Moral and Social Condition of the Iroquois People

The gospel was preached to the Iroquois as well as to the several tribes of Algonquin origin, who lined the banks of the Hudson and the Delaware, early in the 17th century. The Reformed Church of Holland does not appear to have underrated its duties in this respect, while the Holland States, under a hereditary President or Stadtholder, were extending their civil jurisdiction and commercial enterprise on this continent, notwithstanding the want of any direct evidence, that the conversion of the Indians constituted a fixed part of the policy of the servants and governors of the West India Company, to whose lot it fell to introduce the arts and commerce of the mother country. It was the common impression of those times, not only in Holland, the center of theological discussion, but in the reformed churches generally, that civilization and the arts must precede the introduction of Christianity among barbarous and idolatrous nations, and it was under such views, that the gospel was first carried to India and to Iceland by the pious zeal of the German reformers.

The impulse which had been imparted to the subject through the zeal and devotion of Xavier and Loyola, and the energetic spirit of making proselytes and converts, which characterized the particular order of the Romish church, which they founded, impressed the rulers of Spain, France and Portugal, with a deep sense of the importance of carrying the gospel to the aborigines of the countries which they discovered. Hence it was put forth, and really became one of the cardinal points of attention in their early at tempts to found new colonies. And while the governors and servants of these countries did not prosecute the objects of trade and politics with less determination and success, nay, with a more unscrupulous disregard of the means, as the history of South America alone testifies, they carried missionaries in every early enterprise, and set forth to the world, the conversion of the native inhabitants as the great object of their aim, as it was indeed often the shield and cover to the reckless avarice and ambition of the Cortezes and the Pizarros who carried their flags.

It was not consonant to the genius of Christianity, as interpreted by Luther and his successors, to proceed in the work of spiritual con quest with so noisy and gorgeous a display, or with hand locked arm in arm with the State; and if the States of Holland did not put forth the object, in their first charters and commissions to the new world, it was, perhaps, because the Church was actuated in, and was guided by, the general policy of the Protestant European churches. England and Sweden, who planted colonies here, did the same.

It was not, indeed, until the new impulse which arose in the middle of the 17th century, and which brought Oliver Cromwell to the English throne, that different views and a deeper obligation of national duties in this respect began to prevail. And hence, when the English pilgrims, who had been sheltered awhile in the tolerant domains of Holland, set their faces towards the New World, it was with a pre-determination not only to carry out the principles of the gospel, in their own settlements, but to extend its benign influences among the aborigines. This was averred, and the well known prominency of the fact stamps the efforts to convert and civilize the North American Indians, with a moral force and grandeur, which cannot be claimed for England, in her royal capacity as administrator of patents and honors here, or for any other protestant king or potentate, who sent her poor, bold or enterprising children to the American wilds.

This much can be said, without disparagement to the piety of the Netherland church, which had her pastors and teachers at Manhattan, Fort Orange, and various other incipient points of her settlements at an early day. Whatever had been her policy, (and we have paid but little attention to this,) in sending teachers among the Mohegans, the Maquaas and other tribes who resorted to her forts and factories at Albany, and other points of early contact with these simple and warlike men; the English, after the conquest of 1664, appear to have followed in her footsteps, and pursued the same general, gradual and persuasive means, attaching high and deserved value at all points to the influence of European arts and the value of fixed industry.

Churches were founded at an early day, among the Mohawks at Caghnawaga, and at Dionderoga at the mouth of Schoharie Creek, better known as Fort Hunter, the latter of which received a present of a set of plate for the communion service, from Queen Ann.

Unfortunately for the conversion and civilization of the Indians, they had not a fixed population they drew their supplies mainly from the chase, gave up a large portion of their time and means to war, and besides moving periodically, at least twice a year, from or to their hunting and planting grounds, they were in a general progress of recession before a civilized population. They shrank before the determined spirit of progress of civilized arts and industry, which elicited resources where the Indian had seen none, and made an industrious use of every acre of tillable ground. But while the silent influence of this progress did much to teach him, by denoting the use of tools and implements of art and agriculture, to improve him in his domicile and its fixtures, and his costume, and to harmonize and fix his mental habits and character, he was not proof against the leading temptation of the times, namely, the free and inordinate use of ardent spirits. From the partial paroxysms of this pernicious indulgence, he rose with less energy to pursue the chase, or follow the warpath. The policy of land sales, the distribution of presents as boons from the crown, and the distribution of small sums of coin to the heads of families in the shape of annuities. A system founded in all but the last feature, under James VI, and confirmed under the old confederation, stepped in, as it were, to aid and reinforce him in his means of living, but which in effect, held him away from his hunting grounds, paralyzed his home industry, and supplied him new means of indulging his propensities for liquor and luxuries. That the gospel should not have made a very marked progress under these circumstances is not surprising.

Some years before the breaking out of the American Revolution, Mr. Kirkland planted the gospel standard among the Oneidas, at a time when the broad and sylvan fields and glades of Kun-a-wa-loa, or Oneida Castle, were still beyond the pale of European civilization. 1

And he is to be regarded as the apostle to the Iroquois. For many years, in perils and dangers, he preached the gospel to the Oneidas, at their once celebrated castle; and by the purity, firmness and excellence of his character, won the confidence and the heart of their leading sachem. Skenandoah, gave his attention to this new scheme of acceptance with his Maker, admitted it, and became a consistent professor and practitioner of its precepts, and of him, it can be confidently said, that he lived and died in the faith. To gain the influence of the most powerful man in the canton was to gain the whole canton; and when the war broke out, the tribe, wavering, as it did for a time, and assailed with all the arts of British intrigue and promise, so profusely put forth, adhered to the colonies. Kirkland, in the inception and progress of these movements, became the principal agent in disseminating the doctrines of peace and neutrality among the six cantons. Washington and the continental congress reposed the highest trust in his virtue, judgment, and intelligence. He took from the lips of the father of his country, words of peace and good counsel, which coincided admirably, with the precepts of the gospel. He traversed the then wilderness of Genesee and Niagara on this mission, and has left enduring monuments of his faithfulness and zeal.

But the spirit of war prevailed that spirit which the great body this people had so long served, under the guidance of their native priesthood. All but the Oneidas, some few of the Tuscaroras, who were then settled in their western precincts, and some one or two individuals, from St. Regis, joined the ranks of the mother country, under their bold and politic leader Brant. Seven years of battles, expeditions, ambushes, and murders, terminated not only in their political overthrow as a confederacy, but plunged many of them who had before listened to the voice of Christianity, back into the arms of their native priests and forest habits. The Mohawks, part of the Cayugas, and some Onondagas and Tuscaroras, fled the country, and settled chiefly in Canada. The Oneidas, the body of the Onondagas and Senecas, and some parts of the Cayugas and Tuscaroras, remained. But they had fought for a phantom. All the rich promises of glory and conquest, emanating from Johnson Hall and Fort Niagara, and the Canadas had failed; and their delegates came to the treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784, poor, crest fallen, and defeated. And by their first public act, after the drama of the revolution, they put their hands to a treaty, ceding away the larger portion of their ancient domain.

Thus they were thrown back an immeasurable distance in the work of civilization and Christianity, and the effort to introduce the gospel was to be commenced almost anew.

Time will not permit any notice in detail, of this second period in their history. Kirkland, true to his original purpose, continued his ministry and useful labors, and died in the Oneida country. The venerable Skenandoah followed him at some few years later, and re quested to be buried by his side. New missions were projected and carried into effect, at distinct times, among the remaining cantons. A review of these, it is impossible to make within the period allotted to this report; and besides, were the time ample, the data furnished to me are not in all respects complete, and in some cases wholly deficient. Communications have been received from the Rev. Gilbert Rockwood and Rev. James Cusick of Tuscarora; from the Rev. Asher Bliss at Cattaraugus, and from Rev. William Hall at Alleghany, which are printed in the appendix, and are referred to as giving the latest and most authentic information on the progress of Christianity, letters, and morals among these respective tribes. So far as relates to the progress of this people in agriculture and the arts, the results of the census, hereto prefixed, although it denotes striking depopulation, afford the most definite, and at the same time, most favorable view of the remains of these cantons, which has, perhaps, ever been presented, of a whole Indian nation in America. The reluctance, which was felt in some quarters, has rendered it less complete than it might have been made. Still, with every proper abatement and qualification, applicable to the reservations as departmental bodies, and to the whole as a mass, there are strong encouragements to the friends of Christianity to persevere. The seeds of industry are well sown; letters have been generally introduced, and, in some instances, they have produced men of talents and intelligence, who have taken an honorable part in the professional and practical duties of life. Very gratifying evidences exist of the adoption, on a large scale, of the improved arts and conveniences of polished life. In manners, costume and address, the Iroquois people offer a high example of the capacities and ready adoptive habits of the race. It only needs a reference to the statistical tables mentioned, to show that they are not behindhand in implements of husbandry, vehicles, work cattle, horses and the general features of their agriculture. They are abundantly able to raise sufficient for their own consumption, and some of the communities have a surplus which is added to the productive resources of the State. From those who have done so well, and who have shown such unequivocal capacities for improvement, we may expect more. From the tree, which has produced blossoms, we may expect fruit; and from the bearing tree which has produced good fruit, we may expect more fruit. Under all circumstances, we may regard the problem of their reclamation as fixed and certain. They have themselves solved it. And whatever an enlightened people and legislature should do to favor them, ought not to be omitted. Churches and societies, who have granted their peculiar aids, should continue those aids; and the heart of the philanthropist and the statesman has cause to rejoice, that after all their wars and wanderings, mistakes and besetments, the Iroquois, made wise by experience, are destined To Live. The results of the census, herewith submitted, demonstrate this. The time is indeed propitious for putting the inquiry, whether the Iroquois are not worthy to be received, under the new Constitution, as Citizens Of The State.Citations:

  1. Herkimer, the nearest point east, was about 40 miles distant.[]


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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