By Dale Cozort
The Huron/Iroquois war certainly ranks in there as a lesser-known section of history, but as you'll see as this scenario unfolds, it had a very important impact in determining the direction of US and Canadian history. Part of the point of this scenario is to illustrate that little-known events can have large ramifications.
Background: Most people will need a little background information for this scenario. In the late 1640s, four groups of European settlers played a role in north-eastern North America. In descending order of numbers and power, they were the New England Puritans, the French in Canada, the Dutch in what is now New York and a tiny Swedish colony in New Jersey. These settlers occupied a fraction of the continent.
A bewildering array of Indian tribes occupied North America. Those tribes have traditionally been broken down by language group. Two major Indian language groups dominated northeastern North America. Algonquian speakers like the Narragansett, Mohegan, Ojibwa and many others, formed a shell around the Iroquois speaking tribes like the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Hurons, the Erie and the Susquehanna. For much of the interior, especially Ohio and Kentucky, the language, and even the tribal names of the Indians who lived there in the 1640s, is unknown. The tribes in those areas were shattered by epidemics and wars before Europeans met them. Based on very limited evidence, there may have been a belt of Souian-speaking tribes in this area.
Large-scale agriculture spread from the interior of North America toward the coasts, starting around 600 AD. As it spread, so did larger populations and sophisticated political organizations. Large-scale agriculture reached the east coast of North America a short time before Europeans contacted Indians there. In parts of the interior, it had been around for close to a thousand years. Interior tribes, especially the Iroquois-speaking ones, had more time to develop large populations and sophisticated political organizations than coastal tribes. The interior tribes should have posed a major barrier to European settlement. They should have been a major factor in the balance of power between the French and English in North America. But, except for the five nations of the Iroquois, they didn't. Why not? The Huron/League of Iroquois war was the key.
Why was the Huron/Iroquois war important? First, the Hurons themselves were important. They were a large tribe—twenty thousand to thirty-five thousand people before European diseases took their toll, probably still more than ten-thousand in 1648. That population ranked them up there with the total of the five League of Iroquois tribes. It was also roughly comparable to that of the Cherokees and made them among the largest Indian groups in North America as of 1640.
They spoke the same Iroquois language as the members of the Iroquois Confederacy who defeated them, and were broadly similarly culturally. They lived in longhouses clustered in fortified towns. Some of those towns were large by Indian standards. One Huron town had at least three-thousand people, possibly as many as fifty-five hundred.
The Hurons were also economically important. They ran a huge trading network that carried corn and beans to Indians too far north to farm and brought back fur and other products from the northern tribes. That trading network got bigger and more important after European contact. The Hurons were a major player in the fur trade.
Second, defeat of the Hurons set a pattern for future Iroquois wars. The Iroquois victory in this war changed the face of Indian warfare. It was a war of annihilation and annexation not of skirmishes. It set the pattern for Iroquois wars for the next seventy or eighty years. Through the 1650s, the Iroquois Confederacy destroyed three more major Iroquois-speaking tribes, and scattered others. After a brief pause in the late 1660s and early 1670s, they went back on the offensive in the 1670s and 1680s. Raids by the five nations Iroquois in the 1670s and 1680s helped empty the once densely populated Ohio River valley, destroying tribes so thoroughly that even their names have been lost. Archeologists know some of these towns were inhabited until the 1670s because they had European trade goods from that time. The Iroquois eventually raided south to South Carolina and as far west as Illinois.
These victories by the Iroquois Confederacy made English settlement of the interior of North America much easier. They eliminated key French allies and left large areas that had been densely populated almost deserted.
What actually happened:
Between 1648 and 1650, the Iroquois Confederacy decisively defeated the Hurons, turning them from a prosperous tribe to a tiny remnant of refugees. Huron country was emptied. Fugitive Hurons scattered to neighboring tribes.
The Hurons could have won. The two sides were evenly matched in numbers and the Hurons were formidable warriors.
The Iroquois Confederacy won partly because they surprised the Hurons, attacking their towns during the winter with a huge raiding party—more than a thousand men. Both the winter attack and the large number of raiders were innovations in Indian warfare. The Iroquois also had an advantage in that they were better armed. The Dutch in New Amsterdam (what is now New York) had recently sold them three hundred muskets. The Hurons had some guns, but nowhere near that many.
The Hurons fought back hard, but in a piecemeal fashion, allowing the Iroquois Confederacy to defeat their forces a few hundred men at a time. The Hurons killed around three hundred of the invaders, but lost more men themselves.
More important, the Hurons lost confidence in their ability to defend their remaining towns. After the invaders left, surviving Hurons split up. They burned their towns to keep the Iroquois from using them as bases and scattered. Some took refuge with neighboring tribes. A large faction, including an entire town, defected to the Iroquois and became part of the Seneca tribe. Around five thousand Hurons fled to a French mission on a barren island, where all but a few hundred starved.
What Might Have Happened:
The Iroquois war party spent part of the winter in Huron country before attacking. If they had been detected during that time, the Hurons could have organized a response, launching a surprise attack on the war party before it attacked them. The two sides were evenly matched enough that surprise could have given the Hurons victory, routing the Iroquois. If the Iroquois lost three-hundred men in their successful surprise attack, they could easily have lost twice as many in a successful Huron one. The survivors would have to get back to Iroquois country in the winter with little food or shelter.
Let's say less than three hundred of the thousand Iroquois warriors make it back to their villages. Most are in bad shape from exposure. Most of their muskets are abandoned back in Huron country. Given an Iroquois population of around ten-thousand, the five tribes would start with around twenty-five-hundred men of fighting age. They just lost twenty-five to thirty percent of those men, probably the most effective warriors. The survivors are demoralized by the rout and many are wounded.
The Iroquois tribes are not all equally hard-hit. Some of them opposed the war and didn't contribute to the war party. The hardest hit tribes lose half their male populations. Losses like that put the league of Iroquois in jeopardy. The five tribes banded together in the first place because they were surrounded by enemies.
As news of the Iroquois defeat spreads, those enemies become active. The Mahicans push back into their old territory around the Dutch trading post at Fort Orange, cutting the five nations Iroquois off from Dutch muskets and gunpowder. A coalition of tribes from the upper Connecticut River valley attacks the Mohawks, with support from New England Puritans. The Mohawks are allied with the Dutch, and the English want to use New England tribes to destroy their power. The Hurons attack from the north, while the Susquehanna Indians attack from the south. The Hurons are well armed with captured muskets, while the Susquehanna are very well armed through their alliance with New Sweden.
The coalition against them is too much for the weakened league of Iroquois tribes. The league disintegrates. A lot of Mohawks seek refuge among their allies, the Narragansetts of Rhode Island. The Mahicans or the Connecticut River tribes capture others. Many Seneca women and children are incorporated into the Hurons. Others become part of the Susquehanna. Neighboring tribes allow remnants of the three remaining tribes to stay in part of their homeland. They gradually lose their tribal identities and become a poor, isolated tribe in upstate New York.
In the short-term the French are the major winners. The Hurons control the fur trade, and the French control the Hurons. The Iroquois had been threatening trade routes between Huron country and Montreal. They can no longer do that. The Dutch lose their major Indian allies, and influence over most of upper New York. Coastal Indians also threaten them at New Amsterdam. The Mohawks had kept those Indians in check, but with the Mohawks defeated, they become a threat again.
The Huron trade network stays in operation, and expands, bringing European trade goods to a huge area of eastern North America. The Susquehanna use their newly won territory to spread their own trade. Trade goods filter through the Susquehanna to the Ohio River tribes.
The Hurons sometimes bully other tribes, but they are traders. They don't launch wars of extermination. Dozens of tribes throughout eastern North America remain in their traditional territories instead of being exterminated or driven out.
Middle term Consequences (1650-1675):
The French find their victory transient. French trade goods are not as good or as cheap as Dutch or English goods. The Hurons were already split into Catholic and Traditionalist factions by 1648. The Traditionalist factions become more alienated as Huron Catholics become stronger. The Traditionalists are reinforced by traditionalist Seneca who are adopted into the Hurons. They want to redirect trade to New England or New Amsterdam, as do some Catholic Hurons. Traditionalist Hurons filter into part of the old Iroquois territory in New Amsterdam, and trade with the Dutch through Mahicans middlemen.
European trade goods reach farther and farther into the interior of North America. They start or fuel wars, as tribes fight over good trade routes. If one tribe gets muskets before their neighbors do, the lucky tribe often destroys their neighbors. Diseases spread from European colonies to the Indians. Those diseases don't spread into the interior as quickly as they did historically because the Hurons guard their control of the trade routes, keeping French traders out of the interior.
Without the League of Iroquois in the way, Huron trade expands quickly to the west and south. It meets existing Indian trade routes along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri River valleys. There is a huge demand for European beads, knives, axes, cloth, pots and especially guns throughout the region. Guns spread slowly. It takes a while to learn how to use them effectively. Other goods spread quickly, becoming prestige items throughout the interior. European metal goods are too valuable to be left in one piece. They are reshaped for Indian use—brass pots become hundreds of arrowheads or ornaments.
In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a multicornered cold war brews. English Catholics in Maryland claim Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as do the Dutch and the tiny post of New Sweden. The Susquehanna and a chain of conquered or allied tribes hold the balance of power. Historically, the Dutch conquered New Sweden, then were conquered by the English. In this timeline the Dutch are weakened enough by the collapse of their Iroquois allies that they don't tackle New Sweden. The English of New England initially infiltrate New Amsterdam rather than conquering it. Puritan traders push into upper New York, following their New England Indian allies.
Long-term Consequences: This gets difficult to predict in detail. Let's take the impact on European settlements first, then look at what happens to the Indians.
Consequences for European colonies:
The Dutch: The Dutch will lose out to the English eventually. They are too close to New England and too small to survive long-term. The only real question is how long it will be before the English take over. In this timeline the Dutch will probably lose control of northern New York earlier, but hang on to the southern part until about when they lost it historically. One wild card is a possible revolt of the tribes of southern New York. The Dutch fought a bloody but inconclusive war with those tribes in the 1640s. With the League of Iroquois removed from the equation, that war might resume. The Dutch population was small enough that the Indians could force them to accept "help" from the New England colonies, which would be fatal for the Dutch. The Dutch are no longer independent by the mid-1670s. There is intense rivalry between the royal governor of New York and the New England colonies, even more than there was historically because New Englanders are trading into upstate New York.
The French: The French turn out to be the big losers in all of this. Historically, they spread to the interior eastern United States early because the Hurons weren't there to protect their trade routes. The French could also be useful to interior tribes as a counterbalance to the Iroquois. Neither of those factors works in this timeline. The Hurons work hard to protect their trade. They no longer need the French as allies against the Iroquois or as trading partners. That means that the Louisiana settlement is delayed because historically the French discovered the Mississippi from the interior, ultimately from Canada.
Oddly, the Mississippi was almost impossible to find from the sea due to the many channels through the delta at its mouth. If they hadn't come from the interior, France might not have founded Louisiana. On the other hand, France was in a colonizing mood. They might have directed their energies elsewhere. A renegade former Spanish governor of New Mexico was touring Europe, trying to find a European power to invade New Mexico. He might have directed French (or English, or both) energy toward a colony in Texas as a base for attacking New Mexico. This has consequences for France in Europe—no Louisiana bubble—which has a lot of financial implications for wealthy Frenchmen.
As France and England become global rivals, the North American part of that rivalry is altered. The French aren't in the interior of North America as early. The French and Indian wars start out focused on the north. The Hurons try desperately to stay out of those wars. They have a large pro-French Catholic population and a large pro-English Traditionalist population. Both factions are better off if they can trade with both the French and English, and they know it. They may be able to stay out of the first few French/English wars, but they'll probably eventually splinter into pro-French and pro-English factions.
New England: New England stays involved in the Indian fur trade longer than it did historically because the Dutch, and later the royal governors of New York, can't block them from the western part of it. New England Indians have more maneuvering room because they can move into the vacuum in former League of Iroquois territory as New England's frontier expands toward them.
Those two factors delay King Phillip's war (where the indigenous inhabitants of New England attempted to drive out the English) long enough that it merges with the French/English wars. At first that helps New England. King Phillip's war drained New England financially and militarily. It made it easier for the English crown to reassert royal authority over the colonies. Some authors have speculated that New England might have tried to declare independence in the late 1600s if King Phillip's war hadn't happened. New England is more independence-minded, at least until the French/English wars start. Then the delay of King Phillip's war becomes a negative as New England faces a longer and more draining battle with its Indians once that battle comes.
Maryland and Virginia: The fall of the Iroquois has an impact here. In this timeline Maryland and Virginia don't have to set up an elaborate system of Indian buffer states to protect the frontier against Iroquois raids. On the other hand, the Susquehanna are more powerful, and that might cause the same sort of alliances. As the Huron trade network expands, traders from Virginia and Maryland find themselves competing against the Hurons or their local partners. Bacon's rebellion doesn't happen, at least not the same way. It started partly as a reaction to Iroquois raids into Virginia.
English in the Deep South: The ripples keep spreading. There is a real possibility that they could affect the founding of South Carolina. If the attempt to settle South Carolina happens on schedule, it finds a very different situation. South Carolina traders have to compete with Indians from the Huron trading network stretching back to New York. Also, that Indian trade has already reached the frontiers of Spanish missions in Georgia and Florida. It alarms Spanish authorities, who have always been very concerned about other Europeans encroaching on their colonies.
The Spanish are in a steep decline. They react sluggishly and belatedly to threats. Given enough time though, they could still bring significant power to bear. In this timeline, European trade goods arriving at their border stimulates Spanish fears, and they devote more energy to combating the threat from South Carolina in the early days of the colony.
Eventually, some English group will succeed in colonizing South Carolina. Spanish power kept the English from moving south from Virginia in the early 1600s, but that power fades enough by the last half of the century that someone will move into the vacuum. If Spain reacts vigorously, and destroys South Carolina in its infancy, the process might take longer, but by 1700 the English will move into the area. How that happened is important though. Historically, South Carolina was colonized from Barbados. The settlers brought a system of slave-based large-scale plantation agriculture with them. If South Carolina had been settled from Virginia or North Carolina, or even New England, the economy of the south could have developed in very different ways.
Another possibility: If South Carolina fails, potential colonists from Barbados might go elsewhere—possibly to Texas or northern Mexico. I talked about the reasoning behind that in the French section.
Even if the same people colonize South Carolina on schedule, two of the colony’s early Indian allies will be missing. The Westos were probably Iroquois speaking refugees from the north—possibly remnants of the Erie. South Carolina used them in a nasty Indian slave trade, then used refugee Shawnees to destroy the Westos when they became too powerful. South Carolina would have probably found other allies, but it might have taken longer to establish the slave trade.
Trade competition and Spanish threats slow South Carolina's expansions in this timeline. That has major consequences, especially for Indians.
Consequences for Spain: Florida might not be essentially emptied of its Indians by slave raids organized by South Carolina in the early 1700s. I've already explored the implications of that. On the other hand, if the French don't found Louisiana, and don't settle in Texas, the Spanish don't settle in Texas either, at least not until later. Spanish Texas was a defensive reaction to French settlements in Louisiana.
If the French or English settle in Texas and try to use it as a base to invade New Mexico, the Spanish have major problems. They faced large Indian revolts throughout New Mexico and northern Mexico in the late 1600s. A French colony in Texas could help those revolts succeed, peeling back layers of Spanish settlement in northern Mexico and threatening vital gold and silver producing areas.
Consequences for Indians: The fate of dozens of tribes is altered. The impact would be felt all over the eastern half of the United States. Historically, groups shattered by wars and epidemics were absorbed into stronger tribes. Tribal identity was often not particularly strong. Adopted people from other tribes often outnumbered native-born tribesmen in the League of Iroquois. Most historically important tribes did not exist as political entities before the Europeans arrived. They formed as a response to diseases and wars that accompanied the Europeans. Tribes had ideal population levels that they needed to fill the roles necessary for proper functioning, and when epidemics or war reduced the populations below those numbers, they tried to maintain the "correct" size by merging with neighboring tribes.
As disease and wars decreased their numbers, the Indians of the northeast would form into several major groupings—much like the five civilized tribes of the southeast. One might be based on the Traditionalist Hurons in the old Seneca country. Another could form around the Susquehanna and their allies—probably including the Shawnees and unknown tribes of western Pennsylvania. Another might form around the Erie of northern Ohio. The Narragansetts might form one. Catholic Hurons might form another group, though more direct contact with the French would made them vulnerable to disease early in the game.
Further west, it is impossible to guess what would happen. Historically, the Illinois Indians were a large group when the French first contacted them—more than ten-thousand people. They were essentially exterminated by Iroquois attacks, disease and wars with neighboring tribes. Depending on how effective the Hurons were at keeping the French out of their trading empire, the Illinois might have remained a major group.
The impact of Huron victory could keep rippling in surprising ways. The Hurons tried to keep French traders out of their trading territory, and were usually successful until their defeat. Let's say the Hurons continue to keep the French out of the fur trade to the west. That tribe keeps extending its network, trading with both the French and whoever controls New York—but primarily with New York because prices are lower and goods are better.
The fur trade has to keep moving west because it locally exterminates the most lucrative fur-bearing animals. Through Indian middlemen, the fur trade reaches the Mississippi and Missouri River valleys by 1660. It also reaches into the American southeast, where tribes like the Creeks, Cherokees and Choctaws welcome the relatively cheap trade goods.
In Florida and Georgia, Spanish mission settlements see a trickle of European trade goods. A few trade goods even reach the New Mexican frontier. Some goods come from Virginia. Others come through Huron trade networks ultimately from New York. The Spanish are alarmed by signs that other European powers are encroaching on their territory. We've already looked at potential consequences to South Carolina.
The balance of Indian power on the Great Plains is affected in several ways. Historically, the winners on the Great Plains were tribes that got horses and guns before their neighbors. Some sections of the Plains changed hands two or three times before the frontier reached them, as one tribe then another gained an advantage based on European technology.
In this timeline, there are several potential impacts. First, European trade goods reach the area sooner. Second, because Louisiana is not founded, trade goods may be less plentiful. They have to be brought in from the east rather than just up the Mississippi. If either the English or the French or both try to settle Texas, that has a huge impact on the tribal balance of power, as tribes near the Texas coast gain a major military advantage.
On the eastern fringe of the Great Plains, Caddoan-speaking tribes like the Pawnees start getting European trade goods. That helps them in their fight against Plains Apache raiders. The Pawnees do better initially because they get trade goods earlier, but it takes longer for them to get guns, which alters the balance in favor of the Apaches later. The Comanche/Plains Apache struggle is more even because Comanches don't get secure access to French guns.
The Jumanos Indians begin carrying trade goods across the plains to New Mexico and northern Mexico. That alarms Spanish authorities. Even without French or English settlement in Texas, that trade may threaten Spanish settlement in northern Mexico. In the late 1600s, there are plenty of Indians in northern Mexico who would love to toss out the Spaniards, and trade goods reaching there earlier might give those Indians the edge they need to make it happen.
In the southeast, thousands more Indians survive into the 1700s, especially if Spain nips South Carolina's settlement in the bud. South Carolina sponsored a destructive Indian slave trade that caused tribal wars, and helped spread disease as enslaved Indians escaped carrying malaria and later yellow fever. Delaying the founding of Louisiana also has an impact, allowing tribes like the Natchez to survive into the late 1700s.
If the Natchez and related tribes managed to keep their culture intact until European settlements reach them, it would be interesting to see how well their aristocratic culture held up under contact with settlers. I suspect it would be more vulnerable than more tribal Indians. The Natchez might preserve some remnants of the old Mississippian culture long enough for Europeans to record more details, though technically the Natchez were survivors of a closely related culture rather than the Mississippians themselves.
What would the world look like in this timeline's twenty-first century? Would there be a mass of English-speaking people occupying part of North America? Almost certainly. Would they live in something resembling the United States? If so, would it have had a civil war where the South tried to form a separate nation? The answer to both questions could be no.
One problem with alternate history as an intellectual exercise is that if you look carefully at the implications of a change, history mutates into an unrecognizable morass in a few decades at most. I tried to track as many potential changes as I could, but there are so many branches it gets impossible in very short order.
Potential weak spots in the scenario: I often let a scenario sit for a few days after I write it, then go back and try to poke holes it. Here are the most serious potential holes I poked in this one.
1. Could the Hurons really defeat the five nations Iroquois? Conflict between traditionalist and Catholic Hurons was a factor in their defeat historically, as was the number of muskets the Iroquois acquired. Would the element of surprise make up for those factors? Maybe. The Hurons were good warriors and the five nations Iroquois were doing something almost unknown in Indian warfare. The Iroquois warriors had to be edgy. They were deep in enemy territory in unforgiving weather. The shock of being surprised could have caused a rout.
2. Would the five nations Iroquois disintegrate after the defeat? That's not a sure thing. They were a tough bunch. They did have a lot of enemies though, and the Hurons would know that either they destroyed the five nations or the five nations would destroy them.
3. Would Indian trading networks really expand that fast? Maybe. The primary driver for the trade was beaver skins. Beaver got trapped out quickly, so the trade had to expand or die. Beaver were not common in the southeast, and their fur was not as good down there, but the interior rivers were good trading routes and given anything to trade they would allow rapid expansion.
4. Would this change really extend as far a South Carolina? That's pretty tenuous. It isn't impossible, but it isn't as likely as some other consequences.
5. Wouldn't somebody eventually colonize Louisiana anyway? Maybe, if the frontier from the east didn't get there first. I could see traders from South Carolina or Virginia reaching the Mississippi, saying, "Hey, this would make a great trade route into the interior," and planting a colony near the mouth to control access. Then English settlers would spread from the Mississippi and the east coast, with Indians trapped between two expanding frontiers. There are many permutations to this.
So, an almost unknown war between Indian tribes generates ripples that spread over half a continent, making the history of this timeline almost unrecognizable within half a century.