He was one of the most important Indigenous leaders of the last half of the 17th century, and it was through him that the first major treaty between Canadians and the Indigenous would be signed, the Great Peace of Montreal. His name was Kondiaronk, and while he is not as well known as other Indigenous leaders today, his role in our history cannot be understated.
Born sometime around 1649, Kondiaronk was the Chief of the Huron people, with their land being located between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan after an Iroquois attack around the time of Kondiaronk’s birth pushed them into a new region.
As Kondiaronk grew up, he became known as a brilliant speaker and an excellent strategist when it came to war. He would eventually be baptized as a Catholic, but his suspicion of the French would remain for some time.
The first major role in diplomacy for Kondiaronk came in 1682 when he represented the Mackinac Huron tribe in negotiations with French Governor Frontenac and the Ottawa tribe that shared a village with Kondiaronk’s people. Kondiaronk looked to the French for protection from the Iroquois after an Iroquois chief had died while being held prisoner in the village of the Huron and Ottawa. To appease for the death, the Huron sent wampum belts, but did not send any Ottawa wampum belts. The Ottawa also stated that the Huron placed the blame for the death on them. Kondiaronk stated that he was only placating the Iroquois with the belts, but the Ottawa were unhappy with this and the French could do little to appease them. Even with those tensions though, the French did offer protection to Kondiaronk and his people from the Iroquois and their military advances.
For Kondiaronk, the security of his people was the most important thing to him. To that end, he saw that the best way to ensure the survival of the Huron people, was for the French and Iroquois to be at war with each other. If the French were attacking the Iroquois, his people would be safe from the Iroquois, and their preservation would be assured.
In 1687, Kondiaronk and the Hurons allied with the French and Governor Denonville on the condition that the French would continue to attack the Iroquois until they were defeated.
One year later, Kondiaronk formed a war party and traveled to Fort Frontenac, located where Kingston is today. From there, he planned to raid Iroquois villages, but he soon found out that Denonville was trying to make peace with the Iroquois, even though he had told the Huron he would not. Kondiaronk chose to withdraw his party across Lake Ontario and wait for the Iroquois delegation to pass on their way to Montreal. When they did, Kondiaronk and his war party attacked. One chief was killed, and the rest of the Iroquois were taken captive. When the Iroquois said they were a peaceful delegation, Kondiaronk stated that he was shocked, and then angry at the betrayal of Denonville, making it seem like he had orchestrated the attack without telling Kondiaronk about the peace. He would say quote:
He then presented the Iroquois with guns, powder and balls and the Iroquois said that if the Hurons wanted a separate peace with them, they could have it.
Kondiaronk took one Iroquois captive as a replacement for a Huron warrior killed in the attack. He then took the prisoner to the French commandant at Mich-il-im-ackinac and the commandant ordered him killed, not knowing that his government was trying to negotiate a peace with the Iroquois. An Iroquois slave was ordered to watch the execution, and then Kondiaronk told him to travel to the Iroquois and tell them what happened.
Due to his skillful manipulation of events and the various nations, the French began to call him Le Rat.
As a result of his ruse at Fort Frontenac, 1,200 Iroquois fell upon Montreal in August of 1689, destroying a substantial portion of the settlement.
Thanks to Kondiaronk manipulating the events, the peace between the French and Iroquois fell apart, which for Kondiaronk meant that his people’s survival would be assured. It was because of Kondiaronk that in Frontenac’s War, fought between the French and English from 1689 to 1697, the Iroquois were also fighting against the French.
It was not that Kondiaronk was against peace, but he knew that peace between the French and the Iroquois would mean both could soon go against the Huron.
For that decade of warfare between the French and Iroquois, Kondiaronk would often have a hand behind the scenes. The French knew this, but he was worth more alive than dead to them. To prove this, in September 1689, Kondiaronk went down to Montreal and back without incident, stating that the French lacked the boldness to hang him.
When another Huron chief, La Baron, wanted to side with the Iroquois to attack the Miamis, Kondiaronk warned La Baron about it, then attacked the Iroquois in a two-hour canoe battle that left 55 Iroquois dead. By doing this, he prevented a Huron-Iroquois alliance, and established his control over his people.
When Frontenac’s War ended in 1697, and with the Iroquois no longer able to use the English military threat to their advantage, they would sign a treaty in September 1700 to make peace. It was at this point that Kondiaronk shifted tactics, and he would encourage many Indigenous nations around the Great Lakes to go to Montreal the following year and sign a huge peace treaty between all the nations.
He would tell the Iroquois to listen to Louis-Hector de Calliere, the new governor, quote:
This would culminate with The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701, of which Kondiaronk was a vital participant, and could be called an architect of the peace. For that peace negotiation, over 1,200 Indigenous, more residents than Montreal had at the time, came to the city to negotiate. Indigenous from as far away as the Maritimes were on hand, and it would mark the end of The Beaver Wars, which had plagued the area for the past century.
I did an episode on The Great Peace of Montreal, so I encourage you to check out that episode to get a deep look at how it came about.
In a long speech during the treaty proceedings, Kondiaronk showed everyone that there were advantages to having this peace. Kondiaronk spoke while seriously ill and had to be given a chair to speak. After drinking some maidenhair fern syrup, he would begin to speak.
The event is described as such, quote:
“He sat down first on a folding stool, then a large and comfortable armchair was brought for him so that he could speak with greater ease. He was given some wine to strengthen him, but he asked for a herbal drink and it was realized that he wanted syrup of the maiden-hair fern.”
He spent two hours condemning the Iroquois, while also speaking of his success in recovering prisoners, averting conflict and in peaceful negotiations.
In his speech, he would say, quote:
“We have found many of our brothers dead along the river…word had spread that the sickness was great in Montreal. All these corpses eaten away by the birds, which we found at every moment were sufficiently proof of it. But we made a bridge of all these bodies on which we marched firmly.”
Kondiaronk also spoke of the exchange of prisoners, which for him was essential to the treaty. He would state quote:
“You absolutely insist that we bring you all the Iroquois slaves among us. We have obeyed you…let us see at the same time if the Iroquois obey you…and how many of our nephews they have brought back…if they have done so it is a mark of their sincerity. If they have not done it, they are treacherous. I know, however, that they haven’t brought a single one.”
Bacqueville de la Potherie would say, quote:
“We could not help but be touched by the eloquence with which he expressed himself and could not fail to recognize at the same time that he was a man of worth.”
After retiring to his hut following his speech, he would later die at 2 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1701, mere days before the signing of the treaty he helped make successful.
When his death was announced, many of the Iroquois covered the body in a ritual called covering the dead. Sixty men then led a procession that sat around his body and one man paced and sang for 15 minutes in honour of Kondiaronk. A second speaker then came up, wiped the tears from the mourners, and gave them a sweet medicine. He then produced a belt and urged the warriors to emerge from darkness to the light of peace.
Potherie would state quote:
“If he had been born a Frenchman, he was the kind of man to govern the most difficult affairs of a flourishing state…He had the sentiments of a beautiful soul and was a savage in name only.”
The funeral for Kondiaronk was highly elaborate with the French and Indigenous all taking part. Marching in front of the coffin was a French officer, 60 soldiers, 16 Huron warriors and French clergy. Six war leaders carried his coffin, which was covered in flowers, followed by the relatives of Kondiaronk, and the Huron and Ottawa chiefs. A salute was fired at Kondiaronk’s grave and he was buried beneath an inscription that said, quote:
“Here lies the Muskrat, Chief of the Hurons.”
It is not known where this burial place is today, as it is lost to time, but it is believed to be in the Old Montreal Quarter.
Once the Great Peace was signed, it marked 60 years of peace for the region, until New France was conquered in 1760.
For the French, they would put Kondiaronk up as an example of what a chief should aspire to be and they compared him to other French leaders. His figure would loom large for the next century with France. When the Ottawa chief Pennahouel was speaking with General Montcalm in 1757, he was compared to Kondiaronk and, quote:
“celebrated for his spirit, his wisdom”
Today, the Kondiaronk Belvedere in Mount Royal Park in Montreal is named for him. In 2001, he was named a Person of National Historic Significance.
The plaque that honours Kondiaronk in Montreal states, quote:
“Kondiaronk, Grand Chief of the Wyandot of the Michilimackinac, played a determining role in the negotiations of the Great Peace due to both his influence with the other First Nation chiefs and the respect that he had among the French. His speech on Aug. 2, 1701 was a decisive factor in sealing the peace.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Parks Canada, Wikipedia, Biographi, Handbook of Indians Of Canada, Radio Canada, CBC, Canadian Museum Of History,