For there long had been bitter, bitter war between the vengeful Algonkins and the cruel Hurons on the one side, and the proud, even crueler Five Nations of the Iroquois on the other side. At first the Adirondacks had driven the Mohawks out of lower Canada and into northern New York; but of late all the Algonkins, all the Hurons, and the French garrisons their allies, had been unable to stem the tide of the fierce Iroquois, rolling back into Canada again.
"Iri-a-khoiw" was the Algonkin name for them, meaning "adder." The French termed them "Mingos," from another Algonkin word meaning "stealthy." The English and Dutch colonists in America knew them as the Five Nations. Their own title was "People of the Long House," as if the five nations were one family housed all together under one roof.
The Mohawks, the Senecas, the Onondagas, the Oneidas and the Cayugas—these composed the Iroquois league of the Five Nations against the world of enemies. The league rapidly spread in power, until the dreaded Iroquois were styled the Romans of the West.
But nearly three hundred years ago they were only beginning to rise. Their home was in central New York, from the Mohawk country at the Hudson River west to the Seneca country almost to Lake Erie. In this wide tract were their five principal towns, fortified by ditches and log palisades. From here they carried war south clear to the Cherokees of Tennessee, west clear into the land of the Illinois, and north to the Algonkins at Quebec of the lower St. Lawrence River.
Twelve or fifteen thousand people they numbered. Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas and Cayugas still survive, as many as ever and ranking high among the civilized Indians of North America.
The Hurons lived to the northwest, in a smaller country along the shores of Georgian Bay of southeastern Lake Huron, in Canada.
"Hurons" they were called by the French, meaning "bristly" or "savage haired," for they wore their coarse black hair in many fantastic cuts, but the favorite fashion was that of a stiff roach or mane extending from the forehead to the nape of the neck, like the bristles of a wild boar's back or the comb of a rooster. By the Algonkins they were called "serpents," also. Their own name for themselves was "Wendat," or "People of the Peninsula"—a word which the English wrote as "Wyandot."
They were of the Iroquois family, but for seventy-five years and more they had been at war with their cousins of the south. They, too, had their principal fortified towns, and their league, of four independent nations and four protected nations, numbering twenty thousand. Like those of the Iroquois, some of their bark houses were five hundred feet long, for twenty families. Yet of this powerful people there remain today only about four hundred Hurons, near Quebec, and as many Wyandots in Canada and the former Indian Territory of Oklahoma.
The Algonkins lived farther north, along the Ottawa River, and the St. Lawrence to the east. "Place of spearing eel and fish from a canoe," is the best that we may get from the word "Algonkin." The "Raised Hair" people did the French first term them, because they wore their hair pompadoured. But Adirondack was a Mohawk word, "Hatirontaks," "Eaters of Trees," accusing the Adirondacks of being so hungry in winter that they ate bark.
In summer the men went naked; in winter they donned a fur cape. They were noted warriors, hunters and fishers, and skillful in making shell ornaments. As the "Nation of the Island" also were they known to the French explorers, because their headquarters were upon that large island of Allumette in the Ottawa River above present Ottawa of Canada.
The several tribes of Algonkins found by the French in Canada were only a small portion of those American Indians speaking in the Algonquian tongue. The immense Algonquian family covered North America from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and reached even to the Rocky Mountains. The Indians met by the Pilgrim Fathers were Algonquians; Metacom (King Philip) was an Algonquian; the Shawnees of Tecumseh were Algonquians; the Sacs and Foxes of Chief Black-hawk were Algonquians; the Chippewas of Canada and the Winnebagos from Wisconsin are Algonquians; so are the Arapahos and Cheyennes of the plains and the Blackfeet of Montana.
The bark lodges of the Algonkins were round and peaked like a cone, instead of being long and ridged like those of the Iroquois and Hurons. Of the Algonkins of Canada there are sixteen hundred, today; there are no Adirondacks, under that name.
Now in 1644 the proud Iroquois hated the Algonkins, hated the Hurons, and had hated the French for thirty-five years, since the brave gentleman adventurer, Samuel de Champlain, having founded Quebec in 1608, had marched against them with his armor, his powder and ball, and the triumphantly whooping enemy.
The Iroquois never forgave the French for this. And indeed a truly savage warfare it had become, here in this northern country on either side of the border between New York and Canada: where the winters were long and piercingly cold, where hunger frequently stalked, where travel was by canoe on the noble St. Lawrence, the swift Ottawa, the Richelieu, the lesser streams and lakes, and by snowshoe or moccasin through the heavy forests; where the Indians rarely failed to torture their captives in manner too horrid to relate; and where the only white people were 300 French soldiers, fur-traders, laborers, priests and nuns, mainly at Quebec, and new Montreal, on the St. Lawrence, and the little trading-post of Three Rivers, half way between the two.
Algonkins and Hurons were accepting the French as allies. They listened, sometimes in earnest, sometimes in cunning, to the teachings of those "Black Robes," the few fearless priests who sought them out. The priests, bravest of the brave, journeyed unarmed and far, even among the scornful Iroquois, enduring torture by fire and knife, the torment of mosquitoes, cold and famine, and draughty, crowded bark houses smotheringly thick with damp wood smoke.
In spite of cross and sword, (trying to tame them,) the Iroquois were waxing ever bolder. They were well supplied with match-lock guns obtained by the Mohawks from the Dutch of the Hudson River. From their five towns ruled by a grand council of fifty chiefs they constantly sent out their raiding parties into the north. These, darting half-crouched in single file through the dark timber, creeping silently in their canoes by road of the dark rivers, suddenly fell like starved wolves upon whomsoever they sighted, be that near Quebec itself; killed them, or captured them, to hustle them away, break their bones, burn their bodies, eat of them; and returned for more.
Algonkins and Hurons were cruel, too, and crafty; but they were being beaten by greater craft and better arms.
So now we come again to Piskaret, of the Adirondacks, whose home was upon that large island of Allumette, governed by the haughty Algonkin chief Le Borgne, or The One-Eye.
Simon Piskaret was his full name as recorded in the mission books, for he and others of Allumette Island had been baptised by the priests. But with them this was much a method of getting protection, food and powder from these French; and an old writer of 1647 says that Piskaret was a Christian only by "appearance and policy."
However, the case of the Algonkins and the Hurons was growing very desperate. They risked their lives every time they ventured into the forests, and Piskaret was ashamed of being cooped in. Once the Adirondacks had been mighty. Hot desire to strike another blow flamed high in his heart. Therefore in this early spring of 1644, ere yet the snows were fairly melted, he strode away, alone, with snowshoes, bent upon doing some great deed.
His course was southeast, from the river Ottawa to cross the frozen St. Lawrence, and speed onward 100 miles for the Lake Champlain country of the New York-Canada border line, where he certainly would find the Iroquois.
By day and night he traveled, clad in his moccasins and fur mantle. Then when he reached the range of the Iroquois he reversed his snowshoes, so that they pointed backward. The Iroquois who might see his trail would know that these were the prints of Algonkin snowshoes, but they would think that here had been only an Algonkin hastening home. If they followed, they would be going in one direction and he in another!
His progress was slower, now, for it is hard to make time in snowshoes pointing backward; and presently he took pains to pick a way by keeping to the ridges and the south slopes from which the snow had melted. His eyes and ears needs must be alert; no sharper woodsmen ever lived, than the keen wolfish Iroquois.
At last, in the forest, he came upon Iroquois sign; next, peering and listening and sniffing, he smelled wood smoke; and stealing on, from tree to tree, he discovered the site of an Iroquois winter village, set in a clearing amidst the timber.
For the rest of that day he hid out; that night, after all had quieted, with war-club and knife ready he slipped like a shadow in among the very lodges. Not even a dog sensed him as he stood questing about for another hiding place.
Aha, he had it! Both the Hurons and the Iroquois laid in large stocks of fire wood, by forming piles of logs slanted together on end; and in one pile, here, was an opening through which he might squeeze into the center space, there to squat as under a tent. The ground in the village had been scraped bare of snow; he would leave no tracks. Having thus experimented and arranged, Piskaret drew a long breath, grasped his war-club, and stealthily pushing aside the loose birch-bark door-flap of the nearest lodge, peeped inside. By the ember light he saw that every Iroquois, man and woman, was fast asleep, under furs, on spruce boughs around the fire.
Now Piskaret swiftly entered, without a sound killed them all, scalped them, and fled to his wood-pile.
Early in the grayness of morning he heard a great cry, swelling louder and louder until the forest echoed. It was a cry of grief and of rage. The strangely silent lodge had been investigated and his bloody work was known. Feet thudded past his wood-pile, hasty figures brushed against it, as the best warriors of the village bolted for the timber, to circle until they found the tracks of their enemy. But if they found any snowshoe tracks made by a stranger, these led out, not in.
So that day the Iroquois pursued furiously and vainly, while Piskaret crouched snug in his wood-pile, listened to the clamor, and laughed to himself.
At evening the weary Iroquois returned, foiled and puzzled. Their nimblest trailers had not even sighted the bold raider. This night Piskaret again waited until all was quiet; again he ventured forth, slipped inside a lodge, killed and scalped, and retreated to his wood-pile.
And again, with the morning arose that shrill uproar of grief and vengeance and the warriors scurried into the forest.
By evening the Iroquois were not only mystified but much alarmed. Who was this thing that struck in the night and left no trail? An evil spirit had come among them—roosted perhaps in the trees!
If a squaw had removed a log or two from the pile Piskaret would have been torn to pieces, but fortune still stayed with him and he was not molested save by cold and hunger.
Tonight, however, the Iroquois chattered affrightedly until late; and when, after the noises had died away, Piskaret, cramped and chilled but eager, for a third time stole through the darkness to a lodge, he knew that his game was up. In this lodge two watchers had been posted—one at either end; and they were awake.
The same in the next lodge, and the next. Wherever he applied his eye to a crack in the bark walls, he saw two sentries, armed and alert—until finally he arrived at a lodge wherein one of the sentries, the one near the door, was squatted drowsy and half asleep.
So Piskaret softly placed his bundle of scalps where he might find it instantly, on a sudden threw aside the birch-bark door-flap, struck terribly with his club, yelled his war-cry that all might hear, grabbed his bundle of scalps and ran hard for the forest. From every lodge the Iroquois poured in pursuit.
All the rest of this night he ran, making northward, with the Iroquois pelting and whooping after; but the records say that he was the swiftest runner in the North—therefore he had little fear of being overtaken.
All the next day he ran, only now and then pausing, to show himself, and yell, and tempt the Iroquois onward; for he had another plan. At nightfall there were but six Iroquois left on his trail, and these were about worn out.
Now in the gathering darkness, noting his enemies falter, Piskaret sprang aside to a hollow tree and hid himself again. The tired Iroquois straggled near, and when they lost the trail they willingly quit, in order to roll in their bear-skins and sleep until the light of morning.
Whereupon, after granting them a little time, Piskaret crept out, killed every one of them, added their six scalps to his package, and having rested until day, sped north, with his dreadful trophies, to report at the island of Allumette.
That this is a true story of the famous Adirondack warrior Piskaret may be proved by the old French chronicles of those very times.
The Story of Piskaret
This story of Piskaret is featured in the book entitled Boy's Book of Indian Warriors, by Edwin L. Sabin, Philadelphia, George W. Jacobs & Co. Publishers, 1918