Akwesasne’s “Neutrality”

From the Land of Flint to the Land Where the Partridge Drums The Migration from the Mohawk Valley to Kahnawake and Akwesasne

by Darren Bonaparte

Source: Seven Generations, by David Blanchard, published by the Kahnawake Survival School

Source: Seven Generations, by David Blanchard, published by the Kahnawake Survival School

Like Kahnawake, Akwesasne loyalties appear to have been with the French at first. Three Akwesasne warriors fought alongside the French at the Battle of Fort Bull near Rome, New York in 1756, and two spied on British forces at Oswego for Pouchot in 1760. (Frisch 1971:61-63) That same year, however, the British met with the Seven Nations of Canada and convinced them to “step aside” in the conflict. As it happened, the Mohawks were less than neutral: Kahnawake Mohawks helped to guide the British forces and their Haudenosaunee allies through the treacherous Lachine Rapids in their assault on Montreal, and ten from Akwesasne actually joined in the fight and were awarded silver medals when the French surrendered Canada. (Williams 1991:20; Frisch 1971:64)

The limited number of Akwesasne Mohawks involved in these campaigns suggests that most of the community maintained neutrality in the conflict. This may be explained by the presence of John and Zechariah Tarbell, the two English captives who had grown up as Mohawks in Kahnawake. According to an early tradition collected in the 1850’s, they were more or less exiled from the pro-French community.

“…this led to a series of petty quarrels, growing out of the jealousy of the young Indians of their age, which disquieted the village, and by the party spirit which it engendered, became a source of irritation and trouble in the settlement, and of anxiety on the part of their missionary, who labored in vain to reconcile the difficulties between them.”

“Failing in this, he advised the two young men, (one of whom they had named Ka-re-ko-wa) to remove with their families to a place by themselves, where they might enjoy tranquility, and be beyond the reach of annoyance from their comrades.”

“This advice they adopted; and taking with them their wives, and followed by their wives’ parents, these four families departed in a bark canoe, with their effects, to seek a new country, and in the secluded recesses of the forest, a home.” (Hough 1853: 112)

The Tarbells maintained a strong connection to their family in New England. Taking advantage of a period of1 relative peace between France and England, they went back to visit in 1739, unable to speak anything but Mohawk and garbed as chiefs. Although their family (and even the governor) tried to induce them to stay, they eventually returned to Kahnawake. With this in mind, the departure of the Tarbells at the onset of the French and Indian War makes perfect sense, as does the relative neutrality of the Akwesasne community in that bloody conflict.

A Promise of Protection

As we have seen, British forces swept through the St. Lawrence River Valley in the final days of the war. Sir William Johnson, who had long been concerned of the influence that the French held over their “praying Indians,” sought to reassure the Mohawks and other Catholic Indian settlements along the St. Lawrence River by promising protection of their territories under British rule. His assurances must have worked, because in the spring 1764 a number of Mohawks from Akwesasne, Kanesatake, and Kahnawake are said to have taken up the hatchet once again, and while it was not stated just who they were going to war against, it has been suggested that their adversaries were the pro-French Ottawa Chief Pontiac and his alliance of tribes in the West. (Frisch 1971:66)

By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of  The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.

Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Next week: Akwesasne’s ‘Neutrality”