First Interactions: The Beaver Wars

Robert Griffing

Before any European arrival, the territory around the Adirondacks was mainly under control of the Iroquois nation. Although they never settled in the Adirondacks, the area now inside the park was used for hunting (Jenkins, 69). The Native Americans depended on the watersheds surrounding the mountains for transportation and nourishment. The Iroquois nation reached its peak just as Europeans sailed to America. This was both a good thing and a bad thing for the nation. On one hand, they were dominant trade partners, but on the other hand, their aggression turned many other competing groups against them and ultimately caused their downfall (“History of Lake Champlain”). Overall, the early patterns of trade in the Adirondack region caused localized conflict between tribes and European settlers that eventually weakened the economic partnership and altered the regional balance of power.

Cartier was the first to arrive in this region in the mid 16th century (“Beaver Wars”). He established small trade with the local Indians of the St. Lawrence valley. This trade spread rapidly as Natives were very willing and competitive to offer beaver furs for European machinery that was entirely unfamiliar to them. However, the trade had two very distinct sides to it. The Native Americans hunted competitively within inland America whereas the Europeans never dealt with live beavers nor the inland geography (Jenkins, 70).


Samuel de Champlain was the first, however to fully explore the region. He was guided by a group of Algonquins through the eastern border of the Adirondack park (“History of Lake Champlain”). One morning he witnessed a drowning Iroquois soldier, but the Algonquins told him to leave him there, cementing the European allegiance to American Indian tribes. Phil Terrie considers this microconflict as “[setting] the tone for what has been nearly four centuries of conflict, as the Adirondack landscape has been fought over with bows, harquebuses, fleets of warships, and, more recently legislation and lawsuits” (Terrie, xviii). The successful relationship the French had with the Algonquins was what eventually created competition between many other tribes, looking to succeed at a similar rate. The Iroquois were partners with the Dutch at Fort Orange along the Hudson river, but wanted more opportunities for trade (Jenkins, 70). The Iroquois nation, envious of the Algonquin control over the beaver trade and limited in their local resources, fought off tribes in the St. Lawrence region and by the Great Lakes (Schneider 19). It was a fight for both fur and control over the water passages. Eventually, the Iroquois got bold enough to raid northern French settlements that did not give the Indian nation enough business. The guerilla tactics the Iroquois used were overwhelming and surprising for the French who were used to a more sophisticated, European style of fighting (Schneider, 33).

At first, the Iroquois aggression was successful at eliminating competition and taking some control of the fur empire. As the beaver population moved west and the Europeans grew in numbers, the Iroquois began to lose their successful position throughout the 17th century (Jenkins, 71). They were unsuccessful moving westward and driving out the competition as the beaver population grew more and more scarce in their proximity. Europeans and other tribes began to fight back against their threat. The French burned four of the five major nation villages of the Iroquois, making enemies too with the British who were allied with the Iroquois (Jenkins, 71). By the late 17th century, the fighting became more about the European nations fighting against one another, using Native American tribes as their pawns–especially with the British replacing the Dutch as the other major European regional presence.

Ecologically, the competition over the beaver pelts caused the exterpation of the beaver from the Adirondack region very quickly (“Beaver Wars”). It also set a precedent for the trapping culture that continued for years. European economic ventures proved to be harmfully unsustainable for the environment of upstate New York and this beaver hunt was the first of many examples.

Because of the sheer extent of lengthy warfare, the populace of 1750 New York was heavily militarized (Jenkins, 74). The French and British didn’t build up cities, they formed forts throughout the Champlain valley. Warfare was a necessity built into the culture and patterns of success.




Works Cited


“Beaver Wars.” Warpaths2peacepipes. Web.

Jenkins, Jerry, and Andy Keal. The Adirondack Atlas: A Geographic Portrait of the Adirondack Park. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2004. Print.

“History of Lake Champlain.” Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Web.

Terrie, Philip G. Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks. Blue Mountain Lake, NY: Adirondack Museum, 1997. Print.