Native American Legends
The Huron-Iroquois Nations
The History And Traditional Lands Of The Huron-Iroquois
At the outset of the sixteenth century, when the five tribes or
"nations" of the Iroquois confederacy first became known
to European explorers, they were found occupying the valleys and
uplands of northern New York.
The tribes were situated in that picturesque and fruitful region
which stretches westward from the head-waters of the Hudson to the
The Mohawks, or Caniengas--as they should properly be called--possessed
the Mohawk River, and covered Lake George and Lake Champlain with
their flotillas of large canoes, managed with the boldness and skill
which, hereditary in their descendants, make them still the best
boatmen of the North American rivers.
West of the Caniengas the Oneidas held the small river and lake
which bear their name, the first in that series of beautiful lakes,
united by interlacing streams, which seemed to prefigure in the
features of nature the political constitution of the tribes who
West of the Oneidas, the imperious Onondagas, the central and,
in some respects, the ruling nation of the League, possessed the
two lakes of Onondaga and Skeneateles, together with the common
outlet of this inland lake system, the Oswego River, to its issue
into Lake Ontario.
Still proceeding westward, the lines of trail and river led to
the long and winding stretch of Lake Cayuga, about which were clustered
the towns of the people who gave their name to the lake; and beyond
them, over the wide expanse of hills and dales surrounding Lakes
Seneca and Canandaigua, were scattered the populous villages of
the Senecas, more correctly styled Sonontowanas or Mountaineers.
Such were the names and abodes of the allied nations, members of
the far- famed Kanonsionni, or League of United Households, who
were destined to become for a time the most notable and powerful
community among the native tribes of North America.
The region which has been described was not, however, the original
seat of those nations. They belonged to that linguistic family which
is known to ethnologists as the Huron-Iroquois stock. This stock
comprised the Hurons or Wyandots, the Attiwandaronks or Neutral
Nation, the Iroquois, the Eries, the Andastes or Conestogas, the
Tuscaroras, and some smaller bands. The tribes of this family occupied
a long, irregular area of inland territory, stretching from Canada
to North Carolina.
The northern nations were all clustered about the great lakes;
the southern bands held the fertile valleys bordering the head-waters
of the rivers which flowed from the Allegheny mountains. The languages
of all these tribes showed a close affinity. There can be no doubt
that their ancestors formed one body, and, indeed, dwelt at one
time (as has been well said of the ancestors of the Indo-European
populations), under one roof.
There was a Huron-Iroquois "family-pair," from which
all these tribes were descended. In what part of the world this
ancestral household resided is a question which admits of no reply,
except from the me-rest conjecture. But the evidence of language,
so far as it has yet been examined, seems to show that the Huron
clans were the older members of the group; and the clear and positive
traditions of all the surviving tribes, Hurons, Iroquois and Tuscaroras,
point. to the lower St. Lawrence as the earliest known abode of
Here the first explorer, Cartier, found Indians of this stock at
Hochelaga and Stadaconé, now the sites of Montreal and Quebec.
Centuries before his time, according to the native tradition, the
ancestors of the Huron-Iroquois family had dwelt in this locality,
or still further east and nearer to the river's mouth.
As their numbers increased, dissensions arose. The hive swarmed,
and band after band moved off to the west and south.
As they spread, they encountered people of other stocks, with whom
they had frequent wars. Their most constant and most dreaded enemies
were the tribes of the Algonkin family, a fierce and restless people,
of northern origin, who everywhere surrounded them. At one period,
however, if the concurrent traditions of both Iroquois and Algonkins
can be believed, these contending races for a time stayed their
strife, and united their forces in an alliance against a common
and formidable foe.
This foe was the nation, or perhaps the confederacy, of the Alligewi
or Talligewi, the semi-civilized "Mound-builders" of the
Ohio Valley, who have left their name to the Allegheny river and
mountains, and whose vast earthworks are still, after half-a-century
of study, the perplexity of archaeologists.
A desperate warfare ensued, which lasted about a hundred years,
and ended in the complete overthrow and destruction, or expulsion,
of the Alligewi. The survivors of the conquered people fled southward,
and are supposed to have mingled with the tribes which occupied
the region extending from the Gulf of Mexico northward to the Tennessee
river and the southern spurs of the Alleghenies.
Among these tribes, the Choctaws retained, to recent times, the
custom of raising huge mounds of earth for religious purposes and
for the sites of their habitations, a custom which they perhaps
learned from the Alligewi; and the Cherokees are supposed by some
to have preserved in their name (Tsalaki) and in their language
indications of an origin derived in part from the same people. Their
language, which shows, in its grammar and many of its words, clear
evidence of affinity with the Iroquois, has drawn the greater portion
of its vocabulary from some foreign source.
This source is conjectured to have been the speech of the Alligewi.
As the Cherokee tongue is evidently a mixed language, it is reasonable
to suppose that the Cherokees are a mixed people, and probably,
like the English, an amalgamation of conquering and conquered races.
The time which has elapsed since the overthrow of the Alligewi
is variously estimated. The most probable conjecture places it at
a period about a thousand years before the present day. It was apparently
soon after their expulsion that the tribes of the Huron-Iroquois
and the Algonkin stocks scattered themselves over the wide region
south of the Great Lakes, thus left open to their occupancy. Our
concern at present is only with the first-named family.
The native tradition of their migrations has been briefly related
by a Tuscarora Indian, David Cusick, who had acquired a sufficient
education to become a Baptist preacher. and has left us, in his
"Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations," a record
of singular value.
His confused and imperfect style, the English of a half-educated
foreigner, his simple faith in the wildest legends, and his absurd
chronology, have caused the real worth of his book, as a chronicle
of native traditions, to be overlooked.
Wherever the test of linguistic evidence, the best of all proofs
in ethnological questions, can be applied to his statements relative
to the origin and connection of the tribes, they are invariably
confirmed. From his account, from the evidence of language, and
from various corroborating indications, the course of the migrations
may, it is believed, be traced with tolerable accuracy. Their first
station or starting point, on the south side of the Lakes, was at
the mouth of the Oswego river. Advancing to the southeast the emigrants
struck the Hudson river, and, according to Cusick's story, followed
its course southward to the ocean. Here a separation took place.
A portion remained, and kept on their way toward the south; but
the "main company," repelled by the uninviting soil and
the turbulent waste of waves, and remembering the attractive region
of valleys, lakes, and streams through which they had passed, retraced
their steps northward till they reached the Mohawk river. Along
this stream and the upper waters of the Hudson they made their first
abode; and here they remained until, as their historian quaintly
and truly records, "their language was altered." The Huron
speech became the Iroquois tongue, in the form in which it is spoken
by the Caniengas, or Mohawks. In Iroquois tradition, and in the
constitution of their league, the Canienga nation ranks as the "eldest
brother" of the family.
A comparison of the dialects proves the tradition to be well founded.
The Canienga language approaches nearest to the Huron, and is undoubtedly
the source from which all the other Iroquois dialects are derived.
Cusick states positively that the other "families," as
he styles them, of the Iroquois household, leaving the Mohawks in
their original abode, proceeded step by step to the westward. The
Oneidas halted at their creek, the Onondagas at their mountain,
the Cayugas at their lake, and the Senecas or Sonontowans, the Great
Hill people, at a lofty eminence which rises south of the Canandaigua
lake. In due time, as he is careful to record, the same result happened
as had occurred with the Caniengas. The language of each canton
"was altered;" yet not so much, he might have added, but
that all the tribes could still hold intercourse, and comprehend
one another's speech.
A wider isolation and, consequently, a somewhat greater change
of language, befell the "sixth family." Pursuing their
course to the west they touched Lake Erie, and thence, turning to
the southeast, came to the Allegheny river. Cusick, however, does
not know it by this name. He calls it the Ohio,---in his uncouth
orthography and with a locative particle added, the Ouau-we-yo-ka,---which,
he says, means "a principal stream, now Mississippi."
This statement, unintelligible as at the first glance it seems,
is strictly accurate. The word Ohio undoubtedly signified, in the
ancient Iroquois speech, as it still means in the modern Tuscarora,
not "beautiful river," but "great river." It
was so called as being the main stream which receives the effluent's
of the Ohio valley. In the view of the Iroquois, this "main
stream" commences with what we call the Allegheny river, continues
in what we term the Ohio, and then flows on in what we style the
Mississippi,---of which, in their view, the upper Mississippi is
merely an affluent. In Iroquois hydrography, the Ohio--the great
river of the ancient Alligewi domain--is the central stream to which
all the rivers of the mighty West converge.
This stream the emigrants now attempted to cross.
They found, according to the native annalist, a rude bridge in
a huge grape- vine which trailed its length across the stream. Over
this a part of the company passed, and then, unfortunately, the
vine broke. The residue, unable to cross, remained on the hither
side, and became afterwards the enemies of those who had passed
over. Cusick anticipates that his story of the grape- vine may seem
to some incredible; but he asks, with amusing simplicity, "why
more so than that the Israelites should cross the Red Sea on dry
land?" That the precise incident, thus frankly admitted to
be of a miraculous character, really took place, we are not required
to believe. But that emigrants of the Huron-Iroquois stock penetrated
southward along the Allegheny range, and that some of them remained
near the river of that name, is undoubted fact.
Those who thus remained were known by various names, mostly derived
from one root--Andastes, Andastogues, Conestogas, and the like--and
bore a somewhat memorable part in Iroquois and Pennsylvanian history.
Those who continued their course beyond the river found no place
sufficiently inviting to arrest their march until they arrived at
the fertile vales which spread, intersected by many lucid streams,
between the Roanoke and the Neuse rivers. Here they fixed their
abode, and became the ancestors of the powerful Tuscarora nation.
In the early part of the eighteenth century, just before its disastrous
war with the colonies, this nation, according to the Carolina surveyor,
Lawson, numbered fifteen towns, and could set in the field a force
of twelve hundred warriors.
The Eries, who dwelt west of the Senecas, along the southern shore
of the lake which now retains their name, were, according to Cusick,
an offshoot of the Seneca tribe; and there is no reason for doubting
the correctness of his statement. After their overthrow by the Iroquois,
in 1656, many of the Eries were incorporated with the ancestral
nation, and contributed, with other accessions from the Hurons and
the Attiwandaronks, to swell its numbers far beyond those of the
other nations of the confederacy.
To conclude this review of the Huron-Iroquois group, something
further should be said about the fortunes of the parent tribe, or
rather congeries of tribes,---for the Huron household, like the
Iroquois, had become divided into several sects. Like the Iroquois,
also, they have not lacked an annalist of their own race. A Wyandot
Indian, Peter Doyentate Clarke, who emigrated with the main body
of his people to the Indian Territory, and afterwards returned for
a time to the remnant of his tribe dwelling near Amherstburg, in
Canada, published in 1870 a small volume entitled "Origin and
Traditional History of the Wyandots."
The English education of the writer, like that of the Tuscarora
historian, was defective; and it is evident that his people, in
their many wanderings, had lost much of their legendary lore. But
the fact that they resided in ancient times near the present site
of Montreal, in close vicinity to the Iroquois (whom he styles,
after their largest tribe, the Senecas), is recorded as a well-
remembered portion of their history. The flight of the Wyandots
to the northwest is declared to have been caused by a war which
broke out between them and the Iroquois.
This statement is opposed to the common opinion, which ascribes
the expulsion of the Hurons from their eastern abode to the hostility
of the Algonkins. It is, however, probably correct; for the Hurons
retreated into the midst of the Algonkin tribes, with whom they
were found by Champlain to be on terms of amity and even of alliance,
while they were engaged in a deadly war with the Iroquois. The place
to which they withdrew was a nook in the Georgian Bay, where their
towns and well-cultivated fields excited the admiration of the great
French explorer. Their object evidently was to place as. wide a
space as possible between themselves and their inveterate enemies.
Unfortunately, as is well known, this precaution, and even the aid
of their Algonkin and French allies, proved inadequate to save them.
The story of their disastrous overthrow, traced by the masterly
hand of Parkman, is one of the most dismal passages of aboriginal
The only people of this stock remaining to be noticed are the Attiwandaronks,
or Neutral Nation. They dwelt south of the Hurons, on the northern
borders of Lakes Erie and Ontario. They had, indeed, a few towns
beyond those lakes, situated east of the Niagara river, between
the Iroquois and the Eries. They received their name of Neutrals
from the fact that in the war between the Iroquois and the Hurons
they remained at peace with both parties.
This policy, however, did not save them from the fate which overtook
their Huron friends. In the year 1650 the Iroquois set upon them,
destroyed their towns, and dispersed the inhabitants, carrying off
great numbers of them, as was their custom, to be incorporated with
their own population. Of their language we only know that it differed
but slightly from the Huron.
Whether they were an offshoot from the Hurons or from the Iroquois
is uncertain. It is not unlikely that their separation from the
parent stock took place earlier than that of the Iroquois, and that
they were thus enabled for a time to avoid becoming embroiled in
the quarrel between the two great divisions of their race.
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