By the summer of 1687, the Iroquois had been actively raiding their Indian neighbors to the north and west of the Genesee Region for almost four decades. These raids were characterized by quick strikes aimed at capturing the Western Indian’s processed furs as well as numerous captives that would either be ceremonially executed as part of a ritualized mourning process or, for the somewhat lucky ones, to be assimilated into the Iroquois war party’s village as a replacement for recently lost friends and loved ones. These characteristically brutal Iroquois raids spanning nearly two-thirds of the seventeenth century have been cumulatively referred to as the Beaver Wars. The Beaver Wars were a North American Indian conflict that has largely been explained by early twentieth-century historians as an Iroquois attempt to monopolize the lucrative fur trade with the Dutch, and later the English, at Albany, New York. Though partially correct in assuming that trade interests motivated the Iroquois, motivations that have often been overlooked by historians are the cultural explanations for Iroquois aggression. Despite Iroquois motivations for involving themselves in a running conflict becoming muddied by successive historians who have until recent-decades interpreted late seventeenth-century events through the lens of their own cultural perspectives, the reason for French involvement in the Indian conflict was not so indistinct.
When the French governor and military commander, Jacques-Rene de Brisay de Denonville, the Marquis de Denonville, raided deep into Seneca territory in the summer 1687 the Marquis had one thing on his mind - to punish the Iroquois. After landing at Irondequoit Bay, Denonville marched south bent on destroying the main Seneca villages at Ganondagan and Rochester Landing as retribution for the lost flow of beaver pelts that the Iroquois raiding parties had redirected from Montreal to Albany. Denonville’s invasion of Seneca territory represented the western arm of the French offensive aimed at removing the Iroquois nuisance. Of the Iroquois Five Nations, only the Cayuga were left untouched by French aggression from 1680-1700. For the Seneca, however, Denonville’s invasion was devastating. The main Seneca villages were abandoned and burned before Denonville’s army arrived and their former inhabitants made their way to Cayuga territory as refugees. The Seneca would spend the next year living with their Iroquois brethren before moving back to their own territory in the spring of 1688.
Traveling with the Seneca during their short trek to Cayuga territory was a French soldier who had been captured during one of the violent skirmishes along Denonville’s route. Louis Thomas de Joncaire was a mere seventeen when he was captured by Seneca warriors. He and his fellow captives were taken east where all but Joncaire were tortured to the point of death by their Native captors. Joncaire was spared further torture and imminent death when he fiercely fought of a Seneca war chief who was attempting to bind his hands before pulling Joncaire’s finger nails out. The other Seneca witnesses respected Joncaire’s warrior spirit, which refused to give in to its fate by crying or screaming as many of the other French captives had. As a result of his proven courage, the Seneca adopted Joncaire and in the tradition of the Mourning War, he was given the name Sononchiez and placed within his new Seneca family.
Joncaire was eventually released in 1694 along with fourteen other captives. Amazingly, Joncaire had already achieved the rank of sachem in the short span of seven years among the Seneca. His first official duty after returning to New France (Canada) came four years after his release when on July 18, 1700, Joncaire was asked to attend a conference between the Iroquois and New France’s governor, the Chevalier de Callieres. 1700 marked the final year of the conflict between the French and Iroquois that had begun near twenty years earlier. As part of his services to Callieres, Joncaire spent that summer with the Seneca seeing to the return of additional French and Western Indian war captives.
Joncaire later attended the Great Council of 1701 at Montreal where he worked with both the French and the Seneca Indians to establish a lasting peace that included the western tribes allied to New France. Joncaire attended and presided over several councils, celebrations, and ceremonies on behalf of both Callieres of New France and the Seneca Indians who were still recovering from the decades of devastating retaliatory raids of the Western Indian nations. As an adopted and well-respected member of the Seneca Indians, Joncaire was able to spend much of his remaining lifetime intermittently living among the Seneca who were then settled in villages lying between Seneca and Canandaigua Lakes. Joncaire’s knowledge of Seneca culture proved instrumental in keeping the Seneca from allying with the British during Queen Anne’s War fought in North America between the French and British from 1702-1715. Joncaire would ultimately serve as an intermediary, advisor, and interpreter between the French and Iroquois until his death in 1739 when his son, Chabert, officially stepped in to his father’s role.
Joncaire’s first-hand knowledge of their culture ensured that the Seneca would not be insulted by improper gifts, impositions, or pressuring by other French agents who were accustomed to European ways of creating alliances and trade networks. English agents in Seneca territory were initially outdone by the French because men like Joncaire respected all of the ceremonial, time-consuming, and gift giving elements of Seneca councils while the English proved impatient and impulsively dictated terms to the Seneca while using trade with Albany as either the reward or punishment for meeting English terms. Joncaire provided French colonial administrators with an inside man capable of swaying Seneca opinions that went unmatched by the fumbling British in Albany. Joncaire’s extraordinary value came from the fact that he fully understood and appreciated the important role that persuasion played in a culture where no person had the power to compel obedience. Joncaire’s influence was ultimately so strong among the Seneca that despite vehement British protests and risking the loss of the lucrative trade network with Albany, the Seneca gave the French permission to construct a fortified trading house on the site of the future Fort Niagara in the early 1720s. The trading house at Niagara was among the last real efforts by the French to retain some semblance of activity within the Western Indian fur trade that was increasingly dominated by the British in Albany. Though their efforts ultimately proved fruitless, the military and trade situations in New France would have been markedly worse if not for the efforts of Joncaire.
The story of Louis Thomas de Joncaire is just one of the many stories that our upcoming exhibit will use as an interpretive vehicle for understanding how the pursuit of empire and the resultant networks of diverse peoples opened the door for individual personal desires to transform the Genesee Region from a heavily forested Haudenosaunee homeland into the agrarian-based western New York landscape that we still recognize today. What we ultimately hope that you come away from both this blog and our future exhibit with is the understanding that the transformation of western New York’s landscape from 1650-1810 came in stages that were marked by wider events and involves a narrative that is far more complex than one monolithic entity replacing another. Our selections of historical personalities such as Joncaire are therefore meant to tell that complex story through the lens of individual experiences and personal motivations. Their stories will therefore serve as the synapses between local networks of diverse peoples and the events of the wider world. Not only should visitors leave our future exhibit with a better understanding of how the landscape and people of western New York were impacted by those wider events occurring between 1650 and 1810, but also how the decisions of a few selected individuals at work within the Genesee Region might have changed the course of world history. We encourage you to keep checking into our exhibit blog if you would like to get more sneak peeks at our selected personalities as well as a continued look into the process of constructing an exhibit that will effectively tell their stories.