Origin and History
The Nipissing people are an Algonquian-speaking group of Native Americans. They initially inhabited a territory around Lake Nipissing at the crossroad between two watersheds: the French River, flowing in the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron; and the Mattawa River, flowing in the Ottawa River. They also controlled the portage between these two watersheds. Due to this strategic location, the Nipissing were involved in trade between various Native American peoples.
Champlain first heard of the Nipissing in 1613 and tried to visit them but was blocked by Algonquins not willing them to have direct contact with the French. However, in 1615, Champlain made contact as did the Recollect Fathers. They estimated their population as less than 1,000. The Nipissing took little notice of Recollects but began to trade furs for European goods with the French. This continued after the recall of the Recollects in 1629.
In 1634 a Nipissing and Wendat (Huron) trading party was held up by the Algonquins who wanted to control the traffic with the French. In 1636 the Nipissing and Wendat retaliated by refusing to come to the aid of the Algonquin who were being attacked by the Iroquois.
In the winter of 1636-1637, the Nipissing people lost 70 people to smallpox whilst wintering with the Wendat blaming it on the sorcery of the Algonquins. In the winter of 1640, a mission was established for them amongst the Wendat by the Jesuits.
In 1647 after the Iroquois had dispersed the Lower Algonquins, the Nipissing and the Innu (Montagnais) joined them in a defensive alliance but little came of it.
In 1649 the Iroquois dispersed the Wendat confederacy and as a result also attacked the Nipissing, who resisted the Iroquois for several years. A skirmish at Lake Nipissing is recorded in 1653, which as a result they fled westward and in 1661 are recorded as living around Lake Nipigon. In the summer of 1662, having joined Odawa and Ojibwe fishing near Sault-Sainte-Marie, they ambushed and destroyed a sizeable Mohawk and Oneida war party. In July 1664, 60 Nippising reached Montréal having been twice ambushed by the Iroquois. They continued to trade with the Cree at James Bay and, by the northern route, with the French at Trois-Rivières in 1667 and 1660.
Following the peace between the French and Iroquois in 1667 the Nipissings began to move back to their homelands. However, they remained dispersed some being recorded at Sillery in 1669; a few at the Iroquois mission at Saint-François-Xavier-des-Prés near Montréal in 1671-1672; in present day Michigan in 1675; and during the Illinois War of 1677-1680 groups were still in the west being attacked by the Iroquois. In 1677 Father Boneault established a mission for the western Nipissing at Michilimackinac.
King William’s War broke out in 1689 and the Nipissings participated in attacks on the English, presumably on Schenectady, Salomon Falls and Falmouth, and also on Fort Orange and against the Iroquois in 1695 and 1697.
Following the peace of 1701 with the Iroquois, the Sulpicians gathered Nipissing ‘converts’ at Ile-aux-Tourtes, where Governor Phillipe Vaudreuil built a fort and mission house. After Queen Anne’s War the Nipissing began trading with the British at Albany, in spite of French prohibition, due to the decline in the French fur trade from 1701.
In 1721 a new mission house was built at Oka on the Lake Deux-Montagnes (Kanestake), west of Montréal, and by 1735, 250 Nipissing had moved there with about 300 Mohawk and 100 Algonquin in separate settlements. In 1748 smallpox decimated the village.
In 1749 a few Nipissings and Abenaki were living at Logstown (Chiningué), the Ohio Iroquois capital.
In 1752 the Oka Nipissing were living in rectangular or square houses of wood built in the French manner. They stayed at Oka only for the trade and departed in late summer for hunting territory far up the Ottawa River.
Role during the War
On July 31, 1755, Nipissing warriors informed the commander of the first division of Béarn Infanterie stationed near Fort Frontenac of the French victory over a British force commanded by Braddock on the Monongahela.
In March 1756, 11 Nipissing warriors were with the 92 Canadian Iroquois and 3 Abenaki warriors that accompanied de Léry’s force of 94 Troupes de la Marine and Troupes de Terre, from the La Reine Infanterie, Guyenne and Béarn Infanterie, that attacked and destroyed Fort Bull on Wood Creek (north-west of present-day Rome, NY).
On May 18, Montcalm dictated the, ‘Arrival of a party of 25 Nipissings, commanded by Kisensik; they ask to go to war towards Carillon. Kisensik, also a good warrior that a highly accredited speaker in his nation, and very attached to our interests, lost this fall his father, who had the honour of being presented to the late King, who had given a gorget with his own hand. The son hopes to obtain General, permission to wear this same gorget, on which we have engraved an inscription to learn that the late King had given it. Like the savages have the superstition of believing that the time of great mourning is a time of misfortune, where they could not succeed in their undertakings, he presented himself to the Marquis de Vaudreuil in mourning garb, and this general performed the ceremony of compliment on the death of his father and relieved him of his mourning in him displaying war equipment. Kisensik still did not want to accept the gorget given by the late King to his father, telling the Marquis de Vaudreuil that he wanted to have been in war and to have even better deserved [than his father]’
On June 12, Montcalm records in his journal the arrival in Montréal of another Oka Nipissing war party, a detachment of Troupes de la Marine and an Abenaki party. Of the Nipissing he states that they, ‘... returning from the war, brought back an entire English family.’
On July 1, Nipissing deputies arrived in Montréal from the ‘flying camp’ of 1,200 men under Coulon de Villiers observing the Oswego region but were ordered to return. Nipissing warriors under Kisensik were part of the 250 Native Americans who were with Montcalm’s army that successfully besieged Oswego between August 12 and 14.
On September 22, a party of 24 Nipissing warriors and Kanestake Mohawk arrived at Fort Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga) with officers of the Troupes de la Marine.
On June 10 1757, 90 Nipissing and Mohawk from Oka and Odawa and Ojibwe, including at least one woman, supported by 7 French regular volunteers under Charles Langlade ambushed a wood cutting party of 15 guarded by 15 Connecticut Provincials near Fort Edward. Shooting from cover the Native Americans forced the British party, losing 5 dead and 4 captured, to flee back to Fort Edward. In turn Langlade’s party was later attacked by up to 90 Connecticut Provincials from the fort whilst making a litter for the single wounded Native American. They dispersed, dragging the wounded man and abandoning their canoes, retreated by foot to Fort Carillon arriving there on June 12.
On July 9, Montcalm, with Bougainville, the Governor General Vaudreuil, and the Jesuit Picquet visited Oka. A council was held in the afternoon where he met two famous Nipissing warriors, Kisensik and Aoussik who had been at the siege of Oswego. On a raid with Langlade in April on Fort William Henry Aoussik had taken 4 scalps and 3 prisoners of the 60th Regiment of Foot. He was eager to take up the hatchet again, whereas Kisensik was calmer. Bougainville, whilst walking around, was struck by one Nipissing, he wrote, ‘...dishonoured in the eyes of his brothers and of the Canadians because he wore breeches, covered his head, ate, dressed, and slept like a Frenchman. He goes neither to hunt nor to war. He keeps a shop in his house filled especially with contraband good, and he has a lucrative business. The Indians scorn him, but do not reproach him or treat him badly. For in this place of complete liberty, Trahit sua quemque voluptas [His own liking leads each one on]. At a council in the evening Kisensik asked Montcalm to give his permission to give advice on war when the occasion occurred. Aoussik rose questioning the need for councils when action was needed, stated he hated Englishmen and that he was going to ‘bathe in their blood.’ He then seized a bullock’s head from the cooking pot by its horns and stalking around sang the war song, joined by other leaders and Bougainville.
In mid-July the Nipissing were at the Abenaki encampment at Fort Saint-Jean and with these and Kahnawake Mohawk and Algonquins put their canoes in the water and set off up Lake Champlain.
By July 20, 1757, Nipissing warriors under Kisensik formed part of Chevalier de Lévis and Ensign Jean-Baptiste de Langis de Montégron's Brigade during the French expedition against Fort William Henry. On July 22, another party of Nipissing warriors joined the expedition. On July 28 Montcalm convened a final council at the head of Wood Creek south of Lake Champlain where he presented a wampum belt to the gathered indigenous warriors. Kisensik was the first to respond where he thanked Montcalm for coming to defend their homeland from the British and paid his compliments. The next day sticks were to be turned in to Bougainville showing the number of men expected to go on foot. The Nipissing refused, Kisensik being reluctant to join Lévis’s Division, stating it was ‘needlessly tiring.’ Montcalm overruled him. There were 53 Nipissings present.
On August 3, Nipissing warriors took part in an engagement with the crew of two British boats, which were pursuing French missionaries. In this action, they killed or captured several British oarsmen but lost 1 man killed and 2 wounded. The man killed was a Nipissing leader.
A certain Kanectagon, a Kahnawake leader, and a group of Mohawk and Nipissing scouts, eager to engage the British, started sniping at sentries on the walls of Fort William Henry from the cover of trees stumps left following its construction. A few sentries were hit but Kisensik’s son was hit in return fire, one of the first casualties of the siege. Kisensik having found him at the hospital tent with his wound being dressed by a surgeon agreed to escort Bougainville.
The siege of Fort William Henry started on August 4 and lasted until August 9 during which time Native Americans were deployed as an observation screen in woods around the perimeter of the cleared land. A few Nipissing may have been involved in the mainly Abenaki attack on provincial troops in the defeated British column on August 10. Even after the surrender of Fort William Henry, Kisensik and his Nipissing were among the last allies to leave the French.
On March 13, 1758, a party of Nipissing warriors took part in the Skirmish of Snow Shoes near Carillon.
In mid-May, Kisensik left Montréal for Carillon with 25 Nipissing warriors. On June 23 these and several score of Algonquins, and Kahnawake Mohawk accompanied Langy and 60 Canadiens up Lake George to spy on the British. They returned three days later having captured 16 Rogers' Rangers without losing a man and were then sent on to meet Montcalm and his army coming up Lake Champlain on June 27. Of the 150 Native Americans present at Fort Carillon before Montcalm arrived only 16 Nipissing, Kahnawake and Ojibwe remained at the beginning of July. However, more arrived and on July 12, following the successful repulse of the Abercromby’s army’s attempt to take Fort Carillon, 450 Native Americans from Canada were present including Nipissings. These then steadily diminished until only 4 Nipissings were present by mid-August.
In May 1759 Nipissing along with Canadian Iroquois, Abenaki, Odawa, Menominee and Ojibwe based at Fort Carillon took part in raids on the British between Lake Saint-Sacrement and Fort Edward.
Following the defeat of the French and by the Treaty of Kahnawake of September 15 and 16, 1760 between the Seven Nations of Canada and the British, the Nipissing handed over any prisoners they held to Amherst in Montréal.
Pierre-Joseph-Antoine Roubaud, a Jesuit priest at Odanak described a war party preparing to set off in 1757. Nipissing warriors were present in a war party consisting of Abenaki, Algonquin and Maliseet. ‘This is entirely shaven, except one little tuft reserved on the crown to which is attached plumes of birds, or small pieces of porcelain [wampum] or some such gewgaw. To each part of the head there is its peculiar ornament.’
Nipissing men are likely to have worn feathers stuck into his scalplock. These would have had personal spiritual significance for the wearer. Small round roaches of porcupine and red dyed deer hair may have been worn.
Headbands decorated with quillwork with upright feathers were likely to have been worn by some men for special occasions. Turbans of otter fur may also have been worn at such times.
Tattooing of the face and body was practiced as an alternative to painting. Tattoos in the form of some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure were ingrained with powdered charcoal. Linear patterns were also used extensively.
Pierre Pouchot, a French engineering officer writing in the late 1750s stated, generically, that men spent up to three or four hours decorating their head and goes on the say: ‘They practice of dressing their faces artistically in red, black and green, in fanciful designs, and which they often change two or three times a day, does not allow us to judge the natural colour except of eyes and teeth, which are very small but very white. The lips are stained with vermillion’.
Roubaud observed that warriors were ‘... painted with vermillion, white, green, yellow and black made of soot and the scaping of pots, all these unite in a single... visage, and are methodically applied with a little tallow, which serves for pomatum. Such is the paint, on these occasions of solemnity, is called into requisition to embellish not only the face, but also the head.’
Ears and Nose
Pouchot also observed that: ‘They pierce the cartilage of the nose, and put in a little ring with a triangle of silver, which falls down before the mouth.’ Roubaud also stated: ‘The nose has its pendant; while the ears are well furnished having been split in infancy and drawn down with weights until they flap against the shoulders...’ However, the latter configuration of the ear is unlikely to have been common amongst the more northerly Nipissing.
Necklaces and Neck Pouches
Necklaces of wampum, imitation glass wampum and beads with shell and silver pendants are likely to be commonly worn for occasions.
The Jesuit Roubaud noted that: ‘The chiefs and captains are not distinguished, except the latter by a gorget or neck-piece and the former by a medallion, which on one side has a portrait of the king, and on the reverse Mars and Bellona giving each other a hand, with the motto virtus et honos.’
‘The Indians are fond of wearing rings upon all their fingers.’
Breechclout and Apron
Pierre Pouchot, writing between 1755 and 1760, generically, recorded men wearing, ‘... a breech-cloth, which is a quarter of an ell of cloth, which they pass under their thighs, crossing before and behind upon a belt around the waist. Sometime the cloth is embroidered. When they travel, to avoid being chafed by the cloth, they put it simply as an apron before them.’
Leggings were fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap was decorated with ribbon, edge beading, moose hair embroidery, broaches and braid. Jesuit Nau stated in 1735 that: ‘Their mitasse, that is their Leggings, are adorned with ribbons and a variety of flowers embroidered with elk [moose]-hair dyed red or yellow. These are made to fit closely, the better to show off the elaborate finish of the work.’ Obviously, these were for best wear and that on the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin would be worn.
Garters are likely to have been worn below the knee. Pierre Pouchot observed that, generically, ‘... they wear garters of beads [probably loomed wampum in geometric patterns of white and dark blue black], or porcupine quills [in red, black and white], bordered four fingers wide, which are tied on the legs.’ Garters were also made of woven woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave.
The Nipissing probably wore a two-piece puckered-toe moccasin style with a separate vamp. They are fastened under the cuff and tied at the instep with a thong. During the winter moccasins are made larger so that they could be lined with rabbit skin, moose hair and or old blanket and the cuffs wrapped up around the ankles. Snow shoes were worn during the winter.
A European shirt, cut in contemporary European fashion, was also popular and could be daubed with grease and paint to waterproof it. Peter Kalm states that: ‘They wear a shirt which is either white or blue striped and a shaggy piece of cloth, which is either blue or white, with a blue or red stripe below. This they always carry over their shoulders... They all have their breasts uncovered.’ Pouchet mentions that: ‘The fore arm [of a shirt presumably] is ornamented with silver broaches, three or four inches wide, and the arms by a kind of wristlets made of wampum or coloured porcupine quills with fringes of leather above and below.’ Quillwork for the area was likely to use black, red, white and possibly yellow quills.
Blankets and Coats
Trade blankets were worn for warmth. At the time French blankets were considered of better quality than those supplied by the British. Pierre Pouchot wrote: ‘Both men and women wear a blanket on their shoulders, either of wool which they but of Europeans, or of cloth or prepared skins... Those of wool, are blankets made in Normandy of very fine wool, and better than those supplied by the English, which are coarser... For men they are of two or three points [the cost in number of beaver skins]. After carried them white two or three days, they mark them in vermillion, at fist with a red cross. Some days after they cover them with red, which tends to make the skin red.’
Hooded capotes were a popular item of winter dress for Nipissing men. In 1743 it is recorded that seventy cloth capotes trimmed with false silver lace were sent to Fort La Raye (Green Bay) to be traded for furs. Eight were of white cloth and the others of unspecified colours. They lacked buttons and were fastened by a patterned woven wool sash or belt at the waist. European coats and sleeved waistcoats in the contemporary style were also obtained and worn by some men.
Pierre Pouchot described generically the equipment carried by Native American men. ‘The men wear a belt about six inches wide, made of wool of different colour, which the Indian women make very neatly, of flaming designs. They hung to this belt their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which is the sin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel. They have also a pocket hanging like a wallet, for carrying their balls and lead for hunting or war. They have an ox horn with a shoulder strap for carrying powder. Their knife is hung in a sheaf from the neck, and falls upon the breast. They also have a crooked knife or a curved sword, and they make great use of this.’
By the beginning of the 18th century the standard trade musket that armed the Nipissing was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. After 1745 the ‘V’ changed to a ‘U’. Characteristically the stock had a drooped ‘cow’s foot’ butt. The Nipissing may also have obtained firearms from the British at Albany and at James Bay which were manufactured specifically for the Indian trade. These were characterised by full stocks, large trigger guards, serpent side plates, and nailed on butt plates.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of woven fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads; bags of deerskin with sewn wampum panels with small white geometric patterns on a dark blue-black field or of black dyed skin with quillwork and white bead edging with a fringe of metal cones filled with red dyed deer hair. Bags for best wear would have been quilled with bands of geometric designs. Quilled designs of Thunderbirds and Underwater Panthers designs are also likely to have been used by the Nipissing. Straps were of woven fibre or loomed wampum. A knife was carried in a sheaf, often decorated with red, black, white and possibly yellow quillwork, hung around the neck and a tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt at the back.
Davis, Michael J., Honour Bound: Personal Honour and the Franco-indigenous Alliances in the Journal de Campagne of the Marquis de Montcalm (1756-1759), Montreal: McGill University, MA Research Paper, July, 2015.
Day, Gordon M., Nipissing: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 787-791.
Hamilton, Edward (trans. and ed.) Adventures in the Wilderness: The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990,
Hughes, Ben, The Siege of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier, Yardley: Westholme Publishing LCC, 2014.
Ingraham, W. (trans.). The early Jesuit missions in North America. Albany: J. Munsell. 1873.
MacLeod, D. Peter, The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years War, Canadian War Museum, 2012, pp. 179, 200.
Nester, William, 1758: The Epic Battles for Ticonderoga, Albany: State University of New York, 2008.
Pouchot, Pierre, Memoir Upon The Late War In North America, Between The French And English, 1755-60. Volume II, Alpha Editions, 2021, pp. 189-191.
Steele, Ian K., Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the “Massacre”, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of the entire article