Native American people who occupied the Ottawa River Valley, the border between the present-day Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Both Algonquin and Algonkin are acceptable spellings of the tribal name, although in their own language the Algonquins call themselves Anishnabe or Anishinabe, meaning “original person” (the plural is Anishnabek or Anishnabeg). The word “Algonquian” (Algonkian) refers to a group of languages that include those of not only the Algonquins but also the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Crees, Blackfeet, and Ojibwas, among others. Algonquian is in fact the largest North American native language group. The Iroquois, however, referred to the Algonquins as the Adirondacks (literally “they eat trees”).
In 1603 when they first encountered the French, the Algonquins probably numbered some 6,000 people. In 1768 the British estimated the Algonquin population at 1,500 people. The Algonquins were a seminomadic people, being too far north for settled agriculture. In contrast to the neighboring Iroquois to the west and the south, who lived primarily by agriculture in large fortified communities, the Algonquins were hunter-gatherers and trappers who lived in villages. Their shelters were of birchbark, known as waginogans or wigwams, and Algonquins traveled by water in birchbark canoes. In winter the villages split into smaller extended family units for hunting. The harsh winter conditions would not allow additional burdens, and the Algonquins were in consequence often known to kill the sick or badly injured among them. Algonquins were patrilineal, with hunting rights passed down from father to son. The Algonquins were known as fierce warriors, and they dominated the Iroquois until those tribes came together in the Iroquois Confederacy.
When Jacques Cartier first arrived in the Saint Lawrence River Valley in 1534, he found only Iroquoian-speaking people living in the area between Stadacona (Quebec) and Hochelaga (Montreal), but following near-continual warfare between the Iroquois and the Algonquins from 1570 and the resultant formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Iroquois drove the Algonquins north from the Adirondack Mountains and the upper Hudson River Valley. The Alqonquins in turn displaced or absorbed Iroquoian-speaking native peoples along the Saint Lawrence.
In 1603 Samuel de Champlain made contact with the Algonquins when he established a French trading post along the Saint Lawrence at Tadoussac. He soon learned that the Hurons rather than the Algonquins dominated the upper Saint Lawrence. Anxious to secure both free passage and furs, in 1609 Champlain joined the French to the struggle among the natives of the region by committing himself to aiding the Algonquins, Montagnais, and Hurons in an expedition against the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy. Although by the time of the battle the French contingent numbered only Champlain and two others, their firearms proved the difference in battle, and the Mohawks fled.
This victory brought a formal alliance between the French and the Algonquins and also brought about trade in furs in exchange for the European tools and weapons sought by the Native Americans. By 1610 the Algonquins, led by their chief, Piskaret, dominated the Saint Lawrence Valley. In the process, however, the French had made an implacable enemy of the Mohawks. In 1614 Champlain participated in an Algonquin-Huron attack on the Oneida and Onondaga nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, cementing Iroquois enmity toward the French. Soon the French were doing most of their fur trading with the Hurons rather than the Algonquins, much to the displeasure of the latter.
Intermittent fighting continued between the Mohawks and the Algonquins and Montagnais. In 1629 the Mohawks attacked the Algonquins and Montagnais near Quebec in what is usually considered the beginning of the so-called Beaver Wars (1641–1701). This fighting was prompted by the desire of the Iroquois to expand northward. From 1629 to 1632 the Mohawks, taking advantage of the temporary defeat of the French by the English, drove the Algonquins and Montagnais from the upper Saint Lawrence Valley. Peace terms allowed the French to return to Quebec in 1632, when they sought to restore their alliances by furnishing firearms to a number of native groups. This effort proved unsuccessful, especially as the Dutch in turn provided the Mohawks with large quantities of the latest firearms. By the end of the 1640s the Mohawks and Oneidas had driven the remaining Algonquins and Montagnais from the upper Saint Lawrence and lower Ottawa River areas. The Iroquois had also defeated the Hurons.
The arrival of a contingent of regular French troops in 1664 allowed the Quebec government to conclude peace with the Iroquois three years later. The French then resumed trading with the western Great Lakes region. The peace also permitted the Algonquins, now greatly reduced in number, to begin returning to the Ottawa Valley.
Although only some Algonquins converted to Catholicism, the nation as a whole was bound to the French cause during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). In August 1760 after British forces had taken Quebec, the Algonquins and other Native American allies of the French made peace with the English, agreeing to remain neutral in any future fighting between the English and the French. This agreement helped to seal the fate of New France.
The Algonquins continued their new loyalty to the British, fighting on their side during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and taking part in Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger's campaign against Patriot forces in the Mohawk Valley in 1777. Following the war when many British Loyalists fled to Canada, the British government settled a number of them on lands in the lower Ottawa Valley purchased from the Algonquins. Despite this the Algonquins also fought on the British side in the War of 1812, helping to defeat U.S. troops in the Battle of Chateauguay in October 1813. The reward to the Algonquins for their loyalty was to be continually pushed off their ancestral lands.
Ultimately purchases by the Canadian government resulted in the establishment of reserves (reservations) for the Algonquins in their former homeland. Today the majority of remaining Algonquins live on nine reserves in the province of Quebec and one reserve in Ontario.
Beaver Wars; Champlain, Samuel de; Iroquois; Iroquois Confederacy; Mohawks; Wyandots
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