The Iroquois Wars
Background to Conflict
It probably started early in the Seventeenth Century when
Champlain (1567-1635) led a band of Hurons
against their hereditary enemies, the Iroquois. Champlain
shot and killed two Iroquois chieftains, and earned for
the French and their allied native nations the
enmity of these fiercest of eastern warriors. There was
the further matter of the beaver trade.
After the Iroquois depleted the beaver population in their
own country, they looked beyond their traditional range
for pelts. This led to what has been called the Beaver Wars.
The need to find new sources of beaver pelts and the Iroquois'
desire to be middlemen to the French sent Iroquois
warriors off to the west and northwest,
The Iroquois League
In late prehistoric times, the Iroquois existed as a racial
island among their Algonquin-speaking neighbors. The
Iroquoian economy featured agriculture as well as hunting.
They could store up food supplies against the predictable
shortages of winter which the nomadic Algonquins could not
yet do. The Iroquoians--still a number of ununited tribes--
lived in permanent palisaded villages.
This was for protection against the fierce Algonquins who
constantly raided and made war upon them. The Iroquois then
took two steps that would change American history: they
began to train their young men for war in a Spartan manner,
and they formed their League of Five Nations.
Early on young Iroquois boys were trained for war.
Their play imitated the hunting and war activities
of their elders. Play of this sort developed strength,
stealth,and courage, as well as skill and facility with the
bow and arrows, lance, tomahawk, and club. Running,
wrestling, and lacrosse all honed physical and
mental skills that would well serve these future warriors
on battlefields across Northeastern America. By the time
an Iroquois boy reached his mid teens, he was already an
adept archer and skilled with the other weapons of his
people. Later those archery skills would be augmented by
a sound knowledge of firearms.
The League itself was formed when the five great Iroquoian
tribes of the northeast united. These were the Mohawk, the
Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. As the
western-most tribe of the Iroquois, the Seneca would become
bitter enemies of the Illini. The capitol of this
confederation was at Onondaga. This
political unity allowed the Iroquois to put into the field
armies of warriors greater than those of their Algonquin
foes. This in spite of the fact that the Algonquin tribes
had a much larger combined population than the Iroquois.
The Wars Begin...
The Iroquois fought the French throughout the establishment
of the colony in Canada. The St. Laurence valley near
Quebec was no safe place for the Europeans and their Huron
allies as Iroquois warriors lurked near the settlements.No
hunter, wood gatherer or trapper could feel truly safe. In
time, as the French population and strength grew, the
Iroquois drifted southward into upper New York State and
the eastern Great Lakes basin, but their animosity toward
the French continued to be manifested in raids and
hit-and-run warfare. It is unlikely that the Iroquois wanted to exterminate the
French. Had they so wished, they certainly had the material and human
resources to do so. Rather they probably wanted to displace the
Native nations traditionally allied with the French such as the Illini and Hurons,
and take on the role as middlemen to the more primitive western tribes themselves.
Enter the Dutch
When Henry Hudson sailed up the river that
would later bear his surname, he had no
idea that his voyage would bring bloodshed and suffering to
the Illini people almost a thousand miles distant, but such
was the case. The Dutch established their colony on the
banks of the Hudson and began to supply the Iroquois with
trade goods. These included steel knives and
tomahawks as well as guns, powder, and ammunition. Armed
with modern European weapons, the Iroquois were an
irresistible force. In exchange for these goods,
the Dutch wanted furs in general, but beaver pelts in
particular. In time the Iroquois country became "trapped
out". The warriors of the Five Nations then turned to face
the west and northwest. The nations who occupied the lands
coveted by the Iroquois were armed with stone-age weapons
--flint-tipped arrows, lances and war clubs. The Iroquois
now possessed large numbers of Dutch firearms. The outcome
The Rout of the Southern Lake Tribes
South of the Great Lakes lived two large native nations.
These were the Neutrals and the Erie.
The Neutrals--so named because they sought to avoid
involvement in the Iroquoian wars--found neutrality to be
no protection against the warriors of the Five Nations. The
Neutrals themselves were reknowned warriors. They are
best remembered for their defeat of a northern tribe after
which the Neutrals blinded all of the male survivors
and drove them away to starve.
The Neutral in turn were defeated by the Iroquois and their remnants scattered to the west
and southwest. Some sought refuge among the Illini
while others found sanctuary with the Erie. The Erie, who
lived near the Great lake that carries their name, were a
formidible foe. Of Iroquoian stock themselves, they
lived in fortified villages protected by log palisades.
According to tradition, the Erie were offered the chance to
join the Iroquois League but rejected that invitation.
Bloody war followed. Although the Erie fought bravely from
their well-protected villages, using poisoned arrows, they
could not withstand the Iroquois who were armed with Dutch
firearms. After a protracted and bloody conflict, the
Iroquois decimated the Erie. Only a few Erie survived to
escape into the wilderness. Although the Iroquois had to
pause to recoup their losses from the Erie campaign, they
were soon ready to continue their war of expansion.
The Iroquois Move Southwest
In 1653, after defeating the Nipissings and Hurons, the
Iroquois moved against the Ottawa. For two years, the Iroquois
fought the Ottawa but could not defeat these rugged warriors of
the western Great Lakes. The Iroquois then divided their force
into two parties. The smaller went against the Chippewa and
their allies while the larger went south into "buffalo country" which
is to say the central Illinois prairies. The smaller group was
defeated by the Chippewas and retreated eastward.
War In The Illinois Country 1655-66
The Iroquois attacked a small Illinois village and killed the
women and children. The men gathered together the Illinois
warriors who were hunting in the vicinity and "utterly defeated" the
invaders. The first battle of the war was won by the Illini.
Unfortunately for the Illini, it would not be the last.
A Half Century of War With The Iroquois
Although their initial attempts in the west met with failure,
the Iroquois pressed their attack. Soon the whole shoreline
of Lake Superior was filled with Algonquin nations that had
fled from the Iroquois war machine. Nor had the Iroquois
forgotten the Illini.
The Battle of Kaskaskia
In the September, 1680, a force of 500 Iroquois
and 100 of their allies (Voeglin and Jones says the allies
were Shawnee while Schlarman contends the Iroquois allies were Miami)
attacked the great Illinois village at Kaskaskia (on the Illinois River, near present-day Peoria--not
to be confused with the Kaskaskia on the Mississippi that was
occupied by George Rogers Clark during
the American Revolution). The timing of the attack could not
have been worse for the Illinois. Many
of the warriors, led by Chief Chassagoac, were far to the
south at Cahokia for a religious festival. Tonti who lived
among the Illini had begged Chassagoac not to go, fearing
an attack, but go the Illini
did. Only about 500 Illini warriors remained, and they had
only about 100 guns among them and only 400 rounds of
ammunition for them. Most were armed with bows and tomahawks.
Not only did the Iroquois and their allies enjoy numerical
superiority, they also enjoyed superior firepower as they
were all armed with guns. The Illini evacuated old men, women, and children
down the Illinois River six miles to an island where they could hide until the battle
was over. The Illini went out to meet the attackers.
When the Iroquois advanced across the plain between the Illinois
River and The Vermillion River, the Illini ambushed them.
The Iroquois fell back, but soon returned to the attack.
Tonti approached the Iroquois with a wampum belt, hoping
to negotiate a peace treaty. He was stabbed by an
Iroquois warrior but not fatally. The Iroquois forced Tonti
to evacuate up the Illinois to Lac du Illinois. Then the attack recommenced.
After about eight days of fighting, the Illinois were driven back
to their village. Matson contends that the village was surrounded
by a log palisade; that the Illini tore down cabins and such to reenforce it.
But Father Membre (quoted in Jones and Voeglin and cited by
Blasingham, claims that the village lacked both stockade and
entrenchments. In either event, the Iroquois overcame the Illinois
after fierce fighting.
Retreat... The surviviors fled down the Illinois
River to the Mississippi while the Iroquois tortured and
burned their captives. The scaffolds of the dead were pulled down and the
corpses mutilated. Then the Iroquois pursued the Illini down the river.
The Iroquois discovered the women and children hidden on the
island. When La Salle returned in December, he found the burned bodies of
the Illini women still bound to stakes while the bodies of the children lay nearby.
As late as 1829, many human bones could be found on the island, mute testament
to the tragedy that had happened there.
When the fleeing Illini reached the mouth of the Mississippi,
the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Chinkoa went north up the river.
The Omouahoa, Coiracoentanon, Moingwena, and Chepoussa went down the
river. The Peoria crossed the Mississippi to the other side.
Only the Tamaroa Tapouaro, and Ispeminkia remained to hunt at the mouth
of the Illinois. They were again attacked by the Iroquois and suffered
about 700 killed or captured.
The Illini were defeated for the moment, but they were still a viable people.
The Illini still survived.
Fort Saint Louis and Tonti
The French under Henri de Tonti constructed Fort St. Louis on Starved Rock,
which the French called "Le Rocher/. Starved Rock projects upward from
the south bank of the Illinois River near the present-day
town of La Salle, Illinois. Three sides of the towering rock
are vertical and for all practical purposes cannot be climbed.
The fourth approach is a narrow pathway up the steep fourth wall.
This makes the summit an easily defended position, since defensive
firepower could be concentrated and directed at the one
Fort St. Louis was several log and stone buildings surrounded
by a strong wooden palisade. While such fortifications were
vulnerable to artillery assault, the chances
of artillery being used against Fort St. Louis was slight,
given the distance of both British and Spanish forces. The
log stockade was to prove to be more than adequate against
the small arms of the Iroquois who would put this to the test.
The Illini had returned to the site of Kaskaskia (called La Vantum by
some, e.g., Matson) following the massacre. Soon the town had several thousand
residents. One day a scout rode in with the news that the Iroquois were returning.
The Illini, the memory of the recent massacre at this very site fresh
in their minds, turned to Tonti for protection. He told them
that the fort was too small to house everyone and that the
Illini should fortify their village and fight. Instead the
Illini retreated down the Illinois River rather than face a second
massacre. The first had greatly reduced their numbers, as had the
Winnebago War, and left them much weakened.
In due course, the Iroquois arrived, and finding the village deserted,
they beseiged the fort. They occupied a
position on the approach and kept up a desultory fire for
several days but Tonti did not allow the defenders to return
fire. At last the Iroquois made their assault. When they
neared the palisade, they were met with a withering barrage
of musket and cannon fire. The Iroquois sustained such heavy
losses that they withdrew. This marked the last major Iroquois
incursion into the Illinois River country. However, their
raids and lesser forays continued throughout the French period.
The Illini Take The Offensive
Shortly after this, Tonti and the Illini went on the offensive.
Tonti and 200 warriors joined a large Candaian army that invaded what is now
upper New York State. They attacked and burned numerous Iroquois
villages along the Mohawk River, thus giving the Illini some
slight measure of revenge for the Iroquois attacks against them. The Mohawk
Valley campaign had been a tactical if not strategic success.
The Illini were still in possession of most of their lands at this
time, but they were greatly weakened by these conflicts with
the Iroquois. This would make them vulnerable to the incursions
of the northern tribes, particularly the Fox. The unhappy fact was that the Illini,
because of their losses, were greatly diminished in their
ability to exert their tribal will at any distance through
warfare. The decline accelerated.
- Blasingham, E. The Depopulation of the Illinois
Indians, Ethnohistory, Vol 3, N, 3, Summer, 1956.
- Jablow, Jospeh. Indians of Illinois and Indiana. Garland
Publishing, New York, 1974.
- Matson, J. The French and Indians of the Illinois River.
Privately published. Princeton, IL., 1857.
- Schlarman, J. From Quebec to New Orleans. Buechler
Publishing, Belleville, IL. 1931.
- Voeglin, E. and Jones, J. Indians of Western Illinois
And Southern Wisconsin. Garland Publishing, New York, 1974.
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