Siouan Migrations and Iroquois Conquests

Search Fold3 for your
Native American Records

Horatio Hale, to whom belongs the credit of first discovering a Siouan language on the Atlantic coast, noted the evidences that the Tutelo language was older in its forms than the cognate dialects of the west, and predicted that if this should prove true it would argue against the supposition, which at first seemed natural, that the eastern Siouan tribes were merely offshoots front a western parent stock. Investigation might result in showing that the western Siouan, like the western Algonquian tribes, had their original home in the east. The inference that the region west of the Mississippi was the original home of Siouan tribes, and that those of that stock who dwelt on the Ohio or east of the Alleghanies were emigrants from the western prairies did not, by any means, follow from the fact that the majority of these tribes were now dwellers on the plains, as by the same course of reasoning we might conclude that the Aryan had their original seat in western Europe, that the Portuguese were emigrants from Brazil, or that the English derived their origin from America[1].

As early as 1701 Gravier stated that the Ohio was known to the Miami and Illinois as the “river of the Akansea” – because that people had formerly lived along it. The Akansea (Arkansa or Kwapa) are a Siouan tribe, living at that time on the lower Arkansas River, but now in Indian Territory. More than sixty years ago Major Sibley, one of the best authorities of that period in regard to the western tribes, obtained from an aged chief of the Osage – a well-known Siouan tribe, speaking the same language as the Kwapa-a statement which confirms that of Gravier. The chief said that the tradition had been steadily handed down from their ancestors that the Osage had originally emigrated from the east, because the population had become too numerous for their hunting grounds. He described the forks of Alleghany and Monongahela rivers and the falls of the Ohio at Louisville, where he said they had dwelt some time, and where large bands had separated from them and distributed themselves throughout the surrounding country. Those who did not remain in the region of the Ohio followed its waters until they reached the mouth, and then ascended to the mouth of the Missouri, where other separations took place, some going northward up the Mississippi, others advancing up the waters of the Missouri. He enumerated several tribes which had sprung from this original migrating body[2]. Catlin heard a similar story among the Mandan, ‘another Siouan people living far up the Missouri[3], and Dorsey has since found the tradition to be common to almost all the tribes of that stock[4]. Indeed, two of these tribes, the Omaha and the Kansa, cherish sacred shells which they assert were brought with them from the great water of the sunrise.

When this western movement took place we can only approximately conjecture. Like most Indian migrations it was probably a slow and devious progress with no definite objective point in view, interrupted whenever a particularly fine hunting region was discovered, or as often as it became necessary to fight some tribe in front, and resembling rather the tedious wanderings of the Hebrews in the desert than the steady march of an emigrant train across the plains. De Soto found the “Capaha” or Kwapa already established on the western bank of the Mississippi in 1541, although still a considerable distance above their later position at the mouth of the Arkansas. The name Kwapa, properly Ugáqpa, signifies people living “down the river,” being the converse of Omaha, properly Uman′han, which designates those going “up the river”[15], and the occurrence of the name thus early shows that other tribes of the same stock were already seated farther up the river. The absence of Siouan names along De Soto’s route in the interior country held later by the Osage is significant, in view of the fact that we at once recognize as Muskhogean a number of the names which occur in the narrative of his progress through the gulf states. The inference would be that the Muskhogean tribes were already established in the southern region, where we have always known them, before the Siouan tribes had fairly left the Mississippi. In accordance with Osage tradition the emigrant tribes, after crossing the mountains, probably followed down the valleys of New river and the Big Sandy to the Ohio, descended the latter to its mouth and there separated, a part going up the Mississippi and Missouri, the others continuing their course southward and southwestward. In their slow march toward the setting sun the Kwapa probably brought up the rear, as their name lingered longest in the traditions of the Ohio tribes, and they were yet in the vicinity of that stream when encountered by De Soto.

The theory of a Siouan migration down the valley of the Big Sandy is borne out by the fact that this stream was formerly known as the Totteroy, a corruption of the Iroquois name for the Tutelo and other Siouan tribes in the south.

As to the causes of this prehistoric exodus, it is impossible to speak positively. Hale assumes that the Siouan tribes followed the buffalo as it gradually receded westward, but this position is untenable. As just shown, some of these tribes were beyond the Mississippi at least 350 years ago, while the disappearance of the buffalo from the east was not accomplished until within the present century. The native on foot, and armed only with bow and arrows, could never exterminate the game over any large area. It required the gun, the horse, and the railroad of civilization to affect the wholesale slaughter that has swept from the face of the earth one of the noblest of American quadrupeds. There is abundant testimony to the fact that buffalo were numerous in the Piedmont Region of Virginia and Carolina at least as late as 1730, and in Ohio valley and Tennessee until after the close of the French and Indian war, and did not finally disappear from this central basin until 1810. We must seek other reasons than the disappearance of the game from what was all a wilderness, keeping in mind at the same time the inherent unrest of Indians and especially of the Siouan tribes. The most probable cause of this great exodus was the pressure from the north and from the south of hostile tribes of alien lineage, leaving to the weaker Siouan tribes no alternative but to flee or to remain and be crushed between the millstones. They chose to abandon the country and retreated across the mountains, the only direction in which a retreat was open to them.

The Muskhogean tribes all claim to have come into the gulf states from beyond the Mississippi, and the tradition is clearest among those of them the Choctaw and Chickasaw – who may be supposed to have crossed last.[5][6][7][8] As they advanced they came at last into collision with the Timuquanan and Uchean tribes of Florida and Georgia, and then began the long struggle, which ended only with the destruction of the Timukua and the incorporation by the Creek, within the historic period, of the last of the Uchi, leaving the Muskhogean race supreme from Florida cape to the Combahee river in South Carolina. This wave of invasion must necessarily have had its effect on the Carolina tribes toward the north. The Yatnasi of South Carolina were of Muskhogean stock, and seem to have driven out a preceding tribe of the Uchean race.

It is useless to theorize on prehistoric migrations beyond the period of coherent tradition. Within this period traditional and historical evidence point out as the cradle of the Algonquian race the coast region lying between Saint Lawrence River and Chesapeake Bay. The tribes occupying this central position-the Abnaki, the Mohegan, the Lenape, and the Nanticoke – regarded themselves as constituting one people, and were conceded by the others to be the “grandfathers,” or progenitors, of the stock. From here, as their numbers increased, they sent colonies northward along the coast, driving back the Eskimo, and probably the Beothuk, westward and northwestward up the valley of the Saint Lawrence and the lakes, and southward to occupy the coast of Virginia and a part of Carolina, where, in conjunction with the Iroquoian tribes, they expelled the Cherokee from the upper waters of the Ohio and compelled them to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses on the south. Most of these movements, although the subject of well-supported tradition, belong to prehistoric times, but the advance of the Algonquian tribes into the northwest is comparatively modern. Since the introduction of firearms, within the last two centuries, the Ojibwa have driven the Sioux and Minitari from central Wisconsin and Lake Superior to beyond the Mississippi, while the Cree have swept the whole country from Winnipeg to Great Slave lake, and the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Arapaho have moved out from the Saskatchewan and Red river and occupied the plains.

But the great agents in the expulsion or extermination of the eastern Siouan tribes were the confederate Iroquois of New York. With these may be included the Tuskarora, who, though established on the Neuse river in North Carolina, retained the clear tradition of their common origin and were regarded as an outlying tribe of the confederacy with which they afterward united as an integral part. From the very first we find these pitiless destroyers making war on everything outside the narrow limits of their confederacy, pursuing their victims on the one hand to the very gates of Boston and on the other to the banks of the Mississippi, and making their name a synonym for death and destruction from Hudson bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Community of blood or affinity of language availed not to turn aside their fury, and the kindred Huron, Erie, and Conestoga suffered alike with the Ottawa and the Illinois. When their warfare against the southern tribes was inaugurated we do not know. It was probably continuous with the expulsion of the Cherokee from the upper Ohio, and was in full progress nearly three centuries ago. As early as 1608 John Smith found the Iroquois, known to the Powhatan tribes as Massawomek, regarded as “their most mortall enemies” by all the tribes of Virginia and Maryland. The Susquehanna (“Sasquesahanock”) or Conestoga at the head of the bay, who had nearly six hundred warriors, all “great and well-proportioned men, who found 44 pallisadoed in their Townes to defend them from the Massawomekes their mortall enemies” [9]. Sixty-five years later these giant-like men, notwithstanding their palisaded defenses, were forced to abandon their country to the conquering Iroquois and come down upon the frontiers of Virginia, thus precipitating the Indian war which resulted in Bacon’s rebellion. On the upper Rappahannock he was told that the Massawomeke made war with all the world, and he states that all the tribes of the interior “‘are continually tormented by them: of whose cruelties they generally complained, and very importunate they were with me and my company to free them from those tormentors. To this purpose they offered food, conduct, assistance, and continual subjection” [10].

In 1701 John Lawson, the surveyor-general of Carolina, made a circuitous journey through the interior from Charleston to Pamlico sound, and on every hand, alike from Indians and traders, he heard stories of the ruin wrought by the “Sinnagers” (Seneca, i. e. Iroquois), who, having completed the conquest or extermination of all the tribes which had formerly withstood their power in the north, were now at liberty to turn the full current of their hatred upon the weaker ones of the south. Even on the border of South Carolina he was shown the grave piles erected over the bodies of their victims. He found the larger tribes living in forts and obliged to keep continual spies and outguards on the lookout for better security, while smaller tribes-the Saponi, Tutelo, and others of Siouan stock – were consolidating and withdrawing to the protection of the English settlements. He described the Iroquois as “A sort of people that range several thousands of miles, making all prey they lay their hands on. These are feared by all the savage nations I ever was among” [11] – a striking confirmation of the statement given to Smith seventy years before, that they made war with all the world. Byrd, about 1730, says that the northern Indians were the implacable enemies of these Siouan tribes, and that the frequent inroads of the Seneca had compelled the Sara to abandon their beautiful home on the banks of the Dan and take refuge on the Pedee[12]. On one occasion the Iroquois themselves asserted that these southern Indians had been for a long time their enemies, and that they (the Iroquois) formerly had been so exasperated against them that they had taken them prisoners even out of the houses of the Christians[13]. When at last, in 1722, at the urgent solicitation of the colonial government, they consented to cease their attacks upon the miserable remnant gathered under the guns of Fort Christianna, they declared that they had cherished toward these people ” so inveterate an enmity that it could be extinguished only by their total extirpation”[14]. On the same subject, Byrd said, in 1728: “And now I mention the northern Indians, it may not be improper to take notice of their implacable hatred to those of the south. Their wars are everlasting, without any peace, enmity being the only inheritance among them that descends from father to son, and either party will march a thousand miles to take their revenge upon such hereditary enemies” [16]. The great overmastering fact in the history of the Siouan tribes of the east is that of their destruction by the Iroquois.

The various tribes and confederacies which made up this eastern Siouan group, or were intimately connected with it, will be treated separately. The description of each tribe will be preceded by a synonymy, giving the various names known to have been applied to it. The Biloxi, whose isolated position has given them a separate history, will first be described, and more closely aggregated tribes and confederacies will then receive attention.


   (↵ returns to text)

  1. Hale, Horatio. The Tutelo tribe and language: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. xxi, No. 114, p. 4. Philadelphia, 1883.
  2. Featherstonhaugh, G. W. Excursion through the slave states, from Washington on the Potamac to the frontier of Mexico: with sketches of popular manners and geological notices, p. 71. New York, 1844.
  3. Catlin, George. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North America Indians, written during eight years’ travel amongst the wildest tribes of Indians in North American. Two vols. in one, pp. 136-7. Philadelphia, 1860.
  4. Dorsey, J. Owen. Migrations of Siouan tribes. American Naturalist, vol. xx, No. 3, pages 211-222. March, 1886.
  5. Dorsey, J. Owen. Migrations of Siouan tribes. American Naturalist, vol. xx, No. 3, pages 211-222. March, 1886.
  6. Adair, James. The history of the American Indians, particularly those nations adjoining to the Mississippi, east and west Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and Virginia, etc., p. 352. London, 1775.
  7. Gatchet, A. S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians, with a linguistic, historic and ethnographic introduction. Volume i (published as no. 4 of Brinton’s Library of Aboriginal American Literature), p. 222 passim, Philadelphia, 1884; vol. ii (in Transactions of Saint Louis Academy of Science), p. 9 passim, Saint Louis, 1888.
  8. Bartram, Travels
  9. Hawkins, Sketch of the Creek Country
  10. Smith, John. The true travels, adventures and observations of Captaine John Smith, etc. From the London edition of 1629, vol. 1, pp. 120, 134. 2 volumes. Richmond, 1819.
  11. Ibid, vol. 1, p. 135.
  12. Lawson, John. The history of Carolina, containing the exact description and natural history of that country, etc., p. 82. (Reprint from the London edition of 1714.) Raleigh, 1860.
  13. Byrd, William. History of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, as run in 1728-’29, vol. i, pp. 120, 188, and vol. ii, p. 220. Richmond, 1866. 2 volumes.
  14. New York. Documents relative to the colonial history of the state of New York. Procured in Holland, England, and France, by John Romeyn Brodhead, etc. Edited by E. B. O’Callaghan, Albany conference of 1717, vol. v, p. 491. Albany, 1856-’77. 12 vols.
  15. Ibid, Albany conference of 1722, vol. v, p. 671.
  16. Byrd, William. History of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, as run in 1728-’29, vol. i, pp. 120, 188, and vol. ii, p. 220. Richmond, 1866. 2 volumes.

MLA Source Citation:

Mooney, James. Siouan Tribes of the East. Bulletin 22. Washington: Bureau of Ethnology. 1894. Web. 30 March 2014. - Last updated on Nov 13th, 2013

Topics: ,

Contribute to the Conversation!

Our "rules" are simple. Keep the conversation on subject and mind your manners! If this is your first time posting, we do moderate comments before we let them appear... so give us a while to get to them. Once we get to know you here, we'll remove that requirement.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup

We currently provide two newsletters. Why not take both for a run?

Genealogy Update: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new, or significantly updated, collection or database on our website.

Circle of Nations: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new (or significantly updated) Native American collection or database on our website.

Once you've clicked on the Subscribe button above you'll receive an email from us requesting confirmation. You must confirm the email before you will be able to receive any newsletter.