From the conquered nations they exacted tribute, and drew conscripts for their armies. The Tuscaroras, who resided in Carolina, were incorporated into the confederacy in 1715, and thereafter they were known as the Six Nations. From the extent of their conquests, the number of their subject nations, and the tribute and military aid rendered them by the latter, they have been called the “Romans of the New World.” When we reflect that of their own warriors they could bring into the field barely 2,000 braves, and with this number subjugated nations numerically more than twice as large, and spread terror and consternation among the French settlements in Canada, threatening their utter extinction, the magnitude of their achievements may be faintly comprehended.
Their great successes, however, are scarcely referable to the perfection of their military organization, which, though unquestionably better than that of their neighbors, was wretchedly poor. Occasionally, though rarely, they acted in concert as a great confederacy; but usually their wars were carried on by detached parties, small in numbers, or at best by individual nations, by whom their great conquests were mostly made.
They were in a chronic state of warfare, and were easily diverted from other pursuits whenever an opportunity offered to avenge their enemies. The inveterate wars waged by them against their kinsmen, as for instance the Hurons, Eries and Andastes, all mighty and valorous nations, is one of the unexplained passages in their history. Any of their warriors who was desirous of avenging a personal insult, rebuking a tribal or national affront, or ambitious to distinguish himself by some deed of valor, might take the war-path with such following as he could get. He first communicated his design to two others of his most intimate friends and if they approved of it an invitation was extended in their name to the warriors of the village to attend a feast of dog’s flesh, which was always used on such occasions. His purpose was publicly proclaimed by the singing of war-songs, dancing the war-dance, and sticking his hatchet in the war-post. Any who chose joined him. After a night spent in alimentary debauchery they set out, dressed in their finest apparel, with faces hideously bedaubed with paint, to make them objects of terror to their enemies, usually with a little parched corn meal and maple sugar as their sole provision. They were always followed on such occasions by the women, who took with them their old clothes and brought back the finery in which they marched from the castle. They always recorded these exploits by the aid of their mnemonic symbols, rudely sketched on the smooth side of a piece of bark, peeled for that purpose from a tree–usually an oak, as being most durable. These expeditions generally provoked retaliation, and the vengeance of the injured party was wreaked on any of the offending nation with whom they came in contact. Thus the history of Indian warfare is largely the history of the daring exploits of individuals and small bands of warriors, who harassed their enemies and kept them in perpetual fear of danger. This mode of warfare proved peculiarly distressing to the early settlements of the American colonies.
The Iroquois had a discipline suited to the dark and tangled forests where they fought. Here they were a terrible foe; but in an open country, against a trained European force, they were, despite their ferocious valor, less formidable. Their true superiority was a moral one. They were in one of those transports of pride, self-confidence, and rage for ascendency, which, in a savage people, marks an era of conquest. They were proud, arrogant, vindictive, sagacious and subtle, and esteemed themselves by nature superior to the rest of mankind. They styled themselves Onguehonwe, signifying “men surpassing all others.” Great care was taken to inculcate this opinion in their children, and to impress it upon other nations.
Authors differ as to the military status of the Iroquois, and it would be difficult, perhaps, with our limited exact knowledge of the various Indian tribes with whom they came in contact, to award them their just meed. It would be manifestly unjust to compare them with civilized nations, though in some respects this would not reflect disparagingly upon them. De Witt Clinton awards them a high measure of praise. He says:–
“They reduced war to a science, and all their movements were directed by system and policy. They never attacked a hostile country till they had sent out spies to explore and designate its vulnerable points, and when they encamped they observed the greatest circumspection to guard against surprise. Whatever superiority of force they might have, they never neglected the use of stratagem, employing all the crafty wiles of the Carthagenians. To produce death by the most protracted suffering was sanctioned among them by general immemorial usages.”
The horrible, cruel and remorseless tortures with which they, in common with other Indians, persecuted their prisoners, forms one of the blackest pages in their history; while the heroism and fortitude with which they endured these tortures is the marvel of civilization. Even women were not exempt from them; for both men and women were inexorably subjected to the most revolting and ignominious tortures, even to burning alive, though the latter less frequently than the former. But they are said to have never violated the person of their female prisoners, notwithstanding the shameless license which prevailed among themselves.
The superiority of the Iroquois, as compared with others of their race in the whole western hemisphere, and even with the civilized races of Mexico and Peru, with a few doubtful exceptions, is clearly proved by the size of their brain. The average internal capacity of five Iroquois crania, as compared by Mr. Morton, was eighty-eight cubic inches, which is within two inches of the Caucasian mean. The difference in volume is chiefly confined to the occipital and basal portions–the region of the animal propensities–and on this is predicated their ferocious, brutal and un-civilizable character. In this remarkable family occur the fullest developments of Indian character, and the most conspicuous examples of Indian intelligence. If not here then nowhere are to be found those higher traits popularly ascribed to the race. They unified and systematized the elements which, among other nations, were digressive and chaotic.
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- Colden’s Five Indian Nations.↵
- Parkman’s Jesuits.↵
- Colden’s Five Indian Nations.↵
- Colden cites an instance which admirably illustrates this feature in their character. A party of Mohawks who were about to take the war-path notified the officer then in command of Fort Hunter that they should expect the usual military honors as they passed the garrison. His men were drawn up in line and brought to a present arms, and the drums beat a march, while the Indians marched past in single file with great gravity and profound silence. Each as he passed took his gun from his shoulder and fired into the ground near the foot of the officer.↵
- The burning of male prisoners was a common occurrence; and Parkman says, women were often burned by the Iroquois. He cites the case of Catherine Mercier in 1651, and many Indian women mentioned by the early writers. He also states, on the authority of a Cayuga Indian, that on the night after the great battle in which the Eries were destroyed as a nation, in 1655, that “the forest was lighted up with more than a thousand fires, at each of which an Erie was burning alive.” This is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration. The same authority says they even eat the prisoners thus tortured. This indeed was a common occurrence.↵
- This remarkable forbearance towards female captives was probably the result of superstition, rather than an inherent heroic virtue, to which some authors ascribe it. Early writers bear abundant testimony of their unchastity. Lafitau, who wrote in 1724, says that in his time the nation was corrupt, but that it was a degeneracy from their ancient manners. La Potherie and Charlevoix make a similar statement. Megapoleusis, however, in 1644, says they were then exceedingly debauched; and Greenhalgh, in 1677, gives ample evidence of a shameless license. Morgan, one of their most earnest advocates of the present day, admits, in his League of the Iroquois, that the passion of love among them had no other than an animal existence.–Colden’s Five Indian Nations, Parkman’s Jesuits and Doc. Hist. of New York.↵
- Crania Americana, 195. Admeasurements of Crania of the Principal Groups of Indians in the United States, J. S. Phillips.↵
- Parkman’s Jesuits.↵