Friday, July 15, 2011

Cultural Brokers at Work

If you are new to this blog or if it has been a while since you last checked in, it might do you well to read the previous three entries before you read this one. This posting continues a discussion on Cultural Brokers that started three postings ago and if you are not familiar with the term “Cultural Broker” – start there.

In 1700, the Five Nations of Iroquois established the original “Covenant Chain” with Great Britain as a means to guarantee Anglo-Iroquois peace as well as to secure British protection over Iroquois hunting lands that were then being threatened by Western Indian tribes and their French allies in Canada. By 1700 the early victories achieved by Iroquois warriors at the outset of the Beaver Wars had been eclipsed by the more recent and devastating French invasions into Seneca territory led by the Marquis de Denonville as well as successive setbacks in the Ohio Valley at the hands of the Western Indians. A year later, the Five Nations finally cemented peace with New France and its Western Indian allies at Montreal in 1701. The “Great Peace of 1701” as it was called, ended a Euro-Indian conflict that had begun more than half a century earlier when the Iroquois had first raided their western neighbors as means to procure beaver pelts. For the next fifty plus years until the outbreak of the French & Indian War in 1754, the Five (Six after 1722) Nations did their best to remain neutral in European affairs as they attempted to take full advantage of their central location within the fur trade that was centered at Albany, New York. As the events of Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) and later King George’s War (1744-1748) would soon highlight, however, maintaining a neutral position was to be no easy task for successive Iroquois sachems in the first half of the 18th century.

What made maintaining Iroquois neutrality during European conflicts all the more difficult were the many agents of New France and New York who were busy explaining the benefits of alliances with them over the other or deviously spreading rumors that the other was building forts and armies in preparation for a raid on Iroquoia. These European agents at work between 1701 and 1754 are among the most significant of our Cultural Brokers since it was they whom never missed an opportunity to take advantage of their keen understanding of Iroquois culture in order to either promote their own personal interests or those of their parent monarchies. By 1754, the work of these individual agents – as well as the other Cultural Brokers of different walks - had been made clear when the Six Nations split over which side they should support in the European conflict that was then taking shape. The split within Iroquoia caused by the French & Indian War was not limited to the breakup of the Confederacy itself, but also caused internal rifts within the individual tribes themselves.

Since our exhibit will focus on western New York, our main concern among the Iroquios is the Seneca tribe and as with the Confederacy itself, the Seneca were not immune to the greater forces then pulling the Haudenosaunee people apart. In past centuries, the Seneca traditionally lived within two larger nucleated villages that were occasionally surrounded by smaller hamlets close by. The two major Seneca villages were seldom more than ten to fifteen miles apart. This changed in 1754 when the westernmost village previously located a few miles east of Canandaigua Lake moved to the banks of the Genesee River where it would be closer to the French at Fort Niagara while the easternmost village previously located a few miles west of Seneca Lake moved to a site called Kanadesaga located just northwest of Geneva, New York where Preemption Road meets County Road #4. Some members of the western village also decided to settle a smaller village that was located atop an easily defendable position, later called Arsenal Hill, located in present-day Canandaigua, New York. The eastern Kanadesaga village site was chosen since a sloping ridge provided a more defendable position than the previous village, which was spread out across a flat and open plain. Kanadesaga also sat close to where the governor of New York had recently ordered the construction of a British fort (that was never garrisoned). As the separation of the Seneca villages highlights, the outbreak of the French & Indian War and the Iroquois decision to abandon the neutral stance that they had previously held fast to for over fifty years marked the starting point for the relative demise of the Iroquois empire in western New York.

So why had the Seneca apparently split over the question of which of their European fathers they should support? As mentioned before, both British and French agents were actively swaying the Seneca to one side or the other for decades leading up to 1754. At stake for the Seneca was their central position within the lucrative fur trade with Albany, but also their general security since it had been proven time-and-again that British pledges of support usually amounted to little more than lip-service. The Seneca’s location at the “western door” also placed them in closer proximity to the French and their Western Indian allies than to the British in Albany.

More significantly, despite risking the more advantageous benefits of trade with the British at Albany by siding with the French, many of the Seneca and their sachems had been won over by French agents such as the influential Louis Thomas de Joncaire; French diplomat, soldier, and adopted Seneca sachem who spent more than fifty years of his life in and out of Seneca territory. Though Joncaire died in June of 1739, his influence among the Seneca remained as a result of his son, known as “Chabert” or Joncaire Jr., who took up his father’s mantle as representative to - and for - the Seneca Indians in their dealings with New France. My next posting will go into greater detail in describing Joncaire’s efforts among the Seneca and the picture of what a Cultural Broker is - or what they do - should become even clearer.

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