Monday, 8 August 2016

The Iroquois Confederacy (part 2)

Originally written for and published in Arquebusier, Volume XXXII/II, 2010 – the Journal of the Pike and Shot Society

Perry Miniatures Iroquois on warpath
Politics and Warfare
The Iroquois were in conflict with most of the other north-eastern tribes, particularly the Wabanaki/Ab(e)naki tribes, the Algonkin and the Ojibway/Chippewa tribes, as well as the Mohican bands, which are all Algonquian speaking nations. Another arch-enemy was the Iroquois speaking Huron/Wyandot nation.
The Iroquois aimed to create an empire by incorporating conquered peoples and remoulding them into Iroquois and thus naturalizing them as full citizens of the tribe.

League traditions allowed for the dead to be symbolically replaced through the "Mourning War", raids intended to seize captives to replace lost compatriots and take vengeance on non-members.  This tradition was common to native people of the northeast and was quite different from European settlers' notions of combat.  To quote Charles Mann:
The casus belli was usually the desire to avenge an insult or to gain status, not the wish for conquest.  Most battles consisted of lightning guerrilla raids by ad hoc companies in the forest and attackers slipped away as soon as retribution had been exacted. Losers quickly conceded their loss of status.  Doing otherwise would have been like failing to resign after losing a major piece in a chess tournament – a waste of time and resources.  Women and children were rarely killed, though they were sometimes abducted and forced to join the winning group.  Captured men were often tortured. They were admired, though not necessarily spared, if they endured the pain.  Now and then, as a sign of victory, foes were scalped, much as British skirmishes with the Irish sometimes finished with a parade of Irish heads on pikes.  In especially large clashes, adversaries might meet in the open, as in European battlefields, though the results, as Roger Williams (1603-1683), a Puritan clergyman who founded the colony of Rhode Island, noted “were farre less bloudy and devouring then the cruell Warres of Europe” (Mann, 1491, p.43).
Cadwallader Colden, who was the first colonial representative to the Iroquois Confederacy and several times governor for the Province of New York between 1760 and 1775, wrote in his The History of the Five Indian Nations of 1727 "It has been a constant maxim with the Five Nations, to save children and young men of the people they conquer, to adopt them into their own Nation, and to educate them as their own children, without distinction; These young people soon forget their own country and nation and by this policy the Five Nations make up the losses which their nation suffers by the people they lose in war."
When a person died, everyone who had similar names gave them up until a period of mourning was completed. Later, if another person was adopted into the clan, he was often given the name of the deceased person whose place he took.  Recurring Iroquois raids prompted the French to help their Algonquian Indian allies attack the Iroquois in 1609, opening a new technological era for the people of the Confederacy.  French body armour was made of metal, whereas that of the Iroquois was made of slatted wood. Furthermore, the French fought with firearms, while traditional Iroquois weapons were bows and flint-or bone-tipped arrows, stone tomahawks, and wooden warclubs.

wooden Iroquois warclub, 23 inches, 19th century
The seventeenth century population devastations resulting from the Beaver Wars prompted the Iroquois people to turn increasingly to their traditional practice of adopting outsiders into their tribes to replace members who had died from violence or illness.
While some captives were tortured unmercifully to death, others were adopted into Iroquois families (the leading clanswomen decided prisoners' fates, sometimes basing their decision on the manner in which a relative of theirs had been killed).  The adopted person, who was sometimes the opposite gender or of a significantly different age than the deceased Indian he replaced, was treated with the same affection, given the same rights, and expected to fulfil the same duties as his predecessor.
As a result, by 1668, two-thirds of the Oneida village consisted of assimilated Algonquians and Hurons.  At Onondaga there were Native Americans of seven different nations and among the Seneca eleven.  The adoptions gave the Iroquois a claim to the lands of their former enemies beyond mere "right of conquest."  Mass adoption, however, was not extended to non-Iroquoian speaking tribes.
In response to European influence, the Iroquois gradually changed their military tactics to incorporate stealth, surprise, and ambush.  Their motives for fighting also changed. In the past, they had fought for prestige or revenge, or to obtain goods or captives.  Now they fought for economic advantage, seeking control over bountiful beaver hunting grounds or perhaps a stash of beaver skins to trade for European goods.
The Iroquois improved on their stealth attack techniques as they continued to attack even farther from their home.  They would man a large fleet of canoes and speed down river in the darkness, sink their canoes and hold them to the bottom with rock to conceal them and proceed into the woods around their target.  At the appointed time they would burst from the wood in all directions to cause the greatest panic among their enemy.  They could then return quickly to their boats and return from where they came before any significant resistance could be put together.

Iroquois village, New York State Museum
The Beaver Wars – a.k.a. the French and Indian Wars
The Indians traded beaver and other animal hides to European traders against muskets, iron tools, blankets, and colourful glass beads, among other items.  By 1650 the Iroquois hunters and trappers had killed off most of the fur-bearing animals in their homeland.  To satisfy their desire for more European trade items, the Iroquois turned toward the rich hunting grounds of their neighbours in the Ohio Country and decided to make a move on the Huron trade monopoly.  The wars were extremely brutal and are considered one of the bloodiest series of conflicts in the history of North America.
Already before 1603, Samuel de Champlain, governor of Québec and New France, had formed an offensive alliance against the Iroquois.  Its rationale was commercial: the Canadian Indians were the French source of pelts and the Iroquois interfered with that trade.  The first encounter was a battle in 1609 fought on Champlain's initiative.
In 1610 the Dutch established a trading post on the edge of Iroquois territory giving them direct access to European markets and removing their need for reliance on the French and the tribes who functioned as middlemen in the trading of goods.  The new post offered valuable tools that the Iroquois could receive in exchange for animal pelts.  This triggered the Iroquois' large scale hunting for furs and started the conflict between the Iroquois and the Indians who were supported by the French.
In 1628 the Mohawk had defeated the Mahican and had established a monopoly of trade with the Dutch at Fort Orange, New Netherlands.  The Iroquois, and in particular the Mohawk, came to rely on the trade for the purchase of firearms and other European goods for their livelihood and survival.  By the 1630s, the Iroquois had become fully armed with European weaponry through their trade with the Dutch, and they began to use their growing expertise with the arquebus to good effect in their continuous wars with the Algonkin, Huron, and other traditional enemies.  The French, meanwhile, had outlawed the trading of firearms to their native allies, though arquebuses were occasionally given as gifts to individuals who converted to Christianity.
Although the initial focus of the Iroquois attacks were their traditional enemies (the Algonkin, Mahican, Montagnais and Huron), the alliance of these tribes with the French quickly brought the Iroquois into fierce and bloody conflict with the European colonists themselves.  The introduction of firearms, however, had accelerated the decline of the beaver population to such an extent that by 1640 the animal had largely disappeared from the Hudson Valley.  Some historians argue that the wars were accelerated by the growing scarcity of the beaver in the lands controlled by the Iroquois in the middle of the 17th century.  The centre of the fur trade thus shifted northward to the colder regions of present day southern Ontario, which was controlled amongst others by the Neutrals, as well as by the Huron, who were the close trading partners of the French in New France.  The Iroquois found themselves displaced in the fur trade by other nations in the region.  Threatened by disease and with a declining population, the Iroquois began an aggressive campaign to expand their area of control.

Approximate location of major tribes and settlements (Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire)
The Wenro were attacked in 1638 and all of their territory taken by the Iroquois.  The remnants of their tribe fled to the Huron for refuge.  The Wenro had served as a buffer between the Iroquois and the Neutral tribe and their Erie allies.  The two latter tribes were considerably larger and more powerful than the Iroquois, making further expansion to the west impossible at that time, so the Iroquois turned their attention to the north
In 1641, the Mohawks travelled to Trois Rivières in New France to propose peace with the French and their allied tribes and requested that the French set up a trading post in Iroquoia. The French granted them trading rights in New France.  The next summer a fleet of eighty canoes carrying a large harvest of furs travelled through Iroquois territory to be sold in New France.  Upon arriving, the French refused to purchase the furs and instead told the Iroquois they must sell them to the French allies, the Huron, who would act as a middleman.  The Iroquois were outraged being forced to deal with their traditional foes and the war resumed.
The French were disturbed by the return to warfare and decided to become directly involved in the conflict.
The Huron and the Iroquois had similar access to manpower, each tribe having and estimated 25,000–30,000 members.  To gain the upper hand the Huron and the Susquehannock formed an alliance to counter the Iroquois aggression in 1647.  The new combination had the Iroquois greatly outnumbered.  The Huron tried to break the Iroquois Confederacy by negotiating separate peace treaties with the Onondaga and the Cayuga, but the other Iroquois tribes intercepted their messengers, putting an end to the negotiations.  The summer of 1647 saw several small skirmishes between the tribes.  In 1648 a more significant battle occurred when Algonquian tribes attempted to pass a fur convoy through an Iroquois blockade.  Their attempt succeeded and the Iroquois suffered high casualties.  The Iroquois used the immediate years that followed to strengthen their Confederacy to work more closely together and put together an effective central leadership.  In doing so they achieved a level of government more advanced than the surrounding tribes' more decentralized forms of control.  Although raids were by no means constant, when they occurred they were terrifying to the inhabitants of New France, and the colonists initially felt helpless to prevent them.  The French refused to make peace with the Iroquois, as they came increasingly to see them as pawns of the Dutch and English.

Defeat of the Huron
In 1648, the Dutch authorized the direct sale of guns to the Mohawks rather than through traders, after which four hundred guns were promptly sold.  Using the new arms the Iroquois sent one thousand warriors secretly through the woods to the Huron territory.  Once winter came, the warriors came together and launched a devastating attack into the heart of Huron territory, destroying several key villages killing and assimilating thousands.  Following these attacks, the remaining Huron fled their territory to seek assistance from the Anishinaabeg Confederacy in the northern Great Lakes, leaving the Odaawaa (Ottawa) who were able to at least temporarily halt Iroquois expansion further north-west.  With the Huron dealt with, there was no longer any native tribe between the Iroquois and the French settlements in Canada, and the Iroquois now controlled a region rich of furs.
European diseases had taken their toll on the Iroquois and their neighbours in the years preceding the war, and their populations had drastically declined. To remedy the problem, and to replace lost warriors, the Iroquois worked to integrate many of their captured enemy into their own tribes.  They worked diligently to keep their captured enemies happy, including inviting Jesuits into their territory to teach those who had converted to Christianity.  One priest recorded, "As far as I can divine, It is the design of the Iroquois to capture all the Huron...put the Chiefs to death...and with the rest to form one nation and country."  The Jesuits made quick work among the Iroquois, and many converted to Catholicism, their role would play an important part in the years to come. 

Interior of a longhouse
Defeat of the Erie and the Neutrals
Using a strategy of stealth attacks similar to those that had such success against the Huron, the Iroquois launched an attack on the Neutrals in 1650 and by the end of 1651 they had completely driven the tribe out of their territory.  At the time, the Neutrals inhabited a territory on the present day Niagara Peninsula.  In 1654 a similar attack was launched against the Erie, but with less success.  The war between the Erie and the Iroquois lasted for two years, but by the 1656 the Iroquois had almost completely destroyed the Erie who refused to flee to the west.  The Erie territory was located on the south-eastern shore of Lake Erie and was estimated to have 12,000 members in 1650.  The Iroquois were greatly outnumbered by the tribes they had subdued and it was only through the firearms they had been able to purchase from the Dutch that they had been able to so easily overcome their neighbours.

Defeat of the Susquehannock
With the tribes to the north and west destroyed, the Iroquois turned their attention southward to the Susquehannock.  The year 1660 marked the zenith of Iroquois military power, and they were able to use that to their advantage in the decades to follow.  The Susquehannock had become allied with the English in the Maryland colony in 1661.  The English had grown fearful of the Iroquois and hoped an alliance with Susquehannock would help block their advance on the English colonies.  In 1663 the Iroquois sent an army of eight hundred warriors into the Susquehannock territory.  This was easily repulsed, but the aggression caused Maryland to declare war on the Iroquois.  The English supplied artillery for Susquehannock forts, making it impossible for the Iroquois to triumph by superior arms.  The Susquehannock easily took the upper hand and began a series of incursions into the Iroquois territory causing significant damage.  This continued until 1674 when the English changed their Indian Policy, negotiated peace with the Iroquois, and terminated their alliance with the Susquehannock.  In 1675 the militias of Virginia and Maryland captured and executed the chiefs of the Susquehannock whose growing power they had come to fear.  The Iroquois drove the rest of the nation out of their territory. 

French counterattack
The Iroquois continued to control the countryside of New France, raiding right up to the edge of the walled settlements of Quebec and Montreal.  They also led several raids in 1661 and 1662 against the Abenaki who were allied with the French. This danger in the heart of New France was a major factor for the French Crown to order a change in the governance of Canada.  A small military force was put together to counter the Iroquois raids made up of Frenchmen, Huron, and Algonkin.
The tide of war in New France began to turn in the mid 1660s with the arrival of a small contingent of regular troops from France proper.  The administration of New France changed in that period and so did their policy toward their Indian allies, mainly through the direct sale of arms and other forms of direct military support.   In 1664, the Dutch allies of the Iroquois lost control of the New Netherlands colony to the English in the south.  The Iroquois' European support waned in the immediate years after the Dutch defeat.
Once peace was established with the French, the Iroquois returned to their westward conquest in their continued attempt to take control of all the land between the Algonkin and the French. As a result, eastern nations such as the Lakota were pushed across the Mississippi onto the Great Plains, adopting the nomadic lifestyle for which they later became well known.  Other refugees flooded the Great Lakes area, resulting in a conflict with existing nations in the region.  In the Ohio Country the Shawnee and Miami were the dominant tribes.  The Iroquois quickly overran Shawnee holdings in central Ohio forcing them to flee into Miami territory.
Without firearms the Algonquian tribes were at a severe disadvantage and despite their larger numbers, they were unable to withstand the Iroquois.  Several tribes ultimately fled west beyond the Mississippi River, leaving much of Indiana, Ohio, southern Michigan, and southern Ontario depopulated.
In the 1670s the French began to explore Ohio and Illinois.  There they discovered that the Algonquian tribes of that region were locked in warfare with the Iroquois.  The French established the post of Tassinong to trade with these tribes, but it was destroyed by the Iroquois who insisted on controlling trade with the Europeans.  In 1681 France lifted the ban on the sale of firearms to natives, thus evening the odds between the Iroquois and their enemies.
Map of the French and Indian wars 1754-63
As the English began to move into the former Dutch territory they began to form close ties with the Iroquois and sought to use them in much the same way the Dutch had, as a buffer and force to hinder the French colonial expansion.  By 1677, the Iroquois formed an alliance with the English through an agreement known as the Covenant Chain.  This treaty was negotiated between New York’s governor Sir Edmund Andros on behalf of the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland on the one hand, and the Iroquois, who spoke on behalf of the other tribes involved (Delaware/Lenni Lenape, and the Susquehannock) on the other.  It lasted until the 1750 and was renewed in 1755 between the Iroquois and Sir William Johnson, who was the founder of Johnstown, New York and the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1755 to 1774.  Johnson was a Major General in the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), the North-American pendant of the Seven Years’ War in Europe, which started 2 years later.  The alliance battled the French to a standstill.

Great Peace of Montreal
Finally in 1698, the Iroquois began to see the English as a greater threat than the French.  The English had begun colonizing Pennsylvania in 1681.  The continued colonial growth there began to encroach on the southern border of the Iroquois territory.  At the same time, the French policy began to change towards the Iroquois.  After nearly 50 years of warfare the awareness developed that it would be impossible to ever destroy them.  Therefore, the French decided that befriending the Iroquois would be the easiest way to ensure their monopoly on the northern fur trade and help stop English expansion.  As soon as the English heard of the treaty they immediately set about to prevent it from being agreed to.  It would result in the loss of Albany’s monopoly on the fur trade with the Iroquois and without protection of their northern flank the English colonies were open to French attack.  Despite English interference the treaty was agreed to.
The peace treaty, Great Peace of Montreal was signed in 1701 in Montreal by 39 Indian chiefs, the French and the English.  In the treaty, the Iroquois agreed to stop marauding and to allow refugees from the Great Lakes to return east.  The Shawnee eventually regained control of the Ohio Country and the lower Allegheny River.  The Miami tribe returned to take control of modern Indiana and north-west Ohio.  The Pottawatomie returned to Michigan, and the Illinois tribe to Illinois.  With the Dutch long removed from North America, the English had become just as powerful as the French.

The American Revolution; Decline and Fall of the Confederacy
The first half of the eighteenth century was a period of rebuilding. The Iroquois made peace with the French and established themselves in a neutral position between the French and the English.  Four delegates of the Iroquoian Confederacy, the "Indian kings", travelled to London in 1710 to meet Queen Anne in an effort to cement an alliance with the British. Queen Anne was so impressed by her visitors that she commissioned their portraits by court painter John Verelst.  The portraits are believed to be some of the earliest surviving oil portraits of American Indians taken from life.

Four Mohawk kings, painted by John Verelst
This strategy lasted until the French and Indian War erupted in 1754. Though the Confederacy was officially neutral, the Mohawk sided with the English, and the Seneca with the French.  Before long, another conflict arose among the European colonists, and the Iroquois were faced with the American Revolutionary War.  Again, the various tribes failed to agree on which side to support.  Without unanimous agreement on a common position, each nation in the Confederacy was free to pursue its own course.  The Oneida fought on the side of the colonists, eventually earning official commendation from George Washington for their assistance. A major faction of the Mohawk sided with the British and recruited other Iroquois warriors to their cause.  The League as a political entity was severely damaged by the conflict, and the war itself brought death and devastation to the member tribes.  After the war, American retaliatory raids destroyed Iroquois towns and crops, and drove the tribes from their homelands.
At the Treaty of Lancaster with the Iroquois, Shawnee and Delaware (and indirectly the Mingo) in 1748, Pennsylvania urged the Iroquois to restore the Ohio tribes to the Covenant Chain as a barrier against the French. In July 1777, four of the (by then) Six Nations – Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca – agreed to an alliance with the British under Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), who had visited the Anglican Mohawk Mission School and the Moor’s Charity School (later Dartmouth College) and studied under Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth College. Brant spoke English and three Iroquois languages, had travelled to England and become a celebrity there, was painted by George Romney, befriended by James Boswell, accepted into the Masons and even received by King George. Brant had also obtained assurances from the Royal Court concerning Iroquois land rights. As a result, on returning to America, Brant was steadfastly pro-British. The Oneida and the Tuscarora, however, decided to side with the Americans. This marked the first major split among the Six Nations.

Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea)
Fighting each other in a number of battles (Fort Stanwix, Oriskany, Bennington and Saratoga) during the War of Independence, the pro-British and pro-American factions sought revenge against one another and a state of civil war resulted among the Iroquois.  Brant’s followers burnt the village of Oriska, the home of Oneida chief Honyery Doxtator.  Oneida and white rebels attacked Mohawk at Fort Hunter and Fort Johnson.  During 1778 and 1779 more violence followed on the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers, leading to the devastation of Iroquoia.  Because of the effective British and Indian (mostly Seneca and Cayuga) raids on Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, Cherry Valley and a small frontier settlement about 50 miles west of Albany near Otsego Lake, Washington ordered a three-pronged invasion of Iroquoia with instructions that it not “merely be overrun but destroyed”.  General John Sullivan, General James Clinton and Colonel Daniel Brodhead were to execute this attack.  As the British mounted no further defence of the region, Brodhead could destroy Mingo, Munsee and Seneca villages and crops without suffering a single casualty.  The Clinton-Sullivan force, also unimpeded, was able to cut a swath of destruction through the heart of the Iroquoia.  It is estimated that 40 Indian villages were razed – hundreds of well-built homes along with many acres of crops and orchards.  Most of the Iroquois warriors, however, survived and continued their resistance until October 1781, the British surrender at Yorktown, and even for some time afterward. Joseph Brant for one, would take part in further raids, many in the Ohio Valley.
On October 25, 1784, the Governor General of Quebec, Frederick Haldimand granted land to the Iroquois, who had served on the British side during the American Revolution.  After the war, the ancient central fireplace of the Confederacy was re-established at Buffalo Creek. Captain Joseph Brant and a group of Iroquois left New York to settle in Canada.  As a reward for their loyalty to the British Crown, they were given a large land grant on the Grand River.

As it was, due to their efforts in the American Revolution, the Indians suffered many casualties, experienced the devastation of villages and crops, lost much of their land in cessions, alienated the white population around them and ended the unity of one of the oldest, if not the oldest, surviving Indian confederacies, the Iroquois League.

Sources and additional information
  • Arden, Harvey. "The Fire That Never Dies," National Geographic, September 1987.
  • Axtell, James. The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • A Basic Call to Consciousness. Rooseveltown, NY: Akwesasne Notes, 1978.
  • Barr, Daniel P., Unconquered: The Iroquois League at War in Colonial America, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006
  • Barreiro, Jose, "Indian Roots of American Democracy," Northeast Indian Quarterly, Winter/Spring, 1987/1988.
  • Bial, Raymond Lifeways: The Iroquois, New York: Benchmark Books, 1999
  • Bruchac, Joseph. New Voices from the Longhouse: An Anthology of Contemporary Iroquois Writing. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press, 1989.
  • Fenton, Willam N. The Great Law and the Long-house: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  • Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991
  • Hine, Robert V. & Faragher, John Mack, The American West: A New Interpretive History, Yale University Press, 2000 
  • Hassrick, Royal B., North American Indians, Octopus Books, London, 1974 
  • Jennings, Francis, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire, W. W. Norton & Company, 1984 
  • Johansen, Bruce, Dating the Iroquois Confederacy, Akwesasne Notes New Series 1, 1995 
  • Johansen, Bruce, The Native Peoples of North America, Rutgers University Press, 2006
  • Johnson, Elias. Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians. New York: AMS Press, 1978 (reprint of 1881 edition).
  • Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. Now That the Buffalo's Gone: A Study of Today's American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
  • Mann, Charles C., 1491, The Americas before Columbus, Granta Books, London, 2005
  • Michelson, G. A Thousand Words of Mohawk Ottawa: National Museums of Canada 1973
  • Morgan, Lewis H. Ancient Society, Charles H. Kerr & Company, Chicago, 1907
  • Morgan, Lewis H., League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois , New Haven: Human Relations Area Files, 1954
  • Rudes, B. Tuscarora English Dictionary, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1999
  • Sloan, De Villo. The Crimsoned Hills of Onondaga: Romantic Antiquarians and the Euro-American Invention of Native American Prehistory. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008.
  • Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
  • Spittal, W.G., Iroquois Women: An Anthology, Ohsweken, Ontario: Iroqrafts Ltd, 1990.
  • Tooker, Elisabeth, An Iroquois Source Book, Volumes 1 and 2. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
  • Tooker, Elisabeth. Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994
  • Waldman, Carl, Atlas of the North American Indian, Facts on File Publications, New York, NY and Oxford, England, 1985
  • Williams, Glenn F., Iroquois actions during the American Revolution, and Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois. Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2005.
  • Wright, Ronald (2005), Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americasm, Mariner Books
  • Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States: 1492-present, 2005, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005
  • Mohawk:
  • Oneida:
  • Cayuga:
  • Tuscarora:
  • Onondaga:
  • Seneca:

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