A Sketch of the Iroquois Groups of Aboriginal Tribes

On the discovery of North America, the Iroquois tribes, were found seated chiefly in the wide and fertile territory of western and northern New York, reaching west to the sources of the Ohio; 1 north, to the banks of Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence; and east, to the site of Albany. They had as much nationality of character, then, as any of the populous tribes, who, in the 4th century wandered over central and western Europe. They were, in a high degree, warlike, handling the bow and arrow with the skill and dexterity of the ancient Thracians and Parthians. They were confederated in peace and war, and had begun to lay the foundations of a power, against which, the surrounding nations, in the Mississippi valley, and along the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, and the Delaware, could not stand. The French, when they effectually entered the St. Lawrence in 1608, 2 courted their alliance on the north, and the Dutch did the same in 1609, on the Hudson. Virginia had been apprised of their power, at an early day, and the other English colonies, as they arrived, were soon made acquainted with the existence of this native confederacy in the north. By putting fire-arms into their hands, they doubled the aboriginal power, and became themselves, far more than a century, dependent on their caprice or friendship.

The word Iroquois, as we are told by Charlevoix, who is a competent and reliable witness on this point, is founded on an exclamation, or response, made by the sachems and warriors, on the delivery to them, of an address. This response, as heard among the Senecas, it appeared to me, might be written eok perhaps, the Mohawks, and other harsher dialects of this family, threw in an r, between the vowels. It is recorded in the term Iroquois, on French principles of annotation, with the substantive inflection in ois, which is characteristic of French lexicography. It is a term which has been long, and extensively used, both for the language and the history of this people and is preferable, on enlarged considerations, to any other. The term Five Nations, used by Colden, and in popular use during the earlier period of the colony, ceased to be appropriate after the Tuscarora revolt in North Carolina, and the reunion of this tribe with the parent stock, subsequent to 1712. From that period they were called the Six Nations, 3 and continued to acquire in-ceased reputation as a confederacy, under this name, until the termination of the American Revolution in 1783, and the flight of the Mohawks and Cayugas to Canada, when this partial separation and breaking up of the confederacy, rendered it no longer applicable.

The term New York Indians, applied to them in modern days, by the eminence in their position, is liable to be confounded, by the common reader, with the names of several tribes of the generic Algonquin family, who formerly occupied the southern part of the State, down to the Atlantic. Some of these tribes lived in the west, and owned and occupied lands, among the Iroquois, until within a few years. And, at any rate, it is too vague and imprecise a term to be employed in philology or history.

By the people themselves, however, neither the first nor the last of the foregoing terms appear ever to have been adopted, nor are they now used. They have no word to signify “New York” in a sense more specific, than as the territory possessed by themselves a claim which they were certainly justified in making, at the era of the discovery, when they are admitted, on all hands, to have carried their conquests to the sea.

The term Ongwe Honwe or a people surpassing all others, which Colden was informed they applied proudly to themselves, may be strictly true, if limited, as they did, to mean a people surpassing all other red men. This they believed, and this was the sense in which they boastfully applied it. But it was a term older than the disco very, and had no reference to European races. The word Honwe, as will appear by the vocabulary hereto appended, means man. By the prefixed term Ongwe, it is qualified according to various interpretations, to mean real, as contra-distinguished from sham men, or cowards; it may also mean strong, wise, or expert men, and, by ellipsis, men excelling others in manliness. But it was in no other sense distinctive of them. It was the common term for the red race of this continent, which they would appear, by the phrase, to acknowledge as a unity, and is, the word as I found it, used at this day, as the equivalent for our term “Indian.”

Each tribe had, at some period of their progress, a distinctive appellation, as Onondaga, Oneida, &c. of which some traditionary matter will be stated, further on. When they came to confederate, and form a general council, they took the name of Konoshioni, (or as the French authors write it, Acquinoshioni), meaning literally, People of the Long House, and figuratively a United People, a term by which they still denominate themselves, when speaking in a national sense. This distinction, it is well to bear in mind, and not confound. This Long House, to employ their own figure, extended east and west from the present site of Albany to the foot of the great lakes, a distance, by modern measurements, of 325 miles, which is now traversed by railroad. An air palace, we may grant them, having beams and rafters, higher and longer than any pile of regal magnificence, yet reared by human hands.

Thus much may be said, with certainty, of the name of this celebrated family of red men, by which they are identified arid distinguished from other stocks of the hunter tribes of North America. Where they originated, relatively to their position on this continent, the progress of ethnology does not, at this incipient period of that science, enable ns to determine, nor is it proposed, save with the merest brevity, now to inquire. Veiling their own origin, if anciently known, in allegory, or designing by fancy to supply the utter want of early history, to the intent, perhaps, that they might put forth an undisputed title to the country they occupied, the relations of their old sages affirm that they originated in the territorial area of western New York. Their tradition on this point, as put on re cord by the pen of one of their own people, (see extracts from Cu-sic s historical and traditionary tract, hereto appended,) fixes the locality of their actual origin at an eminence near the falls of the Oswego river. To cut short the narration, they assert that their ancestors were called forth, from the bowels of a mountain, by Tarenyawagon, the Holder of the Heavens. It represents them as one people, who moved first towards the east, as far as the sea, and then fell back, partly on their own tracks, towards the west and southwest. So far, and so far only, the tale appears credible enough, and as there is no chronology established by it, although dates are freely introduced, and consequently nothing to contradict it, their track of migration and counter migration from the Oswego, may be deemed as probable.

The diversities of language, and the separation into tribes, are represented to have taken place, according to known principles of ethnological inference.

Ondiyaka, an Onondaga sage, and the ruling chief of the confederacy, who died on an official visit to the Oneidas in 1839, at the age of ninety, confirmed these general traditions of the Tuscarora scribe. He informed Le Fort, who was with him in that journey and at his death, that the Onondagas were created by NEO, 4 in the country where they lived; that he made this island or continent, “Hawoneo,” for the red race, and meant it for them alone. He did not allude to or acknowledge any migration from other lands. This, Le Fort, him self an Onondaga, a chief, and an educated man, told me during the several interviews I had with him, the present year, at the Onondaga Castle.

Ondiyaka proceeded to say, as they walked over the ancient ruins in the valley of the Kasonda, 5 that this was the spot where the Onondagas formerly lived, before they fixed themselves in the Onondaga valley, and before they had entered into confederation. In those days they were at enmity with each other; they raised the old forts to defend themselves. They wandered about a great deal. They frequently changed their places of residence. They lived in perpetual fear. They kept fighting, and moving their villages often. This reduced their numbers, and rendered their condition one of alarms and trials. Sometimes they abandoned a village, and all their gardens and clearings, because they had encountered much sickness, and believed the place to be doomed. They were always ready to hope for better luck in a new spot. At length they confederated, and then their fortifications were no longer necessary, and fell into decay. This, he believed, was the origin of these old ruins, which were not of foreign construction. 6 Before the confederacy, they had been not only at war among themselves, but had been driven by other enemies. 7 After it, they carried their wars out of their own country, and began to bring home prisoners. Their plan was to select for adoption from the prisoners, and captives, and fragments of tribes whom they conquered. These captives were equally divided among each of the tribes, were adopted and incorporated with them, and served to make good their losses. They used the term, WE-HAIT-WAT-SHA, in relation to these captives. This term means a body cut into parts and scattered around. In this manner, they figuratively scattered their prisoners, and sunk and destroyed their nationality, and built up their own.

At what period they confederated, we have no exact means of deciding. It appears to have been comparatively recent, judging from traditionary testimony. 8 While their advancement in the economy of living, in arms, in diplomacy and in civil polity, would lead conjecture to a more remote date. Their own legends, like those of some other leading stocks of the continent, carry them back to a period of wars with giants and demons and monsters of the sea, the land, and the air, and are fraught with strange and grotesque fancies of wizards and enchanters. But history, guiding the pen of the French Jesuit, describes them first as pouring in their canoes through the myriad streams that interlace in western New York, and debouching, now on the gulf of the St. Lawrence, now on the Chesapeake glancing again over the waves of Michigan, and now again piling their paddles in the waters of the turbid Mississippi. Wherever they went, they carried proofs of their energy, courage, and enterprise.

At one period we hear the sound of their war cry, along the straits of the St. Mary’s and at the foot of Lake Superior. At another under the walls of Quebec, where they finally defeated the Hurons under the eyes of the French. They put out the fires of the Gahkwas and Eries. They eradicated the Susquehannocks. They placed the Lenapees, the Nanticokes, and the Munsees under the yoke of subjection. They put the Metoacks and the Manhattans under tribute. They spread the terror of their arms over all New England.

They traversed the whole length of the Appalachian chain, and descended like the enraged Yagisho and Megalonyx, on the Cherokees and the Catawbas. Smith encountered their warriors, in the settlement of Virginia, and La Salle on the discovery of the Illinois. Nations trembled when they heard the name of the KONOSHIGNI.

They possessed a fine physical structure they lived in a climate which imparted energy to their motions. They used a sonorous and commanding language, which had its dual number, and its neuter, masculine, and feminine genders. They were excellent natural orators, and expert diplomatists. They began early to cherish a national pride, which grew with their conquests. They had, like the Algonquins, in the organization of the several clans, or families, which composed each tribe, a curious heraldic tie, founded on original relationship, which exercised a strong influence, but which has never been satisfactorily explained. They were governed by hereditary chieftaincies, like others of the aboriginal stocks, but contrary to the usage of these other stocks, the claims of their chiefs, were subjected to the decision of a national council. The aristocratic and democratic principles, were thus both brought into requisition, in candidates for office. But in all that constituted national action, they were a pure Republic. So far was this carried, that it is believed the veto of any one chief, to a public measure, was sufficient to arrest its adoption by the Council.

In the development of their nationality, they have produced several men of energy and ability, who were equal, in natural force of character, to some of the most shining warriors and orators of antiquity. Few war captains have exceeded Hendrick, Brant or Skenandoah. The eloquence and force of Garangula, Logan and Red Jacket, in their public speeches, have commanded universal admiration. Mr. Jefferson considered the appeal of Logan to the white race, after the extirpation of his family, as without a parallel; and it has been imitated in vain, by distinguished poets and orators.

Such were the aboriginal people who occupied western New York, and their memory will forever live in the significant names which they have bestowed upon Niagara and Ontario, and a thousand lesser waters, which beautify and adorn the land. Viewed as one of the Indo-American stocks, they possessed some very striking traits.

Few barbarous nations have ever existed on the globe, who have shown more native energy, and distinctiveness of character. Still fewer who have evinced so firm a devotion to the spirit of independence. Yet all their native manliness and energy of character and action, would have failed, or become inoperative, had they not abandoned the fatal Indian principle of tribal supremacy, or independent chieftainships, and made common cause in a national confederacy. The moment this was done, and each of the component clans or tribes, had surrendered the power of sovereignty to a general council of the whole, the foundation for their rise was laid, and they soon became the most powerful political body among the native tribes of North America, this side of the palace of Montezuma.

In visiting the descendants of such a people, after a lapse of more than two centuries and a quarter from the discovery, it was the im pulse of the commonest interest, to make some inquiries into their former history, and antiquities. These have been pursued under favorable circumstances, for the most part, at all points of my journey, and have been resumed, when broken off, whenever practical. The only method pursued, was to obtain all the facts possible, from red or white men, of reliable testimony. There was no time and no intention, to digest them, into a connected history. They were collected in the pauses which intervened, in the obtaining of the statistics of the census, and they are contributed herewith, in the simple garb and freshness of the original minutes. Those who related the traditions, did not suppose themselves to be delivering the important lore of their history. They were related, along the road, or seated around the evening circle, as the current belief of the people. Sometimes the fields or hills, disclosing the localities of old forts, were the scene of the narrations; sometimes the Indian burial ground; sometimes more formal interviews. He who gleans popular traditions among this race, must have his ear ever open, his memory under notice u to retain,” and his pen or pencil ever ready.

Historical and biographical notices, names of places, and sketches of antiquarian remains, were thus entered on or dropped, as time or occasion prompted. To make minutes of What occurred, was all that time permitted me; but it was a rule, to make them promptly and on the spot. This much seemed necessary in dispatching this portion of my report, with the miscellaneous details accompanying it; and having accomplished this object, my present task is terminated.Citations:

  1. They always denominated the Alleghany River by the name of Ohio. This I found o be the term constantly used for that river in 1845. They give the vowel i, in this word, he sound of i, in machine.[]
  2. They actually discovered this river, in 1535.[]
  3. In 1723, they adopted the Necabiages, as a Seventh Nation, as will be noticed under the appropriate head.[]
  4. The term ” Neo,” God, is generally used reverently, with a syllable prefixed in the different Iroquois dialects, as Yawa-Neo, in the Tuscarora, Howai-Neo in the Seneca, Hawai-Neo, Onondaga, Lawai-Neo, Mohawk, &c[]
  5. Butternut Creek, which runs through parts of the towns of Pompey, Lafayette and De Witt, Onondaga county.[]
  6. This remark must be considered as applied only to the class of simple ring forts, so frequent in western New- York. These forts are proved by antiquarian remains, forest growth, &c. to be the most ancient of any works, in Onondaga county, in the shape of forts.[]
  7. Golden represents them as driven by the Algonquins, on the discovery of Canada.[]
  8. Vide Pyrlaus.[]


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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