The Powerful Iroquois Confederacy of the Northeast

Fort Amsterdam was one of the many Dutch forts established in New York

Fort Amsterdam was one of the many Dutch forts established in New York

Beginning in 1610 the Dutch established a series of seasonal trading posts on the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, including one on Castle Island at the eastern edge of Mohawk territory near present-day Albany.

This removed the Iroquois’ need to rely on the French and their allied tribes to travel through their lands to reach European traders. It also offered the opportunity to trade valuable goods, such as firearms, iron tools, and blankets in exchange for animal pelts. The tribes then began large-scale hunting for furs.

This soon led to stiff competition between the Iroquois and other neighboring tribes who supported the French. These included many of their traditional enemies such as the Huron and Neutral Confederacies, Tionontati, Erie, and Susquehannock.

By the 1630s, the Iroquois had become fully armed with European weaponry through their trade with the Dutch and many of their warriors were expert gunmen, enabling them to start upon a career of conquest which made the Iroquois name a terror for a thousand miles.

By 1640, the beaver had largely disappeared from the Hudson Valley. The tribe, having become dependent upon the items they received in exchange for furs, began a campaign referred to as the Beaver Wars, in which they fought other tribes to expand the control of their lands and gain access to more fur-bearing game animals.

Jesuit Missionary

Jesuit Missionary

In 1642 the Jesuit missionary Jogues, while on his way to the Huron, was taken by a Mohawk war party and cruelly tortured until he was rescued by the Dutch. The same thing happened to Jesuit Bresani in 1644. In 1646, on the conclusion of an uncertain peace with the Iroquois, Father Jogues again offered himself for the Mohawk mission, but shortly after his arrival was condemned and tortured to death on the charge of being the cause of a pestilence and a plague upon the crops.

Between 1648 and 1680, the Iroquois Confederacy drove out the Huron in 1649, the Shawnee, and Tionontati in 1650, the Neutral Nation in 1651, the Erie Tribe in 1657, the Conestoga in 1675, and the Susquehannock in 1680. Those who lived were incorporated into the Iroquois tribes. Considered one of the bloodiest series of conflicts in North America, these other tribes were pushed westward to the Mississippi River, or southward into the Carolinas.

The conflict slowed when the Iroquois lost their Dutch allies after New York was taken over by the English in 1664.

During the course of the 17th century, the Iroquois had acquired a fearsome reputation among the Europeans, and it was the policy of the Six Nations to use this reputation to play off the French against the British in order to extract the maximum amount of material rewards. In 1689, the English Crown provided the Six Nations goods worth £100 in exchange for help against the French and in 1693 the Iroquois received goods worth £600 from the English.

Iroquois in War

Iroquois in War

During King William’s War of 1689-1697, they were allied with the English and fought with them again during Queen Anne’s War from 1702 to 1713. During this war, arrangements were made for three Mohawk chiefs and a Mahican chief to travel to London in 1710 to meet with Queen Anne in an effort to seal an alliance with the British. Queen Anne was so impressed by her visitors that she commissioned their portraits by court painter. The portraits are believed to be the earliest surviving oil portraits of Aboriginal peoples taken from life.

The Iroquois Confederacy had a population of about 12,000 people at its peak in 1700. By that time, they had subdued all the principal Indian nations in the territory now comprised of New York, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Northern Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New England, and southeast Canada.

After the 1701 peace treaty with the French, the Iroquois remained mostly neutral. However, in the same year, they received £800 in goods from the British.

At this time, the French, Dutch and British colonists in both New France (Canada) and what would become the Thirteen Colonies, recognized a need to gain favor with the Iroquois people.

Tuscarora Chief

Tuscarora Chief

In 1714, the Tuscarora of North Carolina, who had been defeated by the colonists, joined the Iroquois Confederacy, which was afterward known as the Six Nations. However, the Tuscarora would achieve full political equality only after long years of probation as “infants”, “boys”, and “observers”.

The Iroquois chose to ally with the English which became crucial during the French and Indian War, which began in 1754. During the war, the British and Iroquois fought the French and their Algonquin allies. The Iroquois hoped that aiding the British would bring favors after the war. When the war was over in 1763, the British government used the Iroquois conquests as a claim to the old Northwest Territory and issued a proclamation which restricted white settlement beyond the Appalachians. However, this was largely ignored by the settlers and local governments.

When the American Revolution began in 1775, the tribes of Iroquois Confederacy divided, with the Oneida and the Tuscarora siding with the Americans and the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, the Seneca remaining loyal to Great Britain. This marked the first major split among the Six Nations.

Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant by Charles Willson Peale

Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant by Charles Willson Peale

After a series of successful operations against frontier settlements, led by the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant and his British allies, the United States reacted with vengeance. In 1779, George Washington ordered Colonel Daniel Brodhead and General John Sullivan to lead expeditions against the Iroquois nations to “not merely overrun, but destroy,” the British-Indian alliance. The campaign successfully ended the ability of the British and Iroquois to mount any further significant attacks on American settlements.

With the British defeated, the war ended in 1783. They gave up the Iroquois territory without consulting with the tribes, who were forced to relocate. At that time, most of the Iroquois moved to Canada where they were given land by the British.

Those remaining in New York were required to live mostly on reservations.

By 1800, the Iroquois had been reduced to a population of just 4,000 due to wars and diseases.

The Iroquois population recovered by 1910 to about 8,000 in the United States at which time they were living in New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Even more were living in Canada.

Today, there are approximately 28,000 living in the United States and approximately 30,000 more in Canada In New York, the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations are federally recognized. The Oneida are also recognized in Wisconsin, and the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe is recognized in Oklahoma.

©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, October 2018


Iroquois Warriors

Iroquois Warriors

Also See:

Indian Wars

Native American Photo Galleries

Native Americans – First Owners of America

Native American Tribes List


The Baldwin Project

Catholic Encyclopedia

New World Encyclopedia

U.S. History


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