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


In 1676 the occupants moved their settlement upriver to Sault St. Louis (the present Lachine Rapids) and renamed it Kahnawake, which means “At The Rapids.” It was named after a village in the Mohawk Valley where many of the converts, including Kateri Tekakwitha, had once lived. (The southern Kahnawake was ultimately destroyed by a French raid in 1693. Today there is a shrine to Kateri near the excavated site of the village a mile west of Fonda, New York.) Europeans referred to the northern Kahnawake as Caughnawaga and its people as Caughnawagas, which reflected the multinational population of the Christian mission, but the Mohawk culture and language was dominant. The name of the mission was changed to St. Francis Xavier du Sault. The northern Kahnawake moved twice since 1676, usually due to soil erosion and the increasing disruptions caused by the population of Montreal. Since 1716 it has been located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence just east of where it is fed by the Chateauguay River. (Fenton and Tooker 1978:470-471)

In time the Hurons and some of the Mohawks broke off from the growing settlement. The Hurons moved to Lorette, and the Mohawks eventually found themselves on the northern shore of the Lake of Two Mountains where another Catholic mission was established in 1721. (Surtees 1985:68) This community was called Kanesatake, or “Place Of The Silvery Sands” or “Place of Reeds” and it was also home to Nipissings and Algonquins. Today it occupies a territory that is checkerboarded by the non-native township of Oka.

Although the Jesuits petitioned the French government for the lands on which these missions were established, it is important to note that the Mohawks themselves did not. They considered the area Mohawk territory and did not recognize that France had any claim to it. Although many of the people migrated to those villages because of the Catholic missions, there was a political and economic motivation at play. They believed that they were only reoccupying the northern frontier of Kanienke and placing themselves closer to the French fur traders at Montreal. With ties to the French in the north and the British in the south, they would be able to bargain for better prices from both by threatening to favor the other if they did not like the prices of the one. This was a wise plan, but the competition between the two colonial powers eventually proved too divisive.

Blood Among Brothers

Under pressure, men from the northern “Praying Indian” villages often acted as scouts and went into battle alongside the French militia in the series of imperial conflicts known as the French and Indian Wars. This alliance brought them into confrontations with their Haudenosaunee brothers, who at the time held firm to a “Covenant Chain” of friendship with the British. They were naturally reluctant to fight fellow Haudenosaunee, but at times the heat of battle led to transgressions of this neutrality.

On one occasion in 1686, Mohawks from Kahnawake accompanied a French “peace envoy” led by Marquis de Denonville that actually turned out to be a surprise attack against the Haudenosaunee. Sixty chiefs were captured and enslaved. The French later attacked Seneca territory with their Kahnawake allies. (Beauchamp 1976-232- 233)

The Kahnawake Mohawks would later come to regret their role in these expeditions when the Haudenosaunee launched a fierce 1,500 man attack against the French and their native allies in 1689. (Beauchamp 1976:235) First they struck an Algonquin village on the island of Montreal, then they raided Lachine and its fort, forcing the Kahnawake Mohawks to seek refuge within the walls of Montreal for protection. (Surtees 1985:68) The Confederacy renounced the Kahnawake Mohawks as traitors for having led French forces into their former homelands, but efforts to lure them back to the Mohawk Valley continued. (Frisch 1971:52)

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: The Unredeemed Captives.