Five Nations Burial Customs

Writing of the Iroquois or Five Nations, during the early years of the eighteenth century, at a time when they dominated the greater part of the present State of New York, it was said: “Their funeral Rites seem to be formed upon a Notion of some Kind of Existence after Death. They make a large round Hole, in which the Body can be placed upright, or upon its Haunches, which after the Body is placed in it, is covered with Timber, to support the Earth which they lay over, and thereby keep the Body free from being pressed; they then raise the Earth in a round Hill over it. They always dress the Corps in all its Finery, and put Wampum and other Things into the Grave with it; and the Relations suffer not Grass or any Weed to grow on the Grave, and frequently visit it with Lamentations.” The circular mound of earth over the grave was likewise mentioned a century earlier, having been seen at the Oneida village which stood east of the present Munnsville, Madison County, New York. “Before we reached the castle we saw three graves, just like our graves in length and height,; usually their graves are round. These graves were surrounded with palisades that they had split from trees, and they were closed up so nicely that it was a wonder to see. They were painted with red and white and black paint; but the chief’s grave had an entrance, and at the top of that was a big wooden bird, and all around were painted dogs and deer and snakes, and other beasts.” Within recent years a cemetery has been discovered about 2 miles northeast of Munnsville, and just south of it has been located a site protected by a stockade. This may have been the position of the great Oneida town, but the nature of the burials is not known. Whether the two preceding accounts referred to graves of sufficient magnitude to be classed as mounds, or whether they alluded merely to a small mass of earth raised over an individual pit burial, is difficult to determine; nevertheless burial mounds do occur throughout the country of the Iroquois, but they are neither numerous nor large. In Erie country near the bank of Buffalo Creek, formerly stood a rather irregular embankment, semicircular in form, and touching the steep bank at both ends. The inclosed area was about 4 acres. This was one of the favorite sites of the Senecas, and within the enclosure was one of their largest cemeteries. Here is the grave of “the haughty and unbending Red Jacket, who died exulting that the Great Spirit had made him an Indian!

Tradition fixes upon this spot as the scene of the final and most bloody conflict between the Iroquois and the ‘Gah-k was’ or Eries. The old mission-house and church stand in close proximity to this mark. Red Jacket’s house stood above a third of a mile to the southward upon the same elevation; and the abandoned council-house is still standing, perhaps a mile distant, in the direction of Buffalo. A little distant beyond, in the same direction and near the public road, is a small mound, called Dah-do-sot, artificial hill, by the Indians, who, it is said, were accustomed to regard it with much veneration, supposing that it covered the victims slain in some bloody conflict in the olden times. It was originally between five and six feet in height by thirty-five or forty feet base, and composed of the adjacent loam.” It was partially examined, and only a few bits of charcoal, some half-formed arrowheads, etc., were found. Several other mounds may be mentioned, and these may be considered as being typical of all existing in the country of the Five Nations. Schoolcraft referred to a mound which stood about 1 mile distant, tip the Tonawanda, in Genesee County. Another was some 2 miles south of the first. Both were discovered in the year 1810, and contained many human bones. Glass beads were recovered from the one which stood farther north. In the adjoining county of Monroe were two mounds, the larger being not more than 5 feet in height. They were on the “high, sandy grounds to the westward of Irondequoit Bay, where it connects with Lake Ontario.” These are said to have been examined in 1817, at which time various objects of European origin were found, including a sword scabbard, bands of silver, belt buckles, and similar pieces. The mounds already mentioned were within the territory of the Seneca, and those described in Genesee and Monroe Counties were erected within historic times. The Oneida occupied the country northeast of Lake Ontario, and a site “near the east end of Long Sault Island,” in St. Lawrence County, may have been occupied by one of their villages. A mound south of this site was examined, and in it were discovered seven skeletons, and associated with the burials were various objects of native origin, including ” a large pitcher-like vessel, four gouges, and some very coarse cloth, which looked like our hair cloth, only very coarse. Also seven strings of beads.” A mound on St. Regis Island, in Franklin County, which touches St. Lawrence on the west, was opened in 1818. It contained deposits of human remains, those nearer the upper surface being the best preserved. This would have been in the Mohawk country. Mound burials are likewise to be encountered in the southern counties, one very interesting example having been discovered in Chenango, the region later occupied by the Tuscarora. This was in Green Township, near the mouth of Geneganstlet Creek. It was originally about 6 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter. ” It was opened in 1829 and abundant human bones were found, and much deeper beneath there were others which had been burned. It was not an orderly burial, and the bones crumbled on being exposed. In one part were about 200 yellow and black jasper arrowheads, and 60 more in another place. Also a silver band or ring about 2 inches in diameter, wide but thin, and with what appeared to be the remains of a reed pipe within it. A number of stone gouges or chisels of different shapes, and a piece of mica cut in the form of a heart, the border much decayed and the laminae separated, were also discovered.” The finding of a piece of mica in this burial at once suggests the mound may have been the work of the Tuscarora. The mica “cut in the form of a heart ” was probably carried by them from Carolina when they went northward in the early years of the eighteenth century, and became the sixth nation of the league. A short distance beyond, in the adjoining county of Otsego, is an island in the Susquehanna near the mouth of Charlotte River, and a mound stands on the island which is known locally as the grave of the chief Kagatinga, probably a village chief not known in history. In the extreme northern part of the same county, near Richfield Springs, was a mound often visited by the Oneida, and said by them to have been the burial place of one of their chief men. This will tend to recall the visits made by parties of Indians to the burial mounds in piedmont Virginia, a region once claimed and occupied by Siouan tribes. From the few references just given it is quite evident the Iroquois followed a form of mound burial even after the coming of the French, and it is also clearly established that such burials were more frequent in the western than in the eastern part of their country. Mounds similar to those mentioned have been encountered in every county west of a line running north and south through Oneida Lake, but are far less numerous to the eastward.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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