Occupying the inland forests that
skirted Lakes Ontario and Erie were the people of the Iroquois nations
of present-day Canada and New York state. At least five related populations-ancestors
of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca [being the furthest
west]-lived in large fortified villages. They moved from time to time,
and they used fire to clear land for crops and to keep the forests open,
a practice that encouraged the growth of brushy browse for deer and other
These peoples also shared a tradition of warfare that
centered on taking prisoners and either adopting them into the captor's
society or, more often, sacrificing them. Evidence that enemies raided
each other's towns regularly appears in distinctive pottery styles found
at different sites-the work of captive women who continued to make their
highly personalized pottery after being forcibly resettled.
The majority Northeastern nations might have destroyed each other in due
course, but around the 15th century AD-dates and details differ in tribal
traditions-a peacemaker came among them, and rival Iroquois tribes formed
a political confederation. Leaders thereafter met regularly in a
ceremonial longhouse, where they negotiated their differences and agreed
upon policies for the near future. So effective was this union that when
Europeans came in numbers to North America, they encountered a league of
nations that was a viable political force, one they would have to reckon
with for generations.
Life followed a natural rhythm of hunting and fishing,
agriculture, and food gathering. As the men tracked deer, moose, and other
game, the women combed the woodlands for wild fruits, berries, nuts, and
other plants. There were onions and fiddlehead ferns, strawberries and
raspberries, beach blums and beech nuts, lily roots and grapes, cranberries,
elderberries, and more. In early spring, when the maple sap started running,
the women would boil it down to make sugar.
Between Lake Huron and the Hudson River, the inhabitants
spoke Iroquoian, a language group as different from Algonquian (the other
language of the northeastern tribes) as English is from Chinese. The Huron,
Erie, Tobacco, Petun, and other residents of the upper St. Lawrence Valley
were all Iroquoians, as were scattered groups to the south, among them
the Tuscarora of North Carolina. But the most famous were five tribes that
dwelt in what is now upper New York State: the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga,
Oneida, and Mohawk. Outsiders referred to them as the Five Nations-or,
because of their ferocity, as the iriakoiw, an Algonquian word that
meant "rattlesnakes." To themselves they were the Haudenosaunee-the
People of the Longhouse-and they constituted the single most powerful confederation
of native North Americans in recorded history.
Long before, in a dark time of troubles, the Iroquois
had fought among themselves in a destructive cycle of killing and retribution.
A dispute might break out between two villages over hunting rights, for
example; angry words would lead to blows; and in the end one of the villages
would be mourning the loss of a young warrior. The dead man's relatives,
seeking conpensation, would launch a raid on the offending village. The
object was to take captives, but as often as not, more blood would be spilled
and the deadly cycle would spin out of control.
No one wanted to become an Iroquois captive. Led back to the enemy village,
the prisoner would be beaten, sometimes bitten, and forced to run naked
through a gauntlet of alternately angry and festive villagers. If he stood
up bravely to this abuse, he might be adopted into a family who had lost
a son in battle. Otherwise, his fate was sealed. His captors would
tear his hair, pull out his fingernails, burn his flesh with hot coals,
break his bones. At the end he would be put to death. Sometimes the villagers
would eat bits of his flesh in a sacrificial rite designed to appropriate
the victim's wisdom and strength.
Bringing an end to these blood feuds was a matter of self-preservation.
At the dawn of time, the Master of Life had commanded all people to live
in love and harmony. Clearly the message had been forgotten, so the Master
decided to repeat it. According to most versions of the story, his spokesman
was a Huron holy man, Deganwidah-the Peacemaker-who set out across Lake
Ontario in a stone canoe. Landing on the southern shore, the holy
man came upon Hiawatha, a clan leader of Mohawk descent who had lost all
his daughters to tribal strife. Deganawidah offered words of condolence
that lifted Hiawatha's grief and dried his tears; the same consoling words
would later be repeated at Iroquois council meetings to promote good feelings
and open minds. Then the prophet described a great Tree of Peace under
whose branches the tribes would meet to resolve their differences. He enunciated
principles of justice and equality; bloodshed would yield to a new sense
of botherhood among the people.
Deganawidah was a man of powerful vision; Hiawatha possessed the gifts
of oratory and persuasion. Together the two men traveled the length and
breadth of Iroquois country, forging alliances, teaching the Great Law
of Justice, and spreading the gospel of the Tree of Peace. Finally, so
legend tells it, only an Onondaga chief named Atotarho resisted. Atotarho
was a fearsome wizard-his body crooked, his mind twisted, his hair a mass
of tangled snakes-but eventually even he was persuaded to embrace the accord.
The Five Nations that entered the league retained full
control over their own affairs. But matters of mutual importance-peace
and war, for example-were debated by a Grand Council, which met periodically
on a hilltop at Onondaga. The first meeting took place, according to tribal
lore, under a giant evergreen tree where an eagle perched, its eyes scanning
the horizon for signs of approaching trouble. Fifty chiefs attended, selected
from each tribe by its leading older women, the clan mothers (in later
years only 49 clan representatives would take part because no one was deemed
worthy of filling the seat originally occupied by Hiawatha). Each tribe
had one vote, and decisions were always unanimous, reached by consensus
usually after lengthy discussion. No one was obliged to accept a conclusion
he did not agree with.
Much the same system prevailed within the tribes themselves, down tt the
village level. The basic unit in Iroquois life was the "fireside,"
consisting of a mother and all her children. Related families lived together
in sturdy wooden longhouses, some of which reached 400 feet in length.
A dozen or more family groups might share a single longhouse, residing
in compartments on either side of a central aisle and sharing a central
hearth with the family opposite them. Each longhouse bore above its door
the symbol of the clan to which its inhabitants belonged. There were ten
clans in all, each named for the animal considered to be the clan members'
Ultimate power, both within the longhouse and beyond it, rested with the
leading older women. Clan membership passed through the female line: A
woman who was a member of the Turtle clan had children who were Turtle
Clan. A husband generally moved into the longhouse of his wife's clan,
where the senior clan mother held sway. Women named the male delegates
to clan and tribal councils and also the tribal representatives to the
league's Grand Council at Onondaga.
The Iroquois conceived of their league as a great longhouse stretching
from the Mohawk Valley almost to the Pennsylvnia border in the west. In
it the five tribes gathered around five fires. The Mohawk guarded the eastern
side; to their west were the Oneida, then the Onondaga, who tended the
central hearth; following them were the Cayuga and then the powerful Seneca,
keepers of the western door. The Iroquois Trail, spanning the length of
what is now upstate New York, provided moccasined runners with easy access
to any part of the longhouse.
Like a domestic longhouse, the league could be extended to shelter other
peoples. In 1722, Tuscarora refugees from war with the English migrated
north from the Carolinas and were soon accepted as a Sixth Nation. During
the course of the 18th century other refugees filtered into Iroquois country,
and several new communities of displaced peoples grew up under the protective
Tree of Peace.
Not all Iroquois nations joined the league, to be sure, nor did warfare
cease. Simmering hatred continued to divide league members from their cousins,
the Huron. Seneca raiders ventured as far south as Virginia to test their
mettle against the Cherokee, another Iroquoian group."We have no people
to war against nor yet no meal to eat but the Cherokee," one Seneca
man explained. But Deganawidah's vision put an end to the fratricidal feuding,
and the combined strength and political sophistication of the league gave
the Iroquois a dominance that would continue to shape the region's history
for years to come.
In 1649 a force of 1,000 Iroquois
warriors, mostly Seneca, hit a pair of Christianized Huron towns on Lake
Huron's Georgian Bay, setting fire to the longhouses and "baptizing"
two resident Jesuit priests in boiling water. From there they surged inland
through Huron country, burning and slaying and rounding up captives. Iroquois
war parties fanned out over the trade routes, spreading terror and chaos.
In the next decade they crushed the Petun (also called the Tobacco Indians),
then the would-be Neutral tribe north of Lake Erie: neutrality was no shield.
Ranging farther west, members of the Iroquois league attacked the the Ottawa
in 1660, then the Illinois and Miami, and for good measure they raided
the Nipissings and the Potawatomi. Over the next half century, the People
of the Longhouse would extend their power as far west as Lake Michigan
and south into the Carolinas. The Huron, meanwhile, were destroyed as a
nation. Some survivors fled west; others were absorbed into the Iroquois
As the bloodshed abated in the Upper Country, the governors
of New France took advantage of the lull to consolidate their position.
Ambassadors went out from Montreal, inviting all the tribes to gather for
a mass celebration of friendship and peace....The Iroquois councils deliberated
in their unhurried, consensus-building manner for a full two years, weighing
the pros and cons with their English patrons. Then they, too, decided to
accept the proposed French accord.
Finally the day arrived. In midsummer of 1701 the canoes started landing
on th beach at Montreal-Sauk, Fox, and Winnebago, Potawatomi and Miami,
spiky-haired Huron and feathered Ojibwa, buckskin-clad Kickpoo, and Sioux
in their eagle fathers and buffalo robes. In addition to these French-allied
tribes came their former enemies, the Five Nation of the Iroquois League-Seneca,
Cayuga, Onondaga, Oenida, Mohawk.
Close to 1,300 people attended, representing 39 separate tribes, and together
they feasted and parleyed and smoked the calumet. The delegates worked
out some last-minute details. The Iroquois received the right to hunt in
Ontario country, and western Indians were given free access to trade in
New York. Then on August 4 eveyone assembled in a newly built courtyard
just outside the city to hear the final orations and witness the signing
of a treaty that officially ended decades of intertribal war in the Upper
But important issues remained unresolved. Some of the Great Lakes tribes
complained they were running short of trade goods, the result of a French
decision to vacate their far western trading posts. Intensive trapping
had created a temporary oversupply of beaver pelts, and the French needed
to cut costs. For the Indians, however, the measure hurt. A new French
post, Fort Pontchartrain at Detroit, helped a bit. Then in 1715 the French
reopened Fort Michilimackinac across the Straits of Mackinac from its old
site, reestablishing trade in the northern lakes.
On a summer's day in 1764, the
chiefs and elders of Little Beard's Town, a Seneca village on the Genesee
River in New York, met to decide an issue of vital importance. More than
a year had passed since the end of the last French and Indian War, and
the British colonial government was now offering a bounty for the return
of all settlers taken hostage during the conflict. Most were overjoyed.
But at least one, 21-year-old Mary Jemison, wanted to stay where she was.
Ever since her capture six years earlier, during a raid on her parents'
wilderness farmstead, Mary had lived as a Seneca. Her captors treated
her with kindness and affection and had adopted her into the tribe; she
had taken a native husband and had given birth to a Seneca son. Since her
parents had been killed in the raid, this was now her family.
And so the chiefs of her village met around the council fire, in front
of the main longhouse, to hear the senior clan mother plead Mary's cause.
(By tribal custom, Mary did not attend.) Beyond their fondness for their
adopted sister, the council's decision had larger implications. According
to Iroquois belief, each individual possesses an inner spiritual power,
which contributes to the overall strength of the tribe. To ransom Mary
back to the white men would be to barter this power for money. Such a thing
seemed unthinkable, and Mary was told she could stay as long as she wished.
But money itself is a powerful force, and a few days later a high-ranking
Seneca chieftain arrived the village to take Mary away. The villagers were
outraged. One Seneca brother showed his defiance by offering to kill Mary
rather than give her up. Faced with this option, she fled into the woods
with her infant son until the chieftain departed and passions cooled. Then
she returned, to the joy of her adopted tribespeople. She remained among
them, raising five Seneca children and numerous grandchildren, her death
in 1833 at age 91.
The Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 sent
British and American agents hurrying into Indian country to recruit warriors
for their respectives sides...The Iroquois also attempted to remain on
the sidelines-at first. Slowly, however, the Iroquois were pulled into
the conflict, and the resulting split in loyalty crippled the league as
an effective force. The Oneida and Tuscarora generally supported the Americans;
the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca sided with England. The man most
responsible for the latter was Thayendanegea, a Mohawk chief better known
by his English name-Joseph Brant.
The government of the Iroquois was now permanently divided between Brant's
followers in Canada and groups remaining in New York. To mark the split,
tribal leaders physically cut the great founding wampum belt of the confederacy
into two separate parts. The New York chiefs then began negotiating their
own peace agreements with the Americans.
The fall from grace was particularly steep for the Senenca, once the most
numberous and powerful of the Iroqouis nations. Now isolated in small pockets
of their ancestral hunting grounds, surrounded by hostile new neighbors,
they seemed destined for total extinction. Yet the Seneca held on. And
through sheer grit and intelligence-and the spiritual force of some exceptional
leaders-they slowly began to recover.
One of the greatest of those leaders was Red Jacket.
Like many Senecas, he had fought on the Tory side during the Revolution
(thus acquiring the red British army officer's coat that inspired his English
name). But his true weapons were words. In speech after speech, at tribal
councils and at treaty conferences with the American government, Red Jacket
gave voice to the independent spirit of Iroquois tradition and decried
attempts by federal officials to treat them as a subjugated people. His
tribal name was Sagoyewatha-He Keeps Them Awake-and he spoke with a riveting
blend of passion, poetry, common sense, and bitter irony.
To Red Jacket any concession to American intersts was an act of treason.
Decrying the huge losses of tribal territory at the hated Stanwix peace
settlement, he later helped roll back some of its worst provisions and
managed to regain a measure of local sovereignty for the Seneca. A strict
traditionalist, he scorned all attempts to convert the Iroquois to white
men's ways-especially their religion.
"You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place
left to spread our blankets. You have got our country now, but you are
not satisfied. You want to force your religion upon us. We are told
that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people
are our neighbors. We will wait a little while, and see what effect your
preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them
honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again
what you have said."-Red Jacket, Seneca, to Protestant missionaries.
The principal rival to Red Jacket's hard-line approach was the Seneca leader
Cornplanter. A bold and talented warrior who had fought beside Brant at
Oriskany and elsewhere, Cornplanter turned to diplomacy at the war's end.
Compromise, he felt, would win more favor from the American victors than
a continued show of opposition. He spoke for the Seneca nation at
Fort Stanwix and in a succession of later treaty negotiations, although
he could do little to prevent the erosion of Seneca territory. "If
we do not sell them the land, the whites will take it away," he reasoned.
And he did manage to cultivate amiable relations with the new government.
Even the infamous Town Destroyer became a friend.
"When your army entered the country of the Six Nations, we called
you Caunotaucarius, the Town Destroyer; and to this day when that name
is heard, our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling
to the knees of their mothers.
"Our concilors and warriors are men and cannot be afraid; but their
hearts are grieved with the fears of their women and children, and desire
that it may be buried so deep as to be heard no more. When you gave us
peace, we called you father, because you promised to secure us in possession
of our lands. Do this, and so long as the lands shall remain, the beloved
name will remain in the heart of every Seneca."-Cornplanter, Seneca
to George Washington, 1790
When fighting subsequently broke out between American settlers and native
tribes in Ohio, Cornplanter helped negotiate a peace accord. In payment
he was given a 1,300-acre tract of Pennsylvania farmland. Inviting his
followers to join him he founded what in effect was a private Seneca reservation.
Here, at his urging, residents practiced the latest American farming
techniques, lived in American-style houses, and generally tried to fit
into the new culture surrounding them. One of the residents on this estate
was a half-brother of Cornplanter (and also, as it happened, an uncle of
Red Jacket), who, like his two famous relatives, had fought for the British.
This half-brother had once held a voice in tribal councils;
as a sachem of the Turtle clan he had received the title Ganeodiyo, or
Handome Lake (the Seneca name for Lake Ontario). But in the grim dissolution
of the post-Revolution era, Ganeodiyo succumbed to alcohol and despair.
For four years he lay bedridden in his cabin, cared for by a daughter.
The end seemed only a matter of time.
Then one June day in 1799, during the Strawberry Festival, Handsome Lake
attempted to rouse himself from his stupor. He let out a mighty cry, collapsed,
and lay still as death. Mourners were summoned, and relatives began
preparing his body for burial. But astonishingly, the dead man's breath
returned. His eyes fluttered open. "Never have I seen
such wondrous visions!" he exclaimed, and he went on to tell how three
magnificent angels in ancient Iroquois regalia had taken him on a profound
spirit journey so that he would hear the will of the Creator. And the message
was loud and clear. First, the Iroquois must renounce liquor. They should
then dedicate themselves to a process of complete spiritual renewal.
Handsome Lake awoke a changed man. For the next 15 years, until his death
in 1815, he traveled the reservations preaching the new religion. His
gospel, the Gaiwiiyo, blended ancient customs and traditions with certain
key aspects of Christianity-particularly the beliefs of the Quakers in
temperance, frugality, and nonviolence. It emphasized the age-old values
of family and clan and the importance of seasonal rituals such as the Green
Corn Ceremony and the Midwinter Ceremony. Its symbol became the Iroquois
longhouse. Yet it also embraced the benefits of European-style education
and of new, more productive agricultural practices.
These teachings generated passionate feelings, to be sure, both for and
against. Farming had always been considered women's work, and it took some
powerful convincing to pursuade a former Seneca warrior to step behind
a plow. Furthermore, spiritual renewal was taken to mean that the tribes
must be cleansed of sorcery and black magic-terms that were thrown around
loosely at the time-with the result that several unfortunate people were
accused, hunted down, and put to death.
But within a few years Handsome Lake had acquired a large, deeply committed
following. Thomas Jefferson gave the new faith his blessing and encouragement,
seeing it as a step on the path to assimilated living-a view shared by
the Seneca's Quaker neighbors. By preserving what was best in Iroquois
tradition and incorporating useful innovations from the white man's world,
the Longhouse Religion (as it came to be called) seemed to promise both
social reform and cultural rejuvenation.
Gradually the promise was fulfilled. In the generations that followed,
increasing numbers of disciples spread the message of Handsome Lake, and
converts flocked to longhouses throughout the remaining Iroquois lands.
And ultimately it became apparent that the Six Nations, like many other
native nations, would survive despite everything-that they would persist,
adapt, and in time perhaps recover some measure of what was once theirs.
"We are united in urging Congress to support the
treaty made in 1794 and refuse to give authority for the desturction of
Indian homes"-the Seneca council. This was said in reference to the
Kinzua Dam project. This mid-1960's water project broke a 1794 treaty with
the Seneca Nation, inundating 10,000 acres in Pennsylvania and New York;
in return, the federal government paid $15 million.
Some 3,000 Indians showed up in 1768 to attend a meeting
at Fort Stanwix on the upper Mohawk River. The outcome was a cash payment
to the Iroquois and the promise of a perpetual homeland north of the Mohawk
River, in return for which they gave up large stretches of territory to
the south and west. But much of this region was also claimed by the Shawnee,
Cherokee, and others-whose expressions of outrage and open contempt brought
Iroquois prestige to its lowest ebb in many years. When the Delaware and
Shawnee got down to examining the treaty's fine points, they discovered
that most of the lands being given up fell within their own hunting grounds-and
that the Iroquois were being well paid for this betrayal.
The Shawnee resided in the lands south of Lake Erie, north of the Ohio
River and to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Shawnee (from an
Algonquian term menaing "southeners") were the dominant people
in the area. The palisaded towns of the Shawnee lined the region's waterways,
and their cornfields spread for miles across the rich bottomland.
Despite myriad differences in local customs, the people
of the entire region-from the Ojibwa in the north to the Shawnee in the
south-were part of the same larger social order. Except where the growing
season was too short they all raised the storable staples: corn, beans,
squash, and gourds. The spring and fall fish runs and the sap from the
sugar maple were as important as a corn patch; dried blueberries would
last through the winter. Wild rice was especially abundant along the Wisconsin-Minnesota
border. To the north, where long winters discouraged farming, the people
were mainly hunters, fishermen, and traders. The people of the Upper Country
loved children, and the villages teemed with them. Among the Algonquian
groups, a child was born into the father's clan. Clan affiliation remained
a primary source of personal identity-though everyone had his or her own
given name and sometimes several others acquired over a lifetime.
Pampered by their parents, indulged by a sprawling network
of more distant relatives, children learned by storytelling and example
rather than physical punishment. Grandparents were the principal teachers.
Among the lessons of the elders was the value of generosity and sharing.
Hoarding was deplored, and status was measured by how much a man gave away
rather than how much he could accumulate.
At puberty every young woman knew she must begin retiring to the women's
hut during her menstrual cycle. And every young man, after proper preparation,
moved off to a secluded spot for fasting and prayer in hopes of receiving
a vision that would become his guardian spirit for the rest of his life.
Religion permeated daily life in every realm. Althugh the languages differed,
people throughout the region believed in a higher power, called the Master
of Life or the Great Spirit or the Creator. Other spirits or beings were
available to intercede with the higher power on behalf of earthly people.
There was a spiritual essence in rocks, trees-everywhere in the physical
environment. All Great Lakes peoples (among others) told and retold the
adventures of mythical figures who gave humans many valuable lessons.
The Ojibwa developed an institution of great importance
called the Grand Medicine Society, or Midewiwin, and initiated members
into the knowledge and rituals of the Mide religion. As part of the initiation
ceremonies, a leader recounted stories of the origin of the people near
the salt seas who had been guided west by a sacred shell. Mide priests
kept birchbark maps of the migration route with symbolic markings that
indicated the songs and procedure for stages of the initiation rites. The
Midewiwin promoted the knowledge of herbal medicine and advocated balance
in all aspects of life.
The religion spread among other Great Lakes tribes: Potawatomi, Ottawa,
Sauk, Winnebago, Fox, Kickapoo, and Shawnee. Great Lakes Indians, like
others, developed an extensive knowledge of plant medicine. There were
medicines to attract animals to traps and snares and to lure fish; love
medicines, cures for respiratory problems and a whole catalog of human
ailments, as well as contraceptive and abortion-inducing medications, insect
repellents, and cures for poison ivy and snakebite. No great domains or
chieftains controlled the Upper Country; each village was an independent
community. A village leader was selected, usually by a council of elders,
on merit alone. Proven ability in hunting and warfare, courage, stamina,
and generosity-these were the valued traits. So, too, was skill as an orator.
Since no village leader could force a path of action, he often needed to
exhort, inspire, and cajole. Decisions were made by consensus, with a highly
formalized (and time-consuming) system of debate. On quesions of war and
peace, talks could consume days on end. A minority faction might move to
another village or even join a different tribe.
Villages usually had a separate war leader, and joining
a war party was a matter of choice. Even so, warfare was the bone and sinew
of life in the region, deemed essential for sharpening the survival skills
of the entire society. The ball games and running competitions of peacetime
trained the young men of the village in attack and rapid retreat. Even
small children were periodically deprived of food and water in order to
inure them to the rigors of forced marches. Having decided to go to battle,
the warriors would set out after spring fishing or planting. They might
be gone a few weeks or sometimes the entire summer, usually breaking up
into war parties of six or ten-groups small emough to test their bravery
and skill by penetrating enemy territory and returning unharmed. Most commonly,
they attacked an enemy hunting party away from its village; captured warriors
were subjected to ritual torture and death-although a very lucky captive
might be saved for adoption. Alternately, the raiders might seize women
and children out gathering wood and either adopt them or hold them for
ransom. In either case, the number of victims was never large.
But one thing was essential: an enemy. Every tribal group had a traditional
opponent. And since the motive for battle was usually revenge and retaliation,
the bloodshed could perpetuate itself for generations.
During the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois swept through the
lands of the Shawnee in the 1670's,razing villages, destroying corn crops,
and sending flotillas of refugee canoes down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
One contigent of Shawnee refugees moved west to the Illinois country, joining
a huge intertribal community of 18,000 people that was gathering around
newly established Fort St Louis on the upper Illinois River, at present-day
Peoria. They settled in among Miamis, Illinois, and a number of others,
all prepared to defend themselves against any new assault. But most Shawnee
groups kept moving, embarking on a diaspora throughout the southlands that
lasted many generations. Not until the next century would they return to
their Ohio Valley homelands.
During the Revolution, the Delaware and Shawnee stopped
fighting the British in late 1764, but peace was not formalized until July
1765. The treaty with the Delaware was signed by Sir William Johson; Shawnee
chief Paytakootha, or Flying Clouds, negotiated a similar pact for his
people. A symbol of Shawnee authority, the eagle feather headdress was
on conspicuous display at such meetings.
Conflicts over land continued to spin the plot in the
border regions. Resentment built against the royal ban on westward settlement,
adding to the litany of grievances felt by American colonists against British
rule. Cries of independence echoed from the Eastern seaboard to the Western
forests. And as the Revolutionary War drew rapidly nearer, it would envelop
vast stretches of the Upper Country.
At first, most Indian leaders saw the Revolution as a family quarrel between
whites, fought over issues of little interest to them. But they soon were
draw in anyway-into a struggle to hold on to their homelands. Even before
the first rifle shots were fired at Concord and Lexington, Virginia militiamen
were battling Shawnee villagers for control of the Ohio Valley. All across
the borderland, this was the beginning of a new chapter.
In the Shawnee settlements of the Ohio Valley, war chiefs mobilized for
a full-scale campaign to evict the Americans. The warriors of Chief Black
Fish, one of several Shawnee leaders, raged through the forest homesteads
of Kentucky, repeatedly laying siege to the log cabin village of Boonesborough,
founded by Daniel Boone in 1775. By the February snows of 1777, scarcely
one hundred whites able to bear arms remained in the Kentucky area.
One was Boone himself, who fought for the American side as a captain in
the Kentucky militia. He took a flesh wound in the defense of Boonesborough,
then led counterattacks against the Shawnee. During a salt-making expedition
in 1778 to Blue Licks, on the Licking River, a band of 100 Shawnee warriors
attacked his party and took him prisoner. Held three months in captivity,
he was adopted into the tribe by Black Fish himself, who had lost his own
son in the fighting. Finally Boone managed to escape, and returned to Boonesborough
to defend it against yet another siege by Black Fish's men.
With desperate warriors pitted against the land-hungry
American Long Knives, the Revolution in the west took on a vindictive savagery
unknown in other sectors of the war. The main British headquarters on the
frontier was Detroit; its commandant, Henry Hamilton, was also lieutenant
governor of Canada. Hamilton supplied the Shawnee and pro-British Delawares
with arms and ammunition, and as incentive to raid American settlements
he reputedly paid a bounty for white scalps. Both the Indians and the Americans
knew him contemptuously as "Hair Buyer."
His successor at Detroit was a half-Shawnee trader, Col Alexander McKee,
who pressed ahead with single-minded ruthlessness. In 1780 he led a force
of British and Indian allies against Rundle's Station in Kentucky, precipitating
a massacre of 200 American men, women, and children.
No one aroused more wrath or controversy than McKee's deputy, Simon Girty,
who as a child had been captured and raised by the Seneca. Fluent in native
languages, skilled in wilderness survival-and thoroughly versed in traditional
Indian methods for dealing with prisoners-he became the notorious "Great
Renegade," roundly despised by frontier settlers. During a campaign
in the Sandusky area, by one account-one of many stories in circulation-he
ordered his Shawnee and Delaware followers to tie up a captured American
colonel and burn him alive.
For tribes that backed the British, the American Revolution was an unalloyed
disaster. As in the earlier conflicts between whites in America, the Indians
had proved themselves to be formidable antagonists-masters of the swift
attack, all but invisible in retreat, capable of inflicting severe casualties
against huge odds. But in the end they were outnumbered and outgunned.
The Miami leader, Little Turtle, after American forces
had grown so large, he said, that further resistance would be futile, handed
overall leadership of the confederacy's 1,500 warriors (Ottawa, Wyandot,
Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Miami, and others) to Shawnee chief Blue Jacket,
his close ally in the campaign.
Blue Jacket faded north into the rugged country west of Lake Erie, near
the British garrison of Fort Miami. In a deep ravine on the Maumee
River strewn with the trunks of tress uprooted by a recent tornado, he
set up an ambush. His men performed the rites of fasting and prayer
observed by Shawnee warriors before every battle. Then they waited. And
they waited some more.
Gen Anthony Wayne led his soldiers slowly up the trail in pursuit, intentionally
delaying his arrival by three days. On August 20, 1794, as Blue Jacket's
half-starved fighters began drifting off to hunt for food, Wayne attacked-sweeping
in so quickly that he earned the Shawnee name Big Wind. The warriors fell
back to Fort Miami, hoping for help from their British allies. It
never came: the British commander, ordered to stay out of the fighting,
bolted the door to the Stockade. Hundreds were slaughtered.
Like other great events in the Upper Country, it began
with a prophet's vision. Tenskwatawa, son of a Shawnee war chief who had
died battling the whites, was mired in a life of alcohol and despair when,
in 1805, he fell into a deep trance. Awakening, he began to preach a compelling
message from the Great Spirit.
The ways of the white men, he proclaimed, were an evil that corrupted all
they touched. Not only did whites continue to devour Indian lands-another
48 million acres had been ceded through bribery or coercion since the 1795
Treaty of Fort Greenville-but their very presence brought spiritual decay.
Dependent on the white world's tools, enthralled by its trinkets, and poisoned
by its whiskey, Indian people were losing their very soul.
Like the Dealware Prophet half a century earlier, Tenskwatawa called for
a total rejection of white culture-its clothing and technology, its alcohol,
and its religion. He also denounced the selling of land. No one really
owned the land, he reminded his listeners, since by ancient tradition it
belonged to everyone in common as a gift from the Great Spirit.
Along with this bracing message, the Shawnee Prophet echoed another powerful
refrain: the vision of an intertribal confederacy that would embrace all
Indians everywhere. The person who came closest to making it happen was
the Prophet's brother, Tecumseh.
Tecumseh stood six feet tall and cast a shadow that reached across the
nation. A spellbinding orator, regally handsome, wise in council and courageous
in battle, he was perhaps the greatest native leader to step forward since
the European invasion began in 1492. He led the Shawnee forces during Little
Turtle's War, and he would not accept defeat: his signature is missing
from the Greenville treaty. He was a man of learning-he studied the Bible
and world history-and compassion. More than once he intervened to
prevent the torture of prisoners, a common practice among both natives
More importantly, perhaps, Tecumseh thought of himself as an Indian first
and a Shawnee second. Like his brother, he was inspired by a vision of
Indian unity. The tribes must put aside their age-old feuds, he argued,
and join together in a great military confederacy-a single Indian nation
embracing all of eastern North America, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
In pursuit of that vision, the two brothers set up headquarters in 1808
at the former Miami village of Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory. Intended
as a place where native people could live free of white influence, it proved
a powerful magnet for the Shawnee, Ottawa, Huron, Winnebago, Potawatomi,
Ojibwa, and others. The place came to be called Prophet's Town.
Meanwhile, Tecusmeh traveled widely and tirelessly, from the Great Lakes
woodlands to the wetlands of Florida, seeking out support for his new confederacy.
Tribal leaders who balked at the proposal could expect a scathing reaction.
"Your blood is white!" he railed at one Creek war chief who refused
to join. "You have taken my talk, and the sticks, and the wampum and
the hatchet, but you do not mean to fight!" Still, piece by piece,
Tecumseh was bringing together the alliances that would make this coalition
a serious military power.
Events elsewhere conspired against him, however. Back in Indiana, tensions
between the residents of Prophet's Town and the territorial governor, William
Henry Harrison, were growing worse by the day. Already trouble had erupted
over a land deal that some Indians considered fraudulent, and Tecumseh
had twice been forced to rein in his warriors. In warfare as in politics,
he knew that timing is essential. It wasn't time yet.
Harrison, on the other hand, was eager for a showdown. Taking advantage
of Tecumseh's absence, he advanced on Prophet's Town with 1,000 men on
the pretext of looking for stolen horses. Tenskwatawa, temporarily in charge,
was also looking for a confrontation. Urged on by Winnebago militants,
who believed his sacred poers would protect them from harm, Tenskwatawa
ordered a counterattack.
They struck before dawn, killing some 50 of Harrison's militiamen and taking
probably an equal number of losses. But there was nothing equal about the
result, for even one dead warrior meant that Tenskwatawa's vaunted medicine
had lost its effect. He became an object of ridicule-a disastrous liability
to his brother's cause. There were massive defections among the Delaware,
Miami, and his own Shawnee. The alliance never fully recovered.
Harrison marched into Prophet's Town, now abandoned, and burned it to the
ground along with the confederacy's stockpile of weapons and supplies.
Later he would hold up the Battle of Tippecanoe as a great victory,
and it helped him win the presidency in 1840.
Tecumseh, meanwhile, gathered his remaining forces and led a series of
skirmishes against frontier settlements. Then destiny intervened in the
form of a new conflict between the US and Britain: the War of 1812. Much
of the battle fever on the Americna side came from the Old Northwest, where
the British continued to arm Indian war parties and encourage their raids
against settlers. The Americans were determined to push north and drive
the remaining British garrisons from the area-and as fighting broke out,
Tecumseh was right in the middle.
Seeing the war as an opportunity to win back lost Indian territory, Tecumseh
quickly joined the British side, and he led his men on a brilliant campaign
through the Great Lakes region. A joint force of Indians and British took
the American fort at Detroit. Potawatomi warriors under his command
occupied Fort Dearborn. A war party of his Ojibwa and Ottawa fighter seized
Fort Mackinac, overlooking the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
The British, recognizing a gift for frontier warfare umatched in the era,
commissioned Tecumseh as a brigadier general.
Other tribal leaders began flocking to his banner. He soon assembled a
force of 2,000 warriors from 30 different Indian nations, including a contingent
of Sioux from the edge of the Great Plains. Multitribal towns sprang up
along the Illinois River in support of the war effort. The Potawatomi in
southeastern Michigan grew corn crops at hidden locations to feed the massed
warrior legions and their families. By the fall of 1812, virtually the
entire Great Lakes region had been brought under Indian control.
The initial triumph did not last. Unfortunately for the Indians,
the British appointed a new general, Henry Procter, to command their western
front. Indecisive and overly cautious, he frittered away the early British
advantage. When an American naval victory on Lake Erie severed his supply
route in September 1813, Procter decided to retreat to Canada.
Tecumseh tried to talk him into staying; he was wasting his breath. Deeply
disappointed, and resigned to the loss of everything he had worked so hard
to attain, he agreed to cover the withdrawal. The joint armies headed north,
pursued by 3,500 Americans under Harrison. On the Thames River in
Ontario, Tecumseh persuaded Procter to make a stand.
Before the battle, Tecusmeh decided to exchange his red British officer's
coat for tribal buckskin; perhaps he had a premonition of his own death,
as some sources report. Whatever the reason, he was a warrior to the end.
As Procter's forces broke and fled, Tecumseh held his ground against the
advancing Americans, taking shot after shot. No one knows who fired the
fatal bullet. Many took credit.
With the great Shawnee chief gone (his body, never found, was said to have
been removed and buried in a secret location by his men), the dream of
a grand alliance was shattered. Tribal leaders drifted away, taking their
warriors with them. American forces followed in hot pursuit, inflicting
damage as they went; raids by US troops in Indiana late in 1813 left Delaware
and Miami villages ruined.
A treaty signed in London in 1815 officialy ended hostilities between Britain
and the US. One the frontier, peace was not so simple. Even a nominal
truce in the western region took three years of council meetings and 17
treaties. For decades, Indians suffered through the ragged aftermath of
fighting. In some parts of the Upper Country, Indian villages continued
to fly the Union Jack, even as the Stars and Stripes fluttered from the
ramparts of nearby American forts. As late as 1842, British officers at
Fort Malden, opposite Detroit on the Canadian side, would distribute annual
presents to their former Indian allies.
The Shoshone lived in the west, south of the Crow, north
of the Cheyenne in the Rocky Mountains. In the southern portion was the
Snake River, with the Yellowstone River in their north. They were of the
Great Basin tribes.
Hemmed in by mountains, the tribes of the Great Basin-Shoshone,
Bannock, Paiute, and Ute-were among the most isolated in the American West.
The Great Basin's drier regions, where no more than a few inches of rain
might fall in a year and summer temperatures of 110 degrees were common.
But even in the driest zones, mountain ranges created small, scattered
oases where plants and animals-and the humans relied on them-could flourish.
The Ute and the Northern and Eastern Shoshone lived at higher, cooler elevations
where there were 15 inches or more of rain per year. Compared with Paiute
land, theirs was a rich world. The men hunted antelope and small game,
especially rabbits from which they made robes for the cold winter months.
Like the California tribes, the Basin peoples gathered plant foods, but
instead of acorns, they had pinon nuts, mesquite beans, and agave plants.
Limited food resources kept Great Basin populations in check-in all, they
numbered perhaps 40,000. They lived in small groups, each with its own
established foraging territory.
Great Basin Indians believed in a supreme being, as well as spirits who
governed natural and human events. It was important to establish a personal
relationship with a spirit who could bring success in hunting or other
endeavors. As elsewhere, great Basin shamans drew their healing powers
from communion with the invisible world.
Occupying a relatively harsh and inaccessible region, the Great Basin tribes
were among the last native people on the continent to lose their lands
to permanent white settlers. But the Ute were probably among the first
to come into possession of that most prized European import, the horse,
by about 1700. The Shoshone and other Basin tribes quickly developed substantial
horse herds as well, and the Basin became a highway for horse-mounted commerce
in all directions.
Unlike the horse, however, another of the white man's
innovations-the fur trade-posed a dire threat to the ways of the Great
Basin peoples. As the fur trade became increasingly important throughout
North America, Eastern tribes fought to obtain larger trapping grounds,
pushing other tribes westward and extending the fur trade itself. In
exchange for furs, traders offered manufactured goods, including metal
ware, textiles, iron tools, and guns.
Captive women and children also could be sold to white traders, who wanted
wives and labor to keep house and dress furs. Slavery had long existed
among Indians before the arrival of traders, but the new competitive pressures
of the fur trade made slaves far more valuable commodities than in the
past. Almost everywhere in the West, raiding and counterraiding for horses
and slaves disrupted relations among neighboring tribes.
In one such raid a girl named Sacagawea was captured.
She had been born into a Northern Shoshone band in 1788 or 1789. When she
was about 10, her family traveled to western Montana to hunt and harvest.
A band of Hidatsa raiders swept down on their camp, causing the unarmed
Shoshone men to take to their horses and flee. The women and children scattered,
but in the melee Sacagawea was carried off and taken to the Hidatsa village
on the Knife River in North Dakota. Sometime between 1800 and 1804, Toussaint
Charboneau, a fur trader, purchased the Shoshone girl. By the fall of 1804,
the teenage Sacagawea was carrying Charbonneau's child.
Soon after Sacagawea gave birth, she helped shape the early course of US
history. In 1804 the US had purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.
President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis, William Clark,
and a small detachment of soldiers to explore the headwaters of the Missouri
River, then proceed westward to the Pacific. Jefferson wanted them
to inform the Indians that they would profit more from trade with the now-independent
US than with the British. The Americans spent the winter of 1804-05 near
the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, where they hired Charbonneau as a translator,
guide, and sometime cook to accompany them up the MIssouri. With them went
Sacagawea and her young child.
She proved unexpectedly valuable. In the spring of 1805, Lewis and Clark
needed horses, which the Shoshone were known to have. Sacagawea led the
explorers to a Shoshone village, where she not only was recognized as one
of their own, but found that the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, was her brother.
He readily agreed to supply the strangers with horses in exchange
for gifts and a promise of guns in the future. Sacagawea continued on with
Lewis and Clark, traveling all the way to the Pacific and back.
Outside California, the Gold Rush took its toll. Wagon
trains on the overland trails passed through tribal homelands where resources
were sparse enough to begin with. Immigrants' livestock ate the forage
that ordinarily fed Indian ponies. Hungry overlanders killed game
at a rate that was fast depleting the supply and scavenged the countryside
for firewood. Naturally enough, Shoshone and Paiute bands turned to stealing
from the wagon trains that were impoverishing them-and inevitably turned
against each other to fight for the remaining grazing lands.
In July 1847 Brigham Young led the first of his Mormon
followers to the Great Salt Lake in the heart of Shoshone country. Indians
occupied a special place in Mormon theology. They were viewed as descendants
of Israel who should be converted to the Mormon faith-following which,
it was believed, they would become white and "delightsome."
When the Shoshone offered to sell their land to the Mormons for powder
and lead (so that they could better fight the Ute), Young rejected the
idea. He feared the Ute and other tribes would claim payments as
well. But Young recognized the needs of the Indians and announced that
the Mormons would supply them with provisions-though not with guns and
ammunition. His decision had a pragmatic as well as a moral side:
it was, he reasoned, "manifestly more economical and less expensive
to feed and clothe than to fight them."
Young's declarations were encouraging in principle, but in practice the
Mormons (whose numbers burgeoned to more than 40,000 by 1860) did not provide
the Indians with enough food to replace the resources that had been preempted.
Much like the Utes and Paiutes displaced by California-bound wagon trains,
hungry Shoshone bands and others raided stock from Mormon farms-triggering
a familiar, increasingly vicious pattern of reprisals and counterreprisals.
The cycle reached a climax in the winter of 1862-63. Gen Patrick Connor,
head of the California troops, believed that Shoshones living on the Bear
River in southern Idaho were responsible for an outbreak of thefts and
killings. Even as the Shoshone chief Sanpitch was in Salt Lake City asking
Brigham Young for help in establishing peace, Connor was preparing an attack
on the Bear River village.
In the early-morning cold of January 29, 1863, the Californians marched
on Bear River. Connor arrayed his troops before the Shoshone lodges, and
the men came out to fight them. After four hours of terror and mayhem,
250 Shoshone villagers lay dead, among them many women and children who
had fallen alongside their warriors. The following summer US officials
made treaties with the Shoshone, who had lost too many people to fight
on. Reservation life was a bitter prospect-but the only alternative was
more war, starvation, and suffering.