Canada | Opinion

Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawk warriors helped save Canada

In the fall of 1813 the Mohawks of Akwesasne were once again at the perilous position.

Formal hostilities between Britain and the United States had resulted in war the previous year. Akwesasne was in a unique geographical location considered essential for the defense of Canada and, by the Americans, as vital to their planned invasions along the St. Lawrence River.

On the territory itself factions resulted from divided loyalties, a remnant from the American Revolution. The pro-Americans were led by the black-Abenaki Louis Cook, a commissioned officer by General George Washington and his assistant Eleazer Williams. On the pro-British side were those Mohawks who lived north of the 45th parallel and particularly the Oneida-Onondaga refugees from the disbanded community of Oswegatchie who were granted lands in what is now the Snye district.

In October of 1812 the US invaded Akwesasne by attacking the British garrison in St. Regis Village. Housed in a blockhouse at the juncture of the St. Regis and St. Lawrence rivers the assault was hailed as the first American military victory of the war but it pushed the Mohawks into fighting alongside the British.

Thereafter, the Mohawks would play decisive roles in several American defeats from Queenston Heights to the fall of Fort Detroit.

In addition to their fighting skills the Mohawks of Akwesasne also provided vital military intelligence to the British commanders and helped supply the garrison at Cornwall. The soldiers there also enjoyed the benefits of American farmers who smuggled their harvest to Canada in exchange for English gold while their own forces starved at French Mills (now Ft. Covington, NY).

For the 1813 campaign US Secretary of War John Armstrong decided to attack Canada and capture Montreal using a two-prong assault. From Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence an army led by General James Wilkinson would meet General Wade Hampton at Akwesasne and as a single unit they would move against Montreal. With the capture of that city the British would have their supplies cut off to the west, the war in North American would end and Canada would be incorporated into an expanding United States.

Armstrong, like his two commanders, made his decisions based upon very poor information. It was extremely difficult to move thousands of troops over heavily forested lands, the Americans did not know how to avoid the St. Lawrence River rapids west of Akwesasne and they had extended supply routes which made their lines highly vulnerable. They also did not know that neither Canadians or Natives, particularly most Mohawks, had no desire to become enveloped by the Americans and would risk their lives to oppose US expansion northwards.

As it was, Wilkinson and Hampton had a profound dislike if each other. They failed to coordinate their movements or to share intelligence. When Hampton left his encampment in Vermont on September 19 Wilkinson neglected to leave his headquarters at Sackets Harbor until October 17, long after Hampton had made his decisive intrusion into southern Quebec. Wilkinson and his 8,000 troops would pay dearly for his obstinacy the next month at Crysler’s Farm but for Hampton it meant he had to move against and unknown opponent with less than half of the planned army.

The Mohawks of Akwesasne and Kahnawake would once again serve valiantly, playing key roles at Chateauguay and thereby save Canada.

Hampton left Vermont with 4,000 troops, spending a month marching from Burlington to present day Chateauguay, NY. He was supposed to have been given information from the 30 or so Mohawks with him led by Eleazer Williams but they failed to alert him as to the movements of the Canadians and Mohawks to their north.

Hampton ordered his men to cross the border but the 1,400 New York militia troops refused to do so, stating that the terms of their enlistment did not permit them to enter another country.

Facing Hampton were and all Canadian-Mohawk force consisting of the Scottish Fenicibles (later the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders) with the Canadian Voltigeurs (a ranger light infantry type unit, Quebec militia and 180 Akwesasne-Mohawk fighters for a total of 1,500 men.

Led by the capable Charles de Salaberry, the Canadian-Mohawks had adequate supplies, strong local support, reliable intelligence and knew the area.

When Salaberry received word the Americans were marching north towards the badly needed waters of the Chateauguay River he planned his defences carefully, placing the Mohawks were their unique battle techniques would cause the greatest fear among the invaders. The Mohawks had as their liaison Lt. Col. George MacDonnell but their way of fighting proved to be decisive in the coming fight.

One source describes the actual battle as follows:
Battle of the Chateauguay

The capture of Montreal had long been the first objective of the Americans. The seizure of Montreal would severe the supply line along the St Lawrence River, bringing about the fall of Upper Canada (future Ontario).

The growing city, its population approaching 20 thousand, was thought to be an easy target. In fact, Montreal had none of the natural fortification that Quebec City had exploited to great effect throughout its history.

In July 1813, shortly after the first anniversary of the start of the war, Major General James Wilkinson was appointed the Commander of the American Army of the Center. To tell the truth, his personal history was one marred by scandal, intrigue, trickery, and, most important of all, incompetence. Indeed, Wilkinson had three times been obliged to resign his commissions due to his participation in plots and conspiracies. But he had a good friend, Mr. John Armstrong, the Secretary of War.

Armstrong decided that Montreal should be the first target during the campaign of 1813. 4, 000 regulars and 1,500 militia were concentrated at Chateauguay Four Corners, just south of the border between Lower Canada (Quebec) and New York State, in the end of September.

The Canadians were well aware of the American forces at Chateauguay Four Corners. The commander of the Canadian outposts, Lieutenant Colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry had for months been receiving accurate intelligence from the farmers in the surrounding area. Major General Louis de Watteville, the recently appointed commander of the Montreal District, had already ordered units of his militia to be called up.

Salaberry ordered his corps, the Canadian Voltigeurs, to do breastworks. The Canadian forces amounted to roughly 470. Thus they were outnumbered by a factor of more than eight to one. Colonel Robert Prudy, of the American force, led more than 1,000 men along the south side of the Chateauguay River in order to cross the ford to the north shore. Another force of 1,000 men was led by Brigadier General George Izard, on the north side.

Prudy and his men marched through the swamp and underbrush, led by ineffective guides who had warned Americans that they had no real knowledge of the terrain.

On 26 October, Purdy came under fire from the militia who had been dispatched to guard the ford. If only to escape enemy fire the Americans moved further north, where they were confronted by another group of Canadian militia.

Izard’s troupes realized that the battle had begun. They moved to confront Canadians, but as they moved forward in a fashion more suited to the open warfare of a European theatre of war, they were met with the fire of Mohawks. Thinking that they were outnumbered, the Americans retreated.

In all, two Canadians and 23 Americans were killed. Dozens of Americans deserted. The Americans decided than ant renewed advance would only be met with failure. Thus the force of 470 Canadians had repulsed 4,000 American invaders.


There are some errors in the above. The Americans did not have 4,000 soldiers at the battle, only 2,600 as the New York militia abandoned their comrades by refusing to cross the border. The Mohawks played a much more important role than is cited in most sources nor is the fact that Wilkinson deliberately refrained from supporting Hampton. Also contributing to the American defeat was the lack of reliable information from Eleazer Williams as to terrain and location of the Canadian-Mohawks. And it must be noted that at no point did any units of the British army take part in the fight. The Mohawks were also able to identify and either wound or kill American officers due to their sharpshooting skills.

The end result of Chateauguay was the retreat of the Americans, the abandonment of the southern assault of Montreal and the defeat of Gen. Wilkinson the next month at Crysler’s Farm. For Eleazer Williams it meant he left Akwesasne in disgrace. He was given refuge among the Oneidas where he would play the key role in persuading the majority of the people there to relocate to eastern Wisconsin as an undeclared agent of the Ogden Land Company.

At Chateauguay the Mohawks, through their courage, intelligence and fighting skills saved Canada.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes. A co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association he was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is the author of "Iroquois on Fire" among other books. He may be reached via e-mail: or by calling 315-363-1655. Kanentiio resides in Oneida Castle NY.

More from Doug George-Kanentiio:
Doug George-Kanentiio: How we removed the Saltine Warrior (09/20)

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