Elder Murray Lawson speaks of Seminole Chief who knows where Prophet Mormon was buried near the Oswego River in New York.
“Canassetego” by Jud Hartmann
An event of far reaching consequences occurred at the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, At this important gathering, attended by many Indian nations, colonial governors and other representatives of the British colonies, an old Iroquois chief, whose features (in the words of Cadwallader Colden, Lieutenant Governor of New York) “reminded me of the busts of Cicero. . .and whose oratory would have pleased in any part of the world”, delivered a memorable and dramatic metaphor. Canassetego, an unusually tall and well-muscled man, speaker of the Grand Council at Onondaga and spokesman for the most powerful Indian confederacy ever created in North America, strode forward to address the immense gathering. Frustrated by the repeated inability of the colonies to unite in a concerted effort against the common enemy, French Canada, Canassetego took from his quiver a single arrow. Effortlessly he broke it in two. “You are all separate and easily broken as this single arrow”, he said. Then, taking from his quiver five arrows wrapped in a ceremonial snakeskin (representing the Iroquois League), he showed that they had a combined strength which could not be broken. “Our wise forefathers,” he continued, “established union and amity between the Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority over our neighboring nations. We are a powerful confederacy and by your observing the same methods . . . you too will acquire fresh strength and power; Therefore whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another.”
Canassetego’s admonition would echo throughout the colonies for over a generation, not only as a rallying cry against the French but against British tyranny as well. His speech was to be the catalyst in initiating a series of ideas and events, beginning with Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union (1754), and leading ultimately to the birth of a new nation thirty-two years later, exactly to the day, on the 4th of July, 1776.
Excerpts from speeches by Canassatego, an Iroquois, as printed by Benjamin Franklin, 1740s
This speech shows the deep resentment that many Native Americans felt about colonial encroachment on their lands and their subsequent difficulties with self-support. Canassatego criticizes the fact that the settlements spoil Native American hunting, as well as that colonial horses eat grass that is meant for deer.
We know our lands are now become more valuable: the white people think we do not know their value; but we are sensible that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it are soon worn out and gone. For the future we will sell no lands but when Brother Onas [the proprietor of Pennsylvania] is in the country; and we will know beforehand the quantity of the goods we are to receive. Besides, we are not well used with respect to the lands still unsold by us. Your people daily settle on these lands, and spoil our hunting. . . .
If you have not done anything, we now renew our request, and desire you will inform the person whose people are seated on our lands, that that country belongs to us, in right of conquest; we having bought it with our blood, and taken it from our enemies in fair war. . . .
It is customary with us to make a present of skins whenever we renew our treaties. We are ashamed to offer our brethren so few; but your horses and cows have eat the grass our deer used to feed on. This has made them scarce, and will, we hope, plead in excuse for our not bringing a larger quantity: if we could have spared more we would have given more; but we are really poor; and desire you’ll not consider the quantity, but, few as they are, accept them in testimony of our regard. . . .
Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the five nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful Confederacy, and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another.
Credit: Excerpts from speeches by Canassatego, an Iroquois, as printed by Benjamin Franklin, 1740s.
Ancient Chronology of the Onguys or Iroquois Indians.
American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West by Josiah Priest Page 335
by DAVID CUSICK.
In the traditions of the Tuscaroras, published by Cusick, in 1827, few dates are found, but these few are, nevertheless, precious for history. Anterior to any date, the Eagwehoewe, (pronouoced Yaguyhohvy) meaning real people, dwelt north of the lakes, and formed only one nation. After many years, a body of them settled on the river Kanawag, now the St. Lawrence, and after a long time a foreign people came by sea, and settled south of the lake. (Mulekites? Jaredites?)
- 1005 BC Towards 2500 winters before Columbus’ discovery of America, or 1005 years before our era, total overthrow of the Towancas, nations of giants come from the north, by the king of the Onguys, Donhtonhn, and the hero Yatatan.
- 708 BC Three hundred winters after, or 708 before our era, the northern nations form a confederacy, appoint a king, who goes to visit the great emperor of the Golden city, south of the lakes: but afterwards quarrels arise, and a war of 100 years with this empire of the south, long civil wars in the north, &c. A body of people escaped in the mountain of Oswego, &c.
- 8 AD. 1500 years before Columbus, or in the year 8 of our era, Tarenyawagon, the first legislator, leads his people out of the mountains to the river Yenonatateh, (now Mohawk,) where six tribes form an alliance called the Long-house, Agoneaseah—afterwards reduced to five, the sixth spreading west and south. The Kautanoh, since Tuscarora, came from this. Some went as far as the Onauweyoka, now Mississippi.
- 108 AD , the Koncarawyeneh, or Flying Heads, invade the Five Nations.
- 242 AD the Shakanahih, or Stone Giants, a branch of the western tribe, become cannibals, return and desolate the country; but they are overthrown and driven north, by Tarenyawagon II.
- 350AD, Tarenyawagon III. defeats other foes, called Snakes.
- 492 AD, Atoarho I, king of the Onondagas, quells civil wars, begins a dynisty ruling over all the Five Nations, till Atotarho IX, who ruled yet in 1142. Events are since referred to their reigns.
- Under Atotarho II., a Tarenyawagon IV., appears to help him to destroy Oyulk-guhoer, or the Big Bear.
- Under Alotiirho 111., a tyrant, Sohnanrowah, arises on the Kaunasc li, now Susquehanuuh river, which makes war on the Sahwanug.
- 602 AD, under Atotarho IV., the Towancas, now Mississaugcrs, cede to the Senecas the lands east of the river Niagara, who settle on it .
- Under Atotarho V., war between the Senecas and Oitwnhs of Sandusky.
- Towards 852 AD, under Atotarho VI., the Senecas reach the Ohio liver, compel the Oiawahs to sue for peace.
- Atotarho VII. sent embassies to the west; the Kentakeh nation dwelt south of the Ohio, the Chipiwason the Mississippi.
- 1042 AD, under Atotarho VIII., war with the Towancas, and a foreign stranger visits the Tuscaroras of Neuse river, who are divided into three tribes, and at war with the Nanticokes and Totalis.
- 1143 AD. under Atotarho IX., first civil war between the Rrians of Lake Erie, sprung from the Senecas, and the Five Nations. Mere cod these traditions. -C.S. RAFINESQUE.
The forgoing is a curious trait of the ancient history of the war* and revolutions which have transpired in America It would appear that at the time of the overthrow of the Tawancas, 1008 BC years before Christ, called in the tradition a nation of giants, (Jaredites?) that it was about the time the temple of Solomon was finished, showing clearly that as they had become powerful in this country, they had settled here at a very early period, probably about the time of Abraham, within three hundred and forty years of the flood. The hero who conquered them was called Yatatan, king of the Onguys—names which refer them, as to origin, to the ancient Scythians of Asia.
Three hundred winters after this, or 708 BC years before Christ, about the time of the commencement of the Roman empire, by Romulus, the northern nations form a grand confederacy, and appoint a king, who went on a visit to the great emperor of the Golden city, south of the western lakes.
Were we to conjecture where this golden city was situated, we should say on the Mississippi, where the Missouri forms a junction with that river, at or near St. Louis, as at this place and around its precincts are the remains of an immense population. This is likely the city to which the seven persons who were cast away on the island Estotiland, as before related,were carried to; being far to the southward from that island, supposed to be Newfoundland, —St. Louis being’ in that direction. This visit of Yatatan to the Golden city, it appears, was the occasion of a civil war of one hundred years, which ended in the ruin of the Golden city. A body of the citizens escaping, fled far to the east, and hid themselves in the mountains of Oswego, along the southern shores of lake Ontario, where they remained about seven hundred years, till a great leader arose among them, called Tarenyawagon, who led them to settle on the Mohawk; this was eight years after the birth of Christ. These refugees from the Golden city, had now multiplied so that they had become several nations, whence the grand confederacy of the six nations was formed. Upon these, a nation called Flying Heads made war, but were unsuccessful; also, in 242 AD years after Christ, a nation called Stone Giants, made an attempt to destroy them but failed. They were successful in other wars against the Snake Indians, a more western tribe.
About the time of the commencement of Mahomet’s career, in 802 AD, a great tyrant arose on the Susquehanna river, who waged war with surrounding nations, from which it appears, that while in Africa, Europe and Asia, revolution succeeded revolution, empires rising on the ruins of empires, that in America the same scenes were acting on as great a scale; cultivated regions, populous cities and towns, were reduced to a wilderness, as in the other continents.
Iroquois Map Gallery Below
Hiawatha and the Iroquois Confederation
By Horatio Hale
Contrary to his portrayal by Longfellow, Hiawatha was a statesman, peacemaker, and co-founder of the Iroquois League, Confederacy, or Confederation. This address by the pioneering nineteenth-century linguist Horatio Hale offers one of the earliest recorded versions of Hiawatha’s story, and the one probably closest to historical fact.
The address was published as the booklet Hiawatha and the Iroquois Confederation: A Study in Anthropology, private printing, Salem, Massachusetts, 1881, and as “A Lawgiver of the Stone Age,” in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 30, 1882. It was then substantially reproduced by Hale in his book The Iroquois Book of Rites, Brinton, Philadelphia, 1883.
From that book come the following remarks by Hale on his sources: “The particulars . . . were drawn chiefly from notes gathered during many visits to the Reserve of the Six Nations, on the Grand River, in Ontario, supplemented by information obtained in two visits to the Onondaga Reservation, in the State of New York, near Syracuse. My informants were the most experienced councillors, and especially the ‘wampum-keepers,’ the official annalists of their people.”
The beginning and ending of Hale’s address have been omitted here, as they serve only to place his account in the context of an issue no longer of concern.
It is well known that the Iroquois tribes, whom our ancestors termed the Five Nations, were, when first visited by Europeans, in the precise condition which, according to all the evidence we possess, was held by the inhabitants of the Old World during what has been designated the Stone Age. Anyone who examines the abandoned site of an ancient Iroquois town will find there relics of precisely the same cast as those which are disinterred from the burial mounds and caves of prehistoric Europe—implements of flint and bone, ornaments of shells, and fragments of rude pottery. Trusting to these evidences alone, we might suppose that the people who wrought them were of the humblest grade of intellect. But the testimony of historians, of travellers, of missionaries, and perhaps his own personal observation, would make him aware that this opinion would be erroneous, and that these Indians were, in their own way, acute reasoners, eloquent speakers, and most skilful and far-seeing politicians. He would know that for more than a century, though never mustering more than five thousand fighting men, they were able to hold the balance of power on this continent between France and England; and that in a long series of negotiations they proved themselves qualified to cope in council with the best diplomatists whom either of those powers could depute to deal with them. It is only recently that we have learned, through the researches of a careful and philosophic investigator, the Hon. L. H. Morgan, that their internal polity was marked by equal wisdom, and had been developed and consolidated into a system of government, embodying many of what are deemed the best principles and methods of political science—representation, federation, self-government through local and general legislatures—all resulting in personal liberty, combined with strict subordination to public law. But it has not been distinctly known that for many of these advantages the Five Nations were indebted to one individual, who bore to them the same relation which the great reformers and lawgivers of antiquity bore to the communities whose gratitude has made their names illustrious.
A singular fortune has attended the name and memory of Hiawatha. Though actually an historical personage, and not of very ancient date, of whose life and deeds many memorials remain, he has been confused with two Indian divinities, the one Iroquois, the other Algonquin, and his history has been distorted and obscured almost beyond recognition. Through the cloud of mythology which has enveloped his memory, the genius of Longfellow has discerned something of his real character, and has made his name, at least, a household word wherever the English language is spoken. It remains to give a correct account of the man himself and of the work which he accomplished, as it has been received from the official annalists of his people. The narrative is confirmed by the evidence of contemporary wampum records, and by written memorials in the native tongue, one of which is at least a hundred years old.
According to the best evidence that can be obtained, the formation of the Iroquois confederacy dates from about the middle of the fifteenth century. There is reason to believe that prior to that time the five tribes, who are dignified with the title of nations, had held the region south of Lake Ontario, extending from the Hudson to the Genesee river, for many generations, and probably for many centuries. Tradition makes their earlier seat to have been north of the St. Lawrence river, which is probable enough. It also represents the Mohawks as the original tribe, of which the others are offshoots; and this tradition is confirmed by the evidence of language. That the Iroquois tribes were originally one people, and that their separation into five communities, speaking distinct dialects, dates many centuries back, are both conclusions as certain as any facts in physical science. Three hundred and fifty years ago they were isolated tribes, at war occasionally with one another, and almost constantly with the fierce Algonquins who surrounded them. Not infrequently, also, they had to withstand and to avenge the incursions of warriors belonging to more distant tribes of various stocks, Hurons, Cherokees and Dakotas. Yet they were not peculiarly a warlike people. They had large and strongly palisaded towns, well-cultivated fields, and substantial houses, sometimes a hundred feet long, in which many kindred families dwelt together.
At this time two great dangers, the one from without, the other from within, pressed upon these tribes. The Mohegans, or Mohicans, a powerful Algonquin people, whose settlements stretched along the Hudson river, south of the Mohawks, and extended thence eastward into New England, waged a desperate war against them. In this war the most easterly of the Iroquois, the Mohawks and Oneidas, bore the brunt and were the greatest sufferers. On the other hand, the two westerly nations, the Senecas and Cayugas, had a peril of their own to encounter. The central nation, the Onondagas, were then under the control of a dreaded chief, whose name is variously given, Atotarho, Watatotahlo, Tododaho, according to the dialect of the speaker and the orthography of the writer. He was a man of great force of character and of formidable qualities—haughty, ambitious, crafty and bold—a determined and successful warrior, and at home, so far as the constitution of an Indian tribe would allow, a stern and remorseless tyrant. He tolerated no equal. The chiefs who ventured to oppose him were taken off one after another by secret means, or were compelled to flee for safety to other tribes. His subtlety and artifices had acquired for him the reputation of a wizard. He knew, they say, what was going on at a distance as well as if he were present; and he could destroy his enemies by some magical art, while he himself was far away. In spite of the fear which he inspired, his domination would probably not have been endured by an Indian community, but for his success in war. He made himself and his people a terror to the Cayugas and the Senecas. According to one account, he had subdued both of those tribes; but the record-keepers of the present day do not confirm this statement, which indeed is not consistent with the subsequent history of the confederation.
The name Atotarho signifies “entangled.” The usual process by which mythology, after a few generations, makes fables out of names, has not been wanting here. In the legends which the Indian story-tellers recount in winter about their cabin fires, Atotarho figures as a being of preterhuman nature, whose head, in lieu of hair, is adorned with living snakes. A rude pictorial representation shows him seated and giving audience, in horrible state, with the upper part of his person enveloped by these writhing and entangled reptiles. But the grave Councillors of the Canadian Reservation, who recite his history as they have heard it from their fathers at every installation of a high chief, do not repeat these inventions of marvel-loving gossips, and only smile with good-humored derision when they are referred to.
There was at this time among the Onondagas a chief of high rank whose name, variously written—Hiawatha, Hayonwatha, Ayongwhata, Taoungwatha—is rendered, “he who seeks the wampum belt.” He had made himself greatly esteemed by his wisdom and his benevolence. He was now past middle age. Though many of his friends and relatives had perished by the machinations of Atotarho, he himself had been spared. The qualities which gained him general respect had, perhaps, not been without influence even on that redoubtable chief. Hiawatha had long beheld with grief the evils which afflicted not only his own nation, but all the other tribes about them, through the continual wars in which they were engaged, and the misgovernment and miseries at home which these wars produced. With much meditation he had elaborated in his mind the scheme of a vast confederation which would ensure universal peace. In the mere plan of a confederation there was nothing new. There are probably few, if any, Indian tribes which have not, at one time or another been members of a league or confederacy. It may almost be said to be their normal condition. But the plan which Hiawatha had evolved differed from all others in two particulars. The system which he devised was to be not a loose and transitory league, but a permanent government. While each nation was to retain its own council and its management of local affairs, the general control was to be lodged in a federal senate, composed of representatives elected by each nation, holding office during good behavior, and acknowledged as ruling chiefs throughout the whole confederacy. Still further, and more remarkably, the confederation was not to be a limited one. It was to be indefinitely expansible. The avowed design of its proposer was to abolish war altogether. He wished the federation to extend until all the tribes of men should be included in it, and peace should everywhere reign. Such is the positive testimony of the Iroquois themselves; and their statement, as will be seen, is supported by historical evidence.
Hiawatha’s first endeavor was to enlist his own nation in the cause. He summoned a meeting of the chiefs and people of the Onondaga towns. The summons, proceeding from a chief of his rank and reputation, attracted a large concourse. “They came together,” said the narrator, “along the creeks, from all parts, to the general council-fire.” But what effect the grand projects of the chief, enforced by the eloquence for which he was noted, might have had upon his auditors, could not be known. For there appeared among them a well-known figure, grim, silent and forbidding, whose terrible aspect overawed the assemblage. The unspoken displeasure of Atotarho was sufficient to stifle all debate, and the meeting dispersed. This result, which seems a singular conclusion of an Indian council—the most independent and free-spoken of all gatherings—is sufficiently explained by the fact that Atotarho had organized among the more reckless warriors of his tribe a band of unscrupulous partisans, who did his bidding without question, and took off by secret murder all persons against whom he bore a grudge. The knowledge that his followers were scattered through the assembly, prepared to mark for destruction those who should offend him, might make the boldest orator chary of speech. Hiawatha alone was undaunted. He summoned a second meeting, which was attended by a smaller number, and broke up as before, in confusion, on Atotarho’s appearance. The unwearied reformer sent forth his runners a third time; but the people were disheartened. When the day of the council arrived, no one attended. Then, continued the narrator, Hiawatha seated himself on the ground in sorrow. He enveloped his head in his mantle of skins, and remained for a long time bowed down in grief and thought. At length he arose and left the town, taking his course toward the southeast. He had formed a bold design. As the councils of his own nation were closed to him, he would have recourse to those of other tribes. At a short distance from the town (so minutely are the circumstances recounted) he passed his great antagonist, seated near a well-known spring, stern and silent as usual. No word passed between the determined representatives of war and peace; but it was doubtless not without a sensation of triumphant pleasure that the ferocious war-chief saw his only rival and opponent in council going into what seemed to be voluntary exile. Hiawatha plunged into the forest; he climbed mountains; he crossed a lake; he floated down the Mohawk river in a canoe. Many incidents of his journey are told, and in this part of the narrative alone some occurrences of a marvelous cast are related even by the official historians. Indeed, the flight of Hiawatha from Onondaga to the country of the Mohawks is to the Five Nations what the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina is to the votaries of Islam. It is the turning point of their history. In embellishing the narrative at this point, their imagination has been allowed a free course. Leaving aside these marvels, however, we need only refer here to a single incident which may well enough have been of actual occurrence. A lake which Hiawatha crossed had shores abounding in small white shells. These he gathered and strung upon strings, which he disposed upon his breast, as a token to all whom he should meet that he came as a messenger of peace. And this, according to one authority, was the origin of wampum, of which Hiawatha was the inventor. That honor, however, is one which must be denied to him. The evidence of sepulchral relics shows that wampum was known to the mysterious Mound Builders, as well as in all succeeding ages. Moreover, if the significance of white wampum-strings as a token of peace had not been well known in his day, Hiawatha would not have relied upon them as a means of proclaiming his pacific purpose.
Early one morning he arrived at a Mohawk town, the residence of the noted chief Dekanawidah, whose name, in point of celebrity, ranks in Iroquois tradition with those of Hiawatha and Atotarho. It is probable that he was known by reputation to Hiawatha, and not unlikely that they were related. According to one account Dekanawidah was an Onondaga, adopted among the Mohawks. Another narrative makes him a Mohawk by birth. The probability seems to be that he was the son of an Onondaga father, who had been adopted by the Mohawks, and of a Mohawk mother. That he was not of pure Mohawk blood is shown by the fact, which is remembered, that his father had had successively three wives, one belonging to each of the three clans, Bear, Wolf, and Turtle, which compose the Mohawk nation. If the father had been a Mohawk, he would have belonged to one of the Mohawk clans, and could not then (according to the Indian law) have married into it. He had seven sons, including Dekanawidah, who, with their families, dwelt together in one of the “long houses” common in that day among the Iroquois. These ties of kindred, together with this fraternal strength, and his reputation as a sagacious councillor, gave Dekanawidah great influence among his people. But, in the Indian sense, he was not the leading chief. This position belonged to Tekarihoken (better known in books as Tecarihoga) whose primacy as the first chief of the eldest among the Iroquois nations was then, and is still, universally admitted. Each nation has always had a head-chief, to whom belonged the hereditary right and duty of lighting the council-fire, and taking the first place in public meetings. But among the Indians, as in other communities, hereditary rank and personal influence do not always, or indeed ordinarily, go together. If Hiawatha could gain over Dekanawidah to his views, he would have done much toward the accomplishment of his purposes.
In the early dawn he seated himself on a fallen trunk, near the spring from which the inhabitants of the long-house drew their water. Presently one of the brothers came out with a vessel of elm-bark, and approached the spring. Hiawatha sat silent and motionless. Something in his aspect awed the warrior, who feared to address him. He returned to the house, and said to Dekanawidah, “a man, or a figure like a man, is seated by the spring, having his breast covered with strings of white shells.” “It is a guest,” replied the chief; “go and bring him in. We will make him welcome.” Thus Hiawatha and Dekanawidah first met. They found in each other kindred spirits. The sagacity of the Mohawk chief grasped at once the advantages of the proposed plan, and the two worked together in perfecting it, and in commending it to the people. After much discussion in council, the adhesion of the Mohawk nation was secured. Dekanawidah then despatched two of his brothers as ambassadors to the nearest tribe, the Oneidas, to lay the project before them. The Oneida nation is deemed to be a comparatively recent offshoot from the Mohawks. The difference of language is slight, showing that their separation was much later than that of the Onondagas. In the figurative speech of the Iroquois, the Oneida is the son, and the Onondaga is the brother, of the Mohawk. Dekanawidah had good reason to expect that it would not prove difficult to win the consent of the Oneidas to the proposed scheme. But delay and deliberation mark all public acts of the Indians. The ambassadors found the leading chief, Odatshehte, at his town on the Oneida creek. He received their message in a friendly way, but required time for his people to consider it in council. “Come back in another day,” he said to the messengers. In the political speech of the Indians, a day is understood to mean a year. The envoys carried back the reply to Dekanawidah and Hiawatha, who knew that they could do nothing but wait the prescribed time. After the lapse of a year, they repaired to the place of meeting. The treaty which initiated the great league was then and there ratified between the representatives of the Mohawk and Oneida nations. The name of Odatshehte means “the quiver-bearer;” and as Atotarho, “the entangled,” is fabled to have had his head wreathed with snaky locks, and as Hiawatha, “the wampum-seeker,” is represented to have wrought shells into wampum, so the Oneida chief is reputed to have appeared at this treaty bearing at his shoulder a quiver full of arrows.
The Onondagas lay next to the Oneidas. To them, or rather to their terrible chief, the next application was made. The first meeting of Atotarho and Dekanawidah is a notable event in Iroquois history. At a later day, a native artist sought to represent it in an historical picture, which has been already referred to. Atotarho is seated in solitary and surly dignity, smoking a long pipe, his head and body encircled with contorted and angry serpents. Standing before him are two figures which cannot be mistaken. The foremost, a plumed and cinctured warrior, depicted as addressing the Onondaga chief, holds in his right hand, as a staff, his flint-headed spear—the ensign which marks him as the representative of the Kanienga, or “People of the Flint”—for so the Mohawks style themselves. Behind him another plumed figure bears in his hand a bow with arrows, and at his shoulder a quiver. Divested of its mythological embellishments, the picture rudely represents the interview which actually took place. The immediate result was unpromising. The Onondaga chief coldly refused to entertain the project, which he had already rejected when proposed by Hiawatha. The ambassadors were not discouraged. Beyond the Onondagas were scattered the villages of the Cayugas, a people described by the Jesuit missionaries, at a later day, as the most mild and tractable of the Iroquois. They were considered an offshoot of the Onondagas, to whom they bore the same filial relation which the Oneidas bore to the Mohawks. The journey of the advocates of peace through the forest to the Cayuga capital, and their reception, are minutely detailed in the traditionary narrative. The Cayugas, who had suffered from the prowess and cruelty of the Onondaga chief, needed little persuasion. They readily consented to come into the league, and their chief, Akahenyonk, “the wary spy,” joined the Mohawk and Oneida representatives in a new embassy to the Onondagas. Acting probably upon the advice of Hiawatha, who knew better than any other the character of the community and the chief with whom they had to deal, they made proposals highly flattering to the self-esteem which was the most notable trait of both ruler and people. The Onondagas should be the leading nation of the confederacy. Their chief town should be the federal capital, where the great councils of the league should be held, and where its records should be preserved. The nation should be represented in the council by fourteen senators, while no other nation should have more than ten. And as the Onondagas should be the leading tribe, so Atotarho should be the leading chief. He alone should have the right of summoning the federal council, and no act of the council to which he objected should be valid. In other words, an absolute veto was given to him. To enhance his personal dignity two high chiefs were appointed as his special aids and counsellors, his “secretaries of state,” so to speak. Other insignia of preeminence were to be possessed by him; and, in view of all these distinctions, it is not surprising that his successor, who, two centuries later, retained the same prerogatives, should have been occasionally styled by the English colonists “the emperor of the Five Nations.” It might seem, indeed, at first thought, that the founders of the confederacy had voluntarily placed themselves and their tribes in a position of almost abject subserviency to Atotarho and his followers. But they knew too well the qualities of their people to fear for them any political subjection. It was certain that when once the league was established, and its representatives had met in council, character and intelligence would assume their natural sway, and mere artificial rank and dignity would be little regarded. Atotarho and his people, however, yielded either to these specious offers or to the pressure which the combined urgency of the three allied nations now brought to bear upon them. They finally accepted the league; and the great chief, who had originally opposed it, now naturally became eager to see it as widely extended as possible. He advised its representatives to go on at once to the westward, and enlist the populous Seneca towns, pointing out how this might best be done. This advice was followed, and the adhesion of the Senecas was secured by giving to their two leading chiefs, Kanyadariyo (“beautiful lake”) and Shadekaronyes (“the equal skies”), the offices of military commanders of the confederacy, with the title of door-keepers of the “Long-House”—that being the figure by which the league was known.
The six national leaders who have been mentioned—Dekanawidah for the Mohawks, Odatshehte for the Oneidas, Atotarho for the Onondagas, Akahenyonk for the Cayugas, Kanyadariyo and Shadekaronyes for the two great divisions of the Senecas—met in convention near the Onondaga Lake, with Hiawatha for their adviser, and a vast concourse of their followers, to settle the terms and rules of their confederacy, and to nominate its first council. Of this council, nine members (or ten, if Dekanawidah be included) were assigned to the Mohawks, a like number to the Oneidas, fourteen to the lordly Onondagas, ten to the Cayugas, and eight to the Senecas. Except in the way of compliment, the number assigned to each nation was really of little consequence, inasmuch as, by the rule of the league, unanimity was exacted in all their decisions. This unanimity, however, did not require the suffrage of every member of the council. The representatives of each nation first deliberated apart upon the question proposed. In this separate council the majority decided; and the leading chief then expressed in the great council the voice of his nation. Thus the veto of Atotarho ceased at once to be peculiar to him, and became a right exercised by each of the allied nations. This requirement of unanimity, embarrassing as it might seem, did not prove to be so in practice. Whenever a question arose on which opinions were divided, its decision was either postponed, or some compromise was reached which left all parties contented.
The first members of the council were appointed by the convention—under what precise rule is unknown; but their successors came in by a method in which the hereditary and the elective systems were singularly combined, and in which female suffrage had an important place. When a chief died or (as sometimes happened) was deposed for incapacity or misconduct, some member of the same family succeeded him. Rank followed the female line; and this successor might be any descendant of the late chief’s mother or grandmother—his brother, his cousin or his nephew—but never his son. Among many persons who might thus be eligible, the selection was made in the first instance by a family council. In this council the “chief matron” of the family, a noble dame whose position and right were well defined, had the deciding voice. This remarkable fact is affirmed by the Jesuit missionary Lafitan, and the usage remains in full vigor among the Canadian Iroquois to this day. If there are two or more members of the family who seem to have equal claims, the nominating matron sometimes declines to decide between them, and names them both or all, leaving the ultimate choice to the nation or the federal council. The council of the nation next considers the nomination, and if dissatisfied, refers it back to the family for a new designation. If content, the national council reports the name of the candidate to the federal senate, in which resides the power of ratifying or rejecting the choice of the nation; but the power of rejection is rarely exercised, though that of expulsion for good cause is not infrequently exerted. The new chief inherits the name of his predecessor. In this respect, as in some others, the resemblance of the Great Council to the English House of Peers is striking. As Norfolk succeeds to Norfolk, so Tekarihoken succeeds Tekarihoken. The great names of Hiawatha and Atotarho are still borne by plain farmer-councillors on the Canadian Reservation.
When the League was established, Hiawatha had been adopted by the Mohawk nation as one of their chiefs. The honor in which he was held by them is shown by his position on the roll of councillors, as it has been handed down from the earliest times. As the Mohawk nation is the “elder brother,” the names of its chiefs are first recited. At the head of the list is the leading Mohawk chief, Tekarihoken, who represents the noblest lineage of the Iroquois stock. Next to him, and second on the roll, is the name of Hiawatha. That of his great colleague, Dekanawidah, nowhere appears. He was a member of the first council; but he forbade his people to appoint a successor to him. “Let the others have successors,” he said proudly, “for others can advise you like them. But I am the founder of your league, and no one else can do what I have done.”
The boast was not unwarranted. Though planned by another, the structure had been reared mainly by his labors. But the Five Nations, while yielding abundant honor to the memory of Dekanawidah, have never regarded him with the same affectionate reverence which has always clung to the name of Hiawatha. His tender and lofty wisdom, his wide-reaching benevolence, and his fervent appeals to their better sentiments, enforced by the eloquence of which he was master, touched chords in the popular heart which have continued to respond until this day. Fragments of the speeches in which he addressed the council and the people of the league are still remembered and repeated. The fact that the league only carried out a part of the grand design which he had in view is constantly affirmed. Yet the failure was not due to lack of effort. In pursuance of his original purpose, when the league was firmly established, envoys were sent to other tribes to urge them to join it or at least to become allies. One of these embassies penetrated to the distant Cherokees, the hereditary enemies of the Iroquois nations. For some reason with which we are not acquainted—perhaps the natural suspicion or vindictive pride of that powerful community—this mission was a failure. Another, despatched to the western Algonquins, had better success. A strict alliance was formed with the far-spread Ojibway tribes, and was maintained inviolate for at least two hundred years, until at length the influence of the French, with the sympathy of the Ojibways for the conquered Hurons, undid to some extent, though not entirely, this portion of Hiawatha’s work.
His conceptions were beyond his time, and beyond ours; but their effect, within a limited sphere, was very great. For more than three centuries the bond which he devised held together the Iroquois nations in perfect amity. It proved, moreover, as he intended, elastic. The territory of the Iroquois, constantly extending as their united strength made itself felt, became the “Great Asylum” of the Indian tribes. Of the conquered Eries and Hurons, many hundreds were received and adopted among their conquerors. The Tuscaroras, expelled by the English from North Carolina, took refuge with the Iroquois, and became the sixth nation of the League. From still further south, the Tuteloes and Saponies, of Dakota stock, after many wars with the Iroquois, fled to them from their other enemies, and found a cordial welcome. A chief still sits in the council as a representative of the Tuteloes, though the tribe itself has been swept away by disease, or absorbed in the larger nations. Many fragments of tribes of Algonquin lineage—Delawares, Nanticokes, Mohicans, Mississagas—sought the same hospitable protection, which never failed them. Their descendants still reside on the Canadian Reservation, which may well be styled an aboriginal “refuge of nations”—affording a striking evidence in our own day of the persistent force of a great idea, when embodied in practical shape by the energy of a master mind.
The name by which their constitution or organic law is known among them is kayánerenh, to which the epitaph kowa, “great,” is frequently added. This word, kayánerenh, is sometimes rendered “law,” or “league,” but its proper meaning seems to be “peace.” It is used in this sense by the missionaries, in their translations of the scriptures and the prayer-book. In such expressions as “the Prince of Peace,” “the author of peace,” “give peace in our time,” we find kayánerenh employed with this meaning. Its root is yaner, signifying “noble,” or “excellent,” which yields, among many derivatives, kayánere, “goodness,” and kayánerenh, “peace,” or “peacefulness.” The national hymn of the confederacy, sung whenever their “Condoling Council” meets, commences with a verse referring to their league, which is literally rendered, “We come to greet and thank the Peace” (kayánerenh). When the list of their ancient chiefs, the fifty original Councillors, is chanted in the closing litany of the meeting, there is heard from time to time, as the leaders of each clan are named, an outburst of praise, in the words—
“This was the roll of you—
You that were joined in the work,
You that confirmed the work,
The GREAT PEACE.” (Kayánerenh-kowa.)
The regard of Englishmen for their Magna Charta and Bill of Rights, and that of Americans for their national Constitution, seem weak in comparison with the intense gratitude and reverence of the Five Nations for the “Great Peace” which Hiawatha and his colleagues established for them.
Of the subsequent life of Hiawatha, and of his death, we have no sure information. The records of the Iroquois are historical, and not biographical. As Hiawatha had been made a chief among the Mohawks, he doubtless continued to reside with that nation. A tradition, which is in itself highly probable, represents him as devoting himself to the congenial work of clearing away the obstructions in the streams which intersect the country then inhabited by the confederated nations, and which formed the chief means of communication between them. That he thus, in some measure, anticipated the plans of De Witt Clinton and his associates, on a smaller scale, but with perhaps a larger statesmanship, we may be willing enough to believe. A wild legend, recorded by some writers, but not told of him by the Canadian Iroquois, and apparently belonging to their ancient mythology, gives him an apotheosis, and makes him ascend to heaven in a white canoe. It may be proper to dwell for a moment on the singular complication of mistakes which has converted this Indian reformer and statesman into a mythological personage.
When by the events of the Revolutionary war the original confederacy was broken up, the larger portion of the people followed Brant to Canada. The refugees comprised nearly the whole of the Mohawks, and the greater part of the Onondagas and Cayugas, with many members of the other nations. In Canada their first proceeding was to reestablish, as far as possible, their ancient league, with all its laws and ceremonies. The Onondagas had brought with them most of their wampum records, and the Mohawks jealously preserved the memories of the federation, in whose formation they had borne a leading part. The history of the league continued to be the topic of their orators whenever a new chief was installed into office. Thus the remembrance of the facts has been preserved among them with much clearness and precision, and with very little admixture of mythological elements. With the fragments of the tribes which remained on the southern side of the Great Lakes the case was very different. Except among the Senecas, who, of all the Five Nations, had had least to do with the formation of the league, the ancient families which had furnished the members of their senate, and were the conservators of their history, had mostly fled to Canada or the West. The result was that among the interminable stories with which the common people beguile their winter nights, the traditions of Atotarho and Hiawatha became intermingled with the legends of their mythology. An accidental similarity, in the Onondaga dialect, between the name of Hiawatha and that of one of their ancient divinities, led to a confusion between the two, which has misled some investigators. This deity bears, in the sonorous Mohawk tongue, the name of Aronhiawagon, meaning “the Holder of the Heavens.” The early French missionaries, prefixing a particle, made the name in their orthography, Tearonhiaonagon. He was, they tell us, “the great god of the Iroquois.” Among the Onondagas of the present day, the name is abridged to Taonhiawagi, or Tahiawagi. The confusion between this name and that of Hiawatha (which, in another form, is pronounced Tayonwatha) seems to have begun more than a century ago; for Pyrlaeus, the Moravian missionary, heard among the Iroquois (according to Heckewelder) that the person who first proposed the league was an ancient Mohawk, named Thannawege. Mr. J. V. H. Clark, in his interesting history of Onondaga, makes the name to have been originally Ta-oun-ya-wat-ha, and describes the bearer as “the deity who presides over fisheries and hunting-grounds.” He came down from heaven in a white canoe and after sundry adventures, which remind one of the labors of Hercules, assumed the name of Hiawatha (signifying, we are told, “a very wise man”), and dwelt for a time as an ordinary mortal among men, occupied in works of benevolence. Finally, after founding the confederacy and bestowing many prudent counsels upon the people, he returned to the skies by the same conveyance in which he had descended. This legend was communicated by Clark to Schoolcraft, when the latter was compiling his “Notes on the Iroquois.” Mr. Schoolcraft, pleased with the poetical cast of the story and the euphonious name, made confusion worse confounded by transferring the hero to a distant region and identifying him with Manabozho, a fantastic divinity of the Ojibways. Schoolcraft’s volume, absurdly entitled “The Hiawatha Legends,” has not in it a single fact or fiction relating either to Hiawatha himself or to the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon. Wild Ojibway stories concerning Manabozho and his comrades form the staple of its contents. But it is to this collection that we owe the charming poem of Longfellow; and thus, by an extraordinary fortune, a grave Iroquois lawgiver of the fifteenth century has become, in modern literature, an Ojibway demigod, son of the West Wind, and companion of the tricky Paupukkeewis, the boastful Iago, and the strong Kwasind. If a Chinese traveller, during the middle ages, inquiring into the history and religion of the western nations, had confounded King Alfred with King Arthur, and both with Odin, he would not have made a more preposterous confusion of names and characters than that which has hitherto disguised the genuine personality of the great Onondaga reformer.
About the main events of his history, and about his character and purposes, there can be no reasonable doubt. We have the wampum belts which he handled, and whose simple hieroglyphics preserve the memory of the public acts in which he took part. We have, also, in the Iroquois “Book of Rites,” a still more clear and convincing testimony to the character both of the legislator and of the people for whom his institutions were designed. This book, sometimes called the “Book of the Condoling Council,” might properly enough be styled an Iroquois Veda. It comprises the speeches, songs and other ceremonies, which, from the earliest period of the confederacy, have composed the proceedings of their council when a deceased chief is lamented and his successor is installed in office. The fundamental laws of the league, a list of their ancient towns, and the names of the chiefs who constituted their first council, chanted in a kind of litany, are also comprised in the collection. The contents, after being preserved in memory, like the Vedas, for many generations, were written down by desire of the chiefs, when their language was first reduced to writing; and the book is therefore more than a century old. Its language, archaic when written, is now partly obsolete, and is fully understood by only a few of the oldest chiefs. It is a genuine Indian composition, and must be accepted as disclosing the true character of its authors. The result is remarkable enough. Instead of a race of rude and ferocious warriors, we find in this book a kindly and affectionate people, full of sympathy for their friends in distress, considerate to their women, tender to their children, anxious for peace, and imbued with a profound reverence for their constitution and its authors. We become conscious of the fact that the aspect in which these Indians have presented themselves to the outside world has been in a large measure deceptive and factitious. The ferocity, craft, and cruelty, which have been deemed their leading traits, have been merely the natural accompaniments of wars of self-preservation, and no more indicated their genuine character than the war-paint, plume, and tomahawk of the warrior displayed the customary guise in which he appeared among his own people. The cruelties of war, when war is a struggle for national existence, are common to all races. The persistent desire for peace, pursued for centuries in federal unions, and in alliances and treaties with other nations, has been manifested by few as steadily as by the countrymen of Hiawatha.
A Hiawatha and Deganawidah Bookshelf
Good Books and More for Getting Into the Founding of the Iroquois League, Confederacy, Confederation
By Aaron Shepard
For more treats and resources, visit Aaron Shepard at
Copyright © 2000–2002, 2004, 2014 Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.
Here are all the publications I found valuable in researching the legend of Hiawatha, Deganawidah, and the founding of the Iroquois League, Confederacy, or Confederation. Most links are for more info at Amazon.com, an affiliate. Please note that this is the historical Hiawatha, not the cultural travesty in Longfellow’s poem!
The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy, by William N. Fenton, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1998. Includes the most thorough and up-to-date overview of the League legend, its evolution, and its variants, as well as extensive material on the League itself.
The Iroquois Book of Rites, by Horatio Hale, Brinton, Philadelphia, 1883; reprinted by Iroqrafts, Ohsweken, Ontario, 1990, and others. Hale was a pioneering nineteenth-century linguist, and this book includes his version of the Hiawatha story, based on interviews with the Iroquois. It is one of the earliest recorded versions, and the one probably closest to historical fact. The section on Hiawatha is drawn almost entirely from an address of Hale’s that had been published as the bookletHiawatha and the Iroquois Confederation: A Study in Anthropology, private printing, Salem, Massachusetts, 1881, and as “A Lawgiver of the Stone Age,” in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 30, 1882. Hale’s book includes everything important from that address and adds useful notes—but if you don’t have the book, you can read the address in a slightly abridged form on Mark Shepard’s Peace Page.
Parker on the Iroquois, by Arthur C. Parker, edited with an introduction by William N. Fenton, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1968. Includes a complete reprint of Parker’s influential collection The Constitution of the Five Nations, which has several versions of the legend. As a needed balance, Fenton’s introduction points out the questionable nature of Parker’s sources.
The White Roots of Peace, by Paul A. W. Wallace, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1946. A popular but unreliable interpretation.
Wilderness Messiah: The Story of Hiawatha and the Iroquois, by Thomas Henry, Crown, New York, 1955. Especially good for background material.
Concerning the League: The Iroquois League Tradition as Dictated in Onondaga by John Arthur Gibson, edited and translated by Hanni Woodbury, Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1992. With footnotes.
The Founders of the New York Iroquois League and Its Probable Date, by William M. Beauchamp, New York State Archeological Association, Rochester, New York, 1921.
“Legend of the Founding of the Iroquois League,” by J. N. B. Hewitt, in The American Anthropologist, Vol. 5, April 1892.
The Iriqouis and the Origins of American DemocracyWritten by: Grinde, Dr. Donald A. Posted on: 03/18/2003
Speech by Dr. Donald A. Grinde, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Interdiscipli- nary Studies, Gettysburg College, and Crawford Research Fellow, 1987-1988. Delivered at Cornell University September 11, 1987.
First of all, I would like to thank the Iroquois people that I worked with some fifteen or more years ago. They gave me encouragement in this project since I did not receive much encouragement outside of the Iroquois people. I want to also thank the Indian Historian Press whose stated purpose, then as well as now, is to publish works by American Indian scholars and others that contribute to new viewpoints on American Indian history. Finally, I would like to thank Americans for Indian Opportunity and the Meredith Fund for research funds that made my present research possible.
Today, I would like to share with you some of the new data that I have found in the last year or so that supplements my earlier findings. I will focus on four items:
1) The Treaty Congress at Albany in August of 1775 2) Benjamin Franklin and his ideas about the Covenant Chain of the Iroquois. 3) Thomas Paine and some of the things that he wrote that have not been attributed to him. 4) John Rutledge of South Carolina and how he learned of the Great Law of the Iroquois, and how he helped to write the first draft of the U. S. Constitution.
As Eugene Crawford Memorial Fellow for 1987-1988, my purpose will be to analyze, from a historian’s viewpoint, the extent and impact of the Iroquois ideas on American democracy. This analysis will include, of course, the U. S. Constitu- tion. I want to make this study an integral part of the analysis of the Constitution. In the future, I want to make sure that when people talk about the roots of the Constitution, they include the ideas of the Iroquois. Ancient Greece and Rome, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, no doubt, influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers, but Iroquois concepts had a profound influence upon the formation of our government as well. The ideas of the Iroquois influenced the thinking of the English and the French theorists of the eigh- teenth century also. I will also attempt to approach the Founding Fathers as human beings, and this is extremely important since I have found that it is the best way to look at them. When one looks for Iroquois ideas in the Founding Fathers, I have to always remember that these men were politicians.. Many of them, of course, had a good education for the times and were wealthy. However, most of them had a fairly long history of political activity in one way or another.
The noted Cherokee humorist, Will Rogers, said that politicians are like fog- horns; they call attention to the problems but they don’t do a damned thing about them. When I read the Records of the Constitutional Convention and other materials leading up to the first draft of the Constitution, I see a lot of foghorn stuff. What about the problem of money and debts? What about the executive and legislative powers? How can we secure a stronger union? For brevity’s sake, I will not go back to the Albany Plan of Union because I think that it will be discussed later, but Albany is an important place to begin the discussion of the Iroquois’ influence on American democracy.
In August of 1775, before the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress sent a group of treaty commissioners to speak with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy at Albany, New York. The Congress and the American people were contemplating independence and a long war. Already, there was much tension and the Congress did not want to fight a two front war against the British in the East and the Indians in the West. In the spring of 1775, Congress began to formulate a speech that was to be sent to the Iroquois in the summer of 1775. Signed by John Hancock, this speech recalls the history of the relations between the Iroquois and the American colonists since the 1740s. The speech quotes the Iroquois chief, Cannassatego, at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744. In that speech, Cannassatego admonishes the Americans to unite and become strong as the forefathers of the Iroquois had done under the Great Law. The speech from the Continental Congress said that the American people are united and have taken the advice of the Iroquois. The U. S. treaty commissioners added:
“…the advice was good, it was kind. They said to one another, the Six Nations are a wise people, let us hearken to their Council and teach our children to follow it. Our old men have done so. They have frequently taken a single arrow and said, children, see how easy it is broken, then they have tied twelve together with strong cords–And our strongest men could not break them–See said they–this is what the Six Nations mean. Divided a single man may destroy you–United, you are a match for the whole world.”
Unity is a major concept in this speech by the Congress, and it is one of the foremost concepts of the Iroquois Great Law. Unity is not a novel concept, but the way in which the Iroquois did it, fascinated Europeans and particularly, American colonists. Hence, the treaty commissioners at Albany, in 1775, were not just engaging in the rhetoric of Iroquois diplomacy, they were demonstrating that they had a knowledge of and were using parts of the Great Law in their deliberations even before independence was declared. The speech goes on to point out that the American people have delegated leaders to go to Philadelphia and kindle a great fire and plant a Great Tree to become strong like the Iroquois. At the conclusion of the analogy, the treaty commissioners invited the Iroquois to come to Philadelphia to their “Grand Council”.
A few days after this speech, the treaty commissioners tell the Iroquois that:
“We live upon the same ground with you–the same island is our common birthplace. We desire to sit down under the same Tree of Peace with you; let us water its roots and cherish its growth, till the large leaves and flourishing branches shall extend to the setting sun and reach the skies.”
In some more references to Iroquois cosmology, the Americans say when this
“island began to shake and tremble along the Eastern Shore, and the Sun darkened by a Black cloud which arose from beyond the great water, we kindled up a Great Council Fire at Philadelphia…so…that we are now twelve colonies united as one man…And…As God has put it into our hearts to love the Six Nations…we now make the chain of friendship so that nothing but an evil spirit can or will attempt to break it.”
Through these words, we can see the extent of the Continental Congress’ knowl- edge of the Great Law of the Iroquois and its cosmology a year before the Declaration of Independence. In an analysis of this cultural and intellectual exchange, it is significant (since it often goes unnoticed) that the Iroquois people delegated leaders or had self-appointed people to educate the colonists to the wisdom of unity.
A generation before the conference at Albany in 1775, the Mohawk Chief, Hend- rick, had admonished the colonists to unify. In August of 1775, when the Iroquois chiefs had asked the Americans who should speak for the Iroquois at the conference, the Americans immediately asked that Abraham be appointed the main speaker. Abraham was the adopted brother of Hendrick, and the Americans remembered his words urging unity at the Albany conference in 1754. It should be noted that the treaty commissioners recognized that Abraham and Hendrick were part of an Iroquois tradition to teach the American people strength through unity. After he is made speaker, Abraham rose and stated that he was glad that “…your grandfathers had inculcated the doctrine into their children…”. He noted that an invitation had been extended to go to Philadelphia where the Great Tree was planted and “…sit under it and water its roots, till the branches should flourish and reach to heaven…”. Abraham said, “This the Six Nations say shall be done.” In May of 1776, the Iroquois chiefs would go to Philadel- phia as the Continental Congress was readying itself for independence (the Iroquois camped outside of Independence Hall in the square). After John Hancock welcomed the Iroquois chiefs to the Congress as “brothers”, an Onondaga chief named the President of the Continental Congress, (John Hancock), “Karanduawn, or the Great Tree”, on June 11, 1776.
In effect, the Iroquois were present during the debates on independence and when a draft of the Articles of Confederation was introduced (this draft was a revision of Franklin’s Albany Plan and it has been demonstrated that it was borrowed from the Iroquois Great Law). With the Iroquois in the halls of government on the eve of independence, it is no longer a question of whether the Iroquois had an impact on the nature of American government but rather it now becomes a question of degree. We can now see that both the Americans and the Iroquois were aware of the interchange of ideas for over a generation. Essen- tially, the Iroquois had a tradition of instructing, cajoling and admonishing the colonies to unity, and the Americans were cognizant of this process in some very profound ways.
Now, I would like to discuss Benjamin Franklin and his knowledge of Iroquois imagery and ideas. Franklin, of course, was the author of the Albany Plan of Union. However, an examination of the oral traditions about Franklin has yielded some interesting insights into Franklin’s use of Iroquois ideas. By looking at the record of the people that knew Franklin in England before the Revolution and in France during the Revolution, it is apparent that Franklin talked a great deal about the Iroquois. In England, Franklin’s circle of friends gave him a silver tea service that was engraved “keep bright the chain” because it was one of his favorite phrases. His friends remarked that he used it often and that they sought Franklin’s ideas about American Indians.
When Franklin goes to France in late 1776 as the Congress’ Minister to France, he was welcomed as a hero. There was a rumor that he was coming with 100 American Indian warriors. Once in France, Franklin “…loved to cite and to practice faithfully the proverb of his friends, the American Indians, “Keep the chain of friendship bright and shining”, when discussing the concept of liberty among distinguished French philosophers like Turgot, Helvetius, La Rochefoucault and Condorcet. French observers in the salons stated that Franklin would dis- cuss the politics of the Indians with great exactness and interest. Further- more, Franklin thought the ways of American Indians more conducive to the good life than the ways of “…Civilized Nations”. Frequently, Franklin used the French curiosity about Native Americans and particularly the Iroquois to his personal and diplomatic advantage.
When Franklin came back to America after the Revolution, he became a member in the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany in Philadelphia. This was a society of non-Indians that dressed up as Indians, entertained Indian delegations to Phila- delphia, stood for a unicameral legislature like Franklin, and freely used Iroquois ideas and imagery in its rhetoric. In 1785, George Washington attended a St. Tammany society meeting in Richmond, Virginia. Washington was called our “Great Grand Sachem” and our “brother” by the society. Franklin was often toasted as “brother” also. During the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wrote several letters to American Indians like “the old chief”, “the…Beloved Indian Woman”, and the “Cornstalk”. These terms and names were used by the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany. Since they were written on June 30, 1787 after the bitter controversy over the Virginia and New Jersey Plans were resolved, they may well be “coded” letters to the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany. The Saint Tammany Society was intensely interested in the outcome of the Constitutional Convention and the structure of the new government. At any rate, Franklin stated in one of these letters that:
“I am sorry that the Great Council fire of our nation is not now burning, so that you cannot do business there. In a few months, the coals will be rak’d out of the ashes and will again be rekindled.”
Franklin also had designed currency using the Iroquois Covenant Chain at the beginning of the Revolution that was reissued in 1787. The currency depicted a Covenant Chain of thirteen links with an admonition to unite. Hence, there is plenty of evidence that Franklin continued and cultivated his interest in the Iroquois after he used their ideas of unity to forge the Albany Plan of Union in 1754.
Thomas Paine was also influenced by the Iroquois. Although it is generally not acknowledged, Thomas Paine was a secretary to an Iroquois Treaty at Easton, Pennsylvania in early 1777. It appears that Paine heard an Iroquois prophecy about struggling beasts that would shake the very foundation of the League of the Iroquois. In the end, lesser beast (the Americans) would win and take up the ideas of the Iroquois. A pamphlet published by the Continental Congress recounts a similar prophecy. It is printed in France in 1777 before the French publicly began to support the American cause. Thomas Paine was appointed to the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the Continental Congress in April of 1777. He may have sent over to Franklin an account of the prophecy since Franklin and the other American ministers to France were constantly asking for good news (the good news would come late in 1777 with the victory at Saratoga). Again, it is important to note that the Continental Congress is writing propaganda using the imagery and prophecies of the Iroquois since they knew that the French were fascinated by Iroquois ideas. After Paine leaves America for France, he was reputed to have talked a great deal about the Iroquois.
Finally, there is John Rutledge of South Carolina, chairman of the Committee of Detail that writes the first draft of the U. S. Constitution. According to his biographer, Rutledge learned of the Great Law while attending the Stamp Act Congress in New York City as a young man. During the Stamp Act Congress, Rut- ledge rented a cab and rode out to see Sir William Johnson and some Mohawks camped on the edge of Greenwich Village. Sir William Johnson was upset about the Stamp Act because it was cutting into his Indian trade. Sir William Johnson had come down in the fall from Albany to get supplies for the Indian trade. Johnson greeted Rutledge by saying: “I see you’ve come to comb the King’s hair”, and Rutledge was puzzled by this phrase (an obvious allusion to the evil Onondaga wizard, Tadodaho, that Hiawatha tamed to pave the way for the creation of the Great Law of the Iroquois). In this way, Johnson characterized the Stamp Act Congress as attempting to pacify the King’s mind about taxation and other things. With this opening remark, John Rutledge sits down and has a few glasses of rum with Johnson and the Mohawks and gets his first lesson about the Great Law of the Iroquois.
In late July, 1787, twenty years after the Stamp Act Congress, John Rutledge found himself chairing the Committee of Detail at the Constitutional Convention. The Committee was charged with taking all of the resolutions that had been passed in Convention and drafting a document that could be polished and refined through debate on the floor of the convention. Rutledge’s biographer states that he opened the meeting with some passages from the Great Law of the Iro- quois. The main passages relate to the sovereignty of the people, peace and unity. Rutledge had asserted earlier that a great empire was being created so it must be firmly rooted in American soil. With this said, Rutledge bent over and began the task of drafting the Constitution.
Pressure in the printed media was already being brought to bear upon the Framers of the U. S. Constitution. In the August, 1787 issue of The American Museum (a Philadelphia magazine), “A Fable – Addressed to the Federal Convention” was printed that used the bundle of arrows imagery of the Iroquois Constitution (Section 57) and styled the Iroquois as “fathers” urging unity to their “sons”. No doubt, the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany were, in part responsible for this reference. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 69, felt compelled to address an editorial written by ‘Tamony’ that expressed reservations about the executive powers in the proposed constitution. Appearing in Virginia and Pennsylvania newspapers, the editorial clearly represented the fears of the St. Tammany Society of a strong executive in peacetime. These examples are but a few of the references to the Iroquois roots of American government.
The major thing to remember is that if you know the code words like “combing the King’s hair” or “keep the chain bright” the Iroquois influence can be easily seen. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of ignoring of these references in the records. This ignoring of important references glosses over the fact that Iroquois images were used frequently in eighteenth century America.
But to modern scholars such references probably appear as anomalies since many people are unfamiliar with the rhetoric and imagery of the Iroquois. In short, the attitude might be: “What’s this, Thomas Paine writing an Indian treaty?” What does this have to do with political theory or his ideas?
In conclusion, I think that the concept of unity was an important transference that went on for generations bewteen the colonists and the Iroquois. Rutledge recalled that exchange as he began to write the first draft of the Constitution (the press of Philadelphia and the Saint Tammany society were also bound to remind him and the other delegates to the convention of the American roots of our unity and freedom). Federalism is another important concept here. The Iroquois had a working federalism that gave maximum internal freedom while providing for a strong defense.
I think it is time to take away the veil that has deprived Americans from realizing the Iroquois roots of American democracy. The new evidence that we have all brought to bear here is extremely exciting. I hope that it will convince people that when they look at the origins of American democracy that one can no longer look only to the ancient Greeks and John Locke for sources but you must also look to the Great Law of the Iroquois as a valid source of ideas for the formation of our nation. With evidence at hand, the question is not whether the Iroquois had an influence on formation of the American govern- ment but to what degree.
The next job. after this conference, is to increase cross-cultural kinds of studies. I think that research funds in the institutions that study Indians should be allocated in ways that reflect more the interests and questions that are important to Indian people. Certainly, American Indian people and American Indian scholars should have a greater say over research priorities and the allocation of funds in places like the Smithsonian Institution. In the final analysis, it was the Iroquois people that came to me and said “we’re interested in this, are you interested in the Iroquois roots of American democracy?” In the future, questions that American Indian people deem important should have a great deal of validity in institutions of culture and learning, i.e. the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian. Let us hope that the call is heeded. Why can’t people recognize that Native Americans have priorit- ies about their history? American Indian people should not be ignored in their pursuit of a new Native American history.