Final Stage of Conquest
During the 1740s the final stage of conquest and Anglo-European domination of North America began. Renewed warfare between the European empire-builders again spilled over into the Americas. The French, supported by many of the northern and great lakes tribes, stood in the path of English expansion beyond the Mohawk Valley. This region fell within the Iroquois territory and offered somewhat of a buffer zone between the English and the French; as a result, a weak Anglo-Iroquois alliance emerged, ostensibly to resist the threat of French and Algonquin encroachment but which actually weakened the Iroquois, who suffered the loss of their eastern and southern territories to settlers.
Early on in the fighting the French took great advantage of British ineptitude and the meager colonial support of the British forces. Edward Braddock, a British general totally unfamiliar with frontier tactics, had become commander-in-chief of the British forces early in 1755; his first and only campaign into the Ohio Valley resulted in disaster and his own death. Under the Marquis de Montcalm, French forces in the north scored several important victories during 1756 and 1757, increasing the concerns of the British king, George II, and Parliament that the French might threaten the English colonial holdings in North America. The French captured the British fortress island of Minorca in the Mediterranean, and both Whig and Tory clamored for new leadership. The elder William Pitt (1708-1778), the first Earl of Chatham, was brought into the government as secretary of state; and, among his first acts was to replace tentative and ineffectual military commanders with younger men charged with carrying out a dynamic offensive strategy. Even as this new war government was formed, the latest British foray -- against Fort Carillon in northeastern New York -- resulted in another defeat. The tide finally began to turn in favor of the British with the fall of the French fortresses at Louisbourg (Cape Breton Island) and Frontenac (at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence) in the summer of 1758.
The French and a small number of Algonquin and Abnaki warriors still held the key fort at the confluence of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, under the command of a Captain Francois Pouchot. On July 4, 1759 around two thousand British and Iroquois, commanded by Colonel John Prideaux and Sir William Johnson (an Irish immigrant who had been adopted into the Mohawk tribe), approached the fort. Sconondoa had not been the only chief to warn against Iroquois involvement in the war between the French and English, and some Iroquois chiefs had decided to fight alongside the French. One of these chiefs, Kaendae, and his Seneca warriors were in the fort when the siege began. A council was called between Kaendae and several other Seneca chiefs encamped with Sir William Johnson. Kaendae's counsel to the other Iroquois chiefs was direct:
My brothers, why have you deserted me? Why have you deserted your friends, the French? Are you so blinded that you do not know where your greatest interests lie? Can you not see what the future of the Iroquois League must be if the English drive the French away? We will be finished! Our League will be dissolved, our lands taken bit by bit and we will either have to merge with the English and lose our identity and our pride, or else be pushed back until we have no more lands at all and are destroyed.
Several days of negotiation passed, and, finally, Kaendae rather than the Seneca chiefs attached to the British agreed to withdraw. Still, the disposition of the tribes remained in doubt. On July 23 the chiefs of all the tribes met in council. After two days and many speeches, an aging Chenussio chief named Old Belt, stood and spoke:
As individual people, we are more inclined to the French, for they live with us and trade with us and do not try so much as the English to take our lands or change us. But as nations we must think beyond this. We must change to meet the changes that come to us or we will not survive. ...
We ache for supplies which the French can no longer give us. They themselves starve from lack. The English are many times over their number and their supplies and weapons are more and better. Already some of our lands have been taken by them, but if we are their allies, the taking will be harder for them and we may retain a little of what we have. If we are their enemies, though we may fight for our lands, we will water them with our blood and in the end the lands will be theirs and we will be forgotten...
We are here now, watching the English and the French armies against each other. We are asked by them to fight against each other, but this is not good. It is not good for us to further weaken Indian power by fighting one another in white men's quarrels. We, the Iroquois, must fight for the English because they are already in our lands and only by fighting with them can we manage to hold even a little of what we own. You, the Ottawa, are far from your homes. In your land there are French, but they are few and they must eventually be gone, since they cannot stand against the English. If you fight for the French now, it means that you must fight not only against the English, but against the Iroquois.
Many listened attentively to Old Belt, as would be shown during the battle to come.
Colonel Prideaux, perhaps fortuitously for the English and their Iroquois allies, was soon accidentally killed when a mortar shell from one of his own cannon exploded near him. Command then fell solely to Sir William Johnson, who understood better than most other Europeans the nature of frontier warfare. Johnson dispatched most of his force to ambush the larger number of French, Algonquin and other warriors of the western tribes as they approached from Fort Presque Isle. As the French troops closed in, their Indian allies fell back and then disappeared. As Allen Eckert writes, "The words of Old Belt had had their effect: the Great Lakes tribes would not engage in battles against the Iroquois for the benefit of the French." The French force never reached the fort, retreating with heavy losses; the next day Pouchot capitulated and turned the fort over to Johnson and the English. Shortly thereafter the French abandoned and destroyed Fort Presque Isle, retreating to Detroit. Within months Quebec and Montreal fell; virtually all of Canada was now opened to English exploitation. Peace also opened the North American interior to European settlement, despite efforts by the British government to contain the civilian population in reasonably defensible areas. Old Belt and the Iroquois did not have long to wait before the colonists encroached on their lands. The time had passed when their sovereignty might have been assured under treaty:
The Iroquois were not done. But in the eyes of the tribal elders was the knowledge that their glory was past, that their race would never again be what it was, that more and more of their lands would slip from them, and that they would become objects of contempt for the English traders and settlers already beginning to stream into the forests and plains and river valleys.