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 Genesee.
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 possessed them.
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 their stock.
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 history.
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.
Return to Iroquois Legends