Colonial military history

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Colonial military history is the military history of Colonial America down to the American Revolution.

The colonial wars



French and Indian War: 1755-60

The French and Indian War, was the North American phase of the Seven Years War in Europe. It was a war fought between Britain and France from 1755 to 1760 in territory that became Canada and the United States. Native Americans fought for both sides, although mainly on the side of the French. The British were victorious, ending France's control of Canada and the Mississippi Valley. Spain was granted Louisiana as compensation for the loss of Florida. The war was officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

Colonel George Washington of the Virginia militia

Colonial Military Policy

Understanding the need for military discipline, the early colonial leaders also knew how to obtain it. They were themselves usually soldiers, and knew how to organize large, complex ventures along military lines. Between 1660 and 1727, 87% of the colonial governors were British army officers of the rank of colonel or higher, with an average of ten years' military experience. The New England colonies, motivated chiefly by religion, hired experienced officers to provide military training, tactical leadership and strategic guidance. Captain Miles Standish, a talented soldier of fortune with experience in the wars in Europe but not himself a religious man, was hired by the Pilgrims in 1620. He commanded the exploratory expeditions ashore before the full-scale landing at Plymouth, and had to beat off an Indian attack on the third one. At all times subservient to the civil authorities, he built a fort, trained the militia, negotiated with Indians, and in 1623 led the ambush of some Indians who talked too loudly of attacking the settlement at Weymouth. In neighboring Massachusetts Bay, a fifth of the first leaders had military command experience in England, and they were careful enough to bring five cannon along with them.

Indian attacks were a grave threat in the first years of settlement, when they potentially could outnumber the colonists. New England, New York, Virginia, and South Carolina were scenes of numerous wars in the 17th century. In 1622, Indians killed a third of the one thousand settlers in Virginia. Another serious attack came in 1644. The English colonies grew rapidly, however, and after about 1650 had much larger adult male populations than the Indians had. By contrast, French Canada had a relatively small white population and depended on elaborate alliances with certain tribes for defense. While the main American settlements (always located near the ocean) were secure by the late 17th century, the inland frontier areas remained at risk. The settlers dispersed over wide areas, and could be picked off at any time. The only way to guarantee the safety of the settlements was to make it clear that attacks would be countered with swift and heavy retaliation. The settlers kept their guns ready, but put their faith in deterrence. When a war did break out, they were prepared to flee to fortified places.

The southerners were oriented to geographical expansion, and were mesmerized by the rich soils of the lower south. They planned to keep moving west, Indians or no. Not until 1842 would the last Indian wars in the southeast end. Besides French, Spanish and Indians, the colonial governments had to worry about internal threats. The 17th and 18th centuries saw much civil war and peasant revolt in Europe, especially in Britain. While there was considerable political unrest in the colonies, especially in the 1680s and 1760s, there were few attempts at coups d'état. America never had the sort of standing army that could intervene in politics, and instead developed a strong belief that the military ought to be subservient to the governor and legislature.

Bacon's Rebellion

The most serious revolt against civil authority was Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia an 1676. Nathaniel Bacon was disgusted at the failure of Governor Sir William Berkeley to attack and punish small bands of marauding Indians, not to mention high taxes and low prices for tobacco. Bacon raised 500 volunteers and attacked the Indians on his own, then seized the capital at Jamestown as the governor fled. Berkeley, however, still controlled several armed ships that gave him superior mobility on the rivers that laced the colony together. Bacon's sudden death from malaria allowed Berkeley to rally his loyal forces, sail back and forth to capture Bacon's disorganized followers, and hang 23 of the leading rebels. Sighed Berkeley, "How miserable that man is [i.e. himself] that governs a people where six parts of seven at least are poor, endebted, discontented and armed"

Slave rebellions

A second threat was slave rebellion, of the sort that occurred frequently in the West Indies. Regardless of the dangers, slavery was so profitable that the southern colonies imported increasing numbers of black slaves from the West Indies. (Few slaves were imported directly from Africa, because they had a high death rate from New World diseases.) By 1750 blacks outnumbered whites in the plantation districts of eastern Virginia and the Carolinas. As a result, the local militias changed from training units to police and patrol forces, and southern governors grew apprehensive about allowing their militia to leave the colony. Blacks were not allowed to become members of the militia, or own firearms. The numerous class of indentured white servants, who lived in a kind of voluntary, temporary slavery, also frightened the authorities. Only in time of Indian war were these servants allowed to drill with the militia. The servants never did revolt, and only one black revolt actually took place in the` colonial South—the Stono rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, which was repressed quickly. Nevertheless, whites remained hypersensitive to the danger as long as slavery existed, and kept their militias armed and drilled down to 1865.

War between colonies

One threat the American colonies never had to worry about was each other. Each colony was controlled by Britain, either by the King or by a private company or proprietor owing allegiance to the King. It was impossible, therefore, for the colonies to British colonies to go to war against each other. One federation of colonies was established, the United Colonies of New England. It lasted forty years (1643 to 1684), and served primarily to coordinate military action against possible Indian or Dutch threats. In King Philips's War (1675–77) the Confederation coordinated movements against the Indians. On the other hand, the colonies did not necessarily trust each other, and occasionally argued over border disputes. Other proposed federations never were set up, and several times urgent pleas for military help were ignored by neighboring colonies.

The Militia

In most colonies all white men aged 18–45 were part of the militia, and received a little training every year. They did not have uniforms and had to supply their own weapons.

The militia system varied sharply across the colonies—from an efficient program in New England, to a sloppy one in the South, to none at all in Pennsylvania and New York. The militia had multiple functions—of which fighting was the least important. It was an all-purpose military infrastructure, combining a home guard, a draft board, and a supply system. If a town actually was attacked (which happened rarely), the militia would be called up to fight for as few days. Normally, it set aside a few days a year to drill and party, and to elect officers. Thus the most successful politicians became captains and colonels. Civilian success, not battlefield prowess was the way to higher rank as well. Membership in the militia was part of citizenship—and outsiders (women, slaves, servants and Christianized Indians) were not welcome.

When a military expedition was to be launched, the militia was NOT ordered out. Instead, volunteers were sought out by officers commissioned to raise a regiment. The officers and sergeants usually had militia experience, but not necessarily the privates (or "rank and file."). Most of the militia were full-time farmers with family responsibilities, and were not interested in going to war. The soldiers had an average age of only 23. The volunteers from New England were reasonable cross-sections of the youth of their communities. One in three Massachusetts young men served in the Seven Years' War, in sharp contrast to one in a hundred Britons. The citizen as soldier had a reality in America that Englishmen could never comprehend. By 1760, rural Massachusetts was overpopulated, and many young men had little productive work to do, even if their parents were substantial farmers. Army pay (52 shillings a month) was about the same as a hard working farm laborer could earn if he was lucky enough to find a year-round job. Many of the volunteers were recently arrived immigrants, or recently released indentured servants, or perhaps convicts who had been transported to America. They were surplus men who did not yet fit into civilian life. All European armies were likewise comprised of such marginal men. The officers, on the other hand, were always solid citizens in America, and usually titled nobility or high status gentlemen in Europe. British officers had to purchase their commissions, for huge sums of money; they would resell the commission when they retired, and collect a half-pay pension for life as well. The gap between officers and men was, therefore, much less than in Europe. Half the officers in the Massachusetts volunteer force were manual laborers-men of such lowly status in England that they could even become a sergeant there, let alone an officer. (Rich families in England purchased officer commissions fore their sons.) Visitors were aghast at the informality of American armies and their lack of discipline. They assumed that meant that American soldiers would not march to their death on the battlefield. Perhaps so, but warfare in colonial America never was played out with the geometric precision and iron-handed discipline that characterized Europe at the time.


When the new soldier donned his uniform (if he had one) and marched away to be mustered in (no one rode horses), he could expect little training. The American officers did not know enough about warfare to drill or teach their men. Discipline was rudimentary. It was routine that each soldier stand 24 hour guard duty every four days. The disruption of sleeping schedules made for a cranky and sickly force. Usually soldiers did fatigue duty—they cooked, cleaned, gathered firewood, built roads, dug trenches or hauled supplies. American armies were well supplied with artisans, like the carpenters who worked on forts and stockades. When soldiers were stationed in settled country, they could eat and sleep in inns, and buy food. But out in the wilderness the army had to handle logistics, and the men constantly complained of food shortages. In addition to poor shelter and disrupted sleep, hunger weakened them further. Sickness was common; deadly epidemics killed more soldiers than the enemy. Older men were especially vulnerable. In the backwoods in October, 1756, only 52% of the men were present and fit (24% were sick or had been wounded; 6% were killed; others were absent without leave, or had been dropped). Of the younger men, 57% were fit; of the middle aged, 41%; of the older men (over age 45), only 23% had made it. No matter how much they needed the money, the older men should have stayed home. Note that the army had done little fighting, and yet had lost half its fighting capability. The official size of a unit was one thing, its effectiveness after exposure to many new diseases in unhealthy circumstances was quite another. Not until the 20th century did the United States discover how to keep its troops healthy. (One advantage of long-term regulars, besides their better discipline, is they were immune to more diseases, and paid more attention to personal hygiene.)


Americans with a taste for salt air and gold coin often volunteered for privateers. These were merchant ships that added a few guns, augmented their crews, and during routine cargo runs looked about for enemy merchant ships to capture. The sailors and ship owners sold the captured prize ship and its cargo, and split the profits. Vast fortunes could be, and were made this way by captains and owners. Thousands of privateering sailors salted away five or ten years' pay after one six-month voyage. American sailors did far more damage to the French merchant fleet than American soldiers did to the French army.

Indian warfare

The Indians were not "native" to North America; they migrated from the Old World like everyone else. (Waves of migrants traveled over the Siberia-Bering Straits-Alaska ice bridge between 30,000 B.C. and 8,000 B.C.) There were many vastly different Indian cultures in North America simultaneously, and over the centuries the inhabitants changed drastically. The "Eastern Woodlands" groups of tribes that lived east of the Mississippi in 1492 had an entirely different society and culture from the Mound Builders who lived there 500 years earlier. Historians and anthropologists debate how many Indians lived north of Mexico in 1492; in 1928 anthropologist James Mooney estimated 1.1 million; some recent estimates are ten times higher. However, all scholars do agree that contact with Europeans introduced diseases to which the Indians were not immune—like smallpox and measles. Vast numbers died in a few decades—perhaps 80 or 90 percent. In Cuba and other islands, all the Indians died out. In California, 99 percent were gone by 1880. The colonists did not enter virgin land; they entered widowed land. Indeed, if there had been no European immigration most of the Indians would still have died out anyway because only a few explorers were needed to bring over the diseases. (The explorers also brought back new diseases to Europe, especially syphilis.) The tribes the settlers encountered were much reduced in size, and were desperately adjusting. Because of the population decline, they had a vast surplus of land—the one thing the Europeans wanted most.

Bow and Arrow vs Musket

The Indian bow and arrow and tomahawk represented stone age technology, and were inferior to the European musket and sword, not to mention the cannon. True, arrows worked in wet weather when muskets did not, but they were designed to kill game, not humans (who learned to duck). Arrows lacked range and killing power, especially in the dense forest, or when the colonials wore thick leather jackets. (Armor was even better protection, but it was much too cumbersome.) In the frequent wars between Indian tribes, the primary killing devices were tomahawks and war clubs, but given the long-range of the firearms wielded by the whites, the Indians were forced to use their arrows. The various tribes differed greatly in the effectiveness of their bow and arrow equipment and tactics. The northeastern Indians tended to fire at long distance, which made their arrows easy to dodge and of little striking power when they landed. European armies had long ago abandoned arrows, finding it was much easier to teach men to shoot muskets, and much easier to fire devastating volleys. Benjamin Franklin's suggestion, made during the American Revolution when gunpowder was in short supply, that bows and arrows be tried was politely ignored.

The Indians quickly recognized muskets were a superior weapon, but were never able to make their own. The colonists imported their muskets and gunpowder from Europe, and cast their own lead bullets. The colonists traded muskets, powder and bullets to selected tribes, but controlled the supply. The Indians never used bayonets, were careless with their equipment, and rarely were able to repair their muskets by themselves. Historians and anthropologists debate whether the Indians would have been more formidable had they stuck with their traditional weapons—but the Indians themselves had made the transition to the new weaponry by about 1730. By 1740 some tribes had acquired horses, but mounted warfare was not common until the trans-Mississippi Indian wars of the mid-19th century. The Indians retained their traditional military organization because it was congruent with their social system. They never drilled or marched, had at most a rudimentary hierarchy of rank, and in battle usually fought as individuals rather than as teams.

Indian Tactics

The Indians partly overcame their weapon problem with tactics well suited to the environment. They moved in small scattered groups, not neat geometric formations. They tried to surprise and surround their foe. When hard pressed they quickly retreated, ready to return later. Their superior woodcraft skills allowed them to stalk, ambush and envelop. They traveled light and fast. "They approach like foxes, fight like lions and disappear like birds," marveled one Frenchman. Surprise was a necessary tactic, for their loose social organization undercut their ability to coordinate complex group maneuvers or frontal assaults. The usual targets were travelers, isolated homesteads, small settlements, or encampments of enemy tribes. By the 1760s, after gaining a vast numerical superiority, the colonies finally set up a network of frontier forts from Maine to Virginia manned by militia. Throughout the 18th century whites beyond the forts built blockhouses to which nearby families could flee and defend themselves for days at a time. In 1774-1784, the "bluegrass" region of Kentucky was settled around nuclei of powerfully built blockhouses. Abraham Lincoln's grandfather was ambushed and scalped near the one at Louisville.

With luck, the Indians could ambush and destroy an entire European army. In 1755, early in the Seven Years War, Major General Edward Braddock (and his aide young Lt. Colonel George Washington) led 1,400 British regulars and 450 American volunteers into the forest. Braddock's mission was to capture the strategic French stronghold of Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh). Lacking Indian allies, he marched blindly into 250 French regulars and militia, and 650 Indians. The Indians seized the high ground; shooting muskets from behind trees, they surrounded the panicky British regulars. Braddock's artillery was captured; he was killed. Three fourths of his 86 officers were casualties, together with two-thirds of the 1,373 enlisted men in action. (The enemy lost only 23 dead and 16 wounded.)

Slowly the whites learned to stalk in the woods, though never as well as the Indians. They also discovered weak points in the Indians tactics, such as an unwillingness to campaign in winter, or fight at night, or sustain a long siege. The Indians lacked wagons, sailing ships, arsenals, forges, factories, warehouses, and money. On the other hand, tribes could put all their men in the field. The Iroquois of New York (allied to the British) had only 1,000 to 2,000 braves, but that was as many fighters as Massachusetts managed to turn out when it had a total population of 200,000 during the 1760s.

The various Indian tribes were always comprised of independent bands; it was hard to unite an entire tribe, let alone form a durable alliance with other tribes. There were always Indians willing to switch to the other side. By contrast, the colonists had a formal system of government that worked well: the command structure was reasonably clear-cut, with treason rare and insubordination uncommon.

France's Indian allies

The French had an even better command system, for they had militarized Canada and most of the settlers were well-trained, experienced retired regulars. However, the British colonialists outnumbered the French Canadians by a factor of 10 to 1 by 1689, when the international wars began. The French therefore had to depend more heavily on their Indian allies than the British did. Since the French were less racist, more willing to intermarry, and more eager to Christianize the Indians, they normally had better relations. The French successfully incorporated Indians into their war parties. The British complained about Indians' unreliability and lack of battle discipline, and used them primarily as scouts. Any Indian tribe wishing to maintain a military capability had to ally itself to a European power. Such an alliance meant political subservience—independence was quite impossible for the Indians. Spain did not provide guns to the Indians on their Florida missions. As a result, nearly all of them (perhaps 12,000) were killed or enslaved by expeditions between 1700 and 1708 of Carolinians and their Creek allies.[1]

From the white perspective, alliances were needed to neutralize the Indian advantage in forest fighting. The colonists outnumbered the nearby Indian tribes by the 1650s, but the farming settlements were not nearly as well mobilized as warrior tribes. Hence colonists formed alliances with friendly Indian tribes, giving them gifts (blankets, baubles and tools), muskets and ammunition, and liquor. In return Indians would alert the whites to threatened dangers, provide scouts in military expeditions, and, occasionally, fight side by side with the whites. The colonists felt the Indians were fickle allies, switching sides from time to time or melting away when the action became hot.

Food as a Weapon of War

In Europe wars were won by defeating the enemy army and leaving enemy civilians alone; it was well known that an army that started to destroy or loot property had lost its discipline. The Indians, short of manpower, refused to fight pitched battles. To break the Indians' will to fight the colonists attacked their villages. A typical village was surrounded by a palisade or fence of pointed logs, and contained rows of wigwams or longhouses. Burning it down had little effect, since it was easy to rebuild. Surprising it full of people was difficult after the Indians learned what happened to the Pequots at Mystic. The sure way to defeat the Indians was to destroy their winter food. The economy of the northeastern Indians involved a mix of hunting and farming. In spring a band would plant corn, beans and squash; during the summer, it would fish and hunt. The crops were harvested in the fall, and stored for the winter when hunting was less productive. Burning the growing crops would threaten the very survival of the band. Its only chances were to seek aid from other Indians, raid white settlements, or flee back to Canada where the French might help.

Quest for Settler Supremacy: Destroying the Pequots, 1637

The elaborate European rituals of capitulation, parole and ransom were followed when white fought white, but not when Indians were involved. Both sides used systematic massacre as a standard tactic, even after surrenders. There were no "innocent civilians" on the frontier. The reason was that peoples were fighting each other for survival, not to help some governments gain some diplomatic leverage. More important than particular massacres was the determination to win a total victory over the enemy. The Indians sometimes achieved this, as when the Iroquois, armed with Dutch firearms, virtually exterminated 20,000 Huron Indians in Canada and New York in the 1640s and 1650s. Of more direct relevance to the American way of warfare was the Puritan experience in New England. In 1637 Puritans were enraged when the Pequot Indians refused to acknowledge British sovereignty, and then scalped thirty settlers. Captain John Mason with 40 militia (and some Narragansett allies) surprised the Pequots at Mystic River in Connecticut. They burned the town and killed nearly every inhabitant. The remaining Pequots were hunted down and given as slaves to the Indian allies, or sold into brutal slavery in the West Indies. The Pequots thought of warfare as a small-scale calculus of feuds and revenge. They never realized that the Europeans used warfare to control the whole destinies of peoples and continents

Once aroused, the Puritans mobilized all their resources and made sure they struck first. The first principles of sovereignty to the European mind were that only the state was allowed to use violence, and that all groups living in a specified territory had to acknowledge the authority of the government. Anyone who could not abide these rules had to be destroyed. Puritans were grim soldiers who believed fervently that God was behind them. They saw the "savages" as heathens outside God's protection—their war paint, stone age culture, and casual use of torture indicated they were at best tools of the devil, and at worst wild animals. "They act like wolves and are to be dealt withall as wolves," pronounced the Rev. Solomon Stoddard.

Alliances, Revolts, and Pontiac's Rebellion

After a decade or two of dependence on white gifts, guns alcohol and trade, the Indians discovered they could not easily break away or return to their old ways. From time to time an Indian leader would launch a religious crusade against the corruption of traditional ways that white contact involved. The crusade, or "revitalization" movement, led to calls for a pan- Indian revolt against the white threat. King Philip's' War (1675–77) in New England was an early example. In the South revitalization motivated the Tuscaroras to attack the Carolina frontier in 1711. The whites, with the assistance of the Yamasee Indians, crushed the Tuscaroras, who then fled north to New York.[2]

The French occasionally engaged in wars of annihilation with Indians. In Wisconsin, the Fox Indians tried to eliminate the French, but were themselves wiped out in 1730. In 1729 the Natchez Indians killed 200 French colonists on the lower Mississippi. With Choctaw help, the French systematically hunted the Natchez down, selling the captives to slave traders in the West Indies. The Indians most often allied themselves with the French, but sometimes acted independently. In 1759-61 Cherokees attacked Carolina settlements, pushing the frontier back a hundred miles. The British sent 1,300 regulars, but the Cherokees forced the surrender of a fort in Tennessee and killed the captives. The British then sent 2,500 men who burned 15 villages but could not provoke a pitched battle. A treaty finally restored an uneasy peace.

Pontiac's rebellion

The greatest of the pan-Indian uprisings was Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763-66. After the British defeated the French in 1760 they assumed sovereignty over all the Indians of the Great Lakes region The British installed small detachments of regulars in a series of forts, but cut back on the gifts the French had regularly provided. The Indians felt threatened by the advance of white settlers over the mountains. Of critical importance was the mystical advocacy of pan-Indian resistance by Delaware Prophet, and the brilliant diplomacy of Pontiac in forming an alliance among the Ottawa, Wyandot, Pottawatomie, Ojibwa, Delaware, Seneca and Shawnee tribes, Delaware Prophet denounced intertribal wars and liquor. Greatness could be restored if the Indians would purify themselves, gave up white ways (including firearms), and "Drive off your land those dogs clothed in red who will do you nothing but harm." In May, 1763, the alliance simultaneously attacked all the British forts. Those that did not fall immediately were put under siege, but the Indians lacked the artillery necessary to batter down thick wooden walls. Two thousand white settlers who could not reach blockhouses were scalped. Eventually British regulars reinforced or recaptured the forts. In 1766 a treaty ended the rebellion, with no one punished. With the French gone, there was no way the Indians could sustain a war against the British. The rebellion taught the British to be prompt in their scheduled payments to the tribes. To minimize conflict, London proposed (in King George's Proclamation of 1763) to keep the Americans on eastern side of the mountains. The Americans, however, refused to be bottled up and insisted that the only defense against Indian attacks was an aggressive offense; since Britain refused to take the offensive, white frontiersmen increasingly came to the conclusion that they needed a new government that would get the job done.

King Philip's War

King Philip's War (1675–77) was the bloodiest of all the colonial wars. The Wampanoag tribe, long at peace with the Puritans, refused to be subservient to a white government. Suddenly they began a systematic attack on outlying settlements, burning houses and barns, rustling cattle, and killing every white man woman and child they could. Other tribes joined in, and soon all of New England was aflame. The militias were outmatched by Indians who knew the land and used ambush tactics. On three occasions entire militia companies were destroyed; their drills in European formations and their long pikes proved useless in the forest. After much confusion and panic, the Puritans declared all-out war. They figured out they needed their own friendly Indians to fight the enemy on his own terms. The friendlies taught Captain Benjamin Church to scatter his men and move quietly, instead of marching around in formation. The friendlies proved adept at tracking other Indians through the forest and swamps. Some 500 Narragansetts hostiles in a secret village in a Rhode Island swamp were surrounded and massacred; the 2,000 attackers suffered 20 dead and 200 wounded.

The Wampanoag chief Metacomet (called "King Philip") never organized his forces thoroughly. He began the war before he had all his potential allies lined up, or food stocks hidden away. He never coordinated his plans with the French. He lost the war strategically when the colonists formed an alliance with the Mohawks to the west, and systematically destroyed his villages and corn crops. One by one his starving bands were captured and either killed or sold into slavery. In August 1676, Metacomet was finally killed by Church; his rebellious head was exhibited for years on a pike. Trouble continued for two more years on the northern frontier, where the French aided the Abenakis.

King Philip's War left 500 of the militia dead, many wounded, and a hundred slain families, out of a New England population of only 10,000 white families. The survivors paid new taxes to cover the cost of 100,000, the equivalent of one year's income for the entire region. Veterans demanded and received land grants as reward for their service. The devastation and death set back the struggling economy for years; and the fur trade never recovered. But southern New England was now permanently cleared of all hostile Indians, and the Puritans had learned how to win in the New World.


In the last analysis the colonists always won their Indian wars because they were more numerous, had an ever-ready source of support in Britain, had superior technology, learned from their mistakes, and had a better-organized political system that could mobilize resources effectively. Above all the colonists had the will to win: they were determined to master North America, no matter how long it took. (England—then at peace, ignored the war and provided no help.) King Philip knew the fate of the Pequots, and must have realized he was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. But honor was at stake, and there was a slim chance all the Indians would join together and perhaps win. Unlike the Pequots, who had not made elaborate plans, he prepared for and engaged in total warfare against his enemy. On both sides the war involved burned villages, destroyed crops, slaughtered civilians, abused prisoners, and scarce a trace of moral unease. It annihilated one tribe, weakened the others, and set back the colonists. But to the Puritan mind the destruction of the Indian challenge to their supremacy was a necessity—thus King Philip's War was a logical outcome of the Pequot war.* Furthermore, the war decisively shaped the Puritan-and the American mode of all-out or "total" warfare. Sherman's Atlanta campaign in 1864, and the Air Force strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in 1944-45 were total wars against the total enemy population. Those later episodes spring ultimately from the Pequot and King Philip's wars.[3]

Morality of the Indian Wars

The colonists typically hated and feared the Indians, but they also hated and feared the Spanish and the French. What made the Indians seem different was the British conviction that they represented an inferior civilization that did not deserve to control the land. The Indians were seen as savages—humans at a lower, inferior stage of moral and cultural development. Much was made of the Indian custom of scalping the living, cannibalizing the dead, and torturing the prisoners. Boasted one warrior:

"I make war for plunder, scalps, and prisoners. You [Europeans] are satisfied with a fort, and you let your enemy and mine live. I do not want to keep such bad meat for tomorrow. When I kill it, it can no longer attack me."

The Puritan twist was the sense of a God-given mission to eliminate savagery. Many said this should be done by missionaries who made converts to Christianity. Others said more effective was the annihilation of obstinate tribes like the Pequot. Compliant tribes would be moved into controlled reservations. Virginia began the reservation system in 1646, forcing Indians to live in restricted all-Indian lands—and similar reservations still exist in the 1990s.

Quaker peace policy

Religious groups, especially the Quakers, were always disturbed about the violence and brutality of the wars against the Indians. Controlling the Pennsylvania government, the Quakers avoided warfare and tried to ensure fair treatment of the Indians. Nevertheless, the Delaware Indians went to war, and in 1756 the Quakers were forced to relinquish power to politicians who would actively defend the frontier settlements. A century later, in 1869, President Ulysses Grant, in collaboration with Quakers, adopted a "peace policy" toward the Indians. (If the Indians could be made into Quakers, quipped Grant, it would take the fight out of them.) Unfortunately, the policy failed—during its eight years, more lives were lost to Indian attack, more money was spent on campaigns, and soldiers fought more battles with Indians than ever. Subsequently, a series of radically different policies were tried, but none seemed to work. The long-term goal of assimilating Indians into the mainstream of society was not successful, and the opposite goal of preserving the heritage of Native Americans likewise proved deeply flawed.

Indian ancestry

As the frontier faded from memory, the harsh hatreds of the frontiersmen also disappeared. Millions of Americans proudly claimed Indian ancestors (8.5 million did so in the 1990 Census) and the popular image turned favorable. What happened to the Indians was seen as tragic; the Indian wars a product of misunderstandings and bad faith on both sides. But then a radical left ethical perspective appeared. For the counterculture of the 1960s, Indians seemed perfect: ecologically aware, attuned to nature, spiritually deep, anarchistic, drug-using, sexually free, footloose, untrammeled by materialistic possessions, communally oriented, non-modern, genuinely American—and terribly wronged by the same government and society that was destroying Vietnam in another imperialistic war. Best of all, in their day the Indians had fought hard against the American war machine. Historians wrote books about "The Invasion of America" (by Europeans), and testified in court cases that would let Indians recover vast tracks of land. Connecticut opened a "King Philip High School."

Land hunger

Land hunger on the part of colonists is often given as an explanation for the wars. Since there were so few Indians—and so few colonists—and so much land, the explanation is misleading. It is more accurate to say the colonists wanted full political control of territory, rather than occupation of it. The Indians were much more willing to give up acreage than they were political sovereignty. Title to land, or ownership, is a European concept that Indians did not quickly adopt. The notion that Indians deserved to own the land because they had "always" lived there is based on a fallacious assumption. Some of the major wars involved tribes that were themselves new to the area. By the mid 19th century, the Seminoles in Florida, and the Sioux, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne in the Great Plains had only recently seized—by warfare—lands occupied by different tribes. They claimed the land by right of conquest, and were expelled the same way.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (2001), standard scholarly history excerpt and text search
  • Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion (1982); good on warfare; excellent bibliographies
  • Corkran, David H.. The Cherokee Frontier (1962)
  • Corkran, David H. The Creek Frontier, 1540-1783 (1967)
  • Ferling, John. Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America (1993) good short survey by scholar excerpt and text search
  • Ferling, John E. A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America (1980); excellent interpretation of meaning of warfare
  • Gallay, Alan, ed. Colonial Wars of North America, 1512-1763: An Encyclopedia (1996) excerpt and text search
  • Josephy, Alvin M. ed. The American Heritage Book of Indians (1961); stunning illustrations
  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607-1763 (1973); The best starting point. with detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources
  • Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars (1965), good short survey by leading scholar excerpt and text search
  • Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country : A Native History of Early America (2002), Indian perspective
  • Steele, Ian. Warpaths: Invasions of North America (1995), stress on Indian perspective excerpt and text search
  • Vaughan, Alden T. New England Frontier (1979); pro-Puritan* Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Indian in America (1975); good introduction by leading conservative scholar

Advanced topics

  • Axtell, James. "Colonial America without Indians: Counterfactual Reflections " Journal of American History 73 (1987) 981-996; fascinating speculations in JSTOR
  • Axtell, James. After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (1988)
  • Axtell, James. The European and the Indian (1981)
  • Baker, Emerson W., and John G. Reid. "Amerindian Power in the Early Modern Northeast: A Reappraisal," William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 61, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 77-106 in JSTOR
  • Crane, Verner W. The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732, (1920), online edition
  • Crane, Verner W. "The Southern Frontier in Queen Anne’s War," American Historical Review vol 24, (April 1919) pp 379-95. online edition
  • Haefeli, Evan, and Kevin Sweeney. "Revisiting The Redeemed Captive: New Perspectives on the 1704 Attack on Deerfield." William and Mary Quarterly 52 (Jan 1995): 3-46. Details of a famous raid in JSTOR
  • Higginbotham, Don. "The Early American Way of War: Reconnaissance and Appraisal," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr., 1987), pp. 230–273 in JSTOR
  • Hirsch, Adam J. "The Collision of Military Cultures in Seventeenth-Century New England," Journal of American History 74 (1988) 1187-1212; focus on Pequot war [ in JSTOR]
  • Johnson, Richard R. "The Search for a Usable Indian: An Aspect of the Defense of Colonial New England," Journal of American History 64 (1977) 623-51; finding Indian allies in JSTOR
  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Flintlock and Tomahawk: New England in King Philip's War (1959); best narrative history
  • Lee, Wayne E. "Early American Ways of War: A New Reconaissance, 1600–1815," The Historical Journal (2001), 44:1:269-289 abstract
  • Mahon, John K. "Anglo-American Methods of Indian Warfare, 1676-1794," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 45 (1958) 254-75; excellent detail in JSTOR
  • Malone, Patrick M. "Changing Military Technology Among the Indians of Southern New England, 1600-1677," American Quarterly 25 (1973) 48-63; adoption of firearms in JSTOR
  • Malone, Patrick M. The Skulking way of War: Technology and Tactics among the Indians of New England (1991)
  • Peterson, Harold L. Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783 (1956), well illustrated story of weapons in use
  • Richter, Daniel K. "War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience," William and Mary Quarterly (1983) 40:528-59 in JSTOR
  • Roosevelt, Theodore. The Winning of the West: From the Alleghenies to the Mississippi 1777-1783: With Maps (original ed 1890); very well written narrative from settlers perspective by a future president
  • Sheehan, Bernard. "Indian-White Relations in Early America," William and Mary Quarterly 26 (1969) 267-86; conservative scholar explores themes of white guilt in JSTOR
  • Trigger, Bruce ed. Northeast (v. 15 of Handbook of North American Indians) (GPO, 1978); advanced guide to all tribes; this book is usually held in the Government Documents collection of academic libraries. code: SI 1.20/2:15
  • Trigger, Bruce G. "Early Native North American Responses to European Contact: Romantic versus Rationalistic Interpretations." Journal of American History (1991) 77:1195-1215. in JSTOR
  • Utley, Robert M. and Wilcomb E. Washburn. The American Heritage History of the Indian Wars (1977); by leading scholars; well illustrated; Washburn is a conservative
  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist 58 (1956) 264-81; how anti-Christian religion inspired Indians in JSTOR
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. ed. History of Indian-White Relations;; (v. 4 of Handbook of North American Indians) (GPO, 1988); comprehensive overview. from wars to trade to movies; in academic libraries see the Government Documents collection, code: SI 1.20/2:4

French and Indian War

  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (2000), 887pp; the standard scholarly study excerpt and text search
    • Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (2006), abridged edition excerpt and text search, a good starting point
  • Borneman, Walter R. The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Cave, Alfred A. The French and Indian War (2004), short overview by leading scholar online edition
  • Leckie, Robert. "A Few Acres of Snow": The Saga of the French and Indian Wars. (1999). 388 pp. popular history
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. A Biography (1948) vol 1. Pulitzer prize
  • Nester, William R. The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775. (2000) 320 pp. online edition
  • Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War. (1884), famous narrative by leading historian; liberals strongly dislike its conservative tone full text online
  • Schwartz, Seymour I. The French and Indian War, 1754-1763 (1995), encyclopedia


  1. Many Creeks thereupon moved into the Florida vacuum; soon they were called "Seminoles." The Seminoles sided with Britain in the Revolution and War of 1812. In the 1830s and 1840s they fiercely fought the United States Army for control of Florida.
  2. In 1715 the Yamasee suddenly turned hostile, enlisted Creek and Catawba allies, and set the Carolina back country aflame. Charles Town (Charleston, SC) itself was threatened. But the Catawbas and Creeks went home, and the Yamasee fought on, with some help from the Spanish in Florida. A Carolina expedition into Florida in 1728 finally won the Yamasee War.
  3. While all statistics from the colonial period are suspect, demographer Sherburne Cook has estimated that 30 percent of the 30,000 Indians in southern New England in the 17th century were eliminated by warfare in the Pequot and King Philip's wars. The number of warriors was about 7,500. The Puritans killed about 2,900 warriors in battle. Perhaps 3,000 Indians of all ages died of exposure or starvation after their crops were destroyed, while 2,000 others found refuge with alien tribes, and 1,000 were sold into slavery. By 1680 there were only three thousand Indians remaining in the region, living peacefully on assigned reservations. A century later disease had further reduced their numbers to 300.