Onondaga Indians, Onondaga Nation, Onondaga First Nation, Onondaga People (Onoñtǎ’´ge‘,’on, or on top of, the hill or mountain’). An important tribe of the Iroquois confederation, formerly living on the mountain, lake, and creek bearing their name, in the present Onondaga County, New York, and extending northward to Lake Ontario and southward perhaps to the waters of the Susquehanna. In the Iroquois councils they are known as Hodiseñnageta, ‘they (are) the name bearers.’ Their principal village, also the capital of the confederation, was called Onondaga, later Onondaga Castle; it was situated from before 1654 to 1681 on Indian hill, in the present town of Pompey, and in 1677 contained 140 cabins. It was removed to Butternut Creek, where the fort was burned in 1696. In 1720 it was again removed to Onondaga Creek, and their present reserve is in that valley, a few miles south of the lake.
Onondaga Tribe History
Champlain related that in 1622 the Montagnais, the Etchemin, and the Hurons had been engaged for a long time in seeking to bring about peace between themselves and the Iroquois, but that up to that time there was always some serious obstacle to the consummation of an agreement on account of the fixed distrust which each side had of the faith of the other. Many times did they ask Champlain himself to aid them in making a firm and durable peace. They informed him that they understood by making a treaty that the interview of the ambassadors must he amicable, the one side accepting the words and faith of the other not to harm or prevent them from hunting throughout the country, and they on their side agreeing to act in like manner toward their enemies, in this case the Iroquois, and that they had no other agreements or compacts precedent to the making of a firm peace. They importuned Champlain many times to give them his advice in this matter, which they promised faithfully to follow. They assured him that they were then exhausted and weary of the wars which they had waged against each other for more than fifty years, and that, on account of their burning desire for revenge for the murder of their kin and friends, their ancestors had never before thought of peace. In this last statement is probably found approximately the epoch of that historic feud mentioned in the Jesuit Relation for 1660 (chap. II) and by Nicholas Perrot, which made the Iroquois tribes, on the one hand, and the Algonkin on the Ottawa and St Lawrence rivers, on the other, inveterate enemies, although this may have been but a renewal and widening of a still earlier quarrel. In 1535 Cartier learned from the Iroquoian tribes on the St Lawrence that they were continually tormented by enemies dwelling to the southward, called Toudamani (probably identical with Tsonnontouan, or Seneca, a name then meaning ‘Upper Iroquois’), who continually waged war on them.
In Sept. 1655 the Onondaga sent a delegation of 18 persons to Quebec to confer with Governor de Lauson and with the Algonkin and Hurons. The Onondaga spokesman used 24 wampum belts in his address; the first 8 were presents to the Hurons and the Algonkin, whose leading chiefs were there; each present had its own particular name. The Onondaga professed to speak for the “four upper Iroquois nations,” namely, the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga, thus leaving only the Mohawk, the “lower Iroquois, from this peace conference, but the Onondaga speaker promised to persuade the Mohawk to change their minds and to make peace. The Onondaga asked for priests to dwell among them and for French soldiers to aid them in their war against the Erie.
In May 1657, 10 years after the dispersion of the Hurons from their motherland, the Onondaga sought by the giving of numerous presents and by covert threats of war to persuade the Hurons who had fled to the vicinity of Quebec to remove to their country and to form with them a single people. The Mohawk and the Seneca also were engaged in this business. Finally, the Hurons were forced to submit to the persistent demands of the Iroquois tribes. In 1686 the Onondaga were at war against the Chererrnons (Shawnee?). They were divided into two bands, one of 50 and another of 250, 50 of the latter being from other tribes. But in 1688 the Onondaga were much under French influence and were regarded as the chief among the Iroquois tribes. In 1682, at Albany, the Onondaga, with the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Seneca, entered into a treaty of peace with the commissioners from the colony of Maryland, who contracted not only for the white settlers, but also for the Piscataway Indians. With the exception of a part of the Seneca, the Onondaga were the last of the five tribes originally forming the League of the Iroquois to accept fully the principles of the universal peace proposed by Dekanawida and Hiawatha.
Early in 1647 a band of Onondaga on approaching the Huron country was defeated by a troop of Huron warriors, the Onondaga chief being killed and a number taken prisoners. Among the latter was Annenraes, a man of character and authority among the Onondaga. In the following spring he learned that some of the Hurons who had been bitterly disappointed because his life had been spared intended to kill him. To some of his Huron friends he related what he had heard, and that he intended to escape to his own country. His resolution, with the reason for making it, having been reported to the leading Huron chiefs of the council, they concluded to aid him in his purpose, trusting that he would render them some valuable service in return. Giving him some presents and provisions, they sent hin off secretly at night. Crossing Lake Ontario, he unexpectedly encountered 300 Onondaga making canoes to cross the lake for the purpose of avenging his death (believing he had been killed by the Hurons), and awaiting the arrival of 800 Seneca and Cayuga re-enforcements. His countrymen regarded Annenraes as one risen from the dead. He so conducted himself that he persuaded the 300 Onondaga to give up all thought of war for that of peace, whereupon the band, without waiting for the expected re-enforcements, returned to Onondaga, where a tribal council was held, in which it was resolved to send an embassy with presents to the Hurons for the purpose of commencing negotiations for peace. The chief of this embassy was by birth a Huron named Soionés, so naturalized in the country of his adoption that it was said of him that “no Iroquois had done more massacres in these countries, nor blows more wicked than he.” He was accompanied by three other Hurons, who had not long been captives at Onondaga. The embassy arrived at St Ignace July 9, 1647, finding the Hurons divided as to the expediency of acquiescing in the Onondaga proposals, the Bear tribe of the Hurons justly fearing the duplicity of the enemy even though bearing presents. But the Rock tribe and many villages desired the conclusion of peace in the hope that a number of their kin, then captive at Onondaga, would be returned to them. After many councils and conferences it was found expedient to send an embassy to Onondaga in order the better to fathom this matter. For presents the Hurons took valuable furs, while the Iroquois Onondaga used belts of wampum. The Huron embassy was well received at Onondaga, where a month was spent in holding councils. Finally the Onondaga resolved to send back a second embassy, headed by Skanawati (Scandaouati), a federal chieftain, 60 years of age, who was to be accompanied by two other Onondaga and by 15 Huron captives. One of the Huron embassy remained as a hostage. This embassy was 30 days on the way, although it was in fact only 10 days’ journey. Jean Baptiste, the returning Huron delegate, brought back 7 wampum belts of the largest kind, each composed of 3,000 or 4,000 beads. By these belts the Onondaga sought to confirm the peace, assuring the Hurons that they could hope for the deliverance of at least 100 more of their captive kin. The Onondaga desired this peace not only because the life of Annenraes had been spared, but also because they were jealous lest the Mohawk, who had become insolent from their victories and were overbearing even to their allies, might become too much so should the Hurons fail to unite all their forces against them, and further because of fear of the power of the Conestoga. In this Onondaga project of peace the Cavuga and Oneida showed favorable interest, but the Seneca would not listen to it, and the Mohawk were still more averse to it as they were jealous of what had been done by the Onondaga. Hence these last two tribes sent forces to assail the village of St Ignace at the end of the winter of 1647-48. The following incidents show the character of some of the chief men and statesmen of the Ononamdaga:
Early in Jan. 1648 the Hurons decided to send another embassy to Onondaga. They sent 6 men, accompanied by one of the 3 Onondaga ambassadors then in their country, the other two, including Skanawati, the head of the Onondaga embassy, remaining as hostages. But unfortunately the new Huron embassy was captured and killed by a force of 100 Mohawk and Seneca who had come to the borders of the Huron country. The Onondaga accompanying this embassy was spared, and two Hurons escaped. Early in April, when the distressing news reached the ears of that, after they had regained somewhat Skanawati, the proud Onondaga ambassador remaining with the Hurons as a hostage, he suddenly disappeared. The Hurons believed that he had stolen away, but, a few days after his disappearance, his corpse was found in the forest lying on a bed of fir branches, where he had taken his own life by cutting his throat. His companion, who was notified in order to exonerate the Hurons, said that the cause of his despair was the shame he felt at the contempt shown for the sacredness of his person by the Seneca and the Mohawk in going to the Huron country and massacring the Huron people while his life was in pledge for the keeping of the still faith of his people. Of such men was the great federal council of the Iroquois composed.
The Onondaga had good reason for fearing the Conestoga, for the Jesuit Relation for 1647-48 states that in a single village of the latter people there were at that time 1,300 men capable of bearing arms, indicating for this village alone a population of more than 4,500.
At this time the Conestoga chiefs, They also joined in treaties between the through two messengers, informed the Hurons that if they felt too weak to defend themselves they should send the Conestoga word by an embassy. The Hurons eagerly seized this opportunity by sending on this mission 4 Christian Indians and 4 “infidels,” headed by one Charles Ondaaiondiont. They arrived at Conestoga early in June1047. The Huron deputies informed their Conestoga friends that they had come from a land of souls, where war and the fear of their enemies had spread desolation everywhere, where the fields were covered with blood and the lodges were filled with corpses, and they themselves had only life enough left to enable them to come to ask their friends to save their country, which was drawing rapidly toward its end. This spirited but laconic address moved the Conestoga to send an embassy into the Iroquois country to urge on the Iroquois the advantage of making a lasting peace with their Huron adversaries. Jean Baptiste, a Huron ambassador mentioned before, being at Onondaga at the end of summer, learned that this embassy of the Conestoga had reached the Iroquois country, as he even saw some of the Conestoga presents. It was the purpose of the Conestoga to bring about firm peace with the Hurons and the Onondaga, the Oneida and the Cayuga, and, if possible, the Seneca, and to renew the war against the Mohawk, should they then refuse to become parties to it. The Conestoga did not fear the Mohawk. The Jesuit Relation for 1660 states that about the year 1600 the Mohawk had been greatly humbled by the Algonkin, and that, after they had regained somewhat their former standing, the Conestoga, in a war lasting 10 years, had nearly exterminated the Mohawk, who since, however, had partially recovered from the defeat.
Many of the Onondaga joined the Catholic Iroquois colonies on the St Lawrence, and in 1751 about half the tribe was said to be living in Canada. On the breaking out of the American Revolution in 1775 nearly all the Onondaga, together with the majority of the other Iroquois tribes, joined the British, and at the close of the war the British government granted them a tract on Grand River, Ontario, where a portion of then still reside. The rest are still in New York, the greater number being on the Onondaga res., and the others with the Seneca and Tuscarora on their several reservations.
The Onondaga made or joined in treaties with the State of New York at:
- Ft Schuyler (formerly Ft Stanwix), Sept. 12, 1788.
- Onondaga, Nov. 18, 1793;
- Cayuga Ferry, July 28, 1795.
- Albany, Feb. 25, 1817.
- Albany, Feb. 11, 1822.
- Albany, Feb. 28, 1829.
They also joined in treaties between the Six Nations and the United States at:
- Ft Stanwix, N. Y., Oct. 22, 1784.
- Ft Harmar, O., Jan. 9, 1789;
- Canandaigua, N. Y., Nov. 11, 1794.
- Buffalo Creek, N. Y., Jan. 15, 1838.
In 1660 the Jesuits estimated the Onondaga at about 1,500 souls, while Greenhalgh in 1677 placed them at 1,750, probably their greatest strength. Later authorities give the numbers as 1,250 (1721), 1,000 (1736), 1,300 (1765), and 1,150 (1778), but these figures do not include those on the St Lawrence. In 1851 Morgan estimated their total number at about 900, including 400 on Grand river. In 1906 those in New York numbered 553, the rest of the tribe being with the Six Nations in Canada.
The Onondaga towns, so far as known, were:
- Deseroken (traditional)
- Gannentaha (mission and fort, Kaneenda)
- Touenho (Goienho)
and some transient hunting and fishing hamlets.
The Onondaga of Grand River Reservation, Canada, have 9 clans, namely:
- Tortoise (Turtle?)
- Plover (Snipe?)
The Wolf, Bear, Plover, Ball, and Pigeonhawk clans have each only one federal chiefship; the Beaver, Tortoise, and Eel clans have each two federal chiefships, while the Deer clan has three. The reason for this marked difference in the quotas of chiefships for the several clans is not definitely known, but it may be due to the adoption of groups of persons who already possessed chiefship titles. In federal ceremonial and social assemblies the Onondaga by right of membership therein take their places with the tribal phratry of the “Three Brothers,” of which the Mohawk and the Seneca are the other two members; but in federal councils-those in which sit the federal representatives of all the five (latterly six) Iroquois tribes-the Onondaga tribe itself constitutes a tribal phratry, while the Mohawk and the Seneca together form a second, and the Oneida and the Cayuga originally, and latterly the Tuscarora, a third tribal phratry. The federal council is organized on the basis of these three tribal phratries. The functions of the Onondaga phratry are in many respects similar to those of a judge holding court with a jury. The question before the council is discussed respectively by the Mohawk and Seneca tribes on the one side, and then by the Oneida, the Cayuga, and, latterly, the Tuscarora tribes on the other, within their own phratries. When these two phratries have independently reached the same or a differing opinion, it is then submitted to the Onondaga phratry for confirmation or rejection. The confirmation of a common opinion or of one of the two differing opinions makes that the decree of the council. In refusing to confirm an opinion the Onondaga must show that it is in conflict with established custom or with public policy; when two differing opinions are rejected the Onondaga may suggest to the two phratries a course by which they may be able to reach a common opinion; but the Onondaga may confirm one of two differing opinions submitted to it. Each chieftain has the right to discuss and argue the question before the council either for or against its adoption by the council, in a speech or speeches addressed to the entire body of councilors and to the public.
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- Beauchamp, inf’n, 1907↵