Making War More Lethal: Iroquois vs. Huron (1) in the Great Lakes Region, 1609 to 1650

By Carpenter, Roger | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Making War More Lethal: Iroquois vs. Huron (1) in the Great Lakes Region, 1609 to 1650


Carpenter, Roger, Michigan Historical Review


In the stillness of a July morning in 1609 near the lake that now bears his name, Samuel de Champlain, armed with an arquebus into which he "put four bullets," approached to "within some thirty yards" of a loose formation of Mohawk warriors. He stopped, aimed, and "shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to the ground and one of their companions was wounded who died thereof a little later." Another Frenchman then fired on the Mohawks from the cover of the woods, "which astonished them again so much that, seeing their chiefs dead they lost courage and took to flight, abandoning the field and their fort." (2)

Many historians have portrayed this brief firefight as the genesis of the long-term enmity between New France and the Five Nations. (3) But perhaps more significant--especially as other historians question this interpretation--was the vast shift in Iroquoian thought precipitated, or at least heralded, by this small clash. A new technology, one almost unrecognizably different from any possessed by the Iroquoian peoples, had been introduced. (4) War, one the most important aspects of Iroquois life because of its destructive and reconstructive properties, would now be transformed. Although the evidence for this vast technological shift should have been immediately visible when the Mohawk fled the battlefield in 1609, Champlain's native allies did not grasp the encounter's significance on this level. Rather than pursue their beaten foe, Champlain complained, they "wasted time in taking ... [the Mohawks'] shields, which they had left behind, the better in order to run." (5)

Like other fighting men in different times and places, Champlain's Indian allies, despite the evidence of their own eyes, did not realize that their existing technology had just been eclipsed by another. Their interest in bearing off the Mohawks' abandoned shields indicates that they saw this engagement only in the immediate sense of a tactical victory. Apparently it did not occur to them that the gunpowder technology that routed the Mohawk could one day be turned on them, rendering such shields obsolete.

The Mohawks' clash with Champlain marked the beginning of a significant shift in the way that Iroquoian peoples viewed warfare. Their precontact mode of warfare had a dual nature, possessing both constructive and destructive aspects. On the one hand war destroyed enemy clans and peoples, not only through the loss of life but also by robbing them of tribal and clan members who were carried off as captives. These captives then fed into the constructive aspect of Iroquoian warfare. After undergoing adoption rituals, many of them replaced the dead within their new clans and communities. (6) In this way, the Iroquoian peoples strengthened themselves while weakening their enemies.

Although the acquisition of captives was the primary objective of Iroquoian war parties, the secondary goal of avoiding casualties nearly equaled this one in importance. Leaders of war parties tried to avoid sustaining excessive casualties or having their followers captured. If a war party inflicted casualties on the enemy, that was all to the good, but this was only a secondary concern. War parties that sustained many casualties, even those that brought home a significant number of prisoners, could only be considered failures. (7) Joseph Lafitau, writing in 1724, noted that the Iroquois felt "very much the loss of a single person." Thus, excessive casualties had "great consequences for the chief of a [war] party." The Iroquois "expect a chief to be not only skilful but also lucky. They are so peculiar in this respect that, if he does not bring back all his people and if someone even dies a natural death, he is almost entirely discredited." This fear of casualties, Lafitau concluded, "checks the chiefs and keeps them from exposing their people too boldly." (8)

So strong was the imperative to limit casualties that, at times, leaders of war parties opted to engage in single combat with one another rather than risk the lives of their followers. …

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