Native Americans Invented Our Gun Culture—and Yes, We Stole That, Too

The popular U.S. myth of a gun in every colonial home is not just flawed. It’s downright wrong: Native Americans were the first to fully embrace firearms and guerrilla warfare.

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Conventional wisdom locates the origins of America’s bizarre gun culture in the experiences of frontiersmen on the fault lines of civilization, and sturdy yeoman farmers who formed the nucleus of all the colonial militias and the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Out of the trials of the frontier experience and the War for Independence, historian Richard Hofstadter tells us in a much-celebrated 1970 essay, America as a Gun Culture, the idea gradually took hold in the national consciousness that citizens’ unfettered access to guns was a vital counterpoise to the tyrannies that plagued the peoples of the Old World, especially those perpetrated by self-aggrandizing kings and standing armies.

The prominent role firearms played in Euro-Americans’ seizure of the continent from its indigenous inhabitants, especially the iconic flintlock musket, the Winchester repeating rifle, and the Colt 45 caliber revolver, went far in cementing the myth that real Americans have always been prepared to defend their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of… firearms.

The gun culture in America today draws much of its sustenance from this myth-encrusted, flagrantly politically incorrect version of our past, as well as from an eclectic array of gun-toting heroes and anti-heroes, whose willingness to pull the trigger when the going gets tough appears to set them free from the mundanities and petty frustrations that loom so large in contemporary American life.

These characters, both real and fictitious, live on the sharp edge of human experience. They are cops, crooks, soldiers, and spies. Think of Wild Bill Hickock, Bonnie and Clyde, James Bond, John McClane (the Die Hard film series character played by Bruce Willis), SEAL Team 6, and that architype American fighting man, the brawny U.S. Marine infantryman. As Gunnery Sgt. Hartman famously reassures us in Full Metal Jacket, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine with his rifle!”

Don’t let gun owners kid you. Most of us, your humble narrator included, purchased their weapons and learned how to shoot at least in part out of a desire to establish a vicarious connection with one or more members of this colorful band. The extraordinary hold these figures exert on the fantasy systems of millions of Americans—coupled with the fervent belief that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees every non-felonious American the right to bear arms, including but not limited to military assault rifles—explains in large measure the success the National Rifle Association has had in blocking the passage of perfectly sensible regulatory legislation after every mass shooting incident, from Columbine to Orlando.

David J. Silverman, a professor of history at George Washington University, makes a lively and compelling argument in his new book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, that the conventional wisdom about the origins of our gun culture needs emending.

Yes, Europeans created and manufactured firearms, but in colonial America, it was the Indian who first fully embraced the gun, and mastered its varied applications. In fact, says Silverman, for more than 200 years, Indian peoples across the breadth of the North America employed firearms to transform not only their way of war, but their methods of hunting, and even their diplomacy with other Indians, and the great colonial powers of England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

“The centrality of guns to Native American warfare and hunting made them symbols of Indian manhood,” Silverman explains, and Indian tribes from coast to coast imbued their weapons with great spiritual significance, decorating the stocks of their muskets with serpent’s heads—an allusion to the thunderbird god, a common Indian symbol of destructive power—and incorporated muskets and rifles into a rich panoply of spiritual rituals and ceremonies.

Guns—buying, selling, and using them—played a crucial role in the rise and fall of scores of Indian groups and tribes, often at the expense of other Indians. Along what Silverman calls the “gun frontier”—a continually shifting zone of contact just beyond the outer reaches of Euro-American settlement, where Indians outnumbered whites, Native American peoples were well positioned to trade their friendship, military assistance, and animal pelts for large quantities of the finest firearms. “Indians used their arsenals to cut off indigenous enemies from the arms trade, and seize hunting grounds, slaves, and horses” from other Indian groups. And of course, they employed those same arsenals to defend their autonomy and territorial integrity from European encroachment.

Thus, Indian arms races, and the Indians’ mastery of firearms, displayed in a long series of colonial wars east of the Alleghenies, had a profound influence on the trajectory of early American gun culture, and American history as whole.

As early as the 1640s, the mighty Iroquois confederacy in upper New York State—particularly the Mohawks—had established close trade and diplomatic ties with the most prolific gun manufacturers in Europe: the Dutch. At their trading post at Fort Orange (modern Albany) and New Amsterdam (New York City), the Iroquois traded animal pelts for large quantities of guns, powder, shot, and even gunsmith services. Rapidly Iroquois warriors mastered the use of short, light, and durable flintlock muskets, produced en masse by the Dutch exclusively for the North American Indian market.

These weapons were ideal for forest warfare. Unlike the clumsy matchlock used by colonial militias for much of the 17th century, these weapons fired reliably even in rainy weather. A good marksman could be depended upon to kill a man up to 100 yards away. Utilized in ambushes—the favored Indian tactic—the devastating effect of a single volley of flintlocks instilled terror and confusion in the hearts of an enemy column, making it extremely vulnerable to rapid follow-up attack with traditional Indian weapons, i.e., clubs, knives, and tomahawks.

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Firearms were indispensable in the Iroquois’ successful prosecution of a series of mid-17th century “mourning wars” against the Montagnais and the Hurons of the St. Lawrence River Valley, among other tribes. Mourning wars were essentially a sustained series of raids designed to intimidate rivals, and to capture women and children who could be adopted into the Iroquois tribes, thereby replenishing the grievous losses in population suffered as a result of the great small pox epidemic of 1633.

In the 1640s, well-armed parties of 100 or more Mohawks journeyed far from their native territories to terrorize Algonquin and Montagnais Indians, because these tribes were virtually defenseless against the Mohawks’ ample supply of Dutch muskets. Their French patrons had been reluctant to supply either tribe with more than a few firearms for fear they would be used against the small French population.

In 1648 and 1649, Iroquois armies of as many as a thousand warriors invaded Huronia (between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario) repeatedly, laying waste to whole villages and killing and capturing more than a thousand Hurons. “Battered, demoralized, and starving,” writes Silverman, “the remaining Hurons scattered in all directions.”

As the Iroquois threat to New France and her Indian allies grew more ominous in the 1650s, the French finally came around, producing their own version of a flintlock designed for the rough-and-tumble conditions of the North American wilderness, and distributing them liberally among their allies, most of whom were enemies of the Iroquois. Having procured a substantial arsenal of these guns, the Ojibwas were able to decimate roving bands of Mohawks and Oneidas south of Lake Superior, and defend their territory from a number of other predatory tribes.

“Repeatedly from the 16th through the late 18th century,” writes Silverman, “Indian polities harvested resources sought by gun suppliers, and they cultivated trade with more than one weapons dealer to insure a dependable flow of munitions at low cost.” Although all the colonial powers operating in North America sought to regulate the sale of guns and monitor the size of Native American arsenals, the intense competition among the Europeans for Indian allies all but guaranteed the availability of state-of-the-art munitions to any Indian polity with the resources to pay for them. And when and where the chief colonial power in one region or another placed an embargo on arms sales to Indians—a not infrequent development—itinerant black market traders and Native American middlemen were happy to be of service.

The Abenakis who inhabited contemporary Vermont sustained themselves for several decades in the mid- and late-17th century as gun-trading middlemen between the French on the St. Lawrence and the Connecticut River tribes of New England. A hundred and seventy years later, in the 1830s, Native American middlemen remained heavily engaged in the arms trade, but now the big demand was among the nomadic peoples west of the Mississippi River—the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne.

These tribes had been utterly transformed by their encounters with the Spanish, who introduced them to the horse. Now, they survived in large part by raiding the Pueblos and other sedentary tribes to the southwest, purchased large quantities of pistols and flintlock long rifles from Kickapoo and Shawnee in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma.

The Kickapoo and Shawnee obtained their munitions from the so-called “civilized tribes”—the Cherokee, Creeks and Choctaws, among others—who’d agreed (under duress) to move west of the Mississippi, but not before federal authorities had provided them with far more firearms than they needed for their own use.

The Indians who rose up against the Puritan colonies of New England under the banner of King Philip of the Wampanoags in 1675 obtained the lion’s share of their arsenals from English sources, despite longstanding ordinances banning the sale of both guns and powder to all Indians except those licensed to hunt game for the settlers’ consumption. But the bans were ineffective.

New England was chock full of smugglers, rogue fur traders, and even ordinary farmers willing to engage in the lucrative gun trade with Indians. And right up to the beginning of war in June 1675, Dutch traders sold or traded munitions at temporary trading stations on Buzzard’s Bay and on Dutch Island in Narragansett Bay.

In King Philip’s War, Indian marksmanship and guerrilla-style raiding parties were devastatingly effective against a Puritan army that employed traditional open-field European military formations and tactics. After the first nine months of the war, most of the inland English towns in New England were either burned to the ground by Indian raiding parties, or abandoned by their citizens for the comparative safety of the larger coastal towns.

The black market for munitions in southern New England only dried up when the smugglers and rogue traders recognized that their own lives were threatened by the militant Indians’ astonishing success. After nine months of sustained fighting, much of it on the run, the Indians were running dangerously low on powder and shot, and they needed to find replacements for worn out or damaged flintlocks.

King Philip himself led an expedition to the Hudson Valley to purchase munitions either from the Dutch directly or from the Mohawks, who had unfettered access to the Dutch arms market. The expedition turned into a disaster for Philip and his cause. In exchange for arms and smithing services from the powerful colony of New York, the Mohawks attacked Philip’s warriors, inflicting heavy casualties, and sent them reeling back into central Massachusetts empty handed. The acute shortage of firearms and ammunition was a crucial factor in the rapidly declining fortunes of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett Indians in the spring of 1676.

However, an even more important factor in the militant Indians’ demise was the Puritan army’s abandonment of traditional European military tactics, and their adoption of what Brown University scholar Patrick Malone calls the Indians’ “skulking way of war.” By the time of King Philip’s War, Indian warfare in New England centered on surprise, secrecy, and the practical application of firearms to a wilderness fighting environment.

Its chief characteristics were high proficiency in marksmanship; the ability of small, heavily armed units (30 to 100 men, typically) to move rapidly, undetected, through the forest; the sighting and meticulous preparation of ambush positions; the careful selection of targets for raids, in which the Indians identified in advance an unobstructed avenue of withdrawal into the forest immediately after their strike.

Early in the conflict, the colonists denigrated the Indian fighting tactics, reports Malone in his classic book, The Skulking Way of War, “for acting ‘more like wolves then men,’ and for fighting ‘in a secret skulking manner, lying in ambushment, thickets, and swamps by the wayside, and so killing people in a base and ignoble manner.’” But by late winter 1676, the colonial authorities were singing a different tune. The only way to reverse the momentum of the war, they finally realized, was to adopt Indian tactics as their own. Hundreds of friendly Indians, many of them Christian converts, were hired to serve in joint units of cavalry and infantry as both scouts and soldiers. The Puritan War Council scoured around for colonial officers who understood the Indian way of war, and were willing to adopt it as their own.

Luckily for the Puritans, a few such men were indeed available. Some were former pirates and renegades like Capt. Samuel Moseley of Massachusetts Bay. Others were soldiers of fortune with fighting experience in Europe. But the most important by far, and certainly the most colorful, was the adventurous, free-wheeling Capt. Benjamin Church. Originally a settler in Plymouth Colony, Church, a carpenter and farmer, was the first white man to take up residence among the Saconnet Indians in what is now Little Compton, Rhode Island, only a few miles from the epicenter of King Philip’s War on Mount Hope Peninsula.

Church apparently could speak the local dialect of the Algonquian language, and formed a close friendship with Awashonks, the female Saconnet sachem, and a number of her warriors. At the outset of the war, Church formed an irregular company of volunteer colonists and friendly Indians, Saconnets and Narragansetts among them, and Church’s company was one of the very few Puritan units to defeat militant Indian bands in combat early in the conflict.

As the rebellion began to peter out in summer 1676, it fell to Church’s unit to track down King Philip and his starving band of diehard followers, and it was one of Church’s Indian troops who felled King Philip with a single musket shot in a swamp near the Wampanoag chief’s home village on Mount Hope Peninsula in August 1676. Bold, self-confident, and highly intelligent, Church was also a master self-promoter. He wrote the liveliest firsthand account we have of King Philip’s war, in which he himself figures as a one of the leading characters.

Benjamin Church prefigures not one but two classic American types: the frontiersman who embraces the wilderness, respects and befriends the Indians, and learns whatever he can from them about fighting and surviving in the wilderness, and the special forces soldier who masters the tactics of irregular warfare.

It is through such figures as Church, Daniel Boone, Robert Rogers, and Daniel Morgan that the Indians’ skulking way of war becomes an important part of the American military’s special warfare tradition. In recognition of his innovative tactics and his enthusiastic employment of indigenous fighters, in 1992 a yellow US Army Ranger tab was affixed onto Church’s grave in Little Compton, and he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army Rangers’ Hall of Fame.