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Onondaga Lake’s 1656 Thanksgiving feast

The site once known as Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois was once home to a friendly Thanksgiving meeting between French colonists and Haudenosaunee tribesmen.

The site once known as Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois was once home to a friendly Thanksgiving meeting between French colonists and Haudenosaunee tribesmen.

— With the arrival of Thanksgiving, the image of the Thanksgiving feast shared by the Plymouth colonists of Massachusetts and their Native American hosts during the winter of 1621 is often at the forefront of the imagination. The spirit of cooperation, mutual understanding and respect demonstrated by that event in the midst of the cultural interface between those two cultures is certainly one worth celebrating.

As providence would have it, Onondaga Lake’s history illustrates that the imagination need not wander upon the far distant Massachusetts colony to envision such an event worth celebrating. Such a Thanksgiving feast took place in 1656 on the shore of Onondaga Lake.

In 1656, honoring an invitation by the Onondagas, a small number of French colonists ventured from the safety of their New France Colony to the heartland of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) territory and the little lake known then as Gannentaha. Their mission was to promote peace, trade, and to heal the wounds from decades of warfare that had all but devastated the French colonial efforts to the north. For the French, the endeavor was not only a dangerous one, but a desperate one as well.

During the two-month canoe journey, the French party became beleaguered by bad weather, arduous portages and rapids, afflicted by illness, failing provisions, and hunger. They wrote that hunger held them by the throat. Nearly all of their native complement abandoned them, seeking relief from the oppressions of the journey. Near the journey’s end, the party was, sapped of strength, and according to an account, “dejected to an extraordinary degree” and had “lost courage, owing to their weakness.”

To their relief, the Onondaga hosts intercepted them and provided several canoes loaded with provisions of Indian corn and cooked salmon. The sight alone was said to have restored the travelers to joy and health. Relieved, the contingent ventured on to the shore of Onondaga Lake where they were to build the mission-embassy Sainte Marie.

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