The Darkest Day in Mohawk History
(Originally published in The People’s Voice August 19, 2005)
Written by Darren Bonaparte
There have been many dark days in our history, but none as dark as 250 years ago this September 8th. Known to historians of the French and Indian War as the Battle of Lake George, this conflict saw Mohawks fighting Mohawks in hand-to-hand combat with terrible losses on each side. On that day a branch of our family tree was struck by lightning and utterly destroyed.
Major John Norton, or Teyoninhogarawen, was the protégé of Joseph Brant, and privy to the oral traditions of the Mohawk and other Iroquois. The Journal of Major John Norton, 1816 (1970) is our source for the following quotes about this event. The first describes William Johnson’s arrival in North America and the tug-of-war going on between the French and English colonies for the allegiance of the Iroquois Confederacy when he arrived:
The French increased their Influence among the Ondowaga and the western part of the confederacy, but the Mohawks and Eastern Cantons always remained the faithful Allies of the English, excepting a few discontented Individuals, who occasionally forsook them, and joined the Catholic Nottowegui at Caghnawague or Kaneghsatague…
Sometime before the breaking out of the War in 1755,- Mr. Johnstone, [Sir William Johnson] who had been in the Navy, came to reside on the Mohawk River, and in the Neighbourhood of the Kanyenkehaga, who are called by that name, he at first carried on a small Trade in Silver ornaments, and by his affable and liberal deportment, gained the affections of the Mohawks. He always treated them kindly whenever they came to his house, & some of the young People not drinking off a full Glass of Spirits with which he would occasionally present them, he enquired what it was in Mohawk to say – ” Finish it.” – they told him “Yehatshou,”; and repeating this word frequently, they called him by the name of “Yehatshou ”. He afterwards obtained a Tract of Land, and employed many people to clear it of timber, who performing the Job expeditiously,- they gave him the name of Honwarenghyague, which implies “They cut off the Timber for Him.”
In this situation, he increased in Wealth & influence. He is said to have had powerful Friends in England, with whom he corresponded & with the aid of their influence, he overcame the opposition he met with from the Colonial Government.
When the French and Indian War erupted, Johnson had positioned himself so strongly in the Iroquois’ graces that he was able to convince many of them to join the fight on their behalf.
The Mohawks always observed an inviolable fidelity to the English, and at this time, Mr. Johnson being placed at the Head of Indian affairs, his abilities and activity gave fresh Vigour to their Zeal. He lived among them, and thereby was enabled to take advantage of every circumstance; he distributed among them liberally the means granted by the British Government to reward their fidelity.
Whenever the Intrigues of the Enemy gave rise to any uneasiness or discontents, – he was always ready to dissipate the Gloom. At the unfortunate attack on Ticonderoga, he was present with many Warriors of the Mohawks and of the other Cantons. When he was detached to take Post on Lake George, he had a considerable Body of the Warriors of the Five Nations, and a much more numerous Division of the Colonial Militia; When the Scouts brought information of the advance of the French and their Native Allies, he detached Five Hundred of the Militia, and Three Hundred of the Mohawks; the Latter formed the Front, when they came to a Spring of Water, all of them ran down to drink, without any orders: at this place, the French had ranged an ambuscade in the form of a Half Moon, & the Mohawks had thus fallen into the Middle of it. In this Situation, they were surprised by a Caghnawague Man rising up and calfing out in their Language, “Of What Nation are you?” They answered, “ We are Mohawks and Five Nations, of what People are you?” He replied, “We are Caghnawagues & other Tribes, the Children of Onontio; Stand aside, for our Father only makes War against the English, and does not desire to hurt any of his Children, the Native Tribes.” At this moment, one of the Party fired, and the native Allies of the French immediately made an impetuous charge rushing down the Hill, on which they had been ranged, they mixed in promiscuous fight with the Mohawks, who resisted with much valour, but they were forced by superior numbers to a Retreat, which they effected. They were so intermixed with their Foes, that the straggling Fire kept up by the Militia was as injurious to them, as to the Enemy.
In this confusion, a Mohawk Warrior happened to encounter his friend, a Caghnawague, they saluted each other, and shook hands, in the meantime another came up, who making a Blow at the Mohawk, the latter parried it and killed him, a Second instantly rushed on, making similar attempt, he killed him also; His Friend stood a passive Spectator of the Slaughter of his Comrades: so strong was the Band of Friendship, that even when meeting in hostile array, it obliged them to spare each other.
The Caghnawague then exclaimed “ Oh my Friend, We have met in disagreeable circumstances: Let us then part.” The Mohawk mixed in the Crowd, who could not distinguish him from their Friends, until he found a convenient opportunity of rejoining his party. His escape was facilitated by the Mark of Distinction which the French had caused their Native Allies to wear; it was a Narrow Stripe of White Linen fastened to the Lock of Hair on the Crown of the Head, this Man happened to have some thin plates of Silver hanging from the same part, which were not distinguishable on slight Inspection.
Mr. Johnson was alarmed by the firing and the Runners which had been dispatched to inform him, that they were attacked by a superior force. He immediately began to fortify his Camp with a Log Work and Abbatis and to place the Cannon, which the determined resistance made by the Mohawks and the Militia, gave him time to perform.
At last the Latter arrived in great disorder, & took shelter within the works. The French and their Allies came up and attacked them with great Spirit, but at last were repulsed with considerable Loss: The Mohawk Warriors in their Turn pursued, and took many Scalps and Prisoners. In the Battle they lost sixty choice Warriors; the Chief, King Henrie was among the number. The Loss of their Catholic Countrymen, the Children of Onontio, is said to have been Forty Men killed.
After this Fight, Mr. Johnson received great credit for his conduct, and his Majesty graciously conferred on him the Title of Baronet. Sir William Johnson failed not in rewarding all those who had so bravely fought with him, in such a Manner as to increase his Influence with the Five Nations.
In spite of the heavy losses incurred at the ambush historians call “the Bloody Morning Scout,” Johnson would lead the Mohawks and other Iroquois warriors in future conflicts of the French and Indian War, which we will discuss in future editions of this history series.
The Battle of Lake George will be commemorated at the Lake George Battlefield Park in Lake George, New York on the weekend of September 17-18, 2005, but there are no plans for September 8th, the actual anniversary date. I urge everyone to take a few minutes on that day to burn tobacco for the spirits of those many Mohawk warriors who gave their life that day…and for the thousands of descendants that they might have added to our population had things gone different that day.
Last summer I had the remarkable opportunity to assist filmmakers in recreating the Bloody Morning Scout for a PBS documentary to air this fall. I reminded the two dozen Iroquois actors involved in the shoot of the solemn significance of the day for our people. One of them, a Seneca faithkeeper, carried my tobacco pouch with him during the shooting. He told me it would be an honor to carry it, but the honor was all mine.
By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.
Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.