November 2016 - When European traders began to buy huge amounts of North American furs to sell in Europe and China, Algonquin hunters began to trap and hunt lots of animals, especially beaver, to get their fur to sell to the European traders. The Algonquin got in many wars with the Iroquois to their south and west over land and over the control of the fur trade in the 1500s AD. As a result, the Algonquin seem to have pushed the Iroquois further south and forced them to pay tribute. The Algonquin probably controlled land as far south as the upper Hudson river valley (in modern New York State). In 1570, the Algonquins formed an alliance with the Montagnais people to their east, and after that the Algonquins and the Montagnais people fought the Iroquois together.
By 1603, the Algonquins were not doing so well. They kept losing battles with the Iroquois, so they couldn't travel safely on the St. Lawrence river. In 1609, Samuel de Champlain, a French leader, wanted to make an alliance with the Algonquins. He agreed to help the Algonquin fight off the Iroquois. French guns killed two Iroquois chiefs, and the rest retreated, afraid of the new weapons. The Algonquin couldn't convince the French to give them any guns, but they did get steel knives and other weapons, and with these the Algonquin, under their general Pieskaret, pushed the Iroquois further south.
Now that they had some southern land, the Algonquins began to grow a little corn and beans, but they were really too far north for successful farming, and they got most of their corn and beans by trading with the Iroquois or with the French.
By 1629, the Iroquois had trapped all the beaver in their own land (modern New York State) and wanted to expand their hunting land to the north, into their old land in Canada, where the Algonquins lived now. The Iroquois got steel weapons from their Dutch trading partners and attacked the Algonquins, and because the French leader Richelieu was busy with a war with the Thirty Years' War, the Iroquois won. The Algonquins lost all their southern land back to the Iroquois.
In 1632, Richelieu finally sold guns to the Algonquins, to try to help them get back the land from the Iroquois, but there were not enough guns and the guns were not good enough. At the same time, French Jesuits began to convert people to Catholicism. Newly Christian Algonquin people got in fights with their leader, Tessouat, who stuck with Algonquin traditional religion. That also weakened the Algonquin. Many Algonquins died of smallpox in 1634.
By 1650 the Iroquois had gotten much stronger than the Algonquin, and the French queen Anne was not helping the Algonquin anymore. The few survivors were scattered in small, weak groups.
In 1667 Queen Anne's son Louis XIV finally fought off the Iroquois, and the Algonquin were able to trade furs again, but there were only about 2000 of them left. Another epidemic in 1676 and 1679 killed off most of them. With peace, their numbers slowly increased again.
In 1760, when the British conquered Quebec, the Algonquins gave up their alliance with Louis's great-grandson, Louis XV, and became allies of the British instead. Because they were allied with the British, Algonquin warriors fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War.
But the British lost the war, and in the 1800s, thousands of British settlers chose to leave the United States and moved north on to Algonquin land. There they began in the 1840s to cut down the forests in order to sell the wood. This ruined the Algonquin hunting grounds. Algonquin people had to move onto smaller and smaller reservations. Canadian-European people forced many Algonquin children into government-run boarding schools where they were forced to speak English and often abused. Today most Algonquin people still live on what's left of their original land, near Quebec in Canada. Many still speak Algonquin, though with a lot of words borrowed from Cree. Many still gather wild rice. But as a result of colonialist abuse, they're mostly not very well off now.
Learn by doing: go see live beavers in the zoo or in the wild
More about the Cree
More about the Iroquois
Algonquin projects and activities
A cuddly stuffed beaver, if you can't see one live.
A real canoe, to take river trips the way the Algonquin did
A bag of wild rice to cook, to eat something Algonquin people ate a lot of