#952 The Iroquois diaspora

Iroquois in the West
by Jean Barman

Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019
$40.95 /  9780773556256

Reviewed by Jamie Morton


Nineteenth century records and travellers’ narratives that document the fur trade and colonial era in western Canada often note as a curiosity the presence of groups of people identified as “Iroquois” in unexpected places. This poses the question of how these groups of Iroquois came to be present in western North America, far removed from their home territories in New France/Quebec and the northeastern USA. In this book, Professor Jean Barman endeavours to answer this question, and to move these populations, which she terms “clusters,” from an historical curiosity found in fur trade records and in traveller’s tales to the centre of their own narrative(s).

Throughout the book Barman emphasizes and privileges the agency of her Iroquois subjects; she frequently uses the phrase “live as they would” to describe this. At times this emphasis on Iroquois agency may under-acknowledge the structural conditions that enabled and shaped their migration to the West. Although there were small groups of “independent” Iroquois migrants, the vast majority travelled west in association with the major fur trading companies. Until 1821, they were primarily linked to the North West Company (NWC), and after the companies amalgamated, with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).

Iroquois territory. Map courtesy A Country by Consent

In examining who came west, Barman researched (she describes her methodology on pp. 237-241) contracts that showed Iroquois participation in the western fur trade, found in Nicole St-Onge’s Voyageur Contracts Database. Barman identified 600 individual Iroquois who signed 1,100 contracts in the 1800-1821 period, prior to the amalgamation (p. 30). These were principally Mohawks from Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake) and the related settlements of Lac des Deux Montagnes and St. Regis. The majority of the 1,100 contracts were for paddlers, and most of them were for single journeys, with about 150 longer-term ones. Just 50 of the longer-term contracts were for chasseurs (hunters) rather than paddlers (p. 39). The overall pattern is one of Iroquois primarily engaged as short-term contractors to meet the transportation requirements of the NWC fur trade before returning home.

Employment practices in the corporate fur trade were highly racialized; shaped by the conceptions of race and culture held by the partners and managers of the companies. For instance, in the period of intense competition in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the HBC recruited up to 80 percent of its post employees from the Orkney Islands. Directors held a racialized perception of these men as stolid, reliable, and able to cope with harsh conditions.

“[Iroquois] Canoes passing Caughnawaga, 29 August 1860,” during the Canadian visit of the Prince of Wales, by Frances Ann Hopkins (1838-1919). Image courtesy Royal Collections Trust, London
The Montreal partners of the NWC followed the French fur trade model by employing Canadiens and Indigenous workers. As Barman notes, Iroquois men fit well with the NWC partners’ racialized views. As Indigenous, they were perceived to have the ability to survive in harsh conditions, to hunt, to paddle canoes, and to easily interact with other Indigenous groups. Coming from mission settlements, Iroquois were Catholic and Francophone, so considered more “civilized” than other Indigenous populations. Beyond this, due to an often-contentious history of interaction, Quebec settlers held specific “long-standing perceptions of Mohawks as men possessing superior skills as woodsmen and imbued with a fierce character.”[1] In a turbulent era of fur trade competition, such attributes made Iroquois men preferred employees. Employment was incorporated into an economic strategy of sojourning, with men working in the fur trade in the summer and returning home in the winter. Barman cites the Audra Simpson description of Caughnawaga as “a refugee community” (p. 15), in which traditional economies had been disrupted greatly by geographic dislocation and the cultural influences of colonization. Iroquois men were able to turn some of the effects of colonization into tools that provided a preferred position in the fur trade. Such work supported the woodsman and warrior self-identity of Iroquois men, as well as economically supporting their families.[2] This provided a strong example of Iroquois self-determination, which Barman emphasizes throughout her book.

“Montreal. General view of the Indian Iroquois Village of Caughnawaga.” Postcard image (circa 1910) courtesy Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
“Old Indian House, Caughnawaga Quebec.” Image (circa 1910) courtesy Pinterest

Following the introductory section, Barman presents the stories of some “clusters” of Iroquois in the west. The first cluster (Ch. 3, pp. 57-78) appears among the Flatheads of Montana in the1820s. Its origin is uncertain, as names do not correlate with those in the voyageur contracts. This group settled among the Flathead and formed families with Flathead wives. They took a leading role in their new home through teaching Catholicism and petitioning Church representatives to send missionaries. The position of this cluster in its adopted nation was linked to its ability to mediate with external power, in this case the Catholic Church, due to its Francophone mission origins.

The next cluster examined comprised a small group of Iroquois hunters participating in the HBC’s Snake River expeditions of 1822-1830. Barman emphasizes the ability of this group to successfully challenge or “upend” the power relations between them and the HBC. The Snake River venture followed earlier NWC practices in the area, with mobile brigades of fur hunters, mostly freemen, under the direction of HBC officers. As implied, the freemen, including the Iroquois, were not employees, but provided furs in exchange for advances of goods, horses, and supplies provided by the HBC. It was a challenging and dangerous environment, with competing groups including the HBC brigades, American traders, other freemen, and local Indigenous people. The Iroquois freemen were dissatisfied with the low prices they were paid for furs compared to the high debt charged for supplies, and HBC practices that limited the autonomy of the hunters. Their position was strengthened by their freeman status, access to American fur buyers, and the inability of the HBC officers to enforce economic agreements in a fluid situation. The HBC responded to the Iroquois resistance by increasing the fur prices paid to freemen, thereby “upending” the economic relationship. However, the large-scale Iroquois desertions that formed part of the 1825 resistance meant that the HBC stopped employing Iroquois on the Snake brigades.

Frederick and Angelina Alexcee of Prince Rupert. Frederick Alexcee, an Iroquois who came west with the HBC,  became a well-known artist. Photo courtesy of their descendant Alana Collins
Alexis Oteakorie, circa 1920. Image courtesy Carey Myers

In Part Three of the book, “Sticking with the Fur Trade,” Barman examines the Iroquois employees of the NWC and HBC in the Columbia Department fur trade from 1811-1858. She identified 170 named Iroquois workers in the region, with 75 of them arriving with the NWC prior to 1821.[3] They never comprised more than 10 percent of the employees in the district (p. 118). Generally the Iroquois worked in specific racialized roles, with paddlers as the largest cohort. Other typical roles were as hunters and axemen, with a few men in such positions based at each post. These workers maintained ethnic solidarity, and Iroquois identity persisted in family formation, marital choices, and maintaining cultural values, including religion and language. Barman concluded that as many as 40-60 percent of the named Iroquois employees in this period returned to the east, a significantly higher proportion than for other fur trade employees. This may reflect the established practice of sojourning. She determined that about 20 percent of Iroquois workers remained to find new homes around the Columbia Department; approximately 35 named individuals (p. 142). Settling was complicated in the American part of the region by legislation forbidding Indigenous land ownership. Iroquois settlers could either move north to the British territories where ownership was possible, or could amalgamate with local Indigenous groups and settle on American federal reservations. Barman notes how in this process the Iroquois “disappeared” into settler and Indigenous society, and alludes to an interesting gendered pattern in the British colonies. For Euro-North American settlers seeking wives, daughters of Iroquois fur trade employees were seen as more culturally congruent with settler values, so were preferred over other Indigenous women. Sons of Iroquois seem to have been more often incorporated into their mothers’ First Nations, although maintaining Iroquois identity. Although in both cases this contributed to “disappearing” into other populations, it is significant that these distinctions were maintained and recognized.

The book’s final section, Banding Together, deals with the formation and persistence of the Jasper cluster of Iroquois. It began in the early nineteenth century with three NWC-affiliated Iroquois freemen who chose to hunt and live around the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Taking local Cree wives and raising families, by the 1850s this group numbered about 150 people. Traders and visiting priests consistently described them as Iroquois, and it was noted that the second generation spoke Iroquois as well as Cree. This Iroquois identity was retained through the nineteenth century, as documented by travellers to the region. Post-1885 applications for scrip made by members of the Jasper cluster confirm their self-ascription as Iroquois, and as Catholic.

Carey Myers, west coast descendant of Alexis Oteakorie. Photo courtesy Carey Myers

Barman notes how this 100-person cluster continued into the twentieth century, supported by a mixed economy of hunting, fur trading, transportation, and commerce. However, in 1910 the formation of Jasper National Park and the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway through the region resulted in its eviction. The members were told that they could resettle outside the park boundaries without interference. One group settled near Hinton, and the other on the Smoky River at Grand Cache. In the 1916-1922 period, efforts were made to evict the latter group of 75 people from their new location, because it was within the newly designated Athabasca Forestry Reserve. Title finally was granted to these families in the 1960s. Barman tracks the Jasper cluster through to the present, describing ongoing government and social impositions threatening the cluster’s land tenure and economic basis. She emphasizes the way that these Iroquois descendants continue to identify as Iroquois, in spite of being perceived by the non-Indigenous population as part of a broader First Nations and Cree population. They respect their antecedents, and through genealogy and religion, differentiate themselves from other Indigenous groups in the region.

The “slivers of stories from the shadows of the past” (p. 8) that Barman has assembled and presented are impressive, augmenting available databases with extensive research in archival and published sources. She has captured a remarkable level of detail about the subject Iroquois clusters and individuals, providing an invaluable resource for family history, genealogy, and regional history.

Jean Barman, February 2020. Photo courtesy University of the Fraser Valley

Together with this cluster-specific information, Barman raises a number of broader themes in the book, starting with the remarkable persistence of Iroquois identity over many generations. Regardless of whether descendants consider themselves part of settler or Indigenous society, where they are located, or what language they speak, they seem to retain the idea of being Iroquois. Additionally, a sense of Iroquois solidarity is noted in each of the clusters, as freemen and their families formed stable groups which participated in the fur trade and later settler/capitalist economy. This solidarity was maintained among those who chose more sedentary lives, such as the Flathead cluster, and for those who were employed at the post-1821 HBC posts.

Barman’s research suggests that the “in-between” status of the Iroquois in the fur trade persisted into the settler era. The ethnic and cultural attributes of the Iroquois, and their preferred position in the fur trade, led to them being perceived as distinct from other Indigenous groups, although not accorded the same social position as Euro-North Americans. For instance, “half-breed” scrip was granted to fully Indigenous members of the Jasper cluster, rather than placing them on reserves. Similarly, Barman describes a demonstrated preference for Iroquois daughters as settler wives on colonial Vancouver Island.

Throughout, Barman emphasizes Iroquois self-determination, reiterating how her subject clusters strove to “live as they would.” It is not entirely clear how this differed from the efforts of other Indigenous nations that continued to resist settler pressure, or those of other fur trade employees that settled in the west. All such non-conforming groups demonstrated their agency as they worked to negotiate and resist their places in the structure of the emerging Anglo-North American settler hegemony. Perhaps the key distinction is found in the way that Iroquois identity has persisted over generations, and the self-ascription of these western clusters as Iroquois. Although Barman refers in places to the Iroquois “disappearing” into settler or Indigenous societies, her book illustrates how a small population descended from fur trade employees and freemen has self-determined by preserving and honouring their Iroquois identity.


Jamie Morton at Middle Cove, Newfoundland

Jamie Morton has recently retired from a career focussed on British Columbia history. He worked in museums and historic sites in British Columbia, Oregon, and Manitoba, and taught college & university history on Vancouver Island. As a public historian he worked on Western Canadian fur trade history, as well as topics related to the First Nations and industrial history of British Columbia. He continues to pursue projects relating to the fur trade west of the Rockies, and the impact of commodity-exporting economies on the resettlement and development of western Canada. He lives in Victoria. Editor’s note: Previously Jamie Morton has reviewed books by Lloyd Keith & John C. Jackson and by David J. Jepsen & David J. Norberg.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


[1] Nicole St-Onge, “‘He was neither a soldier nor a slave: he was under the control of no man’: Kahnawake Mohawks in the Northwest Fur Trade, 1790-1850,” Canadian Journal of History 51, no.1 (2016), pp. 1-32, p. 3.

[2] This point of mutual benefit is reinforced by St-Onge, 2016.

[3] This research was based on that of Bruce McIntyre Watson, Lives Lived West of the Divide: a Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858 (Kelowna, Centre for Social, Spatial, and Economic Justice Press, UBC Okanagan, 2010).

One comment on “#952 The Iroquois diaspora

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This