They created North America’s first democracy, and played chess with European empires. Meet the Northeast’s unstoppable native confederacy.
He was called the Peacemaker – and people would later say he was born of a virgin.
Driven to anguish by his people’s ceaseless cycle of warring, kidnapping and torture, he “set his teeth together,” and wandered in the wilderness for many days.
One afternoon he reached a clear, smooth-flowing stream, where he knelt to pray.
He looked up and saw a great white eagle, eyeing him keenly.
One of the eagle’s feathers drifted down, and the Peacemaker picked it up and planted it in the ground, saying, “This shall represent the Great Idea: our people must cease arguing with one another. They must unite under the Tree of Peace. They must live in harmony and justice.”
The Peacemaker traveled from town to town, preaching his message to all who would listen – but many scoffed at his suggestion that they should give up their wars and blood sacrifices, and live in peace with one another.
That all began to change when a young warrior named Hiawatha, mad with grief over the slaying of his daughters, fled into the forest, and ran straight into the Peacemaker.
Did this meeting happen by chance – or was it fate? No one knows.
The Peacemaker spoke powerful Words of Condolence over Hiawatha, drying the tears from his eyes, opening his ears to hear, and opening his throat to speak.
And it was Hiawatha who went forth as the prophet of the Great Idea, visiting each of the Five Peoples in turn, speaking the magical Words of Condolence over them, and converting them one by one to the ways of peace.
In one village, Hiawatha met an old sorcerer named Tadadaho, the Hater of All Mankind. Tadadaho had gone insane with rage, and constantly incited his people to war. So filled with hate was Tadadaho that his hair had become a tangle of snakes.
But Hiawatha combed out the tangled snakes, whispering the Words of Condolence in the sorcerer’s ear.
By the time he was finished, the old sorcerer had let go of his rage, and became the chief council member of a new society founded on the Peacemaker’s principles.
This new society – co-founded by the Peacemaker, Hiawatha, and a mysterious woman named Jigonsaseh – would come to be known as the Great League of Peace and Power, or the League of Five Nations. Later, English colonists would name its people the Iroquois Confederacy.
But they called themselves the Haudenosaunee – the People of the Longhouse.
For their empire was modeled on the structure of the longhouse – a bark-lined building as long as a football field, where entire clans of Iroquois people lived, worked, sheltered from the winter cold, and gathered around a great central fire to tell tales.
The center of the Haudenosaunees’ “Great Longhouse” was the Hudson River Valley, in the area that would someday be called New York. To the west, the Senecas and Cayugas controlled their own river valleys – and to the east, the Mohawks and Oneidas controlled theirs.
In the heart of the Hudson Valley, the Onondaga Nation kept watch over the sacred council fire, where the fifty great sachems (chiefs) of the Five Nations assembled for annual councils.
Where once they made war, they now sought to soothe grievances with the Words of Consolation.
And on the whole, it worked. For hundreds of years (some experts estimate the founding of the League as early as 1142), the Five Nations apparently maintained an unbroken peace – transforming the Northeast from a battleground to a cultural melting pot, where trade and agriculture thrived on an unprecedented scale.
Trade and treaties were ratified through wampum belts, which served a wide range of purposes.
These belts, woven with wampum – a type of bead made from the shells of sea snails and clams – were originally presented to bereaved families, in order to avert a mourning war. Over time, however, wampum belts evolved into a form of quasi-currency, exchangeable for goods and services throughout the “Great Longhouse.”
Powerful families often collected wampum belts – particularly ones with purple beads made from the shell of the rare quahog clam – and displayed them with pride. Many sachems even wore their most prized wampum belts in public, as symbols of office and demonstrations of clout.
These two institutions – assemblies and wampum belts – helped transform the Five Tribes into the Great League of Peace.
But like the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire, Haudenosaunee ideals of peace and prosperity applied only to their own citizens – never to the outside world. While tribal sachems spoke Words of Consolation, the League’s armies waged relentless war on the surrounding Algonquian peoples.
And like the Romans before them, the Haudenosaunee preserved certain sacred traditions from their not-so-peaceful past. They believed with great conviction that if a warrior’s death in battle went unavenged, that warrior’s family would quite literally go insane with grief.
And so, every year, Haudenosaunee raiding parties waged their infamous “mourning wars.”
These wars served a highly practical purpose: to replace warriors lost in battle with captives from neighboring tribes. Killing was seen as a regrettable last resort – which was, nevertheless, sometimes unavoidable in the heat of battle.
Male and female captives would be marched back to Haudenosaunee villages, where their fates would be decided one by one.
If a bereaved family was in a forgiving mood (or in desperate need of more skilled hands), they might adopt a captive as a “nephew” or “niece.” These honorary family members were treated as full members of the village – and might even join the mourning wars themselves later in life.
Many captives, however, suffered a crueler fate. As bereaved families hurled curses in their faces, these captives would be painted red and black, tied to poles at the center of the village, and tortured to death while grieving mothers, fathers and children watched in grim satisfaction.
This cycle of war, capture, and (sometimes) adoption achieved far more than just assuaging the grief of bereaved families. As the years went by, it helped launch a population explosion among the Haudenosaunee.
Soon, the Five Nations erupted outward across the Northeast.
The exact timeline of their expansion is unclear, since our main source is oral tradition – but by the 1530s, the Haudenosaunee controlled territory as far west as Lake Ontario, as far south as Virginia, and as far north as Canada: upwards of 4,000 square miles (10,300 sq. km.) in total.
By the time French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in the Hudson Valley in the 1530s, the Haudenosaunee numbered in the tens of thousands, supported by a thriving agricultural complex, and supplementing their population with a booming trade in war captives.
They lived in large hilltop villages surrounded by palisade walls.
Within those walls stood four or five longhouses, each housing a matriarchal clan consisting of thirteen to sixteen families. Every clan was named for a totem animal (such as Bear, Hawk or Deer), and tended to specialize in a particular trade, such as hunting or fishing.
Haudenosaunee men were also famous for their prowess at a game known as O-tä-dä-jish′-quä-äge (a.k.a. lacrosse). Teams were made up of members of two sets of clans, each of which tried to throw a deer skin through a goal with a netted stick.
Haudenosaunee women were experts at cultivating the Three Sisters – maize, beans and squash – along with gardens of artichokes, leeks, cucumbers, turnips, pumpkins, and berries. They also perfected the art of harvesting maple sap and boiling it into delicious syrup.
Each village’s women managed domestic life – which meant not only cooking, sewing, and tanning hides, but administering the entire household. Clans were matrilineal (tracing descent through the mother, not the father), and when a man married, he went to live in the longhouse of his wife’s mother.
For men, on the other hand, the most honorable occupation was war.
A Haudenosaunee man might be a mighty hunter, a brilliant fisherman and a clever builder – but he had little hope of marriage or social advancement until he joined a mourning war, and dragged home captives of his own for adoption or torture.
Haudenosaunee spirituality centered around the Great Spirit, who gave life to animals and weather, and the Three Sisters, who made the crops grow. The People of the Longhouse also believed in a life-giving essence called Orenda.
This essence flowed through all things, and could be sculpted and controlled with the right rituals.
Many of those rituals, such as the New Year Festival, served the dual purpose of summoning Orenda and banishing evil spirits – accomplished by burning sheaves of tobacco and dancing in False Face Masks. Each mask served a unique and powerful purpose, and could only be worn by a member of the False Face Society.
But this traditional world was rapidly giving way to new ideas and ways of life.
By the early 1600s, French traders – and their muskets and luxury goods – had become a familiar presence in eastern New York. The nearby Huron and Algonquin peoples enjoyed a booming fur trade with these newcomers, who feared to tread too far into Haudenosaunee territory.
Still, the Haudenosaunee weren’t about to miss out on such a lucrative market. Throughout the 1610s, they directed their mourning wars toward a more focused purpose: the capture of muskets and other exotic European treasures from the Hurons and Algonquins.
So far, Haudenosaunee contact with Europeans had been mostly indirect.
The Five Nations had certainly acquired a taste for fine-toothed combs, silk shirts, and other European luxuries. They’d also suffered several outbreaks of European smallpox (from these trade goods, and/or through contact with infected Huron and Algonquin traders).
But their heartland remained free of European settlement.
That all changed in 1613, when a party of Dutch traders sailed right into the heart of Haudenosaunee country, set up a trading post, and cheerfully began trading with all customers – regardless of their tribal affiliation.
It didn’t take long for the Dutch to figure out which way the political wind was blowing.
They quickly learned that the Haudenosaunee – particularly the Mohawk Nation who ruled the east end of the “Great Longhouse” – were engaged in on-and-off war against the local Mahican people.
The Dutch did their best to organize a treaty between the two nations – but leaders on both sides fiercely contested their rights to certain riverside areas, and the negotiations erupted into open war.
This Mohawk-Mahican war became the first of many armed conflicts sparked by the presence of European colonists.
While the Haudenosaunee had engaged in mourning wars since time immemorial, they now fought for control of a highly profitable resource – the fur-and-musket trade.
European contact had set off a vicious cycle: to hold onto their power in the region, the Haudenosaunee needed to control the trade in pelts. To do that, they needed muskets to fight the surrounding peoples (and the Europeans), who had muskets of their own.
As the pace of change accelerated, so did the viciousness and deadliness of the fighting.
Suddenly, at the peak of the conflict, a pestilence struck. An unstoppable wave of smallpox swept through almost every Haudenosaunee village. The very old and very young were the first to perish – but by the early 1640s, at least half of all Haudenosaunee people lay dead.
This great dying set off a further cycle of mourning wars, in which Haudenosaunee warriors desperately sought to repopulate their failing villages with captives from the Hurons, the Wyandots, and any other tribe they could raid.
In the early 1660s, as many as two-thirds of the people in a Haudenosaunee village were captives from other tribes.
It wasn’t just village life that had changed. More than 3,000 French colonists now dwelled in settled towns along the East Coast, which they dubbed “New France.” Black-robed Jesuit priests were converting many Algonquin people to the worship of their strange European God.
And the French were only one tribe of Europeans to be dealt with. The British, who had already established colonies (Jamestown, Plymouth and Virginia) south of Haudenosaunee territory, now founded a colony called Connecticut just east of the Hudson Valley – right in the eastern doorway of the “Great Longhouse.”
The English, for their part, were struggling with another local confederation: the Wampanoag.
These Algonquian-speaking people had famously helped the English colonists survive their first winter in New England – but as the English continued to expand throughout the region, the Wampanoag had begun to turn against their colonizers.
In the early 1670s, the Wampanoag were led by a new leader named Metacom (a.k.a. “King Philip”), who believed the European colonists would take over all local land, culture and religion unless they were driven out. And so, the Wampanoag went to war.
Hundreds of English and Wampanoag warriors died in the ensuing conflict – and it wasn’t long before the English turned to the Haudenosaunee for help. In 1676, an army of Mohawks arrived on the field, routed Metacom and his army, and drove the Wampanoag south into New England.
With this victory, the Haudenosaunee had secured their eastern flanks – and they turned again to France and the fur trade.
Though the British (allegedly) agreed to arm the Haudenosaunee in this renewed conflict with the French and their allies, the promised muskets and cannons never appeared.
Even then, the Haudenosaunee refused to give up. Year after year, the Five Nations assembled the largest armies they could, and launched a relentless series of guerilla assaults on French and English outposts in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Virginia.
Although Haudenosaunee fighters managed to deal some significant defeats to the French, they found themselves facing an ever-growing, increasingly well-armed coalition of angry local tribes – including the Western Iroquois, their own blood relatives –
Along with a French-Canadian military that was, by now, well-versed in the arts of woodland guerilla warfare.
In 1696, the Haudenosaunee suffered a series of brutal reverses and defeats in southeastern Canada, and were forced to abandon many of their villages in the area. By 1701, they were little more than the tattered remains of a once-mighty confederation.
But soon, the Haudenosaunee would find themselves center-stage as never before.
Just a year later, in 1702, war broke out again between France and England. The British remembered how fiercely the Haudenosaunee had fought for them before, and sent messengers to the Mohawk (easternmost of the Five Nations) to secure a new alliance.
The Mohawk were still licking their wounds after their recent military failures – due at least in part, they insisted, to the British reneging on their agreement to provide muskets and cannons – and were hesitant to embark on a new alliance that would cost even more warriors’ lives.
As the war turned against the English, the mayor of New York made a radical move. He arranged for four sachems to take an all-expenses-paid trip to London, where Queen Anne herself would wine them, dine them, and lavish them with gifts, as befitted powerful diplomats.
And so it was that in 1710, “Four Mohawk Kings” were received as visiting dignitaries at the court of St. James’s Palace.
In return for military aid – along with a complement of Anglican missionaries to help their people resist conversion to French Catholicism – the Haudenosaunee agreed to join the alliance. In 1711, they pushed the French back into Canada as promised – and in 1712, the French signed a treaty ceding Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Hudson Bay to the English.
The Haudenosaunee, for their part, were handed over to the English as “sovereign subjects” – vassals in their own homeland.
Throughout the 1720s, the English put on a good show of diplomacy – proposing new alliances every few years, and always making sure to file the correct paperwork for each new tract of land they snatched out from under the Haudenosaunee.
The Haudenosaunee resisted – but by the 1730s, the English outnumbered them on their own lands. More were arriving every day, pushing westward across the Shenandoah Valley, shelling out gold from a limitless treasury in exchange for Haudenosaunee ancestral lands.
Powerless as the Haudenosaunee might have felt, they tried to make the best of the situation.
They taught the English colonists to grow the Three Sisters, and acquired the arts of growing wheat and oats in return. They took to dressing in English clothes, and abandoned their longhouse villages to dwell in European-style farmhouses.
Over the next forty years, many Haudenosaunee families grew accustomed to the comforts of English farm life: cozy cottages, soft beds, tailored shirts and trousers – and the steady middle-class incomes that sustained this luxurious lifestyle.
Life seemed to be looking up. In fact, in 1722, the Tuscarora Nation hitched their fortunes to those of the League, becoming the official Sixth Nation, nestled just south of the Onondaga at the heart of the “Great Longhouse.”
And then, in 1775, the British colonists declared war on their own king.
At first, the Haudenosaunee weren’t sure what to make of this. They’d been playing the English against the French for more than a century – but what side should they take in a war of English against English? It was as if one of the Five Nations had declared war against the others.
The very idea seemed unthinkable – but it carried a prescient note. Within the year, the Six Nations themselves would find themselves torn apart by this English war. The Oneida and Tuscarora nations chose to side with the colonists, while the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca allied with the British.
For the first time since the coming of the Peacemaker, the Nations of the League went to war against one another.
As in so many previous wars, Mohawk raiding parties launched rapid-fire guerilla strikes against colonial farms and villages, burning crops and houses, taking many captives, and slaying those they couldn’t capture.
In 1779, the colonists struck back – under orders from a young general named George Washington, who commanded the soldiers “not merely [to] overrun, but destroy” the Haudenosaunee and their British allies.
The colonial army swept across the lands of the Longhouse, burning villages and farms, destroying storehouses, and sending streams of Haudenosaunee refugees fleeing north to Canada.
By the end of the war, only scattered Haudenosaunee populations remained on American soil.
In 1783, Britain signed a treaty granting the newborn United States their independence. For the Haudenosaunee who had fought and died under American orders, however, the treaty provided nothing – not a single word guaranteeing them any rights at all.
The Americans, for their part, seemed unwilling or unable to distinguish the Oneida and Tuscarora, who had fought on their side, from the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca, who had fought against them. The “Iroquois” were lumped together as an untrustworthy bunch, worthy of subjugation at best – or extermination at worst.
By 1794, the Five Nations had signed away all their ancestral homelands to the Americans.
Many of them settled in lands around the Ohio River Valley, where they sank into poverty and alcoholism, watching wave after wave of white settlers pour westward, building cities, damming rivers, and laying railroad tracks across the land.
The Haudenosaunee in Canada fared somewhat better (as did many indigenous peoples who settled north of the U.S. border). Many continued to prosper as fur traders well into the 1800s, while others specialized in the manufacture and sale of riverboats.
But by the early 20th century, both Canada and the U.S. were pressuring native peoples to assimilate into the European population – appropriating tribal funds, revoking trusteeship over reservation land, and overruling tribal laws with those of the state.
The battle for Haudenosaunee sovereignty is still far from over.
A 2012 court case determined that the Haudenosaunee gave up their status as a sovereign tribe when they gained U.S. citizenship. As of this writing, the Haudenosaunee are still seeking recognition from a federal court.
And while the Mohawk Nation is officially recognized in Canada, their tribal laws are sometimes ruled unconstitutional by federal authorities – effectively making their sovereign status a toss-up from one case to the next.
Many Haudenosaunee traditions, however, are very much alive and well.
To this day, Haudenosaunee sachems gather at annual councils to discuss and debate tribal decisions. False Face Societies are still active in many Haudenosaunee communities, where they perform the seasonal rituals for the banishment of evil spirits and the summoning of Orenda.
And while many Iroquoian languages are extinct or severely endangered in the U.S., more than 3,500 people in Canada (and some in New York) still speak the Mohawk language, which can be found on road signs and public buildings on Haudenosaunee lands.
Haudenosaunee civilization has also left its permanent stamp on American and Canadian culture.
The prophet Hiawatha has become a legendary figure in American folklore, while his relationship with the Peacemaker forms the story of a popular book. Lacrosse remains a widely played sport in the northern U.S. and Canada – where Haudenosaunee athletes are still highly respected.
The bundle of arrows on the Great Seal of the United States is directly inspired by Haudenosaunee iconography. Some even claim that the U.S. Constitution owes its origin to the The Five Nations’ form of government – though this is highly debatable.
Haudenosaunee leaders, for their part, continue to protest their nations’ lack of recognition from the U.S., Canada and the United Nations. Their protests are peaceful: they speak the Words of Consolation, and hold up wampum belts to remind colonialists of the treaties they have broken.
But the chain of leadership remains intact. And though they have been displaced from their heartland in the Hudson River Valley –
The sachems of the Onondaga tribe still keep the sacred council fire alight.
P.S. – I want to give an extra-special thanks to artist Robert Griffling, whose evocative paintings appear throughout this article.