Iroquois Confederacy

Colonial America to 19th Century

The Iroquois Confederacy — or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — was a league made up of six distinct Native American Indian nations that spoke the same language. The Confederacy is most well-known for its role in the Fur Trade and the major wars that shaped the American Colonies.

Cornplanter, Portrait, 1796, Bartoli, NYHS

Cornplanter was a member of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Tribe. This painting was done by F. Bertoli in 1796. Image Source: New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

What was the Iroquois Confederacy?

The Iroquois Confederacy — also known as the Six Nations and the Haudenosaunee — was a league made up of six distinct Native American Indian nations that spoke the same language, called “Iroquois.” The nations were the Mohawks, Cayugas, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras. The Confederacy held significant influence and importance among Indians in eastern North America during the Colonial Era and into the 19th Century. With a population of about 8,500 people living in settlements in New York and northern Pennsylvania, the Iroquois Confederacy maintained a prominent role in the struggle for dominance over the Great Lakes Region and the Fur Trade. As the British gained control of North America, the Iroquois allied with them, but the alliance led to division among the Iroquois nations during the American Revolutionary War. Following the war, many Iroquois were displaced as America expanded westward.

Iroquois Confederacy Facts

The nations that make up the Confederacy called themselves “Haudenosaunee,” meaning “people of the longhouses.” They also used the name “Great League of Peace.”

The name “Iroquois” was used by the French, and is believed to have been taken from the Algonquian word, “Irinakhoiw,” meaning “rattlesnake.”

The original five nations who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The British referred to them as the Five Nations.

The initial purpose of the Confederacy was to end conflicts between the five nations. As Europeans moved into the region, the purpose expanded to managing treaties and relationships with the French, English, and others.

Around 1722, the Tuscarora left North Carolina, moved north, and joined the Confederacy. Afterward, the British referred to the Confederacy as the Six Nations.

The Iroquois often adopted smaller tribes into the Confederacy, but they were not full members. The Iroquois also considered some tribes, like the Shawnee and Lenape, to be part of the Confederacy by conquest.

The tribes that made up the Six Nations primarily lived in the Great Lakes Region, including most of present-day upstate New York, but also lived as far south as Pennsylvania and later in the Ohio Country.

Iroquois Confederacy Society

Longhouses and Villages

Longhouses were communal buildings that were the center of activity in Iroquois villages, which were often found in fortified towns that were surrounded by palisades. The towns also operated as trading posts, and the palisades offered protection from attacks.

Inside each longhouse was a series of hearths, which identified each group that lived within its walls.

Matrilineal Descent

In Iroquois society, ancestry was traced through women. Within each longhouse was a group of women and the eldest served as the matriarch and directed the daily activities. Inheritance and political succession also ran through the matriarchs. When the women married, the men joined their longhouse.

The Nine Clans of the Iroquois

There were nine Iroquois clans and their names were based on animals. Members of a clan were considered families, even if they lived in separate villages.

The nine clans were: Turtle, Bear, Wolf, Hawk, Heron, Beaver, Deer, Snipe, and Eel.

Each clan had a Clan Mother, who was responsible for overseeing the clan, directing its activities, and selecting men to represent the clan at the Iroquois Grand Council.

Iroquois Confederacy Government and Politics

The Great Law of Peace

The Great Law of Peace is the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, which is recorded on wampum belts. It is both a political and religious tradition, shared orally, as the laws are found within the story of the prophet Deganawida — the Peacemaker — and Hiawatha, an Onondaga chief.

The wampum belts represented a “chain” that joined the nations together. At the center was the Great Tree of Peace, which represented the Onandaga. 

Iroquois Grand Coucil

The Great Law of Peace established the Grand Council, which included 50 sachems — chiefs — who were responsible for meeting and discussing solutions to problems.

The Grand Council had the power to make treaties and alliances with outsiders and was responsible for keeping peace between the nations.

The older tribes, the Mohawk and Seneca, sat on one side during council meetings, while the Cayuga and Oneida sat on the other. The Onondaga sat in the middle, which is where they were geographically located.

In the event there was a disagreement, the Onondaga had the deciding vote. They were also known as the “Fire Keepers” and hosted all meetings of the Grand Council.

The Tuscaroras did not have a vote on the Grand Council and were only permitted to speak if it helped the other nations. Further, if they had an issue, it had to be presented through the Cayuga.

As part of the matrilineal society, the participants in the Grand Council were chosen by the Clan Mothers.

Chiefs and Clan Mothers

Chiefs were chosen by Clan Mothers to participate in the Grand Council. Each chief held the title for life and they were expected to serve as mentors and role models.

Clan Mothers are responsible for overseeing the welfare of each clan and the Chief. Each Clan Mother had her own wampum belt that was passed down to a daughter or female relative. The Clan Mothers were also responsible for mentoring and setting an example for others, and they were also tasked with naming children and approving marriages.

Each Clan Mother had Faith Keepers who helped ensure the ceremonial and religious traditions were kept.

The Fur Trade and the Beaver Wars

The Beaver Wars were a series of battles that were fought over control of the Fur Trade in Colonial America. During the wars, the Iroquois Confederacy took control of the Fur Trade, eliminated rival Native American Indian tribes, and terrorized French settlements. The French and their Indian allies responded with attacks on Iroquois villages and English settlements. The conflict lasted for nearly a century and ended with the Peace of Montreal in 1701.

Samuel de Champlain, Fighting Iroquois, 1609, Illustration
This illustration depicts Samuel de Champlain fighting the Iroquois in 1609. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Covenant Chain with the English

The Covenant Chain was a treaty, represented by a wampum belt, that allied the Iroquois Confederacy with the British Colonies. The Covenant Chain was renewed with meetings between Iroquois leaders and British agents, including Sir William Johnson.

After settlers moved too far west, the Iroquois announced the Covenant Chain was broken. Soon after, colonial governors found out the French were building forts in the Ohio Country. 

In England, the Board of Trade was concerned war was imminent, and believed the alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy was vital to the safety of the American Colonies. The Board of Trade instructed George Clinton, the Governor of New York, to invite colonial leaders and Iroquois leaders to a conference to mend the relationship and restore the Covenant Chain.

The conference was held in Albany, New York from June 19, 1754, to July 11, 1754. After lengthy discussions, including a speech from the Mohawk chief, Theyanoguin, who was also known as King Hendrick, the Covenant Chain was restored. 

Hendrick fought with the British during the French and Indian War and was killed at the Battle of Lake George (September 8, 1755).

King Hendrick, Theyanoguin, Engraving
This engraving is believed to be of King Hendrick, Theyanoguin. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Iroquois Confederacy and the French and Indian War

At the outset of the war, the Seneca allied with the French, due to their trade relationship. However, all five Iroquois nations were allied with the British by 1758. Iroquois warriors participated in the capture of Fort Niagara in 1759 and the Montreal Campaign of 1760, which led to the surrender of New France to Britain.

The Seneca and Pontiac’s Rebellion

At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, left Great Britain in control of a vast new empire in North America. 

As part of the treaty, France turned most of its territory in North America over to Britain. This included lands in the Ohio Country, Illinois Country, and the Great Lakes Region. Although the French laid claim to the land, very few French colonists lived in the region. 

The primary inhabitants were from the Native American Indian tribes, like the Ottawa, who also utilized it for their hunting grounds.

Soon after, the Indians realized the British did not intend to keep their promises. Colonists living on the Eastern Seaboard also had other ideas. For them, the land on the other side of the mountains represented new opportunities for westward expansion.

An Ottawa chief, Pontiac, and a Seneca chief, Kyashuta, urged Indian tribes in the Ohio Country and the Great Lakes region to resume warfare with the British to push them off their lands. Pontiac worked with the tribes in the west, toward Detroit, and Kyashuta worked with tribes in the east, toward western New York.

Battle of Bushy Run, Watercolor
The Battle of Bushy Run took place during Pontiac’s Rebellion. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The uprising started with a surprise attack on Fort Detroit on May 9, 1763. Pontiac led roughly 300 warriors against the British. However, the plot was exposed, which helped the British prepare for the attack. Pontiac laid siege to the fort, which lasted until November. Similar attacks took place throughout the Ohio Country and western Pennsylvania during the spring and summer of 1763.

In October 1763, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains and reserved the land in the Ohio Country as hunting grounds for the Indians.

Despite the Proclamation, violence continued into the fall of 1764 when the British sent two expeditions into the region to put down the rebellion. Most of the Indian nations agreed to peace, but Pontiac refused to surrender and continued his fight until 1766 when he signed the Treaty of Fort Ontario.

Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768)

Following the Treaty of Fort Ontario, Sir William Johnson and John Stuart worked to ease tensions over the Proclamation Line of 1763 by having it formally surveyed. The Board of Trade agreed to the survey in 1768 and defined the boundary as such: The line started at Fort Stanwix, proceeded south and west to the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, up the Kanawha River to its headwaters, and then south to Spanish East Florida.

Meanwhile, the Iroquois Confederacy had agreed to a treaty with the Cherokee Nation, ending a war between the two factions.

After he received his instructions from the Board of Trade, Johnson negotiated the Treaty of Hard Labour with the Cherokee on October 17, 1768. The treaty set the boundary line from the confluence of the Ohio Rover and Kanawha River, to the headwaters of the Kanawha River, then south to Spanish East Florida.

William Johnson Negotiating, Illustration
This illustration depicts Sir William Johnson negotiating with an Indian. Image Source: History of the City of New York by Martha Lamb, Archive.org.

Soon after, Johnson held a conference at Fort Stanwix in New York to negotiate with the Iroquois. Several colonial officials joined Johnson, including William Franklin, the Governor of New Jersey — and Benjamin Franklin’s son. According to Johnson’s account of the conference, more than 3,000 members of the Iroquois attended.

On November 5, 1768, Johnson and the Iroquois agreed to a treaty that extended the boundary line along the Ohio River to its confluence with the Tennessee River. The Iroquois ceded territory east and south of the intended boundary line to Britain, extending British territory further west — even though they did not live there. The Iroquois claimed their right to the territory south of the Ohio River as part of their conquests during the Beaver Wars.

Tribes living in the area, including the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo, lost their ancestral lands in the agreement — while the Six Nations retained theirs. Some of the tribes, notably the Shawnee, refused to honor the treaty, which led to hostilities with the American Colonies.

The 1768 treaty, which is also known as the Boundary Line Treaty, was adjusted several times between 1768 and 1773. However, it opened the territory to colonists for settlement in what eventually became part of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

One of the early settlements in the region was established by Ebeneezer Zane in 1769. It was originally called “Zanesburg” and it was located on the site of present-day Wheeling, West Virginia.

Lord Dunmore’s War

After the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Americans started moving westward, into the traditional hunting grounds of the Shawnee. The Shawnee, who were upset with the influx of settlers and the loss of their land, carried out raids on settlers and settlements. 

The Iroquois Confederacy refused to help the Shawnee in their quest to stop the westward migration of Americans.

One of the attacks was made against James Boone, the son of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, while Boone was leading settlers into Kentucky. The attack took place on October 9, 1773, near the Cumberland Gap, and James Boone was killed.

The Indians continued to carry out attacks on the settlers. In 1774, settlers living on the frontier, from Zanesburg to Fort Pitt, declared war on the Indians. 

Hostilities escalated and a group of Virginia settlers attacked some Mingo people at the mouth of the Yellow Creek River near present-day New Cumberland, West Virginia. During the “Yellow Creek Massacre,” at least a dozen Mingo people were killed, including the wife of Chief Logan.

The Governor of Virginia, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, responded to reports of Indian attacks by declaring war on the Shawnee and their allies.

John Murray, Earl of Dunmore
John Murray, Lord Dunmore. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Dunmore asked the House of Burgesses, the Virginia legislature, to raise militia forces, but the legislature declined. At the time, they were working on their response to the passage of the Intolerable Acts and the closure of the Port of Boston. On May 26, 1774, Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses and took matters into his own hands, ordering the county militias to mobilize.

Virginia forces marched into the Ohio Country to engage the Indians. Among Dunmore’s army were men like Daniel Morgan, George Rogers Clark, and Michael Cresap.

On October 10, Virginia forces, under the command of Andrew Lewis, engaged the Shawnee and Mingo at present-day Point Pleasant, Virginia. The Indian forces were led by Cornstalk, Puekeshinwa, and Blue Jacket. The Indians were forced to withdraw.

Soon after, the Indians agreed to the Treaty of Camp Charlotte on October 19, 1774, which ended hostilities. The Shawnee agreed to stop using the region for hunting and to stop harassing settlers. 

However, the Mingo refused to agree. Chief Logan, upset over the loss of his wife and other family members, refused to attend the negotiations, however, a speech, known as “Logan’s Lament,” was delivered on his behalf. It is believed the speech was given by Simon Girty. In the speech, Logan said, “Who is there to mourn for Logan — not one.”

Virginia forces responded by destroying the Mingo village of Seekunk in present-day Columbus, Ohio.

Iroquois Neutrality and the American Revolutionary War

Not long after Dunmore’s forces returned to Virginia, the Battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) took place, opening the American Revolutionary War. At the same time, Dunmore clashed with the Patriots in Williamsburg in the Virginia Gunpowder Incident (April 21–May 4, 1774).

Five of the six nations maintained a neutral stance. The Mohawk, led by Molly Brant and her half-brother, Joseph Brant, sided with the British and Loyalists due to their strong trading relationship.

By then, William Johnson had died and was replaced as Superintendent of the Northern Indian Department by his nephew, Colonel Guy Johnson.

Joseph Brant, Portrait
Joseph Brant. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Attempts at an Alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy

From Boston, General Thomas Gage warned Johnson that Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian minister living with the Oneida might encourage the Irqouis to side with the Americans in the war. Johnson responded by sending an Anglican minister to speak with leaders in the Oneida towns.

The Second Continental Congress reached out to Kirkland and asked for his opinion on how to approach the Iroquois Confederacy. In response, Congress set up meetings between General Philip Schuyler and leaders of the Six Nations.

Meanwhile, the Governor of Canada, Guy Carleton, threatened to seize Iroquois lands if they did not support the British. After, all under the terms of various treaties, the Iroquois were considered British subjects.

Division Within the Iroquois Confederacy

By the spring of 1776, most of the Iroquois were allied with the British, including the Senecas, Cayugas, and Mohawks. Many of them moved west toward Fort Niagara, where they were protected by British forces.

However, not all nations sided with the British. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras fought with the Americans, due to the efforts of Kirland and Schuyler.

Some of the Onondagas allied with the British, but most remained neutral.

In 1777, disease swept through the Iroquois population, leaving several chiefs dead. The incident brought the Confederacy to a standstill, while it was determined who the new chiefs would be. During this time, the division between the nations continued.

Philip Schuyler, Portrait, Illustration
Philip Schuyler. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Iroquois Confederacy and the Saratoga Campaign

Over the winter of 1776, British officials decided to send General John Burgoyne into the Hudson River Valley. The plan intended to cut the New England Colonies off from the others.

Although the campaign went well at first, it gradually encountered problems that led to its demise. Along the way, Iroquois warriors fought with each other during the Siege of Fort Stanwix (August 2–22, 1777) and the Battle of Oriskany (August 6, 1777).

After Oriskany, many Iroquois decided to abandon the British, returning to their homes. Six weeks later, the first Battle of Saratoga was fought at Freeman’s Farm. It was followed by the Second Battle of Saratoga, which the Americans won.

Burgoyne and his forces were forced to withdraw. During the retreat, they were surrounded by General Horatio Gates and the Continental Army and forced to surrender. It marked the first time in history that a British Army surrendered in the field and was a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War.

Battle of Oriskany, Illustration
The Battle of Oriskany. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Iroquois Confederacy and Sullivan’s Expedition

Despite the loss at Saragota Iroquois warriors continued to support Loyalist forces as they conducted raids on American settlements in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Country.

In July 1778, Colonel John Butler led a contingent of Loyalists and Iroquois into the Wyoming Valley Region of Pennsylvania. Settlers in the region gathered at Forty Fort for protection. Butler attacked the fort, killing more than 350 men, women, and children in what is known as the Wyoming Massacre.

American forces responded to the raids in 1779 by sending General John Sullivan on an expedition into Iroquois territory. Sullivan and his men destroyed 40 towns and burned fields, which led the Iroquois to throw their support toward the British.

Many Iroquois who supported the British relocated to refugee camps closer to Fort Niagara.

The Treaty of Paris (1783)

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain recognized the independent United States. The Iroquois living within the borders of the United States were no longer British subjects. 

Many Iroquois decided to move north into Canada. Some moved south into the Ohio County, where they joined with the Mingo and other tribes, forming new communities.

The Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784)

In 1784, the Confederation Congress called for a meeting at Fort Stanwix between American commissioners and representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy. The American commission was led by George Clinton, Governor of New York.

At the first meeting in September, the Americans offered to allow the Iroquois to return to New York if they agreed to sell a large portion of their land. The Iroquois leaders declined the offer.

A second meeting was held in October and an agreement was reached. The Americans dropped their demand for the sale of lands and the Iroquois agreed to recognize previous treaties, including the Treaty of Paris.

Iroquois Confederacy and the Code of Handsome Lake

By 1797, most of the Iroquois living in New York and Pennsylvania were restricted to reservations. Americans hoped the Iroquois would assimilate into traditional European ways of life, including farming. Unfortunately, the reservations were troubled with social issues, including alcoholism and violence, that contributed to poor economic conditions.

At the close of the 18th century, a Seneca named Handsome Lake rose to prominence, calling for the Iroquois to give up alcohol and other vices. He was influenced by Quaker missionaries who lived among the Seneca.

Like previous Indian prophets, he called on the Iroquois to embrace their traditional religious beliefs. However, he also called on the Iroquois to embrace farming and manufacturing. In his vision, the Iroquois would gain economic independence and be able to remain neutral in future conflicts between the Americans and the British.

Many Iroquois embraced the “Code of Handsome Lake,” which contributed to improved conditions.

Iroquois Confederacy and Manifest Destiny

As the United States spread across the continent, the Iroquois were caught up in many events.

During the War of 1812, Iroquois living in Canada sided with the British, while those living in America fought with the United States. However, many of those who followed Handsome Lake’s teachings remained neutral. Following the war, both Canada and the United States pressured the Iroquois to give up more of their lands.

In New York, the construction of the Erie Canal led to more Americans moving and traveling west into Iroquois lands. Some Iroquois moved further west, but many remained. Communities in places like New York, Quebec, Ontario, and Wisconsin were sustained. Communities were also formed in Indian Territory — present-day Oklahoma.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Today

The Iroquois Confederacy still exists today, as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. 

Each nation is united by a common goal to live in harmony. Each nation maintains its own council with Chiefs who are chosen by the Clan Mother. Each nation deals with its own internal affairs but allows the Grand Council to deal with issues affecting the nations within the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Iroquois Confederacy Significance

The Iroquois Confederacy is important to United States history for the role it played in the development of New France, the American Colonies, and the Fur Trade during the Colonial Era. Its influence played an important part in the significant conflicts of the era, including the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the American Revolutionary War.

Iroquois Confederacy APUSH Notes and Review

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era, the New England Colonies, and the Saratoga Campaign for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Iroquois Confederacy APUSH Definition

The Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee Confederacy, was a political and military alliance formed by a group of Native American Tribes located in what is now upstate New York. The league was formed in order to promote peace and cooperation among the tribes and to establish a system for resolving conflicts. The league was also a way for the tribes to unite against common enemies, such as the European colonists who were beginning to settle in the region.

Iroquois Confederacy Video for APUSH Review

This video from Native American History discusses the Iroquois Confederacy.