Letter from L. T. Morgan, Esq., to H, R. Schoolcraft

Letter from L. T. Morgan, Esq., to H, R. Schoolcraft.

October 7, 1845.


You have doubtless seen a notice of the great council of the Six Nations, recently held at Tonawanda. We call it great, because we never saw any thing of the kind before, and perhaps never will again. Three of us started in season, and spent the whole of last week in attendance, and were also joined by Mr. Hurd, a delegate from Cayuga. We were there before the council opened, and left after the fire was raked up. Our budget of information is large, and overthrows some of our past knowledge, and on the whole, enlarges our ideas of the vastness and complexity of this Indian fabric. We are a great way from the bottom yet; we may never reach it, but what we do bring up to the surface, remunerates richly for the search.

We learn that at the establishment of the confederacy, fifty sachem-ships were founded, and a name assigned to each, which they are still known by, and which names every sachem of the several sachemdom, from the beginning to the present time, has borne. There were also fifty sub-sacheins, or aids; that is, to every sachem was given a sub-sachem to stand behind him in a word, to do his bidding. These sachemships are still confined to the five nations; the Tuscaroras were never permitted to have any. They are unequally divided among the five nations, the Onondagas having as many as fourteen. The eight original tribes or families still hold to be correct, as we had it, but each tribe did not have a sachem. In some of the tribes were two or three, in others none. As the English would say the Howard family had a peerage in it, so would the Indians say that a certain tribe or clan had one or two or no sachemships running in it. The idea seems to be that the sachem did not preside over a tribe, as that would leave some tribes destitute; but the nine Oneida sachems, for instance, ruled the Oneida nation conjointly, and when the nations met in council, would represent it. The fifty sachems were the only official characters known at the councils of the con federacy. The sub-sachems and chiefs had nothing to say. And unanimity, as in the Polish diet, was always necessary. Over this council, the Tha-do-da-hoh, or great sachem of the confederacy, pre sided. He was always taken from the Onondagas, as we heretofore supposed; but what is very important, it is denied that there was any such officer as a Tokarihogea, or military chieftain over the confederacy. They recognize no such office, and deny that Brant was any thing but a chief, or an officer of the third and lowest class. I sifted this matter thoroughly, in conversations with Blacksmith, La Fort, Capt. Frost, and Dr. Wilson, a Cayuga, and am satisfied that the Tha-do-da-hoh 1 was the chief ruler of the Iroquois, and that they had no other. We fell into this error by following Stone, who in the Life of Brant, pretends to establish in him the title of war chieftain or Tokarihogea of the confederacy In relation to the head warriors or military leaders of the nations, there is still some obscurity. The Seneca nation has two, but the other nations none. The truth is, the learning, if we may so call it, of the Iroquois is in the hands of a few, and it is very difficult to reach it, as those who are the most learned are the most inveterate Indians, and the least communicative.

Their laws of descent are quite intricate. They follow the female line, and as the children always follow the tribe of the mother, and the man never is allowed to marry in his own tribe, it follows that the father and son are never of the same tribe, and hence the son can never succeed the father, because the sachemship runs in the tribe of the father. It really is quite surprising to find such permanent original institutions among the Iroquois, and still more surprising that these institutions have never seen the light. If I can construct a table of descents with any approach to accuracy, I will send it down to the Historical Society. The idea at the foundation of their law of descent, is quite a comment upon human nature. The child must be the son of the mother, though he may not be of his mother’s husband quite and absolutely an original code.

The object of this council was to “raise up sachems” in the place of those who had died. It would require more room than twenty letters would furnish to explain what we saw and heard the mode of election and deposition the lament for the dead the wampum the two sides of the council fire, &c. &c., and the other ceremonies connected with raising up sachems; also the dances, the preaching, the feast.

We were well received by the Indians, and they seemed disposed to give us whatever information we desired on the religious system of the Iroquois, their marriage and burial rites, &c. Faithfully,

L. T. MORGAN.Citations:

  1. This is a Seneca pronunciation of the name written Atotarho, by Cusick, and Tatotarho, by another and older authority. For a figure of this noted primary ruler, as it is given in Iroquois picture writing, see page 132. H. R. S.[]

Iroquois, Letter,

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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