A confederation of 5, and later 6, cognate tribes originally in central New York
A noted confederacy of five, and afterwards six, cognate tribes of Iroquoian stock, and closely cognate languages, formerly occupying central New York, and claiming right of conquest over nearly all the tribes from Hudson Bay to Tennessee River, and westward to Lake Michigan and Illinois River. The name by which they are commonly known is a French derivative of disputed origin and meaning, but may possibly come from the Algonquin Irinakhoiw (real snakes), snake being the term by which the Algonquin tribes denoted hostile tribes of alien stock. To the English they were known as the “Five”, and afterward the “Six Nations”. They called themselves “Ongwanonsionni” (We of the extended house), or “Hodinonsyonni”, frequently written and translated “Konoshioni” and “Hodenosanee” (People of the long house). The five original tribes, from east to west, were the “Ganienge haga” (Flint place people), “Oneniote-aga” (Standing stone people), “Onondage-ga” (Mountain place people), “Goioguen-aga” (Locusts-coming-out-place people), and “Tsonontowaga” (Big mountain people), known to the French as “Agnie-ronon”, “Onneioute”, “Onontague”, “Goyogouen”, and “Tsonnontouan”, and to the English as Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. To these were added the cognate Tuscarora (Hemp gatherers) from North Carolina, after the war of 1711-12. Each tribe also had one or more figurative names used commonly in the confederate council, the term “Long house” itself being a figurative designation for the confederacy, of which the Mohawk were considered to guard the eastern door, as the Seneca did the western, while the Onondaga watched the sacred council fire in the center.
The numerous broken tribes “adopted” or taken under protection were never accounted equal members of the confederacy, and full political equality was granted to the Tuscarora only after long years of probation as “infants”, “boys”, and “observers”. Other tribes of Iroquoian stock were the Wyandot, or Huron; Tionontati, or Tobacco Nation; and the Neutral Nation of Ontario; the Erie and Conestoga (Andaste, Susquehanna), in Ohio and Pennsylvania; and the Nottoway, Tuscarora, and Cherokee, of Virginia and Carolina. Of these only the Wyandot and Cherokee survive. Wherever found, the tribes of this stock showed a marked and recognized intellectual superiority.
No other native Indian government north of Mexico has been the subject of so much study as the confederacy or league of the Iroquois, and probably no other was so complex and exact in detail and so wisely adapted to permit the fullest measure of freedom to each component tribe, while securing united action in all that concerned the whole. In general plan, it might be compared to our own system of independent state and federal jurisdiction, and in fact the Iroquois themselves, at the outbreak of the Revolution, recommended their system as a model for imitation by the American patriots. As in most of the eastern tribes, it was based upon the clan system (see American Indians), with descent in the female line, the number of clans varying from three with the Mohawk and Oneida to eight in the others of the original five, the dominant clans being the Bear, Wolf and Turtle. Each tribe had its women’s council, chosen from the mothers of the tribe, and taking the initiative in all matters of public importance, including the nomination of members of the chief’s council, made up in each tribe, of a certain number of hereditary chiefs (i.e. hereditary to the clan), the same number of alternates, and an additional number chosen for special fitness but without heredity in office. The hereditary chiefs of the first class, fifty in all for the five tribes, acting together, constituted the league council.
As in civilized aristocracies and religious orders, each league councilor at his formal installation, assumed an official hereditary name, by which he was henceforth known in his official capacity, in preference to his ordinary personal name, the official name being that borne by his direct predecessor at the original formation of the league. All nominations to hereditary chiefships, while originating with the women’s council, had to be ratified by the tribal and league councils. Elaborate installation or condolence ceremonies signalized the inauguration or the death of a member of the league council, but no official notice was taken of the passing of a lesser chief. No alien could become a member of the tribe except by formal adoption into a clan, and as the right of adoption rested solely with the women as mothers of the clan, the fate of captives for life or death depended upon the will of the women. As the cultivators of the ground, the women also held jurisdiction of the territorial domain, and again, as mothers of the warriors, they decided questions of war and peace. Except for the veto power of the league council, it might be said that the mothers of the confederated tribes constituted the legislative body while the warriors were the executive.
The Iroquois dwelling was the socalled “long house”, from 50 to 100 feet in length and from 15 to 20 feet in width, the frame of stout posts set upright in the ground, kept in place with cross-pieces, and covered and roofed with bark. The interior was divided into compartments of equal size along each side, opening upon a central passageway along the whole length of the building. Each compartment, excepting those at the end for storage or guest purposes, sheltered one family, so that as many as twenty families might live under one roof. Fireplaces were arranged along the passageway, so disposed that one fire accommodated four families. All the occupants of a house were usually closely related by clan kinship, thus constituting a larger family. In the principal towns, frequently designated as “castles”, the houses were compactly and regularly arranged, and enclosed within strong palisades. In less important settlements the houses were scattered about in a straggling fashion. Surrounding the villages were cornfields and orchards so extensive as to be a constant theme of wonder to both French and later American invaders. Besides corn they cultivated squashes, beans, and tobacco, in addition to which their woods and waters furnished abundant supplies of game and fish. Famine, so common in some tribes, was unknown among the Iroquois. They dressed in smoke-tanned buck-skin, and their women were potters and basket makers, but not weavers. Their ordinary weapons were the bow, knife, and stone or wooden club, afterward superseded by the steel hatchet or tomahawk of civilized manufacture, but they sometimes in ancient times used also the stone-headed lance, the shield of rawhide or wicker work, and a rude form of body armor. Learning to their sorrow the power of firearms, in their first encounter with Champlain they made eager efforts to buy guns from contraband Dutch traders with such success that by 1640 a large proportion of their warriors were well equipped and expert gunmen, enabling them to start upon a career of conquest which made the Iroquois name a terror for a thousand miles. Even among savages they were noted for their cruelty, cannibal feasts and sickening torture of captives being the sequel of every successful war expedition, while time after time the fullest measure of their awful savagery was visited upon the devoted missionary.
In Iroquois cosmogony, the central figure is Tharonyawagon, the “Sky Holder”, dwelling above the firmament, whose pregnant wife, cast down to the earth in a fit of jealousy, bears a daughter, who, marrying a turtle in human form—the turtle being symbolic of power over earth and water—becomes in turn the mother of twin boys. These, as they grow up, are thenceforth in perpetual conflict, the one, the god of winter and death, forever destroying what his brother, the god of springtime and life, as constantly restores. Their mythology and ceremonial are rich and well-preserved, almost the whole of their ancient ritual forms being still kept up on the Ontario reserve. Among the principal ceremonies may be noted the Green Corn Dance, a thanksgiving for the new crops, and the “Burning of the White Dog”, a solemn sacrifice. Another, in ancient times, was the Feast of the Dead, when the bones of all who had been dead for a term of years were gathered from their temporary resting places and deposited in a common sepulcher. The temporary disposal was by scaffold burial. The athletic ball play, lacrosse, was their principal ceremonial game. Unlike most eastern Indians, the Iroquois were monogamists, but divorce was easy and frequent, the children remaining always with the mother.
The Iroquois languages have been the subject of much study by missionaries and others, and have an abundant literature, philologic, religious, and general. Principal in the first class are Bruyas’s “Radices verborum Iroquaeorum”, and Cuoq’s “Lexique de la langue Iroquoise”, besides an extensive Iroquois-French grammar and dictionary, still in manuscript, by Father Marcoux.
According to Iroquois tradition, as interpreted by Hewitt, our best living authority, the league was established through the effort of Hiawatha (River Maker), probably of the Mohawk tribe, about the year 1570, or about forty years before the appearance of the French and Dutch in their country. At this time they numbered altogether probably less than 6000 souls, with powerful and aggressive enemies all around them, chief among these being the Algonquin of Canada. The unfortunate mistake of Champlain in 1609, in allying himself with this tribe in an invasion of the Iroquois country and winning the victory for the Algonquins by the help of the French firearms, was never forgotten or forgiven by the Iroquois, who became from that day the constant and unrelenting enemy of the French, and to this fact was largely due the final fall of Canada. Through contraband trade with the Dutch at Albany, after 1615, the Iroquois quickly supplied themselves with guns, and at once inaugurated a systematic war of conquest or extermination against all the surrounding tribes, particularly those in the French interest. In 1642 the heroic Jesuit missionary Jogues, while on his way to the Hurons, was taken by a Mohawk war party and cruelly tortured until rescued by the Dutch. The same capture and torture, and the same kindly rescue, befell the Jesuit Bressani, in 1644. In 1646, on the conclusion of an uncertain peace with the savages, Father Jogues again offered himself for the Mohawk mission, but shortly after his arrival was condemned and tortured to death on the charge of being the cause of a pestilence and a plague upon the crops.
In the meantime the Iroquois were making constant raids upon the Huron missions about Georgian Bay, as also upon the partly missionized tribes of the lower St. Lawrence. In 1648, a grand army of invasion of at least 1500 Iroquois warriors, largely armed with guns, swept over the Huron country, and within a few months had practically destroyed the tribe, burning the towns and missions, slaughtering hundreds upon hundreds of their people, carrying off 700 captives in one body and whole town populations later, and killing the missionaries, Daniel, Garner, Lallemant, and the great Brebeuf. Between then and 1675 they wiped out in the same way the Tionontati (1650), Neutrals (1651), Erie (1655) and at last after a long and hard conflict the Conestoga (1675), all of their own kindred stock, those left alive being incorporated into the Iroquois towns. At the same time they were carrying on almost equally desolating warfare with the Mohican on the east, the Algonquin and Ottawa in the North, the Illinois in the far distant West, and the Cherokee, Tutelo, and Catawba in the South, while keeping the whole French colony of Canada under a constant terror. They were careful, however, to maintain friendship with the Dutch and the later English, from whom they obtained their war supplies. A careful estimate by Greenhalgh in 1677 gave them then about 2150 warriors—perhaps 8000 souls—of whom, according to Jesuit authorities, nearly one-half were incorporated captives. In 1656, during a brief truce with Canada, a Jesuit mission colony was established among the Onondaga at their own request, with Father Le Mercier as superior, but two years later, upon the discovery of an intended massacre and general descent upon Canada, the mission was secretly abandoned. Another truce, consequent upon a successful expedition by De Tracy, gave brief opportunity for reestablishment, and in 1668 there were three missions in the Iroquois country.
Notwithstanding the hostile attitude of the league, a large number in each tribe, including the incorporated captives from the old missions, was now Christian and disposed to friendship with the French. Accordingly it was decided to attempt to draw out these Christians from the tribes and colonize them into mission towns in the neighborhood of the French, to be a nucleus of conversion and an additional strength against the Iroquois enemy. One reason for this conclusion was the hostile attitude assumed toward the French missionaries by the new English government of New York. As a consequence of the colonizing policy, mission settlements of Christian Iroquois were established at Quinte Bay, Ontario (Sulpician, 1668; Recollect, 1678-c. 1687); Laprairie, near Montreal, alias St. Francois Xavier des Pres (Jesuit, 1669; removed to Sault St. Louis and renamed St. Francois Xavier du
Sault, 1676, now Caughnawaga); the Mountain, near Montreal (Sulpician, 1676; transferred to Sault au Recollet, c. 1704, and to Lake of Two Mountains alias Oka 1720). In 1687 the French governor, Denonville, invaded the western Iroquois territory with an army of nearly 1800 French and 600 Indians, including a detachment of the mission warriors, destroying towns and cornfields, but without bringing the enemy to an important engagement. In 1689 the Iroquois retaliated by landing 1500 warriors at Montreal, ravaging the whole country and butchering 200 men, women, and children, carrying off over a hundred more to be tortured in their towns. In the subsequent King William’s War, they joined forces with the English against the French, suffering such losses that in 1698 the league numbered only 1230 warriors, not counting those now permanently identified with the French interest.
Largely through the effort of Sir William Johnson, the resident British superintendent, they, as a nation, held to the English interest throughout the French and Indian Wars of 1744-48 and 1754-63. Within this period was established the Sulpician mission of the Presentation, at Oswegatchi, now Ogdensburg, N. Y., by Father Francis Picquet, which flourished until the transfer of dominion to England. About 1755 the present mission settlement of St. Regis (St. Francis Regis), now bisected by the international boundary line, was established by emigrants from Caughnawaga. Under Johnson’s encouragement Episcopalian missionaries worked with success among the Mohawk, for whom the “Book of Common Prayer” was translated into their language. Unsuccessful efforts were also made by the Moravians, but later work by Congregationalists and Methodists has had more result. On the breaking out of the Revolution, about one half of the New York Iroquois fled to Canada, where they enlisted in the British service. The hostiles who remained behind, particularly the Seneca, were humbled by an expedition under command of General John Sullivan, in 1779. The refugees were subsequently assigned lands by the British Government, near Brantford, Ontario, on which they still reside, keeping up their old tribal forms and, to a considerable extent, their old native religion. Those remaining in New York, now largely Protestant, have gradually reduced their territorial holdings by successive treaty cessions. About 1845 the larger part of the Oneida removed to Wisconsin. The whole body of the Iroquois in 1908 was distributed as follows: United States—New York, 5455; Wisconsin (Oneida), 2204; Oklahoma (Seneca), 389; Pennsylvania (Seneca), 120; Canada—Ontario, Six Nations on Grand River, 4286; Mohawk of Quinte, 1327; Oneida of the Thames, 777; Iroquois of Gibson, about 140; Quebec, Caughnawaga, 2175; St. Regis (Canadian portion), 1449; Lake of Two Mountains, 403. Total about 18,725.