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Eries and Their Destruction, The


 Transcribed by Helen Rosenstein Wolf

Proofreading in process.



The Eries little known to the French—Power of the Iroquois—Destruction of the Kahquahs—Iroquois Tradition Regarding the Overthrow of the Eries—The Latter bear of the League of the Five Nations—An Athletic Contest with the Senecas—Bloody Work—An Attempted Surprise—A Great Battle—Defeat of the Eries—Probability of the Story Considered—Another Account—Butchery of the Erie Ambassadors—Burning of an Onordaga Chieftain—Wrath of the Confederates—The Next Spring they Set Out—Approaching the Stronghold—Description of the Warriors—The Assault—The Victory—Vengeance—Return of the Iroquois.


During the first quarter of a century after the existence of the Eries became known to the French, very little occurred which has become matter of history or even of tradition.  The Gallic explorers with undaunted footsteps made their way to the shores of Lakes Huron and Ontario, but Lake Erie was almost an unknown son to them. Between its waters and the French settlements in Canada were the homes of the fierce, untamable Iroquois, against whom Champlain, the founder of Canada, had needlessly waged war, and who had become the most implacable enemies of the French colonists.  These celebrated confederates, already the terror of surrounding tribes, were rapidly rising to still wider dominion, partly on account of the strength derived from their well-planned union, and partly on account of the facility with which they could obtain fire-arms and ammunition from the Dutch on the Hudson river, who were very glad to have so good a guard located between them and the adventurous Frenchmen of Canada.  Equipped with these terrible weapons, and strong in their five-fold alliance, the Iroquois wreaked terrible vengeance not only on the countrymen of Champlain, but on their numerous foes of their own race, little foreseeing that the destruction of their Indian rivals would only leave themselves the less able to resist the advance of the Europeans.

There was occasional warfare between the Iroquois and the Eries, but the Kahquahs, or Neuter Nation, whose seats were on both sides of the Niagara river and extended a short distance up the south side of Lake Erie, lay partly between the rivals, and were then at peace with both; so the enemies were constrained to bridle their hatred when they met on Kahquah ground, or, as some accounts say, only when in the immediate vicinity of the Kahquah villages.  The Kahquahs maintained a similar neutrality between the Iroquois and the Hurons of Canada, and hence the French designation of “La Nation Neutre.  They were not Quakers, by any means, however, and often waged war against distant tribes.

But the time was rapidly approaching when their neutrality would no longer serve to shield them from the aggressive spirit of the Iroquois.  In the autumn of 1653 a treaty of peace was made between the Eries and the Senecas, the nearest and most powerful of the Iroquois tribes, and the former nation sent thirty ambassadors to the Seneca country to confirm it.  While they were there a quarrel arose in which a Seneca warrior was killed by one of the Eries.  The countrymen of the deceased, regardless of the sacred office of the ambassadors (according to civilized ideas), immediately fell upon them and slew the whole thirty.

When the Eries heard of this butchery, of course the war was at once renewed.  One of the parties sent to harass the Iroquois captured an Onondaga chief, and returned with him in triumph to their own country.  Indian custom required that he should be burned at the stake to appease the shades of their slaughtered brethren.  Some of the older and wiser sachems objected.  Such an act would make the whole confederacy perfectly implacable, although previous to that time the quarrel had been principally with the Senecas.  The Five Nations, partly armed with European weapons, had shown their immense power by scattering the great Huron nation to the four winds and by utterly destroying the Kahquahs, and it would be madness to invoke the unappeasable wrath of the terrible confederacy.  On the other hand the young warriors were furious for revenge, and besides it was almost a positive law among them that the blood shed by their foes should be repaid with torture whenever an opportunity offered.

There was, however, one way of escape.  It was an immemorial custom that a prisoner’s life might be saved at the request of a near relative of a slain warrior, who adopted him in place of the deceased.  It was determined to give the Onondaga to the sister of one of the slaughtered ambassadors.  She was then absent, but it was not doubted that she would accept the prisoner in place of her brother, since by that means alone could the stern requirements of Indian law be reconciled with the safety of her people.  She soon returned, and was earnestly solicited to acquiesce in the arrangement.”  But no; she would have no such brother as that.

“Let him be burned,” she said; and the party of vengeance was thus reinforced by all who held in especial reverence the ancient customs of the tribe.  The unfortunate Onondaga was doomed to the stake, and submitted to his terrible fate with the usual stoicism of an Indian warrior.  But, as they wee about to light the funeral pile, he declared that they were burning the whole Erie nation, and many a prudent old sachem foreboded the accomplishment of the prophesy.

When the news reached the Iroquois, the whole confederacy was in a fury of rage.  Mohawks, Oneidas and Cayugas were as eager for revenge as the Senecas; and the Onondagas, whose chief had suffered the last punishment of savage hate, were even more so.  The approach of winter prevented an immediate movement against the Eries, but in the spring of 1654 nearly all the Iroquois warriors were summoned to the field.  An army was fitted out which LeMoine, a Jesuit missionary then among the Onondagas, estimated at eighteen hundred men—an immense number when compared with an ordinary Indian war party.

The Eries, sensible of their danger, had retreated to the western part of their territory—probably to the vicinity of Cleveland—and had there fortified themselves with palisades, strengthened by an abattis of forked trees.  The Iroquois estimated the number of the Erie warriors at two thousand, but this was probably one of the usual exaggerations of an enemy.  The Senecas, by far the most powerful of the Five Nations, could only muster a thousand warriors, and there is no reason to suppose the Eries were stronger.  Probably they were weaker.

After a long march through the forest, the Iroquois approached the stronghold of their enemies.  A few carried muskets or arquebuses, and ammunition, either purchased from the Dutch or captured from the French.  Two were French costumes, doubtless stripped from the bodies of slain enemies.  At length the long column of the confederates arrived in front of the fortress of the Eries, and spread themselves out in line.  Other armies have been larger and better disciplined, but few have made a more terrifying appearance than that which now stood awaiting the signal for the onslaught.

The war costume of an Indian in the olden time consisted of a small breech-clout of deerskin, and a crest of as many bright colored feathers as he could obtain.  His face and naked body was painted with pigments of red, yellow and black, arranged in the most fantastic and hideous designs that the artist could invent.  A thousand or more savages, thus arrayed and decorated, and known to be filled with the most furious hatred, most have presented an appalling appearance to any but the hardiest foes.  Nearly every man carried the bow, the arrows and the war club which had been the weapons of his fathers, but a few, as has been said, were provided with fire-arms, and many had substituted iron hatchets and knives for the stone tomahawks and flint scalpers of their ancestors.  The war-chiefs, of whom there was a large proportionate number, took their positions a few yards ahead of the line, each one in front of his own band.

When all was ready the two Iroquois, before mentioned as being dressed in French costume, advanced close to the walls and demanded the surrender of the Eries.  One of them, who had been baptized by the Jesuits, declared that the “Master of Life” was on their side.

“Ho, ho!” cried the scornful Eries, “our hatchets and our arrows are the masters of life; come and see what they will do!”

The heralds retired, the head chiefs gave the signal, and with terrific yells the Iroquois advanced to the attack.  They were met with flights of poisoned arrows, and were compelled to fall back.  They then brought forward the canoes in which they had made the trip up the lake, and each crew bore its own bark above their heads so as to protect them from the arrows of the Eries.  Thus shielded, they again moved forward.  The poisoned missiles rattled on the frail bark vessels, but only occasionally hit the exposed part of some careless warrior.

At length the assaulting line reached the front of the palisade.  This lofty barrier might well appear an insurmountable obstacle to men unprovided with ladders, but the Iroquois placed their canoes against the wooden walls, and, in spite of the resistance of the Eries, speedily climbed over into the fort.  Then began a scene of frightful butchery.  Probably largely outnumbered by their confederated foes—perhaps hardly equal to them in warlike prowess—the Eries gave way on all sides.  The Iroquois rushed forward, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas and Mohawks all eager to be the first in the race for vengeance.  The forest resounded with fearful yells of the victims as in swift succession they struck down their foes with war-club or tomahawk, tore off their scalps, and waved the reeking trophies above their heads in demoniac triumph.

As was generally the case when one savage nation was completely successful over another, the conquered people was almost completely annihilated.  Men, women and children were slaughtered with equal ruthlessness, and all their villages were burned to the ground.  Some escaped to join the tribes of the Far West.  Some, especially children, were reserved for adoption by the conquerors, in accordance with wide-spread Indian custom.  Many of the warriors, too, were taken alive, but those were generally devoted to the most terrible fate which savage malignity could invent.

When night came on, the victors prepared for a grand illumination.  The captured warriors were bound, naked, one by one, to the trees of the forest.  Piles of light fuel were heaped around them and then the torch was applied.  A Cayuga told Mr. Parkman that, according to the tradition in his tribe, a thousand Eries were thus enveloped in flames at once.  As the Indians couldn’t count over ten, as there were probably not over a thousand Erie warriors in all, if so many, it is best to take this statement with much allowance.  But even if there were a hundred thus subjected to torture, they must have formed the most soul-curdling sight that can well be imagined.  Those who admire the romance of Indian life might have enjoyed their fill of it could they have stood in the forest on the shore of Lake Erie, two hundred and twenty-five years ago, and have seen the darkness lighted up by fire after fire, extending in every direction, in the midst of each of which a naked warrior writhed in the agonies of death, his voice, however, rising in the death-song, defiant and contemptuous toward his foes, who danced and howled around him in all the ecstasy of diabolical glee.

The Iroquois remained in the country of the Eries for two months, nursing their own wounded, and hunting out, and capturing or slaying, any of that unfortunate people who might still be lingering near the homes of their ancestors.  Then the conquerors re-entered their canoes, proceeded down the lake and made their way to their own homes, where they were doubtless received with universal admiration as heroes who had deserved well of their country.

History of Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Part First:  The Eries and Their Destruction, compiled by Crisfield Johnson, Published by D. W. Ensign & Co., 1879, pages 17-20.