the French, English, Dutch, and even Swedes competed over the trade for furs between the Chesapeake Bay and St. Lawrence River, while the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee ("Les Cinque Nations des Irquouis") ended up dominating their neighbors and gained control over the trade for weapons prior to the French and Indian War
Source: University of California - The Bancroft Library, L'Amerique septentrionale
The French claimed territory in North America before the English tried to settle on the North Carolina coast in the 1580's and finally managed to start a colony in 1607.
George Washington's surprise attack on a French force in a Pennsylvania valley (Jumonville Glen) in 1754 started the French and Indian War, but that conflict had been building for over 200 years as different groups of Europeans and Native Americans jockeyed for influence and trade across North America. Territorial boundaries shifted constantly as French, Dutch, Swedes, and English claimed, controlled, and lost control of land between the Chesapeake Bay and St. Lawrence River.
Within the English colonial sphere, the New York, Pennsylvania Maryland, and Virginia governments competed for control over the fur trade. Each colony sought to build alliances with different groups of Native Americans, and their inter-tribal conflicts were exacerbated by shifting access to colonial weapons and supplies.
Disruption of traditional Native American conflicts started in the 1580's. French ships traded guns, cloth, metal tools, and prestige goods for skins of beaver, deer, and other animals at Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and established a permanent trading presence.
Champlain initially aligned with the Huron-Wendat, an Iroquoian-speaking tribe, and helped them fight rival Iroquois tribes to the south. The network of rivers on the north side of the St. Lawrence made it easier to obtain furs from inland sources, and the French preferred the quality of the furs from the colder north. Though the colonists tried to raise crops for their own subsistence, profits in New France always were based upon fur trading.
The French relied upon various Native American groups living within the interior of New France to hunt and process deer skins and furs, then exchange them with other tribes further east. Multiple negotiations and re-sales might occur until a final trade for French goods. Those goods were then exchanged in a series of re-sales back to the west, reaching as far west as the Hudson Bay or Lake Superior.
Over time the French traders themselves moved west. The unlicensed courier du bois, often children of French men and Native American women, could speak different languages and adapt to different cultural situations. Those backcountry traders provided one way to bypass the Native American middlemen.1
Native Americans who benefited from direct trade or from acting as middlemen resisted being bypassed by the French. War was common between Native American groups who sought to control access to European trade goods, especially weapons and gunpowder.
Champlain's alliance with the Huron-Wendat started decades of French warfare with the Mohawk and four other Iroquoian-speaking tribes. After Jacques Cartier and Jean-François Roberval tried to start colonies in the St. Lawrence River valley in the 1540's, those five tribes had formed an alliance called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois League).
the English colonies competed with the French (and with each) for trade with different tribes
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The key change resulting from the Haudenosaunee alliance was that negotiations over council fires replaced most warfare between those five nations. Inter-tribal conflict resolution, based on honoring the dead through condolence ceremonies rather than revenge attacks, largely replaced the population-draining blood feuds among the five nations. That enabled the five nations to focus on attacking non-allied neighboring tribes. Those attacks forced the neighbors into subordinate status, expanding the territory controlled by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy west of the Hudson River.
The stimulus for Iroquois dominance was not a desire to acquire farmland, proselytize religious views, or impose the political system of the Haudenosaunee on other Native Americans. The Iroquois sought to gain/maintain control over the fur trade. Furs could be exchanged for guns, ammunition, and gunpowder that was available only from the Europeans, primarily French on the St. Lawrence and Dutch/English trading stations on the Hudson River. Fighting over that trade triggered multiple realignments of Native American nations prior to the start of the French and Indian War in the 1750's.2
The French sought to place a trading fort closer to the furs coming from the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay watersheds. Montreal was settled in 1642, further up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec, and quickly became the place for Native Americans to exchange furs for guns, clothing, and other trade goods.
The five Haudenosaunee nations won the first "beaver wars" in 1649-51. The Iroquois defeated rivals who lived north of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, destroying villages and dispersing the populations of the Huron-Wendat, Neutrals, Nipissing, and Petun. The victories gave the Iroquois much greater control over furs coming from the northwest to the French at Montreal and to the Dutch at Fort Orange.
a French cartographer recorded in 1718 that the Huron, Petun, and Neutral nations had been destroyed ("detruite") by the Iroquois
Source: Library of Congress, Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi (1718)
After success in the beaver wars, the Haudenosaunee could have made a concerted effort to expel the French. The colonists in New France were poorly supplied and lacked the resources to sustain a long-term conflict. To the south the Dutch were supplying guns to the five nations. A series of raids by the Iroquois threatened to force the French to abandon their colonial settlements in the St. Lawrence River valley.3
the Iroquois defeated the Outaouacs (Ottawas) and other tribes north of the St. Lawrence River in the 1649-51 Beaver Wars, taking control of the territory where furs could be acquired for sale to the French in Montreal and the Dutch at Albany
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (John Mitchell, 1755)
Garacontie, chief of the Onondaga, ensured the survival of New France when he brokered an Iroquois-French peace in 1654.
Garacontie desired to preserve France's St. Lawrence River trading posts on the north, knowing that competition between Europeans would benefit the Iroquois. The Iroquois already had access to Dutch traders on the Hudson River, and to English traders further south in Maryland and Virginia. Even when the French goods were lower quality and more expensive, Garacontie recognized that there would be long-term benefits from maintaining French, Dutch, and English rivalries in North America.
The 1654 peace deal also defined Garacontie's own Onondaga as the dominant nation in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, even though the Mohawk were located closest to the Dutch trading post. The other four nations had been frustrated by Mohawk control over access to European trade. The Mohawk controlled the "eastern door" of the confederacy at Fort Orange, located at the mouth of the Mohawk River at what would become Albany, New York. Other nations had to pay taxes to the Mohawks in order to trade at Fort Orange. After the 1654 peace with the French, the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy could bypass the Mohawk and the Dutch traders and do business directly with French traders in Montreal. 4
Mohawk warriors often sought to create incidents that would re-ignite warfare and block trade with the French. Limiting trade with Montreal would re-establish Mohawk dominance of trade for European goods. Ambitious young warriors in the Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, and Onondaga tribe often allied with the Mohawk, choosing the honor of a fight over the benefits of peaceful trade with the French. Continued seizure of goods from traders and fighting in the backcountry, despite Garacontie's 1754 peace, left New France struggling to survive.
King Louis XIV solved that problem. In 1663, the young French king cancelled the monopoly of the Company of One Hundred Associates and made New France into a royal colony. New France had not demonstrated economic viability, but in 1665 Louis XIV deepened his commitment by sending the Carignan-Salières regiment to Quebec. The French troops moved south and invaded Mohawk territory, destroying villages in a 1666 raid. That attack successfully rebalanced power between the French and Haudenosaunee.
The cultural integrity and military/economic power of the Mohawk declined over the next 30 years. Many chose to convert to Catholicism and moved north to live in the Montreal area, creating a barrier to attack and reducing the threat to New France. (The Kahnawake reserve, near the Lachine Rapids south of the city, is the center of the modern Mohawk community still living there after 300 years.)
After the peace deal with Garacontie in 1654, French officials looked west to increase their control of trade. They sought to manage the flow of goods, and to conflicts between traders and different groups of Native Americans, by setting up a series of backcountry posts that ultimately stretched inland from Montreal past the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River.
The French continued that pattern to the southwest of Montreal in the 1740's, seeking to open trading posts in the Ohio River valley. That initiative led to the French and Indian War in the 1750's, when the Virginians sought to settle the same area and resisted French expansion. The French and Indian War was just the final phase of the French and English struggle to control trade and territory in the region between the Chesapeake Bay and the St. Lawrence River.
the French built Fort Frontenac in 1673 to intercept Native American traders before they reached Albany and did business with the rival Dutch/English there
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
As the French were colonizing the St. Lawrence River valley, the Dutch focused on the Hudson River to the south. They started trading there soon after Henry Hudson first examined the river in 1609.
Dutch traders sailed north to the mouth of the Mohawk River to trade. They bought furs from both the Algonquian-speaking Mahican who lived there and their neighbors/rivals, the Iroquoian-speaking Mohawk. When the two tribes created too much trouble by fighting with each other, the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan at the mouth of the Hudson River to provide a reliable site for doing business.
The Dutch and French competed for the Native American trade for nearly 50 years until the English took full control over New York. The English-French competition continued for another century. On the other side of the business dealings, Native American groups competed with each other to control their fur trade with the French on the St. Lawrence River and the Dutch/English on the Hudson River.
The Dutch built Fort Nassau at the mouth of the Mohawk River in 1614, and replaced it with Fort Orange in 1624. Those Dutch forts offered the Iroquois easy access to European weapons in exchange for furs, without having to travel north through territory initially controlled by Huron-Wendat to reach French trading stations.
The Mohawk in particular took advantage of their location to do business with both French and Dutch traders, depending upon the purchase price offered for furs and the sale price charged for European goods by European competitors. The Iroquois could also seek trade goods from further south. Intermediaries such as the Delaware provided access to Swedish forts on the Delaware River, and the Susquehannock did business with English traders at Kent Island in the upper Chesapeake Bay.
The construction of permanent Fort Orange in 1624 led to a final disruption of the Mohawk/Mahican balance. The local fur supply was exhausted, but the Mohawk refused to allow the Mahican to acquire furs from other tribes to the west and north. By 1628, after several military victories, the Mohawk forced the last of the Mahican to move east of the Hudson River. After that, the Mohawk largely controlled access to Fort Orange (and then Albany) at the mouth of the Mohawk River for 125 years.
the Dutch claim to New Amsterdam extended north to the St. Lawrence River, and included the Hudson River valley explored by Henry Hudson in 1609
Source: Library of Congress, Novi Belgii Novæque Angliæ : nec non partis Virginiæ tabula multis in locis emendat (1685)
After defeating the Mahican on the east by 1628, the Mohawk and their Haudenosaunee Confederacy allies expanded to the north as well. That expansion was facilitated by the English, who took temporary control of Quebec between 1629-1632. During that short window, the French could not supply their Huron-Wendat allies and the Iroquois gained control of much of the St. Lawrence River valley. The Haudenosaunee and savvy leaders of other Native American nations took advantage of the rivalries between nations in Europe to acquire European-manufactured guns, to expand control over North American territory that supplied furs, and to dominate trade with those Europeans.5
The English seized the Dutch trading post at the mouth of the Mohawk River in 1664 during the Anglo-Dutch wars. James, brother of Charles II, gained control of Albany and the Province of New York, though the Dutch briefly regained it. After the Anglo-Dutch wars ended in 1674, New Amsterdam was renamed New York, Albany became an English trading post, and the Dutch withdrew from North America.
The expansion of English power into the interior of New York concerned the French based in Montreal. To intercept Native Americans who might bring western furs to trade with the English, the French established Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario at Cataracoui (now Kingston, Ontario) in 1673. In 1679 the French also built a trading post at Niagara, directly on the trading path of the Seneca nation.
The leaders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy were reluctant to permit those French intrusions deep into their territory; the peace negotiated by Garacontie over 30 years earlier in 1654 was placed at risk by the French expansion. Forts/trading posts west of Montreal could undercut the Onondaga trading relationship with the Ottawa to the north and with other tribes.
However, the French presence on Lake Ontario might provide some protection for the far-western Seneca against the Susquehannocks - and prices at Fort Frontenac were 100% higher than Albany prices. The inability of the French to compete on price or quality with the English traders left the Iroquois plenty of opportunity to make a profit, no matter where the French engaged in trade.6
For the Native Americans, the disappearance of the Dutch (and the previous loss of Sweden in 1655, when the Dutch seized New Sweden) meant the loss of a supplier. Reduced competition reduced leverage to bargain for weapons and gunpowder from rival Europeans. For the next century, the Native Americans skillfully took advantage of the competition between the French and English.
In 1676, King Philip's War erupted in New England. In that conflict the Mohawk chose to ally with the English rather than with the Pequot nation, and used the opportunity to eliminate rival Native American groups in the Connecticut River valley. Also in 1676, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy established a long-term "Covenant Chain" of peace and friendship with the English. That peace was so advantageous that the alliance lasted until the outbreak of the French and Indian War, which caused the Mohawk to switch sides finally and ally with the French.
Over those 75 years, Iroquois warriors and their allies still harassed English settlers and traders. The colonists also created incidents with the Native Americans; theft and murder in the backcountry was not uncommon. To prevent incidents from growing into a widespread warfare that was not in the interest of either side, the links of the Covenant Chain of friendship were "brightened" (renewed) intermittently in conferences filled with ceremonies and promises. Maintaining the general peace, despite intermittent provocations, required Iroquois and the English to demonstrate both political skills and the military capacity to inflict significant damage on the other side.
The French displayed diplomatic skills equal to the English, in order to continue the peace first negotiated by Garacontie in 1654. French officials provided gifts on a regular basis to maintain positive relations with leaders of different Native American nations, splinter groups, and fragments of defeated tribes. Importing those goods via the St. Lawrence River and transporting them to Native American towns was expensive, but peace and trade was more profitable than war.
Colonial English officials were less reliable with their gifts, but often sold at better prices the guns, cloth, iron knives, and other items desired by the Iroquois and other tribes. For many Native Americans south of the St. Lawrence River, the English trading posts were closer - until the French finally expanded into the Ohio River valley and built Fort Duquesne. The conflicts between European rivals then erupted into the French and Indian War, and the Native Americans chose sides.
The Native Americans were the most adept negotiators. The Iroquois successfully played the French against the Dutch and the English for 150 years in North America. The Covenant Chain created in 1676 meant the Iroquois were allied simultaneously with the English and the French, and both European countries were unlikely to attack. With both European sides neutralized, the Iroquois could focus their efforts on conquering the Susquehannock nation to the south.
One brightening of the chain was the Great Peace of 1701, after sporadic conflicts between French and Iroquois threatened to grow out of control. In that peace, the Mohawk and other members of the Five Nations (the Tuscarora did not join until the 1720's) agreed to stop fighting the French on their northern border. This freed up the Iroquois to expand westward, in efforts to establish Five Nations hegemony over the Shawnee and other tribes living in the Ohio River valley, and to raid far south into Cherokee country.
after the Europeans arrived, Native American nations sought to control access of their neighbors to furs and trade, disrupting the previous patterns of territory
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the English planned to seize four major forts in the 1755 campaign, isolating Quebec and Montreal
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
a rough approximation of French and Spanish claims in North America after the 1713 Treaty of Utrech shows the English colonies restricted to the Atlantic Ocean coastline, but England gained control of all lands east of the Mississippi River 50 years later at the end of the French and Indian War
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online