Bent on dominating the beaver trade, Dutch-backed Mohawks waged a brutal war in the mid-1600s
WHEN FATHER ANTOINE DANIEL, the Jesuit missionary of the village of St. Joseph on Lake Huron, heard the dull thunder of moccasins as Mohawk warriors climbed the stockade, he sprinted for the wooden chapel. Inside were Huron Indians—women, children, and old men seeking the refuge he had told them God would provide.
Daniel entered, surveyed his terrified charges, and pronounced a general absolution. Upon those who previously had been reluctant to accept baptism, he hurriedly conferred the sacrament. These rites complete, he quietly urged all to save themselves, turned back to the doorway, and went out to meet the warriors as they tumbled over the stockade and into the town. Perhaps intending to create a diversion that would buy time for “his” Hurons to escape, Daniel took down a cross from the wall, grasped it in his right hand, and ventured straight toward the enemy, icon uplifted.
The sight of the black-robed figure froze the attackers. But only for a moment. Several leveled their guns and fired. Shot many times, Daniel fell, even as warriors streamed by to kill or capture others. They shot, they brained, they gutted, they scalped, and they took captives, pausing only to put buildings to the torch. As the chapel leaped into flame, the Mohawks flung Daniel’s lifeless body through its open door.
It was July 1648, less than 20 years since the first European—a French Jesuit, like Daniel—is thought to have set eyes on this part of the Great Lakes region. St. Joseph (modern-day Port Huron, Michigan) was one of many small villages established along Lake Huron by the Jesuits from France. These men of the cloth had come to save the souls of the natives of America, and found a place among the Huron Indians.
They were soon joined by profit-minded countrymen, traders drawn to the Great Lakes wilderness by the plenitude of beaver, whose fur was extremely popular in Europe. But the beaver trade also drew the Dutch. Beginning operations in the East in the 1620s, the Dutch West India Company had found a firm partner in the five tribes of the Iroquois, particularly the Mohawks, who traded beaver fur for goods. When beaver began to disappear in the East, the Mohawks had pushed west into the lands of the Huron.
With this, the Dutch sensed a golden opportunity to usurp trade from the French. On April 7, 1648, they reversed their longstanding policy against arming the Indians and traded some 400 long arms to the Mohawks. They knew full well that the warriors would use them against the French-backed Hurons and the French themselves. Indeed, the Mohawks were de facto proxy troops against the French and the Huron. Within months of the arms deal, a thousand Mohawks had cut their hair for war, leaving their scalps bare save for a strip down the middle, three finger widths across, running from forehead to nape.
THE MOHAWK raiding party that killed Daniel that July day left St. Joseph and withdrew with about 700 prisoners. Immediately, it struck again, at nearby St. Ignace, a mission village populated almost exclusively by women, children, and old men. Their slaughter and capture took but a few minutes. Once again, leaving their conquest burning behind them, the Mohawks moved on, this time to the mission village of St. Louis, about three miles away.
A later generation would use the term “blitzkrieg” to describe similar tactics; a still later one would use the phrase “shock and awe.” To those on the receiving end, the attacks seemed nothing less than a force of nature, overwhelming and inescapable. Even so, there was a tactical downside. Mohawk raiding doctrine was founded on speed rather than thoroughness, and in their haste the warriors left survivors behind. Three Hurons escaped the St. Ignace raid, outran the raiders advancing on St. Louis, and alerted the village.
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A Timeline of the Beaver Wars
Most of its 700 inhabitants evacuated, leaving only about 80 warriors behind, together with those too old or too sick to move. Two Jesuit missionaries who had also escaped from St. Ignace, Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lallemant, awaited the onslaught with them.
If speed and ferocity were the essence of Mohawk raiding tactics, virtually all Indian war leaders believed in attacking only with vastly superior numbers. At St. Louis, the ratio was a thousand Mohawks to 80 Huron warriors. Yet those 80 twice turned back the Mohawks, killing some 30. This prompted the attackers to change tactics. Instead of concentrating on punching a single entry point through the village stockade, they mounted their third assault from several directions simultaneously, wielding their hatchets against the walls of wooden palings woven together with stout grasses. They broke through in many places, and once the Mohawks were within the walls of St. Louis, it was all quickly over.
Survivors were few but included the two Jesuits. Taken captive, they were marched from the blazing town back to St. Ignace, where all the prisoners were tortured to death, the greatest brutality accorded Brébeuf and Lallemant. The pair were tied upright to stakes, scalped alive, then “baptized” with boiling water. For each, a “necklace” of hatchets was fashioned, thrown into the fire, then withdrawn when the metal glowed red hot. These “adornments” were put around their necks.
Both men endured their suffering as martyrs do—stoically. It was said that the 55-year-old Brébeuf uttered not the slightest sound throughout the torture, even to the moment of his death. That his tormentors cut out his heart and ate it was a tribute paid only to the most worthy of adversaries. The Mohawks, like a number of other eastern tribes, believed that by eating the heart of a courageous enemy they would partake of his courage.
The Mohawks then used the ruins of St. Ignace as a forward base to launch raids against all the smaller villages of the region. Nearly a year later, in March 1649, they set out to attack Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, near modern Midland, Ontario.
Of all the Jesuit mission towns, Sainte-Marie was considered the jewel. When it was established in 1639, it was the first non-Indian settlement in what is now Ontario and served as the center for Jesuit missionary operations throughout the region. The 18 men who first arrived raised a roof of birch bark upon pillars of cypress, then built up interior walls with clay. Soon, other structures went up, including a chapel, a Jesuit residence, a kitchen, a smithy, and buildings that served traders in furs and other commodities. It was a place to preach, but it was also a living lesson to the Hurons, an example of the ordered life of a European village. Here, traders and Indian fur hunters met, and here, from time to time, soldiers were quartered.
On this day, the fortress-village was defended by a garrison of 40 well-armed Frenchmen augmented by perhaps 300 Hurons. But no commander, whether a 17th-century Huron warrior or a 21st-century military officer, wants to fight defensively. The Hurons left the shelter of their stockade and launched a preemptive ambush on the leading edge of the Mohawk force as it approached. Despite the surprise, the Mohawks not only repulsed the attack but forced the Hurons into retreat.
Or so the Mohawk warriors believed.
Although historians generally credit Indian warriors with bravery—sometimes mythologizing this quality—they rarely acknowledge demonstrations of tactical sophistication. In this case, the retreating Hurons drew the Mohawks into a larger attack by the main force of Hurons. Their flight had been tactical in its nature and intent, and it worked. The Mohawks were routed.
THEY WERE not annihilated, though. Despite heavy losses, they retreated intact and regrouped to renew the assault against Sainte-Marie. The first skirmishes had reduced the number of Huron defenders by half, to about 150. In the skirmish that followed, the French estimated that the Hurons killed at least another hundred Mohawks, though they lost all but 20 of their own.
There was no question that the Hurons and their French allies had been defeated, but the Mohawks were so unnerved by the resistance that they withdrew instead of capitalizing on their victory. On June 16, 1649, Father Paul Ragueneau and other Jesuit missionaries returned to what was left of Sainte-Marie. They decided that it was better to burn the mission than see it fall permanently into Iroquois hands. Ragueneau wrote, “We ourselves set fire to it, and beheld burn before our eyes, and in less than one hour, our work of nine or ten years.”
Ragueneau and the others were determined that the physical obliteration of Sainte-Marie would not erase its spiritual presence. The Jesuit Order had already decided that Brébeuf and Lallemant would be canonized, and they hired a shoemaker named Christophe Regnault to find the missionaries’ burial places and recover their bones. After duly exhuming the bodies, Regnault immersed them into a strong lye solution, which separated the flesh from the bones. The skeletons he wrapped in linen to be preserved as relics. The flesh he collected and reburied in a dual grave.
Although the Mohawks were dispirited by the Hurons’ desperate stand at Sainte-Marie, they had forced their enemy out of 15 principal towns by the end of March 1649. Indeed, by this time, the Huron nation ceased to exist as an organized community. Many refugees were adopted by allied tribes, large numbers finding refuge with the Tobacco—or Tionontati—tribe. The French Jesuits, suddenly lacking Indians to convert, abandoned a number of their missions. The defeat of their French rivals in the beaver trade greatly gratified the Dutch, who now looked on their sale to the Mohawks of 400 guns as a very fine bargain indeed.
Alan Axelrod is the author of several books, including The Real History of the American Revolution. This story is adapted from A Savage Empire: Trappers, Traders, Tribes, and the Wars That Made America, copyright © 2011 by Alan Axelrod and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.