French and Algonquian Approaches to the Middle Ground: 1650 to 1700 on the Great Plains

Written September 6, 2015

Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 describes the creation of a new reality for the North American continent that came forth through the interaction of Native American, French, English, and Spanish cultures. White tells readers that “The American Republic succeeded in doing what the French and English empires could not do.”[1] That is, the Americans – immigrants from Europe and their very recent descendants – created a new reality, sans sovereign Native Americans, for the section of North America that would one day become the United States of America. This story echoes in every history book, but less known is the behavior of the French frontiersmen that interacted on France’s behalf with the tribes of the Great Lakes region, between 1650 and 1700. They were doing something neither of the other imperialist empires were doing: entering the middle ground in such a way that their Native American counterparts were not reduced in their humanity.

The French came in smaller numbers – and with different goals – than the other Europeans. They sought trade and secure routes for trade, and while they did build settlements, their settlements were sparsely distributed and hardly defended. They were not there for war; they were not there to remove Native Americans from the land France claimed.

Those Frenchmen who came to the Upper Country between 1650 and 1700 came into the aftermath of a war between Native American peoples that decimated and displaced nearly all the Algonquian[2] peoples living just west of the victorious Iroquois[3], but the survivors’ desire to thrive was not lessened by displacement. Perceived marginalization increases individuals’ stress, and can drive efforts to negate marginalization[4], and this was a world driven by individuals, not institutions. “This was a village world,” as White explains in The Middle Ground[5]. Any negotiations, any lasting peace that could be made, had to be done in small scale, by the local players. So when the French frontiersmen met these small groups of marginalized Algonquians, the circumstances created by the Iroquois Wars may have made the Algonquians more amenable to potential allies and traders than they might have been otherwise because the accumulation of both allies and trade held the potential to reverse the marginalization they had experienced at the hands of the Iroquois.

The French, also constrained to the small scale approach by their own numbers, entered negotiations with the Native groups they contacted in such a way that fostered intimate personal relationships. Often this took the form of intermarriages, but these were symptomatic rather than causal. More generally the French frontiersmen’s tendency to assimilate into the Native’s style of negotiation allowed the Native peoples to lead the shaping of their shared middle ground. We see this in the adaptation of the calumet ceremony and the lack of written contracts (such as one would find in European negotiations of any sort) in French-Algonquian negotiations[6]. This created a situation that empowered the French-allied Algonquian peoples and reversed the psychological effects of marginalization, effectively creating a positive feedback loop. This loop would have been continuously fed by the more practical benefits of the Native Americans’ and Frenchmen’s negotiations. These benefits were several. The enlargement of both groups through intermarriage and extended kinships gave them the greater numbers they needed to avoid extinction and to be a meaningful force in the contemporary social climate of the Upper Country[7]. Further, both groups gained greater access to wealth through the fur trade[8].

What led the French to take this ‘following’ approach to negotiations with the Native American groups they encountered? Practically speaking, there was more to it than just the potential benefits. The Frenchmen that met with Native Americans in the Upper Country were grossly outnumbered, despite the decimation the Algonquian population had recently experienced in the war with the Iroquois. One imagines a conquering, take-charge approach such as the Spanish conquistadors and their armies took might have been laughed into oblivion had the small groups of Frenchmen and their Jesuit priests tried it. One must also wonder whether the Spanish would have found themselves in a situation where they were so outnumbered, and whether they would have reacted in the same way, with the same success, as the French did.

It seems unlikely that the French frontiersmen could have acted any other way. They were not just French; they were of the small class of young Frenchmen who had been raised in wealthy families, were well educated and versed in the Enlightenment philosophies of the day, and who weren’t needed at home to maintain their family estates. They lived on allowances from their families, were nobility or vendors to royalty, and might have received patents of nobility during their lifetimes[9]. René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, for example, was from a wealthy family that afforded him an education and, in adulthood, an allowance to live on during his travels. He claimed great swaths of land for France, naming the land after his monarch, King Louis XIV, and was given a patent of royalty and royal support for his continued explorations[10]. La Salle was a member of a privileged class; the men who could afford to travel to the New World, who could afford to leave their families behind in search of more wealth, were not of the general public that were ground down by Louis XIV’s rule. These men were the result of prosperity and they gleaned the philosophies of the salons.

This was the subculture that produced and celebrated humanist philosophers like René Descartes and François de la Rochefoucauld. From these early humanists men like La Salle learned to question the supremacy of any man, and in the place of assumed supremacy they raised the importance of thoughtful reflection. La Rochefoucauld was hugely influential, and he challenged self-flattery, which he thought of as humans’ primary motivator and primary fault[11]. Descartes contributed a tendency toward moderation over extremes with happiness as the ultimate goal[12]. Each of these themes – challenging self-flattery as a personal goal, seeking happiness, acting thoughtfully and in moderation – contribute to a reduction in a philosophical foundation that would support assumed ethnic superiority.

Did that really influence the behavior of the French frontiersmen toward the Native American groups they encountered? In comparison, one might look at the comparable British philosophers of the day, such as John Locke. Also a humanist, Locke’s Treatise is well-known in modern America for its influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, which emphasized the “pursuit of happiness.” But Locke did not become widely read until after his death in the earliest years of the eighteenth century. The leading philosophers in Britain in the late seventeenth century were more concerned with the validity and nature of government than the morality of individual men. Even so, the cynicism of Thomas Hobbes had greater popularity in those years, despite his time in exile[13], which implies that the educated young men of Britain were more likely to support the idea of their own assumed superiority, as it would place them in the authoritative position of the social contract necessary for an orderly state. More importantly, though, was the purpose of British exploration in the Americas. The British weren’t looking to simply secure trade routes and sources; they wanted land for settlers[14], and they weren’t willing to share with the people they seemed to see as being inherently inferior in both nature and authority.

When the French and the Algonquians met, the Algonquians were perhaps as far from having orderly lives as they had ever been. It was after the peak of the Iroquois War, which had turned the Algonquian peoples into refugees. They gathered in the Upper Country of the Great Plains, in heterogeneous groups. These groups were forced into close proximity by circumstance, and violence between the groups rose as they were forced into narrower confines. A new economy of interaction became necessary to prevent intergroup violence from further reducing their numbers, and fictive kinships – whether through intermarriage, adoption, or calumet ceremonies – filled that need.[15] These new kinship ties and responsibilities eased the violence of the refugee encampments and allowed villages to thrive. As White notes in Middle Ground, “At their most enduring, the connections between groups were not so much diplomatic… as social.”[16] Treaties among such fluid groups could not have been so successful as creating new bonds of kinship at stopping the intergroup violence. In this way, flexibility in kinship was profitable for the Algonquians, and there’s no reason to suspect they would not have utilized this flexibility again to ease their negotiations with the Frenchmen.

The result of the upper-class Frenchmen’s humanist-influenced approach, combined with the tenuous refugee positions and cultural amenableness to expedient kinships of the Algonquian people, was a middle ground that was effectively a negotiation of equals – ripe ground for an alliance. The unequivocal success of that early French-Algonquian alliance is captured by White when he says, “[The alliance] transformed the Algonquians from a terrified people confined to a few crowded and impoverished settlements to a confident and expanding people reoccupying country long denied them by the Iroquois.”[17] ‘Confident and expanding’ does not describe a marginalized people. The Algonquians appeared at that point to be a people bolstered by circumstance and primed to be a competent trading partner for the French. This was almost a success story.



Abrams, Dominic. Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion. New York: Psychology Press, 2005.

Brislin, Richard W. “Psychology of Acculturation: Understanding Individuals Moving Between Cultures.” Applied Cross-cultural Psychology. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1990.

La Rochefoucauld, Francois. The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld. Trans. Louis Kronenberger. New York: Random House, 1959.

Rutherford, Donald. “Descartes’ Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. (accessed September 3, 2015).

Smith, Steven. “PLSC 114 – Lecture 12 – The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan.” Open Yale Courses. University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection. (accessed September 3, 2015).

Spielvogel, Jackson J. “State Building and the Search for Order in the Seventeenth Century.” Western Civilization. 8th ed. 2012. 456-460.

Weddle, Robert S. “LA SALLE, RENE ROBERT CAVELIER, SIEUR DE.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. (accessed September 4, 2015).

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.



[1] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), XV.

[2] For this essay, I chose to use White’s working definition of the label ‘Algonquian,’ as explained in Middle Ground, on page XI of the Introduction.

[3] White, Middle Ground, 1.

[4] Dominic Abrams, Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion (New York: Psychology Press, 2005), 293-316.

[5] White, Middle Ground, 16.

[6] White, Middle Ground, 20.

[7] White, Middle Ground, 1-49.

[8] White, Middle Ground, 94-141.

[9] This was a good time for young, not-quite noble men in Louis XIV’s court because the King preferred to elevate new nobles – who would then owe their titles and privileges to him – rather than rely on established nobles; Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization (Boston: Wadsworth, 2012), 456-460.

[10] Robert S. Weddle, “LA SALLE, RENE ROBERT CAVELIER, SIEUR DE,” Handbook of Texas Online, (accessed September 4, 2015).

[11] François de la Rochefoucauld, The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, trans. Louis Kronenberger (New York: Random House, 1959).

[12] Donald Rutherford, “Descartes’ Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed September 3, 2015).

[13] Steven Smith, “PLSC 114 – Lecture 12 – The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan,” University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection. (accessed September 3, 2015).

[14] The settlers themselves, who would become Americans and who would be from several countries, were altogether different from the educated men with government connections who had been sent to explore and claim land. The settlers were more often from lower than upper classes, and tended to be undereducated. The “white savages” who pushed westward didn’t care about Hobbes’ work, even as they exemplified it (White, 1991, p.419).

[15] White, Middle Ground, 1-49.

[16] White, Middle Ground, 16.

[17] White, Middle Ground, 34.


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