Post-Columbian North American Warfare Research Paper

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Warfare in North America after the 1492 arrival of Columbus in the West Indies determined the settlement pattern of European colonization and rule, as well as the pattern of European–Native American relations, for the next four hundred years. It also established what some historians have termed the American way of war: a combination of the “surprise and ambush” tactics of Native American warfare and the heavy firepower of European warfare.

Post-Columbian warfare from 1492 to 1775 in North America (what is today Canada, the United States, and the islands of the Caribbean) can be divided into three major types. The first type is the conflicts that were primarily between various Native American groups, the second is the campaigns of conquest conducted by Europeans against a variety of Native American tribal groupings, sometimes with other Native Americans allied to the Europeans. The third and most significant campaigns are those of Europeans against other Europeans with some supporting Native American allies on one or both sides. This article will focus on the second and third types and touch only briefly on the first, since much of that type of warfare is poorly documented at best.

Characteristics of Native Warfare

It is a commonly held misconception that the Native American style of warfare was more ceremonial or more of a dominance ritual than warfare as fought by the Europeans. Just as the Europeans waged war for territory and power, Native Americans primarily waged campaigns to expand or defend hunting-and-gathering areas or regions of cultivation and to secure captives either to replace losses or to serve as slaves.

These native wars were characterized in North America by techniques suitable to a hunting-and-gathering culture, relying more on ambush and surprise attacks than on set-piece battles. Within those constraints, however, combat was ruthless and brutal with little concern for “noncombatant” casualties. Especially in surprise attacks on an enemy’s villages, women and children were not spared unless to be taken as captives. While war was seldom waged to intentionally annihilate an enemy tribe, often times the casualties would be significant enough to cause one side or the other to have to assimilate with neighboring groups, thus effectively ceasing to exist as a separate tribe.

One major exception to these general conditions is the creation of the Iroquois Confederation in the later years of the 1500s and the early 1600s, in what would become upstate New York. The Iroquois, while maintaining many of the characteristics of native warfare, were also in the midst of what can be called an “imperial” expansion of their own, conquering territory and subjugating neighboring tribal groups.

Characteristics of European Warfare

The Europeans in a sense had a much more stylized form of warfare with set-piece battles fought almost by arrangement and extended sieges of cities and fortresses. Like the Native Americans, Europeans fought primarily to expand or defend border provinces and to acquire coercive power over their neighbors. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this coercive power was often related to the religious beliefs of the states or groups involved as the struggle between the emerging Protestant sects and the formerly hegemonic power of the Catholic Church intensified.

Battle was a difficult event to orchestrate with the armies taking hours to draw up in their combat formations, thus battle was sometimes engaged by mutual consent of the opposing commanders. Battle was waged by generally linear formations of infantry equipped with fi rearms and pike, with massed cavalry and relatively static artillery in support. Due to the disciplined and well-armed forces, casualties on one or both sides could equal or exceed 50 percent of the engaged armies. Due to the nature of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maneuver and battle, the more prominent form of combat was the siege of a fortified city or independent fortress. These sieges had become very formalized with an almost mathematical precision to their course and outcome.

The “American Way of War”

In North America, these two conflicting styles would combine, resulting in a synthesized form of warfare that was characterized by both the surprise and ambush of Native American warfare and the heavy firepower of European warfare. In addition, as the settlers saw their very survival at stake on the frontier, these conflicts took on the character of a total war of annihilation as opposed to the more limited goals of either Native American warfare or European state warfare. This intensity of conflict often surprised and shocked both Native American enemies and European observers. It is from these origins that the American tradition of total war and unconditional surrender arose.

The Impact of Disease

In addition to the increased intensity of warfare in North America, disease played a dramatic role in many of the conflicts as the Eurasian disease pool was introduced into North America among people who had no developed immunities. The impact of smallpox, measles, and other endemic diseases of Europe were devastating on the Native American populations, often resulting in near total collapse of the native tribes and the decimation of their populations. Likewise, however, certain diseases endemic in the Americas or tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, could lay low entire settlements or armies of Europeans.

The Impact of Technology

The technology of the Europeans had a profound impact on the Native Americans, both on the battlefield and within their varied cultures. The combination of horse, rider, armor, firearms, and steel weapons was formidable, especially in the early years of Spanish settlements and conquest. The only counter the Native Americans had was either to overwhelm their European opponents with numbers or to strike quickly from ambush and escape before the Europeans could effectively respond. The other problem that European technology created was a dependence on trade with the Europeans on the part of the hitherto self-sufficient Native American warriors. The guns that the Europeans introduced required powder and shot as well as either replacement or repair in the event of failure; the Native Americans were not sufficiently equipped culturally or technologically to produce their own or even to repair broken weapons in most cases.

Intertribal Warfare in North America

Although the European arrival, settlement, and advance caused the most intensive conflict in the post-Columbian New World, it would be a mistake to assume that conflict between Native Americans tribes died out. Instead, in some ways the presence and effect of the Europeans intensified this intertribal warfare.

One major source of conflict among the Native Americans was the rise of the Iroquois Confederacy, the dominant native power and a nascent empire on the rise in the northeastern part of what would become the United States. The case of the Iroquois is unusual in that initially five tribes, later six, banded together in pursuit of common goals in a power-sharing arrangement. The member tribes of the Iroquois Confederation agreed not to wage war on one another and combined their power to subdue their neighbors and to dominate trade in the region. The power of the Iroquois Confederation was felt north into New France and south as far as the Cherokee lands in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia. Though the Iroquois rise predates European settlement in North America, the confederation continued to expand its area of influence, often playing one colonial power off against another to maintain its position.

Tribal warfare also continued along the edges of colonial areas as the various tribes fought over trading rights with the newcomers. European trade goods had a tremendous draw for the Native Americans, everything from firearms and steel axe heads to cloth and iron cooking pots, to say nothing of European or American distilled liquor. These trade goods fundamentally altered the traditional relationships between tribes. In order to gain control of the highly desired trade goods, the tribes needed access to both the Europeans and to the furs and other native products the Europeans desired in return. Thus wars broke out between tribes for control of this trade in addition to the ancient fights over hunting and agricultural territory and for slaves and honor.

Among the Europeans, the French were perhaps the most influential of the newcomers with their fur-trade-driven economy. The French courted the tribes with trade goods and alliances. As a result French influence spread far into the heart of the American continent with both the voyager de bois and French Jesuit missionaries active as far west as the trans-Mississippi region. They participated with their allies in intertribal warfare, often having a decisive impact despite their small numbers because of the technological advantages they possessed and brought to their allies.

The European arrival also set in motion intertribal warfare far from their actual zones of conflict as the effects of European arrival set in motion two powerful factors. As Eurasian diseases made their way across the continent, epidemics devastated some tribes, upsetting local balances of power, generating wars as the lesser-affected tribes expanded their territories into territories of the more severely affected tribes. The European arrival also set tribes in motion as they were displaced from east to west; this displacement also caused wars between tribes as the refugees pushed west. One result of these displacements was the arrival of such tribal groupings as the Lakota on the Great Plains in the 1700s, having been pushed out of the woods of Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota by the Ojibwa (the Chippewa). The Lakota then pushed the Crow tribe off its territory, and the ripples moved west.

Horses, initially brought to the Americas by Spaniards, changed life and warfare on the high plains when runaways began to thrive on the prairie grasslands after about 1600. Indians were already familiar with bows and learned quickly how to shoot their arrows from the back of galloping horses. Suddenly, buffalo hunting became a way of life, agriculture diminished, and warfare became mobile as never before, turning into cavalry encounters between rival tribes seeking to secure their hunting grounds. Warlike Plains Indians met Spanish and American soldiers, even when armed with guns, on more nearly even terms than before, winning their last battle in 1876 against General Custer of the United States Cavalry.

Europeans against the Native Americans

With the beginnings of colonial activity and expansion of European powers into North America, each European country extended its power in service of its own interests. Thus the indigenous people faced encounters ranging from violent conquest and displacement to alliance and trade.

The Spaniards

The European campaigns against Native American tribes began with the earliest landings in the Caribbean by the Spanish. Small groups of Europeans were incredibly successful in the face of generally overwhelming numbers. The Spanish set the example for this both with their relatively easy conquest of the Caribbean Islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, as well the smaller islands and their later conquests in Mexico and Peru. The keys to their success were the differing approach to warfare between the Europeans and the Native Americans, the superior technology of the Europeans, intertribal differences, and the impact of disease.

The initial Spanish forays into the North American continent were exploratory expeditions, which operated more as raids, searching for more wealth, as had been found in Mexico and Peru, and when not finding it, moving on. Oftentimes, their meandering was more the result of rumors spread by native leaders than deliberate routes planned by the explorers and conquistadors. The Spanish generated hostility by their incessant demands for food and gold that resulted in the local natives offering various levels of noncooperation or resistance. These early expeditions, especially the efforts of Hernando de Soto, beginning in Florida and wandering as far north perhaps as the Carolinas and then west to the Mississippi Valley, were unsuccessful in locating any vast new areas of riches. However, both de Soto’s expedition and Coronado’s through the American Southwest as far north as Kansas did provide valuable information on the native peoples and basic weather and terrain conditions.

Subsequent Spanish expeditions established settlements in Florida and Southwest, especially in New Mexico. These settlements were a combination of military outposts and missionary churches. The Spanish were generally able to overawe the natives with fi rearms, steel, and cavalry, to which the native tribes of the Southeast and Southwest had no effective answer. The Spaniards were very careful to prevent fi rearms and, initially, horses from falling into the hands of the Native Americans.

The relatively easy, though at times violent and bloody, conquest of the borderlands was tested in 1680 by a widespread uprising of the Pueblo Indians. Drought and high temperatures as well as increasing Spanish demands on the Pueblos, combined with a series of successful raids by Apaches, Navajos, and Plains Indians, resulted in the first unified uprising against the Spanish in New Mexico. It would be thirteen years before another expedition would reconquer the province of New Mexico. By 1700 the Spanish had again occupied the Pueblo territory and reestablished settlements, decimating the Pueblo population in the process. After 1700 the Spanish continued to expand the area under their direct control, and while they met continued opposition from native groups, the basic pattern remained the same, small numbers of Spaniards overawing larger numbers of natives. However, when the natives were incited and supplied, as well as supported, by other Europeans, the conflict took on the characteristics of an imperial border war.

The French

The French in New France and the Mississippi River Basin had a much different experience in that the French were not interested in large-scale settlement and agriculture or mining. Instead, they were interested in the fur trade, which required the cooperation of the Native Americans. Therefore, with few exceptions the French chose to establish very good relations with the natives and in fact offered their active support against their friends’ traditional enemies, such as the Iroquois. Thus, very quickly the warfare on the French frontiers adopted the characteristics of imperial border warfare, with both Europeans and Native Americans on both sides of the conflict.

The Dutch

The Dutch established settlements in what is today New York prior to the settlement of the English Pilgrims and Puritans in New England. The Dutch, while interested in settlement and agriculture, were also very interested in the fur trade, which resulted in a bifurcated policy, on one hand displacing Native Americans in the Hudson River Valley, and on the other operating as suppliers and sometime allies to the Iroquois of the northern and western frontier areas. Dutch penetration into the Connecticut River Valley in the 1630s helped to bring on the Pequot War, which was primarily but not exclusively fought by English settlers against the Pequot tribe.

The English (British after 1701)

The British were almost exclusively interested in acquiring land for agricultural use, which entailed the displacement of the local native tribes and much resultant warfare. The English settlers brought from England the tradition of the militia; all military-age males were required to provide their own weapons and train a specific number of days a year and were liable for service within the colony. The English settlements relied on this militia force for both its defensive capability and its offensive capability against Native Americans and other threats to the security of the colony.

The most significant problem the English settlements faced was their dispersal on farms and in small villages along the frontier. As the frontier advanced inland, the Native Americans had a ready and vulnerable set of targets to strike at with their traditional raid and ambush tactics. The English responded by fortifying houses in the villages, launching periodic punitive campaigns against the Native Americans, and conducting active militia patrols and ambushes along likely Indian approaches during times of trouble. The English faced repeated uprisings and minor wars with native tribes from 1622 in Virginia until 1675, in both King Philip’s War in New England and Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, as well as many other conflicts along their expanding frontiers.

Imperial Warfare in North America

Various forms of conflict between European powers in North America and the waters along its coasts and in the Caribbean began in the middle portion of the 1500s as the Dutch rebelled against Habsburg Spanish rule. Their naval and privateer forces, later joined by English privateers, attacked Spanish settlements and treasure ships. About a century later, the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 1650s and early 1660s also slipped over into North America, with the English gaining control of the Dutch settlements along the Hudson River from Albany in the north to New Amsterdam in the south. The English renamed the colony and the major port city at the mouth of the Hudson: New York.

It was, however, between the French and the English that the longest, most costly, and in the end most significant of these imperial wars was waged. Between 1689 and 1763, the English and the French faced off in a series of four separate yet interrelated conflicts. These conflicts were characterized by a blending of frontier-type warfare, reminiscent of native warfare with numerous bloody but brief ambushes and raids along the frontier, and the more traditional European- style confrontation of siege and set-piece battle, though the numbers involved in these battles were generally very small compared with their European counterparts.

These wars grew in scope and intensity throughout the period. By 1763 the British had committed a significant portion of their regular army to the colonial struggle in North America, but not before they generated increasing colonial resentment for what were perceived as disappointments, broken promises, and outright betrayals of the colonial cause. Early on, the British colonists had determined that their security would never be insured and their ability to expand into the interior would be constrained until the French had been driven from both Canada and the Ohio and Mississippi river basins. For the colonists this was not a case of a series of imperial border wars between the mother countries, their colonists, and their native allies. It was instead a war of survival, and in order to survive, the French and Indian threat had to be destroyed at its source: the French settlements along the St. Lawrence and the fur trading posts along the lakes and rivers of the interior. It was not until 1758 that the British government under William Pitt the Elder adopted the same view.

It was during the fourth and final war, the Seven Years’ War in Europe or the French and Indian War in North America, that all the components of warfare in North America came together: extended large-scale border ambushes and raids conducted by Native Americans allied with local militia or European regulars, the largest of these being Braddock’s defeat on the Monongahela River in 1755; large-scale European-style sieges of Fort William Henry, Louisburg, and Quebec (though Louisburg had been besieged several times before); and, finally, the single largest European-style set-piece battle fought out on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec, which signaled the end of French rule in North America (though the peace treaty would not be signed for another four years).

The final significant aspect of post-Columbian warfare in North America occurred shortly after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 when unrest among former French-aligned Native American tribes broke out in what is commonly and mistakenly referred to as Pontiac’s Rebellion. In an attempt to pacify the Indians, reduce costs, and minimize frontier warfare, the British adopted what is known as the Proclamation of 1763, which attempted to limit colonial expansion. It failed to limit expansion and only further inflamed colonial resentment already high over British hesitancy in the long period of warfare, newly reimposed mercantilist policies, and newly enacted taxes on the colonies to pay for the cost of the wars. In the end all this combined to produce the American Revolution in 1775.


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