In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Warfare in Seventeenth-Century North America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Essay Anthologies
  • Euro-Indian Conflicts
  • The Early Imperial Wars
  • The West and the Southwest

Atlantic History Warfare in Seventeenth-Century North America
Wayne E. Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0144


The exploratory, trading, colonial, and eventually imperial voyages and expeditions of European powers to North America inevitably generated conflict both among Europeans and with the indigenous inhabitants. There were many ways and processes in which all the players found paths to mutual profit, learned about each other, intermarried, and lived and played together, but the political imperatives of competition in Europe combined with increasingly ethnocentric perceptions of resource distribution, especially the control of land, brought frequent and bitter warfare. The sides were not always clearly drawn. Indians fought on all sides, pursuing interests, revenge, or merely survival. Europeans could become Indians, and Indians tried to become Europeans. Former subjects of Holland became effective soldiers in English expeditions against New France. Portuguese pilots guided English fleets in raids against a Spanish king who had also become the king of Portugal. Only since the 1990s have historians really begun to assess early North American warfare in a way that includes all these players to their full extent. To greatly simplify, the military history of the European expansion into North America has passed through three phases. Late-19th- and early-20th-century writers tended to focus on reconstructing campaign narratives of either the imperial conflicts (England versus France or Spain) or the localist experience of wars against “savages,” primarily in New England. Beginning in the 1960s historians and ethnohistorians increasingly turned their attention to the colonial experience as understood by the Indians: how did they perceive their interests, and what cultural structures determined their involvement in conflicts with each other and with Europeans? These historians more or less took for granted the European experience and expectations of war, believing that the military history from that angle was “done.” Furthermore, the historians reacted against the savage stereotype of the previous era and sought to shift the blame for what were undeniably vicious wars more squarely to the greed and duplicity of the Europeans. Since the 1980s, however, historians of the “Atlantic” variety deeply invested in the ethnohistoric scholarship, while reevaluating many aspects of the European experience, began to generate a more integrated story. In this new narrative Indians became key players and partners in what eventually becomes European expansion and domination. Indians, however, managed and manipulated their own destiny, even in the face of what we now know were truly devastating plagues. For the students of war, this new narrative has encouraged a reexamination of the nature of violence and of the effect of military changes in the Old World on imperial expansion and on colonial military institutions in the New World. This bibliography is not entirely restricted to the 17th century. It also encompasses the “precontact” problem, examining the military experience of Europeans and Indians prior to their contacting each other as well as the few 16th-century experiences in North America. North America is here defined to include what is now the United States and Canada but not the Caribbean or Central America. Historical trajectory and an Anglophone emphasis also mean a weighting herein toward the English colonies. Finally, the artificial time marker 1700 actually has some value. The first of the so-called imperial wars began in 1689 and is covered here briefly, but it makes sense to stop at that point, because the historiography of the imperial wars of the 18th century has a different focus and emphasis.

General Overviews

In accord with the discussion in the introduction, there are really two kinds of surveys included here. The older ones, such as Peckham 1964, Gipson 1936–1970, and Leach 1973, provide basic military narratives generally focused on English and French competition. They remain useful sources for that purpose. The more recent surveys incorporate the new ethnohistoric understanding of Indian warfare while asking more complex questions about European motivations and behaviors. Chet 2003, Grenier 2005, and Starkey 1998 in particular are focused on changes in European forms and practices of war (or not), and they present surprising disagreements. Steele 1994 is the best survey of Native American practices covering the whole colonial period, whereas Ferling 1980 and Lee 2011 may offer the best fully integrated analytic discussions of European versus Native American warfare and how each affected the other. It must be noted that almost all these surveys transcend the chronological boundary at 1700.

  • Chet, Guy. Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.

    Argues against the prevailing wisdom that Europeans only succeeded in their wars against Indians when they adapted Indian techniques. When the English held true to their traditional tactical emphasis on disciplined volley fire, especially on the tactical defensive, they were irresistible. The contact generation, still fully invested in this system, was therefore highly effective. The second generation had lost those skills and paid for it during King Philip’s War.

  • Ferling, John E. A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America. Contributions in Military History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.

    A classic and influential study that both surveys the period and defines an argument about changes in European warfare. Contends that early colonists arrived with a style of war that reflected the furies of the religious wars in Europe. Colonists then remained separated from the developing restraints in Europe, and the colonists’ wars with Indians retained “total war” methods. Furthermore, endemic colonial warfare encouraged a martial ethos in American culture.

  • Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The British Empire before the American Revolution. 15 vols. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1936–1970.

    An almost overwhelming survey of British expansion written from a centralized, “imperial” perspective, covering a vast geographic and chronological spread. Based primarily on British state and other official papers, it remains useful in this context especially for the early imperial wars against the Dutch and King William’s War (1689–1697). Each volume covers a discrete region and period.

  • Grenier, John. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607–1814. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511817847

    An important and now frequently cited discussion of changes to (or development of) an American “way of war” during the colonial period. Colonists developed something Grenier calls extirpative war, involving destruction of Indian crops and villages, combined with creating units of “rangers” fighting Indian style and often recruited with the promise of scalp bounties. Taken together these practices constituted a new way of war, one that Grenier asserts carried over into the military practices of the United States.

  • Leach, Douglas Edward. Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763. Macmillan Wars of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

    Part of a series on the wars of the United States, this volume is constructed to get the reader through the whole colonial period. Although written almost entirely from an English colonial perspective, the text retains value as an introduction to any given conflict from the period.

  • Lee, Wayne E. Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500–1865. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Examines English and American wars, ranging from 16th-century Ireland through the American Civil War. Focused on the nature of violence in war based on various combinations of state capacity, military calculation, systems of soldier control, and cultural attitudes toward war and toward the enemy. Of particular interest to the discussion here is Lee’s examination of English colonial war precedents created in Ireland and England and the comprehensive look at Native American warfare.

  • Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars, 1689–1762. Chicago History of American Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

    Perhaps somewhat dated and not reliable on French matters, this book still holds value as a survey of the imperial wars between England and France (and Spain). Strictly narrative and operational.

  • Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

    Examines Euro-Indian warfare rather than the English-French conflict and without necessarily being bound to a narrative of particular wars. Starkey argues that Native Americans took advantage of European technology to refine their style of war (after 1675) in such a way that colonists found it very difficult to deal with them for the duration of the colonial era and early American Republic. Concise and authoritative; well designed for classroom use.

  • Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Focus is on the Euro-Indian contest for North America. The chronological coverage is comprehensive (1513–1763), and the coverage is geographically broad along the Eastern Seaboard. The author divides the chronology primarily by the nature of Indian resistance to Europeans, which he sees as evolving (partly in response to the changing nature of the European presence). Good on Indian strategy, tactics, and attitudes toward war. A thorough, up-to-date, and comprehensive survey of Native American warfare.

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