War Tactics of Florida Indians

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The native institution with which the authorities which we depend upon had most to deal was, not unnaturally, war, and 10 of Le Moyne’s 42 sketches deal with it in one way or another. Some of these do not bring in native customs and need not be referred to, but the remainder give us our best information on the subject. Timucua weapons consisted of bows and arrows, darts, and clubs, the last of a type different from the Creek átåsa, if we may trust the illustrations. “A chief who declares war against his enemy,” says Le Moyne, “does not send a herald to do it, but orders some arrows, having locks of hairs fastened at the notches, to be stuck up along the public ways.”1 He gives the following account of the manner in which Saturiwa set out to war against his enemy, Utina:

He assembled his men, decorated, after the Indian manner, with feathers and other things, in a level place, the soldiers of Laudonnière being present, and the force sat down in a circle, the chief being in the middle. A fire was then lighted on his left and two great vessels full of water were set on his right. Then, the chief, after rolling his eyes as if excited by anger, uttering some sounds deep down in his throat, and making various gestures, all at once raised a horrid yell; and all his soldiers repeated this yell, striking their hips and rattling their weapons. Then the chief, taking a wooden platter of water, turned toward the sun and worshiped it, praying to it for victory over the enemy, and that, as he should now scatter the water that he had dipped up in the wooden platter, so might their blood be poured out. Then he flimg the water with a great cast up into the air, and as it fell down upon his men he added, “As I have done with this water, so I pray that you may do with the blood of your enemies.” Then he poured the water in the other vase upon the fire and said, “So may you be able to extinguish your enemies and bring back their scalps.” Then they all arose and set off by land, up the river, upon their expedition.2

The following is Laudonnière’s version of this ceremony:

When he [Saturiwa] was sitting down by the river’s side, being compassed about with ten other paracoussiss he commanded water to be brought him speedily. This done, looking up into heaven, he fell to discourse of divers things, with gestures that showed him to be in exceeding great choler, which made him one while shake his head hither and thither; and, by and by, with, I wot not what fury, to turn his face toward the country of his enemies, and to threaten to kill them. He oftentimes looked upon the sun, praying him to grant him a glorious victory of his enemies; which, when he had done, by the space of half an hour, he sprinkled, with his hand, a little of the water, which he held in a vessel, upon the heads of the paracoussies and cast the rest, as it were, in a rage and despite, into a fire, which was there prepared for the purpose. This done, he cried out, thrice, He Thimogoa! and was followed with five hundred Indians, at the least, which were there assembled, which cried, all with one voice, He Thimogoa! This ceremony, as a certain Indian told me, familiarly, signified nothing else but that Saturiwa besought the Sun to grant unto him so happy a victory, that he might shed his enemies’ blood, as he had shed the water at his pleasure. Moreover, that the paracoussies, which were sprinkled with a part of that water, might return with the heads of their enemies, which is the only, and chief, triumph of their victories.3

We learn from Pareja’s Catechism that before they set out on an expedition the warriors bathed in certain herbs.4

Provisions were carried along by women, young boys, and berdaches, but frequently it seems to have been confined to parched corn.5

The following descriptions of the conduct of a Florida war expedition accompany three of Le Moyne’s sketches, but may very properly be run together:

When Saturiwa went to war his men preserved no order, but went along one after another, just as it happened. On the contrary, his enemy, Holata Outina, whose name, as I now remember, means “king of many kings,” and who was much more powerful than he as regards both wealth and number of his subjects, used to march with regular ranks, like an organized army; himself marching alone in the middle of the whole force, painted red. On the wings, or horns, of his order of march were his young men, the swiftest of whom, also painted red, acted as advanced guards and scouts for reconnoitering the enemy. These are able to follow up the traces of the enemy by scent, as dogs do wild beasts; and, when they come upon such traces, they immediately return to the army to report. And, as we make use of trumpets and drums in our armies to promulgate orders, so they have heralds, who by cries of certain sorts direct them to halt, or to advance, or to attack, or to perform any other military duty. After sunset they halt, and are never wont to give battle. For encamping, they are arranged in squads of ten each,6 the bravest men being put in squads by themselves. When the chief has chosen the place of encampment for the night, in open fields or woods, and after he has eaten, and is established by himself, the quartermasters place ten of these squads of the bravest men in a circle around him. About ten paces outside of this circle is placed another line of twenty squads; at twenty yards farther, another of forty squads; and so on, increasing the number and distance of these lines, according to the size of the army.

At no time while the French were acting along with the great chief Holata Outina in his wars against his enemies, was there any combat which could be called a regular battle; but all their military operations consisted either in secret incursions, or in skirmishes as light troops, fresh men being constantly sent out in place of any who retired. Whichever side first slew an enemy, no matter how insignificant the person, claimed the victory, even though losing a greater number of men. In their skirmishes, any who fall are instantly dragged off by persons detailed for the purpose; who, with slips of reeds sharper than any steel blade, cut the skin of the head to the bone, from front to back, all the way round, and pull it off with the hair, more than a foot and a half long, still adhering, done up in a knot on the crown, and with that lower down round the forehead and back cut short into a ring about two fingers wide, like the rim of a hat. Then, if they have time, they dig a hole in the ground, and make a fire, kindling it with some which they keep burning in moss, done up in skins, and carry round with them at their belts; and then dry these scalps to a state as hard as parchment. They also are accustomed, after a battle, to cut off with these reed knives the arms of the dead near the shoulders, and their legs near the hips, breaking the bones, when laid bare, with a club, and then to lay these fresh broken, and still running with blood, over the same fires to be dried. Then hanging them, and the scalps also, to the ends of their spears, they carry them off home in triumph. I used to be astonished at one habit of theirs – for I was one of the party which Laudonnière sent out under M. d’Ottigny – which was, that they never left the field of battle without shooting an arrow as deep as they could into the arms of each of the corpses of the enemy, after mutilating them as above – an operation which was sometimes sufficiently dangerous, unless those engaged in it had an escort of soldiers. ***

After returning from a military expedition they assembled in a place set apart for the purpose, to which they bring the legs, arms, and scalps which they have taken from the enemy, and with solemn formalities fix them up on tall poles set in the ground in a row. Then they all, men and women, sit down on the ground in a circle before these members; while the sorcerer, holding a small image in his hand, goes through a form of cursing the enemy, uttering in a low voice, according to their manner, a thousand imprecations. At the side of the circle opposite to him there are placed three men kneeling down, one of whom holds in both hands a club, with which he pounds on a flat stone, marking time to every word of the sorcerer. At each side of him the other two hold in each hand the fruit of a certain plant, something like a gourd or pumpkin, which has been dried, opened at each end, its marrow and seeds taken out, and then mounted on a stick, and charged with small stones or seeds of some kind. These they rattle after the fashion of a bell, accompanying the words of the sorcerer with a kind of song after their manner. They have such a celebration as this every time they take any of the enemy.7

In the particular case of the expedition by Saturiwa against Thimogoa Laudonnière says that after having attacked one of the enemies’ towns successfully and taken 24 prisoners, they retired themselves immediately into their boats, which waited for them. Being come thither, they began to sing praises unto the Sun, to whom they attributed their victory. And, afterwards, they put the skins of those heads on the ends of their javelins, and went all together toward the territories of Paracoussy Omoloa, one of them which was in the company. Being come thither, they divided their prisoners, equally, to each of the paracoussies, and left thirteen of them to Saturiwa, which straightway dispatched an Indian, his subject, to carry news before of the victory to them which stayed at home to guard their houses, which immediately began to weep. But as soon as night was come, they never left dancing, and playing a thousand gambols, in honor of the feast.

The next day the Paracoussy Saturiwa came home, who, before he entered into his lodging, caused all the scalps of his enemies to be set up before his door, and crowned them with branches of laurel, showing, by this glorious spectacle, the triumph of the victory which he had obtained. Straightway began lamentation and mourning, which, as soon as the night began, were turned into pleasures and dances.8

Some captives were probably tortured to death, as was threatened in the case of the Spaniard, Juan Ortiz, who was “bound hand and foot to four stakes, and laid upon scaffolding, beneath which a fire was kindled, that he might be burned.”9

One of Laudonnière’s lieutenants was witness of a ceremony intended to keep in mind the injuries which his people had received in times past from their enemies. It consisted in the mock killing of one of his family and subsequent wailing over him. This was performed only when they returned from a war expedition without the heads of their enemies or any captives.10

Le Moyne thus describes Floridian fortified towns:

A position is selected near the channel of some swift stream. They level it as even as possible, and then dig a ditch in a circle around the site, in which they set thick round pales, close together, to twice the height of a man; and they carry this paling some ways past the beginning of it, spiralwise, to make a narrow entrance admitting not more than two persons abreast. The course of the stream is also diverted to this entrance; and at each end of it they are accustomed to erect a small round building, each full of cracks and holes, and built, considering their means, with much elegance. In these they station as sentinels men who can scent the traces of an enemy at a great distance, and who, as soon as they perceive such traces, set off to discover them. As soon as they find them, they set up a cry which summons those within the town to the defence, armed with bows and arrows and clubs. The chief’s dwelling stands in the middle of the town, and is partly underground, in consequence of the sun’s heat. Around this are the houses of the principal men, all lightly roofed with palm branches, as they are occupied only nine months in the year; the other three, as has been related, being spent in the woods. When they come back, they occupy their houses again, and if they find that the enemy has burned them down, they build others of similar materials….

For the enemy, eager for revenge, sometimes will creep up by night in the utmost silence, and reconnoiter to see if the watch be asleep. If they find everything silent, they approach the rear of the town, set fire to some dry moss from trees, which they prepare in a particular manner, and fasten to the heads of their arrows. They then fire these into the town, so as to ignite the roofs of the houses, which are made of palm branches thoroughly dried with the summer heats. As soon as they see that the roofs are burning, they make off as fast as possible, before they are discovered, and they move so swiftly that it is a hard matter to overtake them; and meanwhile also the fire is giving the people in the town enough to do to save themselves from it and get it under. Such are the stratagems used in war by the Indians for firing the enemy’s towns; but the damage done is trifling, as it amounts only to the labor required for putting up new houses.

But when the burning of a town has happened in consequence of the negligence of the watch, the penalty is as follows: The chief takes his place alone on his bench, those next to him in authority being seated on another long bench curved in a half circle; and the executioner orders the culprit to kneel down before the chief. He then sets his left foot on the delinquent’s back; and, taking in both hands a club of ebony [?] or some other hard wood, worked to an edge at the sides, he strikes him on the head with it, so severely as almost to split the skull open. The same penalty is inflicted for some other crime reckoned capital among them; for we saw two persons punished in this same way.11

When fishing in a certain lake in their country the people of Potano set a watch to protect the fishermen.12 News of the approach of an enemy was conveyed by means of smoke signals.13

The following notes regarding war are from Laudonnière:

The kings of the country make war, one against another, which is not executed except by surprise, and they kill all the men they can take; afterwards they cut off their heads, to have their hair, which, returning home, they carry away, to make thereof their triumph when they come to their houses. They save the women and children, and nourish them, and keep them always with them. Being returned home from the war, they assemble all their subjects, and, for joy, three days and three nights, they make good cheer, they dance and sing; likewise, they make the most ancient women of the country to dance, holding the hairs of their enemies in their hands, and, in dancing, they sing praises to the sun, ascribing unto him the honor of the victory…. When they go to war, their king marcheth first, with a club in one hand, and his bow in the other, with his quiver full of arrows. While they fight, they make great cries and exclamations.14

The valor and skill of Timucua warriors is also well attested by the chroniclers of the expedition of Do Soto. What is said about their method of treating captives shows at once that slavery was not institutional among them. In the fight which Laudonnière’s men had with Utina the Indians displayed great skill, discharging their arrows by squads and throwing themselves on the ground when the Frenchmen aimed at them.15

That lighting with bows and arrows was an art in itself is shown by this description of the Fidalgo of Elvas:

The Indians are exceedingly ready with their weapons, and so warlike and nimble that they have no fear of footmen; for if these charge them they flee, and when they turn their backs they are presently upon them. They avoid nothing more easily than the flight of an arrow. They never remain quiet, but are continually running, traversing from place to place, so that neither crossbow nor arquebuse can be aimed at them. Before a Christian can make a single shot with either, an Indian will discharge three or four arrows; and he seldom misses of his object. Where the arrow meets with no armor, it pierces as deeply as the shaft from a crossbow.16

Florida Indian Games

Regarding games Laudonnière says:

They exercise their young men to run well, and they make a game, among themselves, which he winneth that hath the longest breath. They also exercise themselves much in shooting. They play at the ball in this manner: They set up a tree in the midst of a place, which is eight or nine fathoms high, in the top whereof there is set a square mat, made of reeds, or bullrushes, which whosoever hitteth in playing thereat winneth the game.17

And Le Moyne:

Their youth are trained in running, and a prize is offered for him who can run longest without stopping; and they frequently practise with the bow. They also play a game of ball, as follows: In the middle of an open space is set up a tree some eight or nine fathoms high, with a square frame woven of twigs on the top; this is to be hit with the ball, and he who strikes it first gets a prize.18

To be sure Le Challeux remarks, “they never teach their children and do not correct them in any way;”19 but he is referring to the training of young children in matters connected with morals and manners.


  1. Le Moyne, Narrative, p. 13 (ill.). 

  2. Le Moyne, Narrative, p. 5 (ill.). 

  3. Laudonnière, La Floride, pp. 98-99; French, Hist. Colls. La., pp. 251-252. 

  4. Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc., XVI, p. 637. 

  5. Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 141; French, Hist. Colls. La., p.291. Spark probably means parched corn by “the head of maiz roasted” on which he says they “will travel a whole day.” 

  6. Laudonnière says they were encamped six by six. – La Floride, p. 141. 

  7. Le Moyne, Narrative, pp. 6-7 (ill.). 

  8. Laudonnière, La Floride, pp. l00-l0l; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, pp. 253-254. 

  9. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, I, p. 28. 

  10. Laudonnière, La Floride, pp. 93-07; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, pp. 248-249. 

  11. Le Moyne. Narrative, p. 12 (ill.). 

  12. Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 142; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, p. 291. 

  13. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, I, p. 22; Le Challeux in Gaffarel, Hist. Floride française, p. 400. 

  14. Laudonnière, La Floride, pp. 7-8; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, p. 171. 

  15. Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 166; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, pp. 313-314. 

  16. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, I, pp. 25-26. 

  17. Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 7; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, p. 171. 

  18. Le Moyne, Narrative, p. 13 (ill.). 

  19. Gaffarel, Hist. Floride française, p. 461. 

MLA Source Citation:

Swanton, John Reed. Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. US Government Printing Office. 1902. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 11 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/war-tactics-of-florida-indians.htm - Last updated on Jun 28th, 2014

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