Downfall of the Iroquois Confederacy

“The Pawnees, following the buffalo in his migrations, and having always plenty of animal food to subsist upon, are a much better fed and a larger race than those who find a precarious subsistence in the forest chase, while the woodland tribes, who, though not so plump in form, are of a more wiry and, perhaps, muscular make, have again a decided advantage in figure and gait over the fishing and trapping tribes of the North-west that pass most of their time in canoes. This difference in character and physical appearance between the different Indian [tribes], or rather between those which have such different methods of gaining a livelihood, has not been sufficiently attended to by modern authors, though it did not escape the early French writers on this country. And yet, if habit have any effect in forming the character and temper of a rude people, it must of course follow that the savage who lives in eternal sunshine upon flowery plains, and hunts on horseback with a troop of tribesmen around him, must be a different being from the solitary deer-stalker who wanders through the dim forest, depending upon his single arm for subsistence for his wife and children.”

The advent of the European nations to the American continent was the precursor alike of the downfall of the Iroquois Confederacy and the ultimate extinction of the American Indian. This was due, not so much to the organic defects of the confederacy itself, as to causes inherent in the structure and mental incapacity of its authors. Stimulated at first by the attrition of rugged Saxon thought, they were destined ere long to be consumed by it. Though radically intractable, this race possessed in certain external respects a plastic mind; but while they felt and were, in a measure, influenced by this contact with a superior intellect, they lacked the ability to adapt themselves to the conditions essential to its involvement. It intensified their savage nature, rather than eradicated it; for, unhappily for them, they were brought more in contact with its vices than its virtues. It cannot be denied, however, that the efforts of the early missionaries had a softening tendency, and what might have been the result of their labors under more favorable conditions can only be conjectured. But the missionaries themselves give ample evidence of the great difficulty attending their conversion; 1 and it should not be overlooked that the instances which gave unmistakable evidence of genuine conversion were extremely rare. The large liberty allowed by their national compact was an element of great danger with a barbarous people, given, as they were, to the gratification of many of the worst impulses of their nature; for it held little or no restraint over them. The worst phases of our civilization — a polished barbarism rather–were engrafted on their natures, and served as a stimulus to appetites and passions already abnormally developed. 2

Advanced as the Iroquois were beyond most other American tribes, there is no indication whatever of a tendency to overpass the confines of a wild hunter and warrior life. They were inveterately attached to it, impracticable conservatists of barbarism, and in ferocity and cruelty they matched the worst of their race. That they were sagacious is past denying; but it expended itself in a blind frenzy which impelled them to destroy those whom they might have made their allies in a common cause. Their prescience, apparently, could not comprehend the destiny of a people capable of emerging from barbarism into civilization. Their decline may be said to have begun when their conquests were ended. They soon became a hopeless dependency, without the means, if they had the design, which they probably did not, to stop the encroachments of the whites upon their domain. As early as 1753, their dissolution was foreshadowed, though it did not take place till about a quarter of a century later. 3Citations:

  1. “It is necessary first,” says Father Gabriel Marest, Missionary of the Society of Jesus, in 1712, “to transform them into men, and afterwards to labor to make them Christians.” The Early Jesuit Missions of North America.–Right Rev. Wm. Ingraham Kip, D. D., Bishop of California.[]
  2. The struggle for supremacy between the French and English, which involved the American colonies in war, and the subsequent American and English wars, developed traits scarcely less monstrous than those which characterized their Indian allies. Massachusetts first gave twelve, then forty, and finally one hundred pounds for a scalp. In 1745, the Colonial Legislature of New York passed an act offering a reward for scalps; and in 1746, the Governor of the Colony, Admiral George Clinton, not only paid for two scalps of Frenchmen in money and fine clothes, but thanked the three Indians who brought them to Albany, and promised “Always to remember this act of friendship.” American scalps were received and paid for in English money by the officer in command at Malden, in the war of 1812.[]
  3. At a conference with the Six Nations at Onondaga, Sept. 8, 1753, Col. William Johnson, whom the Iroquois called Warraghieyagey, thus addresses them:–

    “Brethren of the Six Nations:–
    “It Grieves me sorely to find the road hither so grown up with weeds, for want of being used, and your Fire almost expiring at Onondaga, where it was agreed by the wisdom of our ancestors that it should never be extinguished. You know it was a saying among them that when the Fire was out here you would be no longer a People. I am now Sent by Your Brother the Governor to clear the Road, and make up the Fire with such wood as will never burn out, and I earnestly desire You would take care to keep it up, so as to be found always the same when he shall send among you. A Belt.

    “Brethren of the Six Nations:–
    “I have now renewed the Fire, swept and cleaned all your Rooms with a new White Wing, and leave it hanging near the Fire place, that you may use it for cleaning all dust, dirt, &ca, which may have been brought in by Strangers, no friends to You, or Us. A String of Wampum.

    “Brethren of the Six Nations:–
    “I am sorry to find on my Arrivall among you that the fine Shady Tree which was planted by your Forefathers for your ease and Shelter should be now leaning, being almost blown down by Northerly Winds. I shall now endeavor to set it upright, that it may flourish as formerly while the roots spread abroad, so that when we sit or stand on them You will not feel them shake, should any storm blow, then should You be ready to secure it. A Belt.

    “Brethren of the Six Nations:–
    “Your Fire now burns clearly at the old place, The Tree of shelter and protection is set up and flourishes; I must now insist upon your quenching that Fire made with Brambles at Swegachey, and recall those to their proper home who have deserted thither; I cannot leave disswading you from going to Canada; the French are a delusive People, always endeavoring to divide you as much as they can, nor will they let slip any opportunity of making advantage of it. * * * A Large Belt.”

    –Doc. Hist., Vol. II, p. 633.[]

History, Iroquois,

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

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