Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

The Rise and Fall of the Iroquois Confederacy: Its Influence on Early American History

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

The Rise and Fall of the Iroquois Confederacy: Its Influence on Early American History

Article excerpt

The Iroquois Nation was the most powerful Indian military alliance in the Eastern part of North America and probably the most successful alliance of any kind between so many important tribes. The idea for the alliance was prompted by the bloodshed suffered by the five tribes in frequent warfare. Eventually the tribes formed a league governed by a Great Council, in which the Mohawk and Seneca formed the Upper House and the Oneida and Cayuga the Lower House. The Onondaga provided the presiding officer and intervened when there was a tie vote. Each tribe was viewed as a nation and, as such, individual nations could, and frequently did, make war as separate powers. In 1710, the Tuscaroras were admitted as a sixth nation without voting rights in the Great Council.

This paper will attempt to describe the history of the Iroquois Confederacy and its impact on our founding fathers, our constitution and our early history. It will attempt to answer the question how five tribes who frequently fought against each other became a powerful confederacy which evolved into a sophisticated democracy whose notions of equality and liberty extended to women as well as men.


The people whom the first European explorers encountered were not an original type who had migrated from Asia, but an amalgamation of many types, carrying in their veins blended blood, a mixture derived from successive waves of Asiatic migrants, and from the shifting of peoples who themselves had dwelt from Paleolithic times in southern, northern, and western regions of America.

The incomparable political organization for which the Iroquois were famed did not exist in 1534 when Jacques Cartier opened the Gaspe Basin to European exploitation. Tribes of the Iroquoian linguistic stock then were politically independent, were almost constantly at war with each other and were spread over an enormous area, extending from the St. Lawrence Valley and Lakes Ontario and Erie to the deep south and on the East to North Carolina and Virginia.

It was largely the work of two men, Dekanawida, who according to legend was a Huron refugee and a powerful Mohawk medicine man, Hiawatha, who preached that political and military unity would not only bring an end to costly wars of revenge, but would bring about a peace based upon equality and brotherhood among all Indians. Their pleas were successful, but besides bringing peace among the five nations the way was paved for the organization of the most formidable military machine ever created.

During the seventeenth century, Iroquois legions repeatedly swept upon weaker peoples extending destruction and devastation as far west as Illinois, far up the St. Lawrence, south through Pennsylvania and into southern areas. After they had been supplied with firearms by the Dutch traders along the Hudson River, their domination was acknowledged from the Ottawa River in Canada to the Tennessee River and from the Kennebeck River to the Illinois River and Lake Michigan. Further westward advance by them was stopped by the Chippewa. The Cherokee and the Catawba were able to establish a barrier against them in the south. The French were able to stand against them in the St. Lawrence Valley. In between these widely separated boundaries, however, no force could repel them.

Their wars were waged primarily to secure and perpetuate their political superiority and independence with economic gain a close but secondary consideration. They practiced ferocious cruelty toward their prisoners burning even their unadopted women and child captives. Yet they were not only unrelenting, cruel savages. One observer, a noted authority on the Iroquois, stated that for all of their savagery, "they were a kindly and affectionate people, full of keen sympathy for kin and friends in distress, kind and deferential to their women, exceedingly fond of their children, anxiously striving for peace and good will among men, and profoundly imbued with a just reverence for the constitution of their commonwealth and for their founders. …

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