Donnacona (1485?-1539?)

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Donnacona (1485?-1539?)

Stadaconan leader


The Stadaconans. In July 1534, while exploring the Baie de Gaspé, the French explorer Jacques Cartier established the first European relations with Iroquoian-speaking Indians from the St. Lawrence River. Little is known about these native North Americans beyond Cartiers early descriptions. These St. Lawrence Iroquoians vanished from the historical record after the abandonment of Jean-François de La Roque de Robervals colony in 1543. When Samuel de Champlain arrived in the St. Lawrence Valley in 1603, he found no trace of them. Still, with careful use of surviving accounts and archaeological evidence, it is possible to describe certain aspects of their culture. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians consisted of at least two distinct groups: the Hochelagans, who lived on Montreal Island, and the Stadaconans, who lived in the vicinity of present-day Quebec City. Although they spoke similar if not identical Iroquoian languages, the Hochelagans and Stadaconans differed in patterns of subsistence and settlement and appear to have been rivals for control of indigenous trade along the St. Lawrence. The Hochelagans lived in a large, palisaded village of about fifteen hundred people and relied quite heavily on agriculture, supplementing their diet seasonally by fishing at nearby camps. The Stadaconans, on the other hand, occupied seven to ten unfortified villages, sited along the north bank of the St. Lawrence upriver from the He dOrléans, each numbering no more than five hundred inhabitants. Residing farther downriver and to the north, these Iroquoians followed a less sedentary lifestyle than their upriver neighbors and depended primarily on fishing, gathering, and hunting and only marginally on agriculture. During the winter male hunting parties were absent for long periods. In the summer large groups of men, women, and children moved down the river to the Gaspé Peninsula to fish for mackerel. It was one of these fishing parties that Jacques Cartier encountered in July 1534.

Encounter. Donnacona, leader of the Stadaconans, greeted Cartier and his crew with gaiety and merriment, but the cordial relationship soon soured. On 24 July Cartier erected a thirty-foot cross bearing the arms of France, raising Donnaconas suspicions that his guests apparently had more in mind than trade and friendship. Accompanied by three of his sons and his brothei, Donnacona approached Cartiers ship in a canoe. He spoke vehemently to the Frenchman, pointing to the cross and making the sign of the cross with two fingers; then he pointed to the land all around us, as if to say that all the land was his, and that we should not have planted the cross without his leave. To pacify them Cartier offered to give Donnacona an axe in exchange for the skin robe he was wearing. When the Indians moved closer to make the trade, the crew seized their canoe and forced the occupants aboard the ship.

Sons Kidnapped. Once aboard, Cartier attempted to reassure the Stadaconans. After a feast he explained that the cross was intended only as a landmark to aid the French in their intended return to the area. He also indicated that he wished to take two of Donnaconas sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, with him to France, promising to return them on his next visit and bring iron wares and other goods for the Indians. Cartier then dressed Donnaconas two sons in shirts and ribbons and in red caps, and put a little brass chain round the neck of each, at which they were greatly pleased. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, Donnacona reluctantly agreed to the plan, and he, his brother, and remaining son were given a hatchet and two knives and departed from the French on seemingly good terms. Actually, such an exchange of children to serve as hostages for good behavior and to be trained as interpreters was not unfamiliar to Donnacona. Native Americans frequently exchanged the progeny of important leaders to cement alliances and secure good relations as well as to provide future interpreters. These hostages, however, were generally taken into the household of the respective chiefs and treated well. Donnacona may very well have had some misgivings about the care his sons would receive and the sincerity of Cartiers promise to return them to their friends and families.

Tales of Riches. On the voyage back to France, Domagaya and Taignoagny filled Cartiers head with tales of a great river that flowed from their country and of Saguenay, a kingdom from which they received copper. Whether the story was based in fact or legend, or merely a ploy to ensure the greedy Frenchman would want to return to their native country with them as guides, is unclear. Whatever their intentions, their enticing stories had the latter effect. Within nine months of their arrival in France, Domagaya and Taignoagny were on their way home to the St. Lawrence with Cartier. As they approached familiar territory, the two Stadaconans served as guides and pilots, imparting their knowledge of the coast and the St. Lawrence interior in the French they had learned during the months spent with Cartier.

Homecoming. On 7 September 1535 Carders ships anchored near the Ile dOrléans, and he went ashore with Domagaya and Taignoagny to meet the inhabitants. Wary of these strangers and not at first recognizing their compatriots, who were probably attired in European dress, the Indians fled. Once Domagaya and Taignoagny revealed their identity, the local inhabitants returned, and the feasting and celebrations began. The next day Donnacona was reunited with his sons and renewed his acquaintance with Cartier. Once the courtesies were disposed of, Cartier became eager to visit Hochelaga and Saguenay, of which Domagaya and Taignoagny had told him and to which they had promised to guide him. Both seem reluctant to fulfill their pledge, however, now that they were back among family and friends. Their father, anxious to preserve his privileged position as intermediary between the French and the Indians farther upriver, had no desire to help Cartier make direct contact with the Hochelagans. Consequently the three conceived a plan to protect their interests while maintaining good relations with the Europeans.

The Plan. As Carders preparations for a trip upriver continued, Taignoagny informed him that he would not accompany the party because Donnacona was angry about the proposed expedition. The next day the chief himself appeared and offered Cartier a little girl and two boys (a niece and sons of Donnacona). Acting as interpreter, Taignoagny indicated that Donnacona intended them as presents on the condition that Cartier did not go to Hochelaga. Domagaya then intervened, saying that the children were instead given out of pure affection and in sign of alliance and offering to accompany Cartier. After a heated exchange between the brotherswhich Cartier was unable to understandCartier accepted the children and presented Donnacona with two swords and a brass bowl. Apparently Domagaya intended to pretend to side with Cartier and salvage the relationship while leaving Taignoagny free to spread rumors and stir up trouble behind the scenes. The next day the brothers revealed their true intentions by staging a demonstration of witchcraft and relating evil portents about Carders proposed journey in another attempt to dissuade him from going. When Carter remained undaunted, Donnacona made one last try at resistance, offering to send both guides if Cartier would leave a hostage at Stadacona, but Cartier refused to compromise. When the explorers sailed upriver, none of the Stadaconans went along; Cartier no longer trusted them. After a brief but cordial visit to Hochelaga, Cartier returned to his anchorage near Stadacona and proceeded to build a fort.

Relations Deteriorate. Cartiers refusal to follow Donnaconas wishes, along with his overtly hostile actions on his return, permanently ended friendly relations with the Stadaconans. The Indians tried to obtain the return of their three children but secured the escape of only the little girl, further angering Cartier. Having second thoughts about antagonizing the Frenchman, they made a fresh approach and cordial, though tense, relations were restored during the winter. The change probably resulted at least in part from the serious hardships the French suffered during the long, severe Canadian winter. The tables were temporarily turned as Cartier found himself playing out a bluff to hide the Europeans weakened, vulnerable condition from the Stadaconans; his company was in dire straits. Once spring arrived, however, relations again deteriorated, and mutual distrust revived. Donnacona and the other Stadaconans began to avoid the French, and, on one occasion, Donnacona feigned sickness to avoid meeting with Cartier.

Kidnapped Again. As Cartier prepared to depart again for France, he learned that an internal dispute had erupted among the Stadaconans and that an Indian named Agona headed the opposition against Donnacona. Playing on Donnaconas weakness, Cartier offered to take the recalcitrant Iroquoian with him to Newfoundland and leave him stranded there on an island. The Stadaconan chief would have preferred that Agona be taken to France, but Cartier lied and told Donnacona the French king had forbidden him to take any adult natives back to Europe. Having lulled Donnacona into a false sense of security, Cartier seized his opportunity to remove the troublesome, untrustworthy chief and his leading men and replace them with the potentially more amenable Agona and his supporters. Cartier invited the Stadaconans to a feast, and when Donnacona, Domagaya, Taignoagny, and the headmen appeared at the fort, the French seized them, scattering the other Indians like sheep before a wolf. When Cartier sailed for France, he took ten captive Iroquoians with him: old chief Donnacona, his two sons, three other headmen, the little girl and two little boys given to him by Donnacona, and a little girl he had received from another chief up-river. None of the Iroquoians ever saw their homeland again. In France, Donnacona had an audience with the king, but as time passed and Cartier made plans to return to Canada, it became clear that the Frenchman had no intention of taking the Stadaconans with him as promised. The ten captives lived at the kings expense after their arrival in France in 1536. Three males were baptized in March 1539, possibly as they lay dying. About this time Donnacona disappears from the records. According to one account he spoke French and was a Christian at the time of his death. By the spring of 1541 all were dead but one little girl; she apparently never returned to Canada, and what became of her is unknown.


H. P. Biggar, ed., The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, Publications of the Public Archives of Canada, no. 11 (Ottawa: F. A. Acland, 1924);

Bruce G. Trigger and James F. Pendergast, Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, in Handbook of North American Indians, volume 15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978), pp. 357361;

Marcel Trudel, The Beginnings of New France, 15241663, The Canadian Centenary Series (Toronto: McClelland Ôc Stewart, 1973).

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Donnacona (1485?-1539?)

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