced from their own homelands into a new area. And because of that, many of them also frequently shared a common enemy—the Iroquois.

Kinship Ties in Ohio Country

The tribal communities of the Upper Ohio Country built relationships of mutual obligation that were affirmed and renewed through gift giving, trade, intermarriage, and ritual.

However, this didn’t lead inevitably to a pan-tribal political alliance. The process of coordinating and mobilizing the alliances Native people were forging in the Upper Ohio Country involved the presence of still another newcomer, a European one.

Learn more about the Indian resistance in the Ohio Country.

French Newcomers in Ohio Country

As conflict over control of the Ohio Country hunting grounds continued through the late 17th century, the French became central to an alliance with the Myaamia, Shawnee, and Potawatomi, among other tribal nations.

Acting in concert, they were able to marshal enough power to invade Iroquoia, the Iroquois homeland, and score important victories there by the late 1690s.

And this, in turn, led to a massive treaty council held in Montreal in 1701.

Grand Settlement of 1701

Featuring the involvement of the French, the Iroquois, and tribes from the Ohio Country, the Great Peace of Montreal, or Grand Settlement of 1701, brought an end to the fighting.

The Iroquois promised to redefine their relationship with the British so that it didn’t involve military cooperation and, in return, the Iroquois received access to the western fur trade.

Copy of the Great Peace of Montreal treaty, including signatures.
The Great Peace of Montreal treaty involved the French, the Iroquois, and tribes from the Ohio Country. (Image: Secrétaire de Callière et autre main/Public domain)

But while the relative peace that followed the Grand Settlement of 1701 might appear to have been a pinnacle for the French and Indian alliance, it wasn’t. Instead, it actually contributed to the reassertion of more disparate and localized tribal identities that were not as closely related to the French.

Did the Grand Settlement Really Help?

The Grand Settlement meant that people, like the Myaamia, could reclaim ground they had lost to the Iroquois, and new multitribal  communities could form in the once emptied lands of the Ohio Country.

The increasing presence of English traders, who moved into this space from the East during the middle decades of the 18th century, suggested that the Grand Settlement had not actually settled matters at all. Instead, it simply shifted the dynamics of the middle ground, that space in between cultures, people, and in between empires and the nonstate world of the villages.

 Learn more about the Native Americans of present-day Virginia.

Power Dynamics in Arkansas River Valley

Meanwhile, in the Arkansas River Valley, the Osage and Quapaw were able to maintain their sovereignty and independence by drawing the Spanish and French into their worlds as they understood them.

This included everything from land, resources, and trade to gender relations, diplomacy, and war. The tribes were so powerful that European imperial expansion really came to be a competition over Indian allies. The newcomers, in other words, had very little power of their own.

Natives, Proving Their Dominance

The Natchez reminded the French of this power dynamic in November 1729 when they destroyed a French settlement that had encroached on Natchez land without their permission. The Quapaw used their influence to get the French to help them defeat some of their longtime enemies, including the Chickasaw, and made sure their new friends understood that they considered French gifts tribute, not charity.

And finally, the Osage, who lived between the Missouri and Red Rivers, didn’t become dependent on French goods but used their access to them to build a trading empire of their own.

Thus, we can see that despite European dominance, Native people attempted, and were successful at some places, to preserve Native ground during the 18th century.

Common Questions about the Natives of Great Lakes Region

Q: Which areas composed the Upper Ohio Country?

The Upper Ohio Country stretched from the Mississippi River in the West to Lake Ontario in the East. Its northern boundary reached above Lake Superior. The Ohio River formed the southern border.

Q: What was the Grand Settlement of 1701?

Featuring the involvement of the French, the Iroquois, and tribes from the Ohio Country, the Grand Settlement of 1701, brought an end to the fighting among the Natives tribes and with the Europeans.

Q: What was common among the Native tribes of Ohio Country?

The Native tribes of Ohio Country shared a common space, many of them due to the shared experience of being forced from their own homelands. They also shared a common enemy—the Iroquois.

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