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A Doomed Nation

 Native American Nations | The Jesuits in North America                   


It was a strange and miserable spectacle to behold the savages of this continent at the time when the knell of their common ruin had already sounded. Civilization had gained a foothold on their borders. The long and gloomy reign of barbarism was drawing near its close, and their united efforts could scarcely have availed to sustain it. Yet, in this crisis of their destiny, these doomed tribes were tearing each other's throats in a wolfish fury, joined to an intelligence that served little purpose but mutual destruction.

How the quarrel began between the Iroquois and their Huron kindred no man can tell, and it is not worth while to conjecture. At this time, the ruling passion of the savage Confederates was the annihilation of this rival people and of their Algonquin allies,--if the understanding between the Huron and these incoherent hordes can be called an alliance. United, they far outnumbered the Iroquois. Indeed, the Huron alone were not much inferior in force; for, by the largest estimates, the strength of the five Iroquois nations must now have been considerably less than three thousand warriors. Their true superiority was a moral one. They were in one of those transports of pride, self-confidence, and rage for ascendency, which, in a savage people, marks an era of conquest. With all the defects of their organization, it was far better than that of their neighbors. There were bickering, jealousies, plotting, and counter plotting, separate wars and separate treaties, among the five members of the league; yet nothing could sunder them. The bonds that united them were like cords of India-rubber: they would stretch, and the parts would be seemingly disjoined, only to return to their old union with the recoil. Such was the elastic strength of those relations of clanship which were the life of the league. [See ante, Introduction.]

The first meeting of white men with the Huron found them at blows with the Iroquois; and from that time forward, the war raged with increasing fury. Small scalping-parties infested the Huron forests, killing squaws in the cornfields, or entering villages at midnight to tomahawk their sleeping inhabitants. Often, too, invasions were made in force. Sometimes towns were set upon and burned, and sometimes there were deadly conflicts in the depths of the forests and the passes of the hills. The invaders were not always successful. A bloody rebuff and a sharp retaliation now and then requited them. Thus, in 1638, a war-party of a hundred Iroquois met in the forest a band of three hundred Huron and Algonquin warriors. They might have retreated, and the greater number were for doing so; but Ononkwaya, an Oneida chief, refused. "Look!" he said, "the sky is clear; the Sun beholds us. If there were clouds to hide our shame from his sight, we might fly; but, as it is, we must fight while we can." They stood their ground for a time, but were soon overborne. Four or five escaped; but the rest were surrounded, and killed or taken. This year, Fortune smiled on the Huron; and they took, in all, more than a hundred prisoners, who were distributed among their various towns, to be burned. These scenes, with them, occurred always in the night; and it was held to be of the last importance that the torture should be protracted from sunset till dawn. The too valiant Ononkwaya was among the victims. Even in death he took his revenge; for it was thought an augury of disaster to the victors, if no cry of pain could he extorted from the sufferer, and, on the present occasion, he displayed an unflinching courage, rare even among Indian warriors. His execution took place at the town of Teanaustayé, called St. Joseph by the Jesuits. The Fathers could not save his life, but, what was more to the purpose, they baptized him. On the scaffold where he was burned, he wrought himself into a fury which seemed to render him insensible to pain. Thinking him nearly spent, his tormentors scalped him, when, to their amazement, he leaped up, snatched the brands that had been the instruments of his torture, drove the screeching crowd from the scaffold, and held them all at bay, while they pelted him from below with sticks, stones, and showers of live coals. At length he made a false step and fell to the ground, when they seized him and threw him into the fire. He instantly leaped out, covered with blood, cinders, and ashes, and rushed upon them, with a blazing brand in each hand. The crowd gave way before him, and he ran towards the town, as if to set it on fire. They threw a pole across his way, which tripped him and flung him headlong to the earth, on which they all fell upon him, cut off his hands and feet, and again threw him into the fire. He rolled himself out, and crawled forward on his elbows and knees, glaring upon them with such unutterable ferocity that they recoiled once more, till, seeing that he was helpless, they threw themselves upon him, and cut off his head.

[Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1639, 68. It was this chief whose severed hand was thrown to the Jesuits. See ante, chapter 11 (page 137).]

When the Iroquois could not win by force, they were sometimes more successful with treachery. In the summer of 1645, two war-parties of the hostile nations met in the forest. The Huron bore themselves so well that they had nearly gained the day, when the Iroquois called for a parley, displayed a great number of wampum-belts, and said that they wished to treat for peace. The Huron had the folly to consent. The chiefs on both sides sat down to a council, during which the Iroquois, seizing a favorable moment, fell upon their dupes and routed them completely, killing and capturing a considerable number. [Ragueneau, Relation des Huron, 1646, 55.]

The large frontier town of St. Joseph was well fortified with palisades, on which, at intervals, were wooden watch-towers. On an evening of this same summer of 1645, the Iroquois approached the place in force; and the young Huron warriors, mounting their palisades, sang their war-songs all night, with the utmost power of their lungs, in order that the enemy, knowing them to be on their guard, might be deterred from an attack. The night was dark, and the hideous dissonance resounded far and wide; yet, regardless of the din, two Iroquois crept close to the palisade, where they lay motionless till near dawn. By this time the last song had died away, and the tired singers had left their posts or fallen asleep. One of the Iroquois, with the silence and agility of a wild-cat, climbed to the top of a watch-tower, where he found two slumbering Huron, brained one of them with his hatchet, and threw the other down to his comrade, who quickly despoiled him of his life and his scalp. Then, with the reeking trophies of their exploit, the adventurers rejoined their countrymen in the forest.

The Huron planned a counter-stroke; and three of them, after a journey of twenty days, reached the great town of the Seneca. They entered it at midnight, and found, as usual, no guard; but the doors of the houses were made fast. They cut a hole in the bark side of one of them, crept in, stirred the fading embers to give them light, chose each his man, tomahawked him, scalped him, and escaped in the confusion. [Ragueneau, Relation des Huron, 1646, 55, 56.]

Despite such petty triumphs, the Huron felt themselves on the verge of ruin. Pestilence and war had wasted them away, and left but a skeleton of their former strength. In their distress, they cast about them for succor, and, remembering an ancient friendship with a kindred nation, the Andaste, they sent an embassy to ask of them aid in war or intervention to obtain peace. This powerful people dwelt, as has been shown, on the River Susquehanna.1 The way was long, even in a direct line; but the Iroquois lay between, and a wide circuit was necessary to avoid them. A Christian chief, whom the Jesuits had named Charles, together with four Christian and four heathen Huron, bearing wampum-belts and gifts from the council, departed on this embassy on the thirteenth of April, 1647, and reached the great town of the Andaste early in June. It contained, as the Jesuits were told, no less than thirteen hundred warriors. The council assembled, and the chief ambassador addressed them:--

"We come from the Land of Souls, where all is gloom, dismay, and desolation. Our fields are covered with blood; our houses are filled only with the dead; and we ourselves have but life enough to beg our friends to take pity on a people who are drawing near their end."2 Then he presented the wampum-belts and other gifts, saying that they were the voice of a dying country.

The Andaste, who had a mortal quarrel with the Mohawks, and who had before promised to aid the Huron in case of need, returned a favorable answer, but were disposed to try the virtue of diplomacy rather than the tomahawk. After a series of councils, they determined to send ambassadors, not to their old enemies, the Mohawks, but to the Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayugas,3 who were geographically the central nations of the Iroquois league, while the Mohawks and the Seneca were respectively at its eastern and western extremities. By inducing the three central nations, and, if possible, the Seneca also, to conclude a treaty with the Huron, these last would be enabled to concentrate their force against the Mohawks, whom the Andaste would attack at the same time, unless they humbled themselves and made peace. This scheme, it will be seen, was based on the assumption, that the dreaded league of the Iroquois was far from being a unit in action or counsel.

Charles, with some of his colleagues, now set out for home, to report the result of their mission; but the Seneca were lying in wait for them, and they were forced to make a wide sweep through the Alleghanie, Western Pennsylvania, and apparently Ohio, to avoid these vigilant foes. It was October before they reached the Huron towns, and meanwhile hopes of peace had arisen from another quarter. [On this mission of the Huron to the Andaste, see Ragueneau, Relation des Huron, 1648, 58-60.]

Early in the spring, a band of Onondagas had made an inroad, but were roughly handled by the Huron, who killed several of them, captured others, and put the rest to flight. The prisoners were burned, with the exception of one who committed suicide to escape the torture, and one other, the chief man of the party, whose name was Annenrais. Some of the Huron were dissatisfied at the mercy shown him, and gave out that they would kill him; on which the chiefs, who never placed themselves in open opposition to the popular will, secretly fitted him out, made him presents, and aided him to escape at night, with an understanding that he should use his influence at Onondaga in favor of peace. After crossing Lake Ontario, he met nearly all the Onondaga warriors on the march to avenge his supposed death; for he was a man of high account. They greeted him as one risen from the grave; and, on his part, he persuaded them to renounce their warlike purpose and return home. On their arrival, the chiefs and old men were called to council, and the matter was debated with the usual deliberation.

About this time the ambassador of the Andaste appeared with his wampum-belts. Both this nation and the Onondagas had secret motives which were perfectly in accordance. The Andaste hated the Mohawks as enemies, and the Onondagas were jealous of them as confederates; for, since they had armed themselves with Dutch guns, their arrogance and boastings had given umbrage to their brethren of the league; and a peace with the Huron would leave the latter free to turn their undivided strength against the Mohawks, and curb their insolence. The Oneidas and the Cayuga were of one mind with the Onondagas. Three nations of the league, to satisfy their spite against a fourth, would strike hands with the common enemy of all. It was resolved to send an embassy to the Huron. Yet it may be, that, after all, the Onondagas had but half a mind for peace. At least, they were unfortunate in their choice of an ambassador. He was by birth a Huron, who, having been captured when a boy, adopted and naturalized, had become more an Iroquois than the Iroquois themselves; and scarcely one of the fierce confederates had shed so much Huron blood. When he reached the town of St. Ignace, which he did about midsummer, and delivered his messages and wampum-belts, there was a great division of opinion among the Huron. The Bear Nation--the member of their confederacy which was farthest from the Iroquois, and least exposed to danger--was for rejecting overtures made by so offensive an agency; but those of the Huron who had suffered most were eager for peace at any price, and, after solemn deliberation, it was resolved to send an embassy in return. At its head was placed a Christian chief named Jean Baptiste Atironta; and on the first of August he and four others departed for Onondaga, carrying a profusion of presents, and accompanied by the apostate envoy of the Iroquois. As the ambassadors had to hunt on the way for subsistence, besides making canoes to cross Lake Ontario, it was twenty days before they reached their destination. When they arrived, there was great jubilation, and, for a full month, nothing but councils. Having thus sifted the matter to the bottom, the Onondagas determined at last to send another embassy with Jean Baptiste on his return, and with them fifteen Huron prisoners, as an earnest of their good intentions, retaining, on their part, one of Baptiste's colleagues as a hostage. This time they chose for their envoy a chief of their own nation, named Scandawati, a man of renown, sixty years of age, joining with him two colleagues. The old Onondaga entered on his mission with a troubled mind. His anxiety was not so much for his life as for his honor and dignity; for, while the Oneidas and the Cayuga were acting in concurrence with the Onondagas, the Seneca had refused any part in the embassy, and still breathed nothing but war. Would they, or still more the Mohawks, so far forget the consideration due to one whose name had been great in the councils of the League as to assault the Huron while he was among them in the character of an ambassador of his nation, whereby his honor would be compromised and his life endangered. His mind brooded on this idea, and he told one of his colleagues, that, if such a slight were put upon him, he should die of mortification. "I am not a dead dog," he said, "to be despised and forgotten. I am worthy that all men should turn their eyes on me while I am among enemies, and do nothing that may involve me in danger."

What with hunting, fishing, canoe-making, and bad weather, the progress of the august travelers was so slow, that they did not reach the Huron towns till the twenty-third of October. Scandawati presented seven large belts of wampum, each composed of three or four thousand beads, which the Jesuits call the pearls and diamonds of the country. He delivered, too, the fifteen captives, and promised a hundred more on the final conclusion of peace. The three Onondagas remained, as surety for the good faith of those who sent them, until the beginning of January, when the Huron on their part sent six ambassadors to conclude the treaty, one of the Onondagas accompanying them. Soon there came dire tidings. The prophetic heart of the old chief had not deceived him. The Seneca and Mohawks, disregarding negotiations in which they had no part, and resolved to bring them to an end, were invading the country in force. It might be thought that the Huron would take their revenge on the Onondaga envoys, now hostages among them; but they did not do so, for the character of an ambassador was, for the most part, held in respect. One morning, however, Scandawati had disappeared. They were full of excitement; for they thought that he had escaped to the enemy. They ranged the woods in search of him, and at length found him in a thicket near the town. He lay dead, on a bed of spruce-boughs which he had made, his throat deeply gashed with a knife. He had died by his own hand, a victim of mortified pride. "See," writes Father Ragueneau, "how much our Indians stand on the point of honor!" [This remarkable story is told by Ragueneau, Relation des Huron, 1648, 56-58. He was present at the time, and knew all the circumstances.]

We have seen that one of his two colleagues had set out for Onondaga with a deputation of six Huron. This party was met by a hundred Mohawks, who captured them all and killed the six Huron but spared the Onondaga, and compelled him to join them. Soon after, they made a sudden onset on about three hundred Huron journeying through the forest from the town of St. Ignace; and, as many of them were women, they routed the whole, and took forty prisoners. The Onondaga bore part in the fray, and captured a Christian Huron girl; but the next day he insisted on returning to the Huron town. "Kill me, if you will," he said to the Mohawks, "but I cannot follow you; for then I should be ashamed to appear among my countrymen, who sent me on a message of peace to the Huron; and I must die with them, sooner than seem to act as their enemy." On this, the Mohawks not only permitted him to go, but gave him the Huron girl whom he had taken; and the Onondaga led her back in safety to her countrymen.4 Here, then, is a ray of light out of Egyptian darkness. The principle of honor was not extinct in these wild hearts.

We hear no more of the negotiations between the Onondagas and the Huron. They and their results were swept away in the storm of events soon to be related.

1 See Introduction. The Susquehannock of Smith, clearly the same people, are placed, in his map, on the east side of the Susquehanna, some twenty miles from its mouth. He speaks of them as great enemies of the Massawomeke (Mohawks). No other savage people so boldly resisted the Iroquois; but the story in Hazard's Annals of Pennsylvania, that a hundred of them beat off sixteen hundred Seneca, is disproved by the fact, that the Seneca, in their best estate, never had so many warriors. The miserable remnant of the Andaste, called Conestoga, were massacred by the Paxton Boys, in 1763. See "Conspiracy of Pontiac," 414. Compare Historical Magazine, II. 294.

2 "Il leur dit qu'il venoit du pays des Ames, où la guerre et la terreur des ennemis auoit tout desolé, où les campagnes n'estoient couuertes que de sang, où les cabanes n'estoient remplies que de cadaures, et qu'il ne leur restoit à eux-mesmes de vie, sinon autant qu'ils en auoient eu besoin pour venir dire à leurs amis, qu'ils eussent pitié d'vn pays qui tiroit à sa fin."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1648, 58.

3 Examination leaves no doubt that the Ouiouenronnon of Ragueneau (Relation des Hurons, 1648, 46, 59) were the Oiogouin or Goyogouin, that is to say, the Cayuga. They must not be confounded with the Ouenrohronnon, a small tribe hostile to the Iroquois, who took refuge among the Huron in 1638.

4 "Celuy qui l'auoit prise estoit Onnontaeronnon, qui estant icy en os tage à cause de la paix qui se traite auec les Onnontaeronnons, et s'estant trouué auec nos Hurons à cette chasse, y fut pris tout des premiers par les Sonnontoueronnons (Annieronnons?), qui l'ayans reconnu ne luy firent aucun mal, et mesme l'obligerent de les suiure et prendre part à leur victoire; et ainsi en ce rencontre cét Onnontaeronnon auoit fait sa prise, tellement neantmoins qu'il desira s'en retourner le lendemain, disant aux Sonnontoueronnons qu'ils le tuassent s'ils vouloient, mais qu'il ne pouuoit se resoudre à les suiure, et qu'il auroit honte de reparoistre en son pays, les affaires qui l'auoient amené aux Hurons pour la paix ne permettant pas qu'il fist autre chose que de mourir avec eux plus tost que de paroistre s'estre comporté en ennemy. Ainsi les Sonnontoueronnons luy permirent de s'en retourner et de ramener cette bonne Chrestienne, qui estoit sa captiue, laquelle nous a consolé par le recit des entretiens de ces pauures gens dans leur affliction."--Ragueneau, Relation des Hurons, 1648, 65.

Apparently the word Sonnontoueronnons (Seneca), in the above, should read Annieronnon (Mohawks); for, on pp. 50, 57, the writer twice speaks of the party as Mohawks.]

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The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, 1867

Jesuits in North America


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