Military history




The Iroquois League, the Ohio Valley, and the stability of the balance of power in eighteenth-century North America. The Anglo-French wars, the penetration of British traders and speculators into the Ohio Country, and the ominous convergence of British and French empires. George Washington steps inauspiciously onto the stage of history. European politics and the beginnings of the Diplomatic Revolution.


Iroquoia and Empire


WARS BETWEEN France and England (or, after the Act of Union in 1707, Great Britain) dominated European politics between 1689 and 1815. The first three of these began in Europe and centered on dynastic issues: which member of what royal family would become the elector Palatine, or the king of Spain, or the emperor-king (or empress-queen) of Austria. Each had its North American counterpart—called by the Anglo-Americans King William’s, Queen Anne’s, and King George’s Wars, respectively— and all of them were in one way or another important to the colonists of England and France. To European statesmen, however, the fighting in the New World was so much sideshow: Europe, its balance of power, and its monarchies were what mattered. Thus the first three wars were typical European conflicts of the eighteenth century, limited, bloody, expensive, indecisive affairs that ended not in great conquests but the belligerents’ mutual exhaustion and a restoration of the balance of power. The fourth Anglo-French war, however, broke the mold. The Seven Years’ War was about the control of territory, not thrones; it created a seismic shift in Europe’s alliance system and balance of power; and its first shots were fired not on a European, but an American, frontier.1

That the greatest of Europe’s eighteenth-century wars could have begun in the Pennsylvania backcountry reflected the growing importance of America in the diplomatic, military, and economic calculations of European governments. That it spread as it did from the New World to the Old resulted from the maneuverings of European diplomats who, seeking advantage, destroyed the fragile balance of power established by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) at the end of the previous war. But what made the fighting begin where it did, and when it did, were circumstances specific to America, conditions at best imperfectly grasped by European statesmen. For 1754 marked the end of the prolonged collapse of a half-century-old strategic balance in eastern North America—a tripartiteequilibrium in which the Iroquois Confederacy occupied a crucial position, both geographically and diplomatically, between the French and the English colonial empires. Through the first half of the century, the competition between empires in North America had been rendered inconclusive because the Iroquois maintained independence of action and thus a large measure of influence over affairs on the borderlands. The story of the last Anglo-French colonial war begins, therefore, not with Britain or France, nor even with their American colonies, but with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and indeed with a single chief: Tanaghrisson.

WHY SHOULD a man born a Catawba, reared as a Seneca, acting as a spokesman for the Iroquois Confederacy in the Ohio Country, choose to smash open the skull of a Frenchman who was neither his enemy nor an enemy to his people? To unravel this riddle we must begin far from the place and time of Tanaghrisson’s act, in the area that would one day become upstate New York, before the first Europeans arrived on the shores of North America. For it was there that the Iroquois nations made their home, and there that their unique religious and cultural system arose: one dedicated to ending warfare among themselves by directing aggression toward other peoples in the name of peace.

The Great League of Peace and Power, a ritual and cultural association that loosely united the original Five Nations of the Iroquois—the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Senecas— was perhaps three centuries old when Tanaghrisson washed his hands in Ensign Jumonville’s brains. The cultural bonds fostered within the Great League had served as the basis for the much newer political union known as the Iroquois Confederacy, which emerged among the Five Nations in response to the European invasion of the seventeenth century. Although the ritual functions of the Great League and the diplomatic, political, and military functions of the Confederacy sometimes overlapped, they generally served separate and complementary ends: the Great League to perpetuate peace among its member nations, and the Confederacy to deal with European colonists and with Indian societies outside the league. 2

The Great League of Peace and Power originated, according to Iroquoian tradition, in an ancient period when the Five Nations were locked in perpetual blood-feuding. Ethnographers have identified this mythological era with the larger aboriginal culture pattern of “mourning war,” in which the families of people killed in raids can grieve properly for their loved ones only by replacing them—spiritually as well as physically— with captives taken from the enemy’s community. These captives might be either permanently adopted into the bereaved family as a substitute for its lost member, or ritually slain to compensate for the family’s loss. Mourning warfare could evolve into a closed system of raids, kidnapping, suffering, death, and grief. Such misery, the Iroquois believed, had been the lot of the Five Nations before the Good News of Peace and Power was revealed to them by a supernatural being, Deganawidah, who showed them ritual forms of condolence and gift-giving by which they could cope with bereavement without resort to war. To perpetuate Deganawidah’s gospel and rituals—and, with them, peace among the nations— the heads of all the clans in the Five Nations formed a Grand Council beneath the Tree of the Great Peace at the settlement of Onondaga, which thereafter became the symbolic center of Iroquois life.3

Because all people might find shelter beneath the Tree of the Great Peace, the Five Nations took it as their duty to spread the gospel by allying themselves with other Indian groups and taking weaker nations under their protection as dependents. Peoples who refused to heed the Good News as allies or dependents, however, could only be dealt with as enemies. The Iroquois believed that war against such recalcitrant nations was not only just but necessary, because conquest and forcible subjection to the Great League offered the only remaining way that they, too, could find the path to peace. For perhaps two centuries before the Iroquois came into sustained contact with European colonists, their commitment to propagating the Good News of Peace and Power helped sustain almost continuous hostilities with peoples beyond the Great League and its growing penumbra of clients and allies.4

The appearance of European traders and settlers on the margins of Iroquoia in the seventeenth century confronted the Five Nations with grave, unprecedented threats in the form of desirable trade goods, devastating diseases, and ever-more-destructive warfare. The willingness of Dutch traders to exchange muskets for pelts made Iroquois warriors the most feared in eastern North America, while the losses Iroquois war parties suffered generated an increasing demand for captives. In a half-century-long exacerbation of mourning war, the Five Nations gained a legendary reputation for ferocity, conquering and dispersing Indian groups such as the Hurons, Eries, and Neutrals on either side of the Great Lakes, and emptying the Ohio Valley of its Monongahela, Shawnee, and other residents. But the fabulous military success of the Iroquois exacted a formidable price, for by the 1660s they found themselves so exhausted— and their populations so heavily diluted by adoptees—that they were unable to continue the fight. When the English conquest of New Netherland ended the flow of Dutch arms and ammunition in 1664, the Iroquois could no longer continue. In 1665–67, each of the Five Nations made its peace with New France, the principal arms supplier and trading partner of their enemies, and the tide of conflict ebbed.

During these long, terrible years of bloodshed, the ancient ceremonial institution of the Grand Council had begun to take on new functions as the war chiefs of the Five Nations made it a forum for concerting policies to serve their peoples’ mutual interests. Never before had the war leaders—a group of vigorous younger men, distinct from the older civil chiefs, or sachems, who still performed the Great League’s necessary rituals—achieved so much cooperation. In the war chiefs’ councils lay the origin of the Iroquois Confederacy as a diplomatic organization able to coordinate the policies of the various nations. The Confederacy’s concentration on external relations complemented the internally unifying, peacekeeping role of the Great League. Eventually the Confederacy evolved a sophisticated diplomatic system based on the gift-giving practices and condolence ceremonies of the league.

Peace allowed the Iroquois to recover a measure of demographic stability but brought new challenges as French Jesuit missionaries began to evangelize among them, dividing each of the Five Nations internally. The Mohawks, in particular, suffered losses as the converts relocated along the St. Lawrence River. The secession of Catholic Caughnawagas (so called from the name of their biggest settlement) was the most dramatic instance of factionalization, but all five of the nations split internally into Francophile, neutralist, and Anglophile wings. Within the Confederacy council the Anglophiles gained the upper hand and in 1677 created a commercial and strategic alliance, the Covenant Chain, with the government of New York—and subsequently with colonies from Virginia to New England. English encouragement and weapons allowed the Confederacy, in the last quarter of the century, to inaugurate an aggressive policy aimed at penetrating “the French trading and alliance systems that spread over the Great Lakes and Mississippi valley regions.” 5 The result, almost inevitably, was a renewal of the earlier pattern of warfare, which after 1689 merged into the first Anglo-French colonial conflict, King William’s War.

Onondaga’s alliance with the English now proved disastrous, for during the interval of peace the French had created a highly effective system of alliances with Algonquian-speaking refugee groups whom Iroquois warriors had driven far to the west, beyond Lake Michigan, in the first half of the century. The key to this French alliance system was the ability of missionaries, traders, and officiers to assume the cultural role of father, as understood among the Indians of the upper Great Lakes basin, or pays d’en haut. Because Algonquian fathers did not discipline their children but sought to create harmony, their real power stemmed from the ability to give gifts and mediate disputes; fathers might persuade but could not seek to exert direct control without forfeiting their moral authority. French mediators functioned in just this way among the fragmented, often mutually hostile refugee peoples of the pays d’en haut, groups that shared little but a common history of enmity with the Iroquois. Under the guiding influence of “Onontio,” as the Algonquians called the French governor-general (and by extension, the king he represented, as well as the priests, traders, and military officers who represented him among the Indians), the refugee villages gradually cohered into an alliance system centering on French power. French diplomatic gifts, trade relationships emphasizing mutuality rather than competition, and French arms and military aid thus became the currency of power for the chiefs who led the refugee groups. Thus, as the Iroquois tightened their bonds with the English in the Covenant Chain, Onontio created a highly effective counterweight to their power.6

Whereas the comparatively united Five Nations had generally enjoyed the advantage over their disunited enemies earlier in the century, the renewal of hostilities brought defeat after defeat and carried the war to the very heart of Iroquoia. Faced with the realization that the English were incompetent military allies, war chiefs representing Anglophile, Francophile, and neutralist factions contended for control of policy until the Confederacy nearly fell to pieces. Finally the headmen of the various factions hammered out an internal truce that enabled Iroquois diplomats to conclude a peace treaty with the French at Montréal, and simultaneously to renew the Covenant Chain with the English at Albany. These agreements, known as the Grand Settlement of 1701, preserved the Five Nations’ independence and inaugurated a new era of neutrality in Iroquois diplomacy.7

As factionalism gradually subsided in the Grand Council, the fragile agreement to stand aloof from Anglo-French disputes grew into a robust consensus that everything could be gained by playing off one European group against the other and preventing either from gaining preeminence. Iroquois neutrality thus became both the basis of stability within the league and the source of power to influence relations between the contending empires. Neutrality meant neither passivity nor pacifism to the Five Nations, but rather the pursuit of three complementary, activist policies: hostility toward Indian peoples far to the south, especially the Cherokees and the Catawbas of South Carolina; cooperation with the government of Pennsylvania to gain control over Indian peoples and lands on the southern flank of Iroquoia; and peace with the “Far Indians,” or the French-allied Algonquians of the pays d’en haut and upper Mississippi Valley.8

The first of these three policies allowed young Iroquois men to fulfill their culturally sanctioned role as warriors and permitted population replacement to continue by the limited practice of mourning war. It was through a raid on the Catawbas, for example, that the boy Tanaghrisson and his mother were taken captive, eventually to be adopted as members of the Seneca nation. The second policy served two practical ends. By cooperating with the government of Pennsylvania, and later Virginia, the Iroquois lowered the risk of attacking the southern Indians; the settlements of two client peoples in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley, the Shawnees and the Delawares, acted as a barrier against Catawba and Cherokee raiders from the south and served as way stations at which Iroquois warriors traversing their territory could be reprovisioned. Furthermore, once Pennsylvania and Virginia recognized Iroquois diplomats as spokesmen for the Delawares and the Shawnees, the Iroquois could dispose of those clients—and the lands on which they lived—as they pleased. The third policy, of maintaining peaceful relations with the Far Indians, also served a dual purpose, for it preserved the Iroquois heartland from the attacks of French-allied enemies even as it magnified the importance of the Iroquois to the English, both as diplomats and as trading middlemen. Only through Iroquois mediators could the English communicate with peoples deep in the interior; only through the Iroquois could the Far Indians acquire English trade goods. Thus all three policies obviously and directly benefited the Iroquois. But the central principle that actuated them all was Onondaga’s ability to maneuver between the French and the British.9

The Iroquois chiefs’ “aggressive neutrality” enabled them to manipulate both French and British imperial authorities. Representing themselves as the spokesmen for the Far Indians, acting on behalf of previously conquered dependent peoples such as the Delawares and Shawnees, and maintaining that they were the rightful overlords of vast western territories, the Iroquois seized and for a half century maintained the diplomatic initiative within North America, particularly in dealing with the British. Most significantly, they were able to use these tactics to claim suzerainty over the Ohio Country, a region that for a long time lay beyond the reach of either the French or the British, but which was nonetheless a zone of great strategic importance to both.10

France needed access to the Ohio River and its northern tributaries because this river complex offered the only efficient inland passage between their settlements in Canada and those in the mid-Mississippi Valley, in the region called the Illinois Country. The Illinois settlements had grown up along the Mississippi between the confluences of the Missouri and the Kaskaskia Rivers at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the wide-ranging fur traders called coureurs de bois had founded villages without bothering first to obtain permission from New France. These villages prospered as centers of farming, fur trading, and eventually lead mining; by the 1710s, they were provisioning the new colony of Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi. French colonial administrators soon recognized the importance of the Illinois Country as the vertex of an arc of settlement and Indian alliances sweeping from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Mississippi Delta. Because this strategic system would restrict the demographically expansive British colonists to the area east of the Appalachians by denying them access to the rivers that permitted trade and travel through the interior of the continent, it held out the promise of rewards beyond America alone. Once the encirclement was complete, French diplomats reasoned, the British would have to divert so much naval and military strength to protect their colonies that they would be hobbled in Europe. It was thus vital to France that the British be excluded from the Ohio Country. So long as their traders, priests, and soldiers enjoyed unimpeded travel through it, the French did not need to control the Ohio Valley directly; indeed, because the expense of physical occupation might well prove insupportable, French policy makers preferred to see it remain under neutral Indian control—provided that the valley’s Indians traded with France.11

The British feared a French cordon to the west as much as the French desired it. British imperial officials dreaded the prospect of a burgeoning colonial population indefinitely confined to the lands between the Appalachian barrier and the Atlantic, where demographic growth would inevitably drive down wages to the point that Americans would compete with British manufacturers, rather than consuming their wares; nor did His Majesty’s government relish the stationing of expensive army and navy detachments in America as bulwarks against French aggression. British colonists themselves saw the Ohio Country mainly as a vast realm for future settlement—the more so since two vigorous provinces, Virginia and Pennsylvania, claimed that Ohio lands fell within their territorial limits. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the impossibility of exercising direct control over so vast and remote a region mooted the prospect of Anglo-American colonization west of the Appalachians. The Ohio Country accordingly became an area within which the British sought to exercise indirect influence, against the day when they might finally colonize it. Until then it was imperative that the French be prevented from gaining control over the region and its waterways.

The Iroquois were only too happy to turn the geopolitical anxieties of Britain and France to their own advantage. This they did by insisting that the Ohio Country was theirs, by right of conquest: a claim for which the wars of the first half of the seventeenth century provided a plausible basis. Following the depopulation of the Ohio Country, the westernmost Iroquois nation, the Senecas, used the upper Ohio drainage as a vast hunting ground; eventually, westering Senecas known as Mingos set up permanent residence in the area between Lake Erie and the Allegheny River. Moreover, from the late 1720s onward, the Ohio Valley proper was being settled by Iroquois dependents, bands of Shawnees and Delawares moving west from Pennsylvania under growing pressure from European immigration into the Susquehanna Valley. Onondaga designated resident Iroquois village headmen as its representatives on the Ohio and authorized them to speak for the local dependent peoples as well as the Mingos. These representatives, known as “half-kings,” had the power to negotiate and receive diplomatic gifts, but they could not make binding treaties without Onondaga’s assent. Tanaghrisson, the adoptive Seneca who was living as village headman at Logstown (on the site of modern Ambridge, Pennsylvania) as early as 1747, was one such half-king; an Oneida chief named Scarouady was another, acting as regent over the Ohio Shawnees. In reality, Iroquois control over the Ohio Country rested entirely on the degree to which the Mingo, Shawnee, and Delaware residents were willing to cooperate with the half-kings, and thus on the willingness of Tanaghrisson and Scarouady—whose authority depended on their ability to retain local followings—to follow policies determined at distant Onondaga. Despite the tenuousness of their real influence, the Grand Council’s chiefs were able to take the carefully constructed illusion of control and use it to play off the British and the French against one another in the great game of North American imperial politics. 12

By controlling, or seeming to control, the Ohio Country, Onondaga made itself the fulcrum upon which relations between the French and British achieved the delicate balance that lasted for the first half of the eighteenth century. By shifting, or threatening to shift, its position to favor one side over the other, the Confederacy compelled the French and the British to bid for its friendship, or at least its continued non-alignment. The British, lacking effective connections with any northern Indians other than the Iroquois, were particularly susceptible to the Confederacy’s claim to control vast numbers of warriors through its alliances with the Far Indians. At a time when all Iroquoia held only about 1,100 warriors, for example, and when the Shawnees and Delawares in the Ohio Valley counted perhaps 350 warriors between them, the most knowledgeable of Pennsylvania’s Indian experts reported that the Iroquois could command the allegiance of 9,300 fighters among the Far Indians.13


Cartographic imperialism. Henry Popple’s Map of the British Empire in America with the French, Spanish and Hollandish Settlements adjacent thereto (1751) was, according to its explanatory note, undertaken “with ye Approbation of the Rt Honourable LORDS COMMISSIONERS of TRADE and PLANTATIONS” and reflects the notions of imperial dominion current in London after King George’s War. By depicting the boundaries of British colonies expansively—Virginia’s southern border extends beyond the Mississippi and New York’s northern boundary reaches the Saint Lawrence—and by demoting all other European colonies to mere “settlements,” Popple anticipated expansion into the interior of the continent. Notwithstanding a commendation of the map’s “great Accuracy” by “y e Learned Dr EDM. HALLEY, Professor of Astronomy in ye University of Oxford,” Popple was able to depict that interior in only approximate terms, derived from French reports. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

To secure Onondaga’s cooperation, both the French and the British strove to maintain friendly diplomatic relations on the Confederacy’s terms, by the giving of gifts. Gift-giving in the form of ritual presentation of strings or belts of wampum beads had been a part of the ceremonies of the Great League since time immemorial; wampum, a sacred medium, was necessary to reinforce and ratify the words spoken in council. Beaded strings and belts also formed the ritual centerpiece of intercultural negotiations between the Iroquois and the Europeans, but as time passed trade goods greatly supplemented these ritual gifts. By the mid-eighteenth century, the conclusion of treaty negotiations could entail the delivery of a ton or more of European goods, including cloth, tools, firearms, ironware, ammunition, and liquor. Such gifts “brightened the chain” of friendship, providing manufactures and consumable commodities to peoples who would have found it hard to survive without them, and supplying the medium of trade by which Iroquois middlemen could obtain high-quality beaver pelts from groups north of the Great Lakes. The Confederacy therefore used its strategic value to make up for its lack of direct access to marketable furs, as well as to help preserve control over its own affairs and lands.14

For the eighteenth-century Iroquois, then, everything depended on the ability to maneuver between the two European colonial powers and to avoid becoming dependent on either. In Queen Anne’s War (1701–13), this meant negotiating frequently with both Montréal and Albany, assuring both sides of their goodwill and cooperativeness but avoiding entanglement in the fighting whenever possible. When it became impossible, as it sometimes did, to deny the demands of the English for military aid, the Iroquois chose one of two prudent paths. In 1709, they cooperated minimally and delayed a planned invasion of Canada until it had to be aborted. In 1711 they showed ostensible enthusiasm for another expedition, while quietly sending word of what was afoot to the French; thus they thwarted the second invasion as effectively as the first. During the thirty years’ peace that followed the end of Queen Anne’s War, Onondaga’s diplomats met regularly with both French and British officials, maintaining trading relations with both and allowing the Europeans to brighten the chain of friendship with gifts. 15

Between 1713 and 1744, while peace endured between empires, the Iroquois gained strength by admitting the Tuscaroras to the Great League as a sixth nation, enhanced their formal claim to the Ohio Country by sanctioning the settlement of Mingos, Shawnees, and Delawares in the upper Valley, and extended the scope of their direct relations with British colonies beyond New York and Pennsylvania. Ironically, the very growth of Onondaga’s self-assurance would cost the Confederacy its ability to maneuver between the rival empires and end the era of Iroquois neutrality. Although no one at the time saw it clearly, the events that seemingly marked the zenith of the Great League’s influence would prove to have been the harbingers of its long decline—a change of fortune that owed as much to Iroquois hubris and greed as to the growth of European power.

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