March 20, 2022
French Governor awarding commission to Native American leader, 1761
While the goals of Indians and whites working as allies were compatible overall, there was often a point where they would diverge, sometimes only marginally, sometimes quite radically. This was particularly true when larger combined operations took place. For white soldiers, military success was usually the taking of a specific place, defeating an enemy force, or destroying a specific target. If achieving their objective meant that a large part of their own force had to be sacrificed, that was accepted as part of the cost of success.
For Eastern Woodland Indians, the principal goals for going to war were to gain prisoners and plunder. Since some of the prisoners taken were to replace losses already in the community, the loss of a large number of additional warriors in the operation was unacceptable. Limited manpower reserves dictated that the Indians employ the same tactics for war that they used for the hunt. Stealth, patience, and surprise were key to success. The differences in these two viewpoints and how they could or could not be blended, was very evident in the French, Canadian and Indian raid on the Oneida Carry in March of 1756.
The French considered the expedition a success because their goal of destroying the stockpiled supplies at Fort Bull was achieved. They viewed the actions around Fort Williams to be of little significance. From the Indian standpoint however, the ambush of the British supply convoy prior to the attack on Ft. Bull and ambush of the scouting party from Ft. Williams was far more successful and less costly.
The French commander was Lt. Gaspard-Joseph de Leary, an officer in the Compagnie Franches de la Marine, the French colonial forces. Indian support for the expedition was considered so vital that de Leary was instructed to abort the attack if the Indians abandoned the expedition at any time prior to the reaching the carry. It took the French a great deal of persuasion to convince a large number of Indians to join the expedition due to the winter conditions and the fickle March weather. Indian cooperation also hinged on the fact that the target was believed to be unfortified warehouses, with the British soldiers housed in bark huts. Just prior to the expedition leaving Oswegatchie (modern Ogdensburg) on March 9th, however, de Leary received information that two British forts now occupied the Oneida Carry. Ft. Williams on the Mohawk River side, and Ft. Bull on the Wood Creek side. Ft. Bull now also housed the primary storehouses the French wanted to destroy.
Despite his best attempts to keep this information secret, de Leary’s Indian allies found out the truth from travelers headed for Oswegatchie. For the Indians, the entire scope of the raid had changed. Knowing that an attack on fortifications would produce heavy causalities, they suggested that the forceraid settlements in the Mohawk Valley instead. But since de Leary had no such latitude to change his operations, he had to walk a fine line of diplomacy/half-truths to forestall the wholesale desertion of his Indian allies. Treating the intelligence as suspect, he held a series of conferences as the expedition moved forward, stating that no final decisions would be made until the party viewed the situation on the Carry themselves. While most of the warriors agreed to continue to the Carry, it was not unanimous. The Indians considered themselves full partners in combined operations of this sort and expected their recommendations to be listened to and considered. Observing that their recommendations were being dismissed out of hand, some Indians left the expedition and returned to Oswegatchie.
By March 27th, the force was on the Oneida Carry but had been without food for two days. Scouts reported that sleds from Ft. Williams were transporting food to Ft. Bull. It was agreed to attack the supply column to obtain food for the expedition. The Indians were put in charge of the ambush, as it was later reported that the French were so hungry that “officers were obliged to use a degree of force to restrain their famished troops, for fear that musket shots would warn the fort of their arrival.” Excelling at hand-to-hand combat, the Indians captured nine wagons and ten men without firing a shot, however, one of the teamsters was able to escape to raise the warning at Ft. Williams.
The French were now forced to launch an immediate attack on Ft. Bull, but for their Indian allies the expedition was over. They had secured food for the return trip, had taken prisoners, and had suffered no casualties. As for attacking Ft. Bull, they informed de Leary that “if I absolutely wanted to die, I was the master of the French, but they were not going to follow me.” More willing to compromise than their French allies, however, the Indians agreed to keep a watch on the portage road for any activity coming out of Ft. Williams. The French also finally convinced thirty Indians to join the attack on Ft. Bull. In the end however only the war captain Colliere and five other Indians truly took part in the actual assault. The rest chose to chase after six of the fort’s garrison who fled into the woods at the sight of the approaching force.
While the French assaulted Fort Bull, a small scouting party of around two dozen British came out of Ft. Williams in response to the teamsters’ warning. Around seventy Indians had remained to watch the portage road and they proceeded to ambush the British party.
After a single volley, the British fled back towards Ft. Williams, but in their panic and confusion, some blundered into the woods and were captured. The Indians killed between thirteen to seventeen of the British scouts and captured at least four. Their losses may have been as light as one warrior killed and one wounded. To the Indians, this was a far more successful and effective operation then assaulting a fortification.
As if to reinforce their belief that they had made the right decision, they soon discovered that of the six Indians that had attacked Ft. Bull with the French, the war captain Colliere was killed and two others wounded, one mortally. Thus, half of the Indians attacking the fort had been killed or wounded. Considering the French assaulted Ft. Bull over open ground, their casualties were surprisingly light as well, with 1 killed and 4 wounded. This, however, was due more to Ft. Bull having not been properly designed for defense then to any tactical expertise on the part of de Leary and his men. The Indians viewed it this way as well and congratulated the French for their incredible luck, not on their prowess or skill in making the attack. Even French observers commented on how astonishing it was that they took so few casualties. It was clear to everyone that the French had been just plain lucky.
As the Kahnawake war chief Tecaughretanego said: “the art of war consists in ambushing and surprising our enemies, and in preventing them from ambushing and surprising us.” The attacks on the Oneida Carry in March of 1756 had allowed the Indians to do just that, as it had allowed the French to carry out the type of warfare familiar to them. It was a rare moment in combined Indian-white military operations where both groups were able to work together to achieve their individual aims.