10 Surprising Facts About the Great Beaver Wars

The Great Beaver Wars were a series of little-known North American conflicts that cemented colonial and Indigenous relations and set the stage for the dawn of a new age.

Apr 11, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

great beaver wars facts


The fur trade, particularly the capture of beaver pelts, had a huge influence on the development of parts of the future United States and Canada. Hundreds of men made their way to the New World in hopes of striking it rich in pursuit of raw products that would fuel the fashion industry in Europe. However, this was not without consequences. The development of this industry would have lasting impacts, one of the most notable of which was the Great Beaver Wars, a series of conflicts that spanned time and miles.


1. The Origins of the Fighting Lay in the Competitive Fur Trade

beaver wars engraving
A Beaver Wars Engraving. Source: Canadian History Ehx


The Great Beaver Wars began in approximately 1640, when the five tribes of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, originally based in what would become New York, began a campaign to increase their territory. Their economy had become heavily dependent on fur trade, particularly beaver, with the British and Dutch. They were running out of pelts to supply their buyers with, having depleted the animals in their homeland. Eager to continue their profitable alliances, the Haudenosaunee used their might to expand north and westward into the territory of other Indigenous peoples and French colonial fur traders, thus igniting hostilities.


great beaver wars
Color Plate with beavers. Source: Oregon Natural Desert Association


Traditional enemies of the Haudenosaunee banded together with the French in hopes that their combined strength would allow them to make a stand. Eventually, the fight would expand into the St. Lawrence Valley, Ottawa Valley, and towards the Ohio River Valley. The Haudenosaunee did not hesitate to forcefully relocate their rivals through violence, though retaliatory attacks would cause suffering on the part of the Haudenosaunee as well, as villages, crops, and lives would be lost in the years to come.


2. The Fighting was Intermittent but Lasted Over 60 Years

great peace stamp
A Canadian postage stamp commemorating the Great Peace, released in 2001. Source: Postage Stamp Guide

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Though it began early in the seventeenth century, the fighting over beaver would not end until 1701, when the Treaty of Grande Paix, or the Great Peace of Montreal, was signed by the British, the French, the Haudenosaunee, and several other Indigenous tribes affected by the conflict.


Although the Great Beaver Wars technically lasted 61 years, the fighting was not constant during that time. The conflict ebbed and flowed, with periods of heavy battles and times of quiet tension. In total, historians consider the wars to be divided into five periods of conflict. The Treaty that ended the wars not only ended the fighting but allowed for peaceful, free trade between the French and Haudenosaunee. The French would be allowed to settle in Detroit, an important trading location, and the Haudenosaunee pledged to remain neutral in case of a future war between England and France (spoiler alert, they wouldn’t!).


3. The Wars Resulted in the Permanent Destruction of Several First Nations

great beaver wars erie tribe
The Erie nation would be brought to extinction by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Source: HubPages


The war waged by the Haudenosaunee on behalf of their economy was incredibly destructive to the tribes that occupied the areas they wished to move into. These tribes were forced to move westward. They allied with existing tribes or became refugees hoping for kindness. In some cases, tribes would be eliminated entirely.


For example, in 1657, after repeated attacks, what remained of the Erie tribe was absorbed into the Haudenosaunee, never again to stand on its own as an independent nation. By the completion of the conflict, the Haudenosaunee would have successfully broken up every Indigenous group, both individual and allied, that directly surrounded their original homeland.


4. The Dutch Played a Role

dutch east india
Flag of the Dutch East India Company. Source: Hot Core


Although the French and British are most commonly remembered as major European players in the fur trade, the Dutch were also active in the New World. Their location on the Hudson River in present-day New York put them in close proximity with the Haudenosaunee, with whom they built a trading relationship.


In turn, they, like the British, would provide the Haudenosaunee tribes with firearms that would then be used to evict other Indigenous tribes from valuable fur-hunting territory. In 1664, the British would take over the colony of New Netherland (New York) from the Dutch, essentially removing them from a primary role in the North American fur trade.


5. Jesuit Priests Prevented the Arming of French Indigenous Allies

great beaver wars saint ignatius
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Source: St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Parish


Jesuits, a distinct arm of the Catholic religion, were an influential component of society in parts of the early Americas. They were religious figures, but the importance of religion in European society meant that they also played a huge role in the creation of the infrastructure in colonial societies. Jesuits were prominent in the French aspects of the North American colonies and held influence among officials.


As the French built alliances among tribes like the Huron and Algonquin, they looked to begin arming their new partners, as the British and Dutch had with the Haudenosaunee. However, Jesuit priests warned against it, restricting the distribution of firearms only to Indigenous people who had converted to Christianity. They claimed that these individuals were more trustworthy and reliable, and military officials heeded their advice, reducing the number of weapons available to their Indigenous allies. Their concern for their counterparts’ religious beliefs seemed to outweigh the concern that their enemies may outgun them.


6. Refugees Flooded Wisconsin, Creating a Humanitarian Disaster

great beaver wars wisconsin map
Map of Wisconsin showing traditional Indigenous territories, nineteenth century. Source: Encyclopedia of Milwaukee


More than 20,000 Indigenous refugees were pushed into the region that would become the state of Wisconsin as a result of the conflicts. This area was not large enough to support this number of people in addition to the people that occupied the area. Hunting and fishing grounds were scarce, as was living space. Epidemics and starvation were soon commonplace in the area, as was infighting and disunity. Many died as a result, and tribes who had once occupied the land shifted and divided to survive.


7. Beavers Were Believed to Have Mystical Powers

great beaver wars beaver water
Photograph of a beaver, Vlad G photo. Source: One Green Planet


Beaver fur was in demand due to its high demand in European high fashion at the time, mainly for men’s top hats. These top hats signified wealth and high class, and demanded respect. In addition, the unique characteristics of beaver hair made the hats water-resistant, a key feature in rainy Western Europe.


However, some wearers believed that beaver fur held mystical powers that could be transferred to the wearer. It was believed that oil from a beaver pelt rubbed in the hair could improve memory and that wearing a beaver hat could aid in hearing loss.


Different Indigenous cultures had traditional beliefs surrounding the beaver. For example, the Mi’kmaq, traditionally allied with the French, believed that consuming beaver bones would curse one never to be able to catch a beaver again.


8. A 14-Year-Old Girl Became a Hero

de vercheres statue
A statue of Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Vercheres. Source: Vercheres Municipality


In 1692, a fourteen-year-old French girl became a hero to her town of Fort Vercheres when she joined in with the local men to defend against Haudenosaunee attacks. Marie-Madeleine Jarret de Vercheres helped fire cannons and guns at the attackers and signal reinforcements. A statue is now dedicated to her in Quebec, and she later would receive a pension from the French king.


9. The Great Beaver Wars Created Lakota Horse Culture

great beaver wars lakota
The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell, 1903, features Lakota warriors on horseback. Source: Black Hills Visitor


The continuous expansion of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy resulted in the Lakota people being pushed westward from their original homelands on the Eastern side of the Mississippi River onto the Great Plains. Nomadic life on the plains required constant movement that was simplified with the introduction of the horse. The Lakota became adept horsemen as a result, using their mounts for hunting, traveling, carrying goods, and waging war.


Horses were present on the Great Plains already, descendants of Spanish horses brought to the Americas. As the next few centuries progressed, the Lakota would become legendary for their skills as horsemen, considered by many historians to be the best light cavalry in world history. By 1831, the Lakota were the dominant military force for hundreds of miles in any direction on the plains.


The image of a stoic Native American atop his steed would become an iconic stereotype in the minds of many as “wild west shows” traveled the country in the late eighteenth century, and Americans heard stories of the “Indian Wars” taking place in the west.


10. Three “-isms” Are At the Root of the Conflict

great beaver wars mercantilism
A political cartoon illustrating the policy of Mercantilism by Philip Dorf. Source: History Vault


When it comes to the root causes of the Great Beaver Wars and many other conflicts of this time, there are many factors at play in addition to what lies on the surface. While the apparent cause of this conflict seems to be a desire to control the beaver trade, three political policies and beliefs that were held in regard by European powers at the time dictated these results: imperialism, colonialism, and mercantilism.


Imperialism is the desire or action of extending a country’s power, often through political, or in this case, economic, means.


Colonialism can help countries achieve imperialism in that it is the practice of exerting power over weaker peoples. In this case, the French, British, and Dutch used their power and wealth to put pressure on the Haudenosaunee, Algonquin, Huron, and other Indigenous tribes in the Americas.


Mercantilism went hand in hand with colonialism, with the final goal of creating a favorable trade balance. “Mother countries” would monopolize resources in a colony and use them to create marketable goods (or sell them raw) at home. In the end, countries hoped to export more than they were forced to import and therefore make more money.


These three policies can all be traced to a desire for wealth and power, and all created hostility, distrust, and conflict.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”