Wars in the East

By Richard Salzberg © 2012


“All you have to do is think of the names,” he was saying.

“What names – ?”

“The names of places in the East that might sound strange the first time you hear them, then you sort of just take them for granted. Then you might think about them a minute, and you realize they make no sense at all. Rivers, too.” He nodded as if there was one nearby. “I mean, what does ‘Mississippi’ mean?”

“All Indian names. . . how about, like. . . Ohio?”

“Sure. Even Kentucky. Indian names. In the East. States, cities, and small towns, everywhere. Think about it. . .”

“Is that some of your. . . ‘toponymy’ – is that how you say it?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what it is.”

 ¶      ¶      ¶      ¶

When he was shot and killed in front of his young sons in 1786 by an Indian in hiding as he cleared land for his new farm in far western Virginia (now Kentucky), Abraham Lincoln – Revolutionary War veteran, pioneer, and grandfather and namesake of the future president – became a tragic part of the historical circumstances known as the Colonial Wars. His death and its context provide important material for consideration.

French & Indian Warrior 6-15-13No one is certain yet which ancient peoples were displaced in North America by the Native Americans first encountered by Europeans in the New World, although it is likely that their tribal mix was as myriad as that of their usurpers. But there is no doubt that from their very earliest encounters, the relationship between the Indians (used here simply as an easier term) and Europeans – and subsequently, colonial “Americans” – was characterized by mistrust, violence, and war.  

In his Editor’s Preface for Howard H. Peckham’s “The Colonial Wars 1689-1762” (1964), referring to lands east of the Mississippi, as are we, Daniel J. Boorstin writes that America’s colonial wars “. . . are among the most dramatic and least understood in our history. . . From a European capital the backwoods battles might have seemed only episodes in a continuing, far-flung struggle for empire. But the American remained at the scene of battle. Long after the bands of European soldiers had dissolved or returned across the Atlantic, he reaped a deadly harvest.”

What needs to be remembered is that the term “American” should include all who lived here. The Indian Wars which claimed the life of the elder Abraham Lincoln and countless thousands of others could be described as a series of internecine conflicts, characterized by a cross-cultural familiarity and a level of ferocity on both sides which even today is hard to imagine. These centuries-long wars were also responsible for a very early and popular genre of American literature now generally forgotten – first-hand accounts of their experiences by former captives of the Indians.

In the book “Scalps and Tomahawks: Narratives of Indian Captivity” (1961), editor Frederick Drimmer states: “When serious trouble erupted between the white man and the Indian, its cause could usually be summed up in a single word: land. The number of settlers was always increasing and they kept pressing westward, hungry for more and better land. Frequently the Indian’s best hunting grounds were taken from him by treaties that he signed but did not understand, or frontiersmen moved in on territory without his consent.”

Less considered are any periods and examples of relatively peaceful interaction and practical respect between neighboring communities. However, once set, the fires of greed and revenge spurred ravages now only dimly remembered, if at all.

The national character of the settlers, the newest “Americans,” was just emerging, while that of the Indians had been evolving for many centuries and was characterized by venerated traditions and a complexity borne of the sheer number of the tribes and their long histories. If the Indian nations were to be removed from their own lands, it would not be without resistance.

•  In 1755, James Smith was an 18-year old road builder for the army of General Edward Braddock, the ill-fated commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America. Captured by Indians allied with the French in the wilderness near what today is Bedford, Pennsylvania, Smith was very fortunate to be spared and actually adopted into the Caughnawagas, a tribe related to the Mohawks. In his “An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith” (1799), he wrote: “. . . I never knew them to make any distinction between me and themselves in any respect whatsoever. If they had plenty of clothing, I had plenty; if we were scarce of provisions, we all shared one fate.” Although exceptional, his treatment was not entirely unique; but for every such account there are hundreds which reflect the terrors of the day.

Smith’s adventures and observations during five years of captivity, spent mostly in the area that became Ohio, are fascinating and telling, as when he recalled an exchange with one of his adoptive brothers during a hunt. . .   

         I remember that Tecaughretanego, when something displeased him, said, “God damn it!”

         “Do you know what you have said?” I asked him once.

         “I do” – and he mentioned one of their degrading expressions which he supposed to have the same meaning.

         “That doesn’t bear the least resemblance to it – what you said was calling upon the Great Spirit to punish the object you were displeased with.”

He stood for some time amazed. “If this be the meaning of these words, what sort of people are the whites? When the traders were among us these words seemed intermixed with all their discourse. You must be mistaken. If you are not, the traders applied these words not only wickedly, but oftentimes very foolishly. I remember a trader accidently broke his gun lock and called out aloud, ‘God damn it!’ Surely the gun lock was not an object worthy of punishment by Owaneeyo, the Great Spirit.”  

•  Daniel Boone’s birthday is considered to be on October 22 by most (although many consider it to be on November 2). Being long-lived (1734–1820) and a household name even in his own time did not spare the legendary pioneer and explorer the defining tragedy of the period. Although respected by colonials and Indians alike, Boone could not spare his children from the danger of the times. The ambush and death of his 16-year old son James in a 1773 massacre is as strong an account as can be found in any history. 

Murdered horribly with five others near what is now Stickleyville, Virginia, James Boone had been sent ahead of the main party of a group led by his father which had followed him up from the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina in his first attempt to settle the vast western expanse known as Kentucky, “the garden of the West.” There had been no sign of hostile Indians, but in the early morning of October 10, the young men were attacked by a war party of Delaware, Shawnee and Cherokee Indians. Based on vivid description by the only survivor, by early December “the attack was reported in newspapers as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia.”

Perhaps most horrific in the account was reported in the Middlesboro Times News (Kentucky) on February 21, 1951: “Among the band was an Indian, called Big Jim, who had often visited the Boone home in North Carolina. Young James pleaded with him to show mercy, reminding him of the friendship his father had shown him. But all to no avail.”  

Whether or not he was in this party that turned back, as some have said, or the second one which successfully made its way to the new territory 18 months later. . . “There is little doubt that it was on account of his association with the famous Daniel Boone that (the elder) Abraham Lincoln went to Kentucky. The families had for a century been closely allied. There were frequent intermarriages.” – John Nicolay (1832–1901), Secretary and biographer of President Abraham Lincoln.

Although the buffalo and great elk hunted by James Smith and Daniel Boone are long gone, old myths of the South – both colonial and Indian – frequently refer to the relationship between special souls and the deer of the forest. Around the Alleghenies, the Appalachians, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, “those western lands east of the Mississippi,” large numbers of deer still roam, still ranging free and unfettered.

When glimpsed at a distance, especially under moonlight, or a wide fiery sky above the mountains at sunset, there is something somehow reassuring in the sight of these creatures; perhaps because they connect us to a part of all that occurred with the early Americans in those parts.

         – Finis  –                       


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