Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchcse" -- Warfare
Man being the aggressive species that he is, warfare between different language-speaking native Americans in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries was commonplace. This was certainly true of the coastal Carolinian and Powhatan Algonquians.
Weroances chose to attack different language-speaking tribes (and sometimes tribes that spoke the same language) not usually to acquire territory or goods but to exact revenge for offenses received. Sometimes, attacks were ordered to obtain women and children for adoption purposes: to bolster tribal population or to reduce the likelihood of attack that could jeopardize the safety of those taken. Decreasing an aggressive enemy’s motivation to act belligerently could also be accomplished simply by killing a number of its warriors.
Attacks were usually small-scale ambushes conducted by a few warriors led by a captain appointed by the weroance. Places selected were often in wooded or reedy locations, in high weeds in open fields, and amongst well-grown corn stalks. Once discovered, the attackers, if they had not already done so, sought to advance to within shooting range of the enemy without unduly exposing themselves, using whatever cover they could utliize. Fast movement and the willingness to fall down or retreat to evade arrows were paramount. Immediate outright kills with arrows were uncommon. Arrow attacks were designed to disable their victims, who would thereupon be rushed and killed with clubs or wooden swords. Once discovered, attackers would make terrifying war cries and briefly expose their garishly painted bodies hoping to disconcert their victims into taking hasty, foolish actions, like taking flight into an adjacent area chosen by the attackers for a delayed ambush.
Subterfuge might also be employed to do injury to an enemy. Part of a weroance’s fighting force might present itself as peaceful men whose purpose seemingly was to invite the enemy to participate in a feast of celebration or religious ritual. The remainder of the weronace’s force would absence itself until the feast or ritual was underway or attack afterward at night. Manteo and Wanchese, the two Algonquians taken back to
in 1584, told Thomas Harriot that this had occurred to the Secotans. England
Participation in an attack was not voluntary. A “lusty” principle warrior was selected by the weroance to lead the attack. Another well regarded warrior was sent to the villages of the chief weroance to select, with a hearty slap on the back, their best warriors. Each would be told to report on a specific day at a place of rendezvous. No warrior dared be absent. Few wanted to be. From boyhood each village male had been trained to fight. His huskanaw (initiation into manhood – see “Alssome and Wanchese” July 14, 2015, post) ceremony had conditioned him to disregard fear and loss of life, even by horrible torture. Great exploits in battle brought a warrior considerable admiration and renown. His success was publicly claimed and publicly rewarded. He was encouraged at public occasions to recount his exploits in the presence of elite tribal members and visiting “royalty.” It was his pathway to becoming a member of his weroance’s advisory council. Conversely, if he were judged lacking in performance, the women who tortured the captives of a raid would deride him for his unwillingness to take chances.
Every warrior knew the fate that awaited him should he be captured. His captors would build a fire, strip him, and tie him to a tree or a stake. He would be executed by the women of the village or by a man appointed by the weroance. Sharp mussel shells were used to gradually flay and cut off the captured warrior’s limbs, which were thrown into the fire. He was then disemboweled. His remains were either dried into a kind of mummy kept in a room or burned along with either the tree or the stake after trophies had been taken for drying. Trophies were frequently dried hands worn in the victors’ knotted-up hair. Scalps might be taken. Any sign of pain showed by the victim brought derision. Powhatans had mocking songs that their men sang. A real man died stoically, or, better, he died deriding his tormentors. Death with honor was the only possible end for a captured man, if he were not able to escape.
Victory was celebrated on the spot and back in the village. Englishmen captured by the Powhatans “were brought home in a formal procession. [John] Smith recorded the celebration that followed his own capture in 1607. At the head of the procession was the leader of the party, Opechancanough, ‘well guarded’ by four rows of five men each, a row on each side of him, one in front, and one behind him. Next came Smith, with a bowman preceeding and one on each side of him. After that came the remaining warriors, walking in a long, snakelike file with a ‘sargeant’ on each side running up and down the line in opposite directions to keep order. The file marched for ‘a [long] time,’ apparently around the town, before the men ‘cast themselves in a ring with a [victory] daunce.’ Smith wrote much later that the dance was actually three dances, in which they moved ‘in such severall [different] Postures, and singing and yelling out such hellish notes and screeches’ that Smith’s ‘stomache at that time was not very good’” (Rountree 125-125).
Fighting gear was primitive. “The English thought the [
Indians’ weapons crude, and that these posed little threat to the colonists on
the field of battle. ‘If there fall out
any warres between us and them, we having advantages against them so many maner
or waies,’ [Thomas] Harriot wrote, ‘the turning up of their heeles against us
in running away was their best defence.’
Wingina’s people had ‘no edge tooles or weapons of yron or steele to
offend us withal.’ Their weapons,
Harriot observed, ‘are onlie bowes of Witch hazle & arrows of reeds, flat
edged truncheons also of wood about a yard long.’ They had no armor, and nothing to defend
themselves with ‘but targets made of barks, and some armours made of stickes
wickered together with threade.’ Still,
the military technology employed by Wingina and his followers suited their
tactics, and a warrior could fire several arrows in the time it took an English
soldier to load and fire his musket” (Oberg 20). Carolina
war clubs were thick wooden clubs or stout wooden truncheons having one or two
sharp edges or truncheons with attached deer antlers or sharp stones. Rather than tied together sticks, Powhatan
warriors used shields made of thick, round bark hung on their left shoulders to
protect that side of them when they fired their arrows. Carolina
Arrow wounds were usually fatal. The likelihood of severing an artery was great. An arrowhead wedged in ribs was not retrievable. The best a victim could hope for would be to have the arrowhead pass entirely through a limb without severing an artery. The arrow could then be broken or cut in half behind the exposed arrowhead and the remaining part of the shaft withdrawn through the entrance hole. Herbal or ground up root salve would then be applied and days of rest followed. If infection did not occur, recovery was probable. An arrowhead lodged in the body (not in ribs) had to be removed through the entrance hole. The U.S. Army during the Indian wars in the West in the 1870s devised a clasping mechanism that, inserted through the entrance hole, secured the head to prevent it from separating from the arrow shaft. In the 1580s any attempt to pull the arrowhead out of the entrance hole usually caused separation.
Oberg, Michael Leroy. The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand.
Philadelphia, Press, 2008. Print. University of Pennsylvania
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of
: Their Traditional Culture. Norman, Virginia
Press, 1989. Print. University of Oklahoma