The Wars of the Five Nations – Indian Wars

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Although the confederacy known as the Five Nations were the allies of the English in the war against the French, and joined them in many of their principal expeditions, their history deserves a separate notice, as they afford us a complete example of what the Indians of North America were capable of. Their great reputation as warriors, and their wisdom in council, have been so often alluded to by those interested in the history of the Indians, that we shall be pardoned for giving a somewhat extended description of their confederacy, and an account of their wars.

The Five Nations, by their geographical position, formed a sort of barrier between the French possessions in the northwest, and the middle colonies of the English. The confederacy is said to have originated in remote antiquity; and, as the name implies, comprehended five Indian tribes, of which, the Mohawks were the most powerful, and the most celebrated. These tribes were united on terms of the strictest equality, in a perpetual league, offensive and defensive. The principles of their alliance and government display much more refinement than might have been expected of “savages.” Each nation had its own separate republican constitution, in which rank and authority were only attainable by the union of age and merit, and enjoyed during the public will. Each nation was divided into three tribes, distinguished by the names, the Tortoise, the Bear, and the Wolf. The confederacy had adopted the Roman policy of increasing their strength by absorbing the conquered tribes; and the effect was the same in both cases, though, in the latter, it was on a smaller scale. In no community, was age ever more respected, or worth more admired and emulated. Their habits and training were calculated to make them cruel and revengeful, but bold, active, cunning, strong, and graceful.

The Mohawks prided themselves upon their fortitude, and their persevering bravery. Stratagem was always preferred to open war, as among the generality of Indians; but the tribes of this confederacy did not fear an open field. Almost all the Indians who were not included in the confederacy, within a great extent of country, paid tribute to it, and could not wage war or make peace without its permission. All matters of common interest were discussed and transacted in general meetings of the braves of each nation; and so completely had time and success given the federal character to these republicans of the woods, that all individual interests were sacrificed to the good of the whole. In the year 1677, the Five Nations could bring into the field, two thousand five hundred fighting men. The accession of the Tuscaroras, at a later period, considerably increased their power. Surely, there is as much to admire in the character and institutions of these Indians, as there was in those of the Spartans of antiquity.

When the Five Nations first became known to the French settlers in the northwest, they were engaged in a struggle for supremacy with the powerful Adirondacks. The latter drove the confederates from their possessions round Montreal, and forced them to seek an asylum on the southeast coast of Lake Ontario. Rallying their strength, the confederates defeated their enemies in turn, and compelled them to fly beyond the strait where Quebec was afterwards built. The arrival of the French, however, threw the advantage upon the side of the Adirondacks, who, by aid of the whites, with their fearful fire arms, defeated the Five Nations in many battles, despite their valor and skill. In this state of affairs, the Dutch arrived in the Hudson River; and from these adventurers, the defeated, but not dispirited confederates, obtained a supply of the new instruments of warfare. The struggle was furiously renewed, and the Adirondacks were annihilated.

The feelings of hate and dread, awakened between the French and the Five Nations by this war, continued to exist as long as the former held possession of Canada. The Indians never forgive such injuries. In the wars which succeeded, the advantages of knowledge of the country, and of being accustomed to rapid and secret movements, gave the confederates a superiority which the French could not controvert. In the winter of 1665, a party sent out by the governor of Canada to attack the Five Nations, lost their way in the snow, and after enduring the extremity of misery, arrived at the village of Schenectady, recently founded by a Dutchman, named Corlear. The French would have fallen an easy prey to the Indians, but for the generosity of this noble-hearted man. Moved by their wretched appearance, Corlear employed persuasion and artifice to induce the Indians to spare their enemies; and he succeeded. The French were supplied with provisions and other necessaries, and sent home to Canada. Corlear received the thanks of the French governor for his humanity. After a lengthened series of hostilities, destructive to both parties, a peace was concluded in 1667. This continued until 1692.

Treaty with Five Nations
Treaty with Five Nations

The love of traffic made the Dutch keep upon good terms with the Indians. For this purpose, they could afford to bear any invasions of honor. When the British governors succeeded the Dutch, they entered into a treaty with the Five Nations, who adhered to their allies upon all subsequent occasions, but required all the observances of respect due to an independent people. In the mean time, the French availed themselves of the peace, to extend their settlements along the St. Lawrence; and in 1672, they built Fort Frontignac on the northwest bank, near where it flows from Lake Ontario. They filled the Indian settlements with Jesuit missionaries, who made many converts, and served to attach many of the tribes to the French interest. Their courage, skill, and activity formed a striking contrast to the indolent security of the English, who were content to trust to the faith of the Indians in holding to their treaties.

Inflamed by the love of conquest, the vice of the mighty, the Five Nations turned their arms southward, and subdued and exterminated the Indians from the Mississippi to the Carolinas. Many of the allies of the colonists of Maryland and Virginia were attacked, and the English were frequently obliged to interfere in their behalf. There was danger of a general rupture with the English; but in 1684, Colonel Dongan, governor of New York, and Lord Efifingham, governor of Virginia, concluded a definitive treaty with the Five Nations. All the English settlements were included in this treaty. A number of hatchets were buried, and the arms of the Duke of York, the head of the English and Indian confederacy, were suspended along the frontiers of the territories of the Five Nations.

The rivalry between the French and English in the trade with the Indians upon the great lakes, led to the hostilities which next occurred. The chiefs of the Indian confederacy saw through the plans of the French governors, and became apprehensive of their own safety. Considering the conduct of the French in giving arms to their enemies, as an indication of hostility, they constantly attacked the Canadian traders during their expeditions. The French used every means to prevent this annoyance and obstruction to their designs; but force nor intrigue could not calm the hostility of the Indians. The weakness of James II of England, who prevented Colonel Dongan from assisting his faithful allies, left the contest to be continued by the Five Nations alone; but Dongan seized every occasion to advise them how to conduct their enterprise, and to treat their prisoners.

The two parties carried on their operations with a mutual fury and cruelty that left no distinction between the Frenchman and the Indian. The confederacy was completely successful, and for some time, it was thought the whites would be entirely subdued by their inveterate foes. On the 25th of August, 1689, twelve hundred warriors of the Five Nations landed upon the island of Montreal, while the French were in a state of perfect security, burned their houses, sacked their plantations, and slew nearly a thousand persons. A number of prisoners were taken and burnt alive. The Indians returned, having lost but three men. In the following October, they attacked the island again, with nearly equal success. These dreadful disasters threw the whole of the French settlements into consternation. The fort at Lake Ontario was abandoned by its garrison, and as soon possessed by their foes. Here, among other things of value, twenty-eight barrels of gunpowder fell into their hands. The French were saved from extermination, only by the ignorance of the Indians of the art of attacking fortified places. Here, the English could have aided them; but the short-sighted policy of King James prevented it.

In the early part of King William’s War, the Five Nations could not be induced to aid the English. But in 1691, Governor Slaughter held a conference with them, and his propositions for a new alliance, offensive and defensive, were accepted; and to use their own poetical expression, they “brightened the ancient belt of friendship,” and commenced hostilities against their old enemies.

In the summer of 1691, Major Schuyler, an influential man among the Indians, with a body of Mohawks, fell upon the French settlements in the north end of Lake Champlain. Mr. Drake thus relates what ensued:

“Do Callieres, governor of Montreal, hastily collected about eight hundred men, and opposed them; but, notwithstanding his force was vastly superior, yet they were repulsed with great loss. About three hundred of the enemy were killed in this expedition. The French now took every measure in their power to retaliate. They sent presents to many tribes of Indians, to engage them in their cause, and in the following winter, a party of about three hundred men, under an accomplished young gentleman, marched to attack the confederate Indian nations at Niagara. Their march was long, and rendered almost insupportable; being obliged to carry their provisions on their backs through deep snow. Black Kettle, a famous chief, met them with, about eighty men, and maintained an unequal fight, until his men were nearly all cut off; but it was more fatal to the French, who, far from home, had no means of recruiting. Black Kettle, in his turn, carried the war into Canada during the whole summer following, with immense loss and damage to the French inhabitants. The governor was so enraged at his successes, that he caused a prisoner, which had been taken from the Five Nations, to be burnt alive. This captive withstood the tortures with as much firmness as his enemies showed cruelty. He sung his achievements while they broiled his feet, burnt his hands with red hot irons, cut and wrung off his joints, and pulled out the sinews. To close the horrid scene, his scalp was torn off, and red hot sand poured upon his head.

“But this was a day in which that people were able to contend successfully against even European enemies. They had, in 1691, laid a plan to prevent the French from extending their settlements westward, for surprising those already formed, and for intercepting the western Indians as they brought down their peltries to them.

“Two armies, of three hundred and fifty men each, were to march out on this business about November; the first, were to attack the fort at the Falls of St. Louis, and the other, to proceed by way of Lake Champlain against the settlements. Before they set out, two Indian women, who had been captives among them, made their escape, and gave notice of their object. This, in a great measure, defeated the enterprise. Governor De Callieres raised troops, and strengthened every place he was able. The first party was discovered as they approached St. Louis, who, after skirmishing some time with the parties detached against them, retired without gaining any material advantage. The second did little more, and retired, after destroying some houses, and carrying with them some prisoners.

“About the end of November, thirty-four Mohawks surprised some of the French Indians of St. Louis, who were carelessly hunting about Mount Chambly, killing four and capturing eight others. Some escaped, and informed their friends of what had happened, and a company immediately went in pursuit. They overtook them near Lake Champlain, and a hard fight followed. The Catholic Indians rushed upon them with great fury, tomahawk in hand, and although the Mohawks had taken post behind rocks, they were routed, six being killed, and five taken. They also liberated all their friends taken at Mount Chambly.

“In the beginning of February 1692, De Calliere ordered M. D’Orvilliers to march, with three hundred men, into the peninsula, which terminates at the confluence of the Ottoway and the St. Lawrence Rivers, to surprise a company of Iroquois he had been informed was there. It was their hunting ground during the winter, and the pretext for attacking them was, that they were now there to surprise the settlements, and intercept such as passed up and down said rivers. While on his march D’Orvilliers met with an accident, which obliged him to return to Montreal, and the command devolved upon Captain De Beaucourt. This officer marched to Isle Tonihata, not far from Catarocouy, or Katarokkui, where he surprised fifty Senecas in their cabins, killed twenty-four, and took six of them prisoners.

“Enough had passed before this to arouse the spirit if vengeance in the great chief of Onondaga, Black Kettle; at this last act could not be passed without, at least, an attempt at retaliation. About one hundred Senecas were near the Sault de la Chaudiere, on Ottoway River, at this time, and Black Kettle soon after joined them with a band of his Onondagos; and they immediately put themselves into an attitude for intercepting their enemies.

“Governor De Callieres had supposed that by the affair at Tonihata, the Iroquois were sufficiently humbled for the present, and that they were not to be regarded as capable of any considerable undertaking; but he soon discovered the error of judgment; for sixty friendly Indians, having arrived at Montreal to trade, reported that the way was clear, but requested guard when they returned. This was granted them. S. Mio volunteered upon this service, and put under the command Lieutenant De la Gemeraye, thirty men. He had for his two ensigns, M. Le Fresniere, oldest son of the Sieur Hertel, and his brother. Having arrived at a place called the Long Falls, or Ottoway River, some marched upon the side of the river, while others endeavored to affect the passage of the falls in the boats. They had no sooner entered upon this business, than the warriors of Black Kettle, from an ambush, fired upon them, put the sixty Indians to flight, killing and wounding many of the French. They then rushed upon them with such fury, that little time was allowed for resistance, and they fled to their boats for safety; but in their hurry they overturned them, and many were made prisoners. Among these were S. Michel and the two Hertels. La Gemeraye and a few soldiers only escaped. Black Kettle’s force on this occasion was computed at one hundred and forty men.”

Treaty of Ryswick
Treaty of Ryswick

The wars of the Five Nations were maintained with varied success until after the peace of Ryswick, in the latter part of 1697. The French had one of the most active and skilful of governors in the old Count de Frontignac, and his measures taught the Indians to know him as their most formidable foe. The peace of Ryswick enabled him to concentrate his whole force against the Five Nations. The Earl of Bellamont, then governor of New York, perceived the danger to the English colonies, should the allies be vanquished; and he not only furnished them with arms and ammunition, but notified the Count de Frontignac that if the French attacked them, he would come with his whole force to their aid. This resolution saved the Five Nations from an attack and, perhaps, a complete overthrow. Soon after this, a peace was concluded between the two parties. But the Indians always retained their friendship for the English and their hatred of the French. The Jesuit missionaries obtained considerable influence among them, and the French trading agents so far secured them to their interest, that in the next war between the rival powers, four of the tribes took part against the British colonists. This was of but short duration, however, and before the total defeat of the French, the Five Nations had returned to their first friends. Before this period, the confederacy had been increased by the addition of the Tuscaroras, of the south. This tribe, however, was not equal to the others in strength and courage, and its members were always looked upon as inferior.




MLA Source Citation:

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 20 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-wars-of-the-five-nations-indian-wars.htm - Last updated on Dec 18th, 2013

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