Iroquois League

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Iroquois League

IROQUOIS LEAGUE. The Iroquois League was the name of the confederation of six distinct Iroquoian-speaking Indian nations: the Mohawks, the

Table 1. Number of Warriors in the Iroquois League
The Gale Group. Source: J. N. B. Hewett, Handbook of American Indians.

Cayugas, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Senecas, and the Tuscaroras. The Iroquois were arguably the most powerful and important group of American Indians in eastern North America during the eighteenth century. They were firm British allies in the middle decades of the eighteenth century but were sharply divided by the American Revolution. Members of the Iroquois League fought on both the British and American sides during that conflict, and campaigns conducted within the Iroquois homeland proved particularly devastating.


For most of the eighteenth century, the Iroquois League occupied most of what became upstate New York. The five original nations of the league—the Mohawks, the Cayugas, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, and the Senecas—had been joined together in an alliance that predated European contact. The Iroquois League was not only a political organization but a spiritual one as well, as the origins of the confederation were explained through an elaborate story in the Iroquois mythos that anthropologists and historians label the Deganawidah Epic. The proper name for the political-spiritual Iroquois League was the Great League of Peace and Power, or the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois word meaning longhouse. Europeans most often referred to the Iroquois League first as the Five Nations and then as the Six Nations after the addition of the Tuscaroras to the League in 1722. The Iroquois political forms included not only the league that bound the member nations to one another, but also a set of foreign alliances, conceptualized as fictive kinship relationships, known as the Covenant Chain. This alliance structure tied together neighboring Indian nations, such as the Delawares, as well as the British colonies that had dealings with the Iroquois and their neighbors. Periodic ceremonies conducted at Albany by colonial officials—notably Sir William Johnson, superintendent of the Northern Indian Department—and Iroquois leaders, which included the exchange of trade goods, served to renew and "brighten" the Chain. It was through this alliance structure that the Iroquois remained British allies during the Seven Years' War and into the early part of the American Revolution. It was also under the aegis of the Covenant Chain that the Iroquois claimed title to western lands they sold to various colonial governments.


The Iroquois League and the Covenant Chain Alliance were buffeted in the early years of the American Revolution, and the conflict ultimately split the League and its alliances. In July 1774 the longtime broker of relations between the Iroquois, neighboring Indians, and the British colonists, Sir William Johnson, died. His nephew, Colonel Guy Johnson, succeeded him as superintendent of the Northern Indian Department. Shortly after the death of Sir William, the Iroquois League refused to assist the Shawnee Indians in their conflict against the colony of Virginia in 1774 known as Lord Dunmore's War. The tensions of 1774 were followed by the outbreak of open hostilities between the British government and the leadership of the American colonies in early 1775.

At the start of the American Revolution the Iroquois League desired to remain neutral and managed to preserve its neutrality during the first year and a half of the conflict. General Thomas Gage warned Guy Johnson that the New England revolutionaries might attempt to influence the Iroquois, especially through the activities of Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland, who had been living with the Oneidas since the early 1760s. Johnson sent an Anglican missionary to the Oneida towns to counter Kirkland's influence and watched the latter closely. In 1775 the governor of Canada, Guy Carleton, threatened the Iroquois with seizure of their lands if they did not support the crown against the colonists.


At the same time, Kirkland began to advise the Continental Congress on how it might conduct diplomacy with the Iroquois League. Congress had created an Indian Committee in July 1775 and, listening to Kirkland's advice, it opened negotiations with several Iroquois leaders in August 1775 at Albany. General Philip Schuyler, one of several Indian commissioners for the Northern Department, took the lead in negotiations, convening the conference at Albany and a conference at German Flats the next year. Schuyler could never negotiate with all of the Six Nations, and the Oneidas and Tuscaroras formed the bulk of his negotiating partners. Until the spring of 1776, they were not willing to abandon neutrality. However, by that point in time, the bulk of the Senecas, Cayugas, and Mohawks, along with many Onondagas, openly sided with Guy Johnson and the British government. Fearing capture by Patriot militias, Johnson had left the Mohawk River Valley in the summer of 1775. The British government had granted lands in Canada to the Mohawks and their leader, Joseph Brant, or Thayendenaga. Many Iroquois communities relocated to the western part of modern upstate New York, where the British post of Fort Niagara served as a communication and commercial center. The British willingness to provide trade goods and a perception that the Americans were more likely to demand further land cessions than were the British both made the western Iroquois steady allies of the British. In contrast, the more easterly Oneidas and Tuscaroras, responsive to Schuyler's diplomacy and Kirkland's influence, were openly on the American side by the end of 1776.


The campaigns of the War of the American Revolution experienced by the member nations of the Iroquois League proved devastating in a number of respects. The British called on their Iroquois allies to assist them in the campaign of 1777 to conquer the Hudson Valley and seal off New England from the rest of the United States. Not only did the that campaign witness the defeat of the main invasion force under General John Burgoyne, but British and Iroquois forces under Barry St. Leger, attempting to secure Fort Stanwix and the Mohawk Valley, retreated to Canada in the wake of an advance by Benedict Arnold. Before their retreat, St. Leger's forces defeated an American force at the Battle of Oriskany, a bloody battle that shocked many Iroquois warriors who participated and survived. Two years later, in the late summer and autumn of 1779, General John Sullivan led a detachment of the Continental army into the Iroquois homelands. Sullivan's forces destroyed forty Iroquois towns and burned corn-fields containing 160,000 bushels of corn. Designed to weaken Iroquois support for the British cause, the Sullivan expedition only served to stiffen the resistance of the British-allied western Iroquois to the United States. The expedition did cause many of the Iroquois who had lost their homes to move to the vicinity of Fort Niagara.


With the Treaty of Paris (1783), the sovereignty of the United States and the state of New York over Iroquoia would no longer be contested by the British. Negotiations in September and October of 1784 at Fort Stanwix helped determine how the peace settlement would affect the Iroquois League. Commissioners from the Continental Congress and from the state of New York called representatives from the Iroquois League formally to bring peace to the region. In September 1784, a delegation from the state of New York, led by Governor George Clinton, offered all members of the Iroquois League the opportunity to return to New York if they would consent to a large sale of lands, at which every Iroquois leader balked. In October 1784 the congressional commissioners met with a smaller number of Iroquois leaders. The commissioners did not ask for a large land sale, but only a confirmation of previous lands sold as well as recognition that the Treaty of Paris had marked out all of the British-allied Iroquois as defeated and conquered peoples, thus giving the Americans rights to any Iroquois lands in the future. The Iroquois leaders present signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in order to sign a treaty with Congress and ward off New York, but they would protest American claims to land under so-called "conquest theory" throughout the 1780s.

The Treaties of Paris and Fort Stanwix served to divide the Iroquois League. Many members of the Iroquois League followed Mohawk Joseph Brant to Canada. Governor Frederick Haldimand had given Brant a large grant of land along the Grand River (in modern-day Ontario), where a First Nations Reserve continues to exist in the twenty-first century. The nations of the Iroquois also continue to inhabit reservations in New York and elsewhere in the United States.

SEE ALSO Brant, Joseph; Fort Stanwix, Treaty of; Johnson, Guy; Johnson, Sir William; Schuyler, Philip John; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois.


Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Fischer, Joseph R. A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign against the Iroquois, July-September 1779. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Hinderaker, Eric. Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673–1800. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of the European Colonization. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

                                        revised by Leonard J. Sadosky