Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Seneca 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-West 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 Seneca may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]



Seneca ('place of the stone,' the Anglicized form of the Dutch enunciation, of the Mohegan rendering of the Iroquoian ethnic appelative Oneida, or, strictly, Oneniute'a'ka', and with a different ethnic suffix, Oneniute'-ron'non' meaning 'people of the standing or projecting rock or stone'). A prominent and influential tribe of the Iroquois. When first known they occupied that part of W. New York between Seneca lake and Geneva r., having their council fire at Tsonontowan, near Naples , in Ontario co. After the political destruction of the Erie and Neuters, about the middle of the seventeenth century, the Seneca and other Iroquois people carried their settlements westward to lake Erie and southward along the Alleghany into Pennsylvania. They also received into their tribe a portion of these conquered peoples, by which accessions they became the largest tribe of the confederation and one of the most important. They are now chiefly settled on the Alleghany, Cattaraugus, and Tonawanda res., N.Y. A portion of them remained under British jurisdiction after the declaration of peace and live on Six Nations res., near Brantford , Ont. Various local bands have been known as Buffalo , Tonawanda and Corn-planter Indians; and the Mingo, formerly in Ohio , have become officially known as Seneca from the large number of that tribe among them. No considerable number of the Seneca ever joined the Catholic Iroquois colonies.


In the third quarter of the 16th century the Seneca was the last but one of the Iroquois tribes to give its suffrage in favour of the abolition of murder and war, the suppression of cannibalism, and the establishment of the principles upon which the League of the Iroquois was founded. However, a large division of the tribe did not adopt at once the course of the main body, but, on obtaining coveted privileges and prerogatives, the recalcitrant body was admitted as a constituent member in the structure of the League. The two chiefships last added to the quota of the Seneca were admitted on condition of their exercising functions belonging to a sergeant-at-arms of a modern legislative body as well as those belonging to a modern secretary of state for foreign affairs, in addition to their duties as federal chieftains; indeed, they became the warders of the famous "Great Black Doorway" of the League of the Iroquois, called Ka'nho'hwhdji'go'na' by the Onondaga.


In historical times the Seneca have been by far the most populous of the five tribes originally comprising the League of the Iroquois. The Seneca belong in the federal organization to the tribal phratry known by the political name Hondonnin" meaning, 'they are clansmen of the fathers,' of which the Mohawk are the other member, when the tribes are organized as a federal council; but when ceremonially organized the Onondaga also belong to this phratry . In the federal council the Seneca are represented by eight federal chiefs, but two of these were added to the original six present at the first federal council, to give representation to that part of the tribe which had at first refused to join the League. Since the organization of the League of the Iroquois, approximately in the third quarter of the 16th century, the number of Seneca clans, which are organized into two phratries for the performance of both ceremonial and civil functions, have varied. The names of the following nine have been recorded: Wolf, Honnat 'haiini'ni'; Bear, Hodidjionni" ga'; Beaver, Hodigen"gega'; Turtle, Hadinia"den'; Hawk, Hadi'shewn"gaiiu'; Sandpiper, Hodi'nesi'iu' , sometimes also called Snipe, Plover, and Killdee; Deer , Hadinion'gwaiiu'; Doe, Hodinon" deogd', sometimes Honnont'gondjen'; Heron, Hodidaion''ga'. In a list of clan names made in 1838 by Gen. Dearborn from information given him by Mr. Cone, an interpreter of the Tonawanda band, the Heron clan is called the Swan clan with the native name given above. Of these clans only five had an unequal representation in the federal council of the League, namely, the Sandpiper, three, the Turtle, two, the Hawk, one, the Wolf, one, and the Bear, one.


One of the earliest known references to the ethnic name Seneca is that on the original Carte Figurative, annexed to the Memorial presented to the States-General of the Netherlands , Aug. 18, 1616, on which it appears with the Dutch plural as Sennecas. This map is remarkable also for the first known mention of the ancient Erie, sometimes called Gahkwas or Kahkwah; on this map they appear under the name last cited, Gachoi (ch = kh), and were placed on the N. side of the W. branch of the Susquehanna. The name did not originally belong to the Seneca, but to the Oneida, as the following lines will show.


In the early part of Dec. 1634, Arent Van Curler (or Corlaer), the commissary or factor of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck (his uncle's estate), set out from Ft. Orange, now Albany, N.Y., in the interest of the fur-trade, to visit the Mohawk and the Sinnekens. Strictly speaking, the latter name designated the Oneida, but at this time it was a general name, usually comprising the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca, in addition. At that period the Dutch and the French commonly divided the five Iroquois tribes into two identical groups; to the first, the Dutch gave the name Maquas (Mohawk), and to the latter Sinnekens (Seneca, the final -ens being the Dutch genitive plural), with the connotation of the four tribes mentioned above. The French gave to the latter group the general name "les Iroquois Superieurs," "les Hiroquois d'en haut," i.e. the Upper Iroquois, "les Hiroquois des pays plus hauts, nommés Sontouaheronnons" (literally, 'the Iroquois of the upper country, called Sontouaheronnons'), the latter being only another form of "les Tsonnontouans" (the Seneca); and to the first group the designations "les Iroquois Inférieurs" (the Lower Iroquois), and "les Hiroquois d'en bas, nommés Agnechronnons" (the Mohawk; literally, 'the Iroquois from below, named Agnechronnons'). This geographical rather than political division of the Iroquois tribes, first made by Champlain and the early Dutch at Ft. Orange , prevailed until about the third quarter of the 17th century. Indeed, Governor Andros, two years after Greenhalgh's visit to the several tribes of the Iroquois in 1677, still wrote, "Ye Oneidas deemed ye first nation of sineques." The Journal of Van Curler, mentioned above, records the interesting fact that during his visit to the tribes he celebrated the New Year of 1635 at a place called Enneyuttehage or Sinnekens. The first of these names was the Iroquois, and the second, the Mohegan name for the place, or, preferably, the Mohegan translation of the Iroquois name. The Dutch received their first knowledge of the Iroquois tribes through the Mohegan. The name Enneyuttehage is evidently written for Oneniute'aga"ge', 'at the place of the people of the standing (projecting) stone.' At that date this was the chief town of the Oneida . Van Curler's Journal identifies the name Sinnekens with this town, which is presumptive evidence that it is the Mohegan rendering of the Iroquois local name Onen'iute', 'it is a standing or projecting stone,' employed as an ethnic appellative. The derivation of Sinnekens from Mohegan appears to be as follows: a'sinni, 'a stone, or rock,' -ika or -iga , denotive of 'place of,' or 'abundance of,' and the final -ens supplied by the Dutch genitive plural ending, the whole Mohegan synthesis meaning 'place of the standing stone'; and with a suitable pronominal affix, like o- or wa , which was not recorded by the Dutch writers, the translation signifies, 'they are of the place of the standing stone.' This derivation is confirmed by the Delaware name, W'tassone, for the Oneida , which has a similar derivation. The initial w- represents approximately an o- sound, and is the affix of verbs and nouns denotive of the third person; the intercalary -t- is merely euphonic, being employed to prevent the coalescence of the two vowel sounds; and it is evident that assone is only another form of a'sinni, 'stone,' cited above. Hence it appears that the Mohegan and Delaware names for the Oneida are cognate in derivation and identical in signification. Heckewelder erroneously translated W'tassone by 'stone pipe makers.'


Thus, the Iroquois Oneniute'a'ga', the Mohegan Sinnekens, and the Delaware W'lassone are synonomous and are homologous in derivation. But the Dutch, followed by other Europeans, used the Mohegan term to designate a group of four tribes, to only one of which, the Oneida, was it strictly applicable. The name Sinnekens, or Sennecaas (Visscher's map, ca. 1660), became the tribal name of the Seneca by a process of elimination which excluded from the group and from the connotation of the general name the nearer tribes as each with its own proper native name became known to the Europeans. Obviously, the last remaining tribe of the group would finally acquire as its own the general name of the group. The Delaware name for the Seneca was Mexaxlin'ni (the Maechachtinni of Heckewelder), which signifies 'great mountain'; this is, of course, a Delaware rendering of the Iroquois name for the Seneca, Djiionondowanen"aka', or Djiionondowanen'ron'non' 'People of the Great Mountain.' This name appears disguised as Trudamani (Cartier, 1534-35), Entouhonorons, Chouontouarouan=Chonontouaronon (Champlain, 1615), Ouentouaronons (Champlain, 1627), and Tsonontouan or Sonontouan (Jes. Rel., passim.).


Previous to the defeat and despoliation of the Neuters in 1651 and the Erie in 1656, the Seneca occupied the territory drained by Genesee r., eastward to the lands of the Cayuga along the line of the watershed between Seneca and Cayuga lakes.


The political history of the Seneca is largely that of the League of the Iroquois, although owing to petty jealousies among the various tribes the Seneca, like the others, sometimes acted independently in their dealings with aliens. But their independent action, appears never to have been a serious and deliberate rupture of the bonds uniting them with the federal government of the League, thus vindicating the wisdom and foresight of its founders in permitting every tribe to retain and exercise a large measure of autonomy in the structure of the federal government. It was sometimes apparently imperative that one of the tribes should enter into a treaty or other compact with its enemies, while the others might still maintain a hostile attitude toward the alien contracting party.


During 1622 the Montagnais, the Algonkin, and the Hurons sought to conclude peace with the Iroquois ( Yroguois =Mohawk division?), because "they were weary and fatigued with the wars which they had had for more than 50 years." The armistice was concluded in 1624, but was broken by the continued guerrilla warfare of the Algonkin warriors; for this reason, the Seneca ("Ouentouoronons d'autre nation, amis desdits Yrocois") killed in the "village of the Yrocois" the embassy composed of a Frenchman, Pierre Magnan, and three Algonquian ambassadors. This resulted in the renewal of the war. So, in Sept. 1627, the Iroquois, including the Seneca, declared war against the Indians and the French on the St. Lawrence and its northern affluents by sending various parties of warriors against them.


From the Jesuit Relation for 1635 (p.34, 1858) it is learned that the Seneca, after defeating the Hurons in the spring of 1634, made peace with them. The Hurons in the following year sent an embassy to Sonontouan, the chief town of the Seneca, to ratify the peace, and, while there, learned that the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Mohawk were desirous of becoming parties to the treaty.


In 1639 the war was renewed by the Hurons, who in May captured 12 prisoners from the Seneca, then regarded as a powerful people. The war continued with varying success. The Jesuit Relation for 1641 (p. 75, 1858) says the Seneca were the most feared of the enemies of the Hurons, and that they were only one day's journey from Ongniaahra (Niagara), the most easterly town of the Neuters. The Relation for 1643 (p. 61) says that the Seneca (i. e. "les Hiroquois d'en haut", including the Cayuga, the Oneida, and the Onondaga, equalled, if they did not exceed, in number and power the Hurons, who previously had had this advantage; and that the Mohawk at this time had three villages with 700 or 800 men of arms who possessed 300 arquebuses that they had obtained from the Dutch and which they used with skill and boldness. According to the Jesuit Relation for 1648 (p. 49, 1858), 300 Seneca attacked the village of the Aondironnons, and killed or captured as many of its inhabitants as possible, although this people were a dependency of the Neuters who were at peace with the Seneca at this time. This affront nearly precipitated war between the Iroquois and the Neuters.


The Seneca warriors composed the larger part of the Iroquois warriors who in 1648-49 assailed, destroyed, and dispersed the Huron tribes; it was likewise they who in 1649 sacked the chief towns of the Tionontati, or Tobacco tribe; and the Seneca also took a leading part in the defeat and subjugation of the Neuters in 1651 and of the Erie in 1656. From the Journal des PP. Jésuites for 1651-52 (Jes. Rel., Thwaites' ed., xxxvii, 97, 1898) it is learned that in 1651 the Seneca, in waging war against the Neuters, had been so signally defeated that their women and children were compelled to flee from Sonontowan, their capital, to seek refuge among the neighbouring Cayuga.


In 1652 the Seneca were plotting with the Mohawk to destroy and ruin the French settlements on the St. Lawrence. Two years later the Seneca sent an embassy to the French for the purpose of making peace with them, a movement which was probably brought about by their rupture with the Erie . But the Mohawk not desiring peace at that time with the French, perhaps on account of their desire to attack the Hurons on the id. of Orleans , Que., murdered two of the three Seneca ambassadors, the other having remained as a hostage with the French. This act almost resulted in war between the two hostile tribes; foreign affairs, however, were in such a condition as to prevent the beginning of actual hostility. On Sept. 19, 1655, Fathers Chaumonot and Dablon, after pressing invitations to do so, started from Quebec to visit and view the Seneca country, and to establish there a French habitation and teach the Seneca the articles of their faith.


In 1657 the Seneca, in carrying out the policy of the League to adopt conquered tribes upon submission and the expression of a desire to live under the form of government established by the League, had thus incorporated eleven different tribes into their body politic.


In 1652 Maryland bought from the Minqua or Susquehanna Indians, i.e. the Conestoga, all their land claims on both sides of Chesapeake bay up to the mouth of Susquehanna r. In 1663, 800 Seneca and Cayuga warriors from the Confederation of the Five Nations were defeated by the Minqua, aided by the Marylanders. The Iroquois did not terminate their hostilities until famine had so reduced the Conestoga that in 1675, when the Marylanders had disagreed with them and had withdrawn their alliance, the Conestoga were completely subdued by the Five Nations, who thereafter claimed a right to the Minqua lands to the head of Chesapeake bay .


In 1744 the influence of the French was rapidly gaining ground among the Seneca; meanwhile the astute and persuasive Col. Johnson was gradually winning the Mohawk as close allies of the British, while the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Oneida, under strong pressure from Pennsylvania and Virginia, sought to be neutral.


In 1686, 200 Seneca warriors went W. against the Miami, the Illinois in the meantime having been overcome by the Iroquois in a war lasting about five years. In 1687 the Marquis de Denonville assembled a great horde of Indians from the region of the Upper lakes and from the St. Lawrence - Hurons, Ottawa, Chippewa, Missisauga, Miami, Illinois, Montagnais, Amikwa, and others - under Durantaye, Du Lhut, and Tonti, to serve as an auxiliary force to about 1,200 French and Colonial levies, to be employed in attacking and destroying the Seneca. Having reached Irondequoit, the Seneca landing-place on lake Ontario, Denonville built there a stockade in which he left a garrison of 440 men. Thence advancing to attack the Seneca villages, he was ambushed by 600 or 800 Seneca, who charged and drove back the Colonial levies and their Indian allies, and threw the veteran regiments into disorder. Only by the overwhelming numbers of his force was Denonville saved from disastrous defeat.


In 1763, at Bloody Run and the Devils Hole, situated on Niagara r. about 4 m. below the falls, the Seneca ambushed a British supply train on the portage road from Ft. Schlosser to Ft. Niagara, only three escaping from a force of nearly 100. At a short distance from this place the same Seneca ambushed a British force composed of two companies of troops who were hastening to the aid of the supply train, only eight of whom escaped massacre. These bloody and harsh measures were the direct result of the general unrest of the Six Nations and the Western tribes, arising from the manner of the recent occupancy of the posts by the British, after the surrender of Canada by the French on Sept. 8, 1760. They contrasted the sympathetic and bountiful paternalism of the French regime with the neglect and niggardliness that characterized the British rule. Such was the state of affairs that on July 29, 1761, Sir Wm. Johnson wrote to General Amherst:

"I see plainly that there appears to be an universal jealousy amongst every nation, on account of the hasty steps they look upon we are taking towards getting possession of this country, which measures, I am certain, will never subside whilst we encroach within the limits which you may recollect have been put under the protection of the King in the year 1726, and confirmed to them by him and his successors ever since and by the orders sent to the governors not to allow any one of his subjects settling thereon . . . . but that it should remain their absolute property."

But, by the beginning of the American Revolution, so well had the British agents reconciled them to the rule of Great Britain that the Seneca, together with a large majority of the people of the Six Nations, espoused the cause of the British against the Colonies. Consequently Gen. Sullivan, in 1779, after defeating their warriors, burned their villages and destroyed their crops.


There is no historical evidence that the Seneca who were on the Ohio and the S. shore of lake Erie in the 18th and 19th centuries were chiefly an outlying colony from the Iroquois tribe of that name dwelling in New York. The significant fact that in historical times their affiliations were never with the Iroquois but rather with tribes usually hostile to them, is to be explained on the presumption that they were rather some remnant of a subjugated tribe dependent on the Seneca and dwelling on lands under the jurisdiction of their conquerors. It is a fair inference that they were largely subjugated Erie and Conestoga. Regarding the identity of these Indians, the following citation from Howe (Hist. Coll. Ohio, ii, 574, 1896) is pertinent:

"The Senecas of Sandusky - so-called - owned land and occupied 40,000 acres of choice land on the E. side of Sandusky r., being mostly in this [Seneca] and partly in Sandusky co. Thirty thousand acres of this land was granted to them on the 29th of September, 1817, at the treaty . . . of Maumee Rapids . . . . The remaining 10,000 acres, lying S. of the other, was granted by the treaty at St. Mary's, . . . 17th of September, 1818."

By the treaty concluded at Washington Feb. 28, 1831 , these Seneca ceded their lands in Ohio to the United States and agreed to emigrate S. W. of Missouri , on Neosho r. The same writer states that in 1831 "their principal chiefs were Coonstick, Small Cloud Spicer, Seneca Steel, Hard Hickory, Tall Chief, and Good Hunter, the last two of whom were their principal orators. The old chief Good Hunter told Henry C. Brish, their sub-agent, that this band [which numbered 390 in 1908] were in fact the remnant of Logan's tribe, . . . and says Mr. Brish in a communication to us: 'I cannot to this day surmise why they were called Senecas. I never found a Seneca among them. They were Cayugas - who were Mingoes - among whom were a few Oneidas , Mohawks, Onondagas, Tuscarawas, and Wyandots.' The majority of them were certainly not Cayuga, as Logan was Conestoga or Mingo on his maternal side.


In 1677 the Seneca had but four villages, but a century later the number had increased to about 30. The following are the better known Seneca towns, which, of course, were not at all contemporary. Canadasaga, Canandaigua, Caneadea, Catherine's Town, Cattaraugus, Chemung, New Chemung, Old Chemung, Chenango, Cheronderoga, Chinoshageh, Condawhaw, Connewango, Dayoitgao, Deonundagae, Deyodeshot, Deyohnegano, Deyonongdadagana, Dyosyowan, Gaandowanang, Gadaho, Gahato, Gahayanduk, Ganagweh, Ganawagus, Ganeasos, Ganedontwan, Ganogeh, Ganondasa, Ganos, Ganosgagong, Gaonsagaon, Gaousage, Gaskosada, Gathtsegwarohare, Geneseo, Gistaquat, Gwaugweh, Honeoye, Joneadih, Kanagaro (3), Kanaghsaws, Kannassarago, Kashong, Kaskonchiagon, Kaygen, Keinthe, Newtown, Oatka, Ongniaahra, Onnahee, Onoghsadago, Onondarka, Owaiski, Sheshequin, Skahasegao, Skoiyase, Sonojowauga, Tekisedaneyont, Tioniongarunte, Tonawanda, Totiakton, Tsonontowanen, Yorkjough, Yoroonwago.


The earliest estimates of the numbers of the Seneca, in 1660 and 1677, give them about 5,000. Later estimates of the population are: 3,500 (1721); 1,750 (1736); 5,000 (1765); 3,250 (1778); 2,000 (1783); 3,000 (1783); and 1,780 (1796). In 1825 those in New York were reported at 2,325. In 1850, according to Morgan, those in New York numbered 2,712, while about 210 more were on Grand River res. in Canada . In 1909 there were 213 on the Six Nations res. near Brantford , Ont., which, with those on the three reservations in New York , 2,749, would give them a total of 2,962. The proportion of Seneca now among the 4,071 Iroquois at Caughnawaga, St. Regis, and Lake of Two Mountains, Quebec, cannot be estimated.


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. .




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College