The peace medals given to the natives in Canada by the representatives of both French and British colonial powers bear material witness to the alliances that the foundations of the country were based on. If France was able to extend its influence over such a large territory in America, then this was necessarily thanks to a vast network of military, diplomatic and commercial alliances which were developed and maintained with native nations that had been present on the continent for centuries. The French colonial authorities distributed dozens, if not hundreds of medals, from the 17th century until the final years of the French regime, during various events that consolidated their links with some of these nations.
Published in: Nouvelle France, histoire et patrimoine, n ° 1, October 2019
Nowadays, the few medals from this period can most often be found in museum collections or in the hands of private collectors. Those given by the French have a special interest, firstly because they are of course older, then because, at the time of British conquest, the Natives replaced them by medals from their new ally. Their rarity also comes from the fact that they were sometimes buried with their deceased owners, according to the native custom of being buried with one’s personal possessions.
These objects evoke several elements in the history of New France and of the Natives. What importance was given to these medals by each party? In what contexts were they handed out? What roles did they play in political and social terms? In what way were they transmitted from one generation to another and how did they end up in museum collections? We shall to sketch out a few partial answers by examining one medal in particular, which is rather rare and whose history is quite well known: a medal of the coronation of Louis XV minted in Paris in 1722.
It was long kept by the Hurons-Wendat of Wendake (previously known as the “Hurons of Lorette”) who have permanently lived in the region of Quebec since 1650. It was handed down from one generation to the next, initially among chiefs and then in certain families, until 1975 when it was sold to a collector in British Colombia. The medal was part of a batch of several historical objects associated with the chieftaincy of the Huron-Wendat Nation from the 19th century and the early 20th century: a wampum necklace, silver bracelets, a round silver broach, six British medals and an arrow belt. A few months later, the collector sold all of these precious native objects to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, now called the Canadian Museum of History, where they are still conserved.
The distribution of medals with an effigy of the King of France
In the 17th century, a formal and diplomatic system developed in France around royal medals minted in large numbers to be distributed to foreign representatives or French diplomats who, in turn, handed them out in the countries where they were staying. With portraits, tapestries and engravings, they acted as instruments for diffusing the king’s image, while commemorating the important events during a reign. As a French colony in America, Canada did not escape from this practice: native chieftains proudly wore medals of Louis XIV around their necks as of the 1670s.
One of the oldest medals given to the Natives, which has come down to us, dates to 1693. On its obverse, where the profile of Louis XIV appears, can be read the inscription “Ludovicus Magnus Rex Christianissimus”, while the other side is illustrated with profiles of the Dauphin and his three sons, with the inscription “Felicitas Domus Augustae” and the names of the people depicted. The Musée de la Civilisation de Québec conserves one which quite probably also comes from Wendake.
In the early 18th century, this type of gift became widespread and stood as the most tangible sign of the strong links that were developing between France and the Native nations. For example, from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV until the conquest, dozens of medals of different sizes, made of gold, silver, bronze or silver-gilt, were given to native representatives who were allied to France. Many specimens appear in French colonial correspondence. In 1710, for example, there was a mention of “66 medals destined for the savages of Canada”. That same year “10 silver-gilt and 30 silver medals to give to the chieftains of the savages on occasions”. In 1719, the governor general, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, requested another “twelve large and 24 medium-sized to distribute to the chieftains of each nation according to the occasions that occur”.
Even though these quantities seem high, the French tried to distribute them parsimoniously, and they were only given to those who shown the greatest loyalty to the King of France so that they did not become common or lose their prestige. The governor accorded this distinction to the most influential chieftains of allied nations who most faithful to France’s interests, as well as those who were bravest in armed conflicts.
It should be pointed out that the images and scenes depicted on these medals, mainly highlighting important events in the royal life in France, had little to do with the Canadian context and the reasons for their distribution to the Natives. That said, their recipients could always give them a sense which was meaningful for them. For example, the so-called “Honos et Virtus” medal, an allegorical personification of Honour and Virtue (or Courage) holding hands, could symbolise the friendship that united the French and the Natives, the former being represented by the Roman warrior, the latter depicted by the character who is simply draped.
As symbols of an attachment to the French and an alliance with the royal power, these medals were highly valued and appreciated by the Natives who wore them proudly on every occasion, “conserving these marks of honour with the greatest esteem”, as Vaudreuil remarked in 1708. These gratifications fitted perfectly into the rationale of a gift, a fundamental concept in the Natives’ diplomatic world. For meetings between native groups were always characterised by an exchange of presents, which was obligatory so as to guarantee the relationship’s sincerity. By providing it with a weight and legitimacy, a gift backed up the words that were pronounced and demonstrated to an interlocutor the honesty and good intentions of the discussions.
The circular, silver medal that concerns us has a diameter of 3.2cm (4cm including the ring) and a depth of 0.5cm. it is carried on the 8-shaped link of a silver chain measuring 17cm. A long 43cm red ribbon used to be attached to it. The obverse represents a bust of the young Louis XV as well as the inscription “LUD XV. REX CHRISTIANISSIMUS”. It is an engraving by Joseph-Charles Roëttiers, whose initials “I.C.R.” appear below the image.
The scene of the coronation ceremony at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims is depicted on the other side: the kneeling king is being anointed by Archbishop Armand Jules Rohan-Gemene, surrounded by prelates, nobles and dignitaries of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit. The inscriptions “DE COELESTI OLEO UNCTUS” and “REMIS 25 OCT 1722” appear on this side. An official token depicting the same scene was distributed to the population present at the ceremony.
It should be noted that there exists another version of the medal of the king’s coronation. In a letter dated 1728, the president of the navy council specifies the particular type he wants to receive to distribute to the native representatives: “the 1722 one, made for the king’s coronation, where he is standing in his royal costume, holding in one hand the baton of Charlemagne and in the other hand that of Justice with the caption, Ludovicus XV Rex Christianissimus”. This description of course does not correspond to the Huron-Wendat medal in the Canadian Museum of History.
Throughout the existence of New France, the Hurons-Wendat lived in proximity with French colonists and remained special allies of the colonial power. Given this great historical proximity between the Hurons-Wendat and the French, there were obviously several occasions for them to receive medals from their allies. It is however rather difficult to determine when exactly this medal was given to the representatives of the Hurons-Wendat. The colonial archives mention dozens of medals ordered from France and awarded to native chieftains at different moments, but these are rarely described and the names of the nations in question are often unknown, which greatly reduces our knowledge of their circulation.
The one that concerns us might have been delivered in the context of the armed conflict that involved the native nations of the Saint Laurence Valley, including the Hurons-Wendat and the Bostonnais in the early 1720s. On 21 October 1722, or four days before the coronation of Louis XV, Vaudreuil confirmed the reception of twelve medals with the king’s portrait, specifying that he will distribute them only to the most deserving or to those he wanted to attach to French interests. As the native military effort had once again meant being able to keep the British colonists away from France’s territorial claims on the south bank of the river, could a freshly minted medal of the king’s coronation been given on this occasion?
The presence of this medal in the Huron-Wendat nation is intriguing because it crossed over a change of regimes. For, in 1760, even before the official end of the Seven Years’ War, the Hurons-Wendat placed themselves officially alongside the British by concluding a separate peace treaty with them. From now on, they were to defend the interests of their new allies. In this context of a change of alliances, the Natives generally handed over their French medals to the British to receive others from them to clinch this new allegiance. The British went about recovering French medals to destroy them or transform them by engraving the name George III over that of the French monarch, but without change the medal’s obverse.
The fact that the medal of 1722 was preserved for so long after the fall of New France clearly shows the importance given to this type of object and conveys the symbolic force that the Hurons-Wendat always attributed to them. Handed from generation to generation, these medals did not just evoke former alliances but stood as symbols of individual honour and merit recalling the exploits of chieftains and deceased warriors.
In the month of August 1749, during a conference between the governor general La Jonquière and representatives from the Hurons-Wendat, Mi’kmaq and Mohawks, a witness observed that the former wore “at the end of some of these necklaces [wampum], just before their breasts, […] a large French coin with an effigy of the king”. Could this be our medal? It is quite possible to believe so if we bear in mind the remarks of an observer who noticed, a century later, that the 1722 medal was attached to the “Grand Chieftain’s necklace”, a fine broad wampum with unique and particularly elaborate motifs, worn on special occasions.
The Hurons-Wendat long conserved a large number of historical objects, and some families still do on. Several sources from the era mention this: newspapers, monographs or archives often contain passages concerning these old objects worn by chieftains during public events or honorific and diplomatic festivities with the bourgeois and political elite of Quebec.
As well as French medals, the Hurons-Wendat conserved and proudly exhibited several medals of George III, George IV, as well as far rarer ones of Queen Victoria. This apparent contradiction can be explained by the great desire of the Huron-Wendat nation to affirm its role and place in the country’s history, as a former independent ally of two crowns. It is also true that on several occasions the Hurons-Wendat displayed fraternal and friendly feelings towards France and its representatives, be they just visitors or prestigious guests. Their geographical, political and cultural proximity (the French language and Catholicism are two cultural characteristics which they adopted) with French Canadians, the priests of the Séminaire de Québec and with the region’s elite incited them to evoke their connections with old France.
Made in France, this object bearing numerous symbols of the Ancien Régime became an important native object because of the context in which it had been delivered, as well as the meaning that its owners attributed to it, through their own diplomatic traditions and which they handed down from generation to generation.
Over the years, as traditional political institutions changed and the importance accorded to these symbols of alliances from another era weakened, these historical objects stopped being transferred from one chieftain to another and thus remained in certain families. In the 1970s, a now old descendant of one important family, several members of which had become chieftains or grand chieftains, decided to sell to allcomers the objects he had inherited from his ancestors. It seemed simplest to separate equally the money from these sales rather than distribute these historical items between his heirs.
So it was that the medal of the king’s coronation, once preciously conserved by its owners, left the Huron-Wendat community to join the collection of the Canadian Museum of History. Today however, thanks to a long-term loan between institutions, it has gone back home, to the territory of Wendake, to be displayed in the Musée Huron-Wendat.
My thanks go to Isabelle Charron for her relevant comments about a first draft of this text as well as to Arnaud Balvay for having shared several references concerning medals ten years ago.
Published in may 2021