Cossacks - Early History

Early History

It is not clear when the Slavic people started settling in the lower reaches of major rivers such as the Don and the Dnieper. It is unlikely it could have happened before the 13th century, when the Mongols broke the power of the Bulgars on that territory. It is known that they inherited a lifestyle that persisted there long before, such as those of the Turkic Cumans and the Circassian Kassaks . However, Slavic settlements in Southern Ukraine started to appear relatively early during the Bulgar rule, with the earliest ones, like Tsiurupynsk, dating back to 11th century.

Early "Proto-Cossack" groups very likely came into existence within the territories of today's Ukraine in the mid-13th century as the Golden Horde influence grew weak. Non-mainstream theories have ascribed their earlier existence to as early as the tenth century. Some historians suggest that the Cossack people were of mixed ethnic origins, descending from Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Turks, Tatars, and others who settled or passed through the vast Steppe. However some Turkologists argue that Cossacks are descendants of native Cumans of Ukraine, who lived there long ago before the Mongol invasion.

In the midst of the growing Moscow and Lithuanian powers, new political entities had appeared in the region such as Moldavia and the Crimean Khanate. In 1261 some Slavic people living in the area between the Dniester and the Volga were mentioned in Ruthenian chronicles. Historical records of the Cossacks before the 16th century are scant as the history of the Ukrainian lands in that period for various reasons.

In the 15th century, the Cossack society was described as a loose federation of independent communities, often forming local armies, entirely independent from the neighbouring states (of, e.g., Poland, the Grand Duchy of Moscow or the Khanate of Crimea). According to Hrushevsky the first mention of Cossacks could be found already in the 14th century; however, they were either of Turkic or of undefined origin. He states that they (Cossacks) could have been descendants from the Berlad territory (today in Romania) that was part of the Grand Duchy of Halych, Brodniki, or even the long forgotten Antes. Cossacks were a sort of a self-defense formations organized against various raids conducted by neighbors. Already in 1492 the Crimean Khan was complaining that the Kiev and Cherkasy Cossacks attacked his ship near Tighina (Bender) and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander I promised to find the guilty among the Cossacks. Sometime in the beginning of 16th century there appeared the old Ukrainian Ballad of Cossack Holota about a Cossack near Kiliya.

By the 16th century these Cossack societies merged into two independent territorial organisations as well as other smaller, still detached groups.

  • The Cossacks of Zaporizhia, centered on the lower bends of Dnieper, inside the territory of modern Ukraine, with the fortified capital of Zaporozhian Sich. They were formally recognised as an independent state, the Zaporozhian Host, by a treaty with Poland in 1649.
  • The Don Cossack State, on the river Don, separated from the Grand Duchy of Moscow by the Nogai states, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the Don Cossack State was Cherkassk, later moved to Novocherkassk.

Less well-known are the Polish Cossacks (Kozacy) and the Tatar Cossacks (Nağaybäklär). The term 'Cossacks' was also used for a type of light cavalry in the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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