Parallel Warfare and Amerindian-European Alliances in the Seven Years' War: Part I

read at the "War College of the Seven Years' War"
Fort Ticonderoga, 15 May, 1999.

Good morning.

To begin with, I'd like to thank Nicholas Westbrook and Fort Ticonderoga for the invitation to speak and their generous hospitality. And I'd like to thank you all for coming, and say how glad I am to be here. It's a real pleasure to speak to a group that really cares about the Seven Years' War.

I'm going to be talking today about the Canadian Iroquois in that conflict, and a phenomena I've called "parallel warfare." I'll start with a look at European war, as practiced by the French, Amerindian war, as practiced by the Canadian Iroquois, and parallel war, which occurred when these styles of war came together in the same campaign. Then I'll give you a quick history of the Seven Years' War in the North American interior, focusing on the cultural conflicts and accommodations produced by parallel warfare.

First, the French.

Between 1753 and 1760, the French in North America fought an imperial war. British expansion in North America threatened the collective interests of the French empire; Versailles responded with military action.

Both the French and the British established fortified positions at key points along the waterways of northeastern North America. The French spent the war attacking British forts and defending their own. They made war against specific objectives whose capture or destruction would influence the actions of the British.

As far as the French are concerned, this is the real war. A war of battles, sieges, and defences. A war for fortifications and control of movement over rivers and lakes.

But the French couldn't fight this war alone. Heavily outnumbered by the British, they needed Amerindian fighters to reinforce their troops, along with Amerindian military skills and local knowledge. So when war broke out, they asked their Amerindian allies to serve against the British.

What they wanted were pliant auxiliaries who'd do what they were told and stay out of the way. What they got were allies with their own ideas of how to make war.

Which brings us to the Canadian Iroquois.

I've used this expression to refer to the members of the Iroquois communities near Montreal. The Mohawks of Akwesasne, Kahnawake, and Kanesetake, and the Onondagas of Oswegatchie.

The Canadian Iroquois were major players in the Seven Years' War. They fielded over 350 fighters, occupied a strategic location on Canada's western approaches, and took part in the first campaigns in the Ohio valley, and every major campaign on the frontiers of Canada.

But the British were not their enemies. The Canadian Iroquois were allied to nations like the Abenakis and the French, whose ancestral territories or imperial ambitions were threatened by British colonial expansion. Their own lands, however, were not at risk until the last year of the war. Their interests lay in peace with the British. The Kahnawake Mohawks, in particular, enjoyed longstanding commercial relations with New York.

Yet when the time came, they went to war alongside the French. They entered a war that advanced French interests rather than their own for two reasons. First, the French were their allies. Second, war was a social necessity.

Their relationship with the French was an alliance between equals. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Canadian Iroquois established and maintained a broad range of private, public, personal, official, religious, social, military, and ceremonial bonds with the French.

They had their problems with their allies. The French crown tried to keep the Kahnawake Mohawks from carrying freight between Montreal and New York, and posted garrisons in Canadian Iroquois communities. French settlers trespassed to a limited extent on Canadian Iroquois farmland.

But these were a bit like Canadian-American trade disputes--small problems in an essentially sound relationship that worked for both parties.

Following european contact, Native groups needed european allies; the French were useful, non threatening associates. They compared very favourably with the British, who were expanding aggressively in all directions, at the expense of Amerindian nations.

So the French alliance was worth preserving. When the French asked them to make war upon the British, the Canadian Iroquois said yes.

A second reason for agreeing to fight was the role of war in Canadian Iroquois culture. Among the Canadian Iroquois, individual men went to war to win prestige through military achievement and especially through the taking of prisoners. If you were a Canadian Iroquois man--especially a young man on his way up--bringing a prisoner back from the wars meant instant status and social advancement.

Capturing enemies, instead of killing them, was a very old Iroquoian tradition. Prisoners were valuable commodities, which could be sold, exchanged, or incorporated into Amerindian families and communities.

On the strictly commercial side, you could sell a British scalp to the French crown for about thirty-three livres. A live captive, on the other hand, could bring in somewhere between 120 and 140 livres.

Serious money.

During the Seven Years' War there were several markets for prisoners. The French crown bought prisoners for intelligence, and sometimes engaged in mass redemptions of captives. Private individuals--generally affluent officials and officers--bought prisoners for the sake of charity or ethnic and professional solidarity; farmers and artisans bought them for their labour.

So selling prisoners was a big business, even if you sometimes had to drag them around from town to town and farm to farm until you found a buyer. But this was less significant, I think, than the sheer social prestige of coming back with a prisoner.

I should add here that as well as prisoners and scalps, the Canadian Iroquois were after matériel. When the British and French talk about this, they use words like looting, pillaging, and robbery. I call it acquisition, collection, or gathering.

These aren't meant to be coy euphemisms. Looting, pillaging, and robbery carry the connotation of criminal, unofficial activity, wholly separate from the achievement of national objectives. Yet among the Canadian Iroquois, acquiring matériel was a legitimate and recognized goal of war.

Finally I should mention that a corollary of this desire to bring back prisoners was a strong reluctance to incur casualties. Prisoners strengthened an Amerindian community; casualties weakened it, by removing men who were family members and economic producers, as well as combatants.

I've compared Amerindian war to hunting. The idea is to succeed, not get yourself mauled by a bear. It's better to let the bear get away, than drag yourself home without a foot, or without your brother-in-law.

Or not.

This meant, among other things, avoiding attacks on fortified positions--a very dangerous procedure, and wholly useless if your goal was taking prisoners while avoiding losses. Prisoners were prisoners, wherever you found them. So why take risks, attacking a fort, when you could catch your prisoners somewhere else?

Which brings us to parallel warfare.

When war came, and the French wanted to go off to defend or capture a fort, the Canadian Iroquois wanted to go out and take prisoners. These goals were not quite compatible.

Sometimes, this didn't matter. A fair proportion of Canadian Iroquois military activity went into small war parties against British frontier settlements or the garrisons and lines of communications of British outposts.

In this case, the Canadian Iroquois could fulfil both their own goals and those of their French allies. The French wanted settlements terrorized and communications disrupted. The Canadian Iroquois could do this by taking prisoners.

So everyone's happy, except the British.

The French, however, also invited the Canadian Iroquois to participate in a series of campaigns against British strongholds. During these operations, conflicts could and did arise between French and Amerindian styles of war.

Under these conditions, the Canadian Iroquois did not join with the French to achieve the same objectives. They marched with their allies, but conducted parallel campaigns, directed at the taking of prisoners, along with scalps and matériel.

The result was parallel warfare--two armies, working together, marching side by side, making war by different rules, in pursuit of different, culturally specific objectives.

This meant that the Canadian Iroquois and the French waged war on two fronts. They fought against the British, each in their own way. And they bickered among themselves, as each sought to fulfil their goals within a given campaign. Since there were definite limits to the extent to which Amerindian and European concepts of war could be reconciled, parallel warfare made the Seven Years' War as much a series of cultural confrontations between allies as battles between enemies.

These confrontations imposed a rhythm of their own upon most of the allied campaigns of the Seven Years' War. In almost every year of that war, the Canadian Iroquois began by accepting a French invitation to join a military venture. The allies set off together, but as the expedition progressed, divergences between their military practices and objectives gradually asserted themselves. In the end the Canadian Iroquois either withdrew from the field, or continued hostilities after the French and British had agreed to stop.

So that's my theory of parallel warfare, more or less. Now, I'll move on to a fast-forward history of the Seven Years' War, focused on parallel warfare.

We'll start in 1754, with the first open clash between the French and British in the Ohio valley. This encounter ended with a allied force besieging Fort Necessity. After a few hours of shooting back and forth, French and British officers got together and negotiated a capitulation.

The French allowed the garrison to return to Virginia with their personal effects, provisions, weapons, and ammunition. They were granted the honours of war, and permitted to retain their flags and one symbolic cannon.

Now as far as the Europeans are concerned, at this point it's all over. They've had their little fight, and decided who won. For the British, its a defeat; for the French, a victory.

The French have thrown the Virginians back over the Appalachians, Fort Duquesne's safe, everything's fine. And they've simply assumed that they're in charge and the Amerindians are willing to accept the French definition of success.

This proved not to be the case.

The Amerindians were not at all impressed with this result. A political and strategic victory for the French empire was neither here nor there as far as they were concerned. They hadn't been consulted regarding the terms of surrender; they hadn't signed the articles of capitulation; they hadn't achieved victory on their terms. Their campaign was still underway, and it would keep on going until they too obtained a satisfactory outcome.

The next morning, a French detachment took possession of Fort Necessity; the garrison begin to leave.

Ignoring the French, one hundred Amerindians advanced on the British position. Once there, they confronted two hundred armed soldiers, still in organized units, accompanied by their officers. The Amerindians relieved the garrison of their possessions, killed two of the wounded, and three soldiers who'd drunk themselves insensible.

This sounds harsh--and it was. But Amerindians routinely killed potential prisoners who were unable to walk. They needed fit, healthy captives who could survive the march back to their communities. There wasn't much point in capturing someone they couldn't take home.

Instead of resisting their outnumbered assailants, the British withdrew. The Amerindians pursued, and secured a total of sixteen prisoners.

The French considered these captures to be a violation of the articles of capitulation, and the killings a treacherous war crime.

But for the Canadian Iroquois, it was business as usual. And now, in their opinion, the campaign was over and everyone could go home.

A year later, in 1755, the Canadian Iroquois were back in the Ohio valley. The British sent an army over the Appalachians to capture Fort Duquesne. A largely Amerindian force marched out to meet them. In a few hours fighting, without much help from the French, they obliterated a European army and turned it into a fleeing mob.

This time, both the French and Canadian Iroquois fulfilled their aims in making war. The Amerindians collected prisoners and matériel, with minimal loss to themselves; the French protected Fort Duquesne.

That wasn't the case on the Lake Champlain frontier, when the British launched an offensive against Crown Point. The French first planned to dig in at Ticonderoga, and let the British come to them. Then the French commander changed his mind, and decided to attack a British detachment on the Hudson River.

A Franco-Amerindian force marched south. But as they closed on their target, scouts reported that the British had built a fort--Fort Edward. The French decided to attack; the Amerindians refused to assault a fort. So the allied army changed its target to the British camp at the head of Lake George. On the way, they encountered a British column marching south.

Following an ambush, which didn't work out too well, the British fled north, back to Lake George. The French chased after them, and made a series of unsuccessful frontal assaults on the entrenched camp. The Canadian Iroquois covered their retreat, but were themselves ambushed and defeated by a column from Fort Edward.

For the Canadian Iroquois, the Lake George campaign was a complete and utter absolute failure. Instead of returning with prisoners, they'd lost irreplaceable fighters; instead of returning with matériel from a defeated enemy, they lost their own effects in the British ambush after the battle.

For the French, however, the campaign was a strategic success. Or at least a half-success. The battle of Lake George was a blundering tactical failure, that left the British in place at the head of Lake George. But it stopped the British advance on Crown Point. Before the battle, the British were building boats to take their army north. Afterwards, they concentrated on throwing up fortifications against an apprehended French attack.

So an absolute failure for the Canadian Iroquois, was a strategic victory for the French. This was possible, on account of their different conceptions of war. The French suffered heavy losses, but stopped a British advance. So they succeeded. The Canadian Iroquois suffered casualties, and returned without prisoners. So they failed.

Now we come to what I consider to be the best example of parallel warfare--the expedition to Fort Bull in 1756. In the course of this campaign, both the Canadian Iroquois and the French strove to impose their will upon the enterprise and adjust its conduct and objectives to conform to their ideas of waging war.

For the French, this raid was critically important. They believed that success or failure would determine the course of the war in North America. In the fall of 1755, they'd learned that the British had built two warehouses on the portage between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek--part of the supply line from Albany to Oswego. They assumed that their enemies were stockpiling provisions to support a spring offensive across Lake Ontario.

If correct, this represented a major threat to New France. Waterways in New York opened about two weeks before those in Canada. So the British could attack the small winter garrisons of forts Frontenac and Niagara before the French could reinforce these outposts. Left undisturbed, they might smash the French presence on Lake Ontario and the Ohio with one quick stroke.

The French elected to strike first, and destroy the warehouses and the stores they contained. To achieve this, to lead them to the portage, and specialists in forest warfare. So they approached the Canadian Iroquois.

But they didn't tell them the truth.

The French could have explained their intentions, and asked their allies to join a strategic offensive to save New France. Instead, they just asked the Amerindians to join in a raid on the portage.

So for the Canadian Iroquois, this expedition is just another chance to go to war grab some prisoners, scalps, and matériel.

The allies assembled at Oswegatchie. But before they left, a Canadian Iroquois war party came in with prisoners. Interrogated by a French interpreter, these captives told the French that the storehouses had been fortified. There were forts at both ends of the portage. The prisoners didn't give the names of the forts, but they were Fort Bull at the west end and Fort Williams at the east.

Instead of informing their allies, the French decided this would just be their little secret. They knew Amerindians didn't like attacking forts. So why spoil everything by sharing intelligence with their allies?

But that didn't work out. On the way south, the Canadian Iroquois met an Oswegatchie traveller who told them about the fortifications.

Given that they had no intention of assaulting the forts, the Amerindians leaders met with their French counterparts, rejected the original plan, and proposed an alternative that suited their military customs. They suggested that the allies should raid British settlements along the Mohawk valley.

From their perspective, this was a very reasonable proposition. They'd been asked to attack a few bark huts, not storm forts and risk heavy losses. Now that the target was known to be fortified, they had every right to reconsider.

The French responded by stalling. The French commander argued that the allies should push on to the portage, see for themselves, then decide what to do.

The Canadian Iroquois accepted this deferral of a decision, but reserved the right to reopen the topic at a later date.

Most of the Amerindians remained with the French, and continued southward. A few broke away in small parties to raid along the Mohawk.

By the time they reached the portage, the French, but not the Canadian Iroquois, had run out of food. So the Amerindians ambushed a convoy of wagons on the portage road. They captured ten prisoners and nine wagons of provisions. One teamster escaped, and ran towards Fort Williams.

For the Canadian Iroquois, this didn't much matter. They'd struck the enemy, taken prisoners, and not lost a man. They'd done what they came to do, the raid was over, it was time to go home. In their words:

having secured sufficient food to take us to Oswegatchie and English meat [prisoners], without the loss of a man, it would be against the will of the Master of Life to risk a second engagement."

The French, on the other hand, were just getting started. For them, the ambush was a means to capture the food they needed to continue the campaign.

After some discussion, the French marched off to attack Fort Bull. They made a frontal assault, and exterminated the garrison.

The Canadian Iroquois screened the French against intervention from Fort Williams. They ambushed a party of British scouts, and took four more prisoners.

The allies then returned to Canada to celebrate their separate victories. Each had fulfilled objectives that were incidental to the achievement of those of their allies.

The Canadian Iroquois had gone to war to capture prisoners. They were entirely successful. The fighters who left the expedition on the way south took ten prisoners. Those who continued with the French took fourteen more.

The French firmly believed that the elimination of a specific physical target had contributed to the safety and security of the French empire. By destroying Fort Bull and the stores it contained they'd thwarted the British spring offensive on Lake Ontario.

This wasn't quite the case. The provisions and munitions at Fort Bull were on the way to resupply Oswego, after a long, harsh winter that saw the garrison reduced to near-starvation.

Nonetheless, each component of the expedition had gone to war in its own way, fought according to its inclinations, and succeeded according to its own standards. But at the same time, they each contributed to the overall success of the campaign.

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Copyright © 1999, 2001 D. Peter MacLeod

The bottom center image is a detail from David Rickman, Eastern Woodland Indians, middle of the eighteenth century, Department of National Defence.