The First Warriors

A Continent Already Inhabited

Settled First Nations

Typical town of the north-eastern Amerindians

Caption: Typical town of the north-eastern Amerindians

All the latter peoples were essentially nomads, living by hunting and fishing. On the other hand, the Iroquoian group (Hurons, Iroquois, Neutrals, and Tobaccos or Petuns) living in the St. Lawrence Valley, southern Quebec and Ontario, and the western part of New York state, were already sedentary, depending largely on agriculture and living in villages.

Among the peoples of the northeast, the Iroquoians were apparently the most militarized. They were also the only group to have formed associations: the Huron Confederacy, formed around 1440, and the Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy, going back to about 1560. The latter played a prominent role in the history of the French colony in Canada and included the Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas and Senecas.

The Iroquois and Hurons lived in fortified villages, surrounded by palisades. These were elaborate defensive works. For instance, the fortification at Hochelaga, on the site where Montreal now stands, was "round and enclosed by three rows of wood, pyramidal in shape, crossed at the top," and about nine metres high. The top of the palisade was covered "with kinds of galleries and ladders to reach them, containing rocks and stones." There was only one gate, which "closed with a bar." 1 Huron villages were also usually well fortified with "four strong palisades of large pieces of wood, all interlaced ... and 30 feet in height, with galleries like parapets." 2 These types of fortifications were common in Huron and Iroquois villages.

Archeological excavations have confirmed that a row of stakes sometimes ran around the outside of the main palisade and that the inside of the enclosure was always round or oval. In general, these buildings bore some resemblance to the wooden forts built in northwestern Europe during the Dark Ages.

Villages of lesser importance and isolated posts were also fortified, though more modestly. One small wooden fort built by the Iroquois was "made of large trees, arranged one over the other in a circle," 3 so that the surrounding palisade was relatively low. The description of a Huron attack on this little stronghold reveals a few of the methods that Amerindians used to lay seige to enemy camps. The Hurons approached the palisade they wanted to breach, hiding behind large, movable wooden walls. Then they knocked down the largest trees near the palisade so that the trees fell on it. Still shielded by their movable walls, they then attempted to attach ropes to the support pillars and pull them down.

The Iroquoians were not the only native people to erect such imposing fortifications in North America. In the Mississippi Valley, the site of many different pre-Columbian civilizations, numerous forts were constructed by various peoples who had disappeared by the time the white men arrived. Around 1,200 A.D., the great city of Cahokia (near the present city of Collinsville, Illinois) was enclosed by a palisade four or five metres in height, punctuated with numerous guard towers and surrounded by a moat. These fortifications provided protection for a population of about 20,000 people. Recent archeological excavations at the Kitwanga fort on the upper Skeena River in British Columbia have confirmed that the 16 Amerindian nations on the Pacific coast also constructed elaborate fortifications. The building of fortifications was not confined to sedentary peoples. For example, the nomadic Amerindians of the northern Great Plains occasionally erected wooden huts surrounded by small palisades as a kind of temporary fortification.