Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Mohawk 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.]


[There are inconsistencies, as well as value judgments, in the text below that inevitably raise questions. The reader might want to consult the text on Iroquois History found at the First Nations/First Issues site; much information is also available at this site. Further information on the Mohawks may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]



Mohawk (cognate with the Narraganset Mohowauuck, 'they eat (animate) things,' hence 'man-eaters'). The most easterly tribe of the Iroquois confederation. They called themselves Kaniengehaga, 'people of the place of the flint.'


In the federal council and in other intertribal assemblies the Mohawk sit with the tribal phratry, which is formally called the "Three Elder Brothers" and of which the other members are the Seneca and the Onondaga. Like the Oneida , the Mohawk have only 3 clans, namely, the Bear, the Wolf, and the Turtle. The tribe is represented in the federal council by 9 chiefs of the rank of roianer, being 3 from every clan. These chiefships were known by specific names, which were conferred with the office. These official titles are Tekarihoken, Haienhwatha, and Satekarihwate, of the first group; Orenrehkowa, Deionhehkon, and Sharenhowanen, of the second group; and Dehennakarine, Rastawenserontha, and Shoskoharowanen, of the third group. The first two groups or clans formed an intra-tribal phratry, while the last, or Bear clan group, was the other phratry. The people at all times assembled by phratries, and each phratry occupied a side of the council fire opposite that occupied by the other phratry. The second title in the foregoing list has been Anglicised into Hiawatha.


From the Jesuit Relation for 1660 it is learned that the Mohawk, during a period of 60 years, had been many times both at the top and the bottom of the ladder of success; that, being insolent and warlike [according to the Relation], they had attacked the Abnaki and their congeners at the E., the Conestoga at the S., the Hurons at the W. and N., and the Algonquian tribes at the N.; that at the close of the 16 th century the Algonkin had so reduced them that there appeared to be none, left, but that the remainder increased so rapidly that in a few years they in turn had overthrown the Algonkin. This success did not last long. The Conestoga waged war against them so vigorously for 10 years that for the second time the Mohawk were overthrown so completely that they appeared to be extinct. About this time (?1614) the Dutch arrived in their country, and, being attracted by their beaver skins, they furnished the Mohawk and their congeners with firearms, in order that the pelts might be obtained in greater abundance. The purpose of the Dutch was admirably served, but the possession of firearms by the Mohawk and their confederates rendered it easy for them to conquer their adversaries, whom they routed and filled with terror not alone by the deadly effect but even by the mere sound of these weapons, which hitherto had been unknown. Thenceforth the Mohawk and their confederates became formidable adversaries and were victorious almost everywhere, so that by 1660, the conquests of the Iroquois confederates, although they were not numerous, extended over nearly 500 leagues of territory. The Mohawk at that time numbered not more than 500 warriors and dwelt in 4 or 5 wretched villages.


The accounts of Mohawk migrations previous to the historical period are largely conjectural. Some writers do not clearly differentiate between the Mohawk and the Huron tribes at the N. and W. and from their own confederates as a whole. Besides fragmentary and untrustworthy traditions little that is definite is known regarding the migratory movements of the Mohawk.


In 1603, Champlain, while at Tadoussac, heard of the Mohawk and their country. On July 30, 1609, he encountered on the lake to which he gave his own name a party of nearly 200 Iroquois warriors, under 3 chiefs. In a skirmish in which he shot two of the chiefs dead and wounded the third, he defeated this party, which was most probably largely Mohawk. Dismayed by the firearms of the Frenchman, whom they now met for the first time, the Indians fled. The Iroquois of this party wore arrow-proof armour and had both stone and iron hatchets the latter having been obtained in trade. The fact that in Capt. Hendricksen's report to the States General, Aug. 18, 1616, he says that he had "bought, from the inhabitants, the Minquaes [Conestogal], 3 persons, being people belonging to this company," who were "employed in the service of the Mohawks and Machicans," giving, he says, for them, in exchange, "kettles, beads, and merchandise," shows how extensively the inland trade was carried on between the Dutch and the Mohawk. The latter were at war with the Mohegan and other New England tribes with only intermittent periods of peace. In 1623 a Mohegan fort stood opposite Castle id. in the Hudson and was "built against their enemies, the Maquaes, a powerful people." In 1626 the Dutch commander of Ft. Orange ( Albany ), and 6 of his men, joined the Mohegan in an expedition to invade the Mohawk country. They were met a league from the fort by a party of Mohawk armed only with bows and arrows, and were defeated, the Dutch commander and 3 of his men being killed, and of whom one, probably the commander, was cooked and eaten by the Mohawk. Thus intermittent warfare continued until the Mohegan were finally forced to withdraw from the upper waters of the Hudson . They did not however relinquish their territorial rights to their native adversaries, and so in 1630 they began to sell their lands to the Dutch. The deed to the Manor of Renssalaerwyck, which extended W. of the river two days' journey, and was mainly on the E. side of the river, was dated in the year named. In 1637 Kilian Van Renssalaer bought more land on the E. side. Subsequently the Mohegan became the friends and allies of the Mohawk, their former adversaries.


In 1641 Ahatsistari, a noted Huron chief, with only 50 companions, attacked and defeated 300 Iroquois, largely Mohawk, taking some prisoners. In the preceding summer he had attacked on lake Ontario a number of large canoes manned by Iroquois, probably chiefly Mohawk, and defeated them, after sinking several canoes and killing a number of their crews. In 1642, 11 Huron canoes were attacked on Ottawa r. by Mohawk and Oneida warriors about 100 m. above Montreal. In the same year the Mohawk captured Father Isaac Jogues, two French companions, and some Huron allies. They took the Frenchmen to their villages, where they caused them to undergo the most cruel tortures. Jogues, by the aid of the Dutch, escaped in the following year; but in 1646 he went to the Mohawk to attempt to convert them and to confirm the peace which had been made with them. On May 16, 1646, Father Jogues went to the Mohawk as an envoy and returned to Three Rivers in July in good health. In September he again started for the Mohawk country to establish a mission there; but, owing to the prevalence of an epidemic among the Mohawk and to the failure of their crops, they accused Father Jogues of "having concealed certain charms in a small coffer, which he had left with his host as a pledge of his return," which caused them thus to be afflicted. So upon his arrival in their village for the third time, he and his companion, a young Frenchman, were seized, stripped, and threatened with death. Father Jogues had been adopted by the Wolf clan of the Mohawk, hence this clan, with that of the Turtle, which with the Wolf formed a phratry or brotherhood, tried to save the lives of the Frenchmen. But the Bear clan, which formed a phratry by itself, and being only cousins to the others, of one of which Father Jogues was a member, had determined on his death as a sorcerer. On Oct. 17, 1646, the unfortunates were told that they would be killed, but not burned, the next day. On the evening of the 18 th Father Jogues was invited to a supper in a Bear lodge. Having accepted the invitation, he went there, and while entering the lodge a man concealed behind the door struck him down with an axe. He was beheaded, his head elevated on the palisade, and his body thrown into the river. The next morning Jogues' companion suffered a similar fate. Father Jogues left an account of a Mohawk sacrifice to the god Aireskoi (i. e., Aregwe n s' gwa', 'the Master or God of War'). While speaking of the cruelties exercised by the Mohawk toward their prisoners, and specifically toward 3 women, he said: "One of them (a thing not hitherto done) was burned all over her body, and afterwards thrown into a huge pyre." And that "at every burn which they caused, by applying lighted torches to her body, an old man, in a loud voice, exclaimed, 'Daimon, Aireskoi, we offer thee this victim, whom we burn for thee, that thou mayest be filled with her flesh and render us ever anew victorious over our enemies.' Her body was cut up, sent to the various villages, and devoured." Megapolensis (1644), a contemporary of Father Jogues, says that when the Mohawk were unfortunate in war they would kill, cut up, and roast a bear, and then make an offering of it to this war god with the accompanying prayer: "Oh, great and mighty Aireskuoni, we know that we have offended against thee, inasmuch as we have not killed and eaten our captive enemies - forgive us this. We promise that we will kill and eat all the captives we shall hereafter take as certainly as we have killed and now eat this bear." He adds: "Finally, they roast their prisoners dead before a slow fire for some days and then eat them up. The common people eat the arms, buttocks ,and trunk, but the chiefs eat the head and the heart."


The Jesuit Relation for 1646 says that, properly speaking, the French had at that time peace with only the Mohawk, who were their near neighbours and who gave them the most trouble, and that the Mohegan (Mahingans or Mahinganak), who had had firm alliances with the Algonkin allies of the French, were then already conquered by the Mohawk, with whom they formed a defensive and offensive alliance; that during this year some Sokoki (Assok8ekik) murdered some Algonkin, whereupon the latter determined, under a misapprehension, to massacre some Mohawk, who were then among them and the French. But, fortunately, it was discovered from the testimony of two wounded persons, who had escaped, that the murderers spoke a language quite different from that of the Iroquois tongues, and suspicion was at once removed from the Mohawk, who then hunted freely in the immediate vicinity of the Algonkin, N. of the St. Lawrence, where these hitherto implacable enemies frequently met on the best of terms. At this time the Mohawk refused Sokoki ambassadors a new compact to wage war on the Algonkin.


The introduction of firearms by the Dutch among the Mohawk, who were among the first of their region to procure them, marked an important era in their history, for, it enabled them and the cognate Iroquois tribes to subjugate the Delawares and Munsee, and thus to begin a career of conquest that carried their war parties to the Mississippi and to the shores of Hudson bay. The Mohawk villages were in the valley of Mohawk r., N. Y., from the vicinity of Schenectady nearly to Utica, and their territory extended N. to the St. Lawrence and S. to the watershed of Schoharie cr. and the E. branch of the Susquehanna. On the E. their territories adjoined those of the Mahican who held Hudson r. From their position on the E. frontier of the Iroquois confederation the Mohawk were among the most prominent of the Iroquoian tribes in the early Indian wars and in official negotiations with the colonies, so that their name was frequently used by the tribes of New England and by the whites as a synonym for the confederation. Owing to their position they also suffered much more than their confederates in some of the Indian and French wars. Their 7 villages of 1644 were reduced to 5 in 1677. At the beginning of the Revolution the Mohawk took the side of the British, and, at its conclusion, the larger portion of them, under Brant and Johnson, removed to Canada, where they have since resided on lands granted to them by the British government. In 1777 the Oneida expelled the remainder of the tribe and burned their villages.


In 1650 the Mohawk had an estimated population of 5,000, which was probably more than their actual number; for 10 years later they were estimated at only 2,500. Thenceforward they underwent a rapid decline, caused by their wars with the Mahican, Conestoga, and other tribes, and with the French, and also by the removal of a large part of the tribe to Caughnawaga and other mission villages. The later estimates of their population have been: 1,500 in 1677 (an alleged decrease of 3,500 in 27 years), 400 in 1736 (an alleged decrease of 1,100 in 36 years), 500 in 1741, 800 in 1765, 500 in 1778, 1,500 in 1783, and about 1,200 in 1851. These estimates are evidently little better than vague guesses. In 1884 they were on three reservations in Ontario: 965 at the bay of Quinte near the E. end of lake Ontario, the settlement at Gibson, and the reserve of the Six Nations on Grand r. Besides these there are a few individuals scattered among the different Iroquois tribes in the United States. In 1911, the Tyendinaga res. on the bay of Quinte, contained 1,343; there were 130 (including "Algonquins") at Watha, the former Gibson band which was removed earlier from Oka; and the Six Nations included 1,867.


The Mohawk participitated in the following treaties with the United States: Ft. Stanwix, N. Y., Oct. 22, 1784, being a treaty of peace between the United States and the Six Nations and defining their boundaries; supplemented by treaty of Ft. Harmar, O., Jan. 9, 1789. Konondaigua (Canandaigua), N. Y., Nov. 11, 1794, establishing peace relations with the Six Nations and agreeing to certain reservations and boundaries. Albany, N. Y., Mar. 29, 1797, by which the United States sanctioned the cession by the Mohawk to the state of New York of all their lands therein.


The names of the following Mohawk villages have been preserved: Canajoharie, Canastigaone, Cenienga, Caughnawaga, Chuchtononeda, Kanagaro, Kowogoconnughariegugharie, Nowadaga, Onoalagona, Oaquake, Saratoga, Sehaunactada (Schenectady), Schoharie, and Teatontaloga.


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. 307-310. Consult the entry on the Mohawk at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College