Iroquois Indians and Witchcraft

The belief in witchcraft prevailed extensively among the North American tribes. It is known that even in modern times, it was one of the principal means used by the Shawnee prophet to rid himself of his opponents, and that the venerable Shawnee chief Tarhe and others were sacrificed to this diabolical spirit.

Among the Iroquois the belief was universal, and its effects upon their prosperity and population, if tradition is to be credited, were at times appalling. The theory of the popular belief, as it existed in the several cantons, was this. The witches and wizards constituted a secret association, which met at night to consult on mischief, and each was bound to inviolable secrecy. They say this fraternity first arose among the Nanticokes. A witch or wizard had power to turn into a fox or wolf, and run very swift, emitting flashes of light. They could also transform themselves into a turkey or big owl, and fly very fast. If detected, or hotly pursued, they could change into a stone or rotten log. They sought carefully to procure the poison of snakes or poisonous roots, to effect their purposes. They could blow hairs or worms into a person.

While in Onondaga, James Gould, one of the original settlers on the Military Tract, told me that he had been intimate with Webster, the naturalized Onondaga, who told him many things respecting the ancient laws and customs of this people. Amongst them there was a curious reminiscence on the subject of witchcraft. Webster had heard this from an aged Onondaga, whom he conversed with during a visit which he once made to Canada. This Onondaga said that he had formerly lived near the old church on the Kasonda creek, near Jamesville, where there was in old times a populace Indian village. One evening, he said, whilst he lived there, he stepped out of his lodge, and immediately sank in the earth, and found himself in a large room, surrounded by three hundred witches and wizards. Next morning he went to the council and told the chiefs of this extraordinary occurrence. They asked him whether he could not identify the persons. He said he could. They then accompanied him on a visit to all the lodges, where he pointed out this and that one, who were marked for execution. Before this inquiry was ended, a very large number of persons of both sexes were killed. He said _________* hundred.

Another tradition says that about fifty persons were burned to death at the Onondaga castle for witches.

The delusion prevailed among all the cantons. The last persons executed for witchcraft among the Oneidas, suffered about forty years ago. They were two females. The executioner was the notorious Hon Yost of revolutionary memory. He entered the lodge, according to a prior decree of the Council, and struck them down with a tomahawk. One was found in the lodge; the other suffered near the lodge door.


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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