Early History of the Six Nations

Rising up from the obscurity of the past, we find a people, singular in their habits and character, whose history has been strangely, and in some respects sadly interwoven with our own. They were the original occupants of the soil, claiming to have lived here always, and to have grown out of the soil like the trees of the forest. Scattered over this continent were various Indian tribes, resembling each other in their general features and habits, but in some instances exhibiting stronger and more interesting traits of character than the others. Among these were the Iroquois, and if Red Jacket was distinguished among his own people, his own people were not less conspicuous among the North American Indians.

He sprang from the Seneca, and was accustomed to speak of his origin with feelings of conscious pride. For the Seneca were the most numerous and powerful of the six nations, of whom they were a part. Such was the title given to that celebrated Indian confederacy which, for a length of time unknown to us, inhabited the territory embraced by the State of New York.

Here they lived in a line of settlements extending from one end to the other, through the middle of the State, and their domain as thus occupied, they were accustomed to style their “Long House”. It was a shadowy dome, of generous amplitude, covered by the azure expanse above, garnished with hills, lakes, and laughing streams, and well stored with provisions, in the elk and deer that bounded freely through its forest halls, the moose that was mirrored in its waters, and the trout, those luscious speckled beauties, that nestled cosily in its crystal chambers.

The eastern door was guarded by the Mohawks, who resided at one, and its western by the Seneca, who dwelt at the other extremity of this abode.

When ever a messenger from another nation came to them on business, or knocked, as it was termed, at the eastern or western door of their “long house”, it was the duty of the nation to which he came, to give him entertainment, and examine into the nature of his embassy. If it was of small importance, it was decided by their own council; but if it was such as to demand the united wisdom of the tribes, a runner was sent with a belt of wampum to the nearest nation, which would take the belt and send a runner with it to the next, and so on, and thus with but little delay, a general meeting was summoned of all the tribes.

This confederacy at one time consisted of five nations, but afterward embraced six, by the addition of the Tuscarora, a tribe that once occupied the territory of North Carolina.

This tribe is said to have belonged at an early day to the Iroquois family, and to have inherited the enterprising and warlike character of the parent stock. They fought successfully with the Catawba, Coweta, and the Cherokee, and thought to exterminate by one decisive blow, all of the white inhabitants within their borders. Unsuccessful in the attempt, pressed sorely by the whites, who resisted the attack, and unwilling themselves to submit, they removed to the north, and through sympathy, similarity of taste, manners, or language, or from the stronger motives of consanguinity, became incorporated with the confederated tribes of the Iroquois 1 .

Thus constituted they presented the most formidable power, of which we have any knowledge in the annals of the Indian race. By their united strength they were able to repel invasion, from any of the surrounding nations, and by the force of their arms and their prowess in war, gained control over an extent of territory much greater than they occupied.

They sent their war parties in every direction. The tribes north, east, south, and west of them were made to feel the power of their arms, and yield successively to their dexterity and valor. Now they were launching their war-canoes upon the lakes and rivers of the west, now engaged in bloody conflicts with the Catawba and Cherokee of the south, now traversing regions of snow in pursuit of the Algonquin of the north, and anon spreading consternation and dread among the tribes at the remotest east. Their energy and warlike prowess made them a terror to their foes, and distant nations pronounced their name with awe.

By what means these several tribes had been brought to unite themselves under one government, how long they had existed in this relation, and what was the origin of each one, or of all, are questions which will never perhaps be fully determined. There being no written records among them, all that can be ascertained of their history previous to their becoming known to the whites, must be gathered from the dim light of tradition, from their symbolic representations, from antique remains of their art, and from their legends and myths. These present in an obscure and shadowy form, a few materials of history, whose value is to be measured by the consideration, that they are all we have to tell the story of a noble and interesting race of men.

Their traditions speak of the creation of the world, the formation of man, and the destruction of the world by a deluge. They suppose the existence originally of two worlds, an upper and lower. The upper completed and filled with an intelligent order of beings, the lower unformed and chaotic, whose surface was covered with water, in which huge monsters careered, uncontrolled and wild. From the upper there descended to the lower a creating spirit, in the form of a beautiful woman. She alighted on the back of a huge tortoise, gave birth to a pair of male twins and expired. Thereupon the shell of the tortoise began to enlarge, and grew until it became a “big island” and formed this continent.

These two infant sons became, one the author of good, the other of evil. The creator of good formed whatever was praiseworthy and useful. From the head of his deceased mother he made the sun, from the remaining parts of her body, the moon and stars. When these were created the water-monsters were terrified by the light, and fled and hid themselves in the depths of the ocean. He diversified the earth by making rivers, seas and plains, covered it with animals, and filled it with productions beneficial to mankind. He then formed man and woman, put life into them, and called them Ong-we Hon-we “a real people 2 “.

The creator of “evil” was active in making mountains, precipices, waterfalls, reptiles, morasses, apes, and whatever was injurious to, or in mockery of mankind. He put the works of the “good” out of order, hid his animals in the earth, and destroyed things necessary for the sustenance of man. His conduct so awakened the displeasure of the “good”, as to bring them into personal conflict. Their time of combat, and arms were chosen, one selecting flag-roots, the other the horns of a deer. Two whole days they were engaged in unearthly combat; but finally the “Maker of Good”, who had chosen the horns of a deer, prevailed, and retired to the world above. The “Maker of Evil” sank below to a region of darkness, and became the “Evil Spirit”, or Kluneolux of the world of despair 3 .

Many of their accounts appear to be purely fabulous, but not more so perhaps than similar traditions, to be found in the history of almost every nation.

The Iroquois refer their origin to a point near Oswego Falls. They boldly affirm that their people were here taken from a subterranean vault, by the Divine Being, and conducted eastward along the river Ye-no-na-nat-che, going around a mountain, now the Mohawk, until they came to where it discharges into a great river running toward the mid-day sun, the Hudson, and went down this river and touched the bank of a great water, while the main body returned by the way they came, and as they proceeded westward, originated the different tribes composing their nation; and to each tribe was assigned the territory they occupied, when first discovered by the whites 4 .

The Seneca, the fifth tribe of the Iroquois, were directed in their original location, to occupy a hill near the head of Canandaigua lake. This hill, called Ge-nun-de-wa, is venerated as the birth place of their nation. It was surrounded anciently by a rude fortification which formed their dwelling in time of peace, and served for a shelter from any sudden attack of a hostile tribe. Tradition hallows this spot on account of the following very remarkable occurrence.

Far back in the past, the inhabitants of the hill Genundewa, were surprised on awaking one morning, to behold themselves surrounded by an immense serpent. His dimensions were so vast as to enable him to coil himself completely around the fort. His head and tail came together at its gate. There he lay writhing and hissing, presenting a most menacing and hideous aspect. His jaws were widely extended, and he hissed so terribly no one ventured to approach near.

The inhabitants were thus effectually blockaded. Some endeavored, but in vain, to kill this savage monster. Others tried to escape, but his watchful eyes prevented their endeavors. Others again sought to climb over his body, but were unable; while others still attempted to pass by his head, but fell into his extended jaws. Their confinement grew every day more and more painful, and was rendered doubly annoying by the serpent’s breath, which was very offensive.

Their situation drove them at length to an extremity not to be endured. They armed themselves with hatchets, and clubs, and whatever implements of war they could find, and made a vigorous sally upon their dreadful foe, but, alas! were all engulfed in his terrific jaws.

It so happened that two orphan children remained, after the destruction which befell the rest. They were directed by an oracle to make a bow of a certain kind of willow, and an arrow of the same, the point of which they were to dip in poison, and then shoot the monster, aiming so as to hit him under his scales.

In doing this, they encountered their adversary with entire success. For no sooner had the arrow penetrated his skin, than he presently began to grow sick, exhibiting signs of the deepest distress. He threw himself into every imaginable shape, and with wonderful contortions and agonizing pains, rolled his ponderous body down along the declivity of the mountain, uttering horrid noises as he went, prostrating trees in his course, and falling finally into the lake below.

Here he slaked his thirst, and showed signs of great distress, by dashing about furiously in the water. Soon he vomited up the heads of those whom he had swallowed, and immediately after expired and sank to rise no more 5 .

From these two children, as thus preserved, the Seneca nation are said to have sprung.

So implicitly has this tradition been received by the Seneca, that it has been incorporated into the solemnities of their worship, and its remembrance continued from one generation to another by the aid of religious rites. Here they were formerly in the habit of assembling in council, and here their prayers and thanksgivings were offered to the Great Spirit, for having given them birth, and for rescuing their nation from entire destruction.

In speaking of this to the whites, they point to the barren hillside, as evincing the truth of the story, affirming that one day the forest trees stood thick upon it, but was stripped of them by the great serpent as he rolled down its declivity. The round stones found there in great abundance, resembling in size and shape the human head, are taken as additional proof, for they affirm that these are the heads disgorged by the serpent, and have been petrified by the waters of the lake 6 .

If nearness of locality will justify a glance of the eye for a moment, to an object not directly in the line of our pursuit, we might survey in passing a bold projecting height, not far from the hill Genundewa, marked by a legend which draws a tear from the eye of the dusky warrior, or sends him away in a thoughtful mood, with a shade of sadness upon his usually placid brow. The story is not of the same character and is of a more recent date than that of the serpent, but is said to be of great antiquity. It has been written with great beauty by Col. Stone, and as we are authorized, we present it in his own language.

“During the wars of the Seneca and Algonquin of the north, a chief of the latter was captured and carried to Genundewa, whereon a fortification, consisting of a square without bastions, and surrounded by palisades, was situated. The captive though young in years, was famed for his prowess in the forest conflict, and nature had been bountiful to his person in those gifts of strength and symmetry, which awaken savage admiration. After a short debate he was condemned to die on the following day, by the slow torture of empalement. While he was thus lying in the cabin of death, a lodge devoted to condemned prisoners, the daughter of the sachem brought him food, and struck with his manly form and heroic bearing, resolved to save him or share his fate. Her bold enterprise was favored by the uncertain light of the gray dawn, while the solitary sentinel, weary of his night-watch, and forgetful of his duty, was slumbering. Stealing with noiseless tread to the side of the young captive, she cut the thongs wherewith his limbs were bound, and besought him in breathless accents to follow her.

“The fugitives descended the hill by a wooded path conducting to the lake; but ere they reached the water, an alarm whoop, wild and shrill, was heard issuing from the waking guard. They tarried not, though thorny vines and fallen timber obstructed their way. At length they reached the smooth beach, and leaping into a canoe previously provided by the considerate damsel, they plied the paddle vigorously, steering for the opposite shore. Vain were their efforts. On the wind came cries of rage, and the quick tramp of savage warriors, bounding over rock and glen in fierce pursuit. The Algonquin with the reckless daring of a young brave, sent back a yell of defiance, and soon after the splash of oars was heard, and a dozen war canoes were cutting the billows in their rear. The unfortunate lovers on landing, took a trail leading in a western direction over the hills. The Algonquin, weakened by unhealed wounds, followed his active guide up the aclivity, with panting heart and flagging pace; while his enemies, with the grim old sachem at their head, drew nearer and nearer. At length finding further attempts at flight useless, she diverged from the trail, and conducted her lover to a table-crested rock that projected over a ravine or gulf, one hundred and fifty feet in depth, the bottom of which was strewed with misshapen rocks, scattered in rude confusion. With hearts nerved to a high resolve, the hapless pair awaited the arrival of their yelling pursuers. Conspicuous by his eagle plume, towering form and scowling brow, the daughter soon descried her inexorable sire, leaping from crag to crag below her. He paused abruptly when his fiery eye rested on the objects of his pursuit. Notching an arrow on the string of his tried and unerring bow, he raised his sinewy arms–but ere the missile was sent, Wun-nut-hay, “the Beautiful”, interposed her form between her father and his victim. In wild appealing tones she entreated her sire to spare the young chieftain, assuring him that they would leap together from the precipice rather than be separated. The stern old man, deaf to her supplication, and disregarding her menace, ordered his followers to seize the fugitive. Warrior after warrior darted up the rock, but on reaching the platform, at the moment when they were grasping to clutch the young brave, the lovers, locked in fond embrace, flung themselves ‘From the steep rock, and perished.’

“The mangled bodies were buried in the bottom of the glen, beneath the shade of everlasting rocks; and two small hollows, resembling sunken graves, are to this day pointed out to the curious traveler, as the burial place of the lovers.” It is a sweet, wild haunt, the sunbeams fall there with softened radiance, and a brook near by gives out a complaining murmur, as if mourning for the dead 7 .

Let us return to the inquiry we were pursuing. Of the origin of the Iroquois confederacy, some traditionary accounts have been given, which represent the different tribes as dwelling for a time, in the separate locations assigned them, independent of each other. Here they increased in valor, skill and knowledge, suited to their forest home. At length becoming numerous, rival interests arose among them, which did not exist when they were small and feeble. They fell into contention, and wasted and destroyed each other. Each tribe fortified his own position, and dwelt in constant fear of being surprised and overcome by his neighboring foe.

At length one of their sachems, distinguished for his wisdom and address, proposed that they should cease from a strife, which was only destroying themselves, and unite their energies against the Alleghan, the Adirondack, the Erie, and other ancient and warlike tribes, who were their superiors in their isolated and divided condition. Already weary of their unprofitable conflicts, the proposal was received with favor, and Ato-tar-ho, an Onandaga chieftain, unequalled in valor, and the fame of whose skill and daring was known among all the tribes, became the leading spirit of this confederacy, and by common consent was placed at its head. So fully did experience demonstrate the wisdom of this arrangement, that they used every means to strengthen the bands of their union, and by the most solemn engagements of fidelity to each other, they became the Ko-nos-hi-o-ni, or United people 8 .

How long this confederacy had existed before their discovery by the whites, is unknown. There is a tradition which places it one age, or the length of a man’s life, before the white people came to this country 9 .

The union of these several tribes was the means of securing their pre-eminence over the other Indians in this country. Their individual traits are thus very fittingly represented;–“in their firm physical type, and in their energy of character, and love of independence, no people among the aboriginal race have ever exceeded, if any has equaled the Iroquois 10.” They occupied a region surpassed by no other on the continent, for grandeur and beauty united, and inherited from this or some other source, a mental constitution of noble structure, which placed them in the fore-front of their race, and when united, no tribe on this continent could stand before them. This has served to render their history, a matter of earnest and interesting inquiry.Citations:

  1. Schoolcraft’s Report. Mr. Schoolcraft prefers, and quite justly the name Iroquois, as descriptive of this confederacy, instead of Six Nations, since the term is well known, and applicable to them in every part of their history. Whereas the other is appropriate only during the time when they were numerically six.][]
  2. This term is significant of true manhood. It implies that there was nothing of sham in their make up.[]
  3. Schoolcraft’s Indian Cosmogony.[]
  4. Account by David Cusick, as contained in Schoolcraft’s report. Mr. S. regards this account correct as indicating the probable course of their migrations.[]
  5. As related to the author by Col. Wm. Jones.[]
  6. The author remembers well that in conversation with a Seneca Indian on this point, he seemed to take it as quite an affront that doubts should be expressed by the white people as to the reality of this occurrence.[]
  7. Mr. Stone adds in a note–“This interesting legend was derived many years ago from a Seneca chief of some note, named Chequered Cap, and was communicated to me by W. H. C. Hosmer, Esq., of Avon. On the top of Genundewa the remains of an Indian orchard are visible, a few moss-grown and wind-bowed apple trees still linger, sad, but fitting emblems of the wasted race by whom they were planted.”[]
  8. Schoolcraft’s Report.[]
  9. Pyrlaus, a missionary at the ancient site of Dionderoga, or Fort Hunter, writing between 1742 and 1748, gives this as the best conjecture he could form, from information derived from the Mohawks. It is thought however that this time is too short, to account for the degree of development attained by the Iroquois, in their united capacity, at the time of their first discovery by the whites.[]
  10. Schoolcraft.[]

Hubbard, John Niles. n Account of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket, and His People, 1750-1830. Self Published. 1885.

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