Iroquois Confederacy Is Established

The Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, are the prime example of the level of cultural evolution that non-nomadic North American Indian tribes attained. The tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy controlled parts of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada for nearly three centuries.

Summary of Event

Archaeological evidence places the predecessors of the Iroquois Iroquois in what is now New York State for one thousand to fifteen hundred years prior to the emergence of the Iroquois Confederacy. A subsistence culture called Owasco preceded the Iroquois, and the Owasco were preceded in turn by the Hopewell culture. Both cultures had traceable influences on Iroquois culture. By 1400, distinctively Iroquoian villages existed; by 1600, all the units of the confederacy were calling the larger group Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse. Iroquois Confederacy
Handsome Lake

The Haudenosaunee lived in fortified, stockade villages, were agrarian and matrilineal (that is, their property passed from mothers to daughters), and banded together through a strong political and religious system, in which ultimate power was vested in the hands of the oldest “sensible” woman of each clan. The foundation of the culture was called the fireplace, or hearth. Each hearth—a mother and her children—was part of a larger extended family, or owachira. Two or more owachiras made a clan; eight clans made a tribe.

The Iroquois Confederacy—also referred to as the League of the Iroquois or the League of Five Nations—was established as early as 1500 to unite and pacify the infighting Iroquois and to gain strength in numbers to resist the implacable opposition of Huron- and Algonquian-speaking neighbors. (The word iroquois, as spelled by the French, probably comes from the Algonquian enemy name iriokiu or “spitting snake.”) The confederacy, if later dates of its inception are accepted, may have formed as a response to the fur trade. Before the consolidation of the confederacy, warfare—primarily the revenge feud—was constant among the Iroquois, who had no mechanism to bring the strife to an end.

The consolidation of the confederacy was primarily a result of the efforts of the Mohawk Mohawk Indians chief Hiawatha and the Onondaga Onondaga Indians chief Atotarho. These historical figures based the religious and political principles of the confederacy on the teachings ascribed to the prophet Deganawida (also known as the Peacemaker), whose historical authenticity is contested. The political rules and regulations, the cultural model, and the spiritual teachings and religious model all attributed to Deganawida were later qualified and codified by Handsome Lake (also known as Ganeodiyo), a late-eighteenth century Seneca visionary prophet responding to the pressures of Christianity after the Revolutionary War.

The League of the Iroquois included the Mohawk, Oneida Oneida Indians , Onondaga, Cayuga Cayuga Indians , and Seneca Seneca Indians (the Five Nations). The league was based on a carefully crafted constitution. The “faithkeeper,” or central religious leader, called a yearly council to recite the constitution and its laws and to resolve differences. The council retained the roles of the leaders, which were defined from ancient times by clan system relationships. Fifty chiefs made up the council and served for life but could be removed from office by the clan mothers if they violated moral or ethical codes.

Religious life was organized according to the teachings of the Peacemaker. Three men and three women supervised the keeping of the ceremonies. The cosmology was well defined, and the origin stories were detailed and sophisticated. Curing illnesses was a central part of daily religious life. The Iroquois had a profound sense of the psychology of the soul and understood dreams and divinations to be communications between one’s personality and one’s soul.

At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the coastal regions of the Northeast were occupied by Algonquian-speaking peoples, and the inland waterways were occupied by Iroquoian-speaking peoples. The entire area was crisscrossed by the trails of a vast trading network that reached to the Subarctic. Storable foods were traded for furs, nuts, obsidian, shells, flints, and other items. Wampum belts of shells and, later, beads described symbolically and mnemonically almost all political dealings among and within tribes. Trade;furs

The fur trade and European economics changed the lives of the Iroquois drastically. Acquisition, exploitation, and competition became normal for Northeastern tribes. The confederacy created a combined military force of more than a thousand men that, in the mid-seventeenth century, effectively eliminated the Huron, Erie, Petun, and Illinois tribes as players in the fur trade.

The ever-increasing encroachment of the French and the British presented the Iroquois with three options: compromise; adoption of the ways of the Europeans, including their economics and religion; or use of violence to reject the wave of invaders. The Iroquois drew from all three options: They compromised whenever necessary to keep their neutrality and the peace. They adopted the religions and much of the trade economy (thus becoming dependent on metal items), but not the political and societal structures, of the Europeans. Finally, they chose to fight violently against the French and the tribal allies of the French.


The nations of the confederacy had a crucial role in U.S. history. After 1609, when a war party of Mohawks met a group of French and Huron soldiers under Samuel de Champlain and lost six Mohawk warriors to the muskets of the French, the Mohawks carried a dogged hatred of the French forward into their alliances—first with the Dutch, from whom they obtained their firearms, and then with the British, from whom they obtained all forms of trade items and by whom they were converted to the Anglican version of Christianity. Thus, the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys were simultaneously opened to the British and closed to the French. The subsequent British dominance of the New World was made much easier by Iroquois control of the waterways from the east coast into the interior of the continent.

In 1677, the Five Nations of the Confederacy met in Albany and wrote into history their memorized, mnemonically cued Great Law, best described as a constitution. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Iroquois had mastered the artful politics of their pivotal position. They played the various European traders one against the other, kept their neutrality with level-headed diplomacy, and maintained their control of the riverine system and the Great Lakes with intimidating success. Their hegemony included the territory from Maine to the Mississippi River, and from the Ottawa River in Canada to Kentucky and the Chesapeake Bay region.

In the eighteenth century, the Iroquois had more power than any other indigenous nation in North America. After 1722, a sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined the confederacy. Colonial delegates from all the states of the Americas traveled to Albany to learn about governing from the Iroquois. The longhouse sachems urged the colonists to form assemblies and to meet and discuss common interests. In 1754, the first intercolonial conference was held at Albany, and Iroquois delegates were in attendance.

The Iroquois maintained their power in spite of the assault of European culture and religion during the eighteenth century. Until about the end of the French and Indian War (1763), the Iroquois were united in their resolve to stay neutral and not be drawn into the imperial wars between the French and the English. By the time of the American Revolution (1776), however, the league’s ability to stay neutral and to influence its members had lessened. During the Revolutionary War, the Seneca, Cayuga, and Mohawk fought with the British; the Onondaga tried to remain aloof; and the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans.

The American Revolution ended the power of the Iroquois. By 1800, only two thousand survived on tiny reservations in western New York. Another six thousand had fled to Canada. Despite the conflicts and contacts with European cultures, the Iroquois have retained their society and many of their cultural practices, including kinship and ceremonial ties.

Further Reading

  • Englebrecht, William. Iroquoia: The Development of a Native World. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Comprehensive history of the Iroquois peoples, from prehistory to present-day descendants, based on archaeological research, historical documents, oral tradition, and linguistics. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Exhaustive sourcebook on the Iroquois Confederacy from its inception to 1794. Chapters 2 through 6 deal with Hiawatha.
  • Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois. New York: Chelsea House Press, 1988. Graymont is an expert on the Haudenosaunee; this precise, concise text is essential for scholars of the Longhouse culture.
  • Henry, Thomas R. Wilderness Messiah: The Story of Hiawatha and the Iroquois. New York: W. Sloane, 1955. Defines the line between legend and history in the founding of the Iroquois league, and in the stories of Hiawatha, Deganawida, and Atotarho.
  • Jennings, Francis. The Founders of America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. An accurate history of special value to high school teachers.
  • Lyons, Oren, et al. Exiled in the Land of the Free. Santa Fe, N. Mex.: Clear Light, 1992. Lyons, faithkeeper of the Six Nations Confederacy, possesses a distinctive understanding of the role of the American Indian in U.S. history.
  • Mann, Barbara A., and Jerry L. Fields. “A Sign in the Sky: Dating the League of the Haudenosaunee.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21, no. 2 (1997): 105-163. This article makes a case that the Iroquois Confederacy was founded about 1142, not between 1450 and 1550, as most European American scholars believe.
  • Richter, Daniel K. Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. A thorough history of the Iroquois people and their confederacy before and after the arrival of the Europeans.
  • Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. Another comprehensive history of the Iroquois employing the “rise and fall” model to discuss the origins, height, and decline of the Five Nations. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Taylor, Colin F., ed. The Native Americans: The Indigenous People of North America. New York: Smithmark, 1991. Companion book to a 1990’s televised series on Native Americans.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 24, 1497-May, 1498: Cabot’s Voyages

Early 16th cent.: Rise of the Fur Trade

16th cent.: Decline of Moundville

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

Mid-1570’s: Powhatan Confederacy Is Founded

June 7, 1576-July, 1578: Frobisher’s Voyages