War with the Kah Kwahs

Some inquiries have been made in a prior paper, on the strong probabilities of this people, being identical with the Ererions or Eries. While this question is one that appears to be within the grasp of modern inquiry, and may be resumed at leisure, the war itself, with the people whom they call Kah-Kwahs, and we Eries is a matter of popular tradition, and is alluded to with so many details, that its termination may be supposed to have been an event of not the most ancient date. Some of these reminiscences having found their way into the newspapers during the summer in a shape and literary garniture, which was suited to take them from the custody of sober tradition, and transfer them to that of romance, there was the more interest attached to the subject, which led me to take some pains to ascertain how general or fresh their recollections of this war might be.

My inquiries were answered one evening at the mission house at Buffalo, by the Allegany chief, Ha-yek-dyoh-kunh, or the Wood cutter, better known by his English name of Jacob Blacksnake. He stated that the Kah-Kwahs had their chief residence at the time of their final defeat, on the Eighteen-mile creek. The name by which he referred to them, in this last place of their residence, might be written perhaps with more exactitude to the native tongue, Gah Gwah-ge-o-nuh but as this compound word embraces the ideas of locality and existence along with their peculiar name, there is a species of tautology in retaining the two inflections. They are not necessary in the English, and besides in common use, I found them to be generally dropt, while the sound of G naturally changed in common pronunciation into that of K.

Blacksnake commenced by saying, that while the Senecas lived east of the Genessee, they received a challenge from the Kah-Kwahs, to try their skill in ball playing and athletic sports. It was accepted, and after due preliminaries, the challengers came, accompanied by their prime young men, who were held in great repute as wrestlers and ball-players. The old men merely came as witnesses, while this trial was made.

The first trial consisted of ball playing, in which, after a sharp contest, the young Senecas came off victorious. The next trial consisted of a foot race between two, which terminated also in favor of the Senecas. The spirit of the Kah-Kwas was galled by these defeats. They immediately got up another race on the instant, which was hotly contested by new runners, but it ended in their losing the race. Fired by these defeats, and still confident of their superior strength, they proposed wrestling, with the sanguinary condition, that each of the seconds should hold a drawn knife, and if his principal was thrown, he should instantly plunge it into his throat, and cut off his head. Under this terrible penalty, the struggle commenced. The wrestlers were to catch their hold as best they could, but to observe fair principles of wrestling. At length the Kah-Kwah was thrown, and his head immediately severed and tossed into the air. It fell with a rebound, and loud shouts proclaimed the Senecas victors in four trials. This terminated the sports, and the tribes returned to their respective villages.

Some time after this event, two Seneca hunters went out to hunt west of the Genesee River, and as the custom is, built a hunting lodge of boughs, where they rested at night. One day, one of them went out alone, and having walked a long distance, was belated on his return. He saw, as he cast his eye to a distant ridge, a large body of the Kah-Kwahs marching in the direction of the Seneca towns. He ran to his companion, and they instantly fled and alarmed the Senecas. They sent off a messenger post-haste to inform their confederates towards the east, and immediately prepared to meet their enemies. After about a day’s march, they met them. It was near sunset when they descried their camp, and they went and encamped in the vicinity. A conference ensued, in which they settled the terms of the battle.

The next morning the Senecas advanced. Their order of battle was this. They concealed their young men, who were called by the narrator burnt-knives, 1 telling them to lie flat, and not rise and join the battle until they received the war cry, and were ordered forward. With these were left the rolls of peeled bark to tie their prisoners. Having made this arrangement, the old warriors advanced, and began the battle. The contest was fierce and long, and it varied much. Sometimes they were driven back, or faltered in their line again they advanced, and again faltered. This waving of the lines to and fro, formed a most striking feature in the battle for a long time. At length the Senecas were driven back near to the point where the young men were concealed. The latter were alarmed, and cried out “now, we are killed!” At this moment, the Seneca leader gave the concerted war whoop, and they arose and joined in battle. The effects of this reinforcement, at the time that the enemy were fatigued with the day’s fight, were instantaneously felt. The young Senecas pressed on their enemies with resistless energy, and after receiving a shower of arrows beat down their opponents with their war clubs, and took a great many prisoners. The prisoners were immediately bound with their arms behind, and tied to trees. Nothing; could resist their impetuosity.

The Kah-Kwah chiefs determined to fly, and leave the Senecas masters of the field. In this hard and disastrous battle, which was fought by the Senecas alone, and without aid from their confederates, the Kah-Kwahs lost a very great number of their men, in slain and prisoners. But those who fled were not permitted to escape unpursued, and having been reinforced from the east, they followed them, and attacked them in their residence on the Deoseowa (Buffalo creek) and Eighteen-mile Creek, which they were obliged to abandon, and fly to the Oheeo, [the Seneca name for the Alleghany.]

The Senecas pursued them, in their canoes, in the descent of this stream. They discovered their encampment on an island in numbers superior to their own. To deceive them, the Senecas, on putting ashore, carried their canoes across a narrow peninsula, by means of which they again entered the river above. New parties appeared to the enemy, to be thus continually arriving, and led them greatly to over-estimate their numbers.

This was at the close of day. In the morning not an enemy was to be seen. They had fled down the river and have never since appeared. It is supposed they yet exist west of the Mississippi. 2

Two characteristic traits of boasting happened in the first great battle above described. The Kah-Kwah women carried along, in the rear of the warriors, packs of moccasins, for the women and children, whom they expected to be made captives in the Seneca villages. The Senecas, on the other hand, said, as they went out to battle, “let us not fight them too near for fear of the stench” alluding to the anticipated heaps of slain.

Defeat of the Kah-Kwahs on Buffalo Creek

Some of the Senecas affirm, that it is ninety years since the battle with the Kah-Kwahs, on the site of the graveyard, on the Buffalo creek reservation, was fought. This would place the event in 1755, a date so modern, and so well known, in our colonial history, as to prove what a poor figure they make in attempts to adjust chronology. If 190 years [and, perhaps, such should be the tradition,] be taken, the event (allowing two years for their defense) would assume the precise time [1655] indicated for it, by one of Le Moyne’s missionary letters, in which he says, that the war with the Eries had broken out afresh in 1653.Citations:

  1. A term to denote their being quite young, and used here as a can’t phrase for prime young warriors.[]
  2. We may here venture to inquire, whether the Kah-Kwahs were not a remnant, or at least allies of the ancient Alleghans, who gave name to the river, and thus to the mountains. The French idea, that the Eries were exterminated, is exploded by this tradition of Blacksnake, at least if we concede that Erie and Kah-Kwah, were synonyms, which is questionable. A people who were called Ererions by the Wyandots, and Kah-Kwahs by the Iroquois, may have had many other names, from other tribes. It would contradict all Indian history, if they had not as many names as there were diverse nations, to whom they were known.[]


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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