An Ethnohistorical Analysis of Iroquois Assault Tactics Used against Fortified Settlements of the Northeast in the Seventeenth Century
In the seventeenth century the Iroquois successfully attacked indigenous and European fortified villages and posts of the Northeast. The purpose of this article is to address and describe the warfare tactics used by the Iroquois against fortified settlements. A diachronic and functional analysis of offensive and defensive warfare techniques is presented from ethnohistorical descriptions and archaeological evidence. It is argued that through the process of trial and error, warfare acted as a selective process upon offensive strategies and assault tactics used against fortifications during the late prehistoric and early historic periods.
When discussing examples of fortifications, sieges, and methods of assaulting a fortified town or city, Northeastern North American Indian warfare is typically not the first example that comes to mind. Literature that describes the assault of fortifications usually focuses on such Old World cultures as the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, and medieval to modern Europeans (e.g., Brice 1984; Duffy 1975; Hogg 1975). Research on the offensive warfare tactics used by Native Americans against fortifications has been rather limited and relegated to supplemental and anecdotal information of other aspects of war (e.g., motivations for war and warfare strategies, descriptions of fortification types, and bibliographies on war) (Armillas 1951; Ferguson 1988; Isaac 1983; Otterbein 1964, 1994). Anthropologist Keith Otterbein (1994: xxiii) has pointed out that even those anthropologists and historians who have studied war have typically failed in describing the specifics of battles and actual tactics or weapons used during an engagement by indigenous cultures.
Perhaps as a consequence, the public’s perception of Native American [End Page 777] warfare is often different from what is described in ethnohistorical texts and oral accounts. The “skulking Indian” (see Keeley 1996 for an excellent critique of this perspective), who fires from cover of ambush only when he greatly outnumbers an enemy, has generally dominated the perceptions of academia and the media, which in turn has influenced the public’s concept of Native American warfare (Marsden and Nachbar 1988; Price 1973). For example, Iroquoian scholar Daniel Richter (1983: 536) exhibits this viewpoint: “Efforts to minimize fatalities accordingly underlay several tactics that contemporary Euro-Americans considered cowardly: fondness for ambushes and surprise attacks; unwillingness to fight when outnumbered; and avoidance of frontal assaults on fortified places.” But was Native American warfare, in particular, Northeastern Indian warfare, characterized only by ambush tactics? While the Indian use of ambush was successful during the historic period, this article shows that it was not the only battle tactic used and that during certain periods of the seventeenth century, large organized assaults against well-fortified opponents were conducted by the Iroquois.
Anthropology and History of Iroquois Warfare
In an attempt to better understand assault tactics of indigenous populations in the Northeast, this essay focuses on the type of offensive strategies the Iroquois used against fortified posts or villages in the seventeenth century. The Iroquois, a league of five tribes (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca), were historically located in central New York. During the seventeenth century the Iroquois were recorded fighting with more than forty-nine different indigenous tribes or Euro-American colonies. This article focuses on the use of assault tactics against fortifications or defensive positions; consequently, the available information on this topic is limited to Iroquois attacks on the Erie, Huron, Mahican, Neutral, Susquehannock, Tobacco, various Saint Lawrence Algonkian-speaking groups, and the French. The regional area in which conflicts with these various groups took place includes the Saint Lawrence River Valley, the Southern Ontario Peninsula, the Lake Erie area, the Susquehanna River, and east along the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys. The Iroquois are chosen for this analysis because various ethnohistorical resources (e.g., the Jesuit Relations, the New York Colonial Documents, and the Works of Samuel de Champlain) exist that describe Iroquois warfare for the time period in question. In addition to the primary texts, there has been a substantial amount of anthropological and historical work that discusses Iroquois warfare behavior, unlike many other Northeast tribes (Abler 1989, 1992; Aquila 1978; Benn 1991; Brandao 1997; Colden 1922; Day 1984; Dennis 1993; Eccles [End Page 778] 1983; Eid 1979; Given 1981, 1994; Goldstein 1969; Haan 1980; Hunt 1940; Jennings 1984; Keener 1998; Konrad 1987; Lenig 1977; McIlwain 1915; Morgan 1995 ; Naroll 1968; Otterbein 1964, 1979, 1994; Parkman 1983 [1865–92]; Richter 1983, 1992; Schlesier 1976; Tanner 1987; Tooker 1963, 1984; Trelease 1962; Trigger 1971, 1976).
Research on Iroquois warfare has focused on answering questions concerning why and how the Iroquois conducted war. Studies on “why” can be broken down into two prevalent views: traditional and revisionist. Traditional views described the Iroquois as more culturally advanced than neighboring tribes, and because of this and their warlike urges, they were successful in war, creating a so-called Iroquois empire. These views were established by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century anthropologists and historians, such as Cadwalladar Colden (1922) and Francis Parkman (1983 [1865–92]), both historians, and Lewis Henry Morgan (1995 ), an anthropologist, who suggested that the Iroquois possessed a superior culture and ideology because they had agriculture, sedentary villages, and a confederacy/league (oligarchy). These cultural traits placed the Iroquois into a higher evolutionary stage, according to the standards of cultural evolution, a popular nineteenth-century scientific theory used to explain how human populations had developed over time. Morgan was one of the leading proponents of cultural evolution who, along with Edward Tylor, developed the concept of unilinear evolution. This concept assumes that all cultures go through the same predictable stages of development. The cultural traits that indicate a different stage were advances in ideology, social structure, subsistence, and technology. For example, societies with agriculture were superior to hunting-and-gathering groups, and a society that used iron implements was more evolved than one that used stone tools (Langness 1987; Morgan 1877). The concept of cultural evolution, and in particular unilinear evolution, would not be challenged and refuted until the early twentieth century. The leading detractor of cultural evolution was the esteemed Franz Boas. Boas, a cultural anthropologist, successfully argued that evolution was not deterministic and that cultures developed along their own particular paths (Bohannan and Glazer 1988).
Revisionist views, which recently developed in the twentieth century, have countered the older explanations of war by discounting innate emotions, instead providing alternative explanations such as economic and cultural motivations (e.g., Abler 1992; Brandao 1997; Dennis 1993; Eid 1979; Given 1981; Goldstein 1969; Haan 1980; Hunt 1940; Jennings 1984; Keener 1998; Konrad 1987; Lenig 1971; McIlwain 1915; Naroll 1968; Richter 1983, 1992; Schlesier 1976; Tanner 1987; Tooker 1963; Trelease 1962). The most popular of the newer theories is the fur trade premise, which has pervaded [End Page 779] Iroquoian scholarship as the dominant explanation for seventeenth-century Iroquois warfare (Hunt 1940; Goldstein 1969). George Hunt is given credit as defining and outlining the influence that economics had on indigenous tribal warfare. Hunt suggests that when the Iroquois ran out of furs in their homeland, they were forced to make war on other tribes to attain new supplies. This premise has been challenged, however, particularly by recent scholarship that suggests that the fur trade was not a prime mover for war, but rather that customs and ideology (adoption, prestige, and revenge) and technological advances may have played more significant roles in initiating or intensifying hostilities (Brandao 1997; Dennis 1993; Keener 1998; Naroll 1968; Schlesier 1976; Trelease 1962). In any case, revisionist explanations of why the Iroquois went to war do not describe how the Iroquois fought in combat (Keener 1998).
Studies pertaining to “how” the Iroquois conducted war are typically ethnohistorical in nature and have focused on changes in either Iroquois warfare strategies, weapon technologies, or fortification styles (Abler 1989; Brandao 1997; Given 1981, 1994; Otterbein 1964, 1979; Trigger 1976, 1978, 1990b). None of these studies, however, have provided a detailed chronological assessment of the successful methods of attack the Iroquois used in assaulting fortified positions. This article attempts to rectify this deficiency, providing an in-depth study of Iroquois assault tactics and evaluating whether popular stereotypes have any accuracy.
One hypothetical premise is proposed in an attempt to help explain Iroquois use of and changes in certain assault techniques over time. It is predicted that changes in Iroquois assault tactics appeared after new defensive or technological innovations. Diachronically, changes in defensive tactics produced changes in offensive tactics and vice versa. This is based on the fact that defensive and offensive tactics are intertwined and continually change based on their effectiveness during combat, which acts as a selective agent. To determine how Iroquois assault tactics changed through time, it is essential to understand how defensive fortifications developed in the Northeast during the late prehistoric and early historic period (the seventeenth century).
The Development of Fortifications in the Northeast
Much of the information presented on the development of fortifications in the Northeast is drawn from late prehistoric sites in New York, which have [End Page 780] been more extensively excavated than sites in other areas. Archaeological evidence from the Northeast, however, suggests that defensive works in this region as a whole developed rather uniformly and that warfare was an important element in shaping village designs and prehistoric settlement patterns (Tuck 1978). Evidence of incessant warfare first appeared with the change from the Point Peninsula tradition to more localized traditions such as Owasco. Point Peninsula sites are typically small, located along major waterways, and appear to represent a population that practiced a hunting and gathering subsistence strategy. This settlement pattern changed abruptly circa a.d. 900, with a shift to larger compact villages that were situated on hilltops or away from major river valleys. While many early villages were unfortified (e.g., the Roundtop and Maxon-Derby sites), the change to more compact villages and defendable terrain away from major transportation routes has been interpreted to indicate a concern over external threats (Ritchie 1965; Ritchie and Funk 1973; Snow 1984, 1994, 1995; Tuck 1978; Wright 1966).
Between 1100 and 1300 most Northeast villages were protected by circular or oval palisades, and some with exterior ditches (e.g., the Bates, Calvert, Chamberlain, and Sackett sites) (Ritchie and Funk 1973; Timmins 1997). A few of the villages possessed double-walled palisades along portions of their defensive perimeters. A double-walled palisade contains two palisade lines positioned adjacent to one another, usually 2 inches to 2.5 inches apart. Based on ethnohistorical descriptions of historic Huron and Iroquois palisades, it is presumed that branches were interwoven between upright posts, while bark was used on the walls’ interiors to strengthen them. Large logs were laid along the base of the interior walls to provide additional support. The double-walled palisades are described during the historic period as possessing platforms from which bowmen could fire on attackers (Heidenreich 1971). Generally, Owasco sites in New York had a portion of their palisades double walled along areas most exposed to attack (the flat approaches). Single-wall palisades were placed along slopes or edges of ravines that were easier to defend. Other evidence of war at sites of this time period includes ritual cannibalism. The Sackett site has hearths and refuse pits that contain burned human bone. There are also several arrow-riddled burials at this site (Ritchie and Funk 1973). This evidence reveals a period in which conflict became an increasing threat.
Between 1300 and 1500 double-walled palisaded villages became the norm at Iroquoian village sites (e.g., the Furnace Brook, Getman, Kelso, and Nodwell sites) (Ritchie and Funk 1973; Snow 1984; Wright 1974). The palisade lines were placed in circular or oval-shaped patterns like the previous period. Several sites possessed triple-walled palisades, and in one [End Page 781] case a four-line palisade. The additional lines provided extra thickness and strength to the defensive wall and appear to represent an adaptational change in response to offensive attacks. In the case of the Burke site, the four palisade lines represent two distinct double-walled palisades. Two double-walled palisades are a substantial defensive improvement that requires a significant amount of human energy and time to construct. Throughout the Oak Hill and Chance Phases in New York, villages began to amalgamate and as a result they grew. This demographic change appears to be a reaction to warfare, with clan or family groups uniting for defensive purposes (Tuck 1978). Evidence of ritual cannibalism is also evident at several sites (e.g., the Bloody Hill, Kelso, Nodwell, and Schoff sites) and suggests that the cyclic “mourning warfare” (Richter 1983) exhibited in the historic period was probably well established at this time. Ritual cannibalism, a trait commonly exhibited in Northeastern Indian warfare, involved the consumption of a victim’s flesh or organs and was considered a way to acquire the strength and courage of an enemy warrior (Trigger 1976, 1990b).
Between 1500 and 1600, Iroquoian villages were larger in size and well fortified, situated on easily defended terrain (Snow 1984, 1994). While most villages were still protected by double-walled palisades (e.g., the Atwell, Cayadutta, Garoga, Olcott, and Simmons sites), fortifications continued to improve. For example, the diameter of the upright palisade poles increased considerably. Pole diameters were generally 2.5 to 3 inches at Owasco sites (e.g., the Bates site), while the Oak Hill Phase sites had 2.5 to 6 inch pole diameters (e.g., the Kelso site). Diameters of palisade poles at Garoga or proto-historic Iroquois sites increased to 6 to 24 inches and in some cases up to 30 inches (e.g., the Olcott site) (Ritchie and Funk 1973). The larger poles provided increased strength to a double-walled palisade, making them formidable obstacles to any type of assault. The change and enhancement of palisades in the Northeast indicates a gradual evolution toward defensive structures more capable of resisting assaults. In a.d. 1535, Jacques Cartier provided the first Euro-American description of an Iroquoian palisade when he discussed the defensive wall around the village of Hochelaga at Montreal. Cartier relates:
The village is circular and is completely enclosed by a wooden palisade in three tiers like a pyramid. The top one is built crosswise, the middle one perpendicular, and the lowest one of strips of wood placed lengthwise. The whole is well joined and lashed after their manner, and is some two lances in height. There is only one gate and entrance to this village, and that can be barred up. Over this gate and in many places about the enclosure are species of galleries [platforms] with ladders [End Page 782] for mounting them, which galleries are provided with rocks and stones for the defense and protection of the place.(Cook 1993: 61)
The fortification that is described at Hochelaga is a triple-walled palisade. The Hochelagans told Cartier that they were at war with several of their neighbors and in particular the Agojuda (whose identity remains unknown). This brief ethnohistorical glimpse of the sixteenth century demonstrates the threat warfare posed to Iroquoian villages. Oral legends of the Huron and the Iroquois also suggest that wars in their prehistoric past were bloody and intense. The possible results of these wars, tribal extinction or dispersal, were just as real in the prehistoric past as they were in the historic period. A case in point is the fate of the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians. When the French returned to Quebec and Montreal in the seventeenth century, they found both places vacant of settlements. The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians had disappeared and the local tribes reported only that they had been destroyed by their enemies (Trigger and Pendergast 1978).
Archaeological evidence of indigenous defenses of the seventeenth century are supplemented by ethnohistorical descriptions, both of which indicate that new defensive innovations appeared after contact with Euro-Americans. Warfare in the seventeenth-century Northeast was common among the indigenous tribes and often involved numerous participants. Village defenses during this period still generally relied on the traditional circular or oval double-walled palisade. However, several sites have evidence of two or more separate, distinct multiwalled palisade walls protecting a village. Early seventeenth-century descriptions by the Dutch and French discussed the similarly constructed fortified villages of several Northeastern Indians and provide internal aspects of the palisade defense that are not evident in the archaeological record.
[Huron villages were] . . . fortified by wooden palisades in three tiers, interlaced into one another, on top of which, they had galleries which they furnish with stones for hurling, and water to extinguish the fire that their enemies might lay against their palisades.
Some of these [Huron villages] are not shut in, while the others are fortified by strong wooden palisades in three rows, interlaced into one another and reinforced within by large sheets of bark to a height of eight or nine feet, and at the bottom there are great trunks of trees placed lengthwise, resting on short forks made from tree trunks. Then above these palisades there are galleries or watchtowers, which they call Ondaqua, and these they stock with stones in war time to hurl [End Page 783] upon the enemy, and water to put out the fire that might be laid against their palisades. The Hurons mount up to them by means of a ladder, very ill made and difficult to climb, and defend their ramparts with great courage and skill.
[The journal (1653)of Adrian Cornelissen van der Donck states,] In the villages and castles they always do solid and good work. As sites for their castles they tend to prefer, if possible, a high or steep hill near water or a riverside, which is difficult to climb up and often accessible on one side only. They always take care also that it is flat and even on top. This they enclose with a very heavy wooden stockade constructed in a peculiar interlocking diamond pattern. First they lay a heavy tree along the ground on both sides, which form a cross at the upper end where they are notched to fit tighter together. Next another tree is laid in there to make a very solid work. The palisades stand two deep, sufficiently strong to protect them from a surprise attack or sudden raid by their enemies, but they do not as yet have any knowledge of properly equipping such a work with curtains, bastions, and flanking walls. They also build some small forts here and there on the level and low land near their plantations to shelter their wives and children from an assault, in case they have enemies so nearby that they could be fallen upon by small parties. They think highly of their forts and castles built in that fashion, but these actually are of little consequence, and cause them more harm than good in war with the Christians.(Snow et al. 1996: 112)
Their village [the Onondaga?] was enclosed by four good palisades which were made of great pieces of wood, interlaced with each other, with an opening of not more than half a foot between two which were thirty feet high, with galleries after the manner of a parapet, which they had furnished with double pieces of wood that were proof against our arquebus shots. Morever it was near a pond where the water was abundant, and was well supplied with gutters, placed between each pair of palisades, to throw out water, which they had also under cover inside, in order to extinguish fire. Now this is the character of their fortifications and defenses, which are stronger than the villages of Attigouautan [tribe of the Huron] and others.
French accounts describe the palisades at several of the Huron villages as ranging from 15 to 35 feet high (Champlain 1922–36 3: 48; Heidenreich 1971: 139–40; jr 34: 123–25). Entrances were also well defended and described [End Page 784] as blocked with heavy barriers during an attack. Gate entrances were designed in a zigzag pattern, forcing any warriors that happened to breach the gate to enter “turning sideways” (Sagard 1939 : 92). The ethnohistorical passages indicate that defending warriors stood on platforms built into the double palisade walls for firing arrows and hurling stones onto attackers. The platforms were furnished with containers of water, in case of fire. Defenders could also position themselves within the double-walled palisade on ground level and fire arrows out of openings in the exterior wall. All of the descriptions and archaeological evidence point to a structure in which an active defense could be brought to bear on an attacking force. If these structures were well manned and defended, they could inflict heavy casualties on any enemy assault and prevent a village from being destroyed. Based on ethnohistorical evidence, traditional defenses were susceptible to fire since they were constructed of wood and bark (Heidenreich 1971: 142). If attackers could initiate a conflagration, the whole village could be destroyed within minutes, and the inhabitants killed when forced into the open. This is what occurred at a Stadocona Iroquoian fort that was attacked by the Toudamans in 1533. The Toudamans surprised the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians while they slept and “set fire round about [the palisade] and slew them all as they rushed out, except for five who made their escape” (Cook 1993: 68). Efforts to counter fire assaults included an adequate water supply, and descriptions of Iroquois and Huron defenses typically include comments on the prodigious amount of storage vessels full of water positioned on the platforms of the outer palisade. Except for the Toudaman attack, it appears that most villages were successful in neutralizing fires.
Attackers could also opt to scale the outer walls, force openings in the gate or palisade, or fire range weapons (bows) at defenders from a distance. Stone axes could be used but would not have been time-efficient in cutting down palisades as opposed to later historic-period iron hatchets. The increase in palisade thickness and pole diameter and the appearance of a second defensive wall at late prehistoric sites suggest that through the selective process of trial and error, defensive changes had occurred in reaction to these types of assaults.
In addition to the main village fortifications, there were smaller temporary fortifications built by war parties encamped in an enemy’s territory (Abler 1989). These fortifications were used as a place of refuge in case of attack or pursuit by the enemy. Samuel de Champlain (1922–36 2: 96, 128) described two of these temporary fortifications during his campaigns against the Iroquois in 1609 and 1610. The fortified bases were circular or oval in shape and usually composed of one palisade wall. [End Page 785]
By the 1640s several of the Iroquoian-speaking tribes began to incorporate European fortification styles in some of their villages. In 1636 the French had advised the Huron to “make their forts square and arrange their stakes in straight lines; and that, by means of four little towers at the four corners, four Frenchmen might easily with their arquebuses or muskets defend a whole village” (jr 10: 53). Ethnohistorical and archaeological evidence indicates that the Huron began to adopt a square or diamond-shaped palisade design at a few of their villages. One village, Ossossane, contained two bastions (Abler 1989: 277). A bastion is an angular projection from a fortification, allowing defenders a clear line of fire. The Susquehannock were reported to have built rectangular fortifications at some of their villages in the 1640s. In the 1660s their main village (the Strickler site), while still oval-shaped, contained two European-style square bastions armed with cannon (jr 68: 77; Kent 1984: 350–51).
Iroquois villages also began to use European-style fortifications. In the 1660s the Mohawk village of Gandaouague possessed a double-walled palisade built in the shape of a trapezoid. One gate had an interior baffle (Ritchie and Funk 1973: 171–72). In 1666 the French destroyed several Mohawk villages (which had previously been abandoned) and described one as highly fortified and well prepared for a siege. “It was evident enough—from the triple palisade, twenty feet high, with which their place was surrounded; from the four bastions flanking it; from their prodigious hoard of provisions; and from the abundant supply of water they had provided, in bark receptacles, for extinguishing fires” (jr 50: 145). In 1685 the French Iroquois at the Sault protected their village with a pentagonal palisade with five bastions, one armed with an eight-pounder cannon (jr 63: 245). In 1693 the village of Onondaga was described as defended by three separate palisade walls with eight bastions (nycd 9: 567). When Count Louis de Frontenac attacked this village in summer 1696, he described the outer wall as positioned six feet beyond the inner two. The outer wall was composed of smaller palisade poles that were 40 to 50 feet high. The inner palisades were constructed of poles the size of ship masts. The entire fortification was described as oblong in shape and flanked by four bastions (not eight as indicated in the earlier report) (nycd 9: 653). It is clear that contact with the Euro-American colonies influenced indigenous fortification designs, as did new warfare tactics and weapon technology that tested the limits of traditional indigenous defenses.
Prehistoric Warfare versus Historic-Period Warfare
Archaeology has revealed that conflict was pervasive throughout the prehistoric development of Iroquoian-speaking populations in the Northeast. [End Page 786] The evidence of this is represented by ritual cannibalism, arrow-riddled burials, fortifications, and continued aggregation of villages and the coalescence of tribes into alliances or confederacies. Archaeologists cannot, however, tell us how warfare was conducted, the reasons for it, nor where or when villages of Iroquoian-speaking populations were attacked. Archaeologists have often turned to ethnohistorical descriptions of historic-period warfare and to anthropological studies of other tribal societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to describe prehistoric-traditional warfare in the Northeast. In historical Iroquois society, men played a prominent role in warfare. Since warfare was endemic in the Northeast, males had to be ready to defend their villages or territory as well as be capable of striking back at attackers. Warriors were expected to be fearless in battle, self-reliant, uncomplaining, and unyielding in revenge. Although warfare was a danger to Iroquois society, it provided their culture a chance for glory, honor, and revenge (Brandao 1997; Colden 1922; Trigger 1990b). Iroquois scholars have suggested that warfare served several goals related to prestige, psychological needs, religion, adoption, and defensive and offensive needs.
When Iroquois warriors decided to attack an enemy, parties were typically five to twenty men. In more significant attacks, one hundred to five hundred men could be involved, and in rare cases one thousand or more (Benn 1991; Brandao 1997; Trigger 1990b). Surprise attacks and ambushes were an important strategy of both small and large war parties during the historic period. Smaller enemy groups were attacked, giving the attacker an advantage in numbers. Warriors were primarily armed with bows, war clubs, and knives, and often wore wooden body armor. When attacking, the Iroquois typically used their range weapons (bows) first, then closed in to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. As many as possible of the enemy were killed or taken prisoner until one group fled the field or surrendered.
Some scholars have argued that when larger groups (more than one hundred warriors on either side) met in battle or a village was attacked, warfare turned into a ritualized event (see Trigger 1976, 1990b). In these contests both sides lined up at a distance to engage in formal battles. Arrows would be fired at long range and after a few deaths or injuries, opponents would retreat satisfied. Trigger (1990b: 54) sums up this perspective of Northeastern Indian warfare in his description of how Iroquoian villages were attacked. “The siege of a community might last a week or more. Fires were set along the base of the palisade in order to challenge the enemy to come out and fight. When they did, the opposing sides lined up and engaged in a pitched battle. After a few deaths or injuries on either side the enemy retreated into their settlement, taking with them any prisoners they might have captured.” [End Page 787]
There is, however, little ethnohistorical evidence to support the argument that ritual battles characterized traditional Iroquoian warfare. Evidence from archaeology and accounts from historic-period warfare suggest the opposite: that territory (both the acquisition and defense of) and the utter defeat of an enemy were real objectives and concerns of precontact Iroquoian populations. In fact, historic-period indigenous warfare may have been no more violent than that of the prehistoric period (Abler 1989; Brandao 1997; Keener 1998). The extensiveness and continued improvement of village fortifications over time indicates that defenses were tested or there was a real threat of attack. Reports from the early contact period also support this. For example, in 1533 a Saint Lawrence Iroquoian fortification was attacked by Toudamans, who breached the palisade and killed two hundred of its defenders (Cook 1993: 67–68). In 1615, Champlain (1922–36 3: 125) recorded that the Huron had been forced to move their villages 40 to 50 leagues (presumably from the east, although the exact location is not known) in retreat from successful Onondaga attacks. This may explain why the Huron had Champlain attack an Onondaga village this same year. In 1626 a Mohawk village was destroyed by Mahicans (Abler 1989: 279). In 1642 the Neutral attacked a palisaded village of the Fire Nation. Neutrals laid siege to the village for ten days before they were finally able to take it. Seventy Fire Nation warriors were burned at the stake and eight hundred people were taken captive (jr 27: 25–27).
These attacks indicate intensive warfare in which the goal was to destroy a village or a population or to drive a population from its territory. This interpretation is also supported by the comments made by Iroquois warriors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concerning their views on war. The Iroquois often termed their warfare as an all-or-nothing struggle that either resulted in their enemy’s total destruction or their own (e.g., jr 62: 213; nycd 5: 274, 9: 249).
Seventeenth-Century Iroquois Assault Tactics against Fortifications
With the onset of the historic period, warfare continued, but indigenous tribes were introduced to new technologies (iron weapons and guns) acquired through the fur trade. During the seventeenth century the Iroquois, unlike many other tribes, had easy access to trade goods at Dutch posts along the Hudson River. Weapons of war, such as the iron axe and musket, were highly sought items, and by the 1640s the Iroquois were well equipped with these goods and used them against their enemies (Given 1994). Ethnohistorical descriptions of Iroquois assaults against fortified villages were [End Page 788] first reported in the 1640s. At this time the Iroquois effectively invaded Huronia and began attacking and successfully destroying Huron villages. The type of assault tactics used by the Iroquois depended on the given situation and the nature of the defenses. Many of their assault tactics were used by other tribes as well during this period. The Iroquois, however, developed unique tactics when confronted with well-defended positions. Two types of specific assault tactics were identified as used by the Iroquois between 1640 and 1700. These tactics have been classified and defined as either direct assault or indirect assault tactics.
During the 1640s the Iroquois were recorded as using large numbers of warriors (two hundred to more than one thousand) in concerted and massed attacks on Huron villages and French posts. These attacks on fortified positions involved the use of direct assaults, which are defined as attempts to penetrate the outer defensive walls of a village or fortified position by a large number of warriors attacking one or several points along its front. Although not always explicit in the ethnohistorical records, it is assumed that such attacks were focused on what was thought to be the weakest part of an enemy’s defense. The goal of these assaults was to attain the outer wall as quickly as possible to reduce casualties in the “field of fire” in front of the fortification. The field of fire is the cleared area in front of a fortified village that allows defenders a clear shot at attackers (Bradford 1988: 166). The most difficult aspect of gaining access to a village wall was the approach, since attackers were exposed to the fire of defenders who were protected by their fortified position. Well-defended fortifications could usually exact a heavy toll on attackers before the base of a fortified perimeter was even reached (Brice 1984).
A way to reduce casualties was to attain and scale or breach the perimeter wall as quickly as possible. Once an outer wall was reached, warriors fired through existing loopholes or gaps into the interior of a village, while others attempted to chop down the outer palisades at the base. In this task the iron hatchet was a crucial element in Iroquois assaults; it allowed users the ability to quickly hack down walls. Once a wall was breached, warriors rushed inside to kill or capture the defenders. The Iroquois use of direct assaults appeared to develop in the 1640s during attacks against the French and the Huron. The first report of this tactic occurred in 1642, when the Iroquois attacked Fort Richelieu (Gélinas 1983: 4, 9). An Iroquois force of approximately three hundred warriors charged the French palisaded fort, which was still under construction. Although the use of hatchets was not reported, several of the warriors gained access to the outer wall [End Page 789] and fired inside at the French garrison through loopholes. The French defenders regrouped, however, and after intense combat were able to repulse the Iroquois force (jr 22: 17, 127, 277–79; jr 24: 281–83).
While this assault was not successful, the Iroquois evidently honed their skills, and in 1648 they assaulted and destroyed two Huron villages, resulting in approximately seven hundred Hurons killed or captured (jr 33: 16, 259; jr 34: 87–95). Unfortunately, details about how these villages were attacked were not provided, although the following year the Jesuits gave a detailed description of the Iroquois assaults on two other Huron towns, Saint Ignace and Saint Louis. Bolstered by their previous success, an Iroquois army of approximately one thousand to twelve hundred men launched a surprise attack against these two Huron villages in spring 1649. At night the Iroquois attacked the weakest part of the palisade surrounding Saint Ignace, where no sentries were posted. Using their hatchets unmolested, the Iroquois quickly made a hole in the wall and the village was captured with little resistance (jr 34: 15, 25–27, 123–25). Following this assault, the Iroquois attacked the nearby palisaded village of Saint Louis. The Huron defenders were prepared for the Iroquois assault this time but were badly outnumbered, with only approximately eighty warriors to brave the defenses. The Iroquois rushed the palisades and were able to breach the walls in several places with their hatchets. The Jesuits described the effectiveness of this new implement: “The Iroquois having undermined with blows of their hatchets the palisade of stakes, and having made passage for themselves through considerable breaches” (jr 34: 127). The defending garrison, unable to contain the breaches, were overwhelmed and defeated. In these attacks, which also involved combat outside the walls of the villages, a total of 380 Hurons were killed or captured (jr 34: 123–37, 217). The crushing defeat the Huron suffered in this battle disheartened them so much that they fragmented and dispersed; many even requested that the Iroquois adopt them.
During direct assaults the use of guns offered additional advantages to Iroquois attackers. While some scholars have debated the effectiveness of muskets versus the traditional use of bows, muskets provided two distinct advantages: shock value and penetrating power (e.g., Given 1981, 1994). Psychologically, a gun exuded power because of the noise, smoke, and damage it could inflict, which could raise the confidence of the warrior using it. When used as shock weapons against tribes unacquainted with guns’ existence, they could have had a devastating impact on the defender’s morale. The Illinois, for example, were reported by the Jesuits as using guns solely as shock weapons against tribes unfamiliar with them, sending the tribes into panic (jr 59: 127; jr 60: 161). Muskets provided another advantage [End Page 790] during combat: penetrating power. Native wooden armor, while proof against arrows, could be pierced by musket balls. Muskets also nullified the technique of “dodging the arrow” (Abler 1989: 274–75). In traditional warfare, warriors could attempt to dodge arrows by timing the release of the bow or watching the arrows in flight. Bullets could not be dodged once they were fired. Muskets also had a chance to penetrate the outer walls of village palisades, particularly the upper portion that protected the platform area that probably possessed only one line of palisade stakes. Bowmen firing from the platforms would have to expose themselves to fire their arrows, giving any Iroquois warrior armed with a musket an easy target. The Iroquois possessed greater numbers of guns than their foes, and during assaults on fortified villages the use of guns would have caused problems for defending bowmen, particularly when they provided cover fire for warriors attempting to undermine palisades with hatchets.
The success of direct assault tactics on fortifications depended largely on surprise, the quickness of the attack in reaching and penetrating the outer defenses, and the ability to cause confusion among the defenders, weakening their defensive capabilities (Mahan 1968). A larger number of attackers versus defenders could overwhelm the defenders’ abilities to prevent an outer wall breach. The drawback to direct assault tactics was the high number of casualties sustained when enemy warriors were concentrated and alerted to an attacker’s presence. In the assaults the Iroquois conducted in the 1640s, they took no precautions in protecting themselves with shields when attacking defenses. As a result, they suffered high casualties. For example, the 1649 Iroquois raid on the Huron towns of Saint Ignace and Saint Louis resulted in an estimated two hundred Iroquois casualties (jr 34: 25, 123–37; Otterbein 1964). Casualties from warfare and disease had such an impact on Iroquois populations that by 1658 the Jesuits noted “that the Iroquois have depopulated their own villages to such extent, that they now contain more foreigners than natives of the country” (jr 43: 265). Fortunately, the Iroquois had a liberal and successful adoption policy that allowed them to recoup their population losses and gave them an adaptive advantage over their foes who were unable to do the same (Brandao 1997).
In response to the heavy losses, the Iroquois developed new tactics that helped reduce casualties during assaults on fortifications. In the 1650s the Iroquois constructed movable barriers or walls and protective shields (called mantlets) to defend warriors on the approach to the outer wall. The Iroquois were not the first Northeastern tribe to use shields (e.g., the Huron), but by the late 1640s most tribes had stopped using traditional wooden shields and body armor because of their inability to stop musket [End Page 791] balls (Trigger 1990b). But the Iroquois reintroduced hand-held shields made of thicker pieces of wood, capable of withstanding musket fire (Figure 1). This use of mantlets was first described by the Jesuits between 1654 and 1656, during the Iroquois war with the Erie. The Erie, an Iroquoian-speaking tribe that lived just south of Lake Erie in western New York and perhaps portions of northwest Pennsylvania, were described by the Jesuits as living in fortified villages. In 1654 warfare broke out between the Iroquois and the Erie, and by 1655 the Iroquois had begun offensive attacks against Erie settlements. Several Erie villages were destroyed, including their main settlement, Rique. The Erie retreated from the onslaught but were reportedly closely followed by a large Iroquois army, which forced the Erie to hastily build one last fortification. The Iroquois assault on this fort was vividly described by the Jesuits, who were not eyewitnesses to the battle but apparently received their information from Iroquois warriors who participated in the assault. The Jesuits reported that in the battle’s opening phases, the Erie successfully repulsed several Iroquois assaults during which no mantlets or protective barriers were used. Casualties were high for the Iroquois and as a result another assault was initiated, but this time with protective devices. The Iroquois constructed a “mobile counter-palisade” (a large portable wooden wall) that could protect several warriors and be used to scale the outer palisade after it was leaned against the wall (jr 45: 209). Canoes were also used as make-shift shields and scaling ladders in this battle (Figure 2). The large portable wall and canoes enabled the Iroquois to reach the perimeter wall, which was successfully scaled and breached. The Erie defense collapsed and the fortification was destroyed (jr 42: 113, 179–83; jr 45: 209).
The implementation of protective shields continued to be used into the 1660s. In 1660 the Iroquois assaulted a circular palisade defended by a French and Indian party at the Long Sault. This palisade apparently was a small temporary fort built by a war party a year before. The Jesuits described the final assault on the fortification: “To shelter themselves from most of this hail [of bullets], they [the Iroquois] made themselves mantlets of three pieces of wood lashed side to side, which covered them from the crown of the head to the middle of the thigh; by this means they seized the curtains under the cannoneers, and as these defenses were not flanked, carried on their mining in considerable security” (jr 45: 253–55). Once the Iroquois gained command of the loopholes, they fired into the fort and used their hatchets to hack down the palisade walls (ibid.). The circular fort was breached and defenders were captured or killed.
In another account, which took place in 1661, a group of Iroquois on the Isle of Orleans (near Quebec) were attacked by a French shallop on [End Page 792] the Saint Lawrence. The Iroquois “took each two or three pieces of wood which they joined together and bore in front of them as mantelets, thus sheltering themselves from the hot fire constantly leveled at them by the French” (jr 46: 213). Thus protected, the Iroquois returned fire and killed all but one (who was taken prisoner) of the French in the shallop.
The use of protective shields was successful for the Iroquois because their indigenous opponents were relying on defenses that had circular or oval walls with no flanking bastions (Figure 3). Direct assault tactics that [End Page 794] used shields did not work well against fortified positions that possessed flanking walls or bastions. A flanking wall is a wall that projects at an angle from the main wall of a fortification, allowing defenders a clear line of fire at the flank of potential attackers (Hogg 1975; Mahan 1968). A bastion is an angular projection from a fortification (along a wall or at the corners), affording crossfire on the flanks of attackers (Bradford 1988; Brice 1984; Hogg 1975; Mahan 1968). Shielded attackers that reach the base of a fortification with flanking walls or bastions become vulnerable to defensive fire from the side or the rear, which negates any advantage protective shields may have provided. The Huron were the first to begin incorporating bastions in some of their towns. However, the Huron designs did not possess true flanked wall designs (seeFigure 3), nor did these designs anticipate the ferocity of Iroquois assaults, which employed large numbers of attacking warriors and used new and effective offensive weapons (e.g., iron axes, muskets, counter palisades, and shields). By the 1660s, however, many of the Iroquois enemies began incorporating flanked designs into their village defenses. For example, in 1664 an Iroquois force was confronted by a Susquehannock village protected by a double-walled palisade that had two square bastions armed with cannons (jr 68: 77). The Iroquois did not attempt to assault this village, probably because shields would have been ineffective against the flanked defenses and cannon fire. As a result of increased defenses, the Iroquois came to rely more on indirect assaults.
An alternative to direct assaults were indirect assaults, which involved less risk and typically fewer casualties because the exposure to enemy fire was lessened. An indirect assault could be best described as an engagement with an enemy’s position that does not include an attempt to penetrate an enemy’s fortified perimeter. An indirect assault can include the following tactics: encirclement; siege; raiding (hit and run); destruction of unprotected outbuildings, crops, settlements, and cattle; the disruption of supply lines; and the ambush of reinforcements, defenders, or settlers exposed outside a besieged fort or village. An indirect assault could turn into a direct assault if the defenders’ position was found to be weak or if the attackers were able to draw an opponent outside the fortification and into an ambush (jr 53: 157).
Indirect assault tactics were just as effective as direct assaults in capturing fortified villages and posts or causing high casualties for defenders. Several examples of successful indirect assaults were recorded in the late 1680s as the Iroquois launched offensive attacks against French villages and posts around Lake Ontario and in the Montreal area of the Saint Lawrence. [End Page 796] These attacks were a response to the ones by New France Governor Marquis de Denonville on Seneca villages in 1687. The Iroquois forced the French to abandon Fort Niagara (1688) and Fort Frontenac (1689) and devastated the settlement of Lachine and the Isle of Montreal with a surprise raid (1689) (jr 12, 64; nycd 3, 5, 9). In these battles the Iroquois suffered surprisingly few casualties, which is indicative of a change in tactics when assaulting fortified posts or towns. Descriptions of these battles and the tactics used follows.
Fort Niagara, built by Denonville in 1687 during his campaign against the Seneca, was immediately placed under siege by the Iroquois after Denonville’s forces withdrew. Denonville had hoped that this fort would encourage western tribes to attack and raid the Iroquois and to use the fort to resupply and provide refuge for war parties. Located at the west end of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River, this post was isolated deep within Iroquois territory and far from reinforcements along the Saint Lawrence, a fact that would have probably deterred the construction of this post by most military strategists. There is no account that the Iroquois directly assaulted this post. Rather, the English and French reported that the Iroquois laid siege to the fort, preventing the French garrison from attaining supplies from Montreal and cutting them off from the surrounding countryside.
While at the French fort of Saint Joseph by Lake St. Clair, Baron de Lahontan was informed by several Iroquois prisoners (taken by a Huron war party) that the Iroquois were laying siege to Fort Niagara and planning to attack his post: “They gave us to understand, that the Fort of Niagara was block’d up by eight hundred Iroquese, who mean’d to appear before my Post without any delay. This troublesome piece of news gall’d me to the last degree, for fear of being reduc’d to extremities; and with that view I was a very nice Husband of what Corn I had left” (Thwaites 1905: 142). An English report stated that the Iroquois siege had “starved the French Garrison in it [Fort Niagara]; so that a Priest was the only man that survived” (nycd 5: 76). There are no other accounts to help substantiate the assertion that the entire French garrison died of starvation, but the French were strangely silent about the fate of the post, except that it was abandoned in 1688 (nycd 9: 392).
Accounts concerning Fort Frontenac are more numerous. The fort (Cataracouy) was built in 1673 by Governor Frontenac. Located at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, the fort was geographically closer to Montreal than to Fort Niagara but still difficult to supply with provisions or reinforcements and thus was vulnerable to siege tactics. Shortly after Denonville’s army withdrew from Lake Ontario, the Iroquois began indirect assaults on [End Page 797] the French fort. In August 1687 approximately 280 Iroquois “burn’d, the houses and Barn that stood without the fort, and taken foure men and one woman prisoners” (nycd 3: 480). The Iroquois also sent a group of twelve warriors downstream along the Saint Lawrence to intercept supplies and reinforcements that were expected from Montreal. Two French barks and several canoes, full of supplies and men, were ambushed while they were unloading supplies at a stopping point (Rochemonteix 1896: 621–27). The Iroquois killed twenty French soldiers, took nine men prisoner, and captured the supplies needed at the fort (nycd 3: 480). Although the ethnohistorical passages are not explicit, it appears that at this time the Iroquois permanently stationed a group of warriors around the post to lay siege to the fort and prevent supplies from getting inside.
In autumn 1688 three French soldiers and one woman were again captured outside the walls of Fort Frontenac by a party of forty Iroquois, “who lurked around the fort [laying siege?]” (nycd 9: 389). The Iroquois also attacked a “bark which was conveying provisions to Cataracouy [Fort Frontenac]” (nycd 9: 395). In 1689, Father Lamberville officially reported that the fort was under siege, “the Iroquois having so closed us [the French garrison] in that we could get neither wood, water, nor fresh food” (jr 64: 251). No supplies from Montreal were slipping through the Iroquois blockade of the fort. The garrison tried two sorties to break the siege, but the Iroquois repulsed the attacks, killing several of the French. As a result of no food, “scurvy broke out among the garrison, and carried off about a hundred men” (jr 64: 251). In another account the English reported that “the Garrison was dying of hunger” (jr 64: 97). With the situation at the fort untenable, Denonville ordered its evacuation, which was executed, apparently just before the arrival of a large Iroquois war party (jr 64: 97, 251–53; nycd 9: 436). The fort was blown up before the French left, thus ending the presence of any French-occupied fortified posts along the shores of Lake Ontario until 1695 (when Fort Frontenac was rebuilt and regarrisoned).
As the descriptions of the sieges of Forts Frontenac and Niagara attest, preventing access to food supplies could hasten the capitulation of a fortification. In addition to siege tactics, the Iroquois were one of the first Native American groups recorded to employ a military strategy that included attacks on an enemy’s food supplies. The goals of these attacks, especially those against the French, were to force the French to retreat from their settlements because of the lack of food. For example, between 1640 and 1670 nine Iroquois raids were reported at the French settlements of Trois-Rivières and Montreal that focused on the destruction of crops and the killing of cattle (jr 36: 135; jr 37: 101–3, 113–15; jr 38: 57, 171, 193; jr 40: 109–13; jr 65: 12, 29; nycd 9: 391, 516). The killing of livestock also [End Page 798] served the alternate purpose of feeding a war party while in an opponent’s territory.
The most devastating assault by the Iroquois occurred on 5 August 1689 against French settlements on the Isle of Montreal, which resulted in the “universal destruction” of the French settlement of La Chine (jr 64: 25). Although accounts vary, approximately one thousand to fifteen hundred Iroquois warriors “burnt all the settlements from the Point of the Island of Montreal to within a league of Ville marie [Montreal]” (nycd 9: 429). During this surprise attack the Iroquois set fire to agricultural fields, isolated farmsteads, settlements, and “block’d up two Forts [Forts Rolund (or Rolland) and Remy]” (Thwaites 1905: 224). French soldiers in the fortified town of Montreal organized an eighty-man sortie to help relieve nearby Fort Rolund (nycd 9: 431). It appears that either the Iroquois lured the French into thinking that their force was a small raiding party or the French commander of the detachment, Sieur de La Rabeyre, was overconfident. In either case a portion of the fortified town’s defenders were brought out into the open and were quickly decimated by the Iroquois. In all, approximately 150 to 200 French were killed, and another 130 to 400 captured (jr 12: 273; jr 64: 273; nycd 9: 429, 431). Amazingly, the French reported no casualties for the Iroquois during this large-scale attack. It is probable, however, that the Iroquois suffered some casualties, albeit minimal in number because of the element of surprise and the quickness of the attack.
Diachronic Perspectives on Iroquois Assault Tactics
When Iroquois warfare is analyzed chronologically, there is a clear evolution in the change of warfare tactics used between 1640 and 1700. Of the 237 reported attacks made by the Iroquois during this period, 100 (42 percent) were hit-and-run attacks on enemies along waterways or trade routes or at unspecified locales. The remaining 137 attacks (58 percent) were made on or in the vicinity of enemy villages. Of these attacks, 86 percent were indirect assaults on people, outbuildings, cattle, and so on, outside of village defenses. The remaining 14 percent represented direct attempts to take a fort or village by force. When the direct assaults against forts and villages were analyzed separately, the number of attacks against fortified indigenous villages (sixteen) was proportionally higher than those against Euro-American villages and forts (three). The majority of the direct assaults against indigenous villages (75 percent) occurred between 1640 and 1660, of which all were against the fortified villages of the Iroquoian-speaking neighbors of the Iroquois. During this period the Iroquois used their new [End Page 799] technology and battle tactics with deadly efficiency. The traditional village defenses of the neighboring indigenous populations were not adequate to survive the new strategies employed by the Iroquois. As the Iroquois captured and destroyed one enemy village after another and had enormous success with their hit-and-run raids, the morale of their enemies plummeted (jr 33: 69, 81, 119). Consequently, the confidence of the Iroquois increased, as did their attacks, resulting in the successful dispersal and destruction of many of their enemies.
It is evident from the ethnohistorical texts that the period between 1640 and 1660 was a critical time for Northeastern tribal warfare. Traditional defenses, weapons, and warfare strategies were affected by new technology and ideas. In the case of the Iroquois, the ethnohistorical record indicates they chose to become well armed with implements of iron (e.g., axes) and guns (Given 1994; Otterbein 1964). They obviously felt these items were superior to their traditional weapons and gave them a tactical edge against their opponents. The Iroquois also had an advantage over their enemies in their ability to attain these weapons. Access to trade items was safe and close, allowing them to acquire weapons unhindered. Given (1994) documents that by 1640 the Mohawk were fully armed with muskets, while the Iroquois enemies reportedly possessed few (excluding the Susquehannock). It is also evident that throughout the 1640s the Iroquois began to enjoy increasing success in their attacks against traditional enemies. As their enemies weakened, Iroquois confidence rose and they increased their attacks, employing unique assault tactics specifically designed to capture and destroy indigenous villages. During the period that the Iroquois had a decided advantage in weapons and tactics, their enemies suffered enormous losses, resulting in their destruction or dispersal (e.g., the Huron, Neutral, and Erie). Those enemies that were armed with muskets and that employed flanked village designs, however, were better able to maintain the status quo and resist Iroquois attacks (e.g., the Susquehannock). This is supported by the fact that after 1660 the use of direct assault tactics declined dramatically, with only three direct assaults reported between 1660 and 1700, in contrast to fifty-two indirect assaults in the previous twenty years.
During the eighteenth century, Northeastern Indian warfare strategies against fortifications were usually represented by various indirect assault tactics. Attacks of this sort were primarily directed against those fortifications that protected Euro-American settlements or posts (which had flanked defensive positions and cannons). Since direct assaults on such fortifications would have probably resulted in extensive casualties, Northeastern tribes often relied on siege (e.g., Fort Detroit, 1763), subterfuge (e.g., Fort Sandusky, 1763), and the ambush of reinforcements or garrisons outside [End Page 800] of the fortification walls (e.g., Fort Stanwix, the battle of Oriskany, 1777). In contrast to Euro-American fortifications, with only a few exceptions, Northeast Indian villages during the eighteenth century were not fortified (Trigger 1990a). Traditional indigenous village defenses changed from compact communities with fortified walls to spread-out communities that may or may not have had a single defensive lodge or blockhouse. The Iroquois and other Northeast tribes, when faced with Euro-American attacks, generally vacated their villages rather than staying put (Buchman 1994; Hammond 1939; Stevens et al. 1972). This new tactic was probably the end result of experience gained from warfare during the seventeenth century in which traditional indigenous fortifications did not fare well against new offensive tactics and technology. One weapon in particular, the portable cannon—which Euro-American populations began to bring along in their expeditions against indigenous populations (e.g., Frontenac’s Campaign of 1696)—had a tremendous impact on defensive decisions. The abandonment of village defenses allowed indigenous populations to retreat quickly, which could help prevent their entrapment by large attacking armies. The Fox strengthened their village fortifications to withstand cannon fire during their conflict with the French in the early eighteenth century (Edmunds and Peyser 1993), but there were few other examples.
The evolution of Northeastern Indian offensive warfare against fortified villages, and explanations of why certain tactics appear then become obsolete, are best understood by the process of selection through trial and error. This process is defined as the differential transmission of variation within a population over time. Variation is always present in the statistical popularity of social practices at any given time among different interacting sets of people (Braun 1990). Warfare is an observable environmental stress that acts as an active process of selection, which allows the study of the effects of war on the variety of defensive and offensive strategies exhibited within human populations. The variation in Iroquois assault tactics were actively selected according to their relative effectiveness against an opponent’s defenses. Tactics that produced high casualties were intentionally dropped because they threatened the survival of Iroquois society.
The hypothesis proposed in this article is supported by both the archaeological and ethnohistorical record. Defensive and offensive changes occurred throughout the late prehistoric and historic periods in relation to new innovations or technology. Warfare, which became endemic in the [End Page 801] Northeast by 1300, had created the need for defensive structures around villages. These structures evolved over time, becoming stronger and more complex, which suggests that offensive tactics also changed over time. The simpler defenses of the Owasco period seem to indicate that most fortifications were constructed to fend off indirect assaults by small raiding parties. The change to more substantial defensive structures appears to indicate a concern over direct assaults, an offensive strategy used by historic-period tribes in the early seventeenth century. New technologies, such as the iron axe and the gun, produced changes in offensive tactics, particularly in how direct assaults were conducted. Instead of relying on fire as a primary weapon against fortifications, hatchets were used as an efficient method of breaching palisades. The development of protective shields bestowed added protection to attackers during an assault. In response to these offensive tactics, defensive works of indigenous tribes began to adopt flanked designs or the incorporation of bastions, effectively countering the use of shields. The use of cannons in fortifications also produced changes in offensive tactics with attackers using more indirect assault methods.
This article provides evidence that Native American assault tactics were innovative, complex, and successful when employed against Euro-American or indigenous fortifications. Ethnohistorical and archaeological information used in a regional and chronological fashion describes and explains the development of prehistoric and historic Indian warfare through time. By defining the process of selection, which offensive and defensive strategies undergo during war, researchers can explain the appearance or disappearance of certain tactical behaviors. This essay provides an interesting contrast for studies on battle tactics used by other North American tribes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is hoped that the information presented has broadened the understanding of how the Iroquois fought during combat in the seventeenth century and will inspirit further research by anthropologists and historians on the topic of war.
* I am much indebted to Applied Archaeological Services for allowing me to use their computer facilities when writing this article. Also I would like to thank Ed Faber and Erica Kuhns for their editorial comments. Special thanks to Erica for her drawings and illustrations, and to the anonymous reviewers of this article. I accept responsibility for all ideas and comments made concerning Iroquois assault tactics that are presented in this essay.
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