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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 10: 1609-1615, Champlain's Battles with the Mohawks and Oneidas.

[This information is from Vol. I, pp. 187-191 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Biographies | Illustrations | Maps | Portraits

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Samuel de Champlain, founder of New France — Epochal defeat of the Mohawks on the shore of Lake Champlain in 1609 — Invasion of the Iroquois country and attack upon the Oneida castle, 1615 — repulse and wounding of Champlain — Champlain's warfare against the Five Nations makes them the deadly enemies of New France and sows the seed of its eventual destruction

Samuel de Champlain may justly be regarded as the founder of New France. He also is numbered among the few men who have had a vital effect upon the history of our Mohawk Valley. Champlain's attack on the Mohawks, in 1609, upon the shore of the lake which bears his name, shaped the course of world history for three centuries. It also began a conflict between the French and the Five Nations which lasted for 150 years and which eventually ended French dominion in America.

Champlain's battle with the Oneidas in 1615 comes into our story as part of the annals of the latter Indians who were closely connected with the early history of our six Mohawk Counties.

Samuel de Champlain was born at Brouage, France, in 1567; died December 25, 1635. His family had been a seafaring one and he was educated as a navigator. Henry IV, King of France, commissioned Champlain Lieutenant-General of Canada in 1603, when he sailed for America to assist M. de Chastes, governor of Dieppe, in founding a colony in America. On this voyage, he ascended the St. Lawrence to Quebec and the boat's crew went to Montreal. Champlain bore a leading part in the founding of Port Royal in 1605. In 1608, on the site of the former Indian village of Stadacona, he founded the city of Quebec, the name being derived from the Indian "Kebec", signifying "the Narrows", with reference to the narrowing channel of the St. Lawrence at this point.

Champlain made friends with the Montagnais Indians about the new settlement. During the winter some Indians from Ottawa implored "the man with the iron breast", as they called Champlain, to help them in a raid against the dreaded Iroquois. In the spring of 1609, Champlain gathered a war party of two Frenchmen and a band of 60 Hurons and Algonquins of the Montagnais, so called because they lived in the mountains near Quebec. He left Chambly, July 2, 1609, with 20 canoes and started up Lake Champlain. The eastern shore (Vermont) had formerly belonged to the Mohawks but they now lived far south in the Mohawk Valley.

On July 29, Champlain's party came upon 200 Mohawks on the western shore, probably in the vicinity of Crown Point. The battle did not take place till the following day and it differed much from our ideas of Indian warfare. The chiefs of the two war parties met and made arrangements for the next day's conflict. On the 30th, the Montagnais landed and the Mohawks advanced in good order, led by two chiefs distinguished by their large plumes. The Canadian Indians ran toward their enemy and then suddenly their ranks parted in the center and Champlain came forward with his arquebus. The Mohawks halted in astonishment at the unexpected sight of this armed and armored white man. Champlain fired and killed two Mohawk chiefs and wounded a third at the first shot. The terrific report, fire and smoke of Champlain's weapon and the sight of their three fallen chiefs decided the combat and the Mohawks fled, a number of them being killed in the rout which followed.

In this battle, the Mohawks carried both stone and iron axes, and their chiefs were clad in arrow-proof armor. The iron axes were probably taken by the Mohawks from their enemies who had secured them in trade with the French.

The Mohawks sadly returned to their towns in our valley. Their panic flight rankled in their bosoms and they immediately began to plot revenge on the French and their Indian allies. It was a costly victory for Champlain and New France. It made the Mohawks forever enemies of the French and eventually cost the latter their great empire in America.

Champlain wrote: "The place where this battle was fought is in 43 degrees, some minutes latitude, and I named it Lake Champlain." In 1610, Champlain and his Indian allies won another victory over 100 Iroquois, in which he was wounded by an arrow.

Next in historic importance to the defeat of the Mohawks on Lake Champlain, comes Champlain's repulse by the Oneidas in 1615. This is generally referred to as Champlain's expedition into "the Onondaga country", but it was an Oneida and not an Onondaga castle that Champlain attacked. The Oneida castle was then located on present Nichols Pond, in the town of Fenner in what is now Madison County. The skilled French soldier and his Indian allies probably selected this point as it was more exposed than any other of the Iroquois castles — than the Mohawk in our valley or the Onondaga to the westward. This combat is important because the Oneidas repulsed Champlain's attack and this victory gave the Iroquois confidence in their power to conquer their white as well as their red enemies.

In 1615, Champlain prepared what he expected would be a crushing blow against the Iroquois. He then visited the Hurons, sometimes called the good Iroquois, from their friendship for the Algonkins and the French, who were known to them as the Agnonha, or "Iron men". Champlain took Etienne Brule, an interpreter, a French servant and some Indians and began his journey up the Ottawa, July 9, 1615. Reaching Georgian Bay, he followed its shores to the Huron towns toward Lake Simcoe. He finally came to Caragouha, with its swarm of long lodges and its lofty palisade. The Recollect Father Le Caron had already established a mission at Caragouha and five Frenchmen here joined Champlain's war party.

Champlain's journey to the Huron capital was through six hundred miles of wilderness. Here, on the inland waters of North America, a French priest had established a mission and here six French traders had come. This was in the early year of 1615, when the English were sticking closely to their settlements on the James River and when the Dutch were located in three small Hudson River posts at present New York, Kingston, and Albany. These early long journeys of the French, to distant Indian strongholds far into the interior of America, were characteristic of French dominion in America and laid the foundations of a New France which was early a menace to the English settlements, because of the leadership and intrepid boldness of the French rangers of the forest.

From Caragouha, Champlain sent Brule with a Huron war party to the Andastes (or Susquehannas living on the Chemung River in New York State) who wished to join with 500 men in this proposed attack on the Iroquois. Brule had to make a long detour to avoid the Five Nations and consequently did not arrive in time to join in Champlain's attack.

Champlain, with his Frenchmen and a large war party of Hurons, started on the warpath along the north shore of Lake Ontario, crossed to the opposite shore and marched to the Oneida castle, then located on present Nichols Pond in Madison County. This site is shown in the Oneida group in the Indian exhibit of the New York State Museum, Education Building, Albany. On the site is a boulder 15 feet long which may have been the Oneida stone of that day.

The Oneida castle of 1615 had a stockade made of four rows of palisades, crossing at the top and affording broad battlements reached by simple ladders. It extended some distance into a very shallow pond which enabled the defenders to secure a large supply of water with which to quench fire, which was the thing most dreaded by the defenders of an Indian wooden castle. The Oneidas were harvesting corn, at Champlain's approach and retreated into their castle. Champlain reached it October 10, 1615.

In spite of Champlain's attempt to guide his Indians in a well ordered attack, they rushed upon the castle in a screaming disorderly mob. The arrow fire of the Oneidas drove them back with loss and they retreated much disheartened as Indians generally were after a repulse. Champlain directed his savages to build a high movable, covered tower from which his musketeers could shoot into the stockade. The next day the tower was pushed near the palisade and the attack began. The French gun fire did deadly work but the Hurons again made a mob-like rush, during which they set fire to the stockade, but the defenders quickly put it out. The Huron attack was again repulsed by the Oneida arrows which also wounded Champlain in the knee and thigh. For three hours the assault was kept up, when the Hurons fell back beaten into the woods. Here they waited for five days for the Andastes (Susquehannas) under Brule to come up. These latter, Indian like, had not finished their preliminary war-dances and so delayed coming until after the Hurons had left, which they did on October 16, carrying the wounded Champlain in a litter. Brule and the Andastes came up two days later and, not finding Champlain and learning of his defeat, they marched back to their own towns. The rejoicing and celebration in the Oneida and other Iroquois castles must have been great over this truly wonderful victory; for the hated French had been beaten in spite of their devilish firearms. In contrast to the French muskets, it may be said that the Iroquois arrow fire was rapid and deadly, with its range of nearly 200 yards and its power to penetrate clear through a man's body. This arrow fire was then much more rapid than musket fire and equally deadly when it hit the mark.

The Hurons crossed Lake Ontario and retreated rapidly into their country for fear of Iroquois revenge. They would not escort Champlain back to Quebec and he was forced to stay with them until 1616. When he reached Quebec he was greeted as one risen from the dead.

While in the Huron country, Champlain explored westward with Father Le Carron. Brule returned with his Andastes and later explored the Susquehanna to the sea. He visited Lake Superior and its copper mines. He was one of the intrepid spirits of France, who made the first explorations in the vast interior of North America.

The foregoing French-Iroquois battles relate to our Valley, because the first, an Iroquois defeat, was with our Mohawks and had historical effects beyond computation. The second, Oneida, conflict was notable because it showed the Iroquois that they could beat even the French with their firearms, and encouraged them to carry on their warfare against Canada. It also gave the Oneidas a high reputation as warriors among the French and their Indian allies of Canada. The defeat of the invaders and their losses were probably greater than we know, inasmuch as we get our only account of this battle from Champlain himself. While Champlain founded a new nation in the New World he also sowed the seeds of its destruction.

These two Iroquois battles have historical value as they vividly show us an Indian battle in the open and the method of attack upon and defense of an Iroquois fortress.

Champlain who had some artistic ability has left us two interesting drawings of both these epochal conflicts with the savages of a great wilderness. They are interesting but they have peculiarities due to inaccuracy of detail and poor draughtsmanship. The Mohawk battle drawing is merely an effort to show, in a small space, two bands of savages of fighting, with Champlain occupying a prominent position. Indians did not go into battle entirely naked and armed only with a bow and one arrow, as depicted in Champlain's illustrations. They wore at least a breechclout and a leather strap or belt which carried a quiver of arrows, a tomahawk and a scalping knife. Champlain's pictures, nevertheless, are interesting as the first known attempt to represent the Iroquois of the Five Nations in pictorial form — and as illustrations of two of the most epochal battles ever fought on the Continent of North America.

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