Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada

An As-Yet Unresolved Enigma: The Dispersion of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians

A drawing of a devasted Iroquoian village with one habitant dead on the ground. Intertribal wars: one of the causes of the dispersion of the Iroquoians.
© Parks Canada / Videanthrop inc., Montréal

Historians and archaeologists have always been fascinated by what actually occurred during the time separating Cartier's travels through the St. Lawrence Valley and the arrival of Champlain in 1603. When the latter sailed up the river almost 60 years after Cartier, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians who inhabited the Québec and Montréal regions had vanished.

Various hypotheses have been devised to explain what remains a mystery even at the present time. Among the causes most frequently cited are: intertribal warfare that was waged independently of contact with the Europeans; intertribal warfare that was linked to the presence of Europeans (such as access to Europeans' wares, and the then-nascent fur trade); epidemics; and deteriorating climatic conditions. Several of these causes were most likely involved, and warfare undoubtedly played a role.

Some hypotheses

In the Montréal region, the Hochelagans spoke to Cartier of enemies to the west, whom they called the "Agojudas". Opinions differ as to the identity of this group, but archaeological sources have revealed that at least a portion of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians joined the Hurons, possibly as a result of seeking refuge among an allied group or because, as captives, they had been adopted en masse by an enemy group. In the Québec region, the Stadaconans were on a war footing with a group they called the "Toudamans", who correspond to the Micmacs on the basis of indications found in Cartier's narratives and Micmac oral tradition. The scenario surrounding the dispersion of the Iroquoians from the east end of the St. Lawrence Valley is undoubtedly different from that which was involved further upriver. For the moment, archaeological research has been of little avail. A number of indications suggest, however, that these Iroquois might have found refuge among their Montagnais (Innu) allies in the Saguenay River region or among their Abenaki allies who inhabited the Kennebec River valley in Maine.

A number of historical documents suggest that the St. Lawrence Valley was closed to foreign penetration until about 1580. A number of European incursions occurred from that time on, but are too poorly documented to be of use. The Micmacs frequented a place they called "Gepeg", which the French then pronounced "Québec", whereas the Montagnais occupied the entire north shore of the St. Lawrence.

By the time of Champlain's voyage, Iroquoian Laurentia had become a thing of the past. In a very short time, the French would use exactly the same territory to found New France, thus erasing the last visible traces of an original culture that had preceded their settlement by many centuries.