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Greg Rogers, Ph.D. Candidate
In 1728, the French Canadian officer and interpreter Sieur de de la Chauvignerie was dispatched to Onondaga country to meet with the Five Nations Iroquois. On his route from the Saint Lawrence Valley to the heart of the Five Nations lay the British/New York post at Oswego. Aware of the French emissary’s presence, the commander at Oswego tried everything from diplomatic protocol to rum to hamper his mission. Chauvignerie maintained his cool and stubbornly maintained his country’s honor, showing that France was still a force to be reckoned with in the region despite the new competing outpost.
Historians interested in the British-French contest for northeastern North America have generally focused their attention on periods of war; it was during armed conflicts that territory changed hands, forts were destroyed, frontiers raided, and victors decided. However, the exercise of power during periods of peace can prove just as revealing. During times of peace British and French officers like Chauvignerie often had to be resourceful in furthering their interests. With treaties placing direct violence off limits, agents of empire serving in remote locales at the mercy of Indian inhabitants, harsh environments, and shoestring budgets often proved skilled in all sorts of improvisation.
In order to reach the Onondaga, the “Keepers of the Fire” and the traditional hosts of Iroquois diplomacy, Chauvignerie was forced to pass by Oswego. The trading post had been fortified with a stone wall and blockhouse the previous year and was dubbed ‘Fort Burnet” for the New York Governor who enthusiastically created and maintained the vulnerable bastion of British power perched on the south shore of Lake Ontario. When Chauvignerie was about seven miles from the fort he dispatched his Indian messengers with belts of wampum to notify the Onondaga sachems at Oswego that he was in the neighborhood. When the sachems arrived at his camp they began the proxy war between the French agent and the New York commander of the fort. They relayed the message that the commander ordered Chauvignerie to lower his flag and fire a salute to the fort as he passed aboard his canoe. Keenly aware that his every move was being observed by the Iroquois sachems, Chauvignerie refused the gesture of deference multiple times via Indian messengers. He then cleverly reminded the sachems in his camp of the Iroquois sovereignty over the land that the new fort had been built upon (although one doubts his intentions were sincere as France claimed title to all lands on Lake Ontario).
After declaring to his camp that “I shall not fire a salute until others have saluted me,” Chauvignerie set off toward the fort and landed on the east bank of the Oswego River, opposite the British post. The New York officer again initiated passive aggression as he sent word that he wished to meet with the newly arrived Frenchman and six of his accompanying sachems. Chauvignerie replied that he “had no business at that house” and refused to leave his tent. Nevertheless, he did not miss an opportunity to gather intelligence on the meeting and sent Tekarihoken, a Caughnawaga Iroquois allied with the French, to be his eyes and ears. Within the fort the commander reminded the Iroquois of his good working relationship with them and treated them to three pots of rum, as well as some pork and peas. The members of the delegation, except for Tekarihoken, returned to Chauvignerie’s camp in a state of “great drunkenness.” Chauvignerie begged them not to continue the festivities but the drinking continued for three days much to the chagrin of the now stymied Frenchman.
During this time Chauvignerie felt very uneasy and rightfully so. He found himself over a hundred miles from the nearest French outpost amidst an enemy garrison and a group of sachems that were under their influence in every sense of the word. Furthermore, the commander of the fort’s harassment continued as he kept ordering Chauvignerie to lower the French flag he flew above his tent. Chauvignerie refused, and to show his resolve he kept the flag flying even after sundown. His stubborn breach of protocol and lack of salute as he began his ascent of the Oswego River caused the commander to attempt a last ditch effort in putting the Frenchman in his place. He dispatched an Onondaga with a British flag to the front of Chauvignerie’s party to lead the way. Upon seeing the banner Chauvignerie halted the convoy, stating he would not proceed until the offending flag was put away. He assured the Onondagas that they had nothing to fear “under their [French] Father’s flag.” His persistence paid off as the party passed the fort on the river flying the fleur-de-lis instead of the Union Jack.
While the trials and tribulations around Oswego may seem trivial and petty to modern readers, they reveal several things about the daily power struggles on the colonial borderlands. Firstly they show the importance of Indian actors. The Onondaga sachems at Oswego, Tekarihoken, and the impending council in Iroquoia demonstrate the extent to which Europeans relied upon, sought to influence, and were at the mercy of native peoples. Secondly, it shows the importance of symbols and protocol at the fringes of empire. Usually lacking funding and personnel, agents of empire resorted to salutes, flag-flying, and other performances of power to reassure themselves while demonstrating to others the vitality of their respective empires.
Greg Rogers, “Saving Face and Flag in the Wilderness: Chauvignerie’s 1728 Voyage to Onondaga Country,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), October 2, 2013, http://khronikos.com/2013/10/02/saving-face-and-flag-in-the-wilderness-chauvigneries-1728-voyage-to-onondaga-country/.
 It is unclear if the Sieur de de la Chauvignerie mentioned in the account of the 1728 Oswego voyage is Louis Maray de la Chauvignerie or his son, Michel Maray de la Chauvignerie. Louis was born in 1671 and Michel in 1701. Frank H. Severance includes the French documentation of the voyage in his two-volume 1917 narrative An Old Frontier of France. He remarks, “…perhaps the reader can decide, from, the tone, whether the writer was a veteran officer of 57, or a cadet of 24.” (II, 155).
E.B. O’Callaghan, ed. The Documentary History of the State of New York, vol. 1 (Albany: Weed & Parsons, 1849), 460-62.
Bruce G. Trigger, “TEKARIHOKEN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tekarihoken_2E.html.
South View of Oswego (1760, London Magazine)
Father Rafféix’s 1688 French map of Lake Ontario (notice perspective from north) (Wikimedia Commons)
French and Indian canoe convoy (John Henry de Rinzy – Frontenac en Route to Cataraqui – National Archives of Canada)