The War in the Forest I

Military historian Douglas Edward Leach has called 1689 the “year of the great divide, marking as it does the beginning of a series of four major wars whose outcome would shape the whole future of North America.” That year saw the start of the titanic struggle between predominantly Protestant Britain and Catholic France that lasted for seven bitter decades. In America, the long series of skirmishes, pitched battles, and anxious truces would be popularly remembered as the French and Indian Wars, a name implying that the Indians were pawns of their European allies.

They were not. Caught between two warring nations whose customs were equally incomprehensible to them, the North American natives were again and again forced to pick sides. Some tribes chose to fight with the French, and some with the English, but all the tribes fought for their own best interests as they saw them. And although the war was a clash between European rivals, Indians were in it from the first; in fact, the war actually began in America in 1688, while Europe was at peace and England still had a Catholic king.

Although it had at first been sluggish in colonizing the New World, by the 1680s France had established strong bases in Montreal, Port Royal, and Quebec. The British had forestalled French expansion north of Quebec by opening a trading post at Hudson Bay in 1670, but the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers gave France access to the immense reaches of land in the interior of the continent. The English had a long Atlantic coastline, but the French meant to see that their ancient rivals stayed behind the Appalachian mountain barrier.

The English, in turn, were ever on guard against French encirclement, and none was more vigilant than the autocratic Sir Edmund Andros, who as New York’s governor had persuaded the Mohawks to side with his English settlers during King Philip’s War. James II of England had appointed Andros governor of all the northern colonies from New Jersey to Maine, with orders to prevent any French encroachments. This Andros did with hawkish efficiency.

In April 1688, he moved north with a company of soldiers to Penobscot Bay, where Frenchman Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie, baron de Saint-Castin kept a trading post at what is now Castine, Maine. Saint-Castin had established his post on land Andros felt had been granted to the duke of York and had gotten rich from the fur trade. He had married the daughter of a chief and was well loved by members of the Abnaki confederacy of eastern Indians. As an observer wrote in 1684, they were the “most powerfull, politick, warlike and numerous nation of Indians since the Narragansetts are broken, and influence and steer all others that inhabit the English Plantations or Colonies.”

The Abnakis were furious when Andros and his men descended on their friend Saint-Castin’s trading post, plundered his home, and demanded his submission to James II. When, a little later, English settlers at Saco, Maine, seized sixteen Indians in retaliation for the killing of some cattle at nearby North Yarmouth, the natives responded by capturing as many settlers as they could lay hands on.

In September, the nervous English began erecting fortified stockades at North Yarmouth. Having received a report that a large number of natives were approaching, the soldiers fled, only to stumble onto the party of Indians, who had brought a number of English captives along, evidently for the purpose of negotiating a settlement of their grievances. Although nobody wanted a fight, the English tried to free the captives, and in the scuffling “one Sturdy and Surly Indian,” as the indefatigable Puritan chronicler Cotton Mather described him, “held his prey so fast, that one Benedict Pulcifer gave the Mastiff a Blow with the Edge of his Broad Ax upon the Shoulder, upon which they fell to’t with a Vengeance, and Fired their Guns on both sides, till some on both sides were Slain.” In this manner, Mather said, “the Vein of New-England first opened, that afterwards Bled for Ten years together!” Blood had been spilled, however blindly and unnecessarily; by the values of both Indians and settlers, blood spilled had to be avenged.

The Indians attacked the outlying settlements, burned, killed, captured, and plundered. With the onset of winter, they withdrew into the woods. Governor Andros arrived on the scene with 1,000 men in November and built forts at Pemaquid and what is now Brunswick. But, as Mather noted in disgust, Andros’s men killed no Indians until the spring, when Andros returned to Boston, where he was promptly deposed in the backwash of a Protestant revolt in England that dethroned the Catholic king James II. Andros went home to Britain, and the war whose opening moves he had managed continued without him under the name of King William’s War, after the new English monarch.

Meanwhile, France sought to bolster its situation in America by appointing a vigorous governor for New France. The choice was Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac, a tough old soldier and a good one (he had been made a brigadier general at the age of twenty-seven). Frontenac had been governor once before, in 1672 – court gossip said he had gotten the job because he became too intimate with the king’s favorite mistress. He had handled his duties with energy and skill, but he was quarrelsome and overbearing and in ten years made himself so thoroughly unpopular that he had been recalled. Now, however, the situation demanded Frontenac’s knowledgeable toughness, and the French king reappointed the seventy-year-old autocrat.

Frontenac set sail from France armed with an ambitious battle plan: to invade the English colonies through Lake Champlain and Lake George to Albany, where, after concluding an alliance with the Iroquois, he was to move down the Hudson and with the help of a French fleet capture New York. But the old commander never got the chance to put this grand design into operation.

When he arrived at Quebec, Frontenac found the colony stunned by a savage Iroquois attack that had devastated the settlement of Lachine, six miles upriver from Montreal, during the night of July 25-26. The settlers, taken in their beds, had had no time to resist; the Indians killed 200 of them immediately and took another 120 prisoner. The ferocity of the attack was typical of the Iroquois. When Jacques Bruyas, the French missionary to the Iroquois, told his charges that all their desires would be satisfied in heaven, they badgered him with “impertinent questions as that they would not believe that there were no wars in heaven; if one would meet human beings there and if there one would be looking for scalp locks.” Bruyas deplored their “passion to kill,” so that “they are willing to travel 300 leagues to have the opportunity of taking a scalp lock.”

Demoralized by so ruthless an enemy, the French had abandoned their fort at Cataraqui on Lake Ontario. Frontenac, far from being able to send a campaign roaring down the Hudson Valley, had to content himself with small-scale sallies against English settlements on the frontier, a strategy he called la petite guerre – which we would call guerrilla warfare. To fight his “little war,” Frontenac began to forge such Indian allies as he had into efficient units that attacked under the direction of French officers.

In the meantime, the English continued to have their share of Indian trouble. After Andros’s departure from Maine, the Indians continued their assaults on outlying settlements and then mounted a major expedition against Dover, New Hampshire. There they killed thirty English, among them the trader Major Richard Waldron, an old enemy from King Philip’s War. Local Indians of the Pennacook, Ossipee, and Pigwacket tribes attacked the seventy-five-year-old patriarch. While he lay dying, they cut off his fingers, one by one, asking him mockingly whether his fist, which he had often put onto the scales as a makeweight against their furs, would weigh a pound now. Then they took turns slashing his chest, saying, “See! I cross out my account.”

The Indians maintained the pressure on the frontier throughout the summer until finally the English abandoned all their posts east of Falmouth (present-day Portland). The general court at Boston sent 600 soldiers north to help secure the frontier, but the expedition accomplished little more than Andros had the year before.

Then, as winter came on, Frontenac, with characteristic energy, decided to add to the English miseries with a three-pronged attack on Albany and the borders of New Hampshire and Maine. The Albany party, composed of 160 Canadians and 100 Indians, set off from Montreal early in 1690. In arctic weather, they struggled down Lake Champlain to the frozen southern tip of Lake George, then took to the woods. By the time, the French and Indians reached the Hudson, they decided that Albany was too difficult a prize and instead chose to attack the closer settlement of Schenectady. Even so, they had a dreadful march through half-frozen swampland before they got within striking distance on the afternoon of February 8. They waited until dark and then approached the village, where, to their astonishment, they found the open gates guarded only by two snowmen.

The party swept into the sleeping town and for two hours hacked men, women, and children to pieces. When the carnage ended, sixty villagers were dead. “No pen can write, and no tongue express,” said one contemporary, “the cruelties that were committed.”

Frontenac’s other two blows fell with equal strength, at Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, where thirty-four died, and in mid-May at Falmouth, where hundreds of Abnaki Indians joined the French in an attack on Fort Loyal. After a stiff defense, the commander of the fort surrendered on the promise that the garrison would not be harmed, then marched out to see 100 English murdered by the Indians.

By the time Fort Loyal fell, the English colonies had managed to mount a counterattack in the form of a naval assault on Port Royal in Acadia under the command of Sir William Phips. A curious figure, Phips was the twenty-first child of a Massachusetts farming family and had made his fortune by recovering a huge treasure from a Spanish ship sunk in the Bahamas. His flotilla of fourteen vessels easily took Port Royal, and Phips went home a hero, whereupon he was immediately given command of a far larger expedition against Quebec. He got the fleet there, but then the operation fell apart. The English could not dislodge the French defenders – who commented in journals that they were watching the bumblings of a bunch of amateurs – and in November, with smallpox spreading among his men, Phips went home. Fortunately for him, the authorities chose to blame the debacle on the “awful frown of God” rather than on any possible mismanagement by Phips.

The English did better the next year with a land campaign against the Maine frontier, in which Massachusetts enlisted the indestructible Benjamin Church. This old warrior had grown quite fat in the fifteen years since he brought down King Philip, but like Frontenac, he retained his vigor and his military judgment. Arriving in Saco with 300 soldiers in September 1691, Church harried the Indians so effectively that most of them retired inland. Although his men fought no decisive battles, they shook their opponents badly. In October, several Abnaki sachems sued for a truce, and on November 29, they signed a document by which they agreed to bring in all English captives, warn the English about French plots, and do them no harm until May 1, 1692.

Whatever relief the treaty gave the weary, frightened settlers did not last long. On February 5, 1692, Indians and Canadians fell upon the town of York in Maine, killed forty-eight inhabitants, and took about seventy prisoners. From this fresh beginning, the savage dialogue of raid and counterraid, deception, and bad faith continued for years. New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts all suffered as the Indians burned towns and butchered settlers with a sort of ghastly monotony, which the great nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman described as “a weary detail of the murder of one, two, three or more men, women or children, waylaid in fields, woods and lonely roads, or surprised in solitary cabins.”

On March 15, 1697, a party of Abnakis struck the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in a raid different from a score of others only because it marked the beginning of the extraordinary saga of a farm woman named Hannah Dustin. Mrs. Dustin’s eighth child had been born the week before, and she was resting in her house when the attack came. Her husband, who was working in the fields nearby, told his children to run to a fortified house and then tried to fight his way through to his wife. He failed, and the natives carried off Mrs. Dustin, her baby, and the nurse who was caring for them.

As the Indians escaped with their captives silently through the forest, the infant began to cry, and in a cruel but characteristic response, a warrior grabbed the child and smashed its head against a tree. A little later, the Indians killed some of the captives and divided up the rest amongst themselves, Mrs. Dustin and the nurse were handed over to a group of two warriors, three women, and seven children. This party led them north through the woods for more than a month. The Indians, who were Catholic, paused twice a day to say their rosaries.

At last, on the night of March 29, Mrs. Dustin and the nurse rose silently from the campfire, got hold of hatchets, and set about murdering their sleeping captors. They killed all but two, an old woman and a boy who fled into the forest. Mrs. Dustin must have been an extremely practical woman: Massachusetts was offering a bounty on dead Indians, and so, despite her six-week ordeal and the horror of the recent butchery, she carefully scalped all her victims. Then she and the nurse made their way home to Haverhill, where Mrs. Dustin found that her husband and children had also survived the raid. Massachusetts gave her £25 for her night’s work.

Though the European end of the war between France and England wound down with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697, in the colonies, spasms of frontier violence continued. Part of the reason for the continuing hostilities was the English colonists’ very real horror of their opponents. In the Puritan cosmology, civilized Europeans and barbarous Indians represented opposite and antagonistic poles. Thus, to see Frenchmen not only living the life of the native warrior, but united with him in some sort of spiritual brotherhood, appalled and bewildered the English. Cotton Mather, in Decennium Luctuosum (Woeful Decade), his account of the war, speaks grimly of the “Half Indianized French, and Half Frenchified Indians.” The terror and awe that these mixed parties inspired is clearly shown in the way individual accounts of English captives dominate Mather’s narrative. Writing of the ordeal of one woman taken by the Indians, Mather intoned: “Read these passages without Relenting Bowels, thou thyself art as really Petrified as the man at Villa Ludovisia (an Italian statue). . . . I know not, reader, whether you will be moved to tears by this narrative; I know I could not write it without weeping.”

In 1702, Europe began to fight anew, and the deadly raids in the colonies turned back into a full-scale war, named this time after Queen Anne, who had just taken the throne upon William’s death. As before, New England bore the brunt in America. (New York escaped the worst horrors because of the protection provided by its Iroquois subjects – as New Yorkers referred to the Indians when they were out of earshot – or allies, a nicety of phrasing employed during negotiations.)

The worldly, power-loving Joseph Dudley, Massachusetts’s new governor, had been made responsible for keeping peace with the Abnakis, which he did in schizophrenic fashion, alternately wooing and scorning them. At a conference in Casco, Maine, he claimed to have 1,250 men under arms and compared the Indians to wolves, able to disturb men but not capable of doing any real harm. “I value them not,” he said, “no more than the paring of my nails,” Then, changing his tune, he announced that several chiefs among the Indian delegations “are fit to be made Officers to bear commission from the Queen of England, to bear Rule among you, who shall be my Officers, and shall be Rewarded from time to time. . . .” Several of the Indian leaders declared that they would resist the overtures of the French, but the meeting broke up with the peace still fragile.

Then in August 1703, a party of Englishmen plundered the house of Saint-Castin’s son, an Abnaki chief. Enraged by this affront, the Indians responded. Less than six weeks after Dudley’s peace conference, 200 miles of New England frontier were in flames.

Despite his boasts, the best Dudley could do was to field an army of 360 men, which advanced as far as Saco, with the Indian forces melting away before it unharmed while the raids continued unabated. To the staggered colonists, it all seemed a repetition of King William’s War. Indeed, many of the same towns suffered, among them Deerfield, Massachusetts, the northernmost settlement of the string of villages along the Connecticut River.

Deerfield had already had its share of grief. Almost wiped out during King Philip’s War and badly mauled during King William’s, by the winter of 1704, the community had recovered and become a prosperous village of forty-one houses and some 270 people.

Remembering the past, the townspeople had posted a sentry, but he was either asleep or absent on the last night of February 1704, when a party of fifty French and 200 Abnakis and Caughnawagas trudged toward the village through deep snow. They attacked two hours before dawn and killed many settlers in their beds. But some villagers, awakened by the screams and shouting, fought back. The militia sergeant, Benoni Stebbins, had time to order his seven men to barricade the windows of his house, which had been otherwise bulletproofed by means of brick walls. The militiamen drove off an attack of about fifty Indians, and though Stebbins died at the window where he had posted himself, his house withstood the onslaught. Most of the villagers, however, thrown into panic by the whooping death that had come on them out of the night, died or were captured. By dawn, the fighting had ended, leaving some fifty settlers dead and more than 100 prisoners.

The French and Indians bullied their captives north along the forest trails toward Canada. Among the survivors of the brutal trek was John Williams, a Deerfield clergyman whose immensely popular account of his sufferings, Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, kept alive the memory of the Deerfield raid long after similar atrocities had been forgotten. His wife, who had just borne a child, was too weak to keep up with the rest of the party. When Williams tried to help her, the Indians drove him away, and they killed her a little later when she flagged trying to cross an icy river. But another Indian carried Williams’s daughter Eunice nearly every step of the 300-mile journey. Eventually, the French ransomed most of the prisoners, but Eunice Williams never came home. Adopted by the Caughnawagas, she married the warrior who had saved her life. Years later, she visited her one-time neighbors in Deerfield, but the gulf had grown too wide, and she returned to the forest.

The news of the Deerfield raid brought Benjamin Church stamping into Boston, furiously demanding that Dudley give him a force to lead against Acadia. By this time, Church was so old that he had to have a soldier walking beside him to help him over fallen logs along the line of march. But he got 550 men up into French territory, where he terrorized some settlements, telling the inhabitants that if any more English villages suffered Deerfield’s fate he would return with 1,000 Indians to repay the compliment to the French. Church wanted to attack Port Royal, but his officers restrained him, and he sailed back to Boston after throwing some bombastic threats at the well-defended French stronghold.

The English colonists took another ill-fated stab at Port Royal in 1706 and then appealed to the mother country for help. Committed as she was to a costly European land war, Queen Anne had few troops to spare. Finally, in hopes of generating some sympathy and publicity, the colonists sent several Mohawk chieftains to the English court in 1710. Outfitted by a London theatrical costumer in what he thought barbarian warlords should wear, the four Indians made a magnificent spectacle. The queen was delighted with them, the archbishop of Canterbury gave them Bibles, fashionable artists of the day painted their portraits, crowds followed them through the streets, and the nobility vied for the privilege of entertaining them. The next summer, the long-awaited troops arrived from England, and in September, Port Royal fell and with it Acadia.

Emboldened by their success, the British moved against Quebec the next year, but they had to retire at the end of a timid and badly mismanaged campaign. Despite this British fiasco, old King Louis XIV of France, tired and debt-ridden, ended the war by accepting the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The treaty ceded Hudson Bay and Acadia to the English, but left the bounds of France’s Canadian empire in doubt. By a treaty of July 13, 1713, the Eastern tribes sued for a separate peace with the New Englanders, acknowledging their “past rebellions, hostilities, and violations of promises” and promising to become loyal subjects to Queen Anne. The Abnakis, however, had little idea of what being a British subject meant, and their oath of loyalty was too tenuous a thing to withstand the English incursions on their land that began nearly as soon as the treaty was signed.

While the Northern colonies enjoyed the brief respite from frontier raids that came with the Treaty of Utrecht, warfare was ripping through the Carolinas. The white traders there had done much to bring the fighting on themselves. Like Indian traders everywhere, they tended to be rough, unprincipled men who duped the Indians and debauched them with liquor. Adding to these abuses, the traders also sold Indians as slaves. The Tuscaroras, who had settled inland along the coastal rivers of North Carolina, suffered most, and though they did not at first retaliate, their discontent was obvious enough to make the settlers uneasy. By 1710, relations had become so tense that the Tuscaroras sent messengers to Pennsylvania asking permission to migrate there. The Pennsylvania authorities said that they could settle provided they had a note from the North Carolina government attesting to their previous good conduct. The Carolinians refused outright.

Less than a year later, a group of Swiss colonists organized by a promoter named Baron Christoph von Graffenried went to occupy a tract of land at New Bern, at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers in North Carolina, only to find an Indian town on the site. Von Graffenried complained to the surveyor-general, who told him that the colonists held clear title to the land and suggested they drive off the Indians without payment. That was poor advice; on September 22, 1711, the Tuscaroras responded with a dawn attack on settlements between the Neuse and Pamlico Sound. During the bloody morning, they killed nearly 200 settlers, among them, eighty children. The survivors fled to the coastal towns, and the usual sequence of raids and counterraids began. Von Graffenried had earlier been captured, and in order to spare New Bern from attack – and as a condition of his release – he promised not to make war on the Indians. But one of his settlers, a foolish man named William Brice, decided that the baron’s pledge showed contemptible softheartedness and took matters into his own hands by capturing the chief of one of the smaller tribes allied with the Tuscaroras and roasting him alive. The Indian attacks increased in fury.

North Carolina sent to South Carolina for help, which arrived in the form of Colonel John Barnwell, a tough Irish-born soldier, who came leading a force of thirty settlers and 500 Indians. Barnwell handily neutralized the resistance of tribes allied with the Tuscaroras and devastated their communities. In March 1712, with his forces strengthened by a contingent of North Carolinians, Barnwell launched an assault on the fort of the Tuscarora king Hancock, which failed when the North Carolina men panicked and broke. Then the Indians exposed some of their white prisoners in view of Barnwell’s lines and tortured others in hopes of forcing the Carolina troops to negotiate. Barnwell agreed to call off his men if the prisoners were released. He took fifty of them safely back to New Bern, where he discovered that the North Carolina assembly was vexed because he had not destroyed the Tuscarora fort. Whereupon Barnwell went back, forced the Tuscaroras into a treaty and then, on his way home, immediately violated it by seizing a group of Indians as slaves. So the war broke out afresh in the summer of 1712.

Again North Carolina begged its southern neighbor for help, and in November, a seasoned Indian fighter named Colonel James Moore arrived with thirty-three whites and 1,000 friendly natives. Joining with North Carolina troops, he struck the main Tuscarora force late in March of 1713 and smashed it. Moore’s men killed several hundred Indians and captured 400 more, whom he sold into slavery at £10 each to help pay for the campaign. Most of the surviving Tuscaroras began a long, slow retreat to the north, where they eventually joined the Iroquois confederacy.

The last feeble Indian resistance in the Carolinas ended when Tom Blount, the chief of the Tuscarora faction loyal to the English, signed a peace treaty on February 11, 1715. But no sooner had peace come to North Carolina than war began in South Carolina. Like the Tuscaroras, the Yamassees, a Muskhogean tribe that had moved into South Carolina, had suffered the exploitation of traders. On Good Friday, April 15, they avenged themselves in a well-coordinated attack similar in every respect to the great Virginia massacre of 1622. The assault left the outlying settlements north of present-day Savannah, Georgia, in flames and took the lives of 100 settlers, South Carolina’s governor Charles Craven, commanding his colony’s militia, moved quickly and by June had driven the Yamassees from their villages. That autumn, on a follow-up expedition, he hit them so hard that they fled to Spanish Florida. The English appropriated the Yamassee lands for the new colony of Georgia.

Although he had gotten the Yamassees out of the way, Craven still feared the powerful Creeks and tried to counterbalance them by inducing the equally strong Cherokee nation to join the English. Although divided into two factions, the proud Cherokees, under the prodding of the English, broke with their southern neighbors and joined the Carolinians in curbing the Creeks. Thus, a measure of peace returned to the Carolinas.

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