[ This is a book review of “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America“ by David J. Silverman 2016.
I found this book hard to put down. It should be read because it tells the role guns played in the decimation of Native Americans, how initially European colonization was mainly able to succeed by trading guns for fur (beaver, otter, buffalo, deer), how guns played a huge role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans over the next 200 years, and a new and darker view of the history of America. After reading this book, I wondered if perhaps as many Indians died in gun battles between tribes and colonists as died from small pox and other diseases.
Native Americans were brave, strong, clever, and strategic in how they used guns to transform their culture. Perhaps if they’d had a greater population they could have fended off colonization, though disease, fighting among themselves, the immigration of millions, and enormous birth-rate of colonists almost certainly doomed them.
It’s an enormous tragedy that Indians used guns to kill and capture slaves from other tribes to swell their own numbers (lost to battles and disease) to gain wives and children (men were killed), as well as exchanging captured natives to the European slave trade in exchange for guns. The one time Native American leaders had the vision to try to unite tribes against European colonization failed (i.e. Pontiac’s War in 1763.)
The complete history of the role guns played tragedy in hundreds of thousands of Native American deaths in gun battles has never been told before as far as I can tell, though “The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West” covers the U.S. Army wars against Native American tribes after the Civil War.
As globalization ends due to supply chains breaking from oil shortages, peak everything, wars over remaining resources, and destruction of the ecology that sustains us, the ability of the State to control violence will erode and deaths will grow in number until the human population is back to carrying capacity.
This book reminded me that guns will play a huge role in the die-off, especially in America, with by far the highest number of guns per capita (See Wikipedia “Estimated number of guns per capita by country” here for details).
Guns are anathema to me and many others, but after you read this book you may see merits in arming yourself and finding alliances with other members of your community as mafias, gangs, and paramilitaries proliferate. And who knows, red states taking over blue states given 55% of Republicans versus 32% of Democrats have a gun in their home (Gallup poll 2006).
There are quite a few people capable of forming militias — 22 million, or 7.3% of all living Americans, are in the military now or have served at some point in their lives (What percentage of Americans have served in the military 2015 FiveThirtyEight). Plus millions of policemen, security guards, and related professions.
I wouldn’t be surprised if bullets were worth more than gold for a while.
P.S. I’ve read several other books lately on the true history of America, not the patriotic pablum fed in school you may also be interested in:
- White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
- The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
- The Making of Donald Trump If more Americans had read this before the election, Trump never would have been elected
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]
Excerpts from Thundersticks:
From the early days of Atlantic coast colonization in the 17th century, through the end of the Plains wars in the late 19th century, one group of Indians after another used firearms to revolutionize their lives.
The first groups to adopt these weapons sought a military advantage over their rivals.
Those who managed to seize temporary control of an emerging gun market transformed themselves into predatory gunmen, terrorizing entire regions to seize enemy Indian captives, plunder, land, and glory. In the face of such gun-toting expansionist powers, neighboring peoples had little choice but to respond in kind. They could plainly see that the groups most at risk of subjugation, forced adoption, enslavement, displacement, and death were the ones who failed to provide their warriors with guns and ammunition.
All of the tribes quickly learned that access to guns could lead to their rise or fall. The result was the eruption of regional arms races across the continent for over 200 years. This predatory raiding would not subside until a rough balance of power was achieved through a widespread distribution of guns.
For every force like the Five Nations that rose on the strength of its armament, there were numerous other groups on whose fall that rise was predicated. This added up to tens of thousands and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of eastern woodlands Indians killed, captured, tortured, forcibly adopted, and maimed over the course of the seventeenth century.
Innumerable others suffered the misery of losing loved ones over and over again and living in constant fear. Even the Iroquois eventually had their own tactics turned against them as their rivals acquired their own arms and fine-tuned their defenses. The region had degenerated into a running gun battle in which no one was safe.
For some Natives the gun became an important and even necessary tool for hunting. This was especially the case among deer-hunting peoples east of the Mississippi River and for caribou/moose hunters near Hudson Bay. It took only a generation or two before Indians claimed that their young people had become so accustomed to hunting with these weapons, and so out of practice at using and manufacturing bows and arrows, that they would starve without ammunition and gunsmithing services.
The centrality of guns to Native warfare and hunting made them symbols of Indian manhood, for these were the most basic male responsibilities. Men went to war for a variety of reasons:
- kill enemy warriors to expand or defend territory
- seize women and children for enslavement and adoption
- negotiation of tributary relationships between communities
- revenge of insults
- protection of kin from outside aggressors
- plunder enemy wealth
The people’s destiny hinged on these goals, and therefore their cultural practices emphasized war as a foundation of male identity. Almost any man who aspired to social esteem, a favorable marriage, and political influence first had to prove himself as a warrior and hunter. As the weapons market spread, achieving this status required him to become a capable gunman as well. Firearms grew so essential to masculine achievements that, in many times and places, an Indian man was rarely, if ever, seen out on the hunt or on the warpath without a musket and an ammunition bag slung over his shoulder.
Among the Blackfeet of the northwestern Plains, capturing an enemy warrior’s gun became the greatest honor a man could accomplish in battle, which he then memorialized in ceremony and art.
It is equally telling of the role guns played in Indian constructions of gender that Native women rarely used firearms, even when their lives were in peril. The general rule was that women gave and sustained life but did not take it. This principle held firm even when the threat of enemy gunmen was imminent and the community at risk had enough resources to put muskets in the hands of adults of both sexes. It did not seem to matter that women faced special dangers from enemy raiders and armies, since Indian war parties usually killed their adult male opponents but marked able-bodied women for forcible adoption or slavery.
Women were prizes for gun-toting enemy warriors, restricted by their people’s gender conventions from wielding arms to defend themselves. Women who made it out of an enemy attack alive but captive would serve the captor’s people for a greater or lesser time as slaves before being adopted with the expectation of marrying and producing children—that is, if no one killed them beforehand. Child captives suffered similar ordeals. The misery of untold numbers of women and children fitting this description, and of thousands of men who also died along the way, were among the legacies of the arming of the Native Northeast, where in the end “there really were no winners … only survivors.
As Indians’ need for munitions grew, they developed economies to secure supplies of arms, gunsmithing services and restrict their rivals’ access to them.
Indigenous political economies of guns followed a common pattern across the continent over the course of 250 years. Repeatedly, Indian polities harvested resources sought by gun suppliers, and then cultivated trade with more than one weapons dealer to ensure dependable flows of munitions at low costs, even in the event of war with the societies of the arms merchants. Indians used their arsenals to cut off indigenous enemies from the arms trade and seize hunting grounds, slaves, and horses from them which could be converted into more guns. Sometimes the Indians’ gun dealers hailed from different nations, such as England, France, the Netherlands, or Spain, or different colonies of the same nation, in the case of the English provinces of the Atlantic seaboard. At other times (or simultaneously), munitions came from one or more Native groups playing the role of middlemen between colonial markets and Indians of the interior. The point of opening so many trade lines was to prevent foreigners from turning the people’s dependence on firearms into political and economic weakness.
Middlemen accumulated earnings and allies by trafficking guns to people isolated from the Euro-American arms market. Generally the middlemen came from small communities unable to compete independently with the most formidable tribes and confederacies. They made themselves valuable to these groups by delivering munitions and other goods to them from remote colonial sources.
On the return trip they carried indigenous commodities such as beaver pelts, otter pelts, slaves, horses, and bison robes for trade to Euro-American merchants, which began the cycle anew. Serving as the conduit between distant markets enabled the middlemen to build political and economic alliances with peoples at both ends of the transaction, thus giving them influence disproportionate to their numbers and military strength. This role also gave middlemen a cut of the profits, thereby enhancing their own ability to purchase foreign weaponry. Indian polities used commercial and military leverage to shape these relationships to their advantage. They threatened gun dealers that they would take their trade elsewhere unless they received gunsmithing, powder, and shot at reduced prices or even for free. They also required gunrunners who did business with them not to supply their rivals. Traders who bent to these demands often found themselves with customers so loyal that they could be trusted to repay large extensions of credit, even in the absence of a formal legal system to enforce these agreements. By contrast, traders who ignored the Indians’ conditions suffered a loss of business, at best, and sometimes the loss of their lives.
Indians never possessed the technological ability to manufacture guns and gunpowder, but attempts to prevent guns traded for good usually failed because the Indians’ made sure they had multiple sources of supply. At no point in time did any one colonial or imperial polity control enough of the continent or even one region to cut off Indians completely from guns, powder, and shot.
The widespread success of Indians at building and maintaining large arsenals of firearms reveals the extent of indigenous economic and political power, the limits of state authority, and the high degree of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans. This interdependence stemmed Indians being the main suppliers to colonists of beaver pelts, otter furs, deerskins, and buffalo robes. The fur trade was central to the economy of nearly every colony in its opening decades.
Indians insisted on high-quality, low-cost firearms, gunpowder, shot, and gunsmithing services for furs, though they demanded other types of goods, especially woolen blankets, linen, shirts, metal tools, and liquor. But they could make do without cloth or tools if they had to, whereas guns and ammunition became a military necessity, a matter of life and death. The Indians’ Euro-American trade partners could either supply these wares or lose their Native customers and risk turning them into enemies.
The main concession of Euro-American governments and even major trade firms to Indian demands was to make gifts of guns, powder, shot, and gunsmithing a routine part of their diplomacy with Indians. Presents of these goods and services were so common that powerful Indian groups no longer had to pay for them to any significant degree. In the diplomatic gift economy, the quality, quantity, and timeliness of arms-related gifts became the symbols of the health of the relationship between giver and recipient. Price was taken out of the equation. The fact that Europeans delivered these presents in ritual settings structured by Indian customs of feasting, smoking, dancing, singing, and speeches, reflected the leverage Indians exercised over colonial states even as they needed European guns to defend themselves.
Their dependence on the technology of Europe did not translate into political subservience to particular empires, colonies, or nations. The lengthy condition of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans, and the Indians’ cultivation of multiple sources of supply beyond the control of any particular government, meant that indigenous peoples’ reliance on guns rarely made them captive to a single Euro-American state. Euro-American states were never able to exploit the Indians’ need for munitions to force them to cede their land or extradite their people to colonial jurisprudence. What those states could do with varying degrees of effectiveness was reduce, but rarely halt, the arms trade during periods of Indian-colonial warfare and thereby pressure enemy Indians to end their campaigns. Additionally, they could use their trading policies and gift diplomacy to influence Native people toward peace or war with other tribes or colonies and to deliver warriors to imperial military campaigns.
The Indians’ dependence on Euro-American weaponry did not make them tools of Euro-American governments. Euro-American polities, including the United States, always struggled to control the arms trade to Indians. In the founding years of colonies, when they were most vulnerable, and during periods of war with Indian peoples, Euro-American governments typically banned the sale of munitions to Indians, but usually to little effect. There were always traders who refused to honor such restrictions. Most alarming were examples of government officers and military men who turned to the black-market trade with Indians to line their own pockets. The arms trade to Indians was one of the prime examples of American “rogue colonialism,” in which colonists of all ranks pursued their own interests, often illegally, in opposition to the directives of central authorities and even against the interests of their neighbors.
The most common element in the sequential collapse of Indian military resistance to Euro-America was starvation and war-weariness stemming from the enemy’s scorched-earth tactics and killing of women, children, and the elderly. Another key factor was their harassment at the hands of other indigenous people who allied with Euro-Americans in the hopes of dealing a blow against their intertribal rivals and gaining supplies of munitions. More generally, Indians lost a numbers game, with their own ranks thinned by repeated bouts of epidemic disease and warfare, while Euro-Americans were strengthened by centuries of high birthrates and large-scale migrations to North America. To the extent that Indians held back this tide, it was in no small part because of, not despite of, their adoption of firearms.
The Atlantic coast was the strongest base of the arms trade, and in broad strokes the gun frontier tended to move from east to west, but firearms arrived in Indian country from multiple directions along the twisting routes of rivers and ancient pathways. Throughout the 18th century, munitions flowed south from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s base in Canadia into the northern Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. Weapons unloaded at French ports on the Gulf of Mexico circulated north, west, and sometimes east, often for hundreds of miles.
In a striking reversal of the east-to-west movement associated with the traditional American frontier, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries shipboard traders sold guns to indigenous people along the Pacific Northwest coast, who then carried these weapons eastward to Natives of the interior. Most Indians in the continental Southwest did not possess guns in significant numbers until the mid- to late 19thcentury, because Spanish policies and economic underdevelopment stifled the arms trade out of colonial New Mexico and Texas. Nevertheless, munitions reached the hands of the Comanches of the southern Plains through their eastern neighbors, the Wichitas of the Arkansas and Red River Valleys, who in turn had obtained them from French, British, and American sources based along the Mississippi.
This history of the movement of guns to Native Americans across the continent over the span of more than two centuries demonstrates how indigenous people used guns to reshape their world. This development was one of the essential features of their history with colonialism. Some Indians used guns to accumulate wealth, power, and honors to become ascendant.
Their stories offer an important counterpoint to the long-standing assumption that Indians generally plunged into a downward trajectory of death, land loss, and impoverishment at contact with Euro-Americans. They also challenge the notion that a disadvantage in arms somehow accounts for indigenous people’s ultimate subjugation to Euro-American authority. Native economic power, business sense, and political savvy ensured that was not the case.
However, it is equally critical to acknowledge that gun-toting Indian groups nearly always arose at the expense of other Natives, sometimes many others. Just as the story of the United States should not be told simply as the triumphant rise of a democratic nation-state of liberty-loving people, neither should the advantages Indians wrested from colonialism overshadow the costs.
Indians became so well armed that they were capable of inflicting incredible damage with surprise attacks on colonial settler societies. Most of them were so resourceful in preparing for war and cultivating multiple supply lines that colonial authorities could not disarm them simply by declaring bans on the weapons trade. Yet if arms embargos could not starve Indians of supplies, they could induce hunger for them. These boycotts gave colonial authorities, particularly the English, an influential, albeit not a decisive, weapon to use, but only if they could manage to control their own traders. The problem, of course, was that colony governments exercised weak authority over their own people and none at all over those of neighboring colonies. Given these conditions, the colonists’ most powerful weapon, aside from their artillery, was the lure of arms to recruit Indian warriors to fight for their side.
Overall, long-term Indian success in war against colonial states required stockpiles of arms, dependable avenues of supply, regional alliances of tribes to prevent the colonial strategy of divide and conquer, and forts at remote locations where colonial forces could not haul their artillery guns.
There is no way to calculate the exact number of Indians killed and captured during the gun violence of the late 17th and 18th centuries, but the figure certainly ran into the high tens and even hundreds of thousands of people. To make matters worse, smallpox stalked the routes of slave raiding and gunrunning, preying on populations that were malnourished and traumatized by the predatory violence and clustered into defensive fortifications, which rendered them more vulnerable to communicable diseases. The overall effect was a population decline of some two-thirds between 1685 and 1730, from an estimated 199,000 people to some 67,000.
Many Native North Americans believed that thunder was produced by the flapping wings of a giant bird streaking across the sky. That same Thunderbird shot lightning bolts from its eyes, which then crystalized on the ground into such forms as mica and ancient stone arrowheads. Calling guns Thundersticks or Metal-Lightning was a way of saying that they embodied the awesomeness of the Thunderbird. Clearly these peoples associated the noise, flash, smoke, and lethality of guns with some of the most fearsome natural elements and their spirits.
During thunder and lightning storms, southeastern Indians fired their guns toward the sky to show the Thunderbird “that they were warriors, and not afraid to die in any shape; much less afraid of that threatening noise.” They were also demonstrating that they wielded the power of the elements no less than the spirits of the upper world.
The role of native Americans in the slave trade
The arming of the Indian Southeast took place through the trade in Indian slaves.
Indian captors and their colonial customers robbed as many as 50,000 people of their freedom during the heyday of this enterprise from 1660 to 1720, and killed many more along the way.
The scale of this commerce and the devastation it unleashed was infinitely greater than in the trade of Native people for arms that was developing in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River Valley during the same period. Southeastern slave raids wiped out numerous communities and dislocated others from the Virginia-Carolina Piedmont, deep into Florida, and all the way west to the Mississippi River Valley.
South Carolina’s profits from the labor of Indian slaves and their resale to the West Indies produced much of the seed money for the development of the colony and emptied indigenous people from territory that would later host plantations run on the toil of African slaves.
The danger of slave raiders forced survivors to band together in defensive confederacies and take up slave raiding themselves, for one was either an aggressor or a victim in this terrifying new world. This was a new type of warfare, focused less on satisfying revenge or obtaining captives for adoption than on acquiring people to sell. The southeastern slave trade was fundamentally a trade of humans for munitions in which marauding Indian slavers grew ever more formidable by selling captives for arms, while previous victims became raiders themselves in order to obtain guns for protection and predation. The slave trade and the gun frontier marched hand in hand.
The kind of cascading gun violence that marred the Southeast during this period has obvious parallels to the Northeast and Great Lakes regions between the 1630s and early 1700s. Competition for captives (albeit largely for slaves instead of future adoptees) and control of European markets galvanized intertribal arms races in the Southeast as they had in the North. Rivalries between English Virginia, English South Carolina, Spanish Florida, and French Louisiana involved using trade and gifts of military hardware to bid for Indian trade partners and allies, as was the case among New France, New Netherland, and the various English colonies of the Northeast. Most of the Southeast colonies proved just as incapable of policing gunrunners as their northern counterparts had been, and few of them made much of an effort in the first place. The raids of indigenous groups boasting a temporary advantage in arms forced their enemies to seek political alliances and trading relationships to build up their own arsenals. As in the North, within a few decades guns were more or less evenly distributed throughout the region, which ended runs of dominance of predatory raiders in favor of a balance of power maintained by the fur/deerskin trade and diplomacy with rival European powers. In many critical respects, then, the gun frontier looked similar in the northern and southern woodlands.
Human actors connect the stories of these regions, too, demonstrating the long reach of colonial violence in Indian country. The Chichimecos, as some Indians and the Spanish called them, first appear in the records of Virginia during the 1650s under the name of Rickahockans. By the 1670s the English referred to them as Westos. These Rickahockans/Westos were none other than the Eries, who had retreated from the Great Lakes to the falls of the James River to escape Iroquois gunmen. They then continued their migration into what is now South Carolina. Within a few years their neighbors included a portion of the Savannahs (or Shawnees) from the Ohio Valley, who had left the region seeking European trade and escape from indigenous slave raids out of Virginia and then Five Nations attacks, before settling on the southern river to which they gave their name. Given that the Westos were an Iroquoian-speaking people (though not a member of the Iroquois League), in all likelihood they had their own “mourning war” tradition of adopting enemy captives into their population. But that was not the primary motive of their raiding in the Southeast. Their most compelling reason to relocate this far south was the opportunity to arm themselves by trading people, deerskins, and furs to the colonies of Virginia and then South Carolina. The Westos and Savannahs knew through hard experience that guns were the key to their defense as long as rival groups had access to the colonial weapons market. Seizing captives from southeastern tribes to exchange for arms and adopt into their ranks was their way of ensuring that no one would overawe their people ever again. In this they became the same kind of menacing force that Iroquois gunners had formerly been to them. And they too, like the Five Nations, forced one group after another to build up their munitions and turn these weapons against others, part of the thunderous storm rumbling across Indian country.
The Eries’ relationship with Virginia did not get off to a good start, but eventually the parties established a mutually beneficial exchange of slaves and deerskins for munitions. When Virginia learned in 1656 that 700 strangers called Rickahockans (or Richahecrians) had suddenly appeared at the falls of the James River, its initial response was to attack them. Little did Virginia know that this group was battle tested and, judging from the Rickahockans’ victory in the subsequent fight, perhaps better armed than one might have expected, possibly via the Susquehannocks and that tribe’s weapons trade with Maryland and New Sweden. Thinking the better of entering yet another Indian war with such a formidable opponent, Virginia sued for peace and by 1658 had authorized an open trade in guns, powder, and shot with any “friendly Indians.” A year later there were reports out of St. Augustine of “northern” Indians wielding English muskets, sometimes accompanied by Englishmen, terrorizing the missions of Guale, the northernmost province of Spanish Florida on what is now the Georgia coast. These raiders were certainly the Eries, seeking captives to sell as slaves to Chesapeake tobacco planters and probably also to buttress their population, thinned by war with the Iroquois. Virginians even began referring to the Eries by the name “Westos
The Westos’ prey were the bow-and-arrow Indians of the Florida missions, Carolina coast, and adjacent Piedmont. Spain’s southeastern mission system was extensive, consisting of 35 stations along what today is the shoreline of Georgia and northeast Florida and across the Florida panhandle. Yet it was also vulnerable. One of the principles of the missions was that the Spanish would provide military support and European goods to uphold the authority of local chiefs. However, that protection and trade did not include firearms in any appreciable volume, not because the Spanish refused to trade guns to Indians, but because the Spanish crown invested few resources in the marginal Florida colony and tightly restricted its economy. Additionally, in the 1670s the number of Spanish soldiers stood at just a few hundred men out of a Spanish population of less than 1,000. Such a small, concentrated, poorly armed population was precisely what raiders wanted. Indians elsewhere in the region were also relatively easy targets. The South Carolina coast was inhabited by various Siouan-speaking communities of just a few hundred people each, weakened by successive outbreaks of epidemic disease and war. Even the large, town-dwelling Muskogean-speaking groups west and south of the Savannah River enticed Westo slavers because they were easily reached and defended only by bowmen. The Westos viewed them all as potential slaves.
The Westos’ advantage in arms enabled them to devastate these populations. In the fall of 1659, news arrived in St. Augustine from the interior province of Apalachee that villages 80 leagues to the north had suffered “much damage” by an army of up to 1,000 men consisting of “some striped [painted] Indians, and with them white people, and that they bought some firearms and among them two campaign pieces [or artillery guns].” Coastal Guale was next, suffering an invasion in June 1661 by “a great number of Indians” estimated at 2,000 men, “who said they were Chichimecos and among them some Englishmen with firearms
It was probably no coincidence that half a dozen or so villages of a previously unknown group called the Yamasees appeared just north of the Guale missions shortly after these reports. Though the origin of the Yamasees is cloudy, they seem to have been comprised of various peoples displaced by Westo gunmen. Soon the Yamasees would move directly into the mission districts and begin contributing to Spanish labor drafts in the hope of receiving protection. Their retreat was part of a larger diaspora of peoples throughout the Piedmont and lower Southeast, including Tutelos, Saponis, Yuchis, and Coushattas, seeking refuge from the slavers.
Other Piedmont nations responded to the Westos by acquiring firearms from the Virginia trade forts and especially from pack trains that were probing deeper into Indian country.
By the 1660s the Occaneechis inhabiting the confluence of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers along the major Piedmont trade path had established themselves as middlemen between Virginia gunrunners and indigenous slave raiders and deerskin hunters, a position they jealously guarded. Their town became known as “the mart for all the Indians for at least 500 miles.” The Tuscaroras of the North Carolina coastal plain and Piedmont carved out a similar niche for themselves, transforming one of their towns into “a place of great Indian trade and commerce.” By 1670 firearms had become so common in the region that Monacans by the falls of the James and the Saponis of Otter Creek (by modern Lynchburg, Virginia) greeted English traders with celebratory “volleys of shot” and other signs that “guns, powder, and shot, etc., are commodities they will greedily barter for.” If the Westos wanted to maintain their superiority in arms over their neighbors, they had to find a new home. Consequently, less than a decade after arriving in Virginia, the Westos had relocated to the Savannah River, the modern border of South Carolina and Georgia, within easier striking distance of their intended victims.
Even as the South Carolina–Westo alliance was thriving, elements within the colony were working to undermine it. The eight lords proprietor, who technically governed Carolina from England, claimed a monopoly on the interior Indian trade, including that with the Westos, but colonists, even the proprietors’ own appointees, had little respect for their authority. A faction of councilors soon to be known as the “Goose Creek Men,” led by James Moore, Maurice Mathews, and Arthur Middleton, began encouraging the so-called Settlement Indians and Savannahs to raid the Westos for captives to sell into slavery. When the Westos retaliated, as predicted, the Goose Creek Men used it as an excuse to have the assembly declare war, despite the proprietors’ orders to stop. In this the Goose Creek Men simultaneously dealt a severe blow to proprietary authority and weakened the most threatening indigenous power in the region. Details of the war are murky, but by 1682 the Westos were said to be “ruined” and “not 50 left alive and those Divided.
With the Westos shattered, the Goose Creek Men partnered with Indians near and far to expand the hunt for slaves. The Savannahs (or Shawnees) were the first group to step into the Westo vacuum, relocating to the Savannah River and then raiding interior peoples such as the Cherokees. The Yamasees followed, abandoning the Spanish missions for territory just east of the Savannahs, after concluding that it was better to go slaving for arms than to remain the prey of armed slavers. Even Indians who thought of themselves as allies of Carolina were vulnerable to slave raiding. Shortly after the Westo War, the colony used a trumped-up excuse to declare war on the Winyaw community of Settlement Indians, then successfully urged the Savannahs to conquer and enslave them.
The slave traders’ control of the assembly gave them leeway to pursue their criminal interests under the color of law. The proprietors accused Goose Creek Men in the legislature of banning the sale of arms to Indians only to apply the rule selectively against their commercial rivals while they “brook it themselves for their private advantage and escaped the penalty.” Worse yet, the slavers provoked wars with Indians not as a matter of public good but “as best suited their private advantage in trade.” Indians cooperated in these schemes, the proprietors charged, because “you induce them through [their] Covetousness of your guns, powder, and shot and other European commodities to make war upon their neighbors, to ravish the wife from the husband, kill the father to get the child and to burn and destroy the habitations of these poor people.” It could only have deepened the proprietors’ sense of scandal that much of their colony’s importation of guns and export of Indian slaves appears to have flowed through pirates. Coastal Carolinians, including authorities, thought of pirates less as terrors than as partners in their black-market trade. From 3,000 miles away the proprietors were toothless, given that the colony’s lawmakers and lawbreakers were one and the same.
In the late 17th and 18th centuries, slavers and gunrunners marched together deeper into the continent, their power channeled by the political reorganization of their home societies. Within South Carolina, the Goose Creek Men had effectually neutered the lords proprietor, taken over the Carolina government, and thrown open the Indian trade to anyone connected with their faction. Commerce in slaves and deerskins from the Indians, and munitions and other manufactured goods from Europe, became the key to riches at a time when the colony was still searching for a cash crop. For their part, Indians in an area extending for hundreds of miles were coming to the realization that unless they did business with South Carolina, they would lack the weapons to defend themselves from the growing ranks of marauders.
Autonomous communities, their populations thinned by epidemic disease and foreign attacks, began to confederate to protect themselves from the slavers and to man their own armies to go slaving. By the early eighteenth century, two of the most significant of these coalitions were known as the Catawbas and the Creeks. These groups incorporated people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Their cohesion was in its tentative early stages as the turn of the seventeenth century approached, contributing to the sense of regional upheaval.
Competition between militant slavers meant that even groups raiding for Carolina might themselves become captives. The Westos had been merely the first group to fall victim to this trap. The Savannahs were next. In the early 1700s Catawbas attacked the Savannahs’ main town, killing a reported 450 people. The survivors retreated to the Susquehanna River Valley of Pennsylvania, then sent warriors on revenge raids against Carolina’s Indian protectorates. The colony encouraged the Catawbas to retaliate by giving them a gift of fifty guns, 1,000 flints, 200 pounds of gunpowder, and 400 pounds of bullets. Any Catawba who brought in a Savannah scalp or captive could keep the gun without charge, an arrangement premised on the assumption that repeat Indian customers would hold true to the bargain. Carolina was developing a pattern of turning on its friends as soon as it was profitable, but Indians facing the threat of enslavement could not resist the pull of its arms market.
The imperial politics of Europe also shaped these American dynamics. South Carolinians had always been driven by profits to sponsor slave raids, but they got an additional spur in 1688 with England’s Glorious Revolution and the ascension of William and Mary to the throne. By securing England’s Protestant succession, this event inaugurated more than a century of on-again, off-again warfare between Britain and the Catholic powers of France and Spain. In turn, Charles Town gained political cover to enslave the Indian allies of England’s imperial enemies. Queen Anne’s War (or the War of the Spanish Succession), stretching between 1702 and 1713, was especially critical in this respect. It legitimized and incentivized South Carolina’s long-running, de facto state of war with Florida. Furthermore, it permitted the slave traders to justify slave raids against Indians far to the west who had become associated with the young French colony of Louisiana.
The Choctaws’ partnership with the French gave Carolina slave merchants a convenient excuse to direct slave raids against them. When authorities in London demanded an explanation, the slavers easily maintained that they acted in the interest of the empire. After all, they expounded, South Carolina was “a frontier, both against the French and Spaniards,” and enslaving the Indian allies of those powers “serves to lessen their numbers before the French can arm them.
Like a hurricane feeding off the warm waters and winds of the Caribbean, the slave raiders gathered political capital, manpower, and weapons, and then slammed into Florida with irresistible force, pummeling it mercilessly from the mid-1680s into the early 1700s until they had practically emptied the entire peninsula of indigenous people.
There was no mistaking that this slave trade was primarily an exchange of people for guns. A fresh opportunity to put those guns to use arose when the start of Queen Anne’s War coincided with the appointment of none other than the slave trader James Moore to the governorship of Carolina, after the sitting governor died. Moore saw his term as the Goose Creek Men’s chance to deal a fatal blow against the Spanish while accumulating a windfall in slaving profits.
For Carolina’s Indian trade partners, it was an opportunity to build up their musketry. Between 1703 and 1705, armies of up to 1,000 Yamasee, Creek, and Cherokee gunmen marched against the missions of Apalachee and Timucua, carrying away upward of 1,300 captives in just one expedition. The only way mission Indians escaped these attacks alive and unshackled was to “agree” to relocate to the Savannah River under the supervision of the Ochese Creeks. By the time this campaign was over, Spanish Florida and its once extensive mission system were reduced to the fort at St. Augustine, small indigenous villages within range of its guns, and the garrison of Pensacola. These losses, combined with deaths from a vicious smallpox epidemic beginning in 1696, which tore through the Southeast along the routes of slaving and the arms trade, meant that by 1711 slavers had to extend their raids all the way to the Florida Keys to find populations large enough to make the effort worth
The slavers’ superiority in arms was the critical factor in their conquest of the missions. Florida officials complained endlessly that enemy raiders were “being aided by the English with guns, ammunition, cutlasses, and pistols” and “have become so expert in the handling of arms that they use them as if they were born in this service.” Mission Indians were no match. To be sure, some military hardware reached the Apalachees through a black-market trade with Cuban fishermen working Florida’s Gulf Coast and sailors docked at St. Augustine, and a handful of warriors received Spanish weapons in recognition of exemplary military service. However, the overall number of guns among the mission Indians was small and their effectiveness was diminished by shortages of powder and shot.
Florida governor Joseph de Zúñiga’s report on the fall of Apalachee concluded that “for lack of munitions, my people were defeated.” Indians agreed. When a band of Apalachees fled to Louisiana in the wake of the 1704 attacks, they explained that the Spanish “did not give them any guns at all but that the French gave them to all their allies.” It had become a matter of life and death for Indians in the slaving zone to have a European partner willing and able to arm them.
The strikes against Florida’s interior missions began a phase of significant growth in the number of militant slavers and the geographic reach of their attacks. Indeed, these developments were reciprocal, for as more communities acquired guns for defense and slaving, slavers directed their attacks farther west and south against people with weak or nonexistent armaments and became even better armed in the process. Initially the Cherokees suffered slave raids by the Savannahs, Catawbas, and Esaws, but once the Cherokees began trading with Carolina in the late 1690s that became a more dangerous proposition. Muskogean-speaking communities on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, which would later become known as Upper Creeks, were also hosting Carolina traders by at least 1704. “The English were in those nations every day,” Louisiana officials brooded, “and they take pack horses burdened with clothing, guns, gunpowder, shot, and a variety of other goods … the greatest traffic between the English and the savages is the trade of slaves … each person being traded for a gun.” By 1715 most Tallapoosa and Alabama warriors wielded firearms and the Alabamas were said to have a warehouse containing 10,000 pounds of gunpowder. Slave raiders were wise to bypass communities with such weaponry in favor of more vulnerable targets deeper in the interior, far from the gun frontier.
With the destruction of the Florida missions by Yamasee, Creek, and English slavers, the gravitational center of slaving shifted west, driven by the fears and ambitions of the Chickasaws of what is now northern Mississippi. For years the Chickasaws had suffered intermittent attacks by gunmen from the Iroquois, Great Lakes tribes, and southeastern slavers without the ability to respond in kind because those same nations blocked their access to eastern arms markets. However, eventually the gunrunners found their way to the Chickasaws.
Carolina pack trains had reached the Chickasaws as early as 1686, and by the early to mid-1690s their visits were becoming routine, much to the chagrin of neighboring peoples
Chickasaws had killed more than 1,800 Choctaws and enslaved some 500 over the previous decade, and the problem was only growing worse. In 1706 a Chickasaw army said to have numbered as many as 4,000 men (almost certainly an exaggeration unless this force included many foreign allies) attacked the Choctaws and seized more than 300 women and children. Underlying the ferocity of these campaigns was the Chickasaw determination “never to return” to the days when they were defenseless against enemy gunmen.
The ringleader of the 1706 raids on the Choctaws, recalled advancing the Chickasaws 300 muskets in exchange for the promise of just fifteen slaves. Almost overnight the Chickasaws became capable of marshaling an army of gunmen.
Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, estimated that 700 to 800 out of 2,000 Chickasaw fighting men possessed firearms and that they killed three Choctaws for every one they enslaved. Their raids, combined with those of the Creeks, threw the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi River Valley into turmoil, leaving towns destroyed, hundreds of people killed and carried into captivity, and the survivors fleeing their home territories to congregate near the French. But nowhere was safe. By the early eighteenth century, slavers sometimes ranged as far as 150 miles west of the Mississippi River.
Louisiana’s relations with area Indians hinged on arming them against this threat. The most important group in this respect was the Choctaws of the Pearl, Leaf, Pascagoula, and Tombigbee River watersheds, just south of Chickasaw territory. Unlike small Gulf Coast nations, the Choctaws, with more than 1,000 households and an estimated 4,000 warriors, had more than enough population to contend with the Chickasaws, who were less than half their number. What they needed were muskets, powder, and shot, “the most precious merchandise that there is for them,” in the judgment of Diron d’Artaguette, Louisiana’s commissary general. Yet the French were incapable of outdealing English gunrunners. Louisiana’s supply lines from Europe and Canada were just too long, its support from the crown too scanty, and its economy and population too small, to compete on the basis of free trade.
Louisiana then offered payment of a gun for every enemy scalp and 400 livres in goods for enemy captives, an incentive program that had produced 400 scalps and a hundred slaves by 1723. The cumulative effect of these measures was to give Louisiana’s Indian allies a fighting chance against foreign raiders, a point of which the French never tired of reminding them.
The slaves-for-guns trade was inherently unstable amid its remarkable growth because the spread of firearms made raids ever more costly to the aggressors while continuing to increase indigenous demand for munitions. The trade in deerskins, which always operated alongside the slave trade, was an uncertain fallback because deerskins had far less purchasing power than slaves. As colonial traders pressured Indian customers to make good on their debts, sometimes even threatening them with enslavement, tensions mounted. At the same time, English and French settlements encroached on Indian communities already bitter over their losses to the slave trade and epidemic disease. The mix proved explosive, and between 1710 and 1730 Indians throughout the Southeast began rising up against the colonies.
The Tuscaroras of the Carolina coastal plain and Piedmont were the first to rise after years of serving as both perpetrators and victims of the slave trade. Though the immediate spark of this war was North Carolina’s founding of a Swiss-Palatine settlement on the lower Trent and Neuse Rivers, followed by land surveys auguring further expansion into Tuscarora territory, the Tuscaroras’ fear of land loss was indelibly tied to their fading economic power and the risk of enslavement. Tuscarora returns on the slave trade had been declining for years as the region’s other Indians grew better armed and Virginia began importing ever greater numbers of African slaves. As the Tuscaroras brought in fewer Indian captives, colonial traders began dealing ever more sharply to collect on debts the Tuscaroras had accumulated by buying European goods on credit. Tuscaroras knew, and traders probably threatened, that if these debts remained unpaid, colonists would not hesitate to enslave their people and seize their land. North Carolina’s encroachment on their territory suggested that the time was nigh. Unwilling to brook these conditions any longer, the southern Tuscaroras and neighboring Coree Indians began attacking colonial settlements along the Neuse on September 22, 1711, killing 130 people in a matter of days and sending the survivors in a panicked flight to the safety of New Bern.
The southern Tuscaroras had built up a substantial arsenal before their attacks and then resourcefully exploited every avenue of supply as the war continued. Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood understood that the Tuscaroras “were better provided with ammunition than we ourselves” when the conflict began.
Tuscarora prisoners of the English confessed that the Senecas had counseled their people not to worry about running out of ammunition because they “would come twice a year, and furnish them with it.” What the Tuscaroras could not obtain from such outlets, they robbed from Virginia pack trains heading out to western nations like the Cherokees. The Tuscaroras had the means to fight a long campaign. During the war the Tuscaroras constructed several impressive forts that maximized their firepower. On a high bluff above Catechna Creek was “Hancock’s Fort,” so-called after the Anglicized name of its teetha (or chief). Surrounded by a trench and an embankment lined with sharp river cane, the fort’s thick log palisade contained upper and lower firing ports and bastions at the corners mounted with “some great guns,” probably meaning swivel guns or light artillery pieces. Inside was “a great deal of powder, and 300 men.” Another nearby fort, Nooherooka, was even more formidable.
“The enemy says it was a runaway negro who taught them to fortify thus,” seethed Barnwell. The Tuscaroras’ use of this slave, as in their employment of firearms, was another stinging example of them appropriating the colonists’ strengths to mount their own resistance to colonialism. Over the course of two years of fighting, both of these forts fell to large armies comprised of South and North Carolina militia and hundreds of Indian allies, but not because the Tuscaroras lacked munitions, and being unaccustomed to European siege warfare.
Hundreds of Indians fought alongside the English in this war, less out of enmity for the Tuscaroras than with an eye toward obtaining slaves to pay off their debts.
Indeed, the roster of Indians in this force reads like a roll call of slaving nations, including Yamasees, Apalachees, Cherokees, and Catawbas. Though they returned home triumphantly with dozens, even hundreds, of Tuscarora captives, they could not escape the haunting realization that they shared many of the same problems that had driven their victims to war.
The Carolina traders’ rough treatment of Indian debtors, who they mistakenly believed had become their pawns, was the main grievance behind the subsequent Yamasee War. As Indians fell behind on their payments, traders began confiscating their property and even seizing members of their communities as slaves.
Such aggression, combined with mounting cases of traders perpetrating sexual assaults, drunken brawls, and property thefts, increasingly made traders intolerable to the people with whom they dealt. Amid this acrimony Carolina made an ill-timed decision to take a census of its Indian allies, which the Indians thought to be in preparation for their enslavement. It took only a matter of weeks for Indians who did business with Carolina—Yamasees, Lower Creeks, Cherokees, and Catawbas—to kill nearly all of the one hundred traders in their towns and begin attacking outlying English settlements.
The Cherokees were the first to break, less out of fear of attack by the English than out of a need for munitions to fend off raids by the Iroquois and other indigenous enemies. To that end, in December 1715 they negotiated a peace in which Carolina restored trade and they took up arms against the Creeks. This decision, followed by a Cherokee slaughter of a Creek political delegation, inaugurated 40 years of warfare between the nations and also opened an unprecedented flow of Carolinian arms into Cherokee country and a decades-long Cherokee-British alliance. Carolina promptly sent the Cherokees 200 muskets and ammunition to keep up the fight, followed in July 1716 by a present of 300 guns, 900 pounds of powder, and 750 pounds of shot. It also redressed long-standing Indian complaints about trader abuses and high prices by forming an oversight body called the Commissioners of the Indian Trade
Each colonial power wooed the Creeks as if they carried a royal dowry. The Spanish and French in particular, knowing that they could never compete with English trade, bent over backward to conform to Indian protocol and showered the Creeks with gifts to the best of their ability. South Carolina countered with a pledge not to settle south of the Savannah River, though that promise was broken in spirit with the founding of Georgia in 1733. Yet even as the Creeks prohibited the English from their territory, they permitted the French to build Fort Toulouse on their western boundary at the headwaters of the Alabama River, and the Spanish to open Fort San Marcos on Apalachee Bay. Through this arrangement the Creeks were assured that no single European nation could dictate to them by threatening to sever the trade.
Even as far west as the Mississippi River Valley, Indians’ decisions about whether and how to resist colonial expansion had become deeply influenced by the strength of their military stockpiles and supply lines and those of their indigenous enemies. The Natchez of the lower Mississippi River Valley had endured a decade of French encroachment and violence when, on November 29, 1729, they launched a surprise attack on Fort Rosalie and its surrounding settlement, killing at least 238 French and capturing some 300 African slaves and 50 colonists. They were prepared for a drawn-out conflict, having amassed a “great deal” of powder and shot through their trade with the English via the Chickasaws, to which they added plunder from Fort Rosalie and a convoy of four French pirogues (supply boats) they had ambushed along the Mississippi River. The Chickasaw-English connection promised to keep the Natchez armed throughout this conflict. Additionally, the Natchez boasted two palisaded forts along St. Catherine Creek near their Grand Village, replete with bastions and loopholes. Atop they mounted cannons seized from Fort Rosalie, which might have been manned by captive African slaves who had joined their resistance. The Natchez armament and these structures were capable of meeting all the force the French and their Indian allies could muster.
After the carnage of the slave wars and the wars of resistance, most Native people in the Southeast tried to avoid conflict with colonial powers in favor of a play-off political system and the deerskin trade.
A thriving deerskin trade partially filled the gap caused by the decline in Indian slaving after the Yamasee War. These developments might very well have been connected, as the elimination of so many thousands of Indian people through slaving, warfare, and related diseases opened up new habitat for deer, which likely produced an explosion of deer population.
The number of deer skins exported out of the southeastern English and French colonies climbed from 53,000 per year between 1698 and 1715, to 177,500 a year between 1758 and 1759, to 400,000 a year in 1764. These skins had less purchasing power than slaves, but they could make ends meet. Guns from English traders cost ten skins in 1735 and sixteen skins in 1767, and three-fourths of a pint of gunpowder cost one skin in 1767. By comparison, the price of French goods in 1721 was set at twenty deerskins for a gun and two-thirds of a pound of powder or forty bullets for one skin. An Indian hunter trading thirty to sixty skins a year (as appears to have been typical) had more than enough to cover the costs of his arms while leaving extra for other goods.
Indians also addressed the decline in slaving by extracting gifts of munitions and gunsmithing from colonies courting their allegiance, in what amounted to the second phase of the gun frontier. South Carolina’s public expenditure on Indian gifts climbed from 4 percent of the colony budget in 1716 to 7 percent in 1732. Carolina also rewarded Indians with arms for capturing runaway slaves and servants, paying out a gun and three blankets for every fugitive in the 1770s.
The relative calm—relative, that is, to the maelstrom of the slave trade—after the Tuscarora, Yamasee, and Natchez Wars, should not be romanticized. In all likelihood the reason the Indians stopped going slaving for Carolina was not that they saw the inhumanity in it or that they feared the slave merchants would double-cross them like the Westos, Shawnees, or Yamasees. Instead, the spread of firearms throughout Indian country had made this enterprise too dangerous.
There was yet another factor in the decline of the Indian slave trade, reflecting the sinister forces of colonialism at work. Colonial buyers shifted their preference in slaves from Indians to Africans. In 1716 only 67 Africans entered South Carolina. Within a decade Carolina was importing 1,700 Africans a year and in 1736 that figure climbed to over 3,000. Efficiencies in the transatlantic African slave trade were making those unfortunate souls cheaper and more available than ever before in the North American market. These captives also came without the risk that their people an ocean away would rise against the colonies in which they toiled. In western Africa, the havoc unleashed by this trade became almost a mirror image of what had been wrought in the Indian Southeast for two generations. By the late 17th and 18th centuries, the slave trade in western Africa often was an exchange of humans for guns in which some indigenous polities faced the choice of either slaving for the market or becoming slaves sold in the market. This devil’s bargain had become a basic feature of colonialism throughout the Atlantic World.
[ Iroquois domination of neighboring tribes through greater gun ownership, and their downfall when enemy tribes gained guns is a pattern that will be repeated across the entire United States for more than two centuries. ]
Certainly the Iroquois were astonished by the pyrotechnics of gunfire, but they also had more practical matters on their minds. Ever since the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas of what is now upstate New York had formed their League sometime between the 14th to late 16th centuries, they had been at war with indigenous neighbors near and far. Most of this time the main purpose of these campaigns had been to seize captives for adoption (the fate of most women and children) or death by torture (the fate of adult men) to sustain the Iroquois. Such wars were probably responsible for the disappearance of large indigenous communities at the sites of modern Quebec and Montreal that had been visited by French explorer Jacques Cartier during his explorations of the Saint Lawrence River during the 1530s and 1540s. Seventy years later, when the French returned to the area to found a permanent colony, there was no trace of them.
As European fishermen, explorers, and then fur traders began to appear along the lower Saint Lawrence with greater regularity after the mid-sixteenth century, this warfare also began to focus on controlling access to European goods. The Iroquois appear to have enjoyed the upper hand in these conflicts initially. With the founding of French Quebec in 1608, the balance of power had begun to shift to the League’s enemies, the Algonquins, Montagnais, and Hurons, because of their trade and military alliance with the French.
When Dutch flintlock muskets became available in the 1630s, League nations began trading for munitions with a fury. By the mid-17th century, this armament had enabled the Iroquois to transform themselves into the preeminent military power of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions as far west as the Mississippi River. Bands of their gunmen fanned out over this range to capture foreign women and children for adoption, sometimes followed by armies of several hundred and even a thousand men to crush the enemy once and for all.
The story goes that Europeans blasted their way into the North American woods, overawing Indians with their technological prowess. The Natives, fearful of getting shot, then abandoned their customary open-field clashes in favor of ambushes, to make themselves more difficult targets. The ironic result of the colonists’ superiority in arms, then, was the Indians’ so-called skulking way of war, which plagued Euro-American society throughout the colonial era.
But this obscures the fact that it was the threat of Iroquois, not colonial, gunmen that galvanized an arms race throughout the Native Northeast, involving new technologies, stratagems, and politics. By the mid- to late 17th century, arms traders had reached the Five Nations’ rivals in the Chesapeake, New England, and the Great Lakes, enabling them to answer the Iroquois musket for musket. In turn, gun violence erupted across this vast geographic zone. Indigenous people facing enemy gunmen avoided open-field battles because of the risk of getting shot, and abandoned customary wooden armor because it reduced a warrior’s mobility without protecting him against bullets and metal-edge weapons.
Sieges of fortified villages were on the rise because an invading force with an advantage in firearms and steel-cutting tools possessed the means to breach its enemy’s defenses. Indigenous people answered this threat by replacing their circular palisades with straight-wall fortifications that gave defensive gunmen clearer shots at attackers. Sometimes they even mounted cannons atop their bastions. Politically, their decision making increasingly focused on securing their people’s access to arms and directing arms away from their rivals. To these ends they entered multilateral alliances with shifting lineups of indigenous and colonial polities and even relocated their people closer to gun entrepôts. These innovations constituted a new epoch in Indian life.
The results were terrible, with intertribal wars and related outbreaks of epidemic diseases dramatically reducing the population of nearly every Native group in the region. Some groups were completely wiped out. In the long term, however, the growing balance of power, and recognition of the high cost of gun warfare, produced something of a détente. By the end of the century, people who expected their young men to prove themselves as warriors would have to look outside the region for victims among the poorly armed tribes of the continental interior. As they did, the gun frontier spread with them, leaving a trail of devastation that was becoming a signature of colonialism in indigenous North America.
Politically the 1620s and early 1630s witnessed a renewal of Iroquois warfare against the so-called French Indians (the Algonquins and Montagnais) of the Saint Lawrence River and the Mohicans of the Hudson River Valley. The Five Nations found themselves in a biological war as well. Between 1633 and 1634, smallpox tore through Indian communities along the New England coast and Connecticut River Valley and then up into Iroquoia. The Mohawks alone might have lost two-thirds of their population, with their absolute numbers dropping from an estimated 7,700 to 2,800 people. As the death toll mounted, the cries of mourners built into an irresistible call for the people’s warriors to raid their enemies for scalps and captives. Only then would the ghosts of the dead and the hearts of their survivors find peace.
Fortunately for the Iroquois, their Dutch trading partners were able and willing to supply them with Europe’s best firearms technology. The Dutch were not only Europe’s greatest manufacturing and trading nation, boasting supply lines of raw materials from the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Asia, they were also the continent’s main producer and exporter of weapons of every sort, including shoulder arms. The Netherlands’ long war for independence from Spain (1569–1648) had stimulated its gun industry, while the demand for military wares elsewhere in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and subsequent conflicts sustained it into the early eighteenth century. By the time of New Netherland’s founding, the Dutch Republic was manufacturing an estimated 14,000 muskets annually, most of them for export, a figure that grew larger by the year. No other European nation came close to this production level until decades later. Furthermore, Dutch gunsmiths were introducing technological innovations to their weapons that made them even more attractive to Indian customers, the Iroquois foremost among them. By the 1660s it appears that the Dutch were manufacturing guns specifically for the Indian market, especially the Iroquois. These Indian trade muskets were lighter (about 7.5 pounds) and shorter (50 to 67.5 inches) than most European guns (which often weighed as much as 16 pounds and extended more than five feet in length) in order to facilitate use in the bush and long-distance travel.
The primary reason for this demand was that the gun was remarkably effective in Iroquois warfare, particularly as a first-stage weapon in ambush. Small parties of warriors would station themselves at places where enemy travelers were most vulnerable, such as river narrows, portages, bends in the road, or places where cliffs, tree stands, and swamps provided cover for the attackers and blocked the retreat of their targets. The goal in these assaults was to unleash one or two volleys, raise a bloodcurdling war cry, and then rush on the enemy for hand-to-hand combat with tomahawks and clubs. Such ambushes must have been common before the advent of firearms, but the new weapons encouraged the tactic.
Unlike arrows, which needed a clear path to their target, bullets could pass through the camouflage of tall grasses and even thickets without being diverted. Whereas arrows shot from long distances could be dodged, musket balls could not. The damage inflicted by a bullet wound was far greater than that of an arrow. Killing an enemy with an arrow shot required hitting a vital organ. For the most part, minor arrow injuries would heal with proper treatment, at which Native medical practitioners were masters. By contrast, when a lead ball struck its victim, it carried roughly six times more kinetic energy than an arrow, expanded to the size of a large fist, and left behind a medical disaster of shattered bone, mangled soft tissue, and internal and external bleeding many times greater than an arrow could cause. Even when the victim managed to survive the initial impact, there was a high risk of death by infection. At especially close range, gunners could load their weapons with small shot (or grape shot) consisting of several small lead balls instead of a single bullet. What this approach sacrificed in terms of accuracy and kinetic energy, it compensated for in the large, cloud-shaped area covered by the blast, which could injure and even kill more than one person at a time.
The Iroquois further displayed their confidence in guns by using them to hunt deer through the same ambush technique of lying in wait and firing at close range.
Iroquois hunters appreciated that a musket ball would drop a deer in its tracks, whereas an arrow wound might require pursuing the wounded game for long distances. The slow rate of reloading and firing a gun was not an issue because a hunter was not going to get the opportunity to fire more than once at a deer before it bounded away,
Seventeenth-century guns were often undependable at distances of more than 50 yards because of a variety of issues; these included the condition of the barrel (such as whether it was bent or dented or clogged with powder residue), the fit of the musket ball to the barrel (sometimes shooters used bullets of smaller caliber, causing them to brush along the inside of the barrel before exiting and thus sending them off-target), and whether the shooter had properly loaded the weapon (particularly the main charge). Yet long-range accuracy was not much of an issue in ambushes in which the unsuspecting enemy was usually just a stone’s throw away. Another challenge was that firearms required routine cleaning to prevent them from getting clogged with black powder, which reduced bullet velocity and ran the risk of the barrel bursting, with attendant injuries to the shooter such as burns and mangled fingers and hands. Tending to the maintenance of guns on the trail was difficult unless there were Indian villages, colonial settlements, or trade posts along the way where the warriors were welcome. In the mid-seventeenth century, such issues were probably of minor concern to Iroquois war parties because the raiders usually returned straight home after one or two engagements to deposit their captives, scalps, and plunder, and tend to other responsibilities. By the early eighteenth century, when they were often away for several months at a time on raids against distant peoples, warriors learned to make their own minor fixes and negotiated with colonial authorities to receive blacksmithing services at forts and villages along their route of travel.
It took only a few short years before firearms became a part of Iroquois rituals. By at least 1642 it was Mohawk ceremony to fire salutes at the coming and going of foreign delegates, a courtesy that surrounding nations promptly adopted as well. Volleys in honor of “the Sun” also marked the celebration of military victories. A minority of male burials began to contain grave goods of firearms, powder, shot, and flints for the spirit to carry on the journey to the afterworld. Though this practice never became widespread because the living needed the weaponry, its symbolism was poignant. Firearms had become fundamental to the operation of Iroquois society.
Dutch authorities realized the danger inherent in their arms trade to Indians, but there was little they could do about it because the economy and security of New Netherland depended on the Mohawks in particular, and the Iroquois in general. During the 1630s the colony exported as many as 15,000 furs a year (mostly beaver pelts), including almost 30,000 in 1633, a disproportionate amount of which came from the Iroquois. There were only about 300 people in the colony at the time. Another incentive for the Dutch was that the Iroquois “gave everything they had” for firearms, reportedly paying 20 beaver pelts for a single weapon in the early days of this commerce. To put these figures in perspective, whereas muskets cost the Dutch about 12 guilders each, twenty beaver pelts could be sold in Europe for as much as 120 guilders.
Iroquois military might and commercial leverage meant that their customs shaped trade and diplomacy with the Dutch. The Iroquois expectation was for the Dutch to keep the price of trade goods low regardless of market conditions and for bartering to be preceded by a series of indigenous protocols. To the Iroquois, trade was not an impersonal business transaction in which one side tried to extract maximum profit from the other. They likened commerce to family members meeting each other’s needs out of affection and the pursuit of mutual well-being. It followed that political conferences began with an exchange of gifts between leaders, a historic recounting of the two people’s relationship, feasting and smoking together and addressing each other as metaphorical kin, all in the Mohawk language. Hard-driving, time-conscious Dutch businessmen and officers would have preferred to skip such ceremony but realized they had little choice. Their concessions included accepting that politics with the Iroquois “must be carried on chiefly by means of gunpowder.” In 1655 Dutch officers presented the Mohawks with a gift of 25 pounds of powder, followed in 1659 by another gift of 75 pounds of powder and 100 pounds of lead. The latter came in response to Iroquois complaints that the Dutch practice of charging them for gun repairs and making them wait too long while the work was done was “unbrotherly.” By 1660 Iroquois spokesmen had raised their demands to include the Dutch outfitting League warriors with free powder and lead in times of war.
From the late 1630s well into the 1650s, the Iroquois put Dutch firearms to use in ambushes up and down the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers connecting New France and Huronia. The usual pattern was for Iroquois armies to break into bands of 10 to 50 men and take positions at various points of ambush along the rivers, sometimes on both sides. When enemy boats passed by, or canoeists unloaded at portages, hidden Iroquois gunners would open fire until they had driven their victims to shore, where they would set upon them with hatchets and clubs, killing some and capturing others. In addition to captives, these raids netted the Iroquois plunder in furs that they could then trade to the Dutch for more firearms.
French Jesuits, from their close vantage living daily alongside the Hurons, were certain that Iroquois superiority in firearms was what made these assaults so lethal. Even when the Hurons, Algonquins, and Montagnais carried guns, Five Nations attackers seemed to possess twice as many.
By the early 1640s, Iroquois attacks had nearly choked off the French fur trade to the point that some Frenchmen began lobbying for an invasion of New Netherland to punish Dutch gun merchants.
Throughout the late 1630s and early 1640s, the Hurons redesigned their forts to give their meager force of gunmen a fighting chance against an Iroquois invasion that seemed to grow more imminent by the day. The village of Ossossane erected a squared palisade with bastions at opposite corners to permit clear shots along two entire lengths of the walls. Other communities followed with diamond-shaped fortifications. The reason, as Father Jean de Brébeuf put it, was that “we have told them … henceforth, they should make their forts square, and arrange their stakes in straight lines; and that, by means of four little towers at the four corners, four Frenchmen might easily with their arquebuses or muskets defend a whole village.
Beginning in the summer of 1648 and lasting into late 1649, Iroquois armies of up to 1,000 men invaded Huronia repeatedly, overrunning the forts, torching the communities, and killing and capturing thousands of people. Battered, demoralized, and starving, the remaining Hurons scattered in all directions. Some retreated northwest to the Straits of Mackinac and Green Bay, and others eastward to the protection of French guns near Quebec or even to Iroquoia to join their captive relatives. Those who sought refuge among the Hurons’ close neighbors to the west, the Tionnontatés, absorbed yet another blow in December 1649, as 300 Iroquois warriors struck the village of Etharita or St. Jean, killing and capturing a large but indeterminate number of people. It had taken less than two years for the Iroquois to conquer one of the largest Indian confederacies in North America.
Muskets were critical to the Iroquois victory. First and foremost, years of ambushes by Iroquois gunmen had set the stage for the invasion by making the Hurons prisoners in their own towns, too afraid to venture beyond their fortified walls to patrol their country, raise food, or protect their confederates, at least not to any effective degree. By the time the invasion began, Iroquois bands moved almost freely throughout Huronia. As for the campaign itself, the thousand-man force that devastated Huron country in 1649 was reportedly “well furnished with weapons,—and mostly with firearms, which they obtain from the Dutch, their allies.” By contrast, the Hurons were poorly armed, to which at least one Jesuit directly attributed their defeat. With the Jesuits having watched their charges and colleagues die in heaps from gunshot wounds, it was difficult to conclude otherwise. The Hurons reached the same judgment, demanding the Jesuits to “speak to the Captain of France, and tell him that the Dutch of these coasts are causing our destruction, by furnishing firearms in abundance, and at low price, to the Iroquois, our enemies.
During the early 1650s the Iroquois also rode their advantage in guns to a series of victories over the remaining tribes of the eastern Great Lakes, most of which harbored displaced Hurons. In quick succession the Iroquois shattered the Petuns in 1650 and the Neutrals in 1651, the latter with an invasion of 1,500 men. Their next target, beginning in 1653–1654, was the Eries (or Cats), a people some 2,000 strong. As they did with the Hurons and Neutrals, the Iroquois systematically broke down the Eries’ perimeter with gunfire ambushes to prepare for a large-scale invasion. The Eries, who had “no firearms,” nevertheless had a fearsome reputation because of their arsenal of poison arrows, which they could fire “eight or ten times before a musket can be loaded.” The Iroquois neutralized this weapon during their sieges of Erie forts with a combination of thick wooden shields (or mantlets), large portable wooden walls, and even canoes, which they carried over their heads to approach enemy fortifications, then used as ladders to scale the palisades. Collectively these campaigns had netted the Iroquois thousands of captives, produced the deaths of thousands of others, and effectively cleared the region of rival nations.
The Five Nations’ neighbors and rivals to the south and east, particularly the Susquehannocks of the Susquehanna River Valley, the Mohicans of the Hudson and Housatonic River Valleys, and the so-called River Tribes of the Connecticut Valley (Pocumtucks, Norridgewoks, and Squakheags), learned the lesson before it was too late and built up arsenals that gradually tipped the scales away from the Iroquois.
Even when colonial magistrates actually tried to police the flow of arms (or claimed to try), they confronted the limits of their authority on the Delaware. After the Dutch conquered New Sweden in 1655, Swedish gunrunners shifted from English to Dutch suppliers, then carried the weapons inland to Susquehannock country for sale, far from inspectors stationed along the river. The Delaware was an even greater river of rogues than was the Hudson. The real blame or credit for the renegade character of the Delaware Valley gun frontier belonged to the Indians themselves, who exploited the competition at every opportunity.
Maryland had concluded that it was more politic and profitable to seek alliance with the Susquehannocks through the arms trade than to continue trying to resist them. It was the Susquehannocks, not any colonial polity, who were the most formidable power in this region. Given the Susquehannocks’ many options when it came to obtaining European wares, weak colonies like Maryland had the choice to supply them with guns or face their guns. The Susquehannocks, for their part, placed newfound value on Maryland as a trade partner, having lost New Sweden to Dutch conquest in 1655. Peace with the Chesapeake colony was a means of keeping their trade options open.
The Susquehannocks were well prepared by the time the western Iroquois nations turned their raids back against them in the early 1660s. Though the Mohawks and Susquehannocks remained at peace during these years, perhaps because neither of them wanted to imperil their relations with the Dutch (who counted both groups as fur trading partners), the western Iroquois had no such scruples. Their populations (and the Susquehannocks’) had suffered enormously from a recent smallpox epidemic, and, following the destruction of the Lake Erie and Ontario peninsula tribes, there were no major Iroquoian-speaking peoples left to raid for replacements other than the Susquehannocks.
The Five Nations’ Algonquian-speaking rivals to the east, the Mohicans of the Hudson and Housatonic River Valleys and the Sokokis of the Connecticut River, also began to close the arms gap through multilateral trade. Dutch Fort Orange, with its brisk market in arms and ammunition, anchored this commerce in the western portion of the Algonquins’ territory. To the north were the French on the Saint Lawrence, who, after witnessing the Iroquois dispatch the Hurons in the 1640s, opened up the gun market to Christian and non-Christian Indians alike. The Abenakis of what is now Vermont exploited this policy to become middlemen between the French on the Saint Lawrence and the Connecticut River tribes.
This multifront gun frontier set the stage for a failed Iroquois attack on a Sokoki fort at Fort Hill at the site of modern Hinsdale, New Hampshire, in December 1663, just months after the Susquehannocks repulsed the Senecas. From the safety of their palisade, Sokoki gunmen warded off a daybreak assault by the Iroquois, including extinguishing a fire the Iroquois had set to the enclosure with a rudimentary bomb comprised of a lit bag of gunpowder. Ultimately the invaders decided to retreat after suffering a hundred or more casualties. It was their second major setback in just a matter of months at the hands of enemies who had caught up to them in the regional arms race.
Without the advantage in firearms, the Iroquois no longer enjoyed the lopsided victories they had come to expect and that were their measure of a successful campaign. There was little purpose in raiding foreigners for captives to buttress the League’s population if that meant losing large numbers of valuable fighting men along the way and inviting reprisals on the home front.
The Five Nations’ French and Indian enemies to the north and west were building up their arsenals, too, after decades of suffering the attacks of Iroquois gunmen. Not only had the French loosened their restrictions on the weapons trade, but they began to manufacture their own gun for the Indian market to answer the light, durable arms of the Dutch.
Despite suffering five epidemics between 1668 and 1682 and losing some 2,200 people, the Five Nations’ forcible adoption of captives permitted them to man a steady stream of war parties against the Susquehannocks, who appear to have suffered even worse from these diseases.
A few years later, mutual exhaustion and political pressure from New York led to peace between the Iroquois and the New England Algonquins. Five Nations warriors in search of captives, plunder, and glory now had to pursue their ambitions elsewhere. One of those directions was westward against the Algonquian-speaking Miamis and Shawnees of the Ohio River Valley and the Illinois of the upper Mississippi River Valley, to take advantage of those people’s weak armament.
In September 1680 the Iroquois successfully intimidated the Miamis into joining them against the Illinois, creating an army reportedly 900 men strong, “all Fusiliers [or gunmen]; these two nations being well provided with Guns and all sort of ammunitions of war.” This force inflicted steep losses on an Illinois army and overran the town of Tamaroa to seize an estimated 800 captives. Some Iroquois warriors remained in the area for several more months, raiding up and down the Mississippi and even west of the great river.
The Iroquois also redirected their attacks southward along the Great Warrior Path running along the east side of the Appalachian Mountains into the Virginia and Carolina Piedmont,
Eventually their circle of targets grew to include the Cherokees of southern Appalachia, the Catawbas of the Piedmont, and other groups ever farther afield. There were several reasons for this shift. Certainly the Iroquois wanted their raids for captives to avoid poisoning relations with New France and northeastern English colonies, as had so often been the case during the 1660s. Also they were pulled southward by their adoptees from the Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and various Maryland and Virginia tribes. Each time Iroquois warriors ventured south, they risked armed encounters with area tribes that could easily descend into a cycle of revenge warfare.
Yet too often one of the most important factors has been overlooked: the southern Indians’ weak armament, the same kind of consideration that influenced League attacks in Illinois country. Elsewhere the cost of victory had become too great.
By the turn of the century the Iroquois found themselves in the same predicament that had plagued them in the 1660s. Once again their enemies had caught up in the regional arms race, with the French outfitting nations in the western Great Lakes with 700 to 1,000 guns a year, and the southern nations accumulating munitions through the trade of indigenous slaves and deerskins to South Carolina and Virginia. Iroquois deaths mounted in turn. Renewed warfare against New France, extending largely from Iroquois attempts to keep French arms out of the Illinois country, proved even less successful than in the recent past. In 1687, 1693, and 1696 the French and their Indian allies subjected Iroquoia to scorched-earth campaigns, which, though claiming few lives directly, produced famine after famine. The people could not endure this pressure indefinitely. It was time to seek security through diplomacy, not war.
New France’s Indian allies enjoyed many benefits as the French expanded their fur trade and military posts into the western Great Lakes in the late 17th and early 18th century. In 1716 New France’s governor-general, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, recommended to Paris that “to maintain peace with the Indians and to prevent them trading with the English” the colony needed an annual distribution of Indian presents in the amount of 600 guns, 40,000 pounds of powder, and 60,000 pounds of lead. By the early to mid-18th century, these presents constituted 5 to 10% of imperial spending on New France.
Indians were less grateful for these gifts and subsidized trade than insistent on them as conditions of friendship. In 1693 Five Nations headmen turned down a large gift of muskets from New York, finding them too heavy, whereupon Governor Benjamin Fletcher immediately placed a rush order in London for 200 light guns. “They will not carry the heavy firelocks,” he explained, “being accustomed to light, small guns in their hunting.” A year earlier Iroquois delegates had asked Captain Richard Ingoldsby of Albany what he expected them to do with New York’s gift of powder and shot in lieu of guns. “Shall we throw them at the Enemy?
Then they turned the screw: “It is no wonder the Governor of Canada gains upon us, for he supplies his Indians with guns as well as powder.” The practice of contrasting one imperial power’s stinginess with the other’s generosity, and emphasizing that the people’s friendship had to be earned, was the normal Indian response when gifts were scanty or of poor quality, when gunsmiths were in want, and trade goods were in short supply or too expensive. Sometimes these warnings also contained barely veiled threats of war, with headmen observing that a colonial power that failed to arm its Indian allies would be seen as conspiring to weaken and then destroy them. Almost invariably, presents of arms and ammunition followed.
European technologies and even European gunsmithing did not translate into domination of Indians by colonies or imperial governments. It took until the mid-18th century for the number of Anglo-Americans to eclipse that of Indians in the trans-Appalachian West, and even then whites did not begin wresting serious land cessions from the Iroquois until after the American Revolution. In the lightly populated French and Spanish colonies, that day never came for Native people. One reason is that Indians almost always possessed the weaponry to defend their claims.
In the early stages of the trade, a number of factors contributed to Indians’ maintaining a steady supply of arms and ammunition at reasonable rates. These included colonial-Indian interdependence in trade, politics, and war, as well as an expansive, multidirectional gun frontier permitting Indians to do business with traders from different polities. Indian political decisions had as much to do with these conditions as any directives from colonial and imperial powerbrokers. Another important influence was rogue colonialism, with colonial regimes exercising little control over their gunrunners. In the era of French-English warfare beginning in 1688, indigenous people added to this list an imperial play-off system in which colonial authorities competed for Indian favor with gifts of guns, powder, shot, and gunsmiths out of fear that failure to do so would tip Indian loyalties toward their imperial rival and, with this, shift the North American balance of power. The results for Indians were decidedly mixed.
Women and children suffered tremendously along the way. Men were the ones who wielded firearms, who cut the deals with colonial gunrunners and governors, who planned the invasions and ambushes, who took to arms to defend their people, and who garnered the honors when their side was victorious.
Certainly women were critical parts of political decision making in many communities, including whether to send young men on revenge raids, though there is little trace of this role in colonial documents; women also reaped the benefits of the plunder and captives their men brought home. They processed the beaver pelts that men traded not only for arms and ammunition but for clothing, pots, scissors, needles, beads, and innumerable other things that made women’s lives easier and more fulfilling.
One might conclude that guns had transformed Indians, but a more accurate way to explain this history is to say that Indians had used guns to transform their lives and those of their neighbors. Putting the matter this way highlights Native people making choices for their own futures instead of suffering as passive victims of colonial decisions, abstract economic forces, or foreign technology.
Yet the point can be pushed too far. The fact of the matter is that the rise of Native gunmen, beginning with the Iroquois, dramatically circumscribed the choices of other indigenous people. They could either obtain arms by engaging in trade and diplomacy with colonial states, or become easy targets of marauding indigenous gunmen. This was an Indian-directed transformation, to be sure, but that point probably would have come as cold comfort to many of the people caught up in it. For them the colonial era and the gun age were one and the same, a period of terror and high-stakes gains and losses.
How the Native Americans played the English, French, and Spanish off against each other to gain multiple sources of guns
The French used gifts of smithing, gunpowder, and shot, and a “judicious application” of other presents, to compensate for their inability to match the English supplies and low prices of military hardware. The French sent subsidized gunsmiths to live in key Creek and Choctaw communities, which, the English fumed, then led Indians to expect the same of them. Initially the French refused to repair English arms, much to the irritation of Choctaw leader Alibamon Mingo, “because almost all the warriors of his village are armed with these guns.
Writing in 1755 about the imperial rivalry, Carolina trader Edmond Atkin stressed that free gunsmithing gave the French influence with the Indians well beyond the monetary value of the service. “We furnish the Indians with guns enough in exchange for their deer skins and furs,” he recognized, “but the French mend them and keep them in repair gratis.” Smithing was doubly important because when an Indian saw his damaged gun “suddenly restored to its former state, and as useful as before, it gladdens his heart more than a present of a new gun would,” probably because the fix doubled as a gesture of friendship. The French also cultivated Indian alliances through gifts of munitions, particularly gunpowder. French gunpowder set the European standard, and Indians were eager to obtain it, even when they acquired their muskets from the English. Moreover, French powder and shot were available in high volume because the French were able to ferry their goods to Louisiana and its inland posts by water, whereas English traders were reluctant to burden their pack trains with heavy ammunition on journeys that ran hundreds of miles.
Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Valley Indians extracted enormous amounts of free munitions from the French and Spanish by the mere possibility that they would throw in their lot with the British. In 1732 Mobile’s commander put in an order for Indian gifts in the amount of 80,000 pounds of gunpowder, 14,000 pounds of lead, 25,000 gunflints, and 600 trade guns with brass mountings. The post already owed 120 muskets to Indians who “ask for them daily.” The French showed even greater generosity in wartime, as in 1759 amid the Seven Years’ War when Louisiana earmarked 900 guns for presents and 600 guns for trade. Spanish Florida was unable to keep pace, but episodically it too provided Indians with munitions as presents, as in 1736 when it hosted over a hundred unidentified Indians in St. Augustine and gave each one a gun, powder, and shot. All this was enough to make South Carolina merchant Sam Everleigh fume that “the Indians have been so used of late years to receive presents that they now expect it as a right belonging to them, and the English, French, and Spanish are in some measure become tributary to them.
The uninterrupted flow of arms even after the decline of the slave trade enabled Indians in the Southeast to develop a gun culture much like the one that had taken shape in the Northeast in previous decades. Southeastern Indians preferred the gun over the bow and arrow for hunting deer because they could drop their kill with one shot. It was the opinion of John Stewart, a Scottish trader from Charles Town, that Indian hunters with firearms could “get more hides and furs in one moon than formerly with bow and arrow in 12 moons.
If the hunter intended to trade the skin from his hunt, he would have to aim his shot at the head so as not to damage the hide, which attests to both the accuracy of smoothbore muskets when fired at close range and the skill of Native gunmen. Lawson’s impression was that North Carolina Indians used the bow and arrow only for hunting small game like turkey and ducks, “thinking it not worth throwing powder and shot after them,” probably because a single arrow could easily bring them down.
The same deerskin trade and play-off politics that underwrote this gun culture carried the danger of civil strife as young men on the make circumvented established chiefs to open their own trade lines and drum up foreign recognition of their claims to leadership. There was a built-in tension in many Indian societies between established leaders and young aspirants. The former’s leadership rested on their age, maturity, elite lineages, and accomplishments. Such men tended to favor peace and stability. Young men pursuing their own leadership credentials often provoked conflict with foreign peoples in order to prove themselves as warriors. With the onset of European trade, they obtained an additional route to influence, for if a young man managed to bring outside trade into the community, or convince a colonial government that he was a person worthy of receiving chiefly honors, he might actually acquire that status. This dynamic might help explain why one Upper Creek chief in the mid-eighteenth century went by the name of Gun Merchant. The problem was that making a power play by becoming a gun merchant usually involved the young man promising his people’s allegiance to one colonial state exclusively, regardless of the will of the chiefs and the reactions of the other colonial powers.
The Choctaws suffered just this sort of strife after the Natchez War as a result of the ambitions of a warrior named Red Shoes and the draw of English trade. Red Shoes had developed a warrior following by virtue of his exploits against Chickasaws, but he aspired to even greater heights. Throughout the 1730s Red Shoes pursued English trade over the Franco-centric foreign policies of the established leadership, including his hometown’s Mingo Tchito, the so-called “French Great Chief.” One source of discontent for Red Shoes and his men appears to have been the lack of guns provided by the French and the chiefs’ control over this meager stockpile. Generally the chiefs kept firearms given to them as presents by Louisiana and then loaned them out to hunters and warriors, thus strengthening their influence. Red Shoes contended that this system not only put too much power in the chiefs’ hands, but gave the French too much leverage over the chiefs and the people. The chiefs’ response was the English were so far away that if Red Shoes prevailed, the people “would see themselves forced to take up their old arms, the bow and arrow, again,” that is, “unless they wanted to load their guns with [English] limbourg [cloth].” Red Shoes would not be swayed, and thrice during the mid- to late 1730s he arranged for Carolina pack trains laden with trade guns to enter Choctaw country. In return Charles Town awarded him a medallion and proclamation naming him “King of the Choctaws.” Red Shoes also tried to broker peace with the Chickasaws, Carolina’s main indigenous trade partner in the region, first in 1739, then again in 1745.
It was time for the Francophile chiefs and Louisiana to intervene, for Red Shoes was on the verge of achieving a political and commercial realignment that would rob them of power and perhaps threaten the very existence of the French colony. The chiefs tried to limit the internecine violence by killing a visiting Chickasaw diplomat and his wife, but there seemed to be no other choice after Red Shoes retaliated by killing three Frenchman. With Lousiana governor Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil threatening to institute a trade embargo and throw French support to the Choctaws’ longtime enemy, the Alabamas, the Francophile chiefs assassinated Red Shoes
It was the beginning of two years of bloody civil war in the nation. This dark chapter in Choctaw history came to an end only after the French-leaning eastern Choctaws, outfitted with French guns, powder, shot, and even cannons, managed to subdue the English-leaning western towns, which found their Carolina supply lines less reliable in wartime than they had hoped. Eight hundred of Red Shoes’s followers lost their lives in this struggle, their scalps sold to the French for bounties double that offered for Chickasaw trophies. The expense to the French was some 62,000 livres in presents per year to a roster that by 1763 counted over 600 men. Play-off politics, like the adoption of guns, was full of opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, but also loaded with danger.
To be sure, gun violence created even as it destroyed. Survivors formed new coalitions like the Yamasees, Creeks, and Catawbas, in part to protect themselves from slave raiders and organize their warriors into militant slavers. The Indians’ quest for firearms led to political relations with a host of new colonies and empires, and trade lines that connected them to a burgeoning global commerce. Consequently their material life was richer than ever before, marked not only by munitions but brightly colored cloth, tailored clothing, exotic pigments, metal tools, and much more. It is apt to call this change in Indian life a consumer revolution, but it was one in which there were far fewer people to enjoy the goods.
King Philip’s war
Wiki overview: King Philip’s War was an armed conflict between Native American inhabitants of present-day New England and English colonists and their Native American allies in 1675–78 which arose due to
European settlers’ continued encroaching onto Wampanoag lands and demand by colonists that they sign a new peace agreement that included the surrender of Indian guns. When officials in Plymouth Colony hanged three Wampanoags in 1675 for the murder of a Christianized Indian, they launched a united assault on colonial towns throughout the region. By the end of the conflict, the Wampanoags and their Narragansett allies were almost completely destroyed. The war was the single greatest calamity to occur in 17th century Puritan New England and is considered by many to be the deadliest war in the history of European settlement in North America in proportion to the population. In little more than a year, 12 of the region’s towns were destroyed and many more damaged, the colony’s economy was all but ruined, and its population decimated, losing 10% of all men available for military service. More than half of New England’s towns were attacked by Native American warriors.
For all the colonists’ anxieties about salvation and wolves preying on their sheep, they were also haunted by the fact of being surrounded by indigenous people with superior armaments. Equally unnerving was the danger of the Natives using these weapons to redress their grievances against the colonial order.
These fears materialized in King Philip’s War of 1675–1676. For 9 months, Indian gunmen lured colonial militia into devastating ambushes, sacked outlying English towns, and terrorized the roadways. It seemed within their grasp to push the line of English settlement back to the outskirts of Boston and even into the sea. What made the Natives’ guerilla strikes so effective was that the warriors seemed to blend into the thick New England woods until the very moment they opened fire.
Throughout King Philip’s War, the English possessed the advantage of being able to import large quantities of firearms, gunpowder, and lead from the mother country. Yet they were the ones who felt under siege by Native enemies.
Of all the morals King Philip’s War had to teach, among the most significant was this: It was dangerous, even suicidal, for Indians surrounded by the expanding English colonies and dependent on English munitions to go to war against them unless they had reliable trade alternatives among other European powers. Whereas interior groups like the Iroquois, Creeks, and Chickasaws were encircled by a gun frontier giving them relatively dependable access to multiple colonial markets, by the 1670s east-coast nations like the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Nipmucs had only tentative lines beyond the English.
During King Philip’s War the English closed ranks and showed unprecedented respect for laws banning the trade of guns and ammunition to Indians.
The warring Indians in King Philip’s War suffered the loss of thousands of their people to violent deaths and disease. The English captured hundreds and perhaps even thousands of others and sent them into the hell of Caribbean slavery. Most of those lucky enough to survive and escape captivity fled the region for good to take refuge in the Saint Lawrence or Hudson River Valley or places beyond. Even those who sided with the English wound up suffering, for after the war the colonies immediately seized hundreds of square miles of Indian land and began the long but indelible process of acquiring most of the rest, largely through underhanded means.
New England in the mid-17th century was as favorable an arms market as Indians could hope to find, because of numerous divisions within the colonial ranks. Though all of the English colonies in the region were established by reformed Protestants (or Puritans) opposed to Catholic elements in the Anglican Church, several rifts emerged when it came to building their own ecclesiastical order in America. The subsequent hiving off of dissidents and fortune seekers from Plymouth and Massachusetts produced the colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Haven, the independent plantations of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and several semiautonomous English towns on eastern Long Island.
Competition among the English colonies and between the English and Dutch allowed Indians to choose among multiple traders from the two most commercially minded and important arms-producing nations of Europe.
On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse, the great warrior chief of the Oglala Lakotas, finally surrendered to the United States, effectively symbolizing the end of his people’s quarter century of resistance to white American hegemony along the upper Missouri River and Great Plains. Though the Lakotas had welcomed the trade goods accompanying U.S. expansion, practically everything else about it constituted a disaster. Even before the invasion of white ranchers and farmers, the Lakotas had been plagued by an unending succession of American transients, some of them violent, nearly all of them wasteful. First there were the overland migrants, tracing rutted trails from Missouri to the golden fields of Oregon and the gold strikes of California and the Rocky Mountains. These travelers and their livestock stripped precious river bottoms and grasslands of materials the Lakotas needed to build and heat their homes, construct their tools, and feed their horses. Their long wagon trains disrupted the buffalo’s normal migrations, which sometimes forced the Lakotas to go hungry. Close behind them were white hunters, who slaughtered the buffalo wantonly, usually only for their robes, leaving their carcasses to rot on the Plains. It was as if they were eager to starve Indians who relied on these animals for practically everything. At least the overland migrants and hide hunters tended to only pass through Lakota territory. The railroad-building and mining industries delivered some of the roughest, most lawless, and environmentally destructive segments of American society directly into the Lakota heartland, including the sacred Black Hills. Whenever Lakota warriors drove them out, it seemed only to entice more of them to return, with blue-coated soldiers in tow for their protection.
Lakota warriors could handle U.S. cavalry in anything resembling a fair fight, but they could not cope with their relentless hounding of civilian camps, including the massacre of women, children, and the elderly, and the destruction of the people’s horses and food stores. This punishment came when the Lakotas were already suffering acute hunger because of the dwindling buffalo herds, and a population freefall as epidemic diseases accompanying the Americans tore through their tents season after season. By 1877 the people could take no more. One by one, desperate Lakota bands came to the wrenching conclusion to move onto the reservations that the federal government had assigned them, where, its agents promised, at least there would be something to eat and the soldiers would stop pursuing them. Probably no one felt more anguish over this decision than Crazy Horse, who as a mature man in his mid-thirties had spent his adult life battling to avoid just this moment.
In the long term, the U.S. government planned to force the Lakotas to adopt a sedentary, agricultural life, hemmed in by farm fences and the lines of the reservation. This prospect was especially bleak for the men. Lakota men had been hunters and warriors since time out of mind. That was how they defined themselves as individuals, as men, and as Lakotas. To them it was the sacred order of things. Fulfilling these roles also meant a life full of excitement and glory, played out across an expansive territory of beautiful, powerful places. All of this would change under American rule. A man’s life would be reduced to the monotonous routines of tilling the soil and tending to livestock, day in and day out on the same tract of land. Crazy Horse could see little that was good and meaningful in this future, so what could he say in yielding to it after years of fending off the blue coats? What words could possibly capture the worry, humiliation, and sadness of this event?
Hours later, after the people had erected their teepees and refreshed themselves, the men gathered in the center of camp to conclude their surrender. First Crazy Horse, then other chiefs such as Little Big Man, He Dog, and Little Hawk, and finally fifty more men of lesser rank, placed 147 guns in a pile, most of them “first-rate sporting rifles or else Springfield carbines, caliber .45, the same as now issued to United States troops.” Crazy Horse himself relinquished “three fine Winchester rifles,” a repeating gun that held between ten and fourteen rounds. Clearly, a lack of weapons had nothing to do with the Lakotas’ capitulation to the Americans. Clark, however, refused to believe that these were all the arms they had. Rejecting the offer, he calmly but directly explained that he would accept only their complete arsenal, “and to save trouble they had better go out and find those guns at once.
To restore calm, Crazy Horse accompanied the reservation’s Indian guard as it went tent to tent gathering weapons, sometimes in exchange for horses in the case of an unwilling donor. An additional 50 rifles and muskets and 31 pistols surfaced, making 120 rifles and muskets and 75 pistols in all—probably still less than the absolute total, but enough to satisfy the lieutenant.
The ceremonialism of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at the time of their surrenders captured a lesson that has too often been lost and even denied in accounts of North American Indian history.
More on the slave trade
Sometime during the 1670s a young woman from the Yuchis of what is now the Tennessee/North Carolina/Virginia border region experienced the horror of being captured and sold into slavery by a band of gun-toting warriors from the Chichimecos, a group her people barely knew. Whether her ordeal began during an attack on her village or an ambush along the trail is unknown, but what came next probably followed what was becoming a well-worn pattern. The Chichimecos, after keeping her in a holding pen until they had accumulated enough captives for the colonial market, would have attached a leather collar around her neck connected to cords tying her wrists behind her back, and then tethered this restraint to a long leash guiding other similarly bound prisoners, most of them women and children. Marched in this constrained position throughout the day and staked to the ground at night, eventually she found herself some 300 miles east to the coast. The destination was the young English colony of Carolina, anchored by the community of Charles Town along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Carolina was an offshoot of the Caribbean colony of Barbados, which already had developed an insatiable appetite for cheap bound labor to do the grueling work of growing, harvesting, and processing sugarcane to satisfy Europe’s sweet tooth and thirst for rum. Carolinians hoped one day to discover their own cash crop, but in the meantime they saw their most lucrative opportunity in the export of Indian slaves to Barbados and other island plantations. The Chichimecos were their first supplier, enticed by deals such as the one they got for the captive Yuchi woman: they “sold her for a shot gun.” This woman’s name remains a mystery. Nevertheless, some details of her story survive because she managed to escape the English and make it back to her people. Her chief then used her story to alert Spanish authorities to the Chichimeco threat. Her fellow captives were less fortunate.
[ Although this is a rather long extract, it is just a small part of the book and I hope you’ll buy it to understand the enormous role guns played in American history.]