L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
On the League of the Iroquois, or Five Nations
[This text is by Joseph Sansom and was written originally in 1817. It was published in London in 1820. Sansom [1765-7(?)-1826] was an American Quaker from Philadelphia. He was a noted writer and artist, having penned in 1790 A Poetical Epistle to the Enslaved Africans, and, in 1805, a book describing his travels through Switzerland and Italy. A street in Philadelphia commemorates his memory. The short excerpt reproduced below shows that he was an uncommonly open and astute observer. For the full citation to the text, see the end of the document. ]
The justly celebrated confederacy of Five Nations, which existed in the heart of the New Continent, when the first migrators landed from Europe, was a powerful league, which had existed for ages, like that of the States of Holland, or the ancient Republics of Greece, for the purpose of mutual defence against powerful neighbours; but without impairing the independent jurisdiction of any of its members.
It affords a striking parallel to that potent and wide-spread confederation, which has since taken place among the succeeding occupants of the same rich and well-watered territory; which is adapted, in an unexampled degree, to carry to their utmost limits the active energies of civilized man.
This aboriginal association, which is entitled to more respectful notice than has ever yet been allotted to it in American history; but to which ample, though tardy, justice will be done by our future poets and historians, (may it not be when too late to trace the features of their character with the precision of which the interesting subject is yet susceptible !) then consisted of the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagoes, the Cayugas, and the Sennekaas.
Of these, the Mohawks, then situated on the fertile banks of the river which still bears their name, were considered as the chief nation, or tribe; but the great council of the confederacy assembled annually at Onondaga (I have myself seen the great wigwam, sixty or eighty feet in length, in which was kindled the council-fire, before the dereliction of National Sovereignty to the Congress of the United States had dissolved the aboriginal union) on account of the central situation of that place, which rendered it convenient for the assembling of the confederated tribes.
Of this powerful league, which is supposed to have once extended the terror of its arms from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson's Bay, the Sennekaas are the only tribe that is now numerous enough to be of any political importance. They are yet to be found in large bodies upon the eastern banks of Lake Erie ; where the curious traveller may still witness, at their occasional councils, all the striking peculiarities of the Indian character.
An old war-chief, called the Farmer's Brother, whose-person and features are stamped with all the hardihood of antiquity, is yet living; and the chief speaker, vulgarly called Red Jacket, but in his own tongue; with appropriate qualification, Tsekuyeaathaw, "the man that keeps you awake," may still be heard, occasionally, delivering orations that Cicero or Demosthenes would have listened to with delight. I have myself heard this native orator speak for hours together, at one of the last public treaties that was held with this tribe. His discourse was then taken in short-hand. It was upon local policy, and therefore is now forgotten, though it went through the newspapers of the day; but some of his speeches, in reply to the solicitations of different missionaries to the Sennekaa tribe, to change the religion of their fathers for the Christian creed, have been often reprinted in our periodical publications, and can only be read with astonishment: They elevate the untutored Indian far above Pope's elegant apology for that supposed ignorance and imbecility with which self-complacent Europeans have been pleased to designate the wild man of America.
When Father Charlevoix, a learned, Jesuit, first assisted, as the French say, at an Indian Council, (for the gift of eloquence was not confined to the orators of the Five Nations) he could not believe that the Jesuit, who acted as interpreter, was not imposing upon the audience the effusions of his own brilliant imagination.
Yet Charlevoix had been accustomed to the orations of Masillon and Bourdaloue; when those eminent orators displayed all the powers of pulpit eloquence, at the funerals of princes, upon the fertile subject of the vanity of life; but he confesses that he had never heard any thing so interesting as the extempore discourses of an Indian chief.
Even those who have had the enviable privilege of listening, in the British House of Commons, to
that flowed spontaneous from Burke, and Sheridan, and Fox, and Pitt, during the most splendid period of British oratory, have freely acknowledged, that they never heard any thing more impressive than an Indian speech, accompanied, as it usually is, with all the graces of unconstrained delivery.
Source : Joseph SANSOM, Travels in Lower Canada, With the Author's Recollections of the Soil, and Aspect; the Morals, Habits and Religious Institutions, of that Country, London, Sir Richard Phillips and Co., 1820, 95p., pp. 92-93.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College