Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Iroquois Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. 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 Indiansand at the Native American Languages' site]



Iroquois (Algonkin: Iri n akhoiw, ' real adders,' with the French suffix - ois ). The confederation of Iroquoian tribes known in history among other names, by that of the Five Nations, comprising the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. Their name for themselves an a political body was Oñgwano n sioñni' ' we are of the extended lodge.' Among the Iroquoian tribes kinship is traced through the blood of the woman only; kinship means membership in a family, and this in turn constitutes citizenship in the tribe, conferring certain social, political, and religious privileges, duties and rights which are denied to persons of alien blood; but, by a legal fiction embodied in the right of adoption, the blood of the alien may be figuratively changed into one of the strains of the Iroquoian blood, and thus citizenship may be conferred on a person of alien lineage. In an Iroquoian tribe the legislative, judicial and executive functions are usually exercised by one and the same class of persons, commonly called chiefs in English, who are organised into councils. There are three grades of chiefs. The chiefship is hereditary in certain of the simplest political units in the government of the tribe; a chief is nominated by the suffrages of the matrons of this unit, and the nomination is confirmed by the tribal and the federal councils. The functions of the three grades of chiefs are defined in the rules of procedure. When the five Iroquoian tribes were organised into a confederation, its government was only a development of that of the separate tribes, just as the government of each of the constituent tribes was a development of that of the several clans of which it was composed. The government of the clan was a development of that of the several brood families of which it was composed, and the brood family, strictly speaking, was composed of the progeny of a woman and her female descendants, counting through the female line only; hence the clan may be described as a permanent body of kindred, socially and politically organized, who trace actual and theoretical descent through the female line only. The simpler units surrendered part of their autonomy to the next higher units in such wise that the whole was closely interdependent and cohesive. The establishment of the higher unit created new rights, privileges, and duties. This was the principle of organization of the confederation of the five Iroquoian tribes. The date of the formation of this confederation (probably not the first, but the last of a series of attempts to unite the several tribes in a federal union) was not earlier than about the year 1570, which is some 30 years anterior to that of the Huron tribes.


The Delawares gave them the name Mingwe. The northern and western Algonquians called them Nadowa, 'adders.' The Powhatan called them Massawomekes. The English knew them as the Confederation of the Five Nations, and, after the admission of the Tuscarora in 1722, as the Six Nations. Moreover, the names Maqua, Mohawk, Seneca, and Tsonnontowan, by which their leading tribes were called, were also applied to them collectively. The League of the Iroquois, when first known to Europeans, was composed of the five tribes, and occupied the territory extending from the E. watershed of lake Champlain to the W. watershed of Genesee r., and from the Adirondacks southward to the territory of the Conestoga. The date of the formation of the league is not certain, but there is evidence that it took place about 1570, occasioned by wars with Algonquian and Huron tribes. The confederated Iroquois immediately began to make their united power felt. After the coming of the Dutch, from whom they procured firearms, they were able to extend their conquests over all the neighbouring tribes until their dominion was acknowledged from the Ottawa r. to the Tennessee and from the Kennebec to Illinois r. and lake Michigan. Their westward advance was checked by the Chippewa; the Cherokee and the Catawba proved an effectual barrier in the S., while in the N. they were hampered by the operations of the French in Canada . Champlain on one of his early expeditions joined a party of Canadian Indians against the Iroquois. This made them bitter enemies of the French, whom they afterwards opposed at every step to the close of the French régime in Canada in 1763, while they were firm allies of the English. The French made several attempts through their missionaries to win over the Iroquois, and were so far successful that a considerable number of individuals from the different tribes, most of them Mohawk and Onondaga, withdrew from the several tribes and formed Catholic settlements at Caughnawaga and St. Regis, on the St. Lawrence, and Oka, on the Ottawa. The tribes of the league repeatedly tried, but without success, to induce them to return, and finally, in 1684, declared them to be traitors. In later wars the Catholic Iroquois took part with the French against their former brethren. On the breaking out of the American Revolution the League of the Iroquois decided not to take part in the conflict, but to allow each tribe to decide for itself what action to take. All the tribes, with the exception of the Oneida and about half of the Tuscarora, remained loyal to the British Crown. After the revolution the Mohawk and Cayuga, with other loyalist Iroquoian tribes, after several temporary assignments, were finally settled by the Canadian government on a reservation on Grand r., Ontario, where they still reside, although a few individuals emigrated to Gibson, Bay of Quinte and Delaware, Ont., and to Caughnawaga, Que. All the Iroquois in the United States are on reservations in New York , with the exception of the Oneida , who are settled near Green Bay , Wis. The so-called Seneca of Oklahoma are composed of the remnants of many tribes, among which may be mentioned the Conestoga and Hurons, and of emigrants from all the tribes of the Iroquoian confederation. It is very probable that the nucleus of these Seneca was the remnant of the ancient Erie . The Catholic Iroquois of Caughnawaga, St. Regis, and Oka, although having no connection with the confederation, supplied many recruits to the fur trade, and a large number of them have become permanently resident among the northwestern tribes of the United States and Canada.


The number of the Iroquois villages varied greatly at different periods and from decade to decade. In 1657 there were about 24, but after the conquest of the Erie the entire country from the Genesee to the W. watershed of lake Erie came into possession of the Iroquoian tribes, which afterwards settled colonies on the upper waters of the Allegheny and Susquehanna and on the N. shore of lake Ontario, so that by 1750 their villages may have numbered about 50. The population of the Iroquois also varied much at different periods. Their constant wars greatly weakened them. In 1689 it was estimated that they had 2,250 warriors, who were reduced by war, disease and defections to Canada , to 1,230 in 1698. Their losses were largely made up by their system of wholesale adoption, which was carried on to such an extent that at one time their adopted aliens were reported to equal or exceed the number of the native Iroquois. Disregarding the extraordinary estimates of some early writers, it is evident that the modern Iroquois, instead of decreasing in population, have increased, and number more at present than at any former period. On account of the defection of the Catholic Iroquois and the omission of the Tuscarora from the estimates it was impossible to get a statement of the full strength of the Iroquois until within recent times. About the middle of the 17 th century the Five Nations were supposed to have reached their highest point, and in 1677 and 1685 they were estimated at about 16,000, In 1689 they were estimated at about 12,850, but in the next 9 years they lost more than half by war and by desertions to Canada. The most accurate estimates for the 18 th century gave to the Six Nations and their colonies about 10,000 or 12,000 souls. In 1774 they were estimated at 10,000 to 12,500. In 1911 they numbered about 16,000, including more than 3,000 mixed-bloods, as follows:


In Ontario : Iroquois and Algonkin at Watha (Gibson), 130 (about one-half Iroquois); Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte , 1,343; Oneida of the Thames, 777; Six Nations on Grand r., 4,299 (Mohawk, 1,867; Oneida , 362; Onondaga, 367; Tuscarora, 421; Cayuga, 1,063; Seneca, 219). In Quebec : Iroquois of Caughnawaga, 2,240; of St. Regis, 1,515; of Lake of Two Mountains , 434. There are also Iroquois in the Michel reserve, W. of Edmonton, Alta. It is interesting to note that they are the descendants of the voyageurs of the North West and Hudson 's Bay companies. Total in Canada , about 10,738.


The Iroquois of New York in 1904 were distributed as follows: Onondaga and Seneca on Allegany res., 1,041; Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca on Cattaraugus res., 1,456; Oneida on Oneida res., 150; Oneida and Onondaga on Onondaga res., 513; St. Regis res., 1,208; Cayuga and Seneca on Tonawanda res., 512; Onondaga and Tuscarora an Tuscarora res., 410. Total, 5,290.


In 1905 there were also 388 Indians classed as Seneca under the Seneca School, Okla.


The Algonquian and other Indians included with the Iroquois are probably outnumbered by the Caughnawaga and others in Alberta who are not separately enumerated.


The following villages were Iroquois, but the particular tribes to which they belonged are either unknown or are collective: Adjouquay, Allaquippa, Anpuaqun, Aquatsagana, Aratumquat, Awegen, Blackleg's Village, Buckaloon, Cahunghage, Canowdowsa, Caughnawaga, Chartierstown, Chemegaide, Chenango, Chinklacamoose, Chugnut, Churamuk, Codocoraren, Cokanuck, Conaquanosshan, Conejoholo, Conemaugh, Conihunta, Connosomothdian, Conoytown (mixed Conoy and Iroquois), Coreorgonel (mixed), Cowawago, Cussewago, Ganadoga, Ganagarahhare, Ganasarage, Ganeraske, Ganneious, Gannentaha, Glasawanoge, Goshgoshunk (mixed), Grand River Indians, Hickorytown (mixed), Janundat, Jedakne, Johnstown, Jonondes, Juniata, Juraken (2), Kahendohon, Kanaghsaws, Kannawalohalla, Kanesadageh, Karaken, Karhationni, Karhawenradon, Kayehkwarageh, Kaygen, Kenté, Kickenapawling, Kiskiminetas Kittaning, Kuskuski (mixed), Lawunkhannek, Logstown, Loyalhannon (?), Mahusquechikoken, Mahican, Mahoning, Manckatawangum, Matchasaung, Middletown, Mingo Town, Mohanet, Nescopeck, Newtown (4 settlements), Newtychaning, Octageron, Ohrekionni, Onaweron, Onkwe Iyede, Opolopong, Oquaga, Osewingo, Oskawaserenhon, Ostonwackin, Oswegatchie, Otiahanague, Otskwirakeron, Ousagwentera, Owego, Paille Coupée, Pluggy's Town, Punxatawney, Runonvea, Saint Regis, Sawcunk, Schoharie, Schohorage, Sconassi, Scoutash's Town, Sevegé, Sewickly's Old Town, Shamokin, Shannopin, Shenango, Sheshequin, Sheoquage, Sittawingo, Skannayutenate, Skehandowa, Solocka, Swahadowri, Taiaiagon, Tewanondadon, Tioga, Tohoguses Cabins, Tonihata, Tullihas, Tuscarora, Tuekokogie, Tutelo, Unadilla, Venango, Wakitomica, Wakerhon, Wauteghe, Yoghroonwago, Youcham. Catholic missions among the Iroquois were: Caughnawaga, Indian Point, La Montagne, La Prairie, Oka, Oswegatchie, St. Regis, and Sault-au-Recollet. For the other Iroquois settlements, see under the several tribal names.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 226-228.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College