In July 1687, a French army descended against the Seneca nation, more properly known as the Onöndowa’ga:’.
This army, led by the Marquis de Denonville, was the largest ever assembled against a single aboriginal nation at the time, with 400 Native allies, 1,100 Canadian milicien and 800 regular soldiers, many of which were part of the famed Regiment De Carignan-Salieres.
The intent was to follow through with direct orders from the King Louis XIV to punish and subjugate the Hodinöhsö:ni’ — formerly the Iroquois — and thrust French influence out into the western Great Lakes, thereby expanding French trade into the vast fur resources of the west. The French invaded Hodinöhsö:ni’ lands three times throughout the 17th century; in July 1687, the attention was focused on the Onöndowa’ga:’.
The Onöndowa’ga:’ have been called the “Keepers of the Western Door,” which is to say that they existed on the western border of Hodinöhsö:ni’ territory. This indigenous state had nonlineated borders the way modern states do today. Boundaries existed, but with less definition. In 1687, it extended roughly west to the Niagara escarpment, north to present day Toronto, south to the Ohio River and east almost to Cayuga Lake. The Onöndowa’ga:’ held the western border of the great Hodinöhsö:ni’ confederacy, and they held sway over travelers and traders who came through their lands by controlling access to the western Great Lakes.
The French had long ignored any aboriginal title to those lands. However, they soon began to feel the impact of that Native influence all the way to the palace of Versailles as their precious cargos of fur were consistently confiscated by the Onöndowa’ga:’. The flow of furs dwindled along that northern route, profits dwindled and the French colony suffered. The French chose war over treaty-making to remedy the problem.
The army of thousands arrived at Irondequoit Bay and hastily built a fort to protect their batteau and the hundreds of bark canoes that would be required for the return voyage. Onöndowa’ga:’ scouts were heard that day shouting insults and taking pot shots at the French soldiers. The next day, the army marched toward Ganondagan in a column four men abreast. The line of order extended over a mile along the road. The advance guard featured French-allied Natives and the milicien. It was they who would make the first contact with the Onöndowa’ga:’ as they attempted to traverse a defile.
The Onöndowa’ga:’ initially sprang their ambush with war cries and then a loose volley of gunfire. The French force, taken somewhat by surprise, hastily returned fire. The column was stretched out so long that reinforcements had a hard time moving forward, so only a few were actually engaged with the Onöndowa’ga:’ warriors. Amidst the gunpowder smoke and confusion, the Onöndowa’ga:’ moved in amongst the French troops with hatchets and swords and just as quickly they pulled back, gathered their wounded and disappeared into the swamp.
Because of the long march, the intense battle and the extreme July heat on the plains of Victor, Denonville decided to bivouac on the battlegrounds for the night. He feared a second ambush if they were to pursue the Onöndowa’ga:’ into the woods. He knew that the majority of his army was ill-prepared for a woodland skirmish. He left the field the next day with his fallen comrades lying where they fell. The army marched the final few leagues to the great capital of Ganondagan, which sat on a hilltop above the modern town of Victor. He found the town in ashes after being set ablaze by the retreating Seneca to afford the French no comfort or satisfaction of destroying it themselves.
Denonville remained in Seneca country, destroying cornfields and stored foods at all the major Seneca towns. Many of his Native allies began to disperse, disgusted with his cowardly war on the corn. Denonville continued on to the mouth of the Niagara to establish a fort, hoping that it could be a launching point for future raids into Seneca territory. The fort was abandoned the next spring, and the remaining few who survived the harsh winter and constant Seneca attacks kissed the feet of the French who came to resupply them.
The next few years found the French colony in peril. The “hornets nest” was stirred and the raids on the colony intensified. Even the French acknowledged in September 1687 that “in the present condition of the country, 500 Iroquois led by Europeans would in three months devastate Canada.” This threat became real in 1689 when 1,500 Iroquois warriors attacked LaChine. No one was spared on this attack. Of the 375 inhabitants of LaChine, 24 were killed immediately, more than 70 were taken prisoner and 56 of the 77 houses were razed.
The events of 1687 resonated into the 18th century, and the major contests for the continent were, in part, based on the relationships forged in the 17th century. It would be the English, and ultimately the Americans, who would share this country with its original inhabitants.
The place we call our community here in Victor is rich in history. Our stories are an important part of the identity of this place.
We must consider the cultural heritage and history of our community as an important commodity which ought not to be squandered, forgotten nor destroyed.
Ganondagan State Historic Site gained national attention with the opening of the Seneca Art and Culture Center one year ago. It is our purpose to become a bridge to understanding the past and present, and to work to make a better future for our unborn generations to come. The community of Victor should regard the 1687 battlefield and the associated bivouac site as a cultural commodity which can bring visitors into the greater Victor community. It can only highlight the already exciting and vibrant history of our town.
Michael Galban is curator, historian and interpretive programs assistant at Ganondagan State Historic Site.