Where we last left off, the nations of Stadacona and Hochelaga had successfully driven out an invasion of people from the Kingdom of France. Agona and his people would have wondered if that was the last they’d see of the French, or if the foreigners might return. As it turned out, that question didn’t matter either way to the Stadaconans themselves, nor the Hochelagans. Unbeknownst to them, their victory was qualified by the fact that they would not be around for much longer.
Their fate is one of the great mysteries of early Canadian history, sometimes called “the disappearance of the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians.” Somewhere in the 60 year gap between Cartier’s last visit to the region and Champlain’s first, the nations of the Stadaconans and the Hochelagans ceased to exist, leaving no trace of their walls, buildings, and farms. Mysteries make for great storytelling, so this story is attractive.
But it only works on that level if you tell it from the perspective of the French colonizers. It’s their account, with them as the protagonists, which makes the voyages of Cartier and Champlain the pivotal bookends, and which places what happened to the Stadaconans and Hochelagans in the unknown void, a curiosity rather than a tragedy. Or, even worse, like in Canada: A People’s History, as a mere obstacle to the success of Champlain’s colony, since “Cartier had not thought to pass on the remedy [to scurvy] he had been given by the natives.” To a certain extent this perspective is understandable, since the French account is the only direct one that has survived. But it’s worth thinking about what the erasure of nations might have been like on its own merits, rather than as a plot point within someone else’s story.
Fortunately, the written history of the French is not our only source. The past can also be partially reconstructed through other tools like archaeology, linguistics, and the oral histories of other nations that were recorded, if not understood, by the French. The first problem with trying to restore the Stadaconans and Hochelagans as the protagonists in “the disappearance of the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians” is that they did not call themselves that, because none of those words were their words. Additionally, what for many years was thought to be the disappearance of just those two peoples is now understood to be the story of 25 nations who had similar cultures, linked by geography (the St Lawrence river) and language family (called Iroquoian or Laurentian by settler anthropologists).
I haven’t been able to find the Stadaconan or Hochelegan word for the Saint Lawrence river. (It’s possible it’s recorded somewhere other than online, like so much human knowledge.) So instead I’ve been using the Mohawk word, Kaniatarowanenneh. The Mohawk language was related to but not the same as that of the vanished 25 nations, so it’s possible I’m doing the equivalent of using a French word to describe something Spanish or Italian. Still, it seems preferable to using the Christian name. So where these nations need to be described as a group, I’ve come to think of them not as the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, but as the Nations of the Kaniatarowanenneh.
When the villages of Stadacona and Hochelaga cycled back to the earth and their people died or left, the witnesses left no written report. We don’t know for sure exactly what happened. All we know for certain is that when the French left in 1543 those nations existed, and when the French returned six decades later they were gone.
Many possibilities have been proposed over the years for their disappearance. Maybe they were destroyed as a result of a military conflict with the Mi’kmaq. Maybe an even colder climate, which began around 1550, froze them out. Maybe their economy was fatally disrupted by their brief contact with the French. Or maybe the Stadaconans and Hochelagans even turned against each other and fought to the finish.
What I find most likely though, based on my reading, is that the arrival of Christians set in motion two processes that doomed these two nations. First, it seems probable that “the Hochelagans and Stadaconans were… ravaged by epidemics of European disease.” Cartier himself reported “that over 50 Stadaconans (about 10% of the village population) had died from an unknown disease” on his second voyage. Additionally, since colonization is still an ongoing project globally, we know from more recent examples of Indigenous nations who have come in contact with diseases from Europe for the first time that “it is not uncommon to find 85 to 90 percent of any given group destroyed by a single epidemic.” Even a fraction of this fatality rate would have been devastating to the Nations of the Kaniatarowanenneh.
Second, as more ships from Europe continued to visit the coast and offer iron in exchange for fur, one or more nations of the Haudenosaunee to the south may have become more aggressive in response (fueled by the need for more fur and the acquisition of new weapons), foreshadowing the circumstances that would help destroy the people of a country called Wendake half a century later. The remaining Hochelagans and Stadaconans, weakened by European diseases and now vulnerable to southern attack, fled north and west and were taken in as refugees.
The Hochelagans then “survived among the Algonkian” nation of the Weskarini, forming a new branch they called the Onontchataronon, which at first mixed both cultures before becoming “heavily Algonkianized by the early” 1600s. Other Hochelagans and Stadaconans were welcomed as refugees by the Wendat confederacy, especially by the Arendarhonon. They probably tried to explain this history to a foreigner named Champlain when he arrived later, but a misunderstanding due to “inexperienced interpreters” led him to incorrectly interpret their oral history to mean they were describing “a massive [Haudenosaunee] offensive,” when really they were describing the immigration of Hochelagan and Stadaconan refugees to both Wendake and the Ottawa Valley.
The Weskarini also told the French stories of how their people had come from what is currently called Montreal island. Again, argues Bruce Trigger, they were telling the story of the Hochelagan exodus, from the perspective of a new unified nation. (I have previously mentioned this phenomenon, espoused by Georges E. Sioui and Trigger, where oral histories about refugee migrations can be misidentified as origin stories for the whole population.) The theory that these nations were hit with alien sicknesses and then fled their lands is also supported by the more general observation that “dispersal in the wake of epidemics is a very adaptive mechanism for social animals” like humans.
An important implication of all this is that when the French finally returned decades later on the now famous first successful colonization voyages, the nations they encountered in the land currently called Canada were not “pristine” as they and many people since have assumed, but rather were already “in the throes of societal devastation and chaos,” begun more than 60 years before the founding of Quebec. Failure to understand that has coloured how those nations, and what happened next, have been historically represented and understood.
Photo: A storm rolls in to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence
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