Era of Six Nations Confederation

There is a tradition among portions of the Senecas, that the present confederation took place four years before Hudson sailed up the river bearing his name. This gives A. D. 1605. This question has been examined in its general bearings in a prior paper. All other authorities indicate an earlier date.

Chronology finds its most difficult tasks in establishing dates among our aboriginal tribes. Pyrlaus, a missionary at the ancient site of Dionderoga or Fort Hunter, writing between 1742 and 1748, states, as the result of the best conjectures he could form, from information derived from the Mohawks, that the alliance took place “one age, or the length of a man s life, before the white people came into the country.” 1 He gives the following as the names of the sachems of the Five Nations, who met and formed the alliance;

Toganawita or the Mohawks.
Oratschechta or the Oneidas.
Tatotarho or the Onondagas.
Togahayon or the Cayugas.
Ganiatario, for the Senecas
Satagaruyes, for the Senecas

The name of Thannawage is given as the first proposer of such an alliance. He was an aged Mohawk sachem. It was decided that these names should forever be kept in remembrance by naming a person in each nation, through succeeding generations, after them.

Taking 1609, the era of the Dutch discovery, and estimating “a man’s life” by the patriarchal and scriptural rule, we should not at the utmost have a more remote date than 1539, 2 as the origin of the confederacy. This would place the event 18 years after the taking of Mexico by Cortes, and 47 years after the first voyage of Columbus, Cartier, who ascended the St. Lawrence to Hochelaga, the present site of Montreal, in 1535, demonstrates clearly, by his vocabulary of words, that a people who spoke a branch of the Iroquois language, was then at the place. This people is usually supposed to have been the Wyandots, or Hurons. But he makes no remark on a confederacy. He only denotes the attachment of the people to an old and paralytic sachem, or head chief, who wore a frontlet of dyed porcupine’s skin. 3

Curious to obtain some clue to this era, or test of the preceding data, I made it a topic of inquiry. The Onondagas, the Tuscaroras, and the several bands, unite in a general tradition of the event of a confederacy, at the head of which they place Atotarho, (the same doubtless whose name is spelt Tatotarho above,) but amongst, neither of these tribes is the era fixed. The dates employed by Cusick, the Tuscarora legendary, giving an extravagant antiquity to the confederation, are more entitled to the sympathy of the poet than the attention of the historian, although other traditions stated by him debarring the dates, may be regarded as the actual traditions of his tribe. Were the date’s moderate, which he generally employs to confer antiquity on his nation, they might inspire respect. But like the Chinese astronomers, he loses no little as a native archaeologist, by aspiring after too much.

Atotarho, who by these traditions was an Onondaga, is the great embodiment of Iroquois courage, wisdom and heroism, and in their narrations he is invested with allegoric traits, which exalt him to a kind of superhuman character. Unequalled in war and arts, his fame had spread abroad and exalted the Onondaga nation to the highest pitch. He was placed at the head of the confederacy, and his name, like that of King Arthur of the Round Table, or those of the Paladins of Charlemagne, was used after his death as an exemplar of glory and honor; while like that of Caesar, it became perpetuated as the official title of the presiding chief. What is said by Pyrlaus respecting the mode of the transmission of the names of the first delegates to the council forming the confederacy, appears to be probable. It is true, so far as is known, but it seems that not only the name of the ruling chief, but the title of each minor officer in the council, as he who presents the message; he who stands by the chief or Atotarho, &c. is preserved to this day by its being the name of an individual who exercises a similar office.

The best light I could personally obtain from tradition of the date of the event, viz. the era of the confederacy, came through a tradition handed down from Ezekiel Webster, an American, who at an early day settled among the Onondagas, learned their language, married the daughter of a chief, and became himself a man of great influence among them. Mr. Tyler of Seneca Falls, son of one of the first settlers in the present county of Onondaga, informed me in a casual interview at Aurora, on the 13th of August, that his father had received this account from Webster’s own lips, namely, that the confederation, as related by the Onondagas, took place about the length of one man s life before the white men appeared. A remark able confirmation of the statement of Pyrlaus. 4 It must be admitted, however, that we cannot, without rejecting many positive traditions of the Iroquois themselves [D.] refuse to concede a much earlier period to the first attempts of these interesting tribes to form a general political association. For eighty years before the American Revolution they, in friendly recommendation, held up their confederacy as a political model to the English colonies. (See Golden.) Their own first attempts to form themselves into one nation may have borne the same relation to them and their subsequent condition as our early confederation of States bears to the present Union; and this, instead of lasting a few years, as did ours, may have continued even for centuries, among so rude a people, before it could ripen into the bonds of empire.

Two elementary powers existed at an early day in the Iroquois cantons, namely, the civil and war chieftainships. There is abundant evidence, both in their own traditions, and in existing antiquarian remains, to show that they were at variance, in the early periods of their history, and fought against each other, and built fortifications to defend themselves. Partial leagues would naturally fail. League after league probably took place. When they came to see the folly of such a course, and proposed to confederate on enlarged principles, and direct their arms exclusively against others, the question doubtless arose, how they should be represented in the general council. It is clear, from the preceding remarks on the era of the con federation, whatever age we assign to the era itself, that the Rakowanas, (Mohawk) or leading chiefs of each of the five cantons, did not assemble. Power was assigned to, and concentrated on one individual, who stood as the federal representative of his canton in its sovereign capacity. It was only to the Senecas that two representatives, of this senatorial dignity, were assigned; a conclusive evidence that they were, at this era, estimated at double the numerical strength of the highest of the other four cantons. By these six men, who appear rather in the capacity of ambassadors, forming the principles of a treaty, or league, the modern confederacy, as known to us, was organized. Tradition says that this treaty of alliance was held at Onondaga, where the central council fire of the confederacy, organized under it, was also originally fixed, and has permanently remained. Of the nature and powers of this general council, or congress of sachems, acting for the whole cantons, some views are expressed in the following paper.Citations:

  1. Trans. Hist, and Lit. Com. Am. Philo. Soc. vol. 1, p. 36.[]
  2. For other data on this topic, see the subsequent paper, entitled “Onondagas,” in which an earlier date is assigned. See also the article “Oral Traditions.”[]
  3. Oneota, p.[]
  4. A Seneca tradition which is hereafter noticed, places the event of the confederation four years before the appearance of Hudson in his ship, in the bay of New York.[]


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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