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Hunting for Empire: Indian Hunts as a Geopolitical Tool

Greg Rogers, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Maine

Iroquois Hunters

Iroquois Hunters

As fall begins it seems appropriate for a post relating to hunting. The regular archery season opens on October 2 in Maine, with regular firearm deer hunting starting about a month later. The politicization of hunting seems especially relevant as Maine voters will decide on Question Two in November, asking whether or not bait, traps, and dogs should be banned from bear hunting. In this post I touch on some of the ways that Indian hunting, particularly by the Iroquois, was intertwined with the goals of the French and British North American empires. It is a topic that will figure into my dissertation (I swear I will start writing any day now!) and one that is important to understanding the ways power, mobility, and knowledge were exercised in the northeastern borderlands.

The role of hunting in Iroquois diplomacy and politics has been recently examined by several historians. Michael Gunther’s 2010 dissertation, “‘The Deed of Gift,'” looks at the ways that the Iroquois and other native groups in the Lake Champlain region were able to successfully preserve shared hunting grounds between the British colony of New York and New France. In addition, Jon Parmenter’s The Edge of the Woods, published in the same year, touches on the ways that the Iroquois of the Saint Lawrence were able to use a hunt in the Ottawa River Valley as a way to reinforce diplomatic and kinship ties. Similarly, diplomacy and hunting intersected in the winter of 1699-1700 when hundreds of Onondaga and Seneca hunters scouring the north shore of Lake Ontario for game were met by the French officer Louis de La Porte de Louvigny. The Frenchman was able to significantly assuage French-Iroquois tensions around the vulnerable Fort Frontenac while diverting valuable elk and deer skins away from traders at Albany.

Fort Frontenac, 1759

Fort Frontenac, 1759

My own work will focus on the ways hunting aided both French and British projects of empire. One such way was that Indian hunters were able to serve as eyes and ears in regions either too dangerous or remote for Europeans or colonials. For instance, during King George’s War (1744-48), Iroquois hunters based in the borderlands between the British post of Oswego and the French Fort Frontenac were able to provide the British officer at Oswego with intelligence he would never have been privy too otherwise. Hunters were perfectly situated in December 1744 (during the early months of war) to provide details concerning French diplomatic efforts and troop movements. They were the ideal informants since hunting was a form prolonged, self-sustaining mobility and the neutrality of most of the Six Nation Iroquois at this time helped guarantee their own safety. Indian hunters could also prove to be a more active necessity. In the spring of 1760, during the Seven Years War, a band of Mohawk hunters, allied with the British, happened upon a French and Indian scalping party crossing the remote Sacandaga River, many miles north of the closest British fort or settlement. The invaders were startled by the unexpected encounter and fled, their element of surprise ruined allowing the militia of the Mohawk Valley to mobilize.

Sir William Johnson, engraving 1756

Sir William Johnson, engraving 1756

In addition to serving as much needed sources of intelligence, Indian hunts and hunters provided valuable sustenance to British and French outposts and travelers. One example occurred in 1747 during King George’s War, when neutral Onondaga hunters from the south encamped outside Fort Frontenac. Despite the misgivings of some French officers and Indian allies, Captain Cabanac reported that relations were quiet and peaceful. Deer taken by the Onondaga were traded to the officers and soldiers of the post for “small wares.” The venison surely provided a welcome relief to the garrison’s rations, which typically involved large quantities of salted meat and hard bread. Four years later, when the French missionary Francois Picquet embarked upon a tour of Lake Ontario to recruit Iroquois families for the new mission post at Oswegatchie (Fort La Présentation), his Indian escorts played a key gastronomical role. Picquet, whose journal of the expedition is full of digestive complaints, was sustained by fresh game rather than salted pork, which the priest despised. Not only did the kills fuel the energetic missionary but they also served as the basis of a feast on a Lake Ontario island where he was able to successfully recruit the local inhabitants. The famed British Indian agent, William Johnson, also utilized Indian game. One of his first diplomatic moves upon the British capture of Niagara in 1759 was to reach an agreement with the local Ojibwa that guaranteed the new garrison a steady source of fresh meat.

As European officials began to recognize the value of Indian hunting they sought to control it, or at least influence hunts in ways that were geopolitically beneficial. During King George’s War, Johnson actually paid Iroquois not to hunt so that they would be available to serve as scouts and raiders. However, as precious intelligence began to flow from Iroquois parties during the Seven Years War, he reversed his policy and actively began to pay and outfit hunting parties. In 1759 alone, various parties of Mohawks, Oneidas, and Tuscarora were all funded and supplied by the British. In October of the previous year, Johnson dismissed a group of Mohawks, Oneidas, and Onondagas that had encamped at his residence slated to serve with the British at Lake George. As the season was too far along, they were dismissed to hunt. He gave them explicit instructions that encouraged them to only hunt close to their villages, give notice of their whereabouts, keep sharp lookouts, and report any news or sightings of the enemy to the British. Johnson, who had viewed Indian hunting as a nuisance in the previous war, had come full circle, declaring that he wished them to “conduct their hunts as that they might be profitable to themselves and useful to His Majesty’s service and the security of these parts of the country.”

Greg Rogers, “Hunting for Empire: Indian Hunts as a Geopolitical Tool,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), October  1, 2014,


Michael Gunther, “‘The Deed of Gift’: Borderland Encounters, Landscape Change, and the ‘Many Deeds of War’ in the Hudson-Champlain Corridor, 1690-1791,” (Lehigh University, 2010)

Samuel Hazard, ed. Pennsylvania Archives, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: J. Severns & Co., 1877)

John V. Jezierski, ed., “A 1751 Journal of Abbe Francois Picquet,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 44, LIV (October, 1970)

John Knox,  Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759 and 1760, Volume 3, edited by Arthur G. Doughty (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968)

Jon Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010)

James Sullivan, ed. The Papers of Sir William Johnson, 14 volumes (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1921)



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