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Contact Period in the Champlain Valley (1609-1664 AD)

Since its discovery by Europeans, the Champlain Valley has consistently played an important role in North American history. The prominence of this area is due to the north-south corridor that Lake Champlain creates between the St. Lawrence Valley and the heart of the North American continent. The lake has served as a highway for the transport of ideas, communication, commerce, and people, and it has provided food, water, and spiritual guidance. Lake Champlain has been described as "a living body, not a passive witness to history."

In the early sixteenth century, the St. Lawrence Iroquois, the Mohawk Iroquois, the Mahican, and the Western Abenaki peacefully occupied the Champlain Valley. In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence while looking for the Northwest Passage. During the following two years, Cartier attempted to develop trade relations with the St. Lawrence Iroquois and other tribes living along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The French attempt to establish a colony in the St. Lawrence Valley during the sixteenth century failed, although sporadic trade for furs in exchange for metal tools did occur between the French and the St. Lawrence tribes. This trade with the St. Lawrence Iroquois continued until 1603, when they vanished from the area. The reason for their disappearance is unknown, but it appears they were devastated by warfare with neighboring tribes over the possession of metal tools and from European diseases. The St. Lawrence Iroquois’ monopoly over European metal may have upset the balance between the St. Lawrence Iroquois and neighboring tribes, who apparently waged war with the St. Lawrence Iroquois in order to secure metal tools and weapons for themselves. Archaeological evidence also suggests that the St. Lawrence Iroquois were assimilated with the Western Abenaki.

The diseases which the St. Lawrence Iroquois contracted from the French spread quickly throughout the Champlain Valley, decimating the native population. The struggle over French trade also caused great unrest in the Champlain Valley. The Mohawk Iroquois, who inhabited primarily the Mohawk Valley, became the dominant tribe from Quebec to Connecticut. By 1609 the Western Abenaki had retreated from the Champlain Valley in an effort to escape destruction at the hands of the Mohawk.

In 1609 the Mahican living in the Hudson Valley came in contact with Dutch explorer Henry Hudson. Shortly thereafter, the Dutch began to trade metal tools to the Mahican in exchange for furs. The Mahican also developed alliances with the French. When the English captured New Amsterdam in 1664, a region which included much of the Mahican’s traditional territory, the Mahican were forced to develop alliances with the British. By 1700 the Mahican population had been decreased from an estimated 4,000 to about 500 through European diseases, famine, wars, and political pressures. Many of the Mahican merged with other groups, including the Dutch, the Western Abenaki, the French, and the Mohawk Iroquois. By 1720 the Mahican no longer existed as an organized native tribe in the Champlain and Hudson Valleys.

The influx of Europeans to the Northeast caused great upheaval among the region’s Native American populations. Disease, confusing political and economic relations, and continuous warfare split native communities apart and forced them to join outlying groups. The area inhabited by the Western Abenaki at the northern end of Lake Champlain became a haven for Native American refugees displaced by European settlements and wars. The Native Americans of Champlain Valley also relocated numerous times due to military and political conflicts in the region throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they always returned to Lake Champlain and their homeland.

Samuel de Champlain 1609

Samuel de Champlain fighting with the Mohawks
Drawing of the 1609 battle with Champlain and his allies
fighting against a group of Mohawk warriors.

French explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first European to see the lake and valley that now bears his name. In July 1609 Champlain joined a war party of Algonquin, Huron, and Montagnais who paddled up the lake with twenty-four canoes in search of their enemy the Mohawk Iroquois. Champlain and his war party confronted a group of Mohawk warriors at Ticonderoga, where Champlain killed three Mohawk with his arquebus. Thus were established French allies and enemies that endured for nearly two centuries.

Portrait of Samuel de Champlain
Portrait of Samuel de Champlain.

For Europeans, one of the important results of Champlain's exploration in the Champlain Valley was the discovery of a nearly complete water route from the St. Lawrence River to the Hudson River (Figure 4). Shortly after Champlain's expedition into the valley, the Dutch explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name in search of the Northwest Passage. He sailed as far as present-day Albany, New York, and claimed the lands north into the Champlain Valley. Although the French and Dutch did not initially settle the Champlain Valley, they both had a great interest in the area's natural resources. Both colonial powers were heavily involved in the fur trade and depended upon the Native Americans of the Champlain Valley for their fur supply.

Throughout the early seventeenth century, the Iroquois raided Native American and French settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley using Lake Champlain as their invasion route. In the 1640s, French Jesuit missionaries began an effort to develop peaceful relationships with the Western Abenaki and Iroquois and to Christianize them by establishing missions within their villages. Jesuit attempts to make alliances with the Iroquois in northeastern New York largely failed, however, because the Iroquois felt threatened by the Jesuits and believed that they brought bad luck. By 1655 relentless Iroquois raids had spread fear throughout the farms and villages of the St. Lawrence Valley. Numerous fortified outposts had been constructed throughout the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Valleys, but they failed to stop the Iroquois war parties.