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The Destroyers

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                    


It was well for the European colonies, above all for those of England, that the wisdom of the Iroquois was but the wisdom of savages. Their sagacity is past denying; it showed itself in many ways; but it was not equal to a comprehension of their own situation and that of their race. Could they have read their destiny, and curbed their mad ambition, they might have leagued with themselves four great communities of kindred lineage, to resist the encroachments of civilization, and oppose a barrier of fire to the spread of the young colonies of the East. But their organization and their intelligence were merely the instruments of a blind frenzy, which impelled them to destroy those whom they might have made their allies in a common cause.

Of the four kindred communities, two at least, the Huron and the Neutrals, were probably superior in numbers to the Iroquois. Either one of these, with union and leadership, could have held its ground against them, and the two united could easily have crippled them beyond the power of doing mischief. But these so-called nations were mere aggregations of villages and families, with nothing that deserved to be called a government. They were very liable to panics, because the part attacked by an enemy could never rely with confidence on prompt succor from the rest; and when once broken, they could not be rallied, because they had no centre around which to gather. The Iroquois, on the other hand, had an organization with which the ideas and habits of several generations were interwoven, and they had also sagacious leaders for peace and war. They discussed all questions of policy with the coolest deliberation, and knew how to turn to profit even imperfections in their plan of government which seemed to promise only weakness and discord. Thus, any nation, or any large town, of their confederacy, could make a separate war or a separate peace with a foreign nation, or any part of it. Some member of the league, as, for example, the Cayuga, would make a covenant of friendship with the enemy, and, while the infatuated victims were thus lulled into a delusive security, the war-parties of the other nations, often joined by the Cayuga warriors, would overwhelm them by a sudden onset. But it was not by their craft, nor by their organization,--which for military purposes was wretchedly feeble,--that this handful of savages gained a bloody supremacy. They carried all before them, because they were animated throughout, as one man, by the same audacious pride and insatiable rage for conquest. Like other Indians, they waged war on a plan altogether democratic,--that is, each man fought or not, as he saw fit; and they owed their unity and vigor of action to the homicidal frenzy that urged them all alike.

The Neutral Nation had taken no part, on either side, in the war of extermination against the Huron; and their towns were sanctuaries where either of the contending parties might take asylum. On the other hand, they made fierce war on their western neighbors, and, a few years before, destroyed, with atrocious cruelties, a large fortified town of the Nation of Fire.1 Their turn was now come, and their victims found fit avengers; for no sooner were the Huron broken up and dispersed, than the Iroquois, without waiting to take breath, turned their fury on the Neutrals. At the end of the autumn of 1650, they assaulted and took one of their chief towns, said to have contained at the time more than sixteen hundred men, besides women and children; and early in the following spring, they took another town. The slaughter was prodigious, and the victors drove back troops of captives for butchery or adoption. It was the death-blow of the Neutrals. They abandoned their corn-fields and villages in the wildest terror, and dispersed themselves abroad in forests, which could not yield sustenance to such a multitude. They perished by thousands, and from that time forth the nation ceased to exist.2

During two or three succeeding years, the Iroquois contented themselves with harassing the French and Algonquins; but in 1653 they made treaties of peace, each of the five nations for itself, and the colonists and their red allies had an interval of rest. In the following May, an Onondaga orator, on a peace visit to Montreal, said, in a speech to the Governor, "Our young men will no more fight the French; but they are too warlike to stay at home, and this summer we shall invade the country of the Erie. The earth trembles and quakes in that quarter; but here all remains calm." [Le Mercier, Relation, 1654, 9.] Early in the autumn, Father Le Moyne, who had taken advantage of the peace to go on a mission to the Onondagas, returned with the tidings that the Iroquois were all on fire with this new enterprise, and were about to march against the Erie with eighteen hundred warriors. [Le Mercier, Relation, 1654, 10. Le Moyne, in his interesting journal of his mission, repeatedly alludes to their preparations.]

The occasion of this new war is said to have been as follows. The Erie, who it will be remembered dwelt on the south of the lake named after them, had made a treaty of peace with the Seneca, and in the preceding year had sent a deputation of thirty of their principal men to confirm it. While they were in the great Seneca town, it happened that one of that nation was killed in a casual quarrel with an Erie; whereupon his countrymen rose in a fury, and murdered the thirty deputies. Then ensued a brisk war of reprisals, in which not only the Seneca, but the other Iroquois nations, took part. The Erie captured a famous Onondaga chief, and were about to burn him, when he succeeded in convincing them of the wisdom of a course of conciliation; and they resolved to give him to the sister of one of the murdered deputies, to take the place of her lost brother. The sister, by Indian law, had it in her choice to receive him with a fraternal embrace or to burn him; but, though she was absent at the time, no one doubted that she would choose the gentler alternative. Accordingly, he was clothed in gay attire, and all the town fell to feasting in honor of his adoption. In the midst of the festivity, the sister returned. To the amazement of the Erie chiefs, she rejected with indignation their proffer of a new brother, declared that she would be revenged for her loss, and insisted that the prisoner should forthwith be burned. The chiefs remonstrated in vain, representing the danger in which such a procedure would involve the nation: the female fury was inexorable; and the unfortunate prisoner, stripped of his festal robes, was bound to the stake, and put to death. [De Quen, Relation, 1656, 30.] He warned his tormentors with his last breath, that they were burning not only him, but the whole Erie nation; since his countrymen would take a fiery vengeance for his fate. His words proved true; for no sooner was his story spread abroad among the Iroquois, than the confederacy resounded with war-songs from end to end, and the warriors took the field under their two great war-chiefs. Notwithstanding Le Moyne's report, their number, according to the Iroquois account, did not exceed twelve hundred.

[This was their statement to Chaumonot and Dablon, at Onondaga, in November of this year. They added, that the number of the Eries was between three and four thousand, (Journal des PP. Chaumonot et Dablon, in Relation, 1656, 18.) In the narrative of De Quen (Ibid., 30, 31), based, of course, on Iroquois reports, the Iroquois force is also set down at twelve hundred, but that of the Eries is reduced to between two and three thousand warriors. Even this may safely be taken as an exaggeration.

Though the Eries had no fire-arms, they used poisoned arrows with great effect, discharging them, it is said, with surprising rapidity.]

They embarked in canoes on the lake. At their approach the Erie fell back, withdrawing into the forests towards the west, till they were gathered into one body, when, fortifying themselves with palisades and felled trees, they awaited the approach of the invaders. By the lowest estimate, the Erie numbered two thousand warriors, besides women and children. But this is the report of the Iroquois, who were naturally disposed to exaggerate the force of their enemies.

They approached the Erie fort, and two of their chiefs, dressed like Frenchmen, advanced and called on those within to surrender. One of them had lately been baptized by Le Moyne; and he shouted to the Erie, that, if they did not yield in time, they were all dead men, for the Master of Life was on the side of the Iroquois. The Erie answered with yells of derision. "Who is this master of your lives?" they cried; "our hatchets and our right arms are the masters of ours." The Iroquois rushed to the assault, but were met with a shower of poisoned arrows, which killed and wounded many of them, and drove the rest back. They waited awhile, and then attacked again with unabated mettle. This time, they carried their bark canoes over their heads like huge shields, to protect them from the storm of arrows; then planting them upright, and mounting them by the cross-bars like ladders, scaled the barricade with such impetuous fury that the Erie were thrown into a panic. Those escaped who could; but the butchery was frightful, and from that day the Erie as a nation were no more. The victors paid dear for their conquest. Their losses were so heavy that they were forced to remain for two months in the Erie country, to bury their dead and nurse their wounded.

[De Quen, Relation, 1656, 31. The Iroquois, it seems, afterwards made other expeditions, to finish their work. At least, they told Chaumonot and Dablon, in the autumn of this year, that they meant to do so in the following spring.

It seems, that, before attacking the great fort of the Erie, the Iroquois had made a promise to worship the new God of the French, if He would give them the victory. This promise, and the success which followed, proved of great advantage to the mission.

Various traditions are extant among the modern remnant of the Iroquois concerning the war with the Erie. They agree in little beyond the fact of the existence and destruction of that people. Indeed, Indian traditions are very rarely of any value as historical evidence. One of these stories, told me some years ago by a very intelligent Iroquois of the Cayuga Nation, is a striking illustration of Iroquois ferocity. It represents, that, the night after the great battle, the forest was lighted up with more than a thousand fires, at each of which an Erie was burning alive. It differs from the historical accounts in making the Erie the aggressors.]

One enemy of their own race remained,--the Andaste. This nation appears to have been inferior in numbers to either the Huron, the Neutrals, or the Erie; but they cost their assailants more trouble than all these united. The Mohawks seem at first to have borne the brunt of the Andaste war; and, between the years 1650 and 1660, they were so roughly handled by these stubborn adversaries, that they were reduced from the height of audacious insolence to the depths of dejection.3 The remaining four nations of the Iroquois league now took up the quarrel, and fared scarcely better than the Mohawks. In the spring of 1662, eight hundred of their warriors set out for the Andaste country, to strike a decisive blow; but when they reached the great town of their enemies, they saw that they had received both aid and counsel from the neighboring Swedish colonists. The town was fortified by a double palisade, flanked by two bastions, on which, it is said, several small pieces of cannon were mounted. Clearly, it was not to be carried by assault, as the invaders had promised themselves. Their only hope was in treachery; and, accordingly, twenty-five of their warriors gained entrance, on pretence of settling the terms of a peace. Here, again, ensued a grievous disappointment; for the Andaste seized them all, built high scaffolds visible from without, and tortured them to death in sight of their countrymen, who thereupon decamped in miserable discomfiture. [Lalemant, Relation, 1663, 10.]

The Seneca, by far the most numerous of the five Iroquois nations, now found themselves attacked in turn,--and this, too, at a time when they were full of despondency at the ravages of the small-pox. The French reaped a profit from their misfortunes; for the disheartened savages made them overtures of peace, and begged that they would settle in their country, teach them to fortify their towns, supply them with arms and ammunition, and bring "black-robes" to show them the road to Heaven. [Lalemant, Relation, 1664, 33.]

The Andaste war became a war of inroads and skirmishes, under which the weaker party gradually wasted away, though it sometimes won laurels at the expense of its adversary. Thus, in 1672, a party of twenty Seneca and forty Cayuga went against the Andaste. They were at a considerable distance the one from the other, the Cayuga being in advance, when the Seneca were set upon by about sixty young Andaste, of the class known as "Burnt-Knives," or "Soft-Metals," because as yet they had taken no scalps. Indeed, they are described as mere boys, fifteen or sixteen years old. They killed one of the Seneca, captured another, and put the rest to flight; after which, flushed with their victory, they attacked the Cayuga with the utmost fury, and routed them completely, killing eight of them, and wounding twice that number, who, as is reported by the Jesuit then in the Cayuga towns, came home half dead with gashes of knives and hatchets. [Dablon, Relation, 1672, 24.] "May God preserve the Andaste," exclaims the Father, "and prosper their arms, that the Iroquois may be humbled, and we and our missions left in peace!" "None but they," he elsewhere adds, "can curb the pride of the Iroquois." The only strength of the Andaste, however, was in their courage: for at this time they were reduced to three hundred fighting men; and about the year 1675 they were finally overborne by the Seneca. [État Présent des Missions, in Relations Inédites, II. 44. Relation, 1676, 2. This is one of the Relations printed by Mr. Lenox.] Yet they were not wholly destroyed; for a remnant of this valiant people continued to subsist, under the name of Conestogas, for nearly a century, until, in 1763, they were butchered, as already mentioned, by the white ruffians known as the "Paxton Boys." ["History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac," Chap. XXIV. Compare Shea, in Historical Magazine, II. 297.]

The bloody triumphs of the Iroquois were complete. They had "made a solitude, and called it peace." All the surrounding nations of their own lineage were conquered and broken up, while neighboring Algonquin tribes were suffered to exist only on condition of paying a yearly tribute of wampum. The confederacy remained a wedge thrust between the growing colonies of France and England.

But what was the state of the conquerors? Their triumphs had cost them dear. As early as the year 1660, a writer, evidently well-informed, reports that their entire force had been reduced to twenty-two hundred warriors, while of these not more than twelve hundred were of the true Iroquois stock. The rest was a medley of adopted prisoners,--Huron, Neutrals, Erie, and Indians of various Algonquin tribes.4 Still their aggressive spirit was unsubdued. These incorrigible warriors pushed their murderous raids to Hudson's Bay, Lake Superior, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee; they were the tyrants of all the intervening wilderness; and they remained, for more than half a century, a terror and a scourge to the afflicted colonists of New France.

1 "Last summer," writes Lalemant in 1643, "two thousand warriors of the Neutral Nation attacked a town of the Nation of Fire, well fortified with a palisade, and defended by nine hundred warriors. They took it after a siege of ten days; killed many on the spot; and made eight hundred prisoners, men, women, and children. After burning seventy of the best warriors, they put out the eyes of the old men, and cut away their lips, and then left them to drag out a miserable existence. Behold the scourge that is depopulating all this country!"--Relation des Hurons, 1644, 98.

The Assistaeronnons, Atsistaehonnons, Mascoutins, or Nation of Fire (more correctly, perhaps, Nation of the Prairie), were a very numerous Algonquin people of the West, speaking the same language as the Sacs and Foxes. In the map of Sanson, they are placed in the southern part of Michigan; and according to the Relation of 1658, they had thirty towns. They were a stationary, and in some measure an agricultural people. They fled before their enemies to the neighborhood of Fox River in Wisconsin, where they long remained. Frequent mention of them will be found in the later Relations, and in contemporary documents. They are now extinct as a tribe.

2 Ragueneau, Relation, 1651, 4. In the unpublished journal kept by the Superior of the Jesuits at Quebec, it is said, under date of April, 1651, that news had just come from Montreal, that, in the preceding autumn, fifteen hundred Iroquois had taken a Neutral town; that the Neutrals had afterwards attacked them, and killed two hundred of their warriors; and that twelve hundred Iroquois had again invaded the Neutral country to take their revenge. Lafitau, Mœurs des Sauvaqes, II. 176, gives, on the authority of Father Julien Garnier, a singular and improbable account of the origin of the war.

An old chief, named Kenjockety, who claimed descent from an adopted prisoner of the Neutral Nation, was recently living among the Senecas of Western New York.

3 Relation, 1660, 6 (anonymous).
The Mohawks also suffered great reverses about this time at the hands of their Algonquin neighbors, the Mohicans.

4 Relation, 1660, 6, 7 (anonymous). Le Jeune says, "Their victories have so depopulated their towns, that there are more foreigners in them than natives. At Onondaga there are Indians of seven different nations permanently established; and, among the Senecas, of no less than eleven." (Relation, 1657, 34.) These were either adopted prisoners, or Indians who had voluntarily joined the Iroquois to save themselves from their hostility. They took no part in councils, but were expected to join war-parties, though they were usually excused from fighting against their former countrymen. The condition of female prisoners was little better than that of slaves, and those to whom they were assigned often killed them on the slightest pique.

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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