Military history



The “Forest Wars” in Eastern
North America, 1622–1842

THE ACME OF guerrilla skill is to spring an ambush on a completely unsuspecting foe—something that the Indians of North America managed to accomplish on too many occasions to count. The most famous such ambush occurred on July 9, 1755, when a combined force of French soldiers and Indian warriors caught a column of British and colonial soldiers in the woods near Fort Duquesne, the site of present-day Pittsburgh. Some 600 men, out of 1,469, were killed, including the British commander, General Edward Braddock. His aide de camp, a young officer named George Washington, barely escaped this debacle. The massacre at the Monongahela was particularly notable because the Indians’ enemies were armed soldiers who should have been ready for battle—but weren’t.5 If even large bodies of troops could be caught unawares, it should not be terribly surprising that farming communities on the frontier were regularly caught by surprise. One of the first and most devastating such attacks occurred near Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, located near modern-day Williamsburg.

The English colonists suspected nothing amiss on Friday morning, March 22, 1622. Powhatan Indians were showing up in great numbers on the outlying plantations scattered for eighty miles around Jamestown. Those plantations had sprung up in recent years to farm a lucrative new crop—tobacco. There was nothing unusual about such visits. The Indians would bring deer, turkey, fish, fruit, and fur and in return would get beads and other trinkets that they valued. It was a clash of cultures, with the English in their cumbersome woolen clothes and leather shoes while the Indian men wore nothing but loincloths and moccasins, their faces brightly painted, heads half shaved, and elaborate earrings dangling from their ears. But by then each side was familiar with the other. The Indians were unarmed, so they aroused no suspicion.

Relations between settlers and Indians had been tense initially when the first ships of the Virginia Company had arrived fifteen years earlier carrying a hundred or so settlers to establish what would become the first permanent English colony in North America. Clashes were frequent, and in the early days the English would never have permitted the Indians to roam around their colony as they did in 1622. But peace had generally prevailed since 1614. The preceding year the English had kidnapped Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, founder of an empire of ten thousand Indians stretching around Jamestown like a vast human necklace. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and married a settler, and her father reached an accommodation with his new in-laws.

In 1618 Powhatan died but his successor and half brother, Opechancanough, promised to continue friendly relations. He told the colonists that “he held the peace concluded so firm as the skies should sooner fall than it dissolve.” Many of the English believed that they were in “a happy league of peace and amity” with the natives and “that the fear of killing each other is vanished away.” Only too late would they realize this was “treacherous dissimulation” on the part of a clever chieftain who nurtured deep-seated hatred of the newcomers, who were encroaching on his lands and trying to convert his people to an alien religion. Opechancanough had concocted an elaborate plot to destroy the invaders before any more ships could arrive to swell their ranks even further.

On the morning of March 22, 1622, all of the Indians appeared to be friendly. Some even sat down to breakfast with their hosts. The colonists were going about their normal routines—planting corn and tobacco, gardening, building, sawing. Without warning, wrote John Smith, one of the founders of the colony, the “cruel beasts . . . slew most barbarously, not sparing either age or sex, man, woman, or child, so sudden in their execution, that few or none discerned the weapon or blow that brought them to destruction . . . most by their own weapons.” Those weapons ranged from swords to axes, knives, hammers, and saws. Picking up these crude implements, the Indians went on a marauding rampage, killing every European they could find, including women and children. “And not being content with taking away life alone,” an official report noted, “they fell after upon the dead, making as well as they could a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses.”

Jamestown itself was on guard because it had been warned in advance by a Christian Indian, but the attackers moved so quickly from farm to farm that there was no time to organize a general defense against what one Englishman described as this “viperous brood” and another called “those hell-hounds.” The attack wiped out more than one-fourth of the colonists—347 out of 1,240—and put the entire colony on the brink of extinction.

Yet Captain Smith, who had long counseled a hard line against the natives, perceived a chilling bit of good news in this disaster: “Some say [this massacre] will be good for the plantation because now we have just cause to destroy them by all means necessary.” Sir Francis Wyatt, governor of Jamestown, agreed on the need to “pursue their extirpation.” But he realized that a straightforward assault would be unlikely to succeed. “It is most apparent,” he wrote, “that they are an enemy not to be suddenly destroyed with the sword by reason of their swiftness of foot, and advantages of the wood, to which upon all our assaults they retire.”

Instead he proposed to wipe them out “by the way of starvings and all other means.” Punitive expeditions were sent to burn the Powhatans’ towns and steal or destroy their corn, thus bringing them to the brink of starvation the following winter. Two months after the initial attack, on May 22, 1623, a party of Englishmen lured the war-weary Indians for peace talks and served them poisoned wine. The peace negotiators then fired a “volley of shot” into the incapacitated Powhatan, killing two hundred of them. On their way back to the colony, the Englishmen shot fifty more Indians “and brought home part of their heads.”

The pattern was set for almost three centuries of what the Virginia Company directors would describe after the Jamestown uprising as “perpetual war without peace or truce.” Perpetual it was, but it was not war as understood on the battlefields of Europe. It was a frontier style of fighting that was marked by treachery and surprise and massacre on both sides. In other words, it was guerrilla warfare, a phrase not usually associated with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonial history.6

THE JAMESTOWN SETTLERS were among the first to discover what many Europeans would learn: that Indians excelled at the “skulking style of war.” The Indians of eastern North America were not nomads like the tribes of Inner Asia or the tribes that would come to populate the Great Plains. They lived in permanent villages for most of the year, in birch-bark wigwams sometimes ringed by wooden palisades, and grew corn, squash, and other crops.7 But farming was considered women’s work. The men were left free to hunt, fish—and make war. Like many other prestate peoples, their hunting skills made them effective killers whether stalking animals on four legs or two. “However absurd it may appear,” wrote George Washington, who as a young man fought with and against Indians on the Virginia frontier, “it is nevertheless certain” that “five hundred Indians” could be a more potent fighting force “than ten times their number of Regulars.”8

That was only true, however, when the Indians fought in a stealthy manner. In 1492, when the first Europeans landed in the New World, the indigenous peoples did not have horses, wheels, steel, or firearms. They fought on foot with wooden swords, spears, slings, clubs, axes, and bows and arrows tipped with obsidian, flint, or bone. Thus equipped, they could not stand in the open against the Europeans and their “thunder sticks.”

The explorer Samuel de Champlain and two other French soldiers had enough firepower between them to rout two hundred Mohawk Indians. Just after daybreak on July 30, 1609, on the shores of what is now Lake Champlain in New York State, Champlain calmly walked in front of a group of his Algonquin and Huron allies who were at war with the Mohawk. They were standing in a tight array, wearing wooden armor and holding shields. Champlain raised his arquebus, a primitive musket that had been loaded with four balls, and fired a single, deafening shot that knocked over three Mohawk at once, two of them chiefs easily recognizable by the feathers they wore on their heads. “As I was loading again,” he recalled, “one of my companions fired a shot from the woods, which astonished them anew to such a degree that . . . they lost courage, and took to flight . . . fleeing into the woods, whither I pursued them, killing still more of them.”9

Not all Indian societies survived such disastrous initial contacts.10 Some, such as the Caribs and Arawaks of the West Indies, were wiped out altogether by a combination of European weapons and European microbes in what the historian Edmund S. Morgan rightly calls a “tale of horror.” (Morgan explains “the fury with which the Spanish assaulted the Arawaks even after they had enslaved them” by arguing that the Indians’ innocence and austerity—they required and wanted little in the way of worldly goods—was an affront to “the Europeans’ cherished assumption of their own civilized, Christian superiority over naked, heathen barbarians.”)11 Ironically, the most advanced societies—the Aztecs and Incas—suffered the most devastating defeats because, like the Zulus or the South Asians, they were so tightly organized and so hierarchical that they could mass thousands of warriors in the kind of open battle at which Europeans excelled. Moreover, these states were so densely populated that they could transmit smallpox and other plagues “like ink spreading through tissue paper.”12 And they were so centralized that the loss of a few key leaders could immobilize the rest of society. Less centralized, less populous, less sophisticated societies fared better because they had no choice but to place heavy reliance on guile and subterfuge to resist the better-armed newcomers—they employed guerrilla tactics such as the raid on Jamestown orchestrated by Opechancanough.

Indian ambushes became even more formidable once their warriors learned to make use of the guns, horses, and steel introduced by the Europeans, a process that was just beginning in Opechancanough’s day. Although colonial authorities tried to keep Indians from getting their hands on firearms, they acquired all they needed through trade or theft. While they never fully gave up the bow and arrow, their marksmanship soon exceeded that of most settlers, who were mainly farmers and craftsmen, not hunters or soldiers.13The dense woods of eastern North America greatly abetted the Indians because they made the Europeans’ parade-ground formations and volley fire difficult to execute, providing a contrast between the inflexibility of the newcomers, prisoners to imported and inappropriate tactical doctrines, and the shrewdness and adaptability of the natives who developed a way of war ideally suited to their environment. Gliding between the trees, the Indians were able to carry out raids and ambushes that took advantage of what was, to the colonists, unfamiliar terrain. Having no need of cumbersome supply trains, they could survive for extended periods on acorns, nuts, ground-up animal bones, even tree bark, thereby allowing them to move much faster than colonial militias.14

Like their settled forebears dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, New England farmers had trouble defending themselves against highly skilled tribal guerrillas. “Scarcely a hamlet of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire borders escaped a visit from the nimble enemy,” the nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman wrote of the French and Indian wars that raged from 1689 to 1759. “[All] were all more or less infested, usually by small scalping parties, hiding in the outskirts, waylaying stragglers, or shooting men at work in the fields, and disappearing as soon as their blow was struck.”15

FOR ALL THEIR skill at the art of ambush, the Indians got the worst of the “forest wars” waged along the Eastern Seaboard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The outcome may seem inevitable in retrospect, but that was not how it appeared at the time. In Jamestown in 1622 the colonists, not the Indians, seemed to be on the brink of extinction. Why did the Indians lose in the end? Principally because of two critical deficiencies—a lack of population and a lack of unity.

Indians had far outnumbered the initial settlers in North America. (The actual number of Indians, preconquest, has been a source of never-ending debate.)16 But by the eighteenth century the demographic balance had shifted decisively in favor of the Europeans, who kept arriving in great numbers while Indian populations kept declining. Epidemics in 1616 (possibly bubonic plague) and 1633 (smallpox) killed as many as 95 percent of the New England Indians.17 Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation left a harrowing account of how the pox struck Indian societies, writing, “They die like rotten sheep.”18 Such calamitous losses—far greater on a proportional basis than those suffered at Hiroshima or in the trench warfare of World War I—left the survivors, one historian notes, “shocked, grief-stricken, and bewildered.”19 In this weakened condition they were easy prey for rapacious Europeans who waged war without mercy.

Sadly typical was the fate of the Wampanoag and other tribes that fought under the leadership of Metacom, the sachem (chief) known to the English as King Philip. King Philip’s War (1675–76) was the worst frontier war of the seventeenth century. It damaged half the towns of New England and killed 600 to 800 settlers. But the other side fared far worse. By one estimate, out of 11,600 Indians in the rebel camp, 5,000 died of battle, disease, and starvation, 1,000, including Metacom’s nine-year-old son, were sold as slaves, and 2,000 were turned into permanent refugees. There were so few surviving Wampanoag that they would not hold another powwow until 1929—253 years after Metacom’s death.20

By the end of the eighteenth century, most other northeastern tribes had been similarly devastated. Guerrilla tactics are designed to compensate for inferiority of numbers and firepower, but over the course of many years even the most nimble guerrillas can be ground down by the remorseless, ceaseless, pitiless application of overwhelming resources.

The Indians’ demographic disadvantage was compounded by their internal divisions. When Europeans arrived, the natives of North America were split, notes one recent history, among six hundred “autonomous societies” from “twelve quite distinct and apparently unrelated linguistic groups, in some cases more dissimilar than English and Chinese.”21 Each society, in turn, was broken into many tribes, clans, bands, and villages, and these were further split into competing factions, with some favoring accommodation with the whites and others preferring confrontation. Indian culture was so egalitarian that individuals and groups were usually free not to carry out policies they disagreed with. A front of united Native American tribes might have significantly altered the narrative of American history. It was not to be.

Some charismatic chiefs such as Powhatan managed to forge great “nations” or “confederations,” but they generally lacked the authority to compel compliance with their wishes. They were similar in this respect to European rulers of the Middle Ages who lacked a bureaucracy to carry out their edicts and thus depended on the goodwill of their nobles to undertake any major enterprise such as a war. And just as in medieval Europe a peasant was apt to think of himself as a “Norman” or a “Burgundian” rather than a Frenchman, much less a European, so too individual Indians were apt to identify with their tribe or clan rather than any larger entity. There was little or no pan-Indian sense of identity that could lead warriors of many different tribes to cooperate with one another. The talented Shawnee chief Tecumseh, one of the greatest orators North America has ever known and brother of a mystical preacher known as the Prophet, came closer than anyone else to uniting disparate tribes in a revolt against the Europeans. But he was defeated and killed in 1813 while fighting alongside British allies against American troops under the command of future president William Henry Harrison. The dream of Indian unity died with him.

Thus in every Indian war, the whites were able to find numerous willing collaborators—either individual Indians willing to serve as scouts and soldiers for pay or entire tribes or factions eager to gain an advantage over traditional rivals. The outcome of King Philip’s War was decided in no small measure because the Pequot, Mohawk, and Mohegan, as well as the Christian converts known as “praying Indians,” fought alongside the New Englanders against the Wampanoag and their allies. Metacom was ultimately tracked down and killed by a mixed unit of 50 whites and 150 Indians raised by Captain Benjamin Church of Plymouth Colony. Throughout the next half century the French would ally with Algonquin tribes to attack English settlements while English settlers would fight back in league with the Algonquins’ historic enemies, the Iroquois. European armies were able to exploit similar divisions across Africa and Asia. Colonialism by a small number of Europeans would have been impossible otherwise.

Just as they could not come together to wage war, so Indians could not reach consensus on making peace. This led whites to make claims of bad faith when chiefs signed treaties but could not enforce them on headstrong young braves eager for battle. Americans had a similar problem: state and federal capitals were often unwilling or unable to control far-flung settlers bent on grabbing Indian lands for themselves. Canada saw fewer clashes with its Indians in part because the British government, less beholden politically to the settlers, had more success in upholding treaties. But the United States, decentralized as it was, was able to achieve a more coherent approach toward the Indians than they were able to achieve toward the United States.

The great innovation of Indian policy in the early nineteenth century was a reversion to what might be called the Assyrian strategy. Over the course of three centuries, the Assyrians deported between four and five million subject peoples, most famously ten tribes of Israelites who were sent to Mesopotamia in 721 BC and thereby lost their distinctive identity.22 President Andrew Jackson, an old Indian fighter from Tennessee, had something similar in mind when he schemed to remove all of the remaining Indian tribes from lands in the East that were coveted by settlers. He decided to send them to the wild territory beyond the Mississippi River in modern-day Oklahoma, where he assumed no whites would ever want to live.

Following the passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, seventy thousand Indians were forced to march west along what the Cherokee called the Trail of Tears (1838–39). Many died at the start of their onerous journey in poorly equipped internment camps that suffered from many of the problems that would plague the notorious British concentration camps in the Boer War six decades later. More died en route, especially the young and the old, because of the harsh winter and inadequate provisions, clothing, transportation, medical care, and lodging. A missionary complained that they were treated “very much like brute animals”—“obliged at night to lie down on the naked ground, in the open air, exposed to wind and rain.” Some fifteen thousand people perished in this repugnant operation.23

The Cherokee, an agrarian, peaceful, and remarkably Americanized tribe with their own written language, tried to resist relocation by legal action—to no avail. More militant tribes, ranging from the Sauk and Fox of Illinois to the Seminole of Florida, resisted with force. They were equally unsuccessful, although they inflicted considerable costs on the American government. The Second Seminole War was particularly costly: lasting seven years (1835–42), it led to the death of nearly 1,500 soldiers, or almost 15 percent of the entire force in Florida, and the expenditure of $30 million—more than the annual federal budget at the time. Hostilities did not end until virtually the entire Seminole nation, originally comprising some four thousand people, had been captured or killed.24

Like the Seminole, all the other eastern Indians eventually were clubbed into submission and shipped west. This was one of the darkest chapters in the long, shameful history of European and American mistreatment of indigenous peoples. But it was not the end of the Indian Wars. In the trans-Mississippi West would be written the climactic chapters of the struggle between Americans and Indians.

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