The Nuclear Option in Colonial North America: Aboriginal Allies 1609 CE – 1814 CE

I was raised in a small town that was the home of an atomic energy research facility. Among other things, this facility designed America’s first nuclear submarine engines.

When as a student I heard the phrase “the nuclear option,” it was not a metaphor for a political maneuver in the United States Senate. It designated contemplation of use or the ability to use atomic bombs, with all of the diplomatic, military, and political ramifications of delivering and detonating such devices. The phrase soon extended its meaning to include any extreme, disproportionate, or “unthinkable” strategy or tactic that was held to be out of bounds by the vast majority of civilized opinion.

This concept of the “nuclear option” has direct applicability to the wars of empire in North America from the early 17th century CE to the early 19th. From the perspective of most of the Old World powers and their colonists, the deployment of aboriginal American warriors against European military organizations and settlers constituted use of uncontrolled forces of nature threatening total destruction. It was generally held to be as morally dubious as a nuclear first strike is now.

The cataclysmic power of the indigenous tribes both horrified and fascinated the architects of empire. Several attempted to exercise the “nuclear option” of loosing warriors on the colonial settlements and troops of their rivals. It was a technique of terror. Tribal war party raids on colonial settlements did terrorize, but did not ultimately achieve the strategic results intended.

It should be emphasized that each colonial power had a preferred strategy for dealing with the military potential presented by the natives. A few aboriginal warriors could find employment as guides or irregulars working with the European troops, but the remainder constituted a problem.

To oversimplify a bit, the Spanish response was direct: genocidal conquest followed, if there were sufficient survivors, by brutal slavery in mines or on large agricultural estates that mimicked Roman latifundia.

The French, frequently short of Gallic manpower for their colonies, often attempted to Christianize the tribes and turn them into military allies.

The British tended to ignore or exterminate their indigenous neighbors until some factions of the American colonials forced them to consider adopting a course of action that had already failed the French imperialists a generation earlier.

The Dutch, eager to turn a profit, treated the Native Americans as useful trading partners, angering both the English and the French by their willingness to barter firearms, powder and shot for furs.

And a few Native American tribal confederations from the 17th century onwards, notably the Iroquois, competed with the Europeans for dominion on an imperial scale.

In 1609 Samuel de Champlain meddled in a native war, earning the longstanding enmity of the Iroquois towards New France. This culminated in the effective destruction of Quebec’s most promising ally, the Huron [Wyandot, Wendat] nation, in 1649 – 1650. The Iroquois scarcely needed Dutch and English encouragement to raid the French and their native allies.

The French also helped organize Algonquian attacks along the New England border from settlements like Saint-Francis in Quebec, famously destroyed by Robert Rogers and his Rangers in 1759.

Even if such revenge attacks are excepted, the terror was not one-sided. In 1637 Native American guides disapproved of the English colonists’ massacre of Pequots during the obliteration of their fortress near the Mystic River in Connecticut. The Pequot settlement had the bad luck of being on land the English colonists coveted. The English colonial soldiers killed an estimated 400 to 700 natives in the attack, mostly women and children.

The French and Indian War [1754 – 1763] made a long-standing problem for the colonizers of Quebec even more urgent. New France was chronically short of manpower. Huguenots eager to escape France were not generally welcome in the colonies, and the young men recruited to emigrate to New France were prone to run off to pursue the fur trade, rather than settle down to a life of drudgery tilling the land in order to fill the coffers of New France’s civil and military administrations. It seemed necessary to some French authorities to enlist warriors from the wild tribes to augment the inadequate number of troops sent from Europe.

New France’s Governor General Vaudreuil was ready to rely on backcountry tribes to fight the English. Montcalm, the leader of France’s military in Canada, was not. He had worked hard to honor the terms under which the English had surrendered Fort William Henry [1757], explaining the arrangements to his aboriginal allies at length, only to have the braves butcher English sick and wounded before the warriors attacked a column of surrendered English who had neither powder nor shot. About 200 of the surrendered troops were killed. Shortly thereafter outside of Montreal several groups of back country aboriginal allies of the French made a show of cooking and eating some of their English captives rather than handing them over to the French authorities. Montcalm was appalled, and disinclined to use tribal warriors afterwards.

That exercising the colonial equivalent of nuclear warfare had not provided victory to the French did not deter the English from adopting similar methods during the American Revolution [1775 – 1783]. It backfired badly, perhaps most notoriously in the Saratoga campaign [1777].

St. Leger’s progress in the Mohawk Valley stalled when many of his native allies deserted, forcing St. Leger to retreat back to Lake Ontario.

As disastrous to the British campaign that ended at Saratoga was the fallout from the murder of Jane McCrea. She and Sarah McNeil were being escorted to Burgoyne’s camp by two Indians, one of whom was known as Wyandot Panther or Le Loup. Details of what happened are debated, but it is clear that McCrea was killed and Wyandot Panther returned to Burgoyne’s camp with her scalp. The fatal sequence of events may have been initiated by an argument between McCrea’s two Native American escorts regarding who was entitled to the reward for bringing McCrea to her fiancé in Burgoyne’s camp, David Jones.

Her scalp was recognized. Burgoyne went to the Native American camp, demanding they give up the guilty party and threatening execution. Burgoyne’s officers with the Native American forces told him that pursuing such a course would cause the aboriginal allies to desert en masse, and possibly to seek revenge on the British forces. Burgoyne dropped the matter, and no punishment followed. David Jones, embittered, never married.

American newspapers and reports turned the incident into effective recruiting propaganda, intensifying with each retelling. American militia from as far as Virginia flocked to Upstate New York to confront Burgoyne and his savage allies.

When Burgoyne complained about the treatment of British prisoners of war after the Battle of Bennington, the American general Horatio Gates responded:

“That the savages of America should in their warfare mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners who fall into their hands is neither new nor extraordinary; but that the famous Lieutenant General Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar, should hire the savages of America to scalp europeans and the descendants of europeans, nay more, that he should pay a price for each scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will be believed in England…. Miss McCrae, a young lady lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition, engaged to be married to an officer of your army, was … carried into the woods, and there scalped and mangled in the most shocking manner…..”

It is notable that the British seem to have learned as little from their failures in using Native Americans as a “nuclear option” during the American Revolution as they learned from the French failures during the French and Indian War. A significant cause of the War of 1812 was raiding by British supported Native Americans into the Old Northwest: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Tecumseh’s death in the Battle of the Thames [1813] was a severe loss to the Native American coalition he helped create. The defeat of the Creeks by Andrew Jackson in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend [Alabama] in 1814 was as disastrous for the tribes of the Southeast.

The peace that ended the War of 1812 was not as it is often described status quo ante bellum: the Native Americans lost big in terms of territory, power, and independence.

Ultimately, exercising the “nuclear option” of tribal allies in the struggle for North America did not work for France or Britain. There are limits to the effectiveness of terrorism.

Further Reading:

• Bartolomé de las Casas recorded the genocidal destruction of Native Americans by the Spanish in the 16th century. Modern scholarship fills in statistics, but his histories provide indispensable details and moral outrage.

• Francis Jennings’ The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire provides a necessary corrective perspective to Eurocentric histories of the struggle for imperium in colonial North America.

• Patrick Malone’s The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians examines how firearms changed the mode of warfare of the New England Indians, and how their mode of forest combat was adopted by the European settlers, with emphasis on King Philip’s War, tracing the influence of such tactics to the American Revolution and beyond.

• David Hackett Fisher’s Champlain’s Dream provides insights into the mind and activities of the founder of New France and his remarkable attitude towards the aboriginal tribes he encountered.

• Eric Schulz and Michael Tougias’ King Philip’s War gives a useful overview. Jill Lepore’s The Name of War provides insights into King Philip’s War. Douglas Leach’s Flintlock and Tomahawk is a classic narrative history of the conflict.

• Ian Steele’s Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the Massacre is the best study of this incident, clearly explaining how the different military cultures of the Native American, Colonial, and European forces resulted in misunderstandings, atrocities, and a feeling by all three parties that they had been betrayed. His Warpaths: Invasions of North America chronicles Native American resistance to European conquest

• Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga provides a useful overview of the campaign.

• John Elting’s Amateurs to Arms: A Military History of the War of 1812 is a clear and detailed account of the American side of the conflict.


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