Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Masters of Empire

Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

Michael A. McDonnell

Hill and Wang




In the early hours of a June morning in 1752, the Ohio Valley erupted in violence. At Pickawillany—a Miami Indian village and fortified trading post located at the confluence of several rivers—250 Odawa and Ojibwe warriors burst from the edge of the woods and attacked. In the initial skirmish, they killed 13 of the defenders and captured several more, along with a number of British traders who were residing with the Miami. The remainder of the villagers found refuge in a stockade. They had to watch in horror as the attackers seized one of their captives, a British blacksmith, and stabbed him. As he lay dying, his assailants ripped his heart out and ate it. Next, the raiders killed, boiled, and ate the village chief, Memeskia, in front of his own family. Hurling insults and taunting the defenders, the enemy warriors then melted back into the forest in the direction of a French post at Detroit with at least four English traders in tow.

This attack, far from an insignificant skirmish in the woods, set off a chain reaction of events that culminated in George Washington’s attack on French forces at the Battle of Jumonville Glen in the Ohio Valley in May 1754. Pickawillany was thus arguably the opening salvo in the Seven Years’ War in America between the two great imperial powers of the eighteenth century, England and France. The war quickly spread to Europe and Asia and ultimately transformed the imperial and global landscape of the early modern world.1

The reputed leader of this deadly raid was Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade. Langlade was what we have come to call métis—the son of an Indian woman and a French man. He was baptized in 1729 at Michilimackinac (now Mackinaw City, Michigan), a small but thriving Algonquian-French fur-trading community located at the straits that connected Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. Stories about the part played by Langlade in the violence at Pickawillany are relatively well known. But his exploits did not end there. Indeed, Langlade seems to have participated in most of the imperial conflicts of the latter half of the eighteenth century in North America. He was, for example, alleged to be the leader of the ambush that cut down British general Edward Braddock’s expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1755—an event depicted in a celebrated 1903 painting by Edwin Willard Deming that now graces the corridors of the Wisconsin Historical Society (see illustration here). Langlade almost certainly also led the largest contingent of Indian warriors at the so-called “massacre” of Fort William Henry in 1757, the infamous event forever immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper, and later Daniel Day-Lewis, in The Last of the Mohicans. And Langlade fought in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec in 1759, where he was rumored to be among the sharpshooters who brought down British general James Wolfe.2

Surprisingly, given this history of fighting for the French, when New France fell to the British, Langlade forged relations with the incoming conquerors. When a group of hostile Indians seized the newly arrived British garrison at Michilimackinac, during Pontiac’s War in 1763 (one of the greatest pan-Indian uprisings in North American history), Langlade and his kin rescued the soldiers and officers and returned them safely to Montreal. Later, during the American Revolution, Langlade joined General Burgoyne on his ill-fated campaign that ended with the Battle of Saratoga, mobilized warriors to fight George Rogers Clark and the Continental Army in the Mississippi Valley, and raised Indian allies against the American general Anthony Wayne in 1794 during the Northwest Indian War. But perhaps most surprising, Langlade, who also had extensive trading interests throughout the Great Lakes, eventually settled in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he and his father, the first permanent “white” settlers in the state, became known as the “Fathers of Wisconsin.”3

* * *

In our era of best-selling biographies of founding fathers, telling Langlade’s story was an attractive proposition. But as I began to piece together Langlade’s complex biography in more detail, a different story emerged. It quickly became apparent that Langlade’s Indian family from the Great Lakes was crucial in facilitating and enabling his movements. Almost everywhere Langlade went, including Pickawillany, warriors from among his Indian kin accompanied him. Indeed, Langlade’s actions were explicable only in light of a complex set of Indian politics that lay behind attacks such as that at Pickawillany. Moreover, there were also events—such as Braddock’s defeat—at which Langlade was almost certainly not present, regardless of what he and his descendants later claimed. But warriors from Michilimackinac were there, and their involvement in these early battles had a significant impact on the course of the Seven Years’ War in America. As I traced Langlade and his family’s story back in time across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I realized, too, that the Indian community from which he emerged was crucial to the region for centuries. When Europeans arrived on the scene, Langlade’s kin continued to play a powerful part. They were the Anishinaabe Odawa of Michilimackinac—and Langlade’s story quickly became their story.4

For too long now, the history of the Anishinaabeg of the Great Lakes has been largely hidden behind Euro-American stories—perhaps typified by the image of Langlade himself as a “white” settler. Even the name Anishinaabeg—the term that these Native peoples use to refer to themselves, meaning the real, or original, peoples—is unfamiliar to most modern readers. Instead, we know them only, if at all, through the names Europeans began to call them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the Ottawa, Potawatomi, Chippewa, Algonquin, Nipissing, and Mississauga. We have often lumped them under the more general category of Algonquian speakers, and not recognized that they all spoke Anishinaabemowin—a distinct subset of Algonquian. And we have failed to appreciate their significance in the history of the continent. Despite their central location in what the French called the pays d’en haut—literally, the high country, or the vast territory stretching west from Montreal to the Mississippi River and encompassing most of the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers—the Anishinaabeg have appeared only at the edges of European and American histories, shadowy figures on the frontier, as it were. They have remained largely invisible to Euro-American observers.5

In this reading, the communities in which Langlade moved come to attention only when Europeans noticed them and wrote about them. Yet while many newcomers passed through the Great Lakes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, few stayed and settled. The resulting snippets of correspondence and reports from transient Euro-American visitors have given us a fragmented history of the place, the era, and the peoples who lived there. And while historians have of late begun to take more note of the importance of some Indian groups at particular moments in time, Native Americans—especially in the pays d’en haut—have almost invariably appeared and disappeared at a correspondent’s whim, apparently a volatile, fleeting, and ephemeral presence throughout the colonial period. They have been noticed by historians only when called onstage by imperial officials and scribes. They are often described as being led, and led astray, by Europeans or go-betweens such as Langlade. They have been effectively dependent on early Europeans for their history. And we share the legacy of these Europeans, struggling to comprehend a people with an autonomous history because we rely on fragmented accounts. When we look at the Anishinaabeg from the perspective of successive waves of newly arrived Europeans, little makes sense.6

But tracing Langlade’s story to his origins in this Anishinaabe world at Michilimackinac, and particularly amid the thriving Odawa (or Ottawa) settlements at the straits, made me pause long enough to try to make sense of this history. His story compelled me to stay focused on one people and one place over the longue durée. It forced me to comprehend a tale that situated the Odawa at the center of their own history. In doing so, I was surprised to find that few people had taken this story seriously, despite the profound strategic and commercial importance of the straits of Michilimackinac for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and despite the unique and powerful role the Odawa played in the region. Significantly, the region was never invaded or settled during the colonial period—at least not by Europeans. This fact alone gave the Odawa a history that differs sharply from that of the better-known stories of the Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, Creek, and others whom we now know a great deal about. Their story also differed from that of many of their own kin living farther south at Detroit and in the Ohio Valley. Indeed, the Odawa’s long history of mastering empires and keeping them at bay ultimately helped them to evade the Indian removals of the nineteenth century and remain where they were into the twentieth. Many remain there still. Yet, more than that, the history of the Odawa at Michilimackinac revealed just how much the Anishinaabeg of the Great Lakes had shaped early America.7

* * *

The warriors who attacked Pickawillany in 1752 were Odawa and their close kin, the Ojibwe. They had traveled more than 450 miles to face off against Memeskia. Most of them came from a cluster of small but important villages nestled around the straits of Michilimackinac, at the far north end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, where visitors today can take a ferry to Mackinac Island or stay in one of the many hotels in the tiny tourist town rather grandly named Mackinaw City. In the mid-eighteenth century, this was Indian country. More specifically, it was one of the most important sites in the expansive and still-expanding Anishinaabe world. Thousands of Native families called the straits home and lived in dozens of towns and villages along the coastlines and islands of Lakes Huron and Michigan and up into Lake Superior. While these settlements were sometimes multiethnic, they were primarily communities of the peoples we now call Ojibwe (or Chippewa) and Odawa (or Ottawa). The Ojibwe were more often associated with the falls at St. Mary’s (Sault Ste. Marie) that drained Lake Superior into Lake Huron, but by 1752, Ojibwe villages could be found throughout the region and as far south as Mackinac Island and the northeast coast of the Lower Peninsula, near Cheboygan. Likewise, the Odawa were primarily associated with the straits at Michilimackinac that separate Lakes Michigan and Huron. Yet Odawa settlements could be found across the islands in the region and all along the east and west coasts of Lake Michigan.8

Among the most important of these towns in 1752 was Waganawkezee (the French called it L’ Arbre Croche, or Crooked Tree). Waganawkezee had been recently settled by Odawa who had lived for many years at the straits of Michilimackinac. In the early 1740s, they moved to more fertile lands about twenty miles southwest of the straits, along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan between present-day Cross Village and Harbor Springs. There, in a warm microclimate behind the dunes and below the colder central plateau, the Odawa thrived. They had long mastered the teeming fisheries of the Lakes, and they grew enough corn and other vegetables to trade with other nations and sell provisions to the small nearby French garrison and canoeloads of fur traders who had to stop at the straits. They also made a decent profit from building, selling, and repairing the canoes of sojourning Europeans and Indians alike. In the winter, they traveled south in smaller family groups to do some fur trapping themselves. But always they returned in the spring. The straits had been home for many years. Waganawkezee would continue to be home for many more.9

Among the thousands of Odawa who lived at Waganawkezee was Langlade’s own Indian family. Born around 1729, either at the Odawa village at the straits or at their winter camp farther south at Grand River, Langlade had the advantage of an important Anishinaabe lineage. His mother, Domitilde, was the sister of one of the most influential ogimaag (chiefs) of the settlement. Nissowaquet, or, as the French called him, La Fourche (the Fork), headed up a powerful family line, or doodem (pronounced “doh-dem”), that was based at the straits but had tendrils all across the Lakes. While perhaps dozens of Anishinaabe doodemag (the plural form of doodem) made their home at Michilimackinac, and later Waganawkezee, several stood out over time and collectively helped make the settlement at the straits an Odawa stronghold. Together with the ogimaag and the people of the Sinago and Kiskakon doodemag, Nissowaquet and the “nation de la Fourche”—as they were often called by the French—created an important nucleus of Odawa families at the straits.10

In turn, from this base at Waganawkezee, the Odawa were at the center of an expansive weave of relations that helped them dominate the central and upper Great Lakes. Yet they did not dominate it in a way that made immediate sense to newly arriving Europeans. While the Odawa were scattered in towns and villages of varying sizes, most often at strategic or resource-rich lakeshore locations such as La Pointe, Sault Ste. Marie, Manitoulin Island, or Michilimackinac, Europeans struggled to find permanent villages. Most Anishinaabeg spent winters away from their summer settlements. Sometimes in parallel with this seasonal mobility there existed a longer-term mobility as small groups joined larger communities for a year or two or more, to trade or for safety. Adding to the confusion of Europeans, the particular groupings at summer villages and winter camps did not make for easy identification. Villages were often multiethnic, and sometimes even multilingual, with Siouan and Iroquoian speakers mixed with Anishinaabemowin speakers.11

From the start, newly arrived European visitors were quick to believe these mobile multiethnic villages must have been communities of refugees who’d been brought together under pressure of attacks by other Indians—most notably the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois. Not finding the kind of dense and permanently settled villages and towns they were familiar with in Europe, early French commentators believed they were seeing a world that had collapsed. But as historians have recently uncovered, these were stable and coherent communities to the peoples who lived in them. As Michael Witgen has written, they were held together by “strands of real and fictive kinship” that had been established through trade, language, and intermarriage. These strands intersected and crisscrossed over a vast space, knitting together disparate peoples and places across the pays d’en haut. They connected winter bands and village communities in far-flung places. And they shifted across time, as trading and kinship relations changed.12

Perhaps the most important glue holding these communities together was the doodem. The historian Heidi Bohaker’s pathbreaking work on eastern Algonquian-speaking Anishinaabe peoples suggests that the patrilineal kinship networks called doodemag were fundamental to “Anishinaabe collective identities” during and likely prior to the early period of contact with Europeans. Doodemag identities, usually but not always identified by pictographs based on some kind of other-than-human progenitor such as a squirrel or beaver, were inherited from fathers and implied an obligation toward those with the same lineage. The nuclear family was only one unit, and the smallest, in a series of often overlapping kinship groupings, because membership in a patrilineage automatically bestowed inclusion in a larger kinship unit that cut across band and village lines: the patri-clan, or doodem. These extended families were “linked by the rights and obligations of kinship to form larger groups to cooperate in production, trade, and warfare.”13

These kinship ties shaped the political landscape of the Great Lakes region because the Anishinaabeg created new alliances through marriage. Most Algonquian nations practiced some form of exogamy. It was taboo for a man to marry any female—cousin, aunt, niece, and siblings—who belonged to his clan. Among the Anishinaabeg, daughters and sisters generally married outside their doodem, often men from different communities. Though the precise details of these practices varied from nation to nation, and across time, it seems most likely that throughout the upper Lakes, newly married men lived among their wife’s kin for a short while before husband and wife returned to the husband’s doodem. While a wife would retain her father’s doodem for life, her children would take her husband’s doodem. Thus, all communities of families invariably contained multiple doodemag and kinship relations.14

The doodemag that made up the Odawa communities at Waganawkezee used these relations to forge an important place for themselves in the pays d’en haut. In his study of the Odawa, the historian James McClurken has shown a relationship between the doodemag at Michilimackinac and trading relations. Noting that the Anishinaabe word ota’wa’ means “to trade,” the French initially called many of the Anishinaabeg with whom they traded Odawa or, as they often wrote it, “Ouatouais.” Yet a cluster of families emerged at Michilimackinac who, over time, became dominant figures in this trade and whom the French more commonly called the Odawa. McClurken maintains that this was because these families were originally middlemen for the Huron-Ojibwe trade and each Odawa family “owned” different routes. These routes were geographical paths, but also a set of trading and kinship relations along the way. Marriages were often arranged to turn potential trading partners into family members and so extend kinship ties. Trade rights and routes could be used only by the families who pioneered them and who maintained the gift exchange and kinship ties that assured safe passage.15

Yet kinship politics meant that decision making was highly decentralized (to the perennial frustration of European colonial officials). Each doodem was generally represented by a single leader, an ogimaa, who was chosen by consent of the family based on his war exploits and/or ability to provide for and share goods with friends and family alike. Yet ogimaag had little coercive power. They could only persuade. As Chingouabé, an Ojibwe ogimaa at Michilimackinac, told the French governor in 1695, “It is not the same with us as with you. When you command all the French obey and go to war. But I shall not be heeded and obeyed by my nation in like manner. Therefore I cannot answer except for myself and those immediately allied or related to me.” The decentralized nature of authority and decision making was the reason the French had so much trouble understanding Anishinaabe policy toward them. While officials may have been able to extract offers or promises from one or more ogimaag, there was no guarantee that their kin, let alone their villages, would agree.16

While this kinship system often confused Europeans, its inherent flexibility was the great genius of Anishinaabe social organization and expansion. Indeed, while this decentralized system led to disagreements among the Anishinaabeg, it almost never led to outright conflict. As one ogimaa told British officials in 1760, “All the Indians in this Country are Allies to each other and as one People.” Marriages outside the community allowed for an ever-thickening network of relations across great spaces. They also facilitated the establishment of new villages and communities and the peaceful sharing of resources across the region. Families might use their kin relations to join a different village, or establish a new one. Leaders changed, and doodemag rose and fell in importance. And villages, in turn, waxed and waned in terms of importance to the larger network of Anishinaabe relations depending on the vitality of the relationships created and maintained. Yet because of kinship obligations, these new communities ensured an expansive and powerful network of alliances throughout the Great Lakes. This network helped the Anishinaabeg consolidate their hold on the Great Lakes and underpinned their expansion during this tumultuous period. Ultimately, these relations defined Anishinaabewaki—their territory, or homeland.17

European officials struggled to understand how this world worked. They wanted to know where the borders of Anishinaabewaki were, who were its leaders, and how it was governed. When they could not find easy answers to these questions, they often dismissed the Anishinaabeg as a political force. Yet while many Europeans struggled to understand the kinship-based political-social geography of the pays d’en haut, Native peoples themselves did not. The Odawa at the straits of Michilimackinac saw themselves simultaneously as members of particular lineages, doodemag, towns, and a greater Anishinaabe world. They shared close relations with the other Anishinaabe doodemag nearest to them, including those who made up the Ojibwe and the Potawatomi. Together, these three groups would come to be known as the Three Fires Confederacy. But the Odawa also had relations with other Anishinaabe nations farther afield, including the Nipissing, Algonquin, and Mississauga on their eastern and southeastern flanks. Indeed, by the time Europeans arrived on the scene, Anishinaabemowin speakers could be found from the gulf of the St. Lawrence River as far west as the Mississippi River. Across this great territory, the Anishinaabeg shared a mutually intelligible language, many cultural characteristics, and kinship relations. And while Anishinaabewaki was not as clearly defined as the French or English colonies, or even some of the larger confederacies of Indian nations farther to the south, it was no less powerful (see map here).18

Situated at the heart of Anishinaabewaki, the Odawa families at Waganawkezee were well positioned to benefit from this formidable array of relationships. They enjoyed extensive trade relations with thousands of kin across the Lakes. Kinship obligations might mean they were expected to help defend their kin elsewhere—against their Siouian-speaking rivals to their west, for example—but by 1752 at least, the Odawa at Michilimackinac were insulated from direct attack; other Anishinaabe communities stood between them and their enemies. Because of their connections with peoples all across the Lakes, they were also well respected for their mediation skills. Many European officials came to realize that if a peace treaty was to last, the Odawa had to broker it.

But the Odawa at the straits also came to play a central part in the history of colonial America because they stood at the heart of the continent, too. For centuries, Michilimackinac was one of the few strategic entry points into and out of continental North America. Any nation, European or Native, wishing to pass back and forth from east to west, or indeed even from north to south, would have to come through either Michilimackinac or the Sault sixty miles to the north. If Michilimackinac was the door to North America, the Odawa, backed up by a powerful array of relations across the Lakes, held the key.19

* * *

Putting the Odawa at Michilimackinac at the center of their own world in turn allows us to think of their history in a very different way from the story that is usually told. As Europeans vied with one another for claims to North America, the familiar tale goes, they destabilized and enmeshed Native groups in an ongoing cycle of trade, dependence, and warfare. While the French focused their efforts on the St. Lawrence Valley and the extraction of beaver pelts from the continental interior, the English and Dutch vied for territory to the south and fought with each other and different Native Americans over both land and trade. Though historians have made much of the creation of “middle grounds” between some Native groups and European powers—places and processes that neither Natives nor newcomers could dominate completely and where new worlds were created—the end result was often the same in the eastern half of North America: Native Americans were eventually defeated, dispossessed, and usually removed from the line of European settlement. In this tale, Europeans drive the story of early America.20

But if we face east from Michilimackinac instead of west from Montreal, or Jamestown, the Odawa can tell us a very different story. We might take our cue from some of the earliest Anishinaabe chroniclers themselves. Some time ago now, the historian D. Peter MacLeod noted the similarities across separate Anishinaabe-authored histories written in the nineteenth century. In at least three of these histories, including one by Andrew J. Blackbird of the Michilimackinac Odawa, the coming of Europeans is only a minor part of the story. More important were the numerous and long-standing rivalries and relationships with nations and communities east, west, north, and south of them, especially warfare with the Iroquois. And in all of these Native-authored histories, the Anishinaabeg—not Europeans—stand in the middle of a complex web of social relations, all of which had to be constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Village life at places such as Michilimackinac remained a constant—evolving and adapting to be sure, but present and vital nonetheless. In all of these stories, continuities are emphasized over decline, and Europeans stand at the periphery.21

These nineteenth-century Anishinaabe historians—along with many of the new Indian histories that are emerging—have also made clear the need to study European-Indian relations over the longue durée. Often our accounts have relied on a cultural analysis of particular moments—thick descriptions of key events that seem to illuminate or characterize relations between Europeans and Indians. But focusing on these moments alone tends to overprivilege the voice of Europeans. Sojourning Europeans often had little idea of the longer-term context in which they interacted with their Native counterparts. Snapshots of words exchanged over a newly kindled council fire have to be put into the context of Indian history over many years. We need to rely less on European words and more on Native actions over time. In the long run, those actions are usually a more reliable source of meaning.22

A tentative “middle ground” might have been established between Europeans and Indians at forts such as the one the French established at Michilimackinac. That middle ground sometimes acted as a bridge between two cultures, or even among many diverse peoples. But for Indians, European posts were only one among many sites of meeting, encounter, and community. Forts and posts such as the one at Michilimackinac were the center of European worlds in the pays d’en haut. But they were often only at the edge, or at the margins, of a vast Indian country that surrounded these posts.23

We have also misinterpreted the role, and sometimes overestimated the importance, of cultural brokers—men such as Langlade who could seemingly move between two worlds. Imperial officials privileged such men in their orders and correspondence because they were often so dependent on them—as interpreters, mediators, and go-betweens. They were among the few who had access to Indian communities and knowledge about the politics of the pays d’en haut. For incoming post commanders, lost missionaries, intrepid new traders in the region—and subsequent historians—men and women who had connections in Indian country were an invaluable resource.24

Nonetheless, these go-betweens play a secondary, supporting role. Though we have for a long time privileged the stories of a handful of European missionaries, traders, explorers, troops, and settlers who seemingly foreshadowed the world to come, for much of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and into the nineteenth century, the straits of Michilimackinac remained Indian country. Even the history of men such as Langlade cannot stand apart—it has to be woven into that rich and compelling world. The primary story of this era and this region has to be a Native-driven story.25

* * *

Viewed in this way, we can move on from an older story of dependence, and further on even from an idea of mutual dependence between natives and newcomers, and begin to think about a history of the Anishinaabe Odawa at Michilimackinac that emphasizes strength and expansion in the midst of empire. Significantly, there is no real evidence throughout this long era to suggest that the Odawa viewed either the French or the English, or even the late-arriving Americans, as a threat to their existence. Instead, they created alliances or provoked wars with others that often conflicted with European interests. They threatened Europeans themselves and at several critical moments did not hesitate to turn on them when it was in their interests to do so, paying little regard to the possible consequences. The Odawa were able to exploit European imperialism when it came, and they did so mostly for their own purposes. The collective strength of the Anishinaabeg across the pays d’en hautmeant they were too important to be ignored, and too powerful to be cowed.

The hold that different Anishinaabe communities had on key strategic and resource-rich points throughout the Lakes meant that they dominated the newcomers at the local level, too. At Michilimackinac, the Odawa allowed the French and later the English to maintain a post at the straits in return for generous provisions, presents, and offers of alliance. Yet European posts did not mean European dominance. Quite the contrary. For most of the colonial period, Europeans at Michilimackinac were dependent on the Odawa and other Algonquian nations for their very subsistence. They could maintain a tiny post at the strategic crossroads of Michilimackinac only at the invitation of—and as a result of the encouragement of—thousands of Anishinaabeg who lived along the shores of the Lakes nearby. For this reason, the Odawa were able to hold their own and insist on their own terms when it came to dealing with French missionaries, traders, and colonial officials.

With a European post in their midst, the Odawa in particular positioned themselves as key players in what was ostensibly an expanding nation. At Michilimackinac, they exploited the commercially strategic importance of the site and took advantage of the thousands of summer visitors who flocked to their shores to create a reliable subsistence. The prosperity this trade created at the straits contributed to population growth and almost constant expansion outward across the Lakes. While the population at Michilimackinac stayed relatively stable, the extended families who made the straits their home could count on an ever-growing number of kin with whom they could trade, share resources, and rely on as war allies.

As we know from the story of Charles Langlade, this expanding network of relations eventually came to incorporate Europeans, too. French traders along the St. Lawrence who wanted furs quickly came to realize that they needed the patronage of their Anishinaabe counterparts to survive in the turbulent world of the pays d’en haut. Fortunately for them, well-connected Odawa women such as Charles Langlade’s mother, Domitilde, actively sought out fur trade husbands who would be of benefit to their kin relations. And in marrying French traders, Anishinaabe women created expansive kinship networks that stretched east as well as west and eventually came to encompass peoples and communities that ranged from the Mississippi River to Montreal.26

This extensive kinship network, together with the prestige and influence that close relations with French traders brought to the Michilimackinac Odawa offered benefits beyond material goods. Their access to French trade goods enhanced their status in the region and among their own kin. This influence, along with their location at the strategic straits and their mastery of the waters in the region, meant that they were integral to Indian regional diplomacy. Time and again the Odawa brokered peace in the region. Though the French liked to claim the role of peacemakers and mediators among the Indians, the most astute officials realized there could be no lasting peace unless it was first made among Native Americans themselves. And most acknowledged there were no more capable people of bringing peace to the pays d’en haut than the Odawa.27

Yet the Odawa held the key to war in the region, too. While outsiders had trouble discerning the contours of Anishinaabewaki, the Odawa at Michilimackinac were at the center of a powerful network that expanded over the colonial period. They and their kin dominated the Lakes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were able to manipulate relations with newcomers, including Europeans, to their advantage. The Odawa at Michilimackinac cleared the region of enemies and rivals and created a secure place for themselves in the heart of the Great Lakes. They also made the straits central to the French and then the British empires in North America, and made themselves indispensable within them. When Europeans tried to sideline the Anishinaabe Odawa at Michilimackinac, as they did in 1700 and 1760, for example, those at the straits showed they could mobilize powerful alliances and orchestrate deadly demonstrations of their power.

* * *

Such moments also made clear that the Anishinaabe Odawa at Michilimackinac profoundly shaped European imperialism in North America. While Europeans for a long time took a subordinate role in the pays d’en haut, the Odawa at the straits and other Anishinaabe and Algonquian peoples across the region together played a critical part in the making of early America. Not one canoe would have survived the trip up to the pays d’en haut without the help of Indian guides and translators. Not one fur would have made it to Europe without the intervention of Native trappers and the consensual trade of Indians. Little westward exploration would have taken place without the consent of the people of the straits, and almost certainly no posts would have been built in the heart of Indian country that could provision or protect unwelcome travelers. The French were there because the Anishinaabeg wanted them there. In turn, without the fur trade from the interior, it is unclear how long the French would have stayed in the St. Lawrence Valley. Without Indian alliances and the threat they could pose to powerful rivals such as the Iroquois and English, the French might have survived for considerably less time on the continent than they did. Only their Indian alliances saved them. But those alliances came at a high cost to the progress of European empire.28

Subsequently, the French struggled to maintain harmonious relations with nations such as the Anishinaabe Odawa at Michilimackinac. For many years, historians—following in the footsteps of English colonial commentators—have believed that the French somehow better managed their relations with neighboring Native nations. Yet French colonial officials never enjoyed the kind of harmonious relations with the Indians that their English counterparts dreamed they did. While some French traders managed to insinuate themselves seamlessly into Anishinaabe families, French imperial officials, including Jesuit missionaries, rarely did. From the start, French agents of empire were buffeted by the politics of the pays d’en haut—a politics over which they had very little control.

The rocky relationship with the Anishinaabeg had serious consequences for French imperial ambitions, as officials were dragged into one war after another between the founding of Quebec in 1608 and the middle of the eighteenth century. As English influence on the continent grew, too, the Anishinaabe Odawa, like others in the region, played the French and English against each other and often embroiled them in new conflicts. Seen in this light, the attack at Pickawillany was not, as often interpreted, a symbol of the strength of French-Indian alliances, but testimony to its weaknesses. When looked at carefully, the raid exposed the limits of French power in an Indian country that was less and less inclined to ignite inter-Indian wars for the sake of European imperialism. Yet, as the result of the attack at Pickawillany also showed, skirmishes in Indian country could still have a significant impact in Europe—and beyond.

In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War—the conflict that the Anishinaabeg had helped trigger—the British inherited French claims to the pays d’en haut. But they also fell heir to these uncertain relations. The British learned this when they were suddenly confronted with the conflagration now known as Pontiac’s War—a remarkably successful pan-Indian war against the new British regime. Amid the turbulence of war, the Odawa exploited the situation, mediating between different Indian groups and ultimately acting as saviors to the British. Again, though, their actions—along with those of other native groups in the pays d’en haut—cost Europeans dearly. Coming on the heels of the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British spent thousands of pounds fighting another conflict, and thousands more on councils, provisions, and presents to Indians to bring it to an end. Subsequently, many British officials came to the conclusion that their colonists in America ought to bear some of the expenses of placating Native Americans, and thus they introduced new taxes. In this way the Odawa helped set the fuse that would ultimately ignite the American Revolution.

As tensions between Britain and the colonies exploded into warfare, the British grew more and more dependent on their Native neighbors for help. The Odawa, using their French connections and the presence of the Spanish along the Mississippi, continued to play off European powers during the Revolutionary era and well into the nineteenth century. They promised much but gave little. They were happy to take advantage of British dependence on them even while they disappointed British strategists time and again—often much to the peril of empire. They helped shape the conflict that engulfed the British and the contours of the new international boundaries that resulted. Eventually, as the balance of power shifted toward the growing numbers of American settlers on their southern flank, the Anishinaabe Odawa drew on longer-term strategies to secure a place for themselves in the new American republic. Their struggle to maintain that place is ongoing.

What this long history reveals most, then, is that we cannot understand the history of early America without comprehending Indian country on its own terms. At the very least, a more complete history of this critical period has to take into account a diverse range of viewpoints and perspectives that together shaped European empires and the looming new nations of North America. From offering furs and allowing trade to goading imperial schemers and sparking wars, the Anishinaabe Odawa at Michilimackinac helped precipitate critical turning points in this history. Both French and British dreams of expansive colonies and imperial dominance grew, and foundered—at least in part—in Indian country. Certainly the history of North America would look very different had the nations of the pays d’en haut made different choices about their relationships with Europeans. What happened at Michilimackinac mattered. It shaped early America—and the world in which we now live.

Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. McDonnell