Chainbreaker’s War: a Seneca Chief Remembers the American Revolution
© 2002 ed. Jeanne Winston Adler
On the eastern seaboard, young militia men marched around their town squares, tea-chests floated in Boston Harbor, and the bells of war tolled. Only a few hundred miles away in upstate New York and in Michigan, the six nations of the Iroquois lived quiet and enjoyable lives separated from the ruckus. They hunted, met together in congress to discuss matters between the tribes and their neighbors, and saw to their families — and then the emissaries arrived.
Officials from both Great Britain and the newly-formed United States send word to the Iroquois that there is war on the coast. The royal government ask the Iroquois to avoid being drawn into the conflict: the colonials request assistance from the Iroquois. The Six Nations are divided: some believe their neighbors to be insolent for rebelling against their Father nation. Others believe that the Americans are the victims of a great injustice. Years of peace and prosperity fall to war as the nations choose sides. The Seneca support Great Britain, and a young Seneca named Chainbreaker leads his brethren in combat against the Americans. Fighting chiefly with traditional weapons, he engages in bloody battle with the colonials, engaging in tit-for-tat village- and town- razings against George Washington, the “Devourer of Villages”. After the war, the Iroquois attempt to return to their former lifestyle, but both unity and territory have been lost in the war.
This is the tale told by Chainbreaker in his old age, recounting the lives of the Iroquois amidst the war. The book proper has a conversational, almost rambling style, and is supplemented by sidebars quoting from related sources that add greater context or explain obscure references. The editor also supplied in-text illustrations depicting the homes, clothing, tools, and weapons of the Six Nations.
Chainbreaker’s War made for an interesting read, although the amount of useful information is limited. Diplomacy and politics kept my attention more than the descriptions of battle: most remarkable for me was the respect Chainbreaker obviously held for Washington — during the war as a general, but afterwards as a man. This memoir offered at the start a look into Iroquois culture, and it has whet my appetite for both learning more about the Iroquois and the role native Americans played in the Revolution. Although Chainbreaker’s recollections of the Iroquois motives seem shallow, tribes losing ground against aggressive colonial expansion would have had a vested interested in supporting the monarchy, which restricted expansion to avoid retaliation on the part of the displaced natives. I’m curious as to what motives would have driven tribes to support the departure of the monarchy.