Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Story of Piskaret

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Story of Piskaret

By Cadwallader Colden (1688–1776)

[Born in Ireland, 1688. Died at Spring Hill, L. I., 1776. The History of the Five Indian Nations. 1727.]

IT has been a constant maxim with the Five Nations to save the children and young men of the people they conquer, to adopt them into their own nation, and to educate them as their own children without distinction. These young people soon forget their own country and nation; and by this policy the Five Nations make up the losses which their nation suffers by the people they lose in war. The wisest and best soldiers of the Adirondacks, when it was too late, discovered that they must imitate and learn the art of war from those enemies that they at first despised. Now, five of their chief captains endeavor to perform by themselves singly, with art and by stratagem, what they could not perform by force at the head of their armies; but, they having no longer any hopes of conquering their enemies, their thoughts were only set on revenge.

The Five Nations had taken one of the chief captains of the Adirondacks, and had burnt him alive. This gave Piskaret, who was the chief captain of the Adirondacks, so deep a resentment, that the difficulty or danger of the most desperate attempt made no impression upon his spirit where he had the hope of revenge.

I shall give the particulars of this from the French accounts; for by it the nature of the Indians, and the manner of their making war, may be more easily understood.

Piskaret, with four other captains, set out from Trois Rivieres in one canoe, each being provided with three fuzees. In two days they reached Sorel River, where they perceived five canoes of the Five Nations with ten men in each. At first those of the Five Nations believed that this canoe was the van of some considerable party, and therefore went from it with all the force of their paddles. When they saw that after a considerable time no others followed, they returned, and, as soon as they came within call, they raised their war shout, which they call “Sassakue,” and bid Piskaret and his fellows surrender. He answered, That he was their prisoner, and that he could no longer survive the captain they had burnt; but that he might not be accused of surrendering cowardly, he bid them advance to the middle of the river, which they did with surprising swiftness. Piskaret had beforehand loaded all his arms with two bullets each, which he joined together with a small wire ten inches in length with design to tear the canoes in pieces (which it could not fail to do, they being made only of birch bark) and gave his companions direction, each to choose a canoe, and level his shot between wind and water.

As the canoes approached, he made as if he designed to escape; and to prevent him, those of the Five Nations separated from each other with too much precipitation, and surrounded him. The Adirondacks, the better to amuse the enemy, sung their death song, as ready to surrender themselves, when every one suddenly took his piece and fired upon the canoes, which they reiterated three times, with the arms that lay ready. Those of the Five Nations were extremely surprised; for firearms were still terrible to them, and they tumbled out of their canoes, which immediately sunk. The Adirondacks knocked them all on the head in the water, except some of the chiefs that they made prisoners, whose fate was as cruel as that of the Adirondack captain, who had been burnt alive.

Piskaret was so far from having his revenge glutted with this slaughter, and the cruel torments with which he made his prisoners die, that it seemed rather to give a keener edge to it; for he soon after attempted another enterprise in which the boldest of his countrymen durst not accompany him.

He was well acquainted with the country of the Five Nations; he set out alone about the time that the snow began to melt, with the precaution of putting the hinder part of his snow shoes forward, that if any should happen upon his footsteps they might think he was gone the contrary way; and for further security went along a ridge, where the snow was melted, and where his footsteps could not be discovered but in a few places. When he found himself near one of the villages of the Five Nations he hid himself in a hollow tree. In the night he found out a place nearer at hand, and more proper to retire into, for the execution of any enterprise. He found four piles of wood standing close together, which the Indians had provided against the winter and their busy times, in the middle of which was a hollow place, in which he thought he could safely hide. The whole village was fast asleep when he entered a cabin, killed four persons and took off their scalps, being all that were in the house, and then returned quietly into his hole. In the morning the whole village was in an alarm, as soon as the murder was discovered, and the young men made all possible haste to follow the murderer. They discovered Piskaret’s footsteps, which appeared to them to be the footsteps of some person that fled; this encouraged them in their pursuit. Sometimes they lost the track, and sometimes found it again, till at last they entirely lost it, where the snow was melted, and they were forced to return, after much useless fatigue. Piskaret quiet in the midst of his enemies waited with impatience for the night. As soon as he saw that it was time to act (viz., in the first part of the night, when the Indians are observed to sleep very fast) he entered into another cabin, where he killed every person in it, and immediately retired into his wood pile.

In the morning there was a greater outcry than before, nothing was seen but wailing, tears, and a general consternation. Everyone runs in quest of the murderer, but no track to be seen besides the track which they saw the day before. They searched the woods, swamps, and clifts of the rocks, but no murderer to be found. They began to suspect Piskaret, whose boldness and cunning was too well known to them. They agreed that two men next night should watch in every cabin. All day long he was contriving some new stratagem; he bundles up his scalps, and in the night he slips out of his lurking place. He approaches one of the cabins as quietly as possible, and peeps through a hole to see what could be done; there he perceived guards on the watch; he went to another, where he found the same care. When he discovered that they were everywhere upon their guard, he resolved to strike his last blow, and opened a door, where he found a sentinel nodding with his pipe in his mouth; Piskaret split his skull with his hatchet, but had not time to take his scalp, for another man, who watched at the other end of the cabin, raised the cry, and Piskaret fled. The whole village immediately was in an uproar, while he got off as fast as he could; many pursued him, but as he was so swift as to run down the wild cows and the deer, the pursuit gave him no great uneasiness. When he perceived they came near him, he would holloa to them, to quicken their pace, then spring from them like a buck. When he gained any distance he would loiter till they came near, then holloa, and fly. Thus he continued all day, with design to tire them out with the hopes of overtaking him.

As they pursued only a single man, five or six of the nimblest young men continued the chase, till being tired they were forced to rest in the night, which when Piskaret observed, he hid himself near them in a hollow tree. They had not time to take victuals with them, and being wearied and hungry, and not apprehending any attack from a single person that fled, they all soon fell asleep. Piskaret observed them, fell upon them, killed them all, and carried away their scalps.

These stories may seem incredible to many, but will not appear to be improbable to those who know how extremely revengeful the Indians naturally are. That they every day undertake the greatest fatigues, the longest journeys, and the greatest dangers, to gratify that devouring passion, which seems to gnaw their souls, and gives them no ease till it is satisfied. All barbarous nations have been observed to be revengeful and cruel, the certain consequences of an unbounded revenge, as the curbing of these passions is the happy effect of being civilized….

The Five Nations gave out that they intended next winter to visit Yonnondio (the name they give to the Governor of Canada). These visits are always made with much show. They gathered together 1,000 or 1,200 men, and, passing over Corlear’s Lake, they fell in with Nicolet River, where it falls into the south side of Lake St. Pierre, in St. Lawrence River, eight leagues above Trois Rivieres; six scouts marched three leagues before the army, who met with Piskaret, as he returned from hunting, loaded with the tongues of wild cows. As they came near him, they sung their song of peace, and Piskaret, taking them for ambassadors, stopped and sung his. It is probable that he having glutted his private revenge, and his nation having been long harassed with a cruel war, he too greedily swallowed the bait: peace being what he and all his nation earnestly desired. He invited them therefore to go along with him to his village, which was but two or three leagues further: and, as he went, he told them that the Adirondacks were divided into two bodies, one of which hunted on the north side of St. Lawrence River at Wabmache, three leagues above Trois Rivieres, and the other at Nicolet. One of the scouts had on purpose stayed behind; this man followed Piskaret, and coming up behind him knocked him on the head with his hatchet. Then they all returned to their army with Piskaret’s head. The Five Nations immediately divided likewise into two bodies, they surprised the Adirondacks, and cut them in pieces.