Hiawatha and the Origin of Wampum
There was at this time among the Onondagas a chief of high rank, whose name, variously written—Hiawatha, Hayenwatha, Ayonhwahtha, Taoungwatha—is rendered, "he who seeks the wampum belt." He had made himself greatly esteemed by his wisdom and his benevolence. He was now past middle age. Though many of his friends and relatives had perished by the machinations of Atotarho, he himself had been spared. The qualities which gained him general respect had, perhaps, not been without influence even on that redoubtable chief. Hiawatha had long beheld with grief the evils which afflicted not only his own nation, but all the other tribes about them, through the continual wars in which they were engaged, and the misgovernment and miseries at home which these wars produced. With much meditation he had elaborated in his mind the scheme of a vast confederation which would ensure universal peace. In the mere plan of a confederation there was nothing new. There are probably few, if any, Indian tribes which have not, at one time or another, been members of a league or confederacy. It may almost be said to be their normal condition. But the plan which Hiawatha had evolved differed from all others in two particulars. The system which he devised was to be not a loose and transitory league, but a permanent government. While each nation was to retain its own council and its management of local affairs, the general control was to be lodged in a federal senate, composed of representatives elected by each nation, holding office during good behavior, and acknowledged as ruling chiefs throughout the whole confederacy. Still further, and more remarkably, the confederation was not to be a limited one. It was to be indefinitely expansible. The avowed design of its proposer was to abolish war altogether. He wished the federation to extend until all the tribes of men should be included in it, and peace should everywhere reign. Such is the positive testimony of the Iroquois themselves; and their statement, as will be seen, is supported by historical evidence.
Hiawatha's first endeavor was to enlist his own nation in the cause. He summoned a meeting of the chiefs and people of the Onondaga towns. The summons, proceeding from a chief of his rank and reputation, attracted a large concourse. "They came together," said the narrator, "along the creeks, from all parts, to the general council-fire." [Footnote: The narrator here referred to was the Onondaga chief, Philip Jones, known in the council as Hanesehen (in Canienga, Enneserarenh), who, in October, 1875, with two other chiefs of high rank, and the interpreter, Daniel La Fort, spent an evening in explaining to me the wampum records preserved at "Onondaga Castle," and repeating the history of the formation of the confederacy. The later portions of the narrative were obtained principally from the chiefs of the Canadian Iroquois, as will be hereafter explained.] But what effect the grand projects of the chief, enforced by the eloquence for which he was noted, might have had upon his auditors, could not be known. For there appeared among them a well-known figure, grim, silent and forbidding, whose terrible aspect overawed the assemblage. The unspoken displeasure of Atotarho was sufficient to stifle all debate, and the meeting dispersed. This result, which seems a singular conclusion of an Indian council—the most independent and free-spoken of all gatherings—is sufficiently explained by the fact that Atotarho had organized, among the more reckless warriors of his tribe, a band of unscrupulous partisans, who did his bidding without question, and took off by secret murder all persons against whom he bore a grudge. The knowledge that his followers were scattered through the assembly, prepared to mark for destruction those who should offend him, might make the boldest orator chary of speech. Hiawatha alone was undaunted. He summoned a second meeting, which was attended by a smaller number, and broke up as before, in confusion, on Atotarho's appearance. The unwearied reformer sent forth his runners a third time; but the people were disheartened. When the day of the council arrived, no one attended. Then, continued the narrator, Hiawatha seated himself on the ground in sorrow. He enveloped his head in his mantle of skins, and remained for a long time bowed down in grief and thought. At length he arose and left the town, taking his course toward the southeast. He had formed a bold design. As the councils of his own nation were closed to him, he would have recourse to those of other tribes. At a short distance from the town (so minutely are the circumstances recounted) he passed his great antagonist, seated near a well-known spring, stern and silent as usual. No word passed between the determined representatives of war and peace; but it was doubtless not without a sensation of triumphant pleasure that the ferocious war-chief saw his only rival and opponent in council going into what seemed to be voluntary exile. Hiawatha plunged into the forest; he climbed mountains; he crossed a lake; he floated down the Mohawk river in a canoe. Many incidents of his journey are told, and in this part of the narrative alone some occurrences of a marvelous cast are related, even by the official historians. Indeed, the flight of Hiawatha from Onondaga to the country of the Caniengas is to the Five Nations what the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina is to the votaries of Islam. It is the turning point of their history. In embellishing the narrative at this point, their imagination has been allowed a free course. Leaving aside these marvels, however, we need only refer here to a single incident, which may well enough have been of actual occurrence. A lake which Hiawatha crossed had shores abounding in small white shells. These he gathered and strung upon strings, which he disposed upon his breast, as a token to all whom he should meet that he came as a messenger of peace. And this, according to one authority, was the origin of wampum, of which Hiawatha was the inventor. That honor, however, is one which must be denied to him. The evidence of sepulchral relics shows that wampum was known to the mysterious Mound-builders, as well as in all succeeding ages. Moreover, if the significance of white wampum-strings as a token of peace had not been well known in his day, Hiawatha would not have relied upon them as a means of proclaiming his pacific purpose.