- Historic Sites
Champlain Among The Mohawk, 1609
A Soldier-Humanist Fights a War for Peace in North America
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
Champlain peered through the ranks of his allies and studied the Mohawk as they emerged from their barricade. He counted 200 warriors, “strong and robust men in their appearance,” and he watched as “they advanced slowly to meet us with a gravity and assurance that I greatly admired.” The Mohawk were in tight ranks—a disciplined close-order forest phalanx that had defeated many foes. Their wooden armor and shields covered their bodies. In the front were two Mohawks, each wearing three high feathers above their heads. Champlain’s Indians told him that the men with the big feathers were chiefs, and “I was to do what I could to kill them.”
Champlain’s Indian allies were now about 200 yards from the Mohawk, and they began to move forward also in close formation. Once again Champlain kept behind them, remaining invisible to the other side. On Champlain’s orders, the other two Frenchmen slipped into the forest and crept forward around the right flank of the Mohawk.
When they were about 50 yards from their enemy, Champlain’s allies parted. Champlain strode forward alone until 30 yards from the enemy. The Mohawk stopped in amazement and studied this astonishing figure who wore a burnished steel cuirass and helmet that glittered in the golden light of the morning sun. Then a Mohawk leader raised his bow.
Champlain tells us, “I put my arquebus against my cheek and aimed straight at one of the chiefs.” As the Mohawk drew their bowstrings, Champlain fired. There was a mighty crash and a cloud of white smoke. Two chiefs fell dead, and another warrior was mortally wounded—three men brought down by one shot. Champlain’s Indian allies raised a great shout, so loud that “one could not have heard the thunder.”
The Mohawk were stunned and “greatly frightened.” Even so, they fought back bravely. Both sides fired clouds of arrows, and Champlain reloaded his weapon. As he did so, his two French companions emerged on the edge of the forest. They appear to have been veteran fighters—skilled arquebusiers and highly disciplined soldiers. Using the trees for cover, they knelt side by side, steadied their weapons, and took aim. “As I was reloading my arquebus,” Champlain wrote, “one of my companions fired a shot from the woods.” This second blow was delivered into the flank of the Mohawk formation, and it had a devastating effect. A third chief went down. The tight Mohawk formation shuddered in a strange way and suddenly came apart. “It astonished them so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage, took to their heels, and abandoned the field and their fort, fleeing into the depth of the forest.” Champlain led his Indian allies in a headlong charge. “I pursued them, and laid low still more of them.”
Many historians have criticized Champlain for going to war with the Iroquois. Some have written that he initiated hostilities that would continue for two centuries. In the late 20th century, ethnohistorians studying this question came to a different conclusion. They agreed that he did not start these wars, but that the fighting had been going on between the Mohawk and their neighbors to the north long before he arrived.
Further, Iroquois ethnologist William N. Fenton writes, “Nineteenth-century historians to the contrary, this incident did not precipitate a hundred years of Mohawk vengeance against New France.” It put a stop to major fighting between the Mohawk and the French for a generation. An ethnologist of the Huron agrees. Bruce Trigger writes of the two battles: “This was the last time that the Mohawks were a serious threat along the St. Lawrence River until the 1630s. Having suffered serious losses in two successive encounters, they avoided armed Frenchmen.”
After the battles at Ticonderoga and the Rivière des Iroquois, the Mohawk made several peace overtures to the French. Champlain, however, could not find a way to make lasting peace with the Iroquois without alienating the Montagnais, Algonquian, and Huron. Even so, he hoped for a modus vivendi between the French and the Mohawk, and he achieved it. A fragile quasi peace was won by force of arms, and it continued for a generation, until 1634. The leaders who followed Champlain in Quebec and Paris (also in Boston, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and London) were unable to keep it going. They used too much force or too little. Champlain’s policy effected a middle way of peace through the carefully calibrated use of limited force. We are only beginning to understand how he did it.
Portions of this essay were adapted from Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer © 2008. Printed with the permission of Simon & Schuster.