Legacies of Indian Warfare

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Early America was often a violent time and place. Conflicts between American Indian groups and between American Indians and Europeans characterized the colonial and early national periods, impacting both American Indians and Europeans in significant ways. Causes of conflict remained as varied as the many different nations and peoples that encountered one another in early America. Like Europeans, American Indian peoples fought against each other before Europeans arrived in the Americas, and war formed a crucial component of their cultures, especially among men. The frequency and deadliness of warfare increased dramatically after contact with Europeans, however, and American Indian cultures adapted by making war and preparation for war a more vital element of their societies than ever before. The introduction of new technologies increased the mortality of war, forcing Europeans and American Indians to adapt new tactics and styles of warfare. This new world of nearly constant warfare in early America presented all peoples with new challenges, permanently altered the course of history, and thereby helped to shape American society and culture.

causes of warfare

American Indians and Europeans fought among themselves and against each other for a variety of reasons. Revenge for the murder of a kinsman provided the most likely reason for American Indian groups to fight against each other. The family and clan members of a murdered American Indian killed the murderer or a member of the murderer's family to avenge their deceased relative, which often sparked further revenge killings in response, sometimes spiraling into full-fledged war between different American Indian groups. Repeatedly, the need to avenge the deaths of murdered kinsmen also brought American Indians and Europeans into open conflict as European settlers fought with and killed American Indian warriors who were then avenged. Occasionally, American Indians fought against each other to protect or acquire resources, such as horses (valuable new animals introduced by Europeans) or game-rich hunting lands. After European diseases introduced into North America killed American Indians by the tens of thousands, American Indian groups like the Iroquois warred against other native peoples to acquire captives to adopt into their tribes and replenish their depleted populations. As American Indians fled these attacks or moved away from European settlements, they displaced other groups that frequently reacted by attacking the newcomers to their region.

All American Indian groups had traditional enemies by the time Europeans arrived on the scene, and they often attempted to recruit their new technologically advanced neighbors as allies in their preexisting disputes. Trade with Europeans became a source of tension between American Indian groups as tribes competed over access to manufactured goods. American Indian groups with access to guns through trade found they had a major advantage over their native neighbors who had not yet acquired the new weapons. Finally, the various European powers in colonial North America sought allies and trade partners among American Indian groups. When Europeans went to war against one another, they pulled American Indians into the conflicts by offering them incentives to fight or by attacking them for being allies of their opponent. Europeans also paid American Indians to attack each other for economic gain, as the English did in South Carolina in the late 1600s and early 1700s by arming and paying their native allies to seize captives from other American Indian groups to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean.

INDIAN WARS, 1609–1824

1609 Samuel de Champlain and Algonquians attack Mohawks

1609–1614 First Anglo-Powhatan War

1622–1632 Second Anglo-Powhatan War

1636–1637 Anglo-Pequot War in New England

1640–1685 Iroquois wage "Mourning Wars"

1644–1646 Third Anglo-Powhatan War

1675–1676 King Philip's War in New England

1676 Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia

1680 Pueblo Rebellion against the Spanish in the southwest

1689–1697 King William's War between England and France and their respective Indian allies

1702–1713 Queen Anne's War: England and her Indian allies against France and Spain and their respective Indian allies

1703–1704 South Carolina War against the Apalachees and their Spanish missions in north Florida

1711–1713 Tuscarora War in North Carolina

1715–1728 Yamasee War in South Carolina

1720–1752 French and Choctaw wars against the Chick-asaws

1729–1731 Natchez War in lower Mississippi Valley

1744–1748 King George's War between England and France and their respective Indian allies

1754–1763 North American component of the Seven Years War between England and France and their respective Indian allies

1760–1761 Cherokee War in South Carolina

1763–1765 Pontiac's Rebellion in Ohio Valley and Great Lakes area

1774 Lord Dunmore's War in Virginia against the Shawnees

1775–1783 American Revolution between United States and England and their respective Indian allies

1790–1794 Little Turtle's War between Ohio Valley Indians and the United States

1809–1815 Ohio Valley Indian Confederacy war against the United States

1812–1815 War of 1812 between United States and England and their respective Indian allies

1813–1814 Red Stick War among the Creek Indians and against the United States

1817–1818 First Seminole War in north Florida

1819–1824 Kickapoo War against the United States

colonial wars of american indian resistance: seventeenth century

Throughout North America and from the times of earliest contact with Europeans, many American Indian peoples violently resisted European encroachments on their land, culture, and independence. Although many American Indian groups welcomed Europeans initially as trading partners and allies, those friendly relations often degenerated into animosity, distrust, and violence. European arrival in the Americas brought Europeans, American Indians, and Africans into contact for the first time. Their respective cultures, values, and languages differed markedly, and those differences encouraged misunderstandings that frequently led to conflict. American Indians who lived near a European settlement watched new diseases kill their relatives, European hunters dispatch their game animals, European livestock eat their crops, European men assault their women, Christian missionaries condemn their religion, and European farms consume their land. Some native peoples adapted to these new pressures without resorting to violence, but many others felt pushed to the limit of toleration and lashed out at the injustices they perceived were being perpetrated upon them.

In the area that later became the United States, American Indian resistance occurred most often against English colonists. In 1609, within two years after establishing Jamestown, Virginia Company officials found themselves involved in a low intensity conflict, known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War, that lasted five years. Overbearing English demands for food and land convinced the Powhatan to launch a devastating attack in March 1622 that killed hundreds of English people and ignited a decade-long war that ended largely in a stalemate. The last major attempt by the Powhatan to violently preserve their autonomy occurred in another one day attack in April 1644 that killed over 400 English colonists but resulted in Powhatan defeat after two years of conflict.

In New England, the Pequot fought against land encroachment and an attempt to monopolize the wampum trade by English Puritan colonists in 1636 to 1637. The war ended in a overwhelming defeat for the Pequot as the English surrounded their main village, set it on fire, and killed over 600 of the fleeing American Indians as they emerged from the flames. Some surviving Pequot, including their principal chief Sassacus, fled west to Mohawk territory where the Mohawk killed them to prove they were not involved in the attacks on the English. The English captured still other survivors and sold them into slavery in the Caribbean or gave them to their American Indian allies such as the Mohegan, Narraganset, and Niantic. King Philip's War is the name given to the next major uprising of New England Indians in 1675 to 1676. English land encroachment and attempts to force American Indians in New England to live under English law provided the central causes of this conflict with the Wampanoag and other American Indian groups. English superiority in numbers of soldiers and firepower, and the aid of their American Indian allies, wore the Indian alliance down and virtually eliminated the Wampanoag, Nippmuc, and Narragansett tribes, resulting in the end of large scale American Indian resistance in New England.

colonial wars of american indian resistance: eighteenth century

In the Carolinas, the Tuscarora and Yamasee tribes rebelled against the English presence in 1711 to 1713 and 1715 to 1728 respectively. In both wars, trade abuses by the English, such as seizing American Indian women and children in payment for American Indian trade debts, provoked the American Indians into attacking. Eventually, both groups were militarily defeated, with Tuscarora survivors fleeing north to New York to join their Iroquois relatives and Yamasee refugees joining the Creek confederacy in the deep South. Similarly, the Natchez rebelled against French arrogance and land encroachments in 1729 to 1731 by killing hundreds of French people settled in Natchez on the Mississippi River. France and her Choctaw allies eventually routed the Natchez, killing hundreds, seizing dozens for sale into slavery in the Caribbean, and forcing dozens more to flee and join other American Indian groups such as the Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee.

In 1760 to 1761, the Cherokee struck the British in South Carolina during the turmoil of the Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War) because some of their warriors were attacked and killed while traveling back and forth to Virginia to assist George Washington's forces against the French. The Cherokee seized the advantage of fighting in their mountainous homeland and defeated Carolina forces, before a regular British army force turned the tables and forced the Cherokee to sign a peace treaty ceding large portions of their territory. After the Seven Years' War ended in 1763, American Indians in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes area who had formerly been allied to France united to assail the British takeover of French forts in those areas. After initial success in this war, called Pontiac's Rebellion after one of the principal war leaders, the American Indians and the British eventually settled on a nervous truce in 1765.

wars of american indian resistance against the united states, 1790s to 1820s

During George Washington's term as president of the United States, Shawnee, Ojibway, Miami, Delaware, Potawatami, and Ottawa in the Ohio Valley, under the nominal leadership of Miami war chief Little Turtle, revolted against American intrusion on their lands. They defeated two American armies before eventually suffering defeat at the hands of a third army under General Anthony Wayne in 1795. A little more than a decade later, American Indians from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast joined a war of resistance against American land grabbing and cultural interference. The Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet organized much of this insurgency and folded their fight into the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States on the side of the British. American forces eventually defeated them and their British supporters in Canada. Similarly, the Red Stick faction of the Creek fought against other Creek and Americans at the same time until suffering defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson and American Indian groups such as the Choctaw and Cherokee who allied with the United States. Some of the Red Stick Creek survivors fled south into north Florida to join their Seminole brethren and continued the fight against the United States in what became known as the First Seminole War, from 1817 to 1818. Around the same time, the Kickapoo fought briefly against American veterans of the War of 1812 who had been promised land in Illinois in compensation for their service.

imperial wars

Besides the wars of resistance, native peoples also fought in every war between their European neighbors. In all of the imperial wars during the colonial and early national periods, American Indians fought on both sides, providing crucial intelligence and fighting strength to the European forces and enduring death, deprivation, and sometimes victory for their efforts. The major imperial wars that also engaged American Indian warriors include: King William's War between England and France and their respective American Indian allies from 1689 to 1697; Queen Anne's War with England and her American Indian allies against France and Spain and their respective American Indian allies from 1702 to 1713; King George's War between England and France and their respective American Indian allies from 1744 to 1748; the North American component of the Seven Years' War between England and France and their respective American Indian allies from 1754 to 1763; the American Revolution between the United States and England and their respective American Indian allies from 1775 to 1783; and the War of 1812 between the United States and England and their respective American Indian allies from 1812 to 1815.

impacts of warfare on american indian culture

Because of the nearly constant state of warfare in North America after 1607 and the need for American Indians to participate in these conflicts, Europeans and Americans tended to view American Indians as inherently warlike people whose "savage" nature led them to launch sneak attacks on unsuspecting men, women, and children. There is evidence that the so-called American Indian style of warfare consisting of small-scale attacks under concealment of darkness and forests arose as a response to European firearms technology. In 1609, Frenchman Samuel de Champlain led a party of French soldiers accompanied by Algonkin and Montagnais in canoes down Lake Champlain where they encountered a Mohawk war party of about 200 men. The two opposing American Indian groups beached their canoes and made preparations for a ritual battle whereby the two forces dressed in wooden armor and massed a few hundred yards apart. War leaders from each side leapt into the clear space between the forces, taunting and daring individuals from the other side to fight. Champlain grew tired of the lack of real fighting and ordered his soldiers to fire at the Mohawk with their guns. The French soldiers immediately killed three Mohawk chiefs, distinguishable by their ornate apparel, shocking the Mohawk and forcing them to flee. Because guns and bullets made such tactics obsolete, never again would American Indians in the northeast fight large scale ritualized battles with wooden armor, and, ironically, the new fighting techniques they devised came to be known by Europeans as a particularly American Indian way of fighting.

cultural impacts

American Indian cultures adapted in a variety of significant ways to the new world of warfare that confronted them after European arrival. War chiefs, who normally only exercised authority while leading a war party, assumed greater leadership roles over time than their peace or civil chiefs, who normally directed day-to-day functions, since a state of war became perpetual. Europeans also preferred to negotiate with war leaders in order to recruit native allies in their wars against other Europeans, thus elevating the status of war chiefs and warriors in diplomacy.

Economically, American Indian groups became increasingly dependent on trade with Europeans to acquire the guns, gun powder, and ammunition necessary to survive against native and European enemies. Dependence on European trade made American Indians vulnerable to manipulation by Europeans and Americans who often insisted on land cessions in order to pay trade debts. Continual warfare resulted in the deaths of large portions of many generations, especially among young men. Survivors of war often became refugees who joined other American Indian tribes in order to find mates and subsist. Coupled with the killer diseases introduced to the Americas by Europeans, the new world of unrelenting war wiped out many American Indian communities, forced others to migrate, and made the threat of violence a basic reality of American Indian life.


Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Holm, Tom. "American Indian Warfare: The Cycles of Conflict and the Militarization of Native North America." In A Companion to American Indian History, edited by Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Nardo, Don. North American Indian Wars. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999.

Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

Washburn, Wilcomb, ed. History of Indian-White Relations. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Greg O'Brien

See also:Armed Conflicts in America, 1587–1815; Jamestown: Legacy of the Massacre of 1622; King Philip's War, Legacy of; Native Americans: Images in Popular Culture; Slavery in America; War of 1812.