Taounyawatha – Deity of the Forest

This was a part of the broad domain of the Iroquois 1 Confederacy,   which extended, in general terms, from the Hudson to the Genesee, and from the north to the south boundary of this State. This confederacy was composed of the following nations, located in the following order from east to west, the Mohawk, (Ganeagaonos,) 2 Its origin is buried in the obscurity of vague tradition and was unknown to civilized nations in 1750. 3 on the river which bears their name, the Oneida, (Onayotekaonos) Onondaga, (Onundagaonos) Cayugas, (Gwengwehonos) and Seneca, (Nundawaonos) mostly adjacent to the lakes which bear their names. The traditions of the Iroquois ascribe it, as well as the origin of the individual nations, to a supernatural source. They, like the Athenians, sprung from the earth itself. “In remote ages they had been confined under a mountain near the falls of the Oshwah-kee, or Oswego river, whence they were released by Tharonhyjagon, the Holder of the Heavens,” 4 Schoolcraft inclines to the opinion that the Confederation is to be referred to a comparatively recent date, early in the fifteenth century; Mr. Webster, the Indian interpreter, a good authority, about two generations before the white people came to trade with the Indians; Pyrlaus, a missionary among the Mohawks, “one age, or the length of a man’s life, before the white people came into the country;” while Clark, ‘from the permanency of their institutions, the peculiar structure of their government, the intricacy of their civil affairs, the stability of their religious beliefs and the uniformity of their pagan ceremonies, differing from other Indian nations in important particulars,” thinks it must have had a longer duration.

Long ago, says the Iroquois tradition, Taounyawatha, the deity who presides over the forests and streams, came down from his abode in the clouds to make free the former to all, to remove the obstructions from the latter, and to bestow good gifts upon the people. In the locality of Oswego he disclosed to two hunters of the Onondaga nation whom he there met, the object of his mission, and prevailed on them to accompany him up the river and over the lesser lakes,–while he made ample provision for the sustenance of men, and taught them how to cultivate the soil and live happy, united and prosperous. Having accomplished this beneficent mission he divested himself of his divine character and took up his abode among men, assuming their habits and character. He chose for his habitation a beautiful spot on the shore of Teonto (Cross) Lake, 5 where he built a cabin and took a wife of the Onondagas, by whom he had an only and beautiful daughter, whom he tenderly loved. His excellence of character, great sagacity and wise counsels won for him a profound regard, and by universal consent he was named Hiawatha, signifying very wise man. His advice upon matters both grave and trivial was eagerly sought and he was regarded as possessing transcendent powers of mind and consummate wisdom. Under his direction the Onondagas early gained a pre-eminent distinction as the wisest counselors, the most eloquent orators and expert hunters, and the bravest warriors.

While Hiawatha was thus living quietly among the “people of the hills,” the tribes were attacked by a ferocious and powerful enemy from the north of the great lakes, who invaded the country, laid waste their villages, and slaughtered indiscriminately men, women and children. While a bold resistance could not intensify the ferocity of the enemy, neither did supine submission ensure palliation; utter destruction seemed inevitable. In their extremity they looked to Hiawatha, who, after thoughtful contemplation, advised a grand council of all the tribes that could be gathered, “for,” said he, “our safety is not alone in the club and dart, but in wise counsels.” 6

This council is supposed to have been held on the east bank of Onondaga (Ohnentaha) Lake, on the high ground where the village of Liverpool now stands. There was a vast assembly of chiefs, warriors, men, women and children, and although the council fire had been burning three days they still awaited the presence of Hiawatha. Messengers were dispatched and found him troubled with melancholy forebodings of ill-fortune. He had resolved not to attend the council by reason of this distress of mind, but he yielded to their importunities and set out with his daughter to join the waiting throng. The white canoe in which the venerable Hiawatha made his journeys by water, and which was regarded by his people with almost as much veneration as himself, glided silently down the deep waters of the Seneca, through the narrow outlet and into the placid Onondaga, and as it appeared to view, the assembled multitude welcomed their chief with a gladdening shout. As he ascended the steep bank and approached with measured tread the council ground, a loud sound was heard like a rushing, mighty wind. Instantly all eyes were turned upward and beheld a mass of cloudy darkness rapidly descending into their midst, and increasing in size and velocity as it approached. All sought safety in flight save Hiawatha and his lovely daughter, who calmly awaited the impending calamity, the former having uncovered his silvered head. With a mighty swoop a huge bird, with long distended wings, descended and crushed the cherished girl to the earth, destroying in her remains the very semblance of a human being, and perishing itself in the collision.

The dismayed warriors cautiously returned to view the dismal scene. The bird was covered with a beautiful plumage of snowy white, and each warrior plucked there from a plume to adorn his crown. From this incident the Iroquois braves forever after made use of the plumes of the white heron, as their most appropriate martial decoration.

Hiawatha was disconsolate. He prostrated himself with his face upon the ground and gave himself up to the most poignant grief for three days and nights, refusing to be consoled. His grief was shared by the whole assembly, who sincerely mourned his great and sudden bereavement.Citations:

  1. Iroquois was the French name for the five confederated nations of Indians residing mostly within this State. By the Dutch they were called “Maquas.” They denominated themselves “Mingoes,” meaning United People – Clark’s Onondaga. Their true name is “Hodenosaunee” or “People of the Long House,” because the five nations were ranged in a long line through Central New York, and likened to one of their long bark houses. Parkman’s Jesuits. Ruttenber says they bore the title of “Aquinosbione,” or “Konosbioni,” having the same meaning.[]
  2. The Iroquois termination in one, means people.–Parkman’s Jesuits.[]
  3. Coldens Five Nations.[]
  4. Indian Tribes of Hudson’s River.–Ruttenber.[]
  5. Ruttenber.–According to Clark the name of the lake is Teunugktoo, the discrepancy probably arising from a difference in tribal dialects.[]
  6. Ruttenber.–Clark puts this language into the Chieftain’s mouth, “our safety is in good counsel, and speedy, energetic action;” and Clayton, the following: “Become a united people and you will conquer your enemies.”[]

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

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