War in the Balkans

Clockwise from top right: Serbian forces entering the town of Mitrovica; Ottoman troops at the Battle of Kumanovo; the Greek king and the Bulgarian tsar in Thessaloniki; Bulgarian heavy artillery.

The two wars in the Balkans not only ended the Ottoman Empire’s foothold in Europe but created new states. It also brought to the surface many regional hostilities. This map shows the scope of the conflicts from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.

Turkish Forces on Left;  Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Montenegrin on Right 

In 1911 Italy, who wanted to carve out its own empire in North Africa, declared war on the Ottoman Empire, which had been declining steadily for well over a century, in order to seize Turkish-held Libya. At the same time, former Turkish domains Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia, encouraged by Russia, formed the Balkan League with a view to wresting Montenegro from the Turks and forcing them out of Europe.

The Balkan League, in alliance with the small state of Montenegro, declared war on Turkey on October 8, 1912. Together the League and Montenegro could muster about 350,000 troops, while the Turks had fewer than 250,000 men available to them in Europe. Toward the end of October forces from each of the Balkan countries marched into Turkey’s European territories.

The Greeks under Crown Prince Constantine (1868-1923) advanced into Turkish-held Macedonia from the south and defeated an Ottoman force at Elasson on October 23. Despite the initial success, Constantine soon ran into trouble first at Venije Vardar and later at Kastoria and Banitsa. By November 5, however, the Greeks had overcome their adversaries and claimed an important victory at Venije. The Greek Army then pressed eastward to Salonika. Both the Greeks and the Bulgarians coveted this vital port, the possession of which would allow its owner domination of the Aegean.

Meanwhile, the Serbs, led by General Radomir Putnik (1847-1917) advanced into Macedonia from the north, defeated the Turks at Kumanovo on October 24, and forced them to retreat to Monastir. The Battle of Monastir, held on November 5, was a hard-fought contest with both Serbs and Turks showing great bravery. An impetuous Serb assault on a Turkish position was thrown back by the Turks with heavy Serb casualties. But this attack weakened the Turkish center, and allowed the Serbs to launch a frontal attack, which made inroads into the Turkish position. Threatened by a Greek force advancing from the south, the Turks retreated, having lost 20,000 men in the battle. The Greeks then captured the fortress of Salonika four days later and placed a number of other Turkish garrisons, including Scutari, under siege.

The Turks fared no better in Thrace, where they faced the Bulgarians. Three small Bulgarian armies advanced on a broad front and defeated the Turks at Seliolu and Kirk Kilissa at the end of October. The Turks fell back toward Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to hold a 35-mile (56-km) long defensive line between Lülé Burgas and Bunar Hisar. Two of the Bulgarian armies pressed eastward after the Turks, while the third placed the city of Adrianople under siege.

The Bulgarian attacks on the Turkish defensive line at Lülé Burgas on October 28-29 were successful and the Turks pulled back toward Constantinople. They took up a position along the Chatalja Line, their last defensive barrier before the Turkish capital. The Bulgarians tried to smash through the line during November, but all their efforts proved unsuccessful and Constantinople was safe from the Bulgarians. As a result of intervention by the major European powers, however, peace talks began in December and an armistice brought the war to a halt temporarily.

Peace negotiations collapsed, however, as a result of the incompatible demands of the various states. Turkey was required to surrender most of its European possessions, and a new state of Albania was to be created on the Adriatic, although this latter move was bitterly opposed by Serbia and Montenegro. But the chief cause of dispute lay in Bulgaria’s well-grounded fear that Greece and Serbia were conspiring to divide Macedonia among themselves at the expense of Bulgaria. The Balkan League might have been united in their determination to defeat the Turks, but their own regional ambitions would prove their undoing.

Complicating matters further, the Turkish government was overthrown in January 1913 and replaced by a fiercely nationalist group known as the “Young Turks,” led by Enver Bey (1881-1922). The new Turkish government was determined to carry on the war in the hope of gaining better peace terms for Turkey. Despite their best efforts, the Turkish armies suffered further defeats in 1913. The Turkish cities of Yannina (March 3), Adrianople (March 26), and Scutari (April 22) all fell to the Balkan League, forcing the Turks to sue for peace. The ensuing Treaty of London saw Turkey lose virtually all of its possessions in the Balkans.

The Second Balkan War

The Balkan League did not survive its victory in the First Balkan War. and national rivalries soon tore the alliance apart. Hoping to get a larger slice of Macedonia and. above all, the port of Salonika, Bulgaria attacked the Serbs on May 30, 1913, before declaring war on both Serbia and Greece. Bulgaria severely underestimated the strength of its former allies, and by June 30 its forces were halted by the Serbo-Greek coalition. On July 2 Serb forces under Putnik drove back the Bulgarians, and despite a failed counteroffensive, the Bulgarians were virtually defeated.

Then an already desperate situation faced by Bulgaria worsened when, on July 15, Romania sided with Serbia and Greece against Bulgaria. With great speed the Romanian troops advanced on the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. At the same time, taking advantage of Bulgaria’s troubles with Serbia, Greece, and Romania, the Turks recaptured Adrianople. The Bulgarians were quickly forced to the peace table and on August 10, 1913, the Treaty of Bucharest brought the war to a close. Bulgaria was forced to give up most of the land it had gained during the war against Turkey, as well as losing some of its northern territories to Romania. Greece, on the other hand, was given Crete and southern Macedonia, and Serbia gained Kosovo and northern Macedonia, although Austria forced them to relinquish their gains in the newly formed Albania.

The peace in the Balkans did not last long, however, and the region remained unsettled as the competing ambitions of the Balkan states were supplemented by the larger ambitions of the rival great powers, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Bulgaria remained resentful as a result of the losses it had incurred at the end of the Second Balkan War, while Turkey licked its wounds and with the help of Germany set about modernizing its armed forces. Within the space of a year, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serb nationalist would throw the Balkans into chaos and spark the outbreak of World War I.







Catherine the Great’s Wars

Equestrian portrait of Catherine in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment

Allegory of Catherine’s Victory over the Turks (1772), by Stefano Torelli.


The geography of eastern Europe – vast spaces, broad plains, large areas of forest, wide rivers, and (in the Balkans) mountainous terrain – meant that the style of warfare was often quite different from that in western Europe. A typical example of this was the importance of light cavalry, able to cover long distances quickly and frequently armed with firearms so that they could fight on foot if need be. Cavalry forces, such as Polish lancers or hussars, Cossacks from the steppes of southern Russia, or the spahis of the Ottomans, were often crucial during campaigns, whereas they played a more peripheral role in western Europe. Light infantry forces were also able to operate in wooded or mountainous terrain, and were far more important than in the west, where “line” infantry (that is, infantry trained to fight in a solid line) ruled the battlefield. And, given the relative sparsity of major fortified towns or cities, the sieges of such places often became crucial. Belgrade, for example, was the focus of warfare between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans throughout the century.

Catherine the Great concentrated on expanding the Russian Empire westward, specifically at the expense of two weaker powers: Poland and the Ottoman Empire.

While the successes of Europe’s powers around the world provided indicators of the strength of Europe’s military organization and technology, most Europeans were more impressed by victories closer to home – such as the defeat of the long-time enemy power of the Ottoman Empire. In 1683 Ottoman forces had laid siege to Vienna, but it was to be the last serious threat posed by them in the region.

The institutions of the Ottoman Empire had been becoming less effective – long wars against Persia in the 17th century had run down its resources, and the innovation which had characterized elite corps such as the Janissaries was steadily eroding. There was little appetite for reform from within and many provinces had become virtually independent, failing to contribute to the strength of the empire overall. So, after the relief of Vienna, the Hapsburgs led an offensive by armies of the Holy League (Polish and Venetian troops played a major part) to conquer Hungary. Then, from 1714 to 1718, Hapsburg forces under Prince Eugene enjoyed a series of successful campaigns against the Turks, consolidating in Hungary and taking Belgrade. In the 1730s, though, the Ottomans retook Belgrade and defeated Russian encroachments in the Crimea.

Having stalled the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans were to gain a new foe in Russia, which had developed into a major power under Peter the Great and then, under Empress Elizabeth, had played an important part in the Seven Years War. Six months after Elizabeth’s death, her daughter-in-law, Catherine, took power in a coup. Catherine set Russia on an expansionist course, using the resources of the vast state to create a large army.

Catherine the Great’s (as she became) first major military adventure was conducted against a group of rebellious Polish nobles known as the Confederation of the Bar. They opposed Russia’s growing involvement in Poland and objected to their own (pro-Russian) government. The rebellion, which began in 1768, was put down by the Russians, but the rebels had called on Turkey to aid them. The Turks had, in fact, ignored the calls for assistance, but Russian troops chased some of the rebels into Turkish territory and destroyed a town in the process, provoking Turkey to declare war. The Russian Army redeployed southward, defeating the Turks in the Caucasus and then invading the Balkans in 1769. The Russian commander. Count Peter Rumiantsev, smashed a Turkish army on the Dniester River, took the town of Jassy, and then conquered the Turkish-held provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia.

Russian Gains

The Russians then backed revolts in Turkish-controlled Egypt and Greece. These did not succeed, but the Russians were victorious elsewhere. At the naval Battle of Chesme, fought off the Mediterranean coast of Turkey on July 6, 1770, a Russian force led by Admiral Aleksei Orlov overwhelmed a Turkish fleet. And in August, Rumiantsev, taking advantage of his victory on the Dniester, defeated a Turkish force that had been mustered to eject him from Moldavia.

In 1771 Catherine’s forces continued to make further inroads into Turkish territory. Prince Vasily Dolgoruky advanced into the Crimea, conquering the peninsula. The Turks opened peace negotiations in 1772. However, this conciliatory move was simply a ploy to allow them to rebuild their forces. War broke out again in 1773, but the Turks only met with further disasters.

Rumiantsev advanced south from his position along the Danube River against the main Turkish field army, which fell back on Shulma. General Alexander Suvarov then tackled the Turks at Shulma in June 1774 and won a famous victory. Weariness began to set in and the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji was signed on July 16: Russia returned some of the territories it had captured but, significantly, gained access to the Black Sea, a stretch of water whose coastline had previously been the sole preserve of the Turks. The Ottoman Empire never recovered from this change in the balance of power.

The peace lasted for 14 years. The Russians intrigued with local tribes to gain control of Georgia, ruled by the Turks, while the latter encouraged the Crimean tribes to rebel against their new overlords. However, in 1788 Suvarov defeated the Turks at Kinburn, thereby preventing them from reconquering the Crimea. The Russians were also successful at sea. John Paul Jones, the naval hero of the American Revolutionary War, led the Russian fleet into action at the two Battles of Liman in June 1788.

The focus of the war switched to Moldavia in 1789. The Austrians invaded from the west, while the Russians advanced from the north. A united Russian and Austrian army was then resoundingly successful at the Battle of Foscani on August 1, forcing the Turks to fall back to the Danube River. With other attacks in the Balkans and the loss of Belgrade, the Turks became alarmed and sought to negotiate a treaty with Austria. The peace deal in 1791 let Turkey regain Belgrade but cede control of other parts of the Balkans.

The Turks had to deal with a revolt in Greece in 1790 that undermined their ability to focus on holding back the Russians. Then, on December 22, General Suvarov captured the important fortress of Ismail at the mouth of the Danube. When it fell, he ordered the massacre of all its Turkish defenders, after which he was promoted. Despite these victories, Russia was eager to reach a peace agreement with Ottoman Turkey. This was a consequence of renewed problems in Poland, where the Prussians were trying to increase their political influence. The Treaty of Jassy was signed on January 9, 1792: the Russians returned Moldavia and Bessarabia to the Turks but kept hold of the territories to the east of the Dniester. Thus, a century after the siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman Empire was in retreat, grimly hanging on to its possessions in Europe against stronger powers. It was a significant change in the balance of power.

Catherine the Great also had the large but weakly ruled state of Poland in her sights. In 1772 she came to an agreement with Austria and Prussia by which they all occupied some Polish land. There was a further partition agreed between Russia and Prussia in 1792. In 1794 Polish nationalists, commanded by Thaddeus Kosciusko, began to rebel against the dismemberment of their country. Kosciusko’s poorly armed forces were soon forced back to Warsaw, which was besieged in late August. The heavily outnumbered Poles, some 35,000 soldiers with 200 guns, defended their capital with great valor, repulsing two major assaults by the Russo- Prussian armies, whose combined strength totalled 100,000 soldiers and 250 guns.

Incredibly, at the beginning of September, the siege was broken by the Poles. The victory was short-lived, however. On October 10 at the Battle of Maciejowice, Kosciusko, with just 7,000 men, was decisively defeated. He was wounded and captured and the rebellion quickly collapsed. Poland disappeared as an independent country in 1795.

Between 1788 and 1790 Catherine the Great had also fought a war against Sweden. Despite two early defeats, the Swedes recovered sufficiently to take on the Russian Navy in July 1790. The battle left the Russian fleet in tatters as 53 ships were sunk by the Swedes. Peace between the two countries followed, on August 15. 1790.

By 1790, Europe was a continent in which there was great expertise in the conduct of warfare, and whose technology and organization for war was superior to those of any other societies in the world. Over the period from 1792 to 1815, this expertise was to be heightened even further, as the conduct of war took a very new turn under one of the greatest commanders in history Napoleon Bonaparte.


In 480 BCE an army marched into Greece under the command of the Persian king Xerxes. His goal was to conquer Greece and make it part of the Persian Empire. In an unprecedented act of cooperation, many of the Greek poleis set aside their differences and formed a coalition to resist the Persian advance. An army of allies, under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas, took up position at Thermopylae, a natural choke point on a narrow coastal plain.

Leonidas was not the only Spartan king in the action. Demaratus, a former king of Sparta who had been exiled by his people, was with the Persians as an adviser to Xerxes. As the army approached the pass at Thermopylae, Xerxes consulted Demaratus about what his forces were about to face. According to Herodotus, the two kings discussed the Spartans. Xerxes compared his massive army with the small population of Sparta and was incredulous that the Spartans would dare to stand against him. Demaratus assured him that they would do so: “Their master is the law, whom they revere far more than your subjects revere you. They will do what it commands, and it always commands the same: not to flee, whatever the numbers, but to remain in their ranks and to triumph or be destroyed.” Xerxes remained unconvinced.

Once the battle began at Thermopylae, Demaratus was proven right. The Greeks held their defensive position and the narrow pass prevented the Persians from bringing their superior numbers to bear. The stalemate dragged on until the Persians finally learned of a mountain track that allowed them to send a contingent to attack the Greek position from behind. Leonidas ordered most of the allied forces to withdraw, but the Spartans, Thespians, and Thebans remained behind and fought to the last man. Surveying the battlefield in the aftermath, Xerxes admitted that Demaratus had been right.

The Battle of Thermopylae has come down in legend as one of the great clashes between East and West. Framed by the conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus, it has been interpreted as a test of Western democracy against Eastern tyranny. Since the only thing more romantic than a victory is a noble defeat, Leonidas has been celebrated in forms ranging from ancient hero cult to Hollywood film.

Like most heroic legends, however, Thermopylae becomes more complicated the closer we look at it. Thermopylae was a battle, not a morality play, and the choices of both sides were dictated more by practicality than ideology. Xerxes’ large army required supplies brought across the Aegean by ship, but the Mediterranean is stormy in winter and the Persians could not risk going hungry because of a shipwrecked supply fleet. A swift conquest, before winter came, was therefore crucial to Persian strategy. The Greeks knew they could not expect the army at Thermopylae to hold the Persian forces back indefinitely. Their mission was not to die nobly but to slow down Xerxes’ advance enough to strain his supply lines and make a swift conquest impossible. When the Persians turned the Greek flank, the Greeks withdrew. Those who stayed behind may have been intended only as a covering force who would withdraw last, but they ran out of time. Despite Demaratus’ assertions to Xerxes, Spartans had been known to withdraw in the face of overwhelming forces before. If Leonidas did in fact intend to fight to the death, he had strategic reasons for doing so besides romantic heroism. The greatest danger to the Greeks was always that their alliance would fall apart over old rivalries. The Athenians in particular, whose fleet was vital, were suspicious of Sparta’s commitment to the cause. By fighting to the last, the Spartans demonstrated their resolve and helped keep the alliance intact. The events at Thermopylae reflect the realities of ancient warfare, not a test of national character.

The conversations between Xerxes and Demaratus in Herodotus’ account also mean rather less than some have made them out to. Like most such dialogues in ancient histories, they were probably pure invention. Herodotus, proud of his fellow Greeks for their resistance to Xerxes, used these exchanges to make a point, but his argument is less sweeping than a cosmic opposition between democratic Greeks and despotic Persians. First of all, Demaratus is  explicit that his praise applies only to Spartans, not all Greeks. Second, it is not freedom or democracy that Demaratus points to, but self-control. The unspoken contrast is not to Persians as a culture but to Xerxes himself, whose capricious character Herodotus explored elsewhere in detail. The trouble with the Persians was not that they had a king but that they had a bad one, and bad rulers were not unique to Persia; Greeks had had plenty of their own.

The wars between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century have been hailed as the defining clash between East and West and the spark that lit the torch of Western civilization. While the events of the war were important in the history of ancient Greece, the reality is that Greece and Persia were not so starkly opposed as many have made them out to be. Greeks and Persians had much in common, and the history of their interactions turned more on the practicalities of politics and diplomacy than on ideology. The war was a painful and complicated event that provoked many different responses, but it was no clash of civilizations.

The Greco-Persian Wars in Western History

Western scholarship up to the latter half of the twentieth century was unabashedly pro-Greek and anti-Persian. The nineteenth-century German historian Barthold Niebuhr spoke for many of his peers when he wrote: “a Persian man has never been a free and proud man. . . . At the same time the Persians are exceptionally cruel. . . . The orientals are an evil and morally corrupt people through and through.” Niebuhr’s English contemporary Sir Edward Creasey began his 1851 history The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World with the battle between a Persian expeditionary force and the Athenians at Marathon in 490 and left no doubt as to how he judged the significance of the event: “on the result of [the Greek generals’] deliberations depended not merely the fate of two armies, but the whole future progress of human civilization.” Even a century later in the 1950s, it was regarded as no more than a banal truism to state that “In 480–79 the Greeks saved themselves and the future of European civilization from Oriental conquest.”

The idea of the Greco-Persian Wars as a conflict between two radically opposed forces has lingered on in more modern scholarship but has come to be expressed in cultural rather than racial terms. One book from 1996 still described some Persian troops as “Stone Age savages” and celebrated the Greek victory as one that “continue[s] to irradiate and quicken our whole western heritage.” Books on the Battle of Salamis, from 2004, and Marathon, from 2010, both argued that the outcome saved Western civilization.

A different approach to Greece and Persia has developed with the rise of postcolonial studies. Some scholars have shifted the focus to the Persian perspective and have explained the failure of Persia’s campaigns in Greece less as the product of Greek heroism and more as the result of poor strategic planning on the Persians’ part. Others have ousted the wars from the center of Greco-Persian interactions and traced a long-term pattern of trade, accommodation, and cultural interchange in which the invasions of mainland Greece were only a brief interruption. Greek attitudes toward Persia have been examined more fully and found to be far more nuanced and multifaceted than was long assumed.

Understanding the Greco-Persian Wars requires setting aside nineteenth-century assumptions about “Oriental” races and twentieth-century arguments about Western civilization to see both the Persians and the Greeks on their own terms.


The Persian Empire arose in the context of another empire’s fall. In the tenth century BCE the old northern Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria began to build an empire using innovative techniques of siege warfare. Walled towns that might have held out for months or years against earlier armies fell to the Assyrians’ towers and battering rams in a matter of days. Supported by its army’s expertise in capturing cities, the Assyrian Empire expanded faster and farther than any state in the region had done before, ultimately stretching from the edge of the Iranian plateau to the Nile valley.

The Assyrians faced new challenges as their army was stretched thin by its rapid conquests. To suppress rebellion, they massacred, enslaved, or forcibly resettled many conquered peoples and destroyed rebellious cities. Assyrian cruelty was a calculated political strategy, and though effective in the short term, it sowed resentment among its victims. When the empire was weakened by civil war in the late seventh century BCE, an alliance of its subjects and neighbors banded together to overthrow it. A few generations later, with the memory of Assyrian oppression still fresh, the Persians began to build a new empire.

The Persians first appear in history as nomads in the southern Iranian plateau at the fringes of Assyrian power. They allied themselves with another Iranian people, the Medes, who lived to their north. Both the Medes and the Persians were part of the anti-Assyrian coalition. In 550 BCE the Persian king Cyrus began a campaign of expansion and ultimately built an empire larger than any the world had seen before. Persian territory stretched from the Indus River in the east to Egypt and Anatolia in the west. Cyrus and his descendants, the Achaemenid dynasty, ruled over this empire for the next three centuries.

In a deliberate contrast to the Assyrians, the Persians adopted a policy of tolerance toward the peoples they ruled. Slavery was forbidden by Persian custom, and though they did not end slaveholding among their subjects, they took no slaves of their own. They never massacred a conquered people and only forcibly resettled the most persistent troublemakers. In fact, the Persians helped some displaced people—notably the Jews—return home and rebuild.

Local cultures were allowed to thrive. The Persians did not impose their customs, language, or laws on their subjects. The only demands they made were the payment of taxes and provision of soldiers for the army. In return, the Persians guaranteed peace and stability, and they supported trade through the construction of roads and the issuing of a common currency. The empire was organized into provinces ruled by governors, called satraps, who had a degree of local autonomy but were accountable to the king for the orderly administration of their territories. At a more local level, the Persians generally left peoples with their own native rulers, so long as those rulers did not support rebellion. Achaemenid royal art, such as the stairway of the ceremonial palace at Persepolis and the tombs cut into cliff faces nearby, shows the king surrounded by subjects of many different ethnicities in their own native garb, rendered in a style that combined elements from the artistic traditions of many different peoples. For the Persians, multiculturalism was both a virtue and a pragmatic policy.

Persians and Greeks

No empire has ever been created without violence. The Persian Empire is no exception. Most of the peoples over whom the Persians ruled were, most of the time, content with the arrangement and prospered from it, but some parts of the empire resisted Persian rule and threatened the stability of their satrapies. The northwestern frontier was a persistent trouble spot for the empire. The conquests of Cyrus had brought the kingdom of Lydia, in western Anatolia, into the empire in 546. Not long before, around 560, the Lydians had conquered the Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean coast. These cities now came under Persian control.

Like most other Greek poleis of the time, the Ionian cities in Anatolia had a variety of constitutions, but most allowed some degree of democratic participation. Democracy is by its nature messy and unpredictable. As practiced in ancient Greece, it was also prone to outbreaks of factional violence. Although it was the Persians’ custom to leave local politics alone, they needed a measure of stability on their frontier. They therefore supported the rise of local aristocrats who ruled the Ionian cities as pro-Persian tyrants.

The opponents of these tyrants found shelter across the Aegean in the cities of mainland Greece, especially Athens, which had strong historical ties to the Ionians. Agitation against the tyrants continued until 499 when many of the Ionian cities rose up in revolt. Athens and some other mainland Greek cities committed warships to the cause. The Athenians had their own troubled history with Persia, which helped draw them into the revolt. The former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, had fled to Persia when he was driven out of the city in 510 and had been trying for some time to engineer a return with Persian backing. Having forced out Hippias, the Athenians went through a series of internal conflicts, ending with the establishment of a democratic constitution. When Sparta tried to intervene and help some pro-Spartan aristocrats regain power, the Athenians went so far as to offer submission to Persia in return for protection. After the Spartan threat had passed, however, the Athenians wanted neither Persian rule nor the return of Hippias. Driving the Persians back from the Aegean coast must have seemed a prudent step toward avoiding both.

The Ionian revolt had some initial success, including capturing and burning down the satrapal capital at Sardis, but in the end the rebellion was a failure. Most of the Ionian cities accepted their old tyrants back on the promise that no harm would come to them. The only city to suffer reprisals was Miletus, where the revolt had begun and which held out until recaptured by force. The population of the city was forcibly resettled at the mouth of the Tigris River. The Persians’ uncharacteristically harsh treatment of the Milesians shows how vexing this frontier problem had become.

The Persians continued to try to pacify their Aegean frontier through diplomacy and targeted strikes against foreign agitators such as Athens. In 491 King Darius sent envoys to many cities on the Greek mainland and islands asking for earth and water, the traditional symbols of submission to Persia. Many cities, remembering what happened to Miletus, acquiesced. The next year, Darius sent a naval expedition across the sea against Athens and some of the other cities who persisted in resistance. Hippias, now an old man, was brought along in the hopes that he could rally local supporters and seize control of the city, but that support never materialized. After a long standoff, some of the Persian forces were defeated in battle with the Athenian army at Marathon. The rest tried to sail around Attica and attack the undefended city, but the Athenian troops raced overland in time to draw up outside the city walls as the Persian ships came into view. The Persians withdrew to Ionia.

In 486 Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who decided that after some sixty years of trying to manage the Aegean frontier, the time had come to conquer and incorporate the territory. In 480, apart from the delaying action at Thermopylae, Persian forces marched largely unopposed into Greece. Most Athenians abandoned their city and fell back to the fleet. In the straits between the island of Salamis and the Attic coast the allied Greek fleet won a major battle against the Persian navy and changed the strategic calculus. Without naval superiority, the Persians could no longer count on keeping their army supplied by ship. Xerxes withdrew with most of his army, leaving a small force under his general Mardonius to overwinter in Thessaly and continue the campaign the next year. The following summer the Greeks assembled the largest army they could muster and defeated Mardonius’ troops at Plataea. Following up on the victory, the Greek forces expelled Persian garrisons from many of the cities they had occupied in their march.

Once the Persians had been driven out of Europe, Sparta withdrew its forces from the alliance. Athens instead took the lead and organized a new alliance, known as the Delian League, with the avowed purpose of carrying on the fight to liberate the Greek cities in Ionia and defend them from Persian interference. The Ionian cities seized the opportunity to rebel against Persia again and joined up with the new league. Athenian-led forces won a decisive victory against the Persians at Eurymedon in 466 that secured Athenian dominance over the Aegean for decades.


Persian Infantry

Greek Reactions to the Wars with Persia

The wars with Persia were traumatic to those who lived through them. Most of Greece was involved in the fighting and many cities suffered deep losses. After the war, Greeks enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity. Their art and literature expressed a new sense of self-confidence. The Parthenon of Athens, great works of drama and philosophy, the maturing of classical sculpture and vase painting—much of what we think of as the defining achievements of ancient Greek civilization were created when the Battles of Marathon and Plataea were no more than a generation or two in the past. It is no surprise that we find the experience of the wars reflected in many of the great works of Greek culture.

Persians became the definitive barbarians in Greek consciousness and certain conventional narratives emerged in discussions of both the Persians and the wars. These narratives became part of the Greek philosophical, literary, and artistic repertoire, to be deployed at need and liable, like all such conventional narratives, to be reduced to shorthand and caricature. One narrative depicted the wars as a struggle between free but disciplined Greeks and weak-willed Persians under a despotic king. Another regarded Greek victory as the vindication of democracy. The unity of the Greeks in their alliance against the invaders was also celebrated. Another common theme was the hardiness of Greeks who lived in poverty as compared with the softness of Persians accustomed to luxury. There was never a single unified Greek view on Persia. Multiple conflicting and overlapping narratives always existed.

Some Greek ideas reduced the Persians to stereotypes. A narrative of otherness depicted the Greeks as hardy, democratic, masculine, and independent while portraying the Persians as soft, despotic, feminine, and servile. The philosopher Plato used Persia as an archetypal example of monarchy and its failings. His student Aristotle went further and defined all barbarians as natural slaves fit to be ruled over by Greeks. The orators Demosthenes and Isocrates both invoked the weakness of Persia in their arguments over Athenian foreign policy, clearly appealing to a theme their audience knew well.

Not all Greek responses to Persia were so straightforward. The writer and sometime mercenary Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus is a fictionalized account of King Cyrus’ youth that presents him as a model of temperance, honesty, and martial vigor. The final chapter of the work, however, portrays a modern Persia in which Cyrus’ virtues have all been overthrown and replaced with the vices of greed, gluttony, and deceit. The change is so dramatic that it seems unlikely Xenophon meant his conclusion to be taken at face value but was instead ironically tweaking an existing narrative of Persian decline. The Education of Cyrus casts contemporary Persians as the most stereotyped of others, but they stand in contrast to the virtue of earlier Persians, not Greeks.

Artistic renditions of Persians and the Persian wars are a similarly mixed group. Persians and Greeks in battle appear as a common theme of vase painting in the decades after the war, but while the Persians are depicted as the enemy, they are not caricatured as weak, effeminate, or cowardly. They stand their ground and fight as worthy adversaries; sometimes they even win.

In other cases, the Persians were assimilated into the Greek mythic tradition. In the Painted Stoa in Athens, images of the Battle of Marathon were paired with depictions of the hero Theseus fighting Amazons and Greeks fighting Trojans. On the Parthenon the Persians are evoked only through mythic analogues, as Greek heroes battle Trojans, Amazons, and centaurs. The symbolism is potent, but not simple. On one hand, figures such as Amazons and centaurs represent chaos. Their defeat is necessary for the restoration of good order as personified by Greek heroes. The Trojans are a different case. The legends of the Trojan War were among the most celebrated Greek myths, but the moral standing of the Greeks as destroyers of Troy was dubious, and the story of Troy was as much one of tragedy as of triumph. Recasting the Trojans as precursors of the Persians made the Greco-Persian Wars equally complex. As Herodotus points out, the destruction of Troy was a gross overreaction to the abduction of one woman. In this mythic context, Xerxes’ invasion of Greece could even be seen as justified retribution for the Greek invasion of Troy.

The modern assumption that Greeks and Persians were implacable enemies has distorted the interpretation of some artworks, such as the so-called Eurymedon vase. On one side of this vase stands a man naked but for a cloak, grasping his penis in one hand. On the opposite side a man in form-fitting clothes carrying a bow case stands bent forward with his hands raised. Between the two figures runs the text: “I am Eurymedon. I am bent over.” This image has conventionally been interpreted as a bawdy celebration of the Greek victory at Eurymedon; as Dover put it: “We’ve buggered the Persians.” But this interpretation depends on the unfounded assumption that Greeks considered being the penetrated partner in a homosexual liaison demeaning. In fact, a liaison like the one depicted was considered humiliating for both partners, not because of who was doing what to whom but because their disorderly haste showed a lack of self-control. The identities of the two figures are also less than clear. The Greek is unarmed and unkempt, far from heroic. The “Persian” may actually be a Scythian, another people customarily depicted in close-fitting clothes carrying bows. “Eurymedon” is the name of not only a river but also numerous individuals, including the man who introduced Scythian archers into Athens as a kind of police force. This vase may be a bit of political mockery aimed not at the Persians but at an Athenian.

Herodotus and Aeschylus: Bringing the Persians Home

While Greek art and literature of the classical age celebrates Greek victory, its attitudes toward the Persians are diverse and subtle. Simple narratives contrasting Greek virtue with Persian wickedness are a part of that diversity, but only a part. Two surviving works of Greek literature engage more deeply with the nature of the Persians and the causes of their wars against the Greeks than any others: Aeschylus’ drama The Persians and Herodotus’ Histories. Both of these texts emphasize the similarities between Greeks and Persians more than their differences.

Aeschylus’ tragedy takes place at the Persian court where the queen mother Atossa anxiously discusses the war with Persian elders. A messenger arrives bearing the news of defeat at Salamis and Atossa summons the spirit of Darius for counsel before Xerxes, defeated and bedraggled, finally returns home. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars who was manifestly proud of his service and one might have expected a triumphal celebration of Greek victory, but the play is surprisingly subtle.

The Persians is a tragedy and Xerxes is its hero. The tragic hero is by definition a noble character brought down by the flaws in his nature. In Aeschylus’ drama, Xerxes’ flaws are rashness and arrogance, not an unusual turn in Greek tragedy. The catharsis that tragedy was meant to create came in the tension between the audience’s compassion for the sufferings of the hero and their horror at the deeds that led to his downfall. Without the audience being able to imaginatively cast themselves in the role of the tragic hero and recognize the small echoes of his faults in themselves, tragedy fails. Greek drama created empathy between the audience and the hero by inviting the audience to imagine the play as taking place in their own city. By setting his play in Persia with a cast of Persian characters, Aeschylus was asking his Athenian audience to imagine themselves as Persians.

Praise of Greece in the play is muted. Atossa questions the chorus as to who commands the Athenians and learns that “They are said to be no one’s slaves and heedful of no man.” Later the herald who describes the Battle of Salamis comments on the Greeks’ unity in battle, but both sections are brief.50 Aeschylus does not disparage the Persians but presents them as a noble people. As Darius recounts, their state was ordained by Zeus who gave the scepter of kingship to their first ruler. Atossa recalls a dream in which she saw Greece and Persia personified as two sisters whom Xerxes tried to yoke to a chariot. While Persia accepted the bridle, Greece refused and smashed the yoke, but in Atossa’s eyes they were equal in beauty.

The play leaves us in no doubt that Xerxes was wrong to invade Greece. Darius castigates his son’s arrogance and condemns the invading army’s sacrilegious destruction of temples and sacred images. But this was Xerxes’ failing, not a fault of the Persians as a whole, and if Aeschylus’ audience were to condemn overseas expeditions and the burning of temples, they would have to admit that the Athenians had interfered in Ionia and burned Sardis long before Xerxes had gone on the march. Nor was their involvement in the Ionian revolt the only campaign the Athenians had cause to regret. The hero of Marathon, Miltiades, had led a disastrous campaign in the Aegean in 489 that ended so badly he was nearly put to death on his return. The success of Aeschylus’  drama depended on the Athenians’ ability to see the Persians as people in whose troubles and sorrows they could share, not as oppositional others.

Herodotus’ Histories offers a similarly nuanced view of the Persians and their dealings with the Greeks. Early in his work, Herodotus gives an ethnographic account of the Persians with a mix of praise and disapproval. On one hand, the Persians were devout, truth-loving, and courteous. Their laws were moderate and they especially esteemed martial prowess and honesty. On the other hand, they overindulged in wine and fine foods, they abased themselves in unseemly ways before men of high status, and they left the bodies of the dead to be mauled by birds and dogs before burial, which offended Greek sensibilities. On the whole, however, Herodotus avoids judging the Persians. Their customs were appropriate for them just as Greek customs were appropriate for Greeks. The fact that their ways were different did not make them wrong.

Herodotus’ Persians were not ethnic stereotypes or anti-Greek others but individuals with their own individual virtues and flaws. Some, indeed, were bad. The worst of the lot was Cyrus’ abusive and impious son Cambyses. Xerxes was not much better, but his flaws were different: rashness and changeability. It was not only kings who were flawed: Xerxes’ general Mardonius was a blustering bully and a fount of bad advice. On the other hand, many Persians were good. Like Xenophon, Herodotus praises the wisdom of Cyrus, but he does not go on to paint the Persians of his own day as degenerate. Persians with admirable qualities were to be found in any age. Prexaspes, a general of Cambyses, revealed his master’s crimes to the public. Otanes, Darius, and a group of other noblemen, aided by Otanes’ daughter Phaidymie, boldly overthrew a usurper and then held a rational debate about what form of government was best. Darius’ general Zopyrus endured extreme physical hardship in order to get behind the walls of Babylon and open the gates for the king’s army. Artabanus provided wise counsel both to Darius and Xerxes.

Like Aeschylus, there is no doubt that Herodotus deplored the Persian invasions of Greece and was proud of his countrymen for their resistance, but the blame fell on Darius and Xerxes, not the Persians as a whole. Herodotus evinces sympathy for the Persians who were burdened with bad kings. Bad kings do not make a bad people, and the Persians were hardly the only ones to have them. The Egyptians and Lydians had them, too, but the bad rulers Herodotus devotes most of his attention to are the Greek tyrants, whose crimes included theft of private property, abuse of women, and the murder of rivals.

Herodotus was on the side of democracy, but he was not an absolutist. He knew that democracies sometimes failed, just as some kings were good. He also knew that democracy was not a definitively Greek invention. Greeks had lived under tyrants and, as he is at pains to inform his audience, the Persians were perfectly familiar with democracy. The Persians and Greeks were, if anything, more alike than any other people Herodotus knew.

This similarity gives force to one of Herodotus’ most powerful passages. At the very end of his history, once Xerxes’ invasion had been defeated, Herodotus casts his eye all the way back to the birth of the Persian Empire some seventy years before. He recounts a story in which some Persians approached Cyrus and proposed that they go forth and conquer an empire. Cyrus warned them that this plan would lead to their downfall: “For from soft lands come soft men; the same land cannot bear rich fruits and noble, valorous men.” Herodotus’ audience was the Athenians of the late fifth century who were themselves engaged in a project of empire building at the head of the Delian League. Cyrus’ warning to his people serves as a warning to the Greeks about the consequences of imperialism. Like Aeschylus, Herodotus believed his Greek audience could see the similarities between the Persians and themselves.

The Greek and Persian worlds had long been entangled. The wars left their scars, but they did not leave Greeks and Persians polarized and unable to think beyond binary oppositions. Individuals traveled between the two cultures, trade carried on, and culture was shared. Athenians adopted elements of Persian art, architecture, and dress while Ionian artisans helped carve the tombs of Persian kings. Stereotyped and pejorative attitudes toward Persia existed in the Greek world, but they existed alongside narratives that made Persians familiar, individual, and sympathetic.

The Greco-Persian Wars and Western Civilization

Although the wars with Persia were important events in fifth-century Greece, their consequences were not simple, nor should they be magnified into a battle for the fate of the West. The Persians and the Greeks were not idealized representatives of two fundamentally different ways of life. Greece was a small, underdeveloped, fractious region whose politics, economy, and culture had long been entangled with Persia’s. Persian kings recruited Greek mercenaries and hosted Greek exiles. Some Greek cities sought or accepted admission to the Persian Empire as a bulwark against their enemies, and Persians were sometimes looked to as arbiters between warring Greek factions. The fact that Herodotus knew so much about the Persian Empire, its peoples, and its history testifies to the deep interconnections between the two cultures.

While the outcome of the wars was important to the Greeks, the events were much less momentous for the Persians. The loss of territories in Europe and the Aegean registered very little effect on the wider empire. The Persian kings returned to a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Greek problem, patiently managing frontier affairs as the Greeks wore themselves down with inter-polis fighting. This diplomacy eventually paid off in the fourth century when the Persians were able to dictate terms to exhausted Greek cities. For Persia, the conflicts with Greece had never been ideological. The shift from a military to a diplomatic approach to dealing with the unstable frontier region was a rational adaptation of policy. A useful comparison can be made with the Roman Empire’s policy toward the peoples of its northern frontier: when conquest proved unfeasible, Rome’s interests in the region were secured through diplomacy instead.

The idea that Persia would have stifled the emergence of democracy and classical art, literature, and philosophy, thus cutting off Western civilization at the source, is misguided. On one hand it gives classical Greek culture an unwarranted status, and on the other it misapprehends Persian culture.

The art, architecture, literature, and philosophy of classical Greece have long had a place of special honor in the Western tradition, not because Greek culture was superior but because later peoples chose to elevate and emulate it. The veneration of Greece was part of the ideology of European imperialism in which connections to the classical past were asserted as marks of a “superior” society justified in its conquest and colonization of “inferior” societies. Without Greek culture to emulate, later Europeans would simply have found other markers of status to celebrate.

Moreover, it is unlikely that a Persian conquest of mainland Greece would have snuffed out the creative flowering of the following age. The unexpected victory over Persia did invigorate the Greek imagination, but it was not the sole cause for the developments of the classical age. The archaic period saw a tremendous flowering of cultural inventiveness in Greece, even through difficult periods of war and internal conflict. There is no reason why defeat by the Persians should have stopped up that creativity. The Persians had no interest in suppressing Greek culture. The Ionian Greek cities thrived economically and culturally under Persian rule.68 Persian kings and satraps patronized Greek artists, and elements of Greek art were incorporated into the multicultural Achaemenid court style. Greek culture under Persian rule would surely have been different, but it would not have simply ended.

Like Greek culture, Greek democracy may have been different under Persian rule, but it would not have disappeared. In 480 the Athenians had lived under a stable democratic constitution for less than three decades, but democracy was not a fresh flower to be easily plucked. It was the product of centuries of social pressures and power struggles that were not unique to Athens and that could not be simply dispelled by Persian fiat. While most of the Greek poleis were governed with some degree of citizen participation, the nature of their constitutions varied drastically from one state to another, with many dominated by entrenched aristocracies. Sparta was a far more totalitarian state than the Persian Empire. The image of Persians as enervated slaves cowering under their master’s lash is a gross fiction.

After conquering the Ionian cities, the Persians suppressed democracies and installed friendly tyrants, but in the aftermath of the Ionian revolt the Persian satrap Artaphrenes renegotiated the arrangements in Ionia to be more favorable to the Ionians. The Persian general Mardonius shortly later deposed the Ionian tyrants and established democracies. No doubt these democracies were required to maintain an acceptable level of stability and not to challenge Persian suzerainty. Still, Persian rule was pragmatic and flexible. The Persians had no ideological opposition to democracy. As in Ionia, if the Persians had conquered mainland Greece they would soon have found it prudent to compromise on the nature of their rule there.

Furthermore, democracy was not a uniquely Greek invention. Other peoples had experimented with varieties of participatory government before and would do so later—notably the Roman republic.73 Greek democracy was always a work in progress built up out of personal feuds and precarious compromises, not a pristine development gifted to the world. It was a government that excluded women and immigrants (sometimes even the native-born descendants of immigrants) and that depended on a large slave population. Persian culture abhorred slavery, allowed women substantial freedoms, and welcomed people of all origins. In many ways, the ideals of modern Western society are more in line with those of ancient Persia than those of ancient Greece.

Persians and Greeks

The popular memory of Greeks and Persians tends to be dominated by the image of heroic Spartans making their last stand against a tyrannical Xerxes at Thermopylae. The reality of Greco-Persian relations was never so simple.

From a Persian point of view, Greece was at worst a minor frontier nuisance. Persians neither hated the Greeks nor wished to destroy their culture but welcomed Greek dignitaries, traders, and artisans into their multi-ethnic empire. Many Greek cities flourished under Persian rule, and Persian goods and ideas were welcomed in Greece, even in the aftermath of war.

The Greeks who lived through the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century were deeply affected by the experience, and it is no surprise that we find anti-Persian sentiments in later Greek culture. The wars, however, were only a brief incident in a centuries-long history of commercial, cultural, and personal interaction between the Greek and Persian worlds. Many Greeks, even those who were proud of the victories against Darius and Xerxes, also thought of the Persians in ways that were sympathetic and nuanced. Indeed, the more focused the attention Greeks gave to Persia, the more they tended to dwell on the things that made Greeks and Persians similar, not different. Between Greece and Persia there were a few clashes of armies, but never a clash of civilizations.


The commercial trade between the Ohio American Indians and French or British agents and traders during the 18th century was of a different nature to previous trading. It degenerated into competition for Indian alliances by means of gifts. War gifts of cutlasses, scalping knives, hatchets, guns, powder, and bullet molds were added to vermilion paint, flints, cottons, blankets, scissors, needles, thread, cloth, watchcoats, and stockings. Once the Indians had become accustomed to the white man’s goods, they could not live without them. Unscrupulous traders plied Indians with rum, which often resulted in intoxication, brawls, and death. The French gradually regained the upper hand in the Indian trade during the first half of the 18th century, and they were in control of the Ohio area in 1754.

The eastern Woodland Indians, especially the Canadian Iroquois and Abenakis, were among the most steadfast allies of the French in Canada. Their villages were often close to the French settlements and they served with the Canadian militia. Most of the western Woodland tribes – Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Shawnee – were also allies of the French. The Hurons who had finally settled in the Ohio Valley following the dispersal of their confederacy by the Iroquois in the mid-17th century were known as the Wyandot. Allied with the Ottawa, they were the “eldest children” of Onontio, the governor-general of New France, and the cornerstone of the French alliance with the Great Lakes Algonkians. Although their relations with the French were tempestuous for many years, when war broke out in the Ohio Valley, the Wyandot sided with the French, and with the other French allies went east to fight in the French campaigns in northern New York.

The Iroquois for the most part fought on the side of the English, in part due to the influence of the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. The Irish trader George Croghan, in the British service of Sir William Johnson, won over the friendship of the western Indians at a great council in Pittsburgh in 1758.

Following the battle of Lake George, Sir William exerted himself to keep the Iroquois friendly to Britain’s cause, or at least neutral, despite a series of disheartening military failures. The Iroquois fulfilled a campaign of diplomatic pressure by bringing the Delawares and Shawnees to heel at the treaty of Easton in October 1758, and they played a major part in the final British victory. However, following the end of the war, the actions of Amherst destroyed the relations with the western nations and led to Pontiac’s War.

William Johnson and the Mohawks

William Johnson, a young Anglo-Irishman, came to the Mohawk Valley in 1738. He built a huge commercial empire from the fur trade and land deals. Within three years he had built a fortress-like home, Mount Johnson, and had begun a long association with the Mohawks. His second wife, Caroline, was the niece of old “King Hendrick.” After her death he married as his third wife Molly Brant whose younger brother, Joseph Brant, was destined to become a captain in the British Army during the American Revolution. In 1745 Johnson was appointed British Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and in 1755, Superintendent of Indian Affairs. His victory at Lake George, supported by hundreds of Mohawks and Oneidas, was heartening to the British colonists, although King Hendrick was one of those killed in the fighting. Through this victory Johnson united the Iroquois behind him, and was rewarded by the Crown with a baronetcy and cash grant. Johnson spent the rest of the war trying to keep the Iroquois friendly to Britain’s cause. He took Fort 62 Niagara in 1759 with a force augmented by over 900 Iroquois warriors. Johnson’s home was palisaded in 1755 and became known as Fort Johnson, but with the return of peace he built a stately home called Johnson Hall at Johnstown, NY, where he sheltered Indians and entertained other distinguished guests. This illustration shows various distinguished Indian visitors to Johnson Hall, from left, an Ottawa chief a Wyandot chief a clan matron, Joseph Brant, a Fox chief and a Huron chief. As many as 60 to 80 Indians often camped in the grounds. His actions helped to bring about the end of Pontiac’s War in 1766, and in 1768 he made a formal treaty with all the Indians which set out the boundaries between the American colonies and Indian country. Johnson was adopted as a war chief of the Canajoharie Mohawks; his nickname was Orihwane, “Big Business.” He had a unique influence with the Mohawks, and through his many children he has descendants among them today. Jonathan Smith

French and Indian War (1754-1763) I

French and Indian War (1754-1763) II

French and Indian War (1754-1763) III

Lord Dunmore’s War

Sir JEFFERY, 1st Baron Amherst KB (1717–1797)


British-allied American Indians of the 18th century. On the left is an Iroquois warrior from about 1759. He is tattooed) and is armed with a painted trade musket. The Mohawk in the center is from the early 18th century) and is carrying a Hudson Valley fowling piece. He has complex tattoos on his face and body) and wears ear ornaments of swan down. He has a European blanket and shirt. On the right is a Mohawk warrior from about 1764. He carries a bow and arrows and a trade tomahawk. He wears feather and quillwork head ornaments, wampum ear ornaments and a ‘gorget.’ In the foreground are ball-headed clubs and a red-painted scalp with decorative stretcher rim. Richard Hook

Woodland American Indian men seem to have revered war above all else and, despite the great message of peace enshrined in the Iroquois league’s constitution, a conflict between the old men and the young over war policy was endemic. The councils could only adopt a policy of peace or neutrality; they could not force young men to observe it. War had been a major cause of the decline of the native population during the 17th century, for which the Iroquois compensated by the adoption of captives; in fact, war parties were often organized for this purpose. So despite the ideal that men were brothers and that killing should stop, the Iroquois were the major native disruptive military force in the northeast.

A warrior who wished to lead a war party would send a messenger with tobacco to ask others to join his expedition. The messenger would explain the purpose of the expedition followed by a ceremonial smoking of the pipe with those who enlisted. Later the warriors arrived near the camp of the leaders, who prepared a feast asking for a final pledge of support. The leader usually appointed lieutenants to act as his aides during the proposed raids. War dances and striking-the-warpost ceremonies were held before the war party left the camp together with the collection of ‘medicine,’ and materials for making and repairing moccasins. Amongst many of the eastern tribes parched corn was the standard provision of the warrior when on the trail; when mixed with maple-sugar it provided quick sustenance. The final event before the departure of the war party was often the dog feast, which was considered as a final pledge to meet the full fortunes of war. Dog war feasts were not acts of piety. They were organized by the warrior or clan societies in order to receive blessings from spirits. The dogs would be killed, singed, then boiled, and prepared in the same way as deer. The meat symbolized the flesh of captives that they might later eat, these enemies being compared to dogs. The attendant ceremonies, involving the ritual use of tobacco, evoked help from the night spirits, and also the bear and buffalo spirits.

On the warriors’ journey to the enemy village many songs and dances were held at the nightly camps, the warriors frequently singing of their former victories. The pipe bearer, a noted warrior, often led the war party with the leader walking last. A Chippewa war party could travel 25 miles a day. As the warriors neared the enemy they began preparations for actual warfare: singing medicine songs, making litters for the wounded, and designating individuals to carry extra supplies of medicine, corn, and water. An eagle-feather banner was often carried by one of the bravest warriors during the fight; another beat a drum to inspire his comrades.

The warriors would array themselves in the most colorful body-painting, trappings, feathers, and charms for the attack, which was often made at daybreak after taking ambush positions near the enemy village. The attackers usually rushed the enemy while they were sleeping. Occasionally one warrior might inspire the others by making himself a target, throwing away his weapons and clothing, and charging the enemy.

Returning victorious war parties sent runners in advance to carry the news of the warriors’ approach to their home village. The women would meet the warriors and carry the scalps, painted red, fastened inside hoops on the end of poles; frequently scalps were given to the women. The women led the procession, waving the scalps and singing, into the village. After the return preparations were made to hold a victory dance, and a feast of dried meat, wild rice, and maple sugar followed. The victory or scalp dance seems to have been common to almost every tribe in eastern North America. Wives and sweethearts of warriors usually carried the poles with the attached scalps at celebrations in neighboring villages. Unsuccessful war parties were generally ignored by villagers.

Amongst the Iroquoian tribes the taking of prisoners was an important part of warfare. They were often adopted into families who had lost warriors in battle, thus helping to maintain population strength. Ceremonial torture of prisoners and the eating of vital organs were also reported by early observers of the Iroquois.

The war dance was usually performed on special occasions such as council meetings to recall past deeds. In the dance itself attitudes of battle, watching, listening, acts of striking the foe, and throwing the tomahawk added to the war songs, rapid drumming, recitals, and speeches, giving the effect of passion, excitement, and violence. Most deeds of valor were recorded by symbols worn in public, usually eagle feathers worn upright, crosswise, hanging down, or colored red. Other warrior insignia were armbands, ankle and knee bands of skunk or otter skin, painted legs, painted hand designs on body or face, and raven’s skin around the neck. Sometimes the skulls of slain enemies were used as lodge weights, and their flayed skins were used as mats and doorflaps.

The Woodland American Indians fought bravely to defend their lands from neighboring tribes and whites. Their methods of warfare were culturally determined, and any atrocities committed were equally matched by their foes. The torture and burning of captives were often abandoned at the instigation of their own chiefs. Scalping was a New World custom, although it was later much encouraged by the payment of bounties by the English and French. However, killing and scalping were sometimes secondary objectives to prisoner-taking by Iroquois war parties. Scalping for bounty became a feature of white frontier life, as did the severing of heads. King Philip’s head was carried to Plymouth at the close of the 1675-76 war, where it was placed on a pole and remained exposed for a generation as a reminder to Indians and whites of the brutality of colonial warfare.

The disruptive use of gifts by both the French and the British during the 18th century did much to undermine the stability of the frontier and the dependability of American Indian auxiliaries. Braddock’s Indian scouts reconnoitering Fort Duquesne reported few men at the fort; following the death of the leader’s son by friendly fire only constant presents bribed the scouts to continue their duties, and they did so with little enthusiasm. A better understanding and treatment of the Indian allies by the British could probably have avoided the ambush of the column at Monongahela altogether.

Before the trade tomahawk and gun came into popular use by the eastern Indians, their principal weapons were the bow, the stone tomahawk, and the war club. The war club was a heavy weapon, usually made of ironwood or maple, with a large ball or knot at the end. Some antique clubs in museums have a warrior’s face carved on the ball, sometimes with inlaid wampum (beads cut from the shell of the clam or conch), a long-tailed carved serpent on the top of the ball adjoining the shaft, and a cross motif. The shafts were also occasionally carved with war records and decorated. It appears to have been a devastating weapon at close quarters.

In the Great Lakes region the so-called “gun stock club” was popular, often having a sharp-pointed horn or steel trade spike at the shoulder. These were largely replaced with the trade tomahawk of English, French, or later American manufacture in iron or steeL Originally of a hatchet form, these later incorporated a pipe bowl, thus symbolizing a dual role in peace and war: to smoke – to parley; to bury it – peace; to raise it – deadly war.

Poisoned blow-gun arrows were used by the Cherokee and Iroquois but not to any extent in the major conflicts, and perhaps for hunting only. Bows were usually of one piece, made from ash, hickory, or oak. Arrows had delicately chipped triangular chert heads, and were usually kept in sheaths or quivers of cornhusk or skins. Early reports suggest that a type of wooden slatted armor made of tied rods was used by the Huron and Iroquois.

The gun replaced the bow throughout most of the eastern regions between about 1640 and the late 17th century, and partly rendered obsolete the bow and arrow and rod armor. However, as late as 1842 (due to lack of ammunition) an eyewitness reported that a battle between Chippewa and Sioux was waged with club and scalping knife.

Between the I 7th century and early 19th centuries the practice of American Indian warfare changed little. A warrior’s equipment in later years included a blanket, extra moccasins, a tumpline used as a prisoner tie, a rifle, powder horn, bullet bag, and his own medicine. Delaware and Shawnee scouts in the US Army out west are said to have administered warrior medicine to white soldiers. The calumet ceremony was often performed for war and peace. It appears to have been of Mississippian origin and spread east to the Ottawa via most central tribes, together with the ritual use of tobacco and steatite and catlinite pipe bowls. Calumets were highly decorated wands of feathers, painted tubes with animal parts (including the heads and necks of birds) with or without the pipe. The use of the calumet and pipe for ritual smoking at treaty councils led to the term “peace pipe:’

Although the horse was adopted by the eastern tribes as a beast of burden, there seems to be little reference to its use in warfare except in the later 18th and early 19th centuries and particularly by the western tribes Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, etc. However, the Iroquois and Cherokee had large numbers of horses from the mid-18th century on.

The Iroquois conquered or exterminated all the tribes upon their immediate borders and by 1680 had turned their arms against more distant tribes, the Illinois, Catawba, and Cherokee. According to Iroquois tradition the Cherokee were the original aggressors, having attacked and plundered a Seneca Iroquois hunting party, while in another story they are represented as having violated a peace treaty by the murder of Iroquois delegates. The Iroquois war party usually took 20 days at least to reach the edge of Cherokee territory. Such a war party was small in number, as the distance was too great for a large expedition. The Cherokee often retaliated by individual exploits, a single warrior going hundreds of miles to strike a blow which was sure to be promptly answered by a war party from the north. A formal and final peace treaty between the two tribes was arranged through the efforts of Sir William Johnson in 1768.

About the year 1700 the Iroquois reached the apogee of their empire. From the start their relationship with the French was difficult, and from 1640 to 1700 a constant warfare was maintained, broken by periods of negotiated peace, the exchange of prisoners, and periods of missionary influence, which drew a portion of the Mohawks from their homelands to Canada. Their friendship with the English remained largely unbroken during the 17th century, but during the 18th century frontier politics were such that the league weakened and individual tribes no longer acted in one accord with league policy.

The Jesuits had established missions in eastern Canada by 1639, and by 1700 they were as far west as the Mississippi river. Thus France had a secure route to its southern territories, and secured French dominance of the Great Lakes fur trade until 176I. New France now encircled the Thirteen Colonies through the western wilderness. However, it was not always a friendly relationship between the French and the various American Indian tribes and several wars resulted with the Mesquakie (Fox), Sauk, Dakota (Sioux), Huron, and Chickasaw. While inter-tribal warfare seems always to have been the norm, the arrival of the Europeans added to inter-tribal rivalry within the fur trade. Indeed, the Iroquois’ conquests seem to have been largely to establish their superiority in such commerce. At times Indians took their furs to the British posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the far north, or even to Albany. By the 1730s the focal point of Indian and frontier colonial warfare was the Ohio River Valley, now populated along its tributaries by tribes forced across the Appalachian mountains by white population pressure. These were principally the Delaware and Shawnee, with portions of many tribes forming a multi-tribal population, including fragments of all six Iroquois tribes, Mahican, New England groups, Abenaki, and Chippewa (Mississauga).

American Indian Tactics

Though apparently crudely armed by European standards, American Indians had an undeniable advantage in North American warfare. Their knowledge of the forests and wilderness of their homeland was built up over centuries, and they could use the topography against any enemy. Having hunted since childhood, Indian warriors were well used to traveling vast distances at speed, dealing with fatigue and hazard, and being aware of every detail of their surroundings. They were lightly armed, highly mobile fighters, able to disappear into the environment at will, and supply themselves from their surroundings while on campaign for extended periods. Complete command of stealth tactics made Indians invaluable as scouts, and gatherers of intelligence. Colonial military leaders learned that spying on, and defeating, Indian warriors in battle was only possible with the expertise and knowledge of other Indians. Eventually, native scouts and tactical knowledge became legendary, and success in the Revolutionary War was partly attributed to the use of American Indian tactics and stealth.



Pequot War

The “match” in matchlock was actually a length of cord soaked in a chemical compound (usually potassium nitrate, aka saltpeter) to make it burn slowly. The match was held in an S-shaped lever (the serpentine) over a pan of priming powder. Pulling the trigger lowered the match, igniting the priming powder, which then (by means of a touch-hole) ignited the main powder charge in the barrel and fired the projectile. A later, spring-loaded variation, the snap lock, “snapped” the serpentine down into the pan.

Shoulder-fired matchlock guns—variously known as arquebuses, hackbuts, calivers, culverins, and eventually muskets—had many drawbacks, most notably their unreliability in wet weather and the fact that the smoldering match could betray the firer’s position to the enemy. Despite their deficiencies, matchlock firearms proved remarkably enduring—largely because they were inexpensive to manufacture and simple to use.

By the mid- to late sixteenth century, Northern Europe saw the development of the snaphance, or snaphaunce, lock. (The term came from a Dutch word for “pecking bird.”) In the snaphance, the cock held a piece of flint, which sprang forward on the trigger-pull to strike a piece of steel (the frizzen), sending sparks into the priming pan. A similar type of lock, the miquelet, appeared around the same time in Southern Europe. Technical refinements to both eventually led to the introduction of the true flintlock early in the seventeenth century.

Captain John Smith, while prisoner on a French pirate ship in 1615, wrote A Description of New England about the bountiful land he had explored the previous year. Published in 1616, the book’s title struck a responsive chord in English ears. So did Smith’s description of the New England coast, which had previously been known more for its forbidding than its inviting character. Smith’s New England coast was lined “all along [with] large corne fields, and great troupes of well proportioned people.” When the Pilgrims, dissatisfied with the religious intolerance of the Old World, began to think of immigration to the New, Smith offered his services to them. They declined in order “to save charges,” he noted, “saying my books and maps were much better cheape to teach them, than myselfe.” By the time the Pilgrims had arrived on the New England shore, most of the “corne fields and salvage gardens” were still there, but many of the natives had disappeared.

Of the approximately 25,000 Indians living between the Penobscot River and Narragansett Bay, perhaps one-third had succumbed to a series of mysterious plagues that struck in the years between Smith’s voyage and the Pilgrims’ landing. Smallpox, measles, and other European diseases to which the Indians lacked immunity had depopulated the land. The pious English interpreted this phenomenon as an expression of God’s providential concern for His people. The real source of the providence was more likely the explorers and fishermen who had visited the coast since the beginning of the century and perhaps even before.

The natives were enslaved as well as infected. One brutal sea captain named Thomas Hunt, whom a contemporary dismissed as “a worthless fellow of our nation,” kidnapped twenty-four friendly Indians during a voyage in 1614, took them to Malaga in southern Spain, and sold them into slavery. Through such contact, the coastal societies were devastated and disillusioned. One observer of the destruction wrought by European diseases along the New England coast noted that “the bones and skulls . . . made such a spectacle . . . that, as I travailed in that Forrest nere the Massachusetts, it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.”

Not surprisingly, the decimated natives at first showed little sign of themselves near Plymouth. On the first Christmas Day at the colony, the Pilgrims heard distant shouting and saw smoke rising some miles away. But when Miles Standish, the chief military man in the community, went to investigate, he found only empty huts.

Still, the Pilgrims, desperately weak from their voyage, lived in constant fear of attack. Their first real meeting with an Indian, however, was most amicable. The Plymouth leaders had gathered in March 1621 to discuss defenses when “a certaine Indian came bouldly amongst them, and spoke to them in broken English, which they could well understand. . . .” This astonishing apparition was Samoset, a Maine Indian, who had picked up the English tongue from coastal traders. The Pilgrim Fathers sat listening all afternoon and on into the night while he told them of the nearby tribes.

The natives nearest the Pilgrims were Wampanoags. Samoset left promising to return with some members of the tribe, and within a few days be was back with Massasoit, the grand sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoags, and an Indian named Tisquantum. This latter, whose name was shortened to Squanto by the Pilgrims, had been kidnapped, taken to England by a ship captain, and later returned to his native country. He was, in the words of Governor William Bradford, “a spetiall instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” His English was even better than Samoset’s, and he instructed the Pilgrims “how to set their corne, wher to take fish, and to procure other comodities, and was also their pilott to bring them to unknowne places for their profitt. . . .”

Squanto performed his first service to the colonists by arranging a treaty between them and Massasoit. In some pomp (a green carpet was laid on the ground for the comfort of the seated negotiators), the Pilgrims and Wampanoags agreed to avoid any injury to each other and to aid each other in repelling attacks by outside enemies.

The treaty proved a durable document. The peace it brought the Pilgrims allowed them to get their community firmly established and to learn something of the ways of their strange new allies. In 1621, the powerful Narraganset tribe sent the colony a bundle of arrows tied up in a rattlesnake skin, which Squanto interpreted as “a threatening and a challenge.” Governor Bradford removed the arrows, filled the skin with powder and shot, and returned it to its owners with the message that if they wanted war, they were welcome to begin it when they pleased. The Narragansets backed down.

A harsher example of Pilgrim sternness came two years later, when Bradford got word of a planned attack on the settlement of Wessagusett, a new community up the coast from Plymouth. The colonists there were a seamy lot who had courted trouble by various abuses, including stealing corn from the neighboring Massachuset Indians. Nevertheless, the people of Wessagusett were Englishmen, and their fate was linked to that of the Pilgrims, so Plymouth sent Captain Standish to the settlement. There, under the guise of conferring with Witawamet, chief of the Massachusetts and the suspected ringleader of the rumored attack, Standish lured him and his tribesmen from the woods into the open. At a signal from Standish, the English immediately killed all the Indians except Witawamet’s eighteen-year-old brother, whom they hanged a little later. The Massachusetts thus humbled, the Pilgrims took Witawamet’s head back to Plymouth and mounted it on the wall of their fort, where it grinned a warning to all Indians who would conspire against Englishmen.

Standish’s solution did not sit well with John Robinson, the spiritual mentor of the Pilgrims, who wrote from Holland, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you killed any!” “Besides,” he noted prophetically, “where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom staunched of a long time after.” The behavior of the Pilgrims’ military leader is reminiscent of the bullying tactics of Captain John Smith in Virginia. Thomas Prince, the eighteenth-century historian, observed that Standish “spread a Terror over all the Tribes of Indians round about him. . . .”

Whether Standish’s tactics were harmful or helpful to the colony, Plymouth survived and prospered during its first decade of existence. In the next decade, however, major decisions relating to war and peace in New England would be taken out of Plymouth’s hands by the dominance of the settlers who came in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay colony. The “Great Migration” from Europe that began that year was under the leadership of well-educated and well-established men such as John Winthrop. In proportion to its population, the Massachusetts Bay colony had more university graduates than England itself. Its aims were godly; its leaders shrewd. And it was powerful; by the middle of the decade, there were 8,000 people living in Massachusetts Bay, while Plymouth had not grown beyond 600.

Like their Plymouth counterparts, the Massachusetts Bay settlers landed in an area that had been cleared by the plague. Although welcomed by the surviving Indians, the new arrivals were frightened by reports of native cruelty. They feared men who, in their warfare, liked nothing more than to “tormente men in ye most bloodie maner that may be; fleaing some alive with ye shells of fishes, cutting of[f] ye members and joynts of others by peesmeale, and broiling on ye coals, eate ye collops of their flesh in their sight whilst they live; with other cruelties horrible to be related.”

Fear of this sort of treatment was evident in the instructions that Captain John Endecott, the agent of the New England Company in the Massachusetts Bay colony, received from overseas. “We trust you will not be unmindful of the mayne end of our plantation by indevoringe to bring the Indians to the knowledge of the gospell,” the communication began. But it concluded by reminding Endecott of the Virginia massacre, which had resulted from being “too confident of the ffidellitie of the salvages.”

The Massachusetts colonists were anything but confident. When, for example, on an early spring night in 1631 a man in Watertown innocently fired his musket into the air to scare wolves away from his cattle, the whole colony went on alert. People who lived within earshot spread the alarm, and before morning drums were beating in Boston and settlers were grabbing for their weapons.

Into this atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust flowed a steady stream of new settlers. And as the colonists migrated away from the ordered settlements of the bay into the Connecticut Valley, the causes of a future war began to take shape.

Most of the New England tribes were of the Algonquian linguistic family. Among those tribes were the Pequots (who with the Mohegan Indians were related to the Mahican Indians of the Hudson River area, whence they had originally come). By 1634, the Pequots, who jealously guarded their prerogatives against both the Narragansets on Narragansett Bay and the Dutch who had established trading posts up the Connecticut River, were confronted by English colonists in what the Pequots regarded as their domain along the lower reaches of the Connecticut Valley.

Into this volatile situation sailed one Captain John Stone. A coastal trader, Stone had managed to make himself unwelcome in every settlement north of Virginia. He had tried to steal a ship in New Amsterdam, had drawn a knife on the governor of Plymouth, had spoken “contemptuously . . . and lewdly” to officials in Massachusetts Bay, and had still found time along the way to be charged with drunkenness and adultery. With that gaudy record, Stone might as easily have been done in by white men as red. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the latter. One day while his ship was riding at anchor at the mouth of the Connecticut River, a band of Indians – not Pequots but members of a tribe dominated by the Pequots – swarmed aboard and massacred all hands.

Though Stone was a highly unsatisfactory martyr, English blood had been spilled, and the Massachusetts Bay authorities demanded that the Pequots surrender the murderers to English justice. Already at war with the Narragansets and Dutch, the Pequots found it prudent to be conciliatory toward this potential third enemy. They agreed to a treaty by which they promised to hand over Stone’s murderers along with a heavy indemnity. At the same time, Pequot spokesmen insisted that Stone’s killers had acted in retaliation for the murder of their chief, who had been kidnapped by a white trader and sent back dead after his ransom was paid. Whether the original deed had been committed by the Dutch or the English – the Pequots asserted that they could not tell one European from another – the Indians’ act of retaliation was at worst a tragic misunderstanding for which the Pequots begged pardon and offered reimbursement.

The new treaty failed to avert war. The Indians paid part of the indemnity but reported that those of Stone’s assassins who remained alive had fled and could not be taken. In July 1636, word came that another trading captain named Oldham had been killed by natives off Block Island. Again, the killers were not Pequots. Block Island was inhabited by Narragansets, but the English managed to include the Pequots in their plan of retaliation. Although Canonicus and Miantonomo, the Narraganset leaders, were quick to condemn and make reparations for the Block Island murder and pledged neutrality in the dispute with the Pequots, the Bay colony ordered Captain Endecott to take a force of ninety colonists and put to the sword all the men on Block Island. Once the Block Island males had been exterminated and the women and children taken for slaves, Endecott was to sail to Pequot territory on the Connecticut River, where some of the murderers of Oldham were rumored to have fled, and demand the killers of both Stone and Oldham along with 1,000 fathoms of wampum for reparation.

Endecott carried out his orders with merciless efficiency. His men tracked down the few Block Islanders they could find and, disappointed at running out of Indians to kill, chopped up the natives’ pet dogs. Leaving the ravaged island behind him, Endecott then sailed for Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where fort stood manned by Connecticut settlers.

Lieutenant Lion Gardiner, commanding the fort, received Endecott sullenly. “You come hither,” Gardiner complained, “to raise these wasps about my ears, and then you will take wing and flee away.” Ignoring Gardiner’s protests, Endecott sailed a few miles northeast to Pequot Harbor at the mouth of the Pequot (now Thames) River, where the Indians greeted him warmly, crying, “What cheer, Englishmen, what cheer, what do you come for?” When Endecott told them, the Pequot emissary sent to determine his purpose begged him to wait until the Pequot chiefs arrived on the scene so that the matter could be discussed in peace. Endecott, professing to see the Pequot request as a stratagem to deceive him, refused all demands for parley and “spent the day burning and spoyling the Countrey.”

His job done, Endecott sailed away, leaving Lieutenant Gardiner to watch his own prediction come true. The Pequots, having tried to avoid a fatal confrontation, now saw that the English intended to start a war. They came in force and invested the little fort at Saybrook, where they “made many proud challenges, and dared them out to fight.” A party from the fort went out, was nearly surrounded, and got back only with difficulty. One group of settlers fared worse. Three were killed outright, one was roasted to death, and one came floating past the fort a few days later with an arrow in his eye. Gardiner readied his works for a siege.

The Pequots, on their part, prepared for the war that was obviously coming by sending ambassadors to urge the Narragansets to join them against the English. Massachusetts Bay got wind of the Pequot embassy and sent to Rhode Island begging help from the clergyman Roger Williams, who was famous for his rapport with the natives. Williams had not long before been expelled from Massachusetts for his heretical teachings, and he must have taken a sour pleasure in the request. Nevertheless he responded nobly, at once setting out by canoe for Narraganset headquarters. “Three days and nights,” he wrote, “my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms, methought, wreaked with the blood of my countrymen . . . and from whom I could not but nightly look for their bloody knives at my own throat also.”

The Pequot spokesman insisted that if the Narragansets sided with the English, the English were sure to turn on them once the Pequots were out of the way. But Miantonomo, the chief of the Narragansets, had no love for the Pequots, and Williams prevailed upon him to reject the Pequot offer and ally himself with the English against them. Not long afterward, in March 1637, the Narragansets formalized the treaty with a gift to the Bay colony – forty fathoms of wampum and a Pequot hand.

Late in April, 200 Pequots attacked a group of colonists who were working in a field near Weathersfield, up the Connecticut River from the Saybrook fort. Nine settlers, a woman and child among them, were killed. The Indians paddled past the fort with the clothing of the murdered settlers held up on poles in a grim parody of English sailing ships.

While Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth worked to coordinate their attacks on the Pequots, Connecticut forces under Captain John Mason of Windsor, an able soldier who had seen action campaigning with the English in the Lowlands, were the first in the field.

On May 10, Mason set out from Hartford with ninety colonists and sixty Mohegans (a splinter group related to the Pequots but allied with the English) under Chief Uncas. The English were a little nervous about the loyalty of these Indian allies, but Uncas soon reassured them. No sooner had he reached the Saybrook fort than the Mohegan chief attacked a nearby Pequot party and returned with four heads and one prisoner. According to a contemporary account, the captive scornfully “braved the English, as though they durst not kill a Pequut.” Mason’s soldiers disabused the prisoner of this idea by tying one of his legs to a post and, manning a rope tied to the other leg, tearing him to pieces. Captain John Underhill arrived on the scene with a small contingent of Massachusetts soldiers in time to dispatch the terribly maimed captive with a pistol shot.

Mason and Underhill joined forces and moved against the main settlement of the Pequots. Though Mason was under orders to launch an amphibious assault against the chief Indian fort on Pequot Harbor, he decided that such a move was too risky. Instead, he proposed a flanking maneuver against a second Pequot fort up the coast on the Mystic River; this would allow the English to sail past the main stronghold and debark in Narraganset territory, where native allies could be recruited to help in the attack.

The English obtained 600 Narraganset and Eastern Niantic warriors under a chieftain named Ninigret for the expedition. Though some of the latter melted away as the army moved toward the fort, Mason still had a strong force when he approached the Pequot camp on the evening of May 25. Mason asked the nervous Narragansets to remain in an outer circle around the fort while the English undertook to show them how Englishmen could fight. The captain and his men went to sleep that night listening to the Pequots noisily celebrating the arrival of 150 warriors who had just come in from outlying villages to help fight the English.

Mason stormed the fort at dawn. The English forces crept to within a few feet of the palisades, fired a hasty volley, and swarmed inside through the two entrances at opposite ends of the camp. Though taken by surprise, the Pequots fought fiercely and stubbornly, “with a resolution that would have done honour to Romans,” as the historian Benjamin Trumbull later put it. As the struggle continued, Mason abandoned his plan to seize the camp intact for its booty, grabbed a firebrand, and set it aflame. As the eighty closely packed huts, which housed 800 Indians, went up in smoke, the Pequots poured out of the stockade to meet death from English and Narraganset swords and muskets. Others – hundreds of them – remained huddled inside the huts and were burned, women and children, old and young, “in promiscuous ruin.”

The massacre was over in half an hour. According to Underhill, his Narraganset allies were appalled by the ferocity of the settlers. “Mach it, mach it,” they cried, “it is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slaies too many men.” Something of the shock the Narragansets must have felt at this glimpse of how settlers waged war is indicated by Underhill’s assessment of native tactics. “They come not near one another,” he wrote, “but shoot remote, and not point-blank, as we often do with our bullets, but at rovers, and then they gaze up into the sky to see where the arrow falls, and not until it is fallen do they shoot again. This fight is more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies. . . . They might fight seven years and not kill seven men.”

The English suffered only slight losses in the attack – two men killed and about twenty wounded. Behind the English terror tactics was a theological imperative, “In a word,” as Captain Mason put it, “the Lord was as it were pleased to say unto us, The Land of Canaan will I give unto thee tho’ but few and strangers in it. . . .” Underhill found the justification equally simple; citing David’s war, he noted that “we had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

Stunned by the total victory of the English, the remaining Pequots in the area fled, led by Sassacus, their sachem. But they were slowed down by women and children, and the pursuing English trapped them in a swamp near New Haven. Old men, women, and children were allowed to come out unmolested. Eighty warriors refused to surrender and tried to break through the English cordon on July 14. Twenty of them made it; the rest retreated back into the swamp. When the colonists went in to ferret them out, they found the natives huddled close together on the ground. The English charged their muskets with ten or twelve balls apiece and tore apart the beaten Indians at close range.

Among those who had escaped was Sassacus, but there was no sanctuary for him or his followers. Other tribes, getting word of what the white soldiers could do, were quick to send the victors Pequot heads in hopes of placating them. Sassacus’s head arrived early in August, sent by the Mohawks he had approached for asylum.

The few beaten remnants of the tribe sued for peace, which they got on harsh terms. The Treaty of Hartford, signed on September 21, 1638, stipulated that they be divided as vassals among the settlers’ Indian allies; eighty to Uncas and his Mohegans; eighty to Miantonomo and his Narragansets; twenty to Ninigret and his Niantics. The name of the tribe was to be erased from the lexicon even of the surviving Pequots, who were forced to assume the identity of their new hosts and denied the right to live in their old homeland. In the same treaty, the English, now in a position of dominance, forbade the Mohegans and Narragansets to war against each other without the permission of the colonists.