Absolutely Brutal (And Smart) Tactics In Native American Warfare  

Justin Andress
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Long before the first Europeans set foot on American soil, the native people who lived there had spent centuries perfecting the art of combat. Even after visitors arrived from across the vast oceans with superior technology and weaponry, Native American guerilla tactics prevailed so thoroughly that the invaders were forced to adopt similar strategies. From the Mourning Wars tactics to the tactics in the French and Indian War, Native American soldiers and scouts proved themselves capable of immense cunning and incredible feats of military prowess.

For more than a hundred years, the Native Americans fighting to protect their territory forged new means of defending against the people who were slowly spreading across the continent. Thanks to brilliant strategists and intrepid heroes like Pontiac and Geronimo, Native Americans have left an indelible mark on strategic combat. The success of their tactics led to American forces adopting their combat style, as seen with Robert Rogers

Some of the greatest strategists in the history of combat have acknowledged the genius of Native Americans. When asked about his plans for fighting in the Pacific during World War II, General George Marshall explained: "Go back to the tactics of the French and Indian days, [...] study their tactics and fit in our modern weapons, and you have a solution." Read on to discover the bloody lessons learned from the brutal and clever tactics used by Native American tribes. 

Initially, Native Americans Focused On Small Battles And Noncommittal Retaliation Tactics
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Photo: Edward S. Curtis (c. 1910)/via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Whether they were mounting an offense on open terrain or striking from wooded territory, Native American soldiers tended to rely on small raiding parties and quick hit strategies. More often than not, there were hardly any losses on the side of the striking force. 

These strikes often took place just before dawn, with warriors brandishing bows and clubs while rushing the enemy. Rewards were given to the warriors who felled a foe.

Independence Was Prized On The Battlefield
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Photo:  Karl Bodmer/via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Men who were enlisted in European Armies during the French and Indian War had been trained to work as one cohesive unit, much like their Roman ancestors. However, in the Native American tradition, braves fought independently of their fellows.

Chiefs could fill their men in on the ultimate goals of the conflict and a general idea of what to do, but once their men hit the field, it was every warrior for himself. It was those warriors who managed to distinguish themselves on a personal basis who won acclaim among Native American tribes. This ability to think and act independently, while working toward a common goal, confounded the rigid European forces in early conflicts. 

The Focus Was On Preserving A Warrior’s Life
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When it came to preparing an overall battle strategy, most Native American chiefs focused on preserving the lives of their individual warriors. That was the reason for quick hit tactics and early morning raids. Even when they'd encountered European soldiers, Native Americans maintained a focus on the preservation of human life. As a result, later chiefs focused on refining earlier tactics and began using ambushes whenever possible.

What's more, there was no shame in retreating to fight another day. The only shame for a Native American was in surrender.

Native Americans Waged Total War
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Photo:  Smithsonian American Art Museum/via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When a Native American raiding party or assembled tribal battalion drew their handmade instruments, they obliterated anything in their path. Women and children weren't necessarily spared. In most cases, any survivors from the defeated tribe were simply brought back home and incorporated into the winning tribe. One Native American nation, however, went for a grislier approach.

The Iroquois were known for systematically harming any warriors they captured in battle, sometimes going as far as tying them to a post, scalping them, and then burning them alive. It was considered weakness to cry out during these attacks. British observers report several accounts of Native Americans enduring incredible pain without making a noise.