Native American Warfare in the East: Mourning Wars

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Native American Warfare in the East: Mourning Wars


Eve of Contact. Like Europeans, the eastern woodland Indians of North America engaged in near-constant fighting during the centuries prior to first contact. Native American warfare differed dramatically from European hostilities, however, in terms of its roots, aims, and nature. Old World wars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries such as the Spanish Reconquista or the Hapsburg-Valois Wars were costly, large-scale affairs that had religious or dynastic origins, produced comparatively high casualties, and were fought to achieve territorial or economic gains. The indigenous peoples living throughout the eastern half of North America, in contrast, engaged in low-intensity, low-casualty conflicts known as blood feuds or mourning wars. Through these wars tribes such as the Mahican, Cofitachequi, Susquehannock, Petun, Oneida, and Micmac retaliated for the deaths of relatives and clan members by taking captives or killing Indians from rival bands. Such an approach to war, not surprisingly, rarely resulted in large, bloody battles or in decisive defeats.

Purpose. Indians fought these wars for several reasons. First, blood feuds were a way for Native Americans to avenge the deaths of kin or tribesmen murdered by other Indians. Second, mourning wars gave young men the opportunity to earn the prestige needed to become respected and influential members of their tribe. Third, taking captives satisfied demographic needs by providing a source of replacements for a tribes deceased members. Fourth, mourning wars fulfilled a spiritual and psychological function by easing grief, by providing a means for coping with death, and by restoring to the community the spiritual strength believed lost through the death of a clan member. Finally, blood feuds provided a steady source of captives for some Native Americans ritual sacrifices.

Typical Campaign. Centered as they were on ambush and surprise, woodland Indian military operations generally occurred during the warmer months to take advantage of the cover that foliage provided. The typical campaign began when clan matriarchs commissioned a male war chief to avenge the death of a family member. After assembling a raiding party, gaining village approval, and holding a ceremonial feast, the war chief led his men into battle. Upon entering the foes territory, the war party split into smaller groups of five or six; each group then established ambushes near fields or along paths frequented by the enemy. As ambushing Indians enjoyed surprise and could refuse to give battle to larger forces, engagements were usually one-sided affairs that ended with the taking of captives.

Tactics and Spiritual Beliefs. Aside from increasing the chances of taking captives, ambushes and surprise attacks reflected the woodland Indians belief system. Native Americans believed that those who died a violent death could not spend their afterlife with other deceased members of their families in the villages of the dead; rather, they had to spend eternity wandering about in search of vengeance. Indian warriors consequently avoided combat when overmatched and generally shunned high-risk assaults on fortified positions in favor of hit-and-run attacks on outnumbered and surprised enemy groups.

Large Battles. Occasionally a war chief would respond to an especially severe attack by besieging an enemy village with a force of several hundred warriors. Such armies did not seek to capture or destroy their rivals settlement but attempted to lure the enemy into battle by placing burning branches against the wooden palisades that surrounded the village. When the foe emerged to douse the flames, the two sides fought a highly ritualized clash that ended after some of the enemy had been killed or taken captive. The besieging force then retreated before reinforcements arrived from nearby settlements. For several reasons, large-scale engagements such as these rarely involved taking or destroying enemy villages. Large settlements were difficult to attack because they were surrounded by stout palisades constructed of several rows of three-to-five-inch diameter wooden poles interweaved with bark and branches. Bigger villages also had watchtowers and galleries built on the insides of the palisades from which defenders could fire arrows at a besieging force. More important, the Indians of eastern North America at the time of first contact fought wars to take vengeance and secure captives rather than to acquire enemy territory; they thus saw little point in capturing or destroying their adversarys settlements.


While superficially similar, Indian war chiefs and European military leaders of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries fulfilled dramatically different roles and had sharply divergent relationships with their soldiers. European generals had autocratic powers and were able to issue orders to their troops backed by the threat of imprisonment or death. They also enjoyed direct control of their armies through an imprecise but nonetheless effective chain of command. War chiefs, in contrast, lost control of their warriors after their raiding parties entered enemy territory and broke up into smaller, independent groups. More important, Indian military leaders lacked the authority to compel obedience and instead had to win popular approval for their campaigns. A war chief commissioned by a family to avenge a death, for example, had to recruit warriors and build support for the raid by distributing gifts and discussing strategy. The contrasting roles of war chiefs and generals thus reveals not only the difference between styles of war but the contrast between the Europeans hierarchical culture and the Indians more open and consensual one.

Sources: Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (NewYork: Random House, 1987);

Bruce G. Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, 2 volumes (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1976).


As with the Indians of North America, the Europeans style of war reflected their goals. Seeking economic, dynastic, and religious objectives through the acquisition of territory, European princes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries undertook military campaigns designed to crush enemy forces in decisive engagements. They consequently employed large armies centered on highly disciplined, massed infantry formations such as the potent Spanish tercio that were composed of pikemen and harquebusiers. Supported by smaller contingents of artillery and cavalry, these infantry regiments engaged in large, setpiece battles that resulted in staggering numbers of casualties. Because Europeans sought largely territorial goals, moreover, their wars often involved lengthy and well-organized sieges of fortifications and cities, such as those that occurred during the failed Spanish effort to crush the revolt of the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century.

Source: Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987).

The Captives Fate. Enemy Indians taken captive in mourning wars confronted several fates. Women and children who were a burden and enemy warriors perceived to be a threat were, on occasion, scalped and killed immediately. In general, however, prisoners were bound and led back to their captors home village. Upon arrival the captives were stripped, bound at the hands and feet, and forced to walk a gauntlet of tribe members who repeatedly struck them with clubs, torches, and knives. Later the tribal council assigned each prisoner to a family that had lost relatives to that captives tribe. In general, women, children, and skilled or especially attractive men were adopted into the family. These captives were given the name, title, and position of the person they replaced, and, over time, became integrated into their new family and became loyal to their new tribe. Their capture thus eased the pain of bereavement, maintained the size of family, clan, and tribe, and restored the spiritual strength that the community had lost through the death of a member.

Ritual Sacrifice. While women and children generally replaced dead family members, most captured warriors were condemned to die through ritual sacrifice. As with women and children, such prisoners were adopted into a family and took the name and title of a recently deceased clan member. After a brief period in which the family treated the prisoner with respect and affection, the clan gave the victim a final feast in anticipation of his death. The next day, the entire village assembled in the primary war chiefs longhouse and began torturing the captive in a lengthy, highly ritualized ceremony. After the prisoners death, the tribe concluded the ceremony by cooking and eating his remains.

Exceptions. While mourning wars generally followed this pattern, there were important exceptions and qualifications. Because young men could gain the prestige needed to become influential and respected members of their tribe only through war, they frequently raided without village or tribal approval. Such attacks often upset delicate peace arrangements and, thereby, restarted recently concluded wars. In addition, relations with foreign tribes were an extension of the Indians system of social relations. That system rested on reciprocal exchanges of obligations, gifts, and spiritual power wherein kinship groups and individuals bound themselves together


The weapons of the precontact period were well suited to the Native Americans preferred strategies and tactics. Unlike the noisy and smoky firearms used by contemporary Europeans, Indian weapons such as stone-headed axes, wooden clubs, and spears lent themselves well to ambushes and surprise attacks. Bows that fired stone-tipped arrows were likewise employed in such engagements, though they had only a short effective range and were of limited value in the thickly forested eastern part of the continent. For protection, Indian warriors carried bark shields and wore crude wooden armor over their torsos and legs. This protective covering could stop a stone-tipped arrow or deflect an ax blow and proved important in keeping casualties to a minimum during the large battles that occasionally took place outside besieged villages.

Sources: Bruce G. Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988);

Wilcomb E. Washburn, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 4: History of Indian-White Relations (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988).

by sharing or exchanging goods. At the intertribal level, this meant that eastern Indians generally had peaceful, friendly relations with neighboring tribes with which they engaged in substantial reciprocal commerce, and hostile relations with tribes with which they did not trade. Finally, evidence suggests that Indians in the southeastern part of the continent occasionally fought territorially motivated wars.

Cyclical Warfare. The nature of blood feuds meant that they were almost impossible to stop once they had begun. Native Americans perceived each murder or captive taken not as a legitimate retaliation but as a new attack that demanded vengeance through further bloodshed. As a result, the noted scholar Bruce G. Trigger points out, mourning wars produced a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that was broken only at irregular intervals so that exchanges of prisoners might be arranged.


Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976);

Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992);

Bruce G. Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, 2 volumes (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1976);

Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988).

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Native American Warfare in the East: Mourning Wars

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Native American Warfare in the East: Mourning Wars