Kandiaronk: A Man Called Rat

  • Introduction
  • Joseph Chihoatenhwa: The Forgotten Martyr
  • Eustace Ahatsistari: the Bravest of the Braves
  • Estienne Annaotaha: The Unwanted Hero
  • Kandiaronk: A Man Called Rat

  •      The eighteenth century Jesuit historian Father Pierre F.X. Charlevoix deemed him "the Indian of the highest merit that the French ever knew in Canada",1 and asserted that in oratory and debate "he was the only man in Canada who was a match for the Count de Frontenac"2, who as governor established himself as one of the most dynamic and influential figures in early Canadian history. At the time that he died, he was the most highiy-respected Native leader in New France.  Yet, in his younger years he was several times accused of 'treachery'. His political and military manoeuvring may well have been the immediate cause of the Iroquois raid on the village of Lachine (traditionally termed a 'massacre', a label typically attached to Native success in warfare),3 in which at least 150 French people died. For a time afterwards he was a wanted man, one whom the then governor of New France, the Marquis de Denonville, declared would be hanged.

          The man's name was Kandiaronk, which in the Huron language meant "Rat".4 The name may have been a new one, as rats were recent immigrants hitchhiking on European ships. But Kandiaronk's people, the Wyandot, were new too. As a distinct tribe they were about the same age as Kandiaronk. It was claimed in 1689 that he was forty.5 From 1649 to the early 1650s the Wyandot6 were formed from the remnant of the Ekhionontateronnon or Petun7 people, along with some of their eastern neighbours the Huron, and possibly some of the more southerly Neutral as well.

          The early years of Kandiaronk and the Wyandot were unsettled ones. First they moved west from their Ontario home of perhaps 1,000 years, fleeing first from one powerftil enemy, the Iroquois, and then making, and escaping from another, the Sioux. It wasn't until 1671, with Kandiaronk a young man in his twenties, that the Wyandot finally settled at Michilimakinac, where Lake Huron  meets Lake Michigan. They stayed there until 1701, the year of Kandiaronk's

           At Michilimakinac Kandiaronk's people had to carefully choose when and under what circumstances they supported the combating forces of the more powerful peoples with whom they came into contact. They had to closely watch the fluctuating fortunes of the opposing European powers - the French and the English - while at the same time keeping one eye on the moves of the ever- threatening Iroquois. Even their allies, the numerically superior Algonkian speakers8 of the upper Great Lakes (e.g., the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Sauk and Potawatomi) merited observation. The Wyandots were guests in their country.

         The Algonkians had already experienced what the Iroquois could do militarily, and they had no desire to increase that experience unnecessarily. One careless move by the Wyandot could result in their dissolution as a people.   Kandiaronk's first recorded entry9 onto this perilous political stage occurred during the late 1680s. He was not the 'chief' of his people, such a position was reserved for the holder of the name-title Sastaretsi.10 He was, however, undoubtedly a man of influence, perhaps a war leader. At that time Governor Denonville was more than eager to persuade Kandiaronk, and all those Wyandot who would follow him into battle, to make a definite commitment on the side of the French. For despite the fact that Denonville's troops had struck deep into the home territory of the Seneca in 1687, that westernmost of the
    Iroquois tribes had successfully avoided major confrontation and had stayed strong. The French still saw them as a threat to their attempt to control Great Lakes trade. Of further concern to Denonville was that the English, through Iroquois intermediaries, had managed to complete a successful trading expedition to the various tribes living in the Michilimakinac area.

         On his part, Kandiaronk was concerned about what strong public commitment to the French might mean to the relationship between his people and the Iroquois. They needed either flexibility or power to deal with the then Five
    Nations of the Iroquois confederacy. If an official French-Wyandot military alliance was not backed by a substantial French force, it would merely serve to alienate the Iroquois, without providing the might necessary to cope with the
    grim consequences of that alienation.

         So Kandiaronk drove a hard bargain. In the fall of 1687 he pledged his allegiance to the French cause on the condition that both nations were to make war on the Iroquois until the latter's ability to retaliate was effectively neutralized.11

         The Wyandot had a saying that 'the Sky' was watching them when they were making treaties. 12 If promises were violated, the Sky might punish the violator with drought, or canoe-swamping storms. Thus agreements were not
    to be made lightly, but usually with a deeply-felt commitment. Convinced that Denonville had similar feelings, Kandiaronk led a group of at least 40 warriors from Michilimakinac to Fort Cataroqui (now Kingston) in the late spring of
    1688.13 They came intending to strike a telling blow in a joint French-Wyandot campaign against the Iroquois.

          They were in for a shock. Denonville had failed to receive the reinforcements from France he had hoped for. The king felt he needed all his troops to protect France against an ever-increasing coalition of unfriendly countries. The colony would have to fend for itself. Kandiaronk was probably unaware of this, as the French liked to create an illusion of strength with its Native allies.

         What he did know was that he needed to act fast. An opportwiity presented itself. Denonville had just arranged to have ambassadors from the Onondaga meet with him at Montreal to negotiate peace. They were to speak for the
    Oneida and the Cayuga, but significantly not for the recently-raided Seneca, nor the experience-cautioned Mohawk, arguably the two most powerful of the Iroquois tribes. To Kandiaronk this must have looked like French faithlessness
    combined with an Iroquois ploy. For Kandiaronk knew only too well that the Iroquois were well-schooled in the advantages of divide and conquer. Several times in the past they had made peace with the French in order to be able to
    attack unhindered the Native allies of those seemingly inconstant Europeans.

          To use a Wyandot expression, Kandiaronk must have felt that the earth was opening up in front of him, ready to swallow his people up. But he had a plan. He made no show of his true feelings, and pretended to accept the news and to
    paddle back home peacefully. Once out of sight of the fort, he headed east, towards a place he knew the Iroquois would pass by.

         After a wait of almost a week, Kandiaronk's plan and patience were rewarded. The ambassadors, travelling without the usual caution of a war party, were caught by surprise and easily defeated. When their leader, Teganissoren,
    protested that they had been on a mission of peace, Kandiaronk declared in seeming astonishment and anger that he had been deceived. He claimed that Denonville had informed him that a war party was to come that way, and had
    instructed him to ambush the Iroquois on that spot. He then released all his prisoners save one, speaking these words to them before they left:

    "Go, my Brethren, though I am at War with you, yet I release you, and allow you to go home. 'Tis the Governour I sic I of the French that put me upon this black Action, which I shall never be able to digest unless your five Nations revenge themselves and make their just Reprisals. N ~~ontan 1970:222)

          The Onondaga appear to have been convinced by Kandiaronk's clever charade. It no doubt sounded a lot like what the Seneca and Mohawk had been telling them. They told Kandiaronk that if he should wish to make a separate
    peace, the Five Nations of the Iroquois would be willing to negotiate.  Kandiaronk had not yet, however, completely acted out the plan that he had been following since leaving Fort Cataroqui. He was like someone crossing a cold-coursing river by treading tentatively on jump-spaced, moss covered stones. The ambush was the first step, but there were leaps to go.

         Next was his treatment of the prisoner kept in apparent accord with the long established custom of replacing someone lost in combat. Kandiaronk took the prisoner back to Michilimakinac. There he presented him to the French commandant at the fort. Unaware of the peace negotiations, the commandant had the protesting Iroquois executed. The prisoner's pleading that he was an envoy of peace was to no avail. For Kandiaronk had gone around saying that fear of death had driven the man crazy.

         One more step was soon to follow. Kandiaronk released an old Iroquois who had been captured and subsequently adopted by the Wyandot many years before. He instructed the man to inform his people of what he had just witnessed: an Iroquois invited by the French as a peace envoy had been coldly shot and killed by a French commandant, despite his pleas of the nature of his mission.

          The other shore was reached. A Frenchman who had been an Iroquois prisoner, but had managed to escape, told Denonville a short time later that:

     "...the Breach made by the Rat's Contrivance was irreparable; that the five Iroquese Nations resented that Adventure with so much warmth, that 'twas impossible to dispose 'em to a Peace in a short time; that they were so far from being angry with that Huron for what he did, that they were willing to enter into a Treaty with him, owing that he and his Party had done nothing but what became a brave Man and a good Ally." (Lahontan  1970:225)

        Denonville was both angry and frightened. He was quick to assure the Iroquois that his desire for peace was genuine, and that the offending Wyandot leader would not be punished with the loss of his life. But Denonville's 'arm of the law' was not long enough to reach all the way from Quebec to Michilimakinac to grab Kandiaronk, nor was it strong enough to defend the village of Lachine, near Montreal, when the Iroquois hit swiftly and hard in retaliation for the treachery of Onnontio (Iroquois and Huron name for the governors of New France).

          Shortly afterwards Kandiaronk was again in trouble with the French. Fur trader Nicholas Perrot claimed in 1689 that Kandiaronk had been collaborating with the Iroquois in order to perpetuate "the destruction of the Outaoua" ~errot 1911:253) and related Algonkian tribes living in the vicinity of Michilimakinac. Perrot asserted that Kandiaronk had secretly travelled to the country of the Iroquois and that subsequently:

    "They agreed together that the Iroquois should come with a large force to Michilimakinac, and that they should send scouts ahead to observe and examine the places in which they could attack the Ontaouas. It was resolved that the Hurons should occupy the flank of the fort; that the Rat should confer with all the tribes at the Bay and the Saulteurs, and invite them, on behalf of the Iroquois. . . to repair to this fort in order to confirm more thoroughly the peace which they had made together, and which would be more substantial and assured . . . The Iroquois, in order to persuade them more easily to this had given presents of collars / of wampum / to the Rat, in order that he might offer them to the other Outaoua tribes when they should be assembled. They furnished to the latter much stronger assurances besides, by sending them word that they could (thus) secure a good stronghold; for it was the purpose of the Iroquois, according to the measures that they had taken, to render the Hurons master of a stockade which they could undermine. By this method the assault was sure . . . , because the Hurons fired off only powder." (Perrot 191 1:253A}

     Perrot states that, after being informed of this plan by an Iroquois, he passed it on to the missionaries resident in the area. According to the fur trader, at that point, the Fathers:

      "...sent for him / Kandiaronk /, and told him that they had learned, from the lips of the Iroquois themselves, the design that the latter entertained of destroying the Ontaoua peoples. The Fathers, in order to convict him more forcibly, told him the means which have been agreed upon for the success of his scheme, and all that he had planned in order the better to deceive them; he could not deny it; and the whole plan fell through." (Perrot 1911:254)

     In order to make sense of this story, several questions need to be addressed. Was this plan consistent with Kandiaronk's policies towards the Ottawa, and his other Algonkian-speaking neighbours? I would say "No". For throughout his life he worked for unity between the Wyandot and the Algonkians. The Ottawa had been living next to the Petun for at least two centuries prior to contact with the Europeans. One group of Ottawa moved west to establish a village next to that of the Wyandot at Michilimakinac, and set up another neighbouring village when the Wyandot moved to Detroit in 1701. Even when the Ottawa later committed an act that struck deep into Kandiaronk's heart, that heart did not cry out for vengeance nor overcome his desire for unity between these peoples.  Secondly, would the Wyandot really be planning to have just powder in their guns, and not shot as well? This would have been a golden opportunity for Kandiaronk to draw his long term combatants a long way from home and then have a surprise waiting for them. That seems more in line with how Kandiaronk operated than an attempt to fool people who lived in the area and who had a good number of allies right there.

     Finally, why would an Iroquois tell Perrot of such a plot? What would he have to gain other than the discrediting of Kandiaronk? That would have benefitted the Iroquois cause at Michilimakinac. It was not in their best interests to have a Wyandot leader as strong and as independent as Kandiaronk. It makes more sense that they would have preferred to have a Wyandot leader that they could use as an agent or middleman. Such a man, called "Escoutache" or "the Baron "14 emerged during the late 1680s. He and Kandiaronk were to become like two stone-faced poker players, gambling on the future of their people.  The first public record of a 'hand' the two would play occurred in May of 1695. It was at a meeting of the principal chiefs of the Wyandot and Ottawa with De la Motte-Cadillac, then commandant of Michilimakinac. Being discussed was an impending attack by the Iroquois against the Miami, allies of the Wyandot, Ottawa and the French. The Baron, relaying an Iroquois message, stated that the Iroquois meant no harm to the allies by this attack, but rather they were:

      "... going to devour the Miami in order to unite the whole earth; inviting all the Lake Tribes to repair with the French to the neighbourhood of Detroit when the leaves are red; . . ." ~YCD 9:606)

     Kandiaronk's reply to this was a call for unity with their Miami brothers by acting against the Iroquois:

    "We have but one cabin and one fire, and we ought to have one mind. Let us unite. The opportunity is favourable. There is corn in the village to feed the women and children; we have brave warriors. What hinders us to die like men defending our lives? Shall we remain passive whilst our brethren are being carried off?" (op.cit.)

     Although war plans were made, no action was taken. Something was holding them back. A major source of hesitation was revealed at a meeting held on the first of June. The Baron spoke of having encountered an ancient man and his wife, each supposed to be about one hundred years old. According to the Baron the old man had had a series of revelations from the "Master of Life", a term first used to refer to the god of the missionaries. One part of the alleged message, as related by the Baron, had seriously disturbed those intending to initiate action against the Iroquois. In the words of Cadillac:

      "the old man forbid them to be the first to strike the Iroquois, as he who should begin would be infallibly destroyed, and the Iroquois himself would be annihilated were he so bold as to be beforehand with them with his hatchet." ~YCD 9:608)
     There is good reason to believe that the Baron dreamed up this vision, or at least was anxious to publicize it. He had cards he wasn't showing. Even as he was travelling to Montreal to speak on behalf of the Wyandot to the French authorities, his son was part of a secret embassy sent to the Seneca (NYCD 9:619). This was one hand that was won by the Baron.

     For Kandiaronk the cost was to be high. With the Baron's increasingly apparent close ties with the Iroquois, the neighbouring Algonkians were becoming more and more suspicious of the actions of the Wyandot. In 1696 an Ottawa raiding party of twenty went out looking for Iroquois. 15 Along the way they encountered Kandiaronk's son and then a single Wyandot canoe, containing mostly women and children. It wasn't long before violence flared. All of the Wyandot were killed.

     The next hand would be Kandiaronk's. In 1697 at least thirty Wyandot, some of whom were from the Baron's family, had gone to New York, Iroquois territory, to see about being granted land there. The Baron went to the Miami, apparently continuing his role as Iroquois agent. For there were plans afoot for a large Iroquois war party to join with a group led by the Baron to strike the unsuspecting Miami.

     But this was not to be. Kandiaronk "notified the Miamis to be on their guard and not to trust the Baron." (NYCD 9:672), and led a smaller intercept force comprised of about 150 Wyandot, Potawatomi, Ottawa and Sank. He learned from Iroquois scouts he had captured that there were about 250 in the Iroquois war party. They also informed him that the group had only canoes enough to carry about sixty people. Kandiaronk cleverly utilized this knowledge to devise a plan of attack. As the historian Charlevoix tells it:

     ".../ Kandiaronk / advanced with his whole force towards the spot where he had been told the enemy was encamped; when he came within gun-shot, he feigned to be surprised and alarmed at their number, and pretended flight. At once sixty Iroquois sprang to their canoes to give chase; the Rat pushed out from land, and plied his paddles till he was two leagues from shore. There he stopped and drew up, receiving without firing the first Iroquois volley, which killed only two of his men, then, without giving them time to reload, he dashed on them so furiously that all their canoes were riddled or stove in. Thirty-seven were killed, fourteen taken, the rest drowned. Among them were five of the highest chiefs in the nation." (Charlevoix 1900 5:68)

    European perception of and writing about Native people in the late 17th century came in basically two sharply~opposed varieties: nasty savage and noble savage. The nasty savage was like an animal: possessing cunning, being vicious, and following base instincts or passions rather than logic. The noble savage partook of purity through living in a state~of-nature free from civilization's corrupting influences. Its characteristics stem more from the author's critical feelings towards European culture than from genuine aspects of Native culture. As Kandiaronk's interests and actions began to dovetail with those of the French, his portrayal in French writing shifted from nasty to noble savage.

         The most extreme example of Kandiaronk's new characterization appears in the writing of the Baron Louis-Aamand de Lahontan, who met the Wyandot leader at Michilimakinac, and claimed to be a close friend. Under the pseudonym "Adario",16 the noble savage Kandiaronk was used as a straw man for the safe articulation of the Baron's radical, politically- dangerous views. In Lahontan's "A Conference or Dialogue between the Author and Adario, A Noted Man among the Savages", Adario spoke critically of such European institutions as the French legal system and medical profession, war,the Pope, and the Jesuits. Although some turns of phrase sound Native, and may have been lifted from Kandiaronk's speeches, Adario's critical voice of pristine purity spoke with Lahontan's jaded intellectual accent. It reflects a wealth of embittering 17experiences the Baron had had with European society in areas of life that had not touched the Wyandot of Michilimakinac.

      At the turn of the 18th century, ambitious plans were being laid to organize the most extensive set of negotiations for peace ever held in New France to that time. Never were renresentitives from so many First Nations to come together to speak in council These talks were to involve not only the Wyandot Iroquois and French, but all the nations allied with the French, and those tribes  on the upper Great Lakes which still possessed a large measure of independent strength. Many were far from anxious to come to talk peace with the Iroquois, and were even more reluctant to bring their hard-earned Iroquois prisoners to give back as a strong statement of goodwill. It was largely through the respect that these people had for Kandiaronk that they all finally agreed to this statement as a precondition for negotiations. Without his encouragement, one wonders whether all the groups involved would have gone along with this idea.

      Almost all of the First Nations to be involved in the meeting were tired of fighting and were eager for peace. However, suspicions were rnnnmg high, and first steps were difficult to make. Kandiaronk was a major force in clearing the path of obstacles (a Huron expression> so that these first hesitant and necessary steps could be taken. Invaluable were his efforts during the actual negotiations, particularly after it was discovered that the Iroquois had not brought all their prisoners with them (He had suggested that the Iroquois bring their prisoners first, but the governor thought that unnecessary).

     Regrettably, the first days of the conference were to be the last for Kandiaronk. Although somewhat exaggerated, as was the historical writing style of that time, the words of Jesuit historian Father Charlevoix eloquently captured the double spirit of hopefulness and tragedy that took flight with Kandiaronk's death:

     "... on the last day of August/1701/, the first public session was held, and while a Huron chief was speaking, the Rat fell sick. He was attended with all solicitude, inasmuch as on him the Governeror-General built his main hope of successfully terminating his great work. He was almost exclusively indebted to him for this wonderful concert, and this assemblage, till then unexampled of so many nations for a general peace. When he came to, and recovered his strength, he was placed in an armchair in the midst of the assembly, and all drew around to hear him.

    He spoke at length, and being naturally eloquent, no one perhaps ever exceeding him in mental capacity, he was heard with boundless attention.  He described with modesty, and yet with dignity, all the steps he had taken to secure a permanent peace among all the nations; he made them see the necessity of such a peace, and the advantages it would entail on the whole country in general and each tribe in particular, and with wonderful address showed distinctly the different interests of each.

    His voice failing, he ceased speaking, and received from all present, applause, to which he was too well accustomed to be affected by it, especially in his actual condition; in fact he never opened his lips in council without receiving such applause even from those who dislike him.

    He felt worse at the close of the session, and was carried to the Hotel Dieu, where he died two hours after midnight.
    His death caused a general affliction, and there was no one French or Indian who did not show that he felt it." (Charlevoix 1900 5:145-8)

     And what came at the end of the negotiations Kandiaronk worked so hard for, but did not live through? Peace. His people found a relatively safe new home near the just-formed settlement of Detroit. A Wyandot community existed there for almost 200 years. They live today mostly in Oklahoma and Kansas.  And what of the Rat? Although he was buried with great ceremony, the location of his grave is unknown. Few but the Huron know the story of his life.*


    1. Charlevoix 19004:12.
    2. Charlevoix 19004:146
    3. In Donald Creighton's Dominion of the North we get the following:
    "The Iroquois redoubled their raids on the settlement: they harried the fur trade routes to the west. And at daybreak on August 5, 1689, some fifteen hundred of them fell upon the little village of Lachine, close to Montreal, and massacred about three score of the inhabitants." (Creighton 1957:97)
    4. FH1697:169 and 231.
    5. Lahontan 1970:220.
    6. This name came from the term 'Wendat' used by the Huron, Wyandot and probably the Petun to refer to themselves.
    7. See Steckley 1988.
    8. The term 'Algonkian' or 'Algonquian' refers to the largest family of Native languages in Canada. It includes the following languages: Micmac, Malecite, Innu, Abenaki, Cree, Mgonkin, Delaware, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Blackfoot and
    9. William Fenton wrote (Fenton 1969:321) that the first reference to Kandiaronk occurred in 1682, when a Wyandot orator, whose name translated as "Le Rat" was recorded as speaking on behalf of his people. The Wyandot name given was not Kandiaronk, but "Souoias", "Souaia" and "Souaiti" (NYCD 9:178-9 and 181), which are various ways of representing "Tsisk8aia", which meant 'muskrat'(FH1697:232). There are no compelling reasons to believe that Tsisk8aia and Kandiaronk were the same person.
    10. See Lahontan 1970:641 and NYCD 9:661, 672 and 707. For a good example of how the name Sastaretsi was used to represent the Wyandot people, see NYCD 9:178-9.
    11. See Lahontan 1970:220.
    12. See JR1O:159-163.
    13. Lahontan claimed that there were 100 men with Kandiaronk (Lahontan 1970:149 and 220), while Parkman (Parkman 1966:174), citing a letter written by Denonville, dated November 9, 1688, asserted that there were only 40.
    14. See NYCD 9:648.
    15. See NYCD 8:648.
    16. The etymology of this name is unclear. Perhaps it is based on the verb form "atrio", meaning 'to combat' (Potier 1920:269-70). This would not be a surprising pseudonym for a warrior of his calibre.
    17. See the introduction to Lahontan 1970.


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