Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Iroquois Confederation



[This text was written in 1948; for the full citation, see the end of the text. Further information on the Iroquois may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages's site]


Iroquois, the confederation of Iroquoian tribes known to history as the Five Nations (the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida , Onondaga, and Seneca) or (after 1722, when the Tuscarora joined the league) as the Six Nations. The name is derived from the Algonkin word meaning "real adders" with the addition of the French suffix -ois. They called themselves Ongwanonsionni ("we of the extended lodge").


The League of the Iroquois, when first known to Europeans, was composed of the five tribes above-mentioned, and occupied the territory from lake Champlain to the Genesee river, and from the Adirondacks southward to the territory of the Conestoga tribe. The date of the formation of the league is not certain, but there is evidence that it took place about 1570, as the result of wars with the Huron and Algonkian tribes. The confederation immediately began to make its power felt. After the coming of the Dutch, from whom the Iroquois obtained a plentiful supply of firearms, they were able to extend their conquests over all the neighbouring tribes until they were supreme over the territory from the Ottawa river to the Tennessee, and from the Kennebec river to the Illinois. Their westward advance was ultimately checked by the Chippewa; and their northward movement encountered the opposition of the French and their Indian allies. The struggle between the French and the Iroquois lasted from 1609, when Champlain first came into conflict with Iroquois warriors in the Richelieu valley, until the latter end of the seventeenth century, when Frontenac forced the Iroquois to make peace, and the French missionaries succeeded in Christianizing some of the Iroquois in the St. Lawrence valley and on the north shore of lake Ontario. The Christianized Iroquois at St. Regis [now called Akwesasne] and Caughnawaga [Kahnawake], on the St. Lawrence, and at Oka [Kanesatake], on the lake of Two Mountains, actually took the part of the French against the English during the Seven Years' War, though their Iroquois brethren to the south were allies of the English. On the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Iroquois confederation virtually broke up. The Oneida and about half of the Tuscarora took the side of the revolutionists; but the rest of the Iroquois remained loyal to the British flag. After the Revolution, the Mohawk and the Cayuga, with other Iroquoian groups, were finally settled by the British government on a reservation on the Grand river, in what is now western Ontario, where their descendants still live. The Iroquois who remained in the United States are now on reservations in the state of New York, except the Oneida, who are settled near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Roman Catholic Iroquois of St. Regis, Caughnawaga, and Oka remained stationary, and played a not unimportant part in the Canadian fur trade. They became famous hunters and voyageurs in the service of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies; and descendants of many of them are scattered over the whole of the Canadian North West.


Apart from the fact that the Iroquois had passed from the purely nomadic stage, and were agricultural, their chief distinction lay in their political organization. This was based on the idea of kinship; and kinship was traced through the female line. The family was composed essentially of the progeny of a woman and her female descendants; though, by a legal fiction, even those of alien blood might be adopted into the family. Families were organized in clans; clans in tribes; and tribes in a confederation. In each case the smaller units surrendered part of their autonomy to the larger in such wise that the whole was closely interdependent and cohesive. The establishment of the higher unit created new rights, privileges, and duties. In each unit, legislative, executive, and judicial functions were exercised by chiefs, who were organized into councils, and of whom there were three grades. In the simpler political units, the chiefs were hereditary; but in the higher grades the chief was nominated by the suffrages of the child-bearing women, and the nomination was confirmed by the tribal and federal councils. The government of the Iroquois confederation was thus only a development of the government of its component tribes, clans, and families; and in it the women exercised an influence greater than that exercised by the women of any other Indian tribes.


The number of the Iroquois villages varied greatly at different times. In the middle of the seventeenth century they numbered about 25; but the westward expansion of the Iroquois meant that by 1750 their villages may have numbered about 50. Their population also varied much at different periods. At some periods war, disease, and desertions greatly reduced their numbers. In 1689 it was estimated that they had 2,250 warriors; but by 1698 this number had shrunk to 1,230. At other times, they increased their numbers by means of wholesale adoptions, which were so extensive that at one time their adopted aliens were reported to equal or to exceed their native-born. It is supposed that they reached their highest point in population in the middle of the seventeenth century; and in 1677 they were estimated to number 16,000. But by the end of the century they had been reduced by war and desertion to half this number. The most accurate estimate for the eighteenth century gave them a population of about 10,000 or 12,000 souls; and this was the figure estimated as late as 1774. In the nineteenth century, however, they seem to have increased in numbers; and the descendants of the Six Nations now number about 16,000, of whom one third are in the United States. Many of these, however, are of mixed blood.


See C. Colden, The history of the Five Nations Indians of Canada (2 vols., London, 1747), J. B. Mackenzie, The Six Nations Indians of Canada (Toronto, 1896), E. M. Chadwick, The people of the longhouse (Toronto, 1897), and A. L. Hatzan, The true story of Hiawatha and the history of the Six Nations Indians (Toronto, 1923).


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Iroquois", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 283-284.


© 2003 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College