Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Fortification and Defense of the Canadian Indian



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The simplest defences were furnished to the Indians by nature. In the forest regions battles were fought in the shelter of trees, and in stony sections from sheltering rocks. That war was waged and defensive measures were necessary in prehistoric times is shown by the remains of fortifications in the mound area of the United States. These are of different types, the most common being the so-called hill forts, where defensive walls of earth or stone surround a peak or hilltop or skirt a bluff headland, as at Fort Ancient, Ohio. There are also circular, square, octagonal, and other inclosures on the lowlands which are generally supposed to have been built for defensive purposes, but they could hardly have been effectual unless stockaded. There are, or were until recently, earthen embankments and inclosures in New York which, as Squier has shown, mark the sites of palisaded forts similar to those of the Iroquois observed by Champlain and Cartier. These were often polygonal, of double or triple stockades, as that at Hochelaga which Cartier says was of "three courses of rampires, one within another." Some were strengthened by braces and had beams running round them near the top, where stones and other missiles were placed ready to be hurled upon besiegers


The walls of some of these fortifications were 20 ft. high. One of the polygonal forts in W. New York , however, was overlooked by a hill from which arrows could easily be shot into the inclosure. Most of the early figures of these forts represent them as having a single entrance between overlapping ends of the stockade; there is one, however (Underhill, News from America , 1638), which shows two overlappings. When first seen by the whites most of the villages from Florida to the Potomac were protected with surrounding stockades, which are represented in De Bry as single with one opening where the ends overlap. The construction of these surrounding palisades was practically the same, whether they inclosed a single house or 50 houses. In some sections a ditch was usually dug, both within and outside of the palisade. A few of the forts in S. New England were square, but the circular form generally prevailed (Willoughby in Am. Anthrop ., VIII, No. 1, 1908). The fortress built by King Philip in the swamp at South Kensington, R.I., consisted of a double row of palisades, flanked by a great abatis, outside of which was a deep ditch. At one corner a gap of the length of one log was left as an entrance, the breastwork here being only 4 or 5 ft. high; and this passage was defended by a well-constructed blockhouse, whilst the ditch was crossed by a single log which served as a bridge. Stockaded villages were also common as far W. as Wisconsin . Stone walls which C. C. Jones considered defensive, have been observed on Stone mt., mt. Yona , and other peaks of N. Georgia. De Soto found strongly fortified villages in his passage through the Gulf states and Arkansas .


Vancouver ( Voy ., III, 289, 1798) mentions villages on Kupreanof id., situated on the summits of steep, almost inaccessible rocks and fortified with strong platforms of wood laid upon the most elevated part of the rock, which projected at the sides so as to overhang the declivity. At the edge of the platform there was usually a sort of parapet of logs placed one upon another. This type, according to Swanton, was quite common on the N. W. coast. The Skagit tribe, according to Wilkes, combined dwellings and forts, and similar custom was followed by some of the Raids clans. Wilkes mentions also inclosures 400 ft. long, which were constructed of pickets about 30 ft. long thrust deep into the ground, the interior being divided into roofed lodges.


The Clallam also had a fort of pickets, 150 ft. square, roofed over, and divided into compartments for families. No stockades seem to have been used by the Ntlakyapamuk, but fortresses or fortified houses were at one time in use in a few places. These defences, according to Boas, consisted of logs placed lengthwise on the ground one above another and covered with brush and earth, loopholes being left at places between the logs. According to the same authority, some of the stockades of British Columbia were provided with underground passages as a means of escape. It has been a general custom of the Indian of the Plains, when in danger of being attacked by a superior force, to dig a pit or pits in the loose, generally sandy soil, throwing the earth around the margin to increase the height of the defence, the bank of a creek or a gully being selected when within reach, as defense of one side only was necessary. Native drawings of some of these defences are given by Mooney (17 th Rep. B.A.E., 271-274, 1898.)


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 171-172.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College