Iroquois Domestic and Social Life

We purpose giving in this chapter some of the more prominent features of Indian domestic and social life, which furnish the best index to their true character. The Indian, viewed as a distinct branch of the human family, has some peculiar traits and institutions which may be advantageously studied. They furnish the key to those startling impulses which have so long made him an object of wonder to civilized communities, and reveal him as the legitimate product of the conditions attending his birth, his forest education, and the wants, temptations and dangers which surround him. They show him also to be as patient and politic as he is ferocious.

“America, when it became known to Europeans, was, as it had long been, a scene of wide-spread revolution. North and South, tribe was giving place to tribe, language to language; for the Indian, hopelessly unchanging in respect to individual and social development, was as regarded tribal relations and social haunts, mutable as the wind. In Canada and the northern section of the United States, the elements of change were especially active. The Indian population which, in 1535, Cartier found at Montreal and Quebec, had disappeared at the opening of the next century, and another race had succeeded, in language and customs widely different; while in the region now forming the State of New York, a power was rising to a ferocious vitality, which, but for the presence of Europeans, would probably have subjected, absorbed or exterminated every other Indian community east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio.” 1

Hence we shall see that their habitations were not characterized by that durability and permanency which is manifest in stable communities. This mutability was governed primarily by success or non-success in war, or the fear of ambitious neighbors, for not unfrequently whole nations, or fragments of nations, submitted to expatriation to save themselves from extermination; and secondarily by the mode of Indian life. They subsisted generally by hunting and fishing. Their agriculture was usually of the most primitive character; and when, in the course of years, the fertility of their small clearings became exhausted, not conversant with the art of refertilization, they removed to and cultivated new fields. The scarcity of game and fuel also necessitated their removal to localities where it was more abundant.

Usually, however, they had large central villages, which exhibited in a more marked measure the elements of permanency. Thus the Iroquois, though living at different times in various localities in this State, retained their central habitations in or near the localities where the whites first found them. Of the Iroquois, who subsisted mainly by the chase, the Senecas, who occupied the most fertile portion of the State, brought agriculture to the highest degree of perfection, and had the best houses. When General Sullivan passed through their country with his army in the fall of 1779, thousands of acres had been cleared, old orchards of apples, pears, peaches and other fruits existed, and evidences of long cultivation abounded. 2

Their dwellings differed in shape and size, and, though rude, were generally built with considerable labor and care. 3 They are generally about thirty feet square and of the same height. 4 The sides were formed of hickory saplings set in two parallel rows and bent inward, thus forming an arch. Transverse poles were bound to the uprights and over the arch. The whole was covered with bark, overlapping like shingles, and held in place by smaller poles fastened to the frame with cords of linden bark. An open space about a foot wide extended the whole length of the ridge and served the double purpose of window and chimney. At each end was an enclosed space, for the storage of supplies of Indian corn, dried flesh, fish, etc., which were kept in bark vessels. Along each side were wide scaffolds, some four feet from the floor, which, when covered with skins, formed the summer sleeping places, while beneath was stored their firewood gathered and kept dry for use. In some cases these platforms were in sections of twelve to fourteen feet, with spaces for storage between them. Five or six feet above was another platform, often occupied by children. Overhead poles were suspended for various uses, to make and dry their fish and flesh, and hold their weapons, skins, clothing, corn, etc. In cold weather the inmates slept on the floor, huddled about the fires, which ranged through the center of the house. In their larger structures the sides usually consisted of rows of upright posts, and the roof, still arched, formed of separate poles. The door consisted of a sheet of bark hung on wooden hinges, or suspended by cords from above. Generally they were lined with a thick coating of soot, by the large fires maintained for warmth and for cooking. So pungent was the smoke, that it produced inflammation of the eyes, attended in old age with frequent blindness. Their wolfish dogs were as regular occupants as the unbridled and unruly children. The Iroquois preserved this mode of building in all essential particulars till a recent period, and it was common and peculiar to all tribes of their lineage.

Says Parkman, to whom and to the Colonial Documents we are indebted for the foregoing description:–

“He who entered on a winter night beheld a strange spectacle: The vista of fires lighting the smoky concave; the bronzed groups encircling each, cooking, eating, gambling, or amusing themselves with idle badinage; shrivelled squaws, hideous with three-score years of hardship; grisly old warriors, scarred with Iroquois war-clubs; young aspirants, whose honors were yet to be won; damsels gay with ochre and wampum; restless children, pell-mell with restless dogs. Now a tongue of resinous flame painted each wild feature in vivid light; now the fitful gleam expired, and the group vanished from sight, as their nation has vanished from history.” 5

History, Iroquois,

Smith, James H. History of Chenango and Madison Counties, New York. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co. 1880.

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  1. Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  2. General Sullivan reported that in 1779 “the Indian town of Genesee contained one hundred and twenty-eight houses, mostly large and elegant. It was beautifully situated, encircled by a clear flat extending a number of miles, over which fields of corn were waving, together with every kind of vegetable that could be conceived of.” Similar towns were also found at other points on his march. The whole valley presented the appearance of having been cultivated with care for generations.[]
  3. Col. Wm. L. Stone, in his Life of Joseph Brant, says, “they had several towns and many large villages laid out with considerable regularity. They had framed houses, some of them well finished, having chimneys and painted; they had broad and productive fields.”[]
  4. Schoolcraft thus describes the lodge, which, he says, was in general use by the tribes north of latitude 42 deg., the south line of New York State:– “It is made of thin poles, such as a child can lift, set in the ground in a circle, bent over and tied at the top, and sheathed with long sheets of white birch bark. A rim of cedar wood at the bottom, assimilates these white birch sheets to the roller of a map, to which in stormy weather a stone is attached to hold it firm. This stick has also the precise use of a map roller, for when the lodge is to be removed, the bark is rolled on it, and in this shape carried to the canoe, to be set up elsewhere. The circle of sticks, or frame, is always left standing, as it would be useless to encumber the canoe with what can easily be had in any position in a forest country. * * * It is, in its figure, a half globe, and by its lightness and wicker-like structure, may be said to resemble an inverted bird’s nest. The whole amount of the transportable materials of it is often comprehended in some half a dozen good rolls of bark, and as many of rush mats, which the merest girl can easily lift. The mats, which are the substitute for floor cloths, and also the under stratum of the sleeping couch, are made out of common lacustris or bulrush, or the flag, cut at the proper season, and woven in a warp of fine hemp net thread, such as is furnished by traders in the present state of the Indian trade. A portion of this soft vegetable woof is dyed, and woven in various colors.”–The Indian in his Wigwam, or Characteristics of the Red Race of America, 1848.[]
  5. Many were much larger, and a few were of prodigious length. In some of the villages there were dwellings 240 feet long, though in breadth and height they did not much exceed the others.–Brebeauf, Relation des Hurons, 163??, 31. Champlain says he saw them, in 1615, more than thirty fathoms long; while Van der Donck reports the length, from actual measurement, of an Iroquois house, at 180 yards. These were occupied by numerous families, with little or no regard for privacy.–Parkman’s Jesuits.[]

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