Rise of the Iroquois

What happened after the Peacmakers and how the Iroquois got the nickname the Romans of the North.

Coming of the Whites.

The reforms of the Peacemaker made the Iroquois the dominant military and political force in North Eastern America for the next 300 years or so. The Great League came into contact with the Europeans in 1534 when the French Explorer Jaques Cartier met a hunting parting from the St Lawrence, their later encounters with the other great French explorer between 1608-10 Samuel de Champlain gave the Mohawks their great distrust of the French the French that gave them the name “Iroquois” seemingly corrupted from the word Snakes or adders given to the Great League by the Ojibwa, the English coined the less romantic five (later six) nations. The fur trade changed everything in North America. and in an effort to secure land rich in valuable animals the Iroquois engaged in a series of conflicts based on getting a good supply of pelts and dominating the trade, this batch of wars against French allied tribes was called the Beaver Wars and lasted from the early 1640s to about 1667.

The Fur Trade in action, Balance of Honesty Robert Griffing.
The Fur Trade in action, Balance of Honesty Robert Griffing.

Then During what the English called King Williams War, the Iroquois were allies of England, they soon found out though that the English could not effectively protect them nor hold up their side of the alliance. When the French finally decided to end the matter by invading their land, the five nations were on their own and suffered accordingly.

Between 1665-67 each of the five nations buried the hatchet with France, and when they did the constant warring stopped. Thereafter the Confederacy was infiltrated by Christian missionaries who caused internal turmoil for the Iroquois, and a swing in some parts back towards the English.

But while the Iroquois began to get friendly with the English, the French were building up a counter balance to their power with their traditional enemies, by deftly integrating their system of colonial government with Indian culture and politics. Seeing that a vast horde of enemies could become united against them and that the English were relatively weak military allies, the confederacy was divided about what to do and a civil war threatened to split the league apart.

Good sense prevailed however and a crafty alternative was reached. In 1701 the Iroquois hammered out an internal truce, then made peace with France and then at the same time renewed it with England. From then on the Confederacy decided to act aloof from European wars and play French off against English.


The Romans of the North.

This allowed the Iroquois to remain politically independent from the European powers and concentrate giving their young warriors exercise by fighting against their southern rivals, Cherokees and Catawbas, and making peace with the French Allied Algonquians of the Great Lake’s basin in what the French called pays d’en haut and upper Mississippi.

By Going neutral the five nations showed they had learned the lesson of the Beaver Wars, by remaining aloof from the white wars they remained strong, while the Europeans grew weak by infighting, they had no Peacemaker to unite them. It seemed that by following the teachings of Deganawidah they would indeed grow stronger. By threatening to sway one way or another, they managed to get the British or French to dance a particular way or jump a particular height, depending on how the wind blew in the Ohio valley everyone wanted to be a friend of Onondaga. They did this by giving ceremonial gifts of strings or belts of wampum to ensure friendship, the French especially were experts at integrating their officers into Indian societies, and quickly caught on to the ritualised diplomacy taught to Iroquois by the peacemaker Deganawidah, although as time went on Wampum shells were replaced by coloured glass imitations manufactured by Europeans. This gave them a wider range of colours and cut out the need for the Iroquois to make it themselves. The replacement of the sacred Wampum with cheap alternatives was only one of the many European goods offered as gifts.

They also sold themselves as mediators between the Europeans and the Indians over whom they claimed overlordship, becoming power brokers and middle men controlling the strategic Ohio valley coveted by both the French English. The control of this area attracted allot of attention and both powers courted the Iroquois to gain a hold on it. Both wanted it and both Didn’t want the other to have it if they couldn’t, and the confederacy was all to happy to turn this to their advantage. At this time it was reckoned that the Iroquois with 1,100 warriors controlled a number of western tribes numbering 9,300, one commentator went so far as to call them the Romans of the North. However a vital factor made them the focus of European attention, which their own hubris and certainty in their own superiority blinded them to. The Ohio, this strategic land had a strange hypnotic hold on the two European Powers that jostled on either side of them, and while the Iroquois continued to cockily dangle the Ohio Valley in the face of the French and English, they ended up giving them both the impression that they owned it.


The Great Game.

Since Iroquois policy was based on how nimbly Onondaga could manoeuvre between the two powers without getting attached to either, a war in which they had to choose sides like in Queen Anne’s War (1701-1713) threatened to destroy the fabric of the confederacy. In this case when pressed to act by the British in 1709 they delayed a planned invasion of Canada and dragged their feet until it was called off. They kept the British friendly to them though and sent a delegation of chief’s to London in 1710. Four Mohawk chiefs and a Mahican of the Algonquian peoples went across the Atlantic. The three Mohawk were: Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow of the Bear Clan, called King of Maguas, with the Christian name Peter Brant, (grandfather of Joseph Brant); Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row of the Wolf Clan, called King of Canajoharie (“Great Boiling Pot”), or John of Canajoharie; and Tee Yee Ho Ga Row, meaning “Double Life”, of the Wolf Clan, also called Hendrick Tejonihokarawa or King Hendrick. The Mahican chief was Etow Oh Koam of the Turtle Clan, the Algonquian-speaking Mahican people were not part of the Iroquois Confederacy, they were one of its nominal vassals. Five chiefs set out, but one died in mid-Atlantic whose name apparently is unrecorded. They where a great hit on the social scene and got their portraits painted by Jan Verelst.

The Iroquois delegation of 1710.
The Iroquois delegation of 1710.

Meanwhile Back in America in 1711 while acting enthusiastic about another planned invasion the Iroquois secretly told the French about it which essentially put paid to that scheme too.

During the 30 years peace between France and Britain from 1713 to 1744 the Iroquois met regularly with both nations, allowing them to play the same old game, in 1722 the five nations became six when the Oneida sponsored the incorporation of the Tuscaroras into the league, and they continued to play landlord with the other Indians. However their burgeoning influence in the great era of neutrality only served to make it harder for them to manoeuvre if it came to another war, should France and Britain get into a death struggle over the Ohio or other contested lands, the confederacy would be forced to pick sides.


With us or against us.

In 1754 local rivalries, largely between Virginia and France over the Ohio exploded in a struggle that precluded neutrality, and quickly escalated into an international conflict, especially since it had been as much chief Hendrick Tanaghrisson’s tomahawk, as George Washington’s musket that sparked hostilities at Jumonville Glen. Despite this during the early stages of the French and Indian War it looked as if the Confederacy would side with the French who had a much better Indian policy than the British. But thanks to the strenuous efforts of the remarkable Indian agent William Johnson the Iroquois found themselves taking up the hatchet against the French, making a decisive contribution on the wining side. 

George Washington after the ambush at Jumonville Glen 1754.
George Washington after the ambush at Jumonville Glen 1754. By Bryant White.

After the peace of Paris in 1762 it seemed as if the Iroquois problems were over. With the French out of the way they were free to be as friendly with the British as they liked. They were not destined to see wether they would prove as loyal as they had been, Indeed if the British were never given a chance to properly betray their native allies nor rest on the laurels of their conquest. In 1763 commander in chief Geoffrey Amherst’s strict Indian policy, which was an insult to the Great Law, sparked the Indian war known as Pontiac’s Uprising, which Johnson managed to keep the Iroquois from joining the “Rebel” Indians. When that ended in 1766 there was barely time to draw breath before the American Colonies revolted in 1776. 

At first the Iroquois decided that this was a war between Englishmen and had nothing to do with them. They attempted to stand on the time honoured policy of neutrality, probably hoping the war would weaken whoever won enhancing their own position again, however it was not to be. This stance was eroded by agents from both sides, as small groups of the confederacy were persuaded to join one or the other. Separate  war leaders caused factions to arise in the confederacy. One of the most influential of whom was Captain Joseph Brant, the great war chief Theyendenagea.


See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.



One Reply to “Rise of the Iroquois”

  1. With around 1,100 the Iroquois had a sizable fighting force, though it seemed the politics and subversion of competing interests from and collateral damage from the French/British/American conflicts helped weaken what was likely the most dominant group in North Eastern America.

    300 years is also a long time to hold that position. No doubt the discipline and beliefs of its people helped make their peace last so long. I wonder what the British promised any of the Iroquois people for their loyalty, and if/how much they might have delivered in the mid-late 18th century. Great post, surely an enjoyable adventure in historyland for me.

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