Friday, December 9, 2011

The Iroquois: A Short History

The Iroquois were a people rioted 
in history and their institutions are not 
yet extinct. They had acquired their 
country by conquest and gloried in the 
   The Mo-he-ka-news, considered 
themselves the original inhabitants of 
this part of North America and were 
spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific. 
Lacking concentration and harmony 
they fell an easy prey to the Iroquois, 
who planted themselves in the midst of 
this widely extended nation. The 
Indian population of New York at its 
highest, was estimated at 7,000 to 
18,000. "That they had some ideas in 
advance of their white brothers who 
are exterminating birds, beasts and fish, 
mav be inferred from the fact that the 
   Iroquois once made war on the Illinois, 
and nearly destroyed them, because 
they had violated the game laws of the 
hunting nations in not leaving a certain 
number of male and female beavers in 
each pond." 
   Their moral and mental endowments 
must have been of a high order to call 
out such an eulogium as this : 
   "Nowhere in a long career of dis- 
covery, of enterprise and extension of 
empire, have Europeans found natives 
of the soil with as many of the noblest 
attributes of humanity ; moral and 
physical elements which, if they could 
not have been blended with ours, 
could have maintained a separate exist- 
ence and been fostered by the proxim- 
ity of civilization and the arts. Every- 
where, when first approached by our 
race, they welcomed it and made dem- 
onstrations of friendship and peace. 
Savages as they were called and 
savage as they may have been in their 
assaults and wars upon each other, 
there is no act of theirs recorded in our 
histories of early colonization, or wrong 
or outrage that was not provoked by as- 
saults, treachery or deception — breaches 
of the hospitalities they had extended 
to the strangers. Whatever of the 
savage character they may have possess- 
ed, so far as our race was concerned, it 
was dormant until aroused to action by 
assaults or treachery of intruders upon 
their soil, whom they had met and 
treated as friends." This does not 
bear out the theory that the only good 
Indian, is a dead one. The long house 
of the Iroquois had for its eastern door 
the sparkling waters of the Hudson, 
while the rolling waves of Lake Erie 
formed its Western entrance. This 
count omprising as it did the pres- 
ent state of New York, was favorably 
located for their stronghold, but their 
success was due to their inherent energy 
wrought to the most effective action 
under a political fabric well suited to 
the Indian life. 
   Their highways were trails leading 
from different points of vantage, but all 
converging at Onondaga Village, the 
Onondagas being the fire keepers of the 
Six Nations which composed the great 
and strong Iroquoian Confederacy. 
   This confederacy, called by themselves 
Ho-de-no-sau-nee, consisted originally 
of five nations, Mohawks, Oneidas, 
Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas, aug- 
mented to six by the adoption of the 
Tuscaroras in i7i4or 15, From the 
western end of the Territory sallied 
forth the warlike Senecas, killing and 
making prisoners from the tribes in what 
are now known as the Western States, 
east of the Mississippi. In fact they laid 
all under their tribute. They roamed 
like the wolves that infested the forests 
through the tribes, adopting those 
whom they chose, thus strengthening 
their war parties, with every raid by in- 
corporating the flower of the tribes 
  Possibly they thought " all is fair in 
love and war," but not in games, of 
which the Indian is very fond, for tra- 
dition tells us of a mighty war which 
ended in the expulsion of the Eries 
from the territory west of the Gene- 
see, about the year 1654, because of a 
breach of faith or treachery on the part 
of the Eries in a ball game to which 
they had challenged the Senecas. " As 
there is no record, we may never know 
as to the umpire present on that occa- 
sion, whether he was smitten with a 
war club, cleft with a tomahawk, or 
merely transfixed with a flight of ar- 
rows. The Senecas were fair men, and 
it must have been some great prov- 
ocation that led them to wreak such 
vengeance on the Eries." Upon the 
whole they were an extraordinary 
people. Had they enjoyed the advan- 
tages possessed by the Greeks and 
Romans, there is no reason to believe 
that they would have been at all inferior 
to those celebrated nations. Their 
minds seem to have been equal to any 
efforts within the reach of man. Their 
conquests, if we consider their numbers 
and circumstances, were little inferior to 
Rome itself In their harmony, the 
unity of their operations, the energy of 
their character, the vastness, vigor and 
success of their enterprises, and the 
strength and sublimity of their elo- 
quence, they may be fairly contrasted 
with the Greeks. Each nation was 
divided into three tribes. The Tortoise, 
Bear and Wolf, each village a distinct 
republic, and its concerns were managed 
by its particular chief 
   Their exterior relations, general in- 
terests, and national affairs were super- 
intended by a great council, assembled 
annually at Onondaga, the central 
council composed of the chiefs of each 
republic, and eighty sachems were fre- 
quently convened at their national as- 
   It took cognizance of the great ques- 
tions of war and peace and of the affairs 
of the tributary nations. 
   All their proceedings were conducted 
with great deliberation and were distin- 
guished for order, decorum and solem- 
nity. They esteemed themselves as 
sovereigns, accountable to none but 
God alone, whom they called the Great 
Spirit. No hereditary distinctions were 
admitted. The office of Sachem was 
the reward of personal merit, great wis- 
dom, commanding eloquence or distin- 
guished services in the field, their 
most prominent characteristic being an 
exalted spirit of liberty that spurned 
foreign or domestic control. In war 
the use of stratagem was never neglect- 
ed. While they preferred to take an 
enemy off his guard, by leading him 
into an ambuscade, yet when necessary 
to face him in an open field they fought 
with a courage and contempt of death 
that has never been surpassed. 
   One of the early missionaries de- 
scribes an Indian who shot at a large 
bear and wounded him ; the bear fell 
and lay whining and groaning. The 
Indian went up to him and said: 
" Bear, you are a coward, and no war- 
rior. You know that your tribe and 
mine are at war, and that your's began 
it. If you had wounded me I would 
not have uttered a sound ; and yet you 
sit here and cry and disgrace vour 
    It is said that the Iroquois had 
planned a mighty union, and without 
doubt had the coming of Europeans 
been delayed a century later the league 
would have included all the tribes be- 
tween the Great Lakes and the Gulf of 
   The Iroquoian Confederacy remained 
long after the Eastern and Southern 
tribes had lost their standing, and to 
this day keep intact their confederacy 
and tribal organizations. Their orig- 
inal congress was composed of fifty 
Sachems, and generally met at the On- 
ondaga council house. 
    The business of the congress was 
conducted in a grave and dignified man- 
ner, the reason and judgment of the 
chiefs being appealed to rather than 
their passions. It was considered a 
breach of decorum for a Sachem to re- 
ply to a speech on the day of its de- 
livery, and no question could be decided 
without the concurrence of every mem- 
ber, thus securing unanimity. The 
Sachems served without badge of office, 
their sole reward being the veneration 
of their people in whose interests they 
were meeting. Public opinion exercised 
a powerful influence among the Iro- 
quois, the ablest among them having a 
common dread of the people. Subor- 
dinate to these Sachems was an order 
of chiefs, among whom were Red 
Jacket, Corn Planter and Big Kettle, 
who by their oratory and eloquence 
moved the councils or turned the braves 
on the warpath. A noticeable trait of 
the Iroquois was the regard paid to the 
opinions of women ; the sex were rep- 
resented in council by chiefs known as 
squaw men. Thus might the women 
oppose a war or aid in bringing about a 
bond of peace. They claimed a special 
right to interfere in the sale of land, 
their argument being that the land 
belonged to the warriors who defended 
and the squaws by whom it was tilled. 
taking up the government of 
the Iroquois the position which 
it occupies seemed to be be- 
tween the extremes of Monarchy on 
one hand and Democracy on the other. 
They had passed out of the first stages 
or earhest forms of government, that of 
chief and mentor. It will be readily 
recognized that a monarchial govern- 
ment is incompatible with hunter life. 
Several tribes first united into one 
nation, the people mingled by inter-mar- 
riages, and the power of the chiefs ceased 
to be single and became joint. This 
brought out an Oligarchial form of gov- 
ernment ; several nations were united 
into a confederacy or league. Morgan 
says that in its construction it was more 
perfect, systematic and liberal than those 
of antiquity; there was in the Indian 
fabric more of fixedness, more of de- 
pendence upon the people, more of 
vigor. It would be difficult to find a 
fairer specimen of the government of 
the few than the Iroquois, the happy 
constitution of its ruling bodv, and in 
the effective security of the people from 
misgovernment it stands unrivalled. 
The spirit prevailing in the confederacy 
was that of freedom. The people had 
secured to themselves all the liberty 
necessary for the united state, and fully 
appreciated its value ; the red man was 
always free from political bondage. 
"His free limbs were never shackled." 
The Iroquois were entirely convinced 
that man was born free, that no person 
on earth had any right to make any at- 
tempt against his liberty, and that noth- 
ing could make amends for its loss. 
The power of the desire for gain, that 
great passion of civilized man in its use 
and abuse, his blessing and his curse, 
never roused the Indian mind; un- 
doubtedly it was the reason for his re- 
maining in the hunter state. The de- 
sire for gain is one of the earliest man- 
ifestations of the progessive mind, and 
one of the most powerful incentives to 
which the mind is susceptible ; it clears 
the forest, rears the city, builds the 
merchantmen, in a word it has civilized 
the race. 
   The creation of the class of chiefs 
furnishes the clearest evidence ot the 
development of the popular element. 
Under this simple but beautiful fabric 
of Indian construction arose the power 
of the Iroquois, reaching at its full me- 
ridian, over a large portion of our re- 
public. It is perhaps the only league 
of nations ever instituted among men, 
which can point to three centuries of 
uninterrupted domestic unity and peace. 
Their political system was necessarily 
simple. Their limited wants, absence 
of property in a comparative sense, and 
the infrequency of crime, dispensed 
with a vast amount of legislation and 
machinery incident to the protection of 
civilized society. From a speculative 
point of view the institutions of the 
Iroquois assumed an interesting aspect. 
Would they naturally have emancipated 
the people from their strange infatuation 
for a hunter Hfe ? It cannot be de- 
nied that there are some grounds for 
beHef that their institutions would have 
eventually improved into civilization. 
   The Iroquois at all times have mani- 
fested sufficient intelligence to promise a 
high degree of improvement if it had 
once become awakened and directed 
into right pursuits, though centuries 
might have been required to effisct the 
   But their institutions have a present 
value irrespective of what they might 
have become. The Iroquois were our 
predecessors, this country was once 
theirs. We should do justice to their 
memory by preserving their name, 
deeds, customs and institutions. We 
should not tread Ignorantly upon those 
extinguished council fires, whose light 
in the days of aboriginal occupation was 
visible over half the continent.