The Iroquois or Six Nations

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Iroquois Tradition Relative to their Former History

Some fanciful tales of a supernatural origin from the heart of a mountain; of a migration to the eastern sea board; and of a subsequent return to the country of lakes and rivers where they finally settled, comprise most that is noticeable in the native traditions of the Six Nations, prior to the grand confederation. Many of the ancient fortifications, the remains of which are still visible through the state of New York, were said to have been built for defense while the tribes were disjoined, and hostile to each other.

The period when it was finally concluded to adjust all differences, and to enter into a league of mutual protection and defense, is altogether uncertain. The most distinguished authors who have given the subject their attention, incline to the opinion that this took place within less than a century anterior to the English colonization in the east. Whatever may have been the precise time of the new organization, its results were, as we have seen, brilliant in the extreme. None of the ruder nations of Eastern America have ever displayed such, a combination of qualities that command respect as those of whom we are now treating. The nature of the league was decidedly democratic; arbitrary power was lodged in the hands of no ruler, nor was any tribe allowed to exercise discretional authority over another. A singular unanimity was generally observable in their councils; the rights and opinions of minorities were respected; and, in no instance, were measures adopted which met the sanction of but a bare majority.

We are told that for a long period before the revolution, the Iroquois chiefs and orators held up their own confederation as an example for the imitation of the English colonies.

A Brief Account Of The Different Tribes Belonging To The Confederacy

Each tribe had one principal sachem, who, with an undefined number of associates, took his post in the great councils of the nation. A grave and decent deliberation was seen in all their assemblies, forming a striking contrast to the trickery and chicane, or noisy misrule too often visible in the legislative halls of enlightened modern nations.

The Mohawks were esteemed the oldest of the tribes, and, as they were always the most noted in warlike trans actions, one of their sachems usually occupied the position of commander-in-chief of the active forces of the united people. The settlement of this tribe was in eastern New York, upon the Mohawk River, and along the shores of the Hudson. From their villages, in these districts, their war parties ravaged or subdued the feebler nations at the east and south, and their favor was only obtained by tribute and submission.

Next in order, proceeding westward dwelt the Oneidas, whose central locality, supplying the place of a state capital for the national council, was the celebrated Oneida stone. This mass of rock, crowning the summit of a hill, which commands a beautiful view of the valley, is still pointed out in the town of Stockbridge, about fifteen or twenty miles south-east of the Oneida lake. This tribe is supposed to have been the last of the Five Nations to have adopted a separate name and government, in early ages, prior to the grand union. It produced bold and enterprising warriors, who extended their excursions far to the south, and by some of whom the sixth tribe the Tuscaroras was first conducted northward.

The Onondagas occupied the country between the Oneida and Cayuga lakes. According to some theories, all the other tribes were derived from this, and certain it is that the civil ruler of the confederacy was always from Onondaga, and here was ever the grand central council-fire. Monarchs of the tribe were said to have reigned, in regular succession, from the first period of its nationality to the time of European colonization.

In near proximity to each other, upon the beautiful lakes, which still bear their name, were settled the Cayugas and Senecas. The last mentioned tribe has always been by far the most numerous of those united by the league.

The Tuscaroras were, by their own account, a branch from the original stock of the Iroquois. Migrating first to the west, and thence southeasterly, they had finally settled upon the Neuse and Tar rivers, in North Carolina. Surrounded by hostile Indians, who proved unable to cope with the interlopers, these warlike people maintained their position until early in the eighteenth century. They then endeavored to exterminate the English colonists of their vicinity. On an appointed day, (September 22, 1711,) divided in small parties, they entered the villages of the whites, in a manner intended to ward off suspicion, and attempted a general massacre. Other coast Indians were involved in the conspiracy.

One hundred and thirty whites are said to have perished on that day; but so far from being a successful blow against the advance of the colonies, the plot only arouse a spirit of retaliation, which resulted in the expulsion of the tribe. With the assistance of forces from South Carolina and Virginia, the war was carried on vigorously; and in March of 1713, the main fort of the Tuscaroras, upon Tar River, to which they had retreated, was stormed by Colonel Moore, and eight hundred prisoners were taken.

Being now reduced to submission, such of the tribe as remained in Carolina yielded to the requirements and regulations of their conquerors. The major portion moved to New York, and formed the sixth nation of the Iroquois. They were established in the immediate neighborhood of the Oneidas.

Incidents Of Early Warfare

Many strange legends of early warfare between the Iroquois and distant tribes at the south and west have been preserved. The particulars of some of these narratives can be relied upon, while others are evidently exaggerated and distorted in the tradition. At the south, the most famous of their opponents were the great nation of the Delaware, the Cherokees, and the ancient tribe from whom our principal chain of mountains derive a name. They always claimed that the Lenni Lenape, or Delawares, were a conquered people, and assumed the haughtiness of superiors in all their conferences and dealings with them. No hostilities took place between the two nations after European settlements were established in the country.

The Cherokee war gave rather an opportunity for displays of individual energy and daring, than for any decisive exhibition of national power. The distance to be traversed was so great, that it was never undertaken by any large body of warriors. Small parties, who could make their way unperceived into the heart of the enemies country, and retire as stealthily with their trophies of scalps, frequently sought such opportunity of proving their hardihood. One of the stories told of these early exploits, is that of the Seneca warrior, Hiadeoni. He is said to have started alone on a warpath, and to have penetrated the country of the Cherokees, supported by such provisions as he could pro cure on the route, and a little parched corn, which he carried with him when he set out.

Prowling about the enemies villages, he managed to dispatch two men and to secure their scalps. He then started on his return, and, late in the evening, killed and scalped a young man whom he saw coming out of a retired wigwam. The hut appeared to be empty, and he could not resist the temptation to enter it in search of plunder; especially that he might satisfy his craving for tobacco.

While there, the young man s mother entered the wigwam, and, mistaking Hiadeoni, who had thrown himself upon the bed, for her son, told him that she was going away for the night. The weary Seneca, seduced by the ease of a long unaccustomed couch, fell into a sound slumber, from which he was only awakened by the old woman s return in the morning. Taking advantage of a moment when she had left the hut, to slip out, he made the best of his way northward, but the alarm had been given, and it was only by his great swiftness that he escaped. He carried the three scalps in triumph to his own people.

Many similar legends are preserved among the Indians, of the bravery and determined spirit of revenge in which their forefathers gloried. One of those which has been given with the greatest particularity, is the noted expedition of the Adirondack chief Piskaret and his four associates. In the long and bloody war between that tribe and the Five Nations, the latter had attained the ascendancy by a series of victories, and the five warriors alluded to undertook to wipe away the disgrace of defeat. Proceeding up the Sorel, in a single canoe, they fell in with five boatloads of the enemy, and immediately commenced their death-song, as if escape were impossible and resistance useless. As the Iroquois approached, a sudden discharge from the Adirondack muskets, which were loaded with small chain-shot, destroyed the frail birch-bark canoes of their opponents. At such a disadvantage, the Iroquois were easily knocked on the head as they floundered in the water: as many as could be safely secured were taken alive, and tortured to death at their captors leisure. None of Piskaret s companions would accompany him upon a second warpath which he proposed. They had acquired glory enough, and were content to remain in the enjoyment of a well-earned reputation, without undergoing further hardships and danger. The bold chief therefore started alone for the heart of the enemies country. Using every precaution for concealment and deception known to savages; reversing his snowshoes to mislead a pursuing party as to the direction he had taken; and carefully choosing a route where it would be difficult to track him, he reached one of the Iroquois towns. Lying closely concealed during the day, he stole into the wigwams of his enemies on two successive nights, and murdered and scalped the sleeping occupants. The third night a guard was stationed at every lodge, but Piskaret, stealthily waiting an opportunity, knocked one of the watchmen on the head, and fled, hotly pursued by a party from the village. His speed was superior to that of any Indian of his time, and, through the whole day, he kept just sufficiently in advance of his pursuers to excite them to their utmost exertions. At night, they lay down to rest, and, wearied with the day s toil, the whole party fell asleep. Piskaret, perceiving this, silently killed and scalped every man of them, and carried home his trophies in safety.

The Iroquois were generally at enmity with the French, and, within a few years after the futile attempt on the part of De la Barre, which we have mentioned in a preceding chapter, scenes of frightful cruelty and bloodshed were enacted on both sides. The confederacy was then, as long afterwards, in the English interest, and the conquered Huron, or Wyandot, whom they had driven far west ward, naturally espoused the cause of the French. Having, however, no cause for ill will against the English, except as being allies of their foes, the Huron were not unwilling to hold intercourse with them for purposes of profitable traffic.

A strange piece of duplicity, conducted with true Indian cunning by Adario, or the Rat, sachem of the Dinondadies, a Wyandot tribe, was the immediate cause of hostilities. He left his head-quarters, at Michilimackinac, with one hundred warriors, whether with intent to make an incursion upon the Iroquois, or merely upon a sort of scout, to keep himself informed of the movements of the con tending parties, does not appear. He stopped at the French fort of Cadaraqui, and learned from the officer in command that a peace was about to be concluded between the French and Iroquois; deputies for which purpose were even then on their way from the Six Nations to Montreal.

Nothing could be more distasteful to the Rat than a treaty of this character, and he promptly determined to create a breach between the negotiating parties. He there fore lay in wait for the ambassadors; fell upon them; and took all who were not slain in the conflict prisoners. He pretended, in discourse with these captives, that he was acting under the direction of the French authorities, and when the astonished deputies made answer that they were bound upon peaceful embassy, in accordance with the invitation of the French, he assumed all the appearance of astonishment and indignation at being made an instrument for so treacherous an act. He immediately set his prisoners at liberty, gave them arms, and advised them to rouse Mp their people to avenge such foul injustice.

By this, and other equally artful management, Adario stirred up the most uncontrollable rage in the minds of the Iroquois against the French, and a long and disastrous war followed. It was in vain that the Canadian governor attempted to explain the true state of affairs. The Iroquois ever held the French in suspicion, and would not be disabused. They invaded Canada with an irresistible force. We have no record of any period in the history of America in which the arms of the natives were so successful. Twelve hundred warriors passed over to the island upon which Montreal is situated, and laid waste the country. Nearly a thousand of the French are said to have been slain or reserved for death by fire and torture. Neither age nor sex proved any protection, and the scenes described surpass in horror any thing before or since experienced by the whites at the hands of the Indians.

The war continued for years, and the name of Black Kattle, the most noted war-chief of the leagued nations, became a word of terror. He fought successfully against superior numbers of the French; and it is astonishing to read of the trifling loss, which his bands sustained in many of their most desperate engagements.

The great orator of the nation, at this period, was named Decanisora; he appeared more preeminently than any other in all the public negotiations of the tribe, and was one of the deputies who were duped by the subtle contrivance of Adario.

We have already mentioned that the Six Nations generally favored the English, and that between them and the French, feelings of the bitterest animosity prevailed. The recollection of the scenes which attended the sack of Montreal must constantly have strengthened this hatred on the part of the Canadians, while, on the other hand, the Indians could point to acts of equal atrocity and cold-blooded cruelty exercised towards some of their own number when taken captive. Meanwhile, the English agents were assiduous in cultivating the friendship of the powerful con federacy whose sagacity and good faith in council, and whose strength in battle, had been so thoroughly tested. In the year 1710, three Iroquois and two Mohegan sachems were invited to visit the English court, and they sailed for England accordingly. The greatest interest was felt by high and low in their appearance and demeanor. They were royally accoutred, and presented to Queen Anne with courtly ceremony. The authenticity of the set speeches recorded as having been delivered by them on this occasion, has been shrewdly called in question. The Spectator, of April 27th, 1711, in a letter written to show how the absurdities of English society might strike a foreigner, gives a sort of diary as having been written by one of these sachems. The article opens thus: “When the four Indian Kings were in this country, about a twelvemonth ago, I often mixed with the rabble, and followed them a whole day together, being wonderfully struck with the sight of every thing that is new or uncommon.” The writer particularizes “our good brother E. Tow O. Koam, king of the Rivers,” and speaks of “the kings of Granajah (Canajoharie) and of the Six Nations.” This latter appellation, as observed by Mr. Drake, seems to call in question the correctness of the date usually assigned to the event of the annexation of the Tuscaroras.


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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. 20 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/general-character-of-six-nations-or-iroquois.htm - Last updated on Jan 31st, 2013


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