Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Border Wars

by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye
Assisted by Edward Eggleston
New York
Dodd, Mead and Company, Publishers, 1879.

Chapter Two
Champlain and the Five Nations

THE Indians whom the French first encountered on their settlement of the St. Lawrence were an inferior race to the Iroquois, who raised no grain, and who, like all races depending solely on the chase, alternated between gluttony and abject starvation. The French colonists, during their first winter at Quebec, saw one day on the opposite shore of the river a group of Indians who had been driven by starvation to seek the home of the strangers. The river was full of grinding blocks of floating ice, and to all appearance impassable. The desperate creatures, however, launched their frail canoes, jumped into them, and began the passage. They were caught in the middle of the stream between the great moving cakes of ice. In an instant their light canoes were ground to powder, and it seemed that the occupants must be lost; but the quick-footed Indians, men and women with children on their backs, had leaped upon a passing block of ice fast floating out to sea. Here their situation seemed no better, and a despairing cry arose from the unhappy creatures. Fortunately the block of ice, crowded by other masses, touched for a moment the northern shore of the island, and the agile Indians saved themselves. Mere skeletons as they were, they soon devoured the food given them by the French, and fell upon a dead dog left in the snow by Champlain as foxbait.

It was the wise policy of the French to make friends of the inhabitants of the country in which they had planted their weak little colony; but in becoming allies of the Algonquin tribes of the north and the Hurons, they little knew what powerful enemies they dared in the Five Nations. A band of Indians encamped near Quebec, after heavy and improvident meals from their store of smoked eels, falling into troubled slumbers, would see in nightmares the Iroquois upon them, scalping and torturing. The terror-stricken creatures would rush to the fort and implore admission, entirely unmanned by their portentous dreams. Samuel de Champlain, the brave and adventurous founder of Canada, desirous of making discoveries which he had not the means to undertake, and looking ever, like all the explorers of his day, for a route by water to the other ocean, resolved to accept the invitation of the neighboring Indians to join them in their war with the confederate nations, at once binding these savages to the French and affording Champlain an escort into the heart of the continent.

By the middle of May, Champlain, with eleven men dressed in the light armor of the time, consisting of a breastplate and backpiece, the thighs protected by steel armor, a plumed casque on the head, a sword at the side, an ammunition-box strung across the shoulder, and in the hand an arquebuse, or matchlock gun of the day, was prepared to join his allies according to agreement. But the tardy Huron and Algonquin Indians had not appeared. Champlain, however, was ready to start, and he started, accompanied only by a band of Montagnais Indians. As he sailed up the St. Lawrence in his small shallop, he spied the smoke and cabins of a savage encampment, which he found to be that of his savage allies on their leisurely way to Quebec. Champlain moved toward the cabin of the two chiefs, escorted by a gaping crowd of savages who had never, seen white men before. Champlain they named " the man with the iron breast." After the usual ceremonies of feasting and mutual speeches were concluded, the small army moved on down the river, for the Indians must needs see the home of the iron-breasted strangers, of which they had heard wonderful tales. At Quebec, Champlain alternately feasted his allies and frightened them with the roar of cannon and musketry. Here the savages celebrated their hideous war-dance, with unearthly yells and the flourish of clubs and tomahawks in the glaring firelight. Champlain, being one of the war-party, took part in this wild revel.

The impatient adventurer was at last permitted to lead his warriors away. Surrounded by Indian canoes, the Frenchman's shallop moved up the St. Lawrence to the river then called by the name of the Iroquois, but since known as the Richelieu. Here the Indians camped for several days, fishing, hunting, feasting, and quarrelling, which last occupation resulted in the desertion of three fourths of the party. The remainder pushed on up the Richelieu, the shallop with a fair wind sailing far in advance of the paddling savages, who had assured Champlain of a smooth course to the great lake which they had described to him by means of rude charts. But the Frenchmen at length heard the rushing noise of rapids in advance. Ahead of them they could presently see the foaming water. Leaving his boat at the shore in charge of four men, Champlain pushed on up the river bank. Exploration only convinced him that the rapids were impassable ; his allies had deceived him. The canoes had come up when Champlain returned to his shallop. He rebuked the Indians for their lie, but told them that he, for his part, would still keep his pledge. In truth, difficulties could not discourage the discoverer. He sent his shallop with the most of his men back to Quebec, while he, with two Frenchmen who volunteered to follow him, took the Indian-carry through the forests, in company with his allies. Before re-embarking above the rapids, the chiefs counted their forces, which consisted of sixty warriors in twenty-four canoes. They were now in the debatable land, the battleground of the nations. Ahead of the party ran swift scouts, behind them marched the main body in silent Indian file, and in the rear were hunters busied in procuring game for the band.

At night all slept within a semicircular enclosure of logs thrown up for the occasion. No guards were appointed, but the inevitable medicine-man, or prophet, was consulted every evening. While the rude fortifications were being built he had built himself a lodge of poles, fastened together at the top, and covered with dirty deerskins. He crept into his place, and began his mumbling incantations. Around him sat the awe-stricken warriors. Suddenly the mysterious cabin began rocking from side to side. Behold the work of the spirits! thought the Indians, but Champlain thought it was the work of the medicine-man himself, whose hands he believed he could see on the shaking poles. This worthy went through terrific contortions, calling loudly, in a strange language, to the Spirit, who answered in a ludicrous squeal from the stone in which he was believed to be present. Champlain believed this to be devil-worship.

A primitive mode of indicating the order of battle was used by the Indians on this expedition. A chief took a number of little sticks, and sticking them in position into the ground, gave each one the name of some warrior, the taller ones indicating the chiefs, thus designating the position of each warrior in battle without waste of words. The Indians squatted around, studied for a time this toy army, and then understood perfectly their respective positions. Champlain at last entered the lake which rightly bears his name. The design of the Indians was to move on down the lake to where Ticonderoga now stands; from there through Lake George, carrying their canoes from the south end of this lake into the Hudson, where they might reach and attack some Mohawk village. Meanwhile, to the right lay the wild Adirondacks, wild even unto our time, and then the hunting-ground of the Five Nations. The war-party now dared travel only at night.

One day they had encamped not far from Crown Point. Dreams are of the utmost importance among savages, and the more important the dreamer the more important the dream. Every such sign and portent is watched and consulted by Indians on the war-path. Morning after morning Champlain had been eagerly questioned about his dreams, but his exercise in the sweet, fresh air had procured him a dreamless sleep. On this day, however, he shrewdly dreamed that he saw the Iroquois Indians drowning in the lake; he undertook to rescue them, but his allies told him to leave them be, they were good for nothing. This dream, recounted to the Indians on awaking, proved exceedingly exhilarating and the happiest of portents. The war-party embarked at dusk. About ten o'clock, dark objects were seen moving on the water before them. It was a party of Iroquois in their more ponderous elm-bark canoes, which were used where birch-bark was scarce. Instantly the war-whoop rose from both parties. The Iroquois pushed ashore, and began barricading themselves with trees which they felled. Meanwhile, Champlain's friends lashed their canoes together and remained on the water, a bow-shot from the Iroquois. The Indians on shore labored, the Indians in the boats danced as insolently as they dared in their frail craft; the night resounded with taunts, threats, boasts, and sallies of rude Indian wit, thrown back and forth between these mortal enemies.

As day dawned, the three Frenchmen lay low in separate canoes. In the early morning the raft of boats approached the shore, and the party landed at some distance from the Iroquois barricade. Out of this enclosure filed the enemy, some two hundred stalwart warriors, their chiefs marked by the tallest head-dresses. The Algonquin Indians began to tremble. They called for their champion, the man of the iron breast. Champlain passed through their ranks, and stood in full view of the approaching Iroquois. Great was the astonishment of these Indians at the strange sight, but in the next instant there was a flash, a report, and two chiefs fell dead. The brave Iroquois raised a hideous war-whoop, and stood for a moment at their posts, sending clouds of whizzing arrows into the enemy's ranks. But shot after shot from the two ambushed Frenchmen, and more execution from Champlain's match-lock, sent them flying in terror at this supernatural warfare. Fiercely the victorious Indians followed them, killed some, and took some prisoners. The inevitable sequel followed, as it would have followed in the Iroquois camp had they been the victors. A prisoner was put to torture. Champlain wanted to send a bullet through the heart of the unflinching victim, whose glory was to utter not a groan, taunting and tantalizing to the last. But the Frenchman was refused. He turned and fled into the woods, unable to endure the cruelty of his savage friends, but he was recalled, and permitted to end the Indian's misery with his gun.

The savages quickly started homeward to enjoy their triumphs at their own villages. At the mouth of the Richelieu the Hurons and Algonquins separated from Champlain and the Montagnais Indians, first dividing prisoners and inviting Champlain to join them again in battle.

While in camp one night on their homeward journey, one of Champlain's Indian companions dreamed that the still dreaded Iroquois were upon them. One and all, in darkness and rain, they paddled to some islands and hid themselves in the rushes. Morning light dispelled their fears, and they reached that day their village, where they were met by the squaws, who swam out into the water to receive with fiendish triumph the tokens of victory. Champlain himself was alloted the head and arms of a dead Iroquois, which precious gifts were to be presented to his king.

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