The Transformation of Native American Warfare: Conflict and the Emergence of Confederations

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The Transformation of Native American Warfare: Conflict and the Emergence of Confederations


Indian Political Evolution. The centuries prior to contact with Europeans witnessed an important transformation in the woodland Indians political system. In the northeastern and Great Lakes regions of North America, nearby groups of linguistically and culturally related Indians underwent a process of political agglomeration wherein smaller bands joined together to form large villages and tribes. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this process had begun to result in the formation of large, populous, intertribal political confederations.


When the French explorer Samuel de Champlain traveled up the St. Lawrence River in 1603, he discovered to his surprise that the Hochelaga and Stadacona Indians (Iroquoian tribes) visited by Jacques Cartier seventy years earlier had vanished. Over the past four centuries, the disappearance of these tribes has produced a substantial debate among scholars. Some have argued that over-hunting of beaver during the mid sixteenth century depleted the valley of the furbearing animals and forced the tribes to relocate to better trapping grounds. Others have asserted that a temporary period of climactic cooling resulted in a series of bad harvests that compelled the Stadacona and Hochelaga to move south.

The best evidence suggests, however, that the disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquois was a consequence of the fur-trade-induced transformation of Indian warfare. Surrounded by iron-weapon-armed enemies such as the Susquehannocks and Mahicans and lacking such arms themselves, the Mohawk Indians of present-day upstate New York found themselves at an increasing military disadvantage as the century progressed. By the 1550s, this predicament led them to initiate a new type of commercially motivated warfare against the St. Lawrence Iroquois in which they sought to plunder iron weapons and to acquire territory from which they could trade directly with the French. The Mohawks succeeded in destroying the Hochelaga and Stadacona and thereby restored the balance of power by acquiring substantial quantities of iron weapons. They were unable to dislodge the powerful Montagnais from the key trading post of Tadoussac, however, and thus failed to gain the principal objective of their St. Lawrence campaign: a direct trading relationship with the French.

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

Under the guidance of Hiawatha, for example, the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes joined to create the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. At about the same time, the Attignawantan, Arendarhonon, Attigneenongnahac, and Tahontaenrat tribes came together to form the Huron Confederacy.

Unification. Blood feuds were the principal factor behind the formation of confederations. In many instances, the increasing cost of mourning wars during the late prehistoric period led smaller bands to join together to form bigger, more easily defended villages; other large settlements developed when one band or village absorbed the remnants of a defeated one. Either way, the formation of such settlements forced nearby groups of Indians likewise to form larger villages or suffer the consequences of numerical inferiority. This process continued until a settlement reached the maximum size that the Indians slash-and-burn agriculture could support. At that point, neighboring villages came together to suppress blood feuds through defensive alliances. By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, these tribal-sized alliances began to form confederations.

Characteristics. The confederations that emerged during this period were not powerful centralized political organizations. Rather, they were loose, decentralized leagues designed to suppress blood feuds between their constituent members through the establishment of an intertribal council. Composed of civic leaders, confederation councils met periodically to adjudicate disputes, supervise the payment of compensation, and hold ceremonial feasts that reaffirmed the league. Ending blood feuds and ensuring goodwill between the member tribes was the sole purpose of the Indian confederations formed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they neither coordinated their member tribes foreign policieswhich often worked at cross purposesnor functioned as defensive alliances.

Conflict. The confederations formed in the centuries prior to contact with the Europeans proved effective in limiting blood feuds between their constituent tribes. Such intertribal leagues did not, however, end the chief underlying causes of war: the tribes demand for sacrificial victims, the clans need for a way to cope with death, and the individual warriors desire for the military glory required to become a respected member of the tribe. Rather than ending woodland Indian warfare, therefore, the rise of confederations transformed its scope. Local, small-scale blood feuds between neighboring tribes became large, long-distance conflicts involving rival leagues such as the Iroquois and Susquehannock or the Erie and Huron. The emergence of confederations during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries thus changed markedly the scale of Indian warfare, but not its goals or tactics.


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


Much of the military superiority the Spanish enjoyed over the Indians of North America stemmed from their use of two animals: dogs and horses. Trained war dogs proved especially effective in the dense terrain of the Deep South. The savage Irish hounds that accompanied the Hernando de Soto expedition, for example, were able to locate and brutally kill Indian warriors who sought refuge in the near-impenetrable swamps of the Gulf Coast. As valuable as war dogs proved, though, horses constituted the Spaniards principal military edge in the New World. In part, their advantage was psychological: having never seen horses, Native Americans found the huge creatures terrifying. Horses, however, provided more than just a psychological edge. Riding armored mounts and wearing armor themselves, Spanish cavalrymen equipped with powerful lances were far more mobile than foot-bound Indian warriors and could, by charging, rout virtually any Native American force they encountered in open combat. The only defense sixteenth-century foot soldiers had against cavalry was the pike, which few Indian tribes possessed and which none knew how to use effectively. Without war dogs and, especially, horses, expeditions such as de Sotos would have had a far more difficult time fending off the southeastern Indians constant attacks.

Sources: Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972);

Charles M. Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando De Soto and the Souths Ancient Chiefdoms (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).

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