Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois: Thoughts on a Historic Site

We have often discussed history and its interpretation on this blog. The analysis of historic sites has not always been favorable (such as my discussion of the FDR house and the Wilderstein House). I’m happy to say that today I visited Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois, a historic site between Liverpool and Syracuse and—despite my fears—was impressed by the quality of the historic interpretation.

Sainte Marie Among the Iroquois is a reconstruction of a small French fort/mission post/diplomatic station that existed on the shores of Onondaga Lake from 1656-1658. The fort itself was part of an ongoing struggle for the control of the Great Lakes basin. The Iroquois Confederacy was at the height of its power, having just defeated its rival, the Huron Confederacy in 1650, followed by victories over the Erie, Susquehannocks and the Neutrals in the early-1650s. This is important to note as there is an idea that native peoples inevitably decline after European contact falters when we look at the Iroquois, whose power only grew for a century after European contact.

The French, on the other hand, had lost their trading partners (the Huron, Erie and Neutrals) and were therefore cut off from supplies of furs (in fact, as a result their corporate government collapsed in the early 1660s). Mohawks were raiding deep into New France and for a period of time blockaded the city of Quebec itself. The creation of the post on Onondaga Lake was a move to circumvent the Mohawks and deal directly with the Council of the Confederacy. The fact that the French abandoned the site so quickly in 1658 that they left behind even their tools shows the fragility of the French presence. For a chronology of the 17th century wars, check out this website.

I approached Sainte Marie today with some trepidation, having heard from some friends that visited as children that it didn’t provide a profoundly deep understanding of its context and was quite Eurocentric. While this may be true of the original fort site, the addition of a modern museum had done wonders to the site. While it may have portrayed the Jesuit missionaries in a particularly good light, I have to commend the site for giving context to the place of Sainte Marie in the little-told stories of the imperial wars of the 17th century (with the French, Dutch and Iroquois empires being the dominant players) and for providing a place for the Iroquois. The native peoples are not “folklorized” (for comments on the negative sides of folklore, check out this site), but are shown as economic and political players, the Iroquois Confederacy and its constituent nations are shown as actives participant in these struggles and the lifeways of both peoples (Iroquois and French) are shown side-by-side. This is an important, but little discussed period of North American (and Upstate) history and Sainte Marie has placed itself well to interpret it to the public, an admirable goal.

The fort itself was a bit run-down in a few places (the paper signs were disintegrating and some of the walls had seen better days), but the interpreters were fantastic. I traveled with my partner and her 10-year-old son and the re-enactors gave him personal attention, allowing him to try all sorts of tools and describe how day-to-day life was in a frontier fort. This was probably possible because it was a wet day and there were few guests, but we still appreciated their enthusiasm and knowledge.

I highly encourage a visit to Sainte Marie among the Iroquois. The site is open yearly on weekdays from 9am to 3pm and until mid-October on the weekends from 12-5pm. Admission is highly affordable, $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, $2 for children and kids under 5 for free; moreover, there is a $10 family rate. After mid-October, admission is free, though donations are accepted. Here is a map on how to get there.

As a side note, I found an interesting little essay of alternative history that asks, “what would have happened if the Hurons won the wars of 1648-1650”? Interesting reading for the student of Upstate History. For another link, here is a perspective on the Iroquois from the view of New France, from the Quebec History Encyclopedia.



prosyracuse said...

Thank you for the wonderful write-up on Ste. Marie. It is certainly a treasure of the Syracuse, NY community.

Just a couple of quick notes: the original "French Fort" that your friends may have visited as children was torn down in the late 80's & the new, more historically accurate site that you visited was built along with the Visitors Center, opening in the early 90's. Funds for this new facility were provided by Onondaga County Parks and fundraising by the Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake. Although this is owned by the County, it is operated by the Friends on an all-volunteer basis. It is quite an impressive undertaking, but they've done an incredible job. Interpretation is done in 3rd person instead of 1st person which really helps visitors relate better to the history being presented.

Please note that Ste. Marie is no longer open between October and May except for special events. For details, please go to www.OnondagaCountyParks.com.

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