Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Champlain and the Iroquois

On a bright May morning in the year 1609, at the point where the stream then known as the Rivière des Iroquois—and which has since borne the various names of the Richelieu, the Chambly, the St. Louis, the Sorel and the St. John—poured the waters of an unknown interior lake into the channel of the broad St. Lawrence, there was presented a striking spectacle. Everywhere on the liquid surface canoes, driven by the steady sweep of paddles wielded by naked and dusky arms, shot to and fro. Near the shore a small shallop, on whose deck stood a group of armed whites, had just cast anchor, and was furling its sails. Upon the strip of open land bordering the river, and in the woodland beyond, were visible great numbers of savage warriors, their faces hideously bedaubed with war-paint, their hands busy in erecting the frail habitations of a temporary camp.

The scene was one of striking beauty, such as only the virgin wilderness can display. The river ran between walls of fresh green leafage, here narrowed, yonder widened into a broad reach which was encircled by far sweeping forests. The sun shone broadly on the animated scene, while the whites, from the deck of their small craft, gazed with deep interest on the strange picture before them, filled as it was with dusky natives, some erecting their forest shelters, others fishing in the stream, while still others were seeking the forest depths in pursuit of game.

The scene is of interest to us for another reason. It was the prelude to the first scene of Indian warfare which the eyes of Europeans were to behold in the northern region of the American continent. The Spaniards had been long established in the south, but no English settlement had yet been made on the shores of the New World, and the French had but recently built a group of wooden edifices on that precipitous height which is now crowned with the walls and the spires of Quebec.

Not long had the whites been there before the native hunters of the forests came to gaze with wondering eyes on those pale-faced strangers, with their unusual attire and surprising powers of architecture. And quickly they begged their aid in an expedition against their powerful enemies, the confederated nations of the Iroquois, who dwelt in a wonderful lake-region to the south, and by their strength, skill, and valor had made themselves the terror of the tribes.

Samuel de Champlain, an adventurous Frenchman who had already won himself reputation by an exploration of the Spanish domain of the West Indies, was now in authority at Quebec, and did not hesitate to promise his aid in the coming foray, moved, perhaps, by that thirst for discovery and warlike spirit which burned deeply in his breast. The Indians had told him of great lakes and mighty rivers to the south, and doubtless the ardent wish to be the first to traverse these unknown waters was a moving impulse in his ready assent.

With the opening season the warriors gathered, Hurons and Algonquins, a numerous band. They paddled to Quebec; gazed with surprise on the strange buildings, the story of which had already been told in their distant wigwams, and on their no less strange inmates; feasted, smoked, and debated; and shrank in consternation from the piercing report of the arquebuse and the cannon's frightful roar.

Their savage hearts were filled with exultation on learning the powers of their new allies. Surely these wonderful strangers would deal destruction on their terrible foes. Burning with thirst for vengeance, they made their faces frightful with the war-paint, danced with frenzied gestures round the blaze of their camp-fires, filled the air with ear-piercing war-whoops, and at the word of command hastened to their canoes and swept in hasty phalanx up the mighty stream, accompanied by Champlain and eleven other white allies.

Two days the war-party remained encamped at the place where we have seen them, hunting, fishing, fasting, and quarrelling, the latter so effectually that numbers of them took to their canoes and paddled angrily away, scarce a fourth of the original array being left for the march upon the dreaded enemy.

It was no easy task which now lay before them. The journey was long, the way difficult. Onward again swept the diminutive squadron, the shallop outsailing the canoes, and making its way up the Richelieu, Champlain being too ardent with the fever of discovery to await the slow work of the paddles. He had not, however, sailed far up that forest-enclosed stream before unwelcome sounds came to his ears. The roar of rushing and tumbling waters sounded through the still air. And now, through the screen of leaves, came a vision of snowy foam and the flash of leaping waves. The Indians had lied to him. They had promised him an unobstructed route to the great lake ahead, and here already were rapids in his path.

How far did the obstruction extend? That must be learned. Leaving the shallop, he set out with part of his men to explore the wilds. It was no easy journey. Tangled vines, dense thickets, swampy recesses crossed the way. Here lay half-decayed tree-trunks; there heaps of rocks lifted their mossy tops in the path. And ever, as they went, the roar of the rapids followed, while through the foliage could be seen the hurrying waters, pouring over rocks, stealing amid drift-logs, eddying in chasms, and shooting in white lines of foam along every open space.

Was this the open river of which he had been told; this the ready route to the great lake beyond? In anger and dismay, Champlain retraced his steps, to find, when he reached the shallop, that the canoes of the savages had come up, and now filled the stream around it.

The disappointed adventurer did not hesitate to tell them that they had lied to him; but he went on to say that though they had broken their word he would keep his. In truth, the vision of the mighty lake, with its chain of islands, its fertile shores, and bordering forests, of which they had told him, rose alluringly before his eyes, and with all the ardor of the pioneer he was determined to push onward into that realm of the unknown.

But their plans must be changed. Nine of the men were sent back to Quebec with the shallop. Champlain, with two others, determined to proceed in the Indian canoes. At his command the warriors lifted their light boats from the water, and bore them on their shoulders over the difficult portage past the rapids, to the smooth stream above. Here, launching them again, the paddles once more broke the placid surface of the stream, and onward they went, still through the primeval forest, which stretched away in an unbroken expanse of green.

It was a virgin solitude, unmarked by habitation, destitute of human inmate, abundant with game; for it was the debatable land between warring tribes, traversed only by hostile bands, the battle-ground of Iroquois and Algonquin hordes. None could dwell here in safety; even hunting-parties had to be constantly prepared for war. Through this region of blood and terror the canoes made their way, now reduced to twenty-four in number, manned by sixty warriors and three white allies. The advance was made with great caution, for danger was in the air. Scouts were sent in advance through the forests; others were thrown out on the flanks and rear, hunting for game as they went; for the store of pounded and parched maize which the warriors had brought with them was to be kept for food when the vicinity of the foe should render hunting impossible.

The scene that night, as described by Champlain was one to be remembered. The canoes were drawn up closely, side by side. Active life pervaded the chosen camp. Here some gathered dry wood for their fires; there others stripped off sheets of bark, to cover their forest wigwams; yonder the sound of axes was followed by the roar of falling trees. The savages had steel axes, obtained from the French, and, with their aid, in two hours a strong defensive work, constructed of the felled trunks, was built, a half-circle in form, with the river at its two ends. This was the extent of their precautions. The returning scouts reported that the forest in advance was empty of foes. The tawny host cast themselves in full security on the grassy soil, setting no guards, and were soon lost in slumber, with that blind trust in fortune which has ever been one of the weak features of Indian warfare.

They had not failed, however, to consult their oracles, those spirits which the medicine-man was looked upon as an adept at invoking, and whose counsel was ever diligently sought by the superstitious natives. The conjurer crept within his skin-covered lodge, where, crouched upon the earth, he filled the air with inarticulate invocations to the surrounding spirits; while outside, squatted on the ground, the dusky auditors looked and listened with awe. Suddenly the lodge began to rock violently, by the power of the spirits, as the Indians deemed, though Champlain fancied that the arm of the medicine-man was the only spirit at work.

"Look on the peak of the lodge," whispered the awed savages. "You will see fire and smoke rise into the air." Champlain looked, but saw nothing.

The medicine-man by this time had worked himself into convulsions. He called loudly upon the spirit in an unknown language, and was answered in squeaking tones like those of a young puppy. This powerful spirit was deemed to be present in the form of a stone. When the conjurer reappeared his body streamed with perspiration, while the story he had to tell promised an auspicious termination of the enterprise.

This was not the only performance of the warriors. There was another of a more rational character. Bundles of sticks were collected by the leading chief, which he stuck in the earth in a fixed order, calling each by the name of some warrior, the taller ones representing the chiefs. The arrangement of the sticks indicated the plan of battle. Each warrior was to occupy the position indicated by his special stick. The savages gathered closely round, intently studied the plan, then formed their ranks in accordance therewith, broke them, reformed them, and continued the process with a skill and alacrity that surprised and pleased their civilized observer.

With the early morning light they again advanced, following the ever-widening stream, in whose midst islands leagues in extent now appeared. Beyond came broad channels and extended reaches of widening waters, and soon the delighted explorer found that the river had ended and that the canoes were moving over the broad bosom of that great lake of which the Indians had told him, and which has ever since borne his name. It was a charming scene which thus first met the eyes of civilized man. Far in front spread the inland sea. On either side distant forests, clad in the fresh leafage of June, marked the borders of the lake. Far away, over their leafy tops, appeared lofty heights; on the left the Green Mountains lifted their forest-clad ridges, with patches of snow still whitening their tops; on the right rose the clustering hills of the Adirondacks, then the hunting-grounds of the Iroquois, and destined to remain the game-preserves of the whites long after the axe and plough had subdued all the remainder of that forest-clad domain.


Lake Champlain and its Surroundings.

They had reached a region destined to play a prominent part in the coming history of America. The savages told their interested auditors of another lake, thickly studded with islands, beyond that on which they now were; and still beyond a rocky portage over which they hoped to carry their canoes, and a great river which flowed far down to the mighty waters of the sea. If they met not the foe sooner they would press onward to this stream, and there perhaps surprise some town of the Mohawks, whose settlements approached its banks. This same liquid route in later days was to be traversed by warlike hosts both in the French and Indian and the Revolutionary Wars, and to be signalized by the capture of Burgoyne and his invading host, one of the most vital events in the American struggle for liberty.

The present expedition was not to go so far. Hostile bands were to be met before they left the sheet of water over which their canoes now glided. Onward they went, the route becoming hourly more dangerous. At length they changed their mode of progress, resting in the depths of the forest all day long, taking to the waters at twilight, and paddling cautiously onward till the crimsoning of the eastern sky told them that day was near at hand. Then the canoes were drawn up in sheltered coves, and the warriors, chatting, smoking, and sleeping, spent on the leafy lake borders the slow-moving hours of the day.

The journey was a long one. It was the 29th of July when they reached a point far down the lake, near the present site of Crown Point. They had paddled all night. They hid here all day. Champlain fell asleep on a heap of spruce boughs, and in his slumber dreamed that he had seen the Iroquois drowning in the lake, and that when he tried to rescue them he had been told by his Algonquin friends to leave them alone, as they were not worth the trouble of saving.

The Indians believed in the power of dreams. They had beset Champlain daily to learn if he had had any visions. When now he told them his dream they were filled with joy. Victory had spoken into his slumbering ear. With gladness they re-embarked when night came on, and continued their course down the lake.

They had not far to go. At ten o'clock, through the shadows of the night, they beheld a number of dark objects on the lake before them. It was a fleet of Iroquois canoes, heavier and slower craft than those of the Algonquins, for they were made of oak-or elm-bark, instead of the light paper-birch used by the latter.

Each party saw the other, and recognized that they were in the presence of foes. War-cries sounded over the shadowy waters. The Iroquois, who preferred to do their fighting on land and who were nearer shore, hastened to the beach and began at once to build a barricade of logs, filling the air of the night with yells of defiance as they worked away like beavers. The allies meanwhile remained on the lake, their canoes lashed together with poles, dancing with a vigor that imperilled their frail barks, and answering the taunts and menaces of their foes with equally vociferous abuse.

It was agreed that the battle should be deferred till daybreak. As day approached Champlain and his two followers armed themselves, their armor consisting of cuirass, or breast-plate, steel coverings for the thighs, and a plumed helmet for the head. By the side of the leader hung his sword, and in his hand was his arquebuse, which he had loaded with four balls. The savages of these woods were now first to learn the destructive power of that weapon, for which in the years to come they would themselves discard the antiquated bow.

The Iroquois much outnumbered their foes. There were some two hundred of them in all, tall, powerful men, the boldest warriors of America, whose steady march excited Champlain's admiration as he saw them filing from their barricade and advancing through the woods. As for himself and his two companions, they had remained concealed in the canoes, and not even when a landing was made did the Iroquois behold the strangely-clad allies of their hereditary enemies.

Not until they stood face to face, ready for the battle-cry, did the Algonquin ranks open, and the white men advance before the astonished gaze of the Iroquois. Never before had they set eyes on such an apparition, and they stood in mute wonder while Champlain raised his arquebuse, took aim at a chief, and fired. The chief fell dead. A warrior by his side fell wounded in the bushes. As the report rang through the air a frightful yell came from the allies, and in an instant their arrows were whizzing thickly through the ranks of their foes. For a moment the Iroquois stood their ground and returned arrow for arrow. But when from the two flanks of their adversaries came new reports, and other warriors bit the dust, their courage gave way to panic terror, and they turned and fled in wild haste through the forest, swiftly pursued by the triumphant Algonquins.

Several of the Iroquois were killed. A number were captured. At night the victors camped in triumph on the field of battle, torturing one of their captives till Champlain begged to put him out of pain, and sent a bullet through his heart.

Thus ended the first battle between whites and Indians on the soil of the northern United States, in a victory for which the French were to pay dearly in future days, at the hands of their now vanquished foes. With the dawn of the next day the victors began their retreat. A few days of rapid paddling brought them to the Richelieu. Here they separated, the Hurons and Algonquins returning to their homes by way of the Ottowa, the Montagnais, who dwelt in the vicinity of Quebec, accompanying Champlain to his new-built city.

The Iroquois, however, were not the men to be quelled by a single defeat. In June of the ensuing year a war-party of them advanced to the mouth of the Richelieu, and a second fierce battle took place. As another vivid example of the character of Indian warfare, the story of this conflict, may be added to that already given.

On an island in the St. Lawrence near the mouth of the Richelieu was gathered a horde of Montagnais Indians, Champlain and others of the whites being with them. A war-party of Algonquins was expected, and busy preparations were being made for feast and dance, in order that they might be received with due honor. In the midst of this festal activity an event occurred that suddenly changed thoughts of peace to those of war. At a distance on the stream appeared a single canoe, approaching as rapidly as strong arms could drive it through the water. On coming near, its inmates called out loudly that the Algonquins were in the forest, engaged in battle with a hundred Iroquois, who, outnumbered, were fighting from behind a barricade of trees which they had hastily erected.

In an instant the air was filled with deafening cries. Tidings of battle were to the Indians like a fresh scent to hounds of the chase: The Montagnais flew to their canoes, and paddled with frantic haste to the opposite shore, loudly calling on Champlain and his fellow-whites to follow. They obeyed, crossing the stream in canoes. As the shore was reached the warriors flung down their paddles, snatched up their weapons, and darted into the woods with such speed that the Frenchmen found it impossible to keep them in sight. It was a hot and oppressive day; the air was filled with mosquitoes,—"so thick," says Champlain, "that we could hardly draw breath, and it was wonderful how cruelly they persecuted us,"—their route lay through swampy soil, where the water at places stood knee-deep; over fallen logs, wet and slimy, and under entangling vines; their heavy armor added to their discomfort; the air was close and heavy; altogether it was a progress fit to make one sicken of warfare in the wilderness. After struggling onward till they were almost in despair, they saw two Indians in the distance, and by vigorous shouts secured their aid as guides to the field of battle.

An instinct seemed to guide the savages through that dense and tangled forest. In a short time they led the laboring whites to a point where the woodland grew thinner, and within hearing of the wild war-whoops of the combatants. Soon they emerged into a partial clearing, which had been made by the axes of the Iroquois in preparing their breastwork of defence. Champlain gazed upon the scene before him with wondering eyes. In front was a circular barricade, composed of trunks of trees, boughs, and matted twigs, behind which the Iroquois stood like tigers at bay. In the edge of the forest around were clustered their yelling foes, screaming shrill defiance, yet afraid to attack, for they had already been driven back with severe loss. Their hope now lay in their white allies, and when they saw Champlain and his men a yell arose that rent the air, and a cloud of winged arrows was poured into the woodland fort. The beleaguered Iroquois replied with as fierce a shout, and with a better-aimed shower of arrows. At least Champlain had reason to think so, for one of these stone-headed darts split his ear, and tore a furrow through the muscles of his neck. One of his men received a similar wound.

Furious with pain, Champlain, secure in his steel armor, rushed to the woodland fort, followed by his men, and discharged their arquebuses through its crevices upon the dismayed savages within, who, wild with terror at this new and deadly weapon, flung themselves flat upon the earth at each report.

At each moment the scene of war grew more animated. The assailing Indians, yelling in triumph, ran up under cover of their large wooden shields, and began to tug at the trees of the barricade, while other of them gathered thickly in the bushes for the final onset. And now, from the forest depths, came hurrying to the scene a new party of French allies,—a boat's crew of fur-traders, who had heard the firing and flown with warlike eagerness to take part in the fight.

The bullets of these new assailants added to the terror of the Iroquois. They writhed and darted to and fro to escape the leaden missiles that tore through their frail barricade. At a signal from Champlain the allies rushed from their leafy covert, flew to the breastwork, tore down or clambered over the boughs, and precipitated themselves into the fort, while the French ceased their firing and led a party of Indians to the assault on the opposite side.

The howls of defiance, screams of pain, deafening war-whoops, and dull sound of deadly blows were now redoubled. Many of the Iroquois stood their ground, hewing with tomahawks and war-clubs, and dying not unrevenged. Some leaped the barrier and were killed by the crowd outside; others sprang into the river and were drowned; of them all not one escaped, and at the end of the conflict but fifteen remained alive, prisoners in the hands of their deadly foes, destined victims of torture and flame.

On the next day a large party of Hurons arrived, and heard with envy the story of the fight, in which they were too late to take part. The forest and river shore were crowded with Indian huts. Hundreds of warriors assembled, who spent the day in wild war-dances and songs, then loaded their canoes and paddled away in triumph to their homes, without a thought of following up their success and striking yet heavier blows upon their dreaded enemy. Even Champlain, who was versed in civilized warfare, made no attempt to lead them to an invasion of the Iroquois realm. He did not dream of the deadly reprisal which the now defeated race would exact for this day of disaster.

Of the further doings of Champlain we shall relate but one incident,—a thrilling adventure which he tells of his being lost in the interminable woodland depths. Year after year he continued his explorations; now voyaging far up the Ottawa; now reaching the mighty inland sea of Lake Huron, voyaging upon its waters, and visiting the Indian villages upon its shores; now again battling with the Iroquois, who, this time, drove their assailants in baffled confusion from their fort; now joining an Indian hunting-party, and taking part with them in their annual deer-hunt. For this they constructed two lines of posts interlaced with boughs, each more than half a mile long, and converging to a point where a strong enclosure was built. The hunters drove the deer before them into this enclosure, where others despatched them with spears and arrows. It was during this expedition that the incident referred to took place.

Champlain had gone into the forest with the hunters. Here he saw a bird new to him, and whose brilliant hue and strange shape struck him with surprise and admiration. It was, to judge from his description, a red-headed woodpecker. Bent on possessing this winged marvel, he pursued it, gun in hand. From bough to bough, from tree to tree, the bird fitted onward, leading the unthinking hunter step by step deeper into the wilderness. Then, when he surely thought to capture his prize, the luring wonder took wing and vanished in the forest depths.

Disappointed, Champlain turned to seek his friends. But in what direction should he go? The day was cloudy; he had left his pocket-compass at the camp; the forest spread in endless lines around him; he stood in helpless bewilderment and dismay.

All day he wandered blindly, and at nightfall found himself still in a hopeless solitude. Weary and hungry, he lay down at the foot of a great tree, and passed the night in broken slumbers. The next day he wandered onward in the same blind helplessness, reaching, in late afternoon, the waters of a forest pond, shadowed by thick pines, and with water-fowl on its brink. One of these he shot, kindled a fire and cooked it, and for the first time since his misadventure tasted food. At night there came on a cold rain, drenched by which the blanketless wanderer was forced to seek sleep in the open wood.

Another day of fruitless wandering succeeded; another night of unrefreshing slumber. Paths were found in the forest, but they had been made by other feet than those of men, and if followed would lead him deeper into the seemingly endless wild. Roused by the new day from his chill couch, the lost wanderer despairingly roamed on, now almost hopeless of escape. Yet what sound was that which reached his ear? It was the silvery tinkle of a woodland rill, which crept onward unseen in the depths of a bushy glen. A ray of hope shot into his breast. This descending rivulet might lead him to the river where the hunters lay encamped. With renewed energy he traced its course, making his way through thicket and glen, led ever onwards by that musical sound, till he found himself on the borders of a small lake, within which the waters of his forest guide were lost.

This lake, he felt, must have an outlet. He circled round it, clambering over fallen trees and forcing his way through thorny vines, till he saw, amid roots of alder-bushes, a streamlet flow from the lakeside. This he hopefully followed. Not far had he gone before a dull roar met his ears, breaking the sullen silence of the woods. It was the sound of falling waters. He hastened forward. The wood grew thinner. Light appeared before him. Pushing gladly onward, he broke through the screening bushes and found himself on the edge of an open meadow, wild animals its only tenants, some browsing on the grass, others lurking in bushy coverts. Yet a more gladsome sight to his eyes was the broad river, which here rushed along in a turbulent rapid, whose roar it was which had come to his ear in the forest glades.

He looked about him. On the rocky river-bank was a portage-path made by Indian feet. The place seemed familiar. A second sweeping gaze; yes, here were points he had seen before. He was saved. Glad at heart, he camped upon the river-brink, kindled a fire, cooked the remains of his game, and passed that night, at least, in dreamless sleep. With daybreak he rose, followed the river downwards, and soon saw the smoke of the Indian camp-fires ascending in the morning air. In a few moments he had joined his dusky friends, greatly to their delight. They had sought him everywhere in vain, and now chided him gently for his careless risk, declaring that thenceforth they would never suffer him to go into the forest alone.

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