Destruction of the Eries
The narrative is Indian traditional history, and was published in the Buffalo Commercial, of July, 1845, accompanied with the following statement:
"Its accuracy may be implicitly relied upon, every detail having been taken from the lips of Blacksnake, and other venerable chiefs of the Senecas and Tonawandas, who still cherish the traditions of the fathers. Near the mission-house, on the reservation adjoining the city, can be seen a small mound, evidently artificial, that is said to contain the remains of the unfortunate Eries slain in their last great battle.
The Indians hereabouts believe that a small remnant of the Eries still exist beyond the Mississippi. The small tribe known as the Qwapaws, in that region, are also believed to be the remains of the Kankwas, the allies of the Eries."
Notwithstanding the above, we must bear in mind that the account here given is furnished by the... Iroquois, and may be colored to their advantage to some extent.
The Eries were the most powerful and warlike of all the Indian tribes. They resided south of the great lake (Erie), at the foot of which stands the city of Buffalo, the Indian name for which was Tu-shu-way.
When the Eries heard of the confederation which was formed between the Mohawks, who resided in the valley of that name, the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, who lived, for the most part, upon the shores and the outlets of the lakes bearing their names respectively (called by the French the Iroquois nation), they imagined it must be for some mischievous purpose. Although confident of their superiority over any one of the tribes inhabiting the countries within the bounds of their knowledge, they dreaded the power of such combined forces.
In order to satisfy themselves in regard to the character, disposition, and power of those they considered their enemies, the Eries resorted to the following means: They sent a friendly message to the Senecas, who were their nearest neighbors, inviting them to select one hundred of their most active, athletic young men to play a game of ball against the same number to be selected by the Eries, for a wager which should be considered worthy the occasion and the character of the great nation in whose behalf the offer was made.
The message was received and entertained in the most respectful manner. A council of the "Five Nations" was called, and the proposition fully discussed, and a messenger in due time dispatched with the decision of the council, respectfully declining the challenge. This emboldened the Eries, and the next year the offer was renewed, and, after being again considered, again formally declined. This was far from satisfying the proud lords of the great lake, and the challenge was renewed the third time.
The blood of the young Iroquois could no longer be restrained. They importuned the old men to allow them to accept the challenge. The wise counsels which had hitherto prevailed at last gave way, and the challenge was accepted.
Nothing could exceed the enthusiasm with which each tribe sent forth its chosen champions for the contest. The only difficulty seemed to be to make a selection where all were so worthy.
After much delay one hundred of the flower of all the tribes were finally designated, and the day of their departure was fixed. An experienced chief was chosen as the leader of the party, whose orders the young men were strictly enjoined to obey.
A grand council was called, and in the presence of the assembled multitude the party was charged in the most solemn manner to observe a pacific course of conduct towards their competitors and the nation whose guests they were to become, and to allow no provocation, however great, to be resented by any act of aggression on their part, but in all respects to acquit themselves worthy the representatives of a great and powerful people, anxious to cultivate peace and friendship with all their neighbors.
Under these solemn injunctions the party took up its line of march for Tu-shu-way. When the chosen band had arrived in the vicinity of the point of their destination, a messenger was sent forward to notify the Eries of their arrival, and the next day was set apart for their grand entree.
The elegant and athletic forms; the tasteful, yet not cumbrous, dress; the dignified, noble hearing of the chief, and, more than all, the modest demeanor of the young warriors of the Iroquois party, won the admiration of all beholders.
They brought no arms; each one bore a bat, used to throw or strike a ball, tastefully ornamented, being a hickory stick about five feet long, bent over at the end, and a thong netting wove into the bow.
After a day of repose and refreshment, all things were arranged for the contest. The chief of the Iroquois brought forward and deposited upon the ground a large pile of elegantly wrought belts of wampum, costly jewels, silver bands, beautifully ornamented moccasins, and other articles of great value in the eyes of the sons of the forest, as the stake or wager on the part of his people. These were carefully matched by the Eries with articles of equal value, article with article tied together, and again deposited on the pile.
The game began, and, although contested with desperation and great skill by the Eries, was won by the Iroquois, who bore off the prize in triumph. Thus ended the first day.
The Iroquois having now accomplished the object of their visit, proposed to take their leave, but the chief of the Eries, addressing himself to their leaders, said their young men, though fairly beaten in the game of ball, would not be satisfied unless they could have a foot-race, and proposed to match ten of their number against an equal number of the Iroquois party, which was assented to, and the Iroquois were again victorious.
The Kaukwas who resided on the Eighteen-Mile creek, being present as the friends and allies of the Eries, now invited the Iroquois party to visit them before they returned home, and thither the whole party repaired.
The chief of the Eries, as a last trial of the courage and prowess of his guests, proposed to select ten men, to be matched with an equal number of the Iroquois party, to wrestle, and that the victor should dispatch his adversary on the spot by braining him with a tomahawk and bearing off his scalp as a trophy.
This sanguinary proposition was not at all pleasing to the Iroquois; they, however, concluded to accept the challenge, with the determination, should they be victorious, not to execute the bloody part of the proposition. The champions were accordingly chosen. A Seneca was the first to step into the ring, and threw his adversary, amid the shouts of the multitude. He stepped back and declined to execute his victim, who lay passive at his feet.
As quick as thought the chief of the Eries seized the tomahawk, and, at a single blow, scattered the brains of his vanquished warrior over the ground. His body was dragged away, and another champion of the Eries presented himself. He was quickly thrown by his more powerful antagonist of the Iroquois party, and as quickly dispatched by the infuriated chief. A third met the same fate.
The chief of the Iroquois party, seeing the terrible excitement which agitated the multitude, gave a signal to retreat. Every man obeyed the signal, and in an instant they were out of sight. In two hours they arrived at Tu-shu-way, gathered up the trophies of their victories, and were on their way home.
This visit of the hundred warriors of the Five Nations and its results only served to increase the jealousy of the Eries, and to convince them that they had powerful rivals to contend with. It was no part of their policy to cultivate friendship and strengthen their own power by cultivating peace with other tribes.
They knew no way of securing peace to themselves but by exterminating all who might oppose them. But the combination of several powerful tribes, any of whom might be almost an equal match for them, and of whose personal prowess they had seen such an exhibition, inspired the Eries with the most anxious forebodings.
To cope with them collectively they saw was impossible. Their only hope, therefore, was in being able by a vigorous and sudden movement to destroy them in detail. With this view a powerful party was immediately organized to attack the Senecas who resided at the foot of Seneca lake (the present site of Geneva), and along the banks of Seneca river.
It happened that at this period there resided among the Eries a Seneca woman, who in early life had been taken prisoner, and had married a husband of the Erie tribe. He died and left her a widow without children, a stranger among strangers.
Hearing the terrible note of preparation for a bloody onslaught upon her kindred and friends, she formed the resolution of apprising them of their danger. As soon as night set in, taking the course of the Niagara river, she traveled all night, and early next morning reached the shore of Lake Ontario.
She jumped into a canoe, which she found fastened to a tree, and boldly pushed into the open lake. Coasting down the lake, she arrived at the mouth of the Oswego river in the night, where a large settlement of the nation resided.
She directed her steps to the house of the head chief, and disclosed the object of her journey. She was secreted by the chief, and runners were dispatched to all the tribes, summoning them immediately to meet in council, which was held in Onondaga Hollow.
When all were convened the chief arose, and, in the most solemn manner, rehearsed a vision, in which he said that a beautiful bird appeared to him and told him that a great party of the Eries was preparing to make a secret and sudden descent upon them to destroy them, and that nothing could save them but an immediate rally of all the warriors of the Five Nations, to meet the enemy before they should be able to strike the blow.
These solemn announcements were heard in breathless silence. When the chief had finished and sat down, there arose one immense yell of menacing madness. The earth shook when the mighty mass brandished high in the air their war-clubs, and stamped the ground like furious beasts.
No time was lost. A body of five thousand warriors was organized, and a corps of reserve, consisting of one thousand young men who had never been in battle. The bravest chiefs of all the tribes were put in command, and spies immediately sent out in search of the enemy, the whole body taking up their line of march in the direction whence they expected the attack.
The advance of the party was continued several days, passing through, successively, the settlements of their friends, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Senecas; but they had scarcely paused the last wigwam, now the fort of Ca-an-du-gua (Canandaigua) lake, when the scouts brought in intelligence of the advance of the Eries, who had already crossed the Ce-nis-se-u (Genesee) river in great force.
The Eries had not the slightest intimation of the approach of their enemies. They relied on the secrecy and celerity of their movements to surprise and subdue the Senecas almost without resistance.
The two parties met at a point about halfway between the foot of Canandaigua lake, on the Genesee river, and near the outlet of two small lakes, near the foot of one of which (Honeoye) the battle was fought. When the two parties came in sight of each other the outlet of the lake only intervened between them.
The entire force of the five confederate tribes was not in view of the Eries. The reserve corps of one thousand young men had not been allowed to advance in sight of the enemy. Nothing could resist the impetuosity of the Eries at the first sight of an opposing force on the other side of the stream. They rushed through it and fell upon them with tremendous fury.
The undaunted courage and determined bravery of the Iroquois could not avail against such a terrible onslaught, and they were compelled to yield the ground on the bend of the stream. The whole force of the combined tribes, except the corps of the reserve, now became engaged. They fought hand to hand and foot to foot. The battle raged horribly. No quarter was asked or given on either side.
As the fight thickened and became more desperate, the Eries, for the first time, became sensible of their true situation. What they had long anticipated had become a fearful reality. Their enemies had combined for their destruction, and they now found themselves engaged, suddenly and unexpectedly, in a struggle not only involving the glory, but perhaps the very existence of their nation.
They were proud, and had hitherto been victorious over ail their enemies. Their superiority was felt and acknowledged by all the tribes. They knew how to conquer, but not to yield. All these considerations flashed upon the minds of the bold Eries, and nerved every arm with almost superhuman power.
On the other hand, the united forces of the weaker tribes, now made strong by union, fired with a spirit of emulation, excited to the highest pitch among the warriors of the different tribes, brought for the first time to act in concert, inspired with zeal and confidence by the counsels of the wisest chiefs, and led by the most experienced warriors of all the tribes, the Iroquois were invincible.
Though staggered by the first desperate rush of their opponents they rallied at once, and stood their ground. And now the din of battle rises higher; the war- club, the tomahawk, the scalping-knife, wielded by Herculean hands, do terrible deeds of death. During the hottest of the battle, which was fierce and long, the corps of reserve, consisting of a thousand young men, were, by a skillful movement under their experienced chief, placed in the rear of the Eries, on the opposite side of the stream in ambush.
The Eries had been driven seven times across the stream, and had as often regained their ground; but the eighth time, at a given signal from their chief, the corps of young warriors in ambush rushed upon the almost exhausted Eries with a tremendous yell, and at once decided the fortunes of the day.
Hundreds, disdaining to fly, were struck down by the war-clubs of the vigorous young warriors, whose thirst for the blood of the enemy knew no bounds. A few of the vanquished Eries escaped to carry the news of the terrible overthrow to their wives and children and old men that remained at home. But the victors did not allow them a moment's repose, but pursued them in their flight, killing all who fell into their hands.
The pursuit was continued for many weeks, and it was five months before the victorious party of the Five Nations returned to their friends to join in celebrating the victory over their last and most powerful enemy, the Eries. Tradition adds that many years later a powerful war-party of the descendants of the Eries came from beyond the Mississippi, ascended the Ohio, crossed the country, and attacked the Senecas, who had settled in the seat of their fathers at Tushuway.
A great battle was fought near the site of the Indian mission-house, in which the Eries were again defeated, and slain to a man. Their bones lie bleaching in the sun to the present day, a monument at once of the indomitable courage of the terrible Eries and of their brave conquerors, the Senecas.''