The Iroquois or Six Nations

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General Character of Six Nations or Iroquois

None of the Indian nations of the United States have occupied a more important place in our national history, than the renowned confederacy, which forms the subject of our present consideration.

Various New England tribes were reduced to a disgraceful tribute to the imperious Mohags, Mawhawks, Mohawks or Maquas; the great nation of Powhatan stood in awe of the warlike Massawomekes; and those associated in this powerful league had become a terror to all against whom they had lifted up their arms. They were called Iroquois by the French, who found their head-quarters on the St. Lawrence, where Montreal now stands, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Their native appellation was Aganuschioni (variously spelt and translated), and they were divided originally into five tribes. These were the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Cayugas, the Onondagas and the Senecas. The Tuscaroras, from the south, were afterwards united with them, and formed the sixth nation. Each tribe was subdivided into classes, distinguished by the “totems,” or symbols of the tortoise, the bear, the wolf, the beaver, the deer, the falcon, the plover, and the crane.

Some very singular usages were connected with this classification. Among other things, marriage was prohibited between individuals bearing the same totem, a restriction, which operated strongly to extend the ties of family connection. Each of the nations was divided in the same manner and the distinctive badge gave its bearer peculiar privileges among those of his own class, when away from home.

The first military exploits recorded of the Iroquois, with the exception of native tradition, are their battles with the Adirondacks, in which they were engaged when first known by the French. Becoming skilled in war, and being of a bold, adventurous spirit, after finally defeating the Adirondacks, the five nations extended their conquests to the south and west. The Mohawks, although not the most numerous portion of the united tribes, furnished the fiercest and most redoubted warriors. To give an idea of the estimation in which they were held by the Indians of New England, we cite the following account, given by Gookin, in his historical collections, written in 1674, of the first of the tribe with whom the eastern colonists held any intercourse.

“These Maquas are given to rapine and spoil; and had for several years been in hostility with our neighbor Indians, as the Massachusetts, Pautuckets, &c., &c. And, in truth, they were, in time of war, so great a terror to all the Indians before named, though ours were far more in number than they, the appearance of four or five Maquas in the woods, would frighten them from their habitations and cornfields, and reduce many of them to get together in forts.” In September, of 1665, “there were five Mawhawks or Maquas, all stout and lusty young men, and well armed, that came into one John Taylor’s house, in Cambridge, in the afternoon. They were seen to come out from a swamp not far from the house.” Each had a gun, pistol, hatchet, and long knife, and “the people of the house perceived that their speech was different from our neighbor Indians; for these Maquas speak hollow and through the throat, more than our Indians; and their language is understood but by very few of our neighbor Indians.”

The Inhabitants of New England Respecting the Iroquois

It seems these Mohawks came with the intention of being apprehended, that they might see the ways of the English, and display, at the same time, their own courage and daring. They made no resistance when a party came to seize them, but, “at their being imprisoned, and their being loaden with irons, they did not appear daunted or dejected: but as the manner of those Indians is, they sang night and day, when they were awake.”

On being brought before the court at Boston, they disavowed any evil intent towards the English, saying that they were come to avenge themselves upon their Indian enemies. ” They were told that it was inhumanity, and more like wolves than men to travel and wander so far from home merely to kill and destroy men, women, and children, for they could get no riches of our Indians, who were very poor, and to do this in a secret skulking manner, lying in ambush, thickets, and swamps, by the way side, and so killing people in a base and ignoble manner,” &c. “To these things they made answer shortly: It was their trade of life: they were bred up by their ancestors to act in this way towards their enemies.

All the Indians, in the vicinity of Boston, were eager that these captives should be put to death, but the court adopted the wiser policy of sending them home in safety, with presents and a letter to their sachem, cautioning him against allowing any of his people to make war against the peaceable Indians under the protection of the English.

About the middle of the seventeenth century, the Iroquois, having annihilated the powerful nation of the Eries, occupied no small portion of that vast extent of country, lying between the St. Lawrence and the great lakes, and the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. They even extended their hostile incursions far south and west of these great boundaries. The present state of New York contained their principal establishments, and the picturesque river and lakes upon which they dwelt, still perpetuate the names of the confederate tribes. These people held intercourse with the whites, of a very different nature from that which characterized the reduction and humiliation of the unfortunate natives of New England. Placed as they were between powerful colonies of contending European nations; their favor courted upon terms of equality by emissaries from either party; the authority of their chiefs acknowledged, and the solemnity of their councils respected by the whites; and conscious of proud superiority over all surrounding native tribes, it might well be expected that they would entertain the highest sense of their national importance.

No American tribe ever produced such an array of renowned warriors and orators as those immortalized in the history of the Six Nations. Such a regular system of federal government, where the chief-men, of each member of the league met in one grand council, to sustain the interests of their tribe, or enforce the views of their constituents upon subjects of state policy, in matters of vital importance to the whole nation, elicited all the powers of rude native eloquence. Never in the history of the world has the stirring effect of accomplished oratory been more strikingly displayed than in the councils of these untaught sages. The speeches of Logan, Red-Jacket, and others, fortunately preserved, have been long considered masterpieces of forcible declamation.

Garangula: His Speech To M. De La Barre

The address of Garangula, or Grand Gueule, to the Canadian governor, M. de la Barre, has been often transcribed, but is so strikingly characteristic of Indian style, that we must find place for at least a portion of it. About the year 1684, the French, being at peace with the Iroquois, took the opportunity to strengthen and enlarge their dominions by fortifying and adding to their posts upon the western waters. In carrying out this purpose, they sent large supplies of ammunition to their Indian allies; tribes hostile to the confederacy. The Iroquois took prompt measures to check this transfer of means for their destruction, and the French governor, angry at their interference, determined to humble them by a decisive campaign. He collected a strong force at Cadaraqui fort; but, a sickness breaking out among his troops, he was obliged to give over, or delay the prosecution of his purpose. He there fore procured a meeting with the old Onondaga sachem, and other Indian deputies at Kaihoage, on Lake Ontario, for a conference. He commenced by recapitulating the injuries received from the Five Nations, by the plunder of French traders, and, after demanding ample satisfaction, threatened the destruction of the nation, if his claims were disregarded. He also falsely asserted that the governor of New York had received orders from the English court to assist the French army in the proposed invasion.

The old chief, undisturbed by these menaces, having taken two or three turns about the apartment, stood before the governor, and, after a courteous and formal prologue, addressed him as follows: (we cite from Drake s Book of the North American Indians) “Yonondio; you must have believed, when you left Quebeck, that the sun had burnt up all the forests which render our country inaccessible to the French, or that the lakes had so far overflown the banks, that they had surrounded our castles, and that it was impossible for us to get out of them. Yes, surely you must have dreamt so, and the curiosity of seeing so great a wonder has brought you so far. Now you are undeceived, since that I, and the warriors here present, are come to as sure you that the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks are yet alive. I thank you in their name, for bringing back into their country the calumet, which your predecessor received from their hands. It was happy for you that you left under ground that murdering hatchet that has been so often dyed in the blood of the French.

“Hear, Yonondio; I do not sleep; I have my eyes open; and the sun which enlightens me, discovers to me a great captain, at the head of a company of soldiers, who speaks as if he were dreaming. He says that he only came to the lake to smoke on the great calumet with the Onondagas. But Grangula says, that he sees the contrary j that it was to knock them on the head if sickness had not weakened the arms of the French. I see Yonondio raving in a camp of sick men, whose lives the Great Spirit has saved by inflicting this sickness upon them.

“Hear, Yonondio; our women had taken their clubs, our children and old men had carried their bows and arrows into the heart of your camp, if our warriors had not disarmed them, and kept them back when your messenger, Akouessan, came to our castles. It is done, and I have said it.

“Hear, Yonondio; we plundered none of the French, but those that carried arms, powder and ball to the Twightwies and Chictaghicks, because those arms might have cost us our lives. Herein we follow the example of the Jesuits, who break all the kegs of rum brought to our castles, lest the drunken Indians should knock them on the head. Our warriors have not beaver enough to pay for all those arms that they have taken, and our old men are not afraid of the war. This belt preserves my words.”

The orator continued in the same strain, asserting the independence and freedom of his nation, and giving substantial reasons for knocking the Twightwies and Chictaghicks on the head. He concluded by magnanimously offering a present of beaver to the governor, and by inviting all the company present to an entertainment. At the end of each important section of a speech, it was usual for the speaker to proffer a belt of wampum, to be kept in perpetual memory of that portion of his oration, a circumstance explanatory of the concluding words of the above quotation.


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MLA Source Citation:

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 26 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/general-character-of-six-nations-or-iroquois.htm - Last updated on Jan 31st, 2013


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