Precontact Native American warfare and diplomacy was generally limited in its scale and scope of violence. Among the Eastern Woodland peoples, “mourning war” reigned supreme. Mourning war was a highly ritualized form of warfare and diplomacy, in which vanquished foes and captives often served to “replace” those lost due to disease, war, or migration in native communities. Raiding parties would venture forth, take captives, and return to the war party’s home village with those captives in order to apportion them among grieving clans. At that point, the elder women of the clan determined the fate of the captive. Males usually suffered death by excruciating torture; the women and children were most often incorporated into the clan via adoption. Mourning war also offered young men the prestige that came with leading war parties and taking captives. Europeans would speak of the “savagery” of native warfare “proof” being the brutal torture of prisoners. Mourning wars, however, included relatively limited violence, especially when compared to the gross slaughter that Europeans subjected each other to in the so-called Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At its basic level, war among precontact native peoples was primarily a personal affair and rarely required the full resources of a native community. A key to the limited nature of Native American warfare was the dichotomous relationship between cultural exchange and warfare within native communities. Most indigenous peoples understood diplomacy, and thus issues of war and peace, as hinging on reciprocal relations. As long as a “tributary” person, group, or village submitted to a putative dominant group, affairs meaning trade and cultural exchange could proceed normally.
The breakdown of reciprocity, caused by migration, poor harvests, changes in leadership, or pandemics, often led to war. Indeed, most native peoples sought to end war quickly and with as little dislocation to their group as possible. Some civilizations, such as the precontact Mississippian peoples at Cahokia, could not survive in a world in which war, rather than reciprocity, ruled. Others, like the tribes who fled the Iroquois to the area the French called the pays d’en haut (the Upper Ohio Valley), built peaceful communities on a middle ground that rested on a foundation of trade and cultural exchange. Native American confederacies played an important role in arbitrating issues of war and peace. The English placed their first permanent settlement in North America in the territory of the most powerful native confederacy on the eastern seaboard, the Powhatan League. The Powhatan naturally saw the English settlers as interlopers but, because of the latter’s weak state, they assumed the Europeans would become another tributary people. The military and diplomatic history of the early Chesapeake is one of tentative attempts by Native Americans and Englishmen to build a reciprocal relationship, based on trade and exchange, which fell apart in periods of violence and destruction. Ironically, the Powhatan’s success as masters of the precontact Tidewater contributed to their downfall.
English settlers capitalized on discontent among the Powhatan’s tributary nations and encouraged them to break free of Powhatan dominance. By the mid-seventeenth century, English colonists, their native allies, and, most significantly, diseases had destroyed the Powhatan confederacy and made the colonists the new masters of the Chesapeake. In 1609, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain encountered and subdued Huron Indians in southern Ontario. Unlike other native peoples, who faced annihilation at the hands of Anglo-Americans, the Huron formed a fur trade alliance with the French that enabled both groups to dominate the region. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Not all Native American confederacies fell as quickly as the Powhatan. The Iroquois League, founded in the sixteenth century among the five Iroquois nations of present-day upstate New York (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca), was the linchpin on which inter-native and Europeannative affairs in the Northeast hinged throughout the colonial period.
English colonists and imperial administrators focused their diplomacy and distribution of annual “presents” of European trade goods, weapons, and alcohol on the League, in hopes of making the Iroquois proxies in the settler-native and imperial wars. Only in 1701, after the League staked out a neutral position between the English and French in the “Grand Settlement” at Montreal, did the Iroquois break free from their descent into European wars. The eighteenth century witnessed a diplomatic dance among the Iroquois League, the British, and the French. Anglo-Americans sought to turn the Iroquois into their janissaries, while officials in Montreal and Quebec tried to win Iroquois support as a foil against British imperial ambitions. Complicating matters were the pro-French Kahnawake Iroquois, who had moved from New York to near Montreal. Neutralists within the League struggled to remain aloof from European wars and to prevent civil war between pro-English and pro-French native factions.
The Creek Confederacy in the Southeast shared much in common with the Iroquois League. Comprised of Muskogee peoples, who migrated from the west in the precontact period, the Creek Confederacy proved to be one of the most permanent and robust native groupings throughout the colonial period. Much like the Iroquois, the Creek played European powers against one another. The Creek juggled relations with the English settlers of Georgia and the Carolinas, the Spanish in Florida, and the French in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Unlike the other native peoples of the Southeast the factious Cherokee, for example the Creek offered a unified front against the European powers. In the end, the Confederacy’s demise came only in the early nineteenth century, after Americans had driven the other colonial powers from the Southeast and the Creek had lost their bargaining leverage.