The Iroquois, or the Haudenosaunee as they would call themselves, were a collection of five (and later six) tribes inhabiting the modern state of New York. These tribes were the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and later the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora were a tribe from the Carolinas who were not originally part of the Haudenosaunee, but joined in 1722 largely due to the pressures that European colonialism introduced, which forced them off their traditional homelands and pushed them north.

The terms Iroquois “League” and Iroquois “Confederacy” are often mistakenly used interchangeably. The Iroquois League, or the Great League of Peace, was a cultural institution pre-dating colonization significantly. The Iroquois Confederacy, on the other hand, was essentially a political institution that developed and evolved out of the necessity to deal with competing European empires. Thus, the “League” is far older than the confederacy and truly what ties the tribes together.

Perhaps the most significant element of the Haudenosaunee way of life was the practice of mourning war. Mourning wars essentially functioned to avenge and atone for the loss of the dead. If someone in the village was killed or died from disease, warriors would have to raid foreign villages and avenge the loss. Warriors would take captives and bring them back home where the female relatives of the deceased would decide whether the captive would be ritually executed or be ritually adopted and assume the identity of the deceased. If allowed to live, the captive would assume the deceased person’s name and entire identity, and they would be treated as if they were that person. They would truly become members of the tribe. The practice of mourning war filled the void left by the deceased and brought demographic, social, and psychological stability back to the tribe. Mourning war was such a large part of Haudenosaunee life that it was actually the reason the five tribes came together. 

Long ago, a man named Hiawatha from most likely either the Onondaga or Mohawk nation lost his family as a result of mourning war. Distraught, he withdrew to the forest and met the prophet Deganawidah, also known as the Great Peacemaker, who taught Hiawatha the Gospel of Good News and Peace, which prescribed rituals and methods to restore peace between peoples without resorting to mourning war. Deganawidah, having a speech impediment, then accepted Hiawatha as his speaker. Together with a woman named Jikonhsaseh, who would come to be known as the mother of the Haudenosaunee, they spread the Gospel of Good News and Peace to the five nations to convince them to give up mourning war and join together in peace. Eventually they were able to convince all the tribes, with the Onondaga being last to join because of their warlike leader Tadahado – the man who killed Hiawatha’s family. By some accounts, the stipulation for the Onondaga joining was that they would be the lead nation. Thus, the Onondaga became the “keepers of the central fire,” which meant that they would keep a fire perpetually burning until the end of the League of Peace, which came during the American Revolution. Thus, with the joining of the Onondaga, the Haudenosaunee was born. All the tribes accepted the “Great Law of Peace,” meaning they were not to engage in war against one another. With the foundation of the Great League of Peace, sachems from the five tribes would meet annually to exchange gifts in atonement and resolidify the bonds of friendship.

The Great League of Peace’s foundation is hard to date. Some scholars suggest a date as early as the 12th century, some as late as the 17th century. Most of the debate comes down to two dates 1142 CE and 1452 CE. This has to do with a description of what seems to be a solar eclipse in accounts of the Haudenosaunee’s founding. There were eclipses in both 1142 and 1452. The existing archaeological record suggests 1452 as a more “verifiable” date. As a result, many scholars use this date, but acknowledge it may be a conservative estimate. On the other hand, 1142 is more in line with the timeframe that the Haudenosaunee themselves would say the league was formed, as c. 1190 is the date generally cited. Either way, barring any breakthrough discovery in the archaeological record or in the wampum-recorded historical/literary record, the date cannot be verified. 

Although the Great League of Peace stopped the five tribes from practicing mourning war on each other, they continued to practice mourning war on tribes not belonging to the Haudenosaunee. The Haudenosaunee believed in alliance with all people as an ideal, but, evidently, earthly matters prevented this. Mourning war would prove itself to be a tremendously disruptive practice with the arrival of Europeans.

European colonization introduced a tripartite pattern of destruction in North America. These three parts were war, trade, and disease. Each of these factors was significant in their own right, but each was also deeply rooted in the others. The Haudenosaunee did not escape this vicious three-headed assault.

With European arrival came European goods. The Haudenosaunee capitalized on this. Household items that would ease the Iroquois way of life were sought after, but most significantly the Iroquois sought guns. Guns did two things for the Haudenosaunee. First, they enabled them to exercise control and dominance over smaller tribes. Second, they solidified Haudenosaunee trading superiority. European traders wanted beaver pelts, and having guns allowed the five tribes to dominate this market and assert their economic and military power over the northeastern United States. On surface level, this may sound beneficial to the Haudenosaunee, but it actually tore them apart.

The seventeenth century was a century of constant warring for the Haudenosaunee. The entire century was host to what are often referred to as the “Beaver Wars,” or “French and Iroquois Wars.” The backdrop of this war was of course trade. The five tribes had established strong commercial relationships with the English and Dutch. Meanwhile, neighboring enemy tribes in the Great Lakes region had established strong relationships with the French. The Haudenosaunee had devastated the natural resources of the eastern woodlands to the point that they needed to assert control over new lands. This, in itself, was a major development. The capitalist international market introduced by Europeans corrupted Haudenosaunee spiritual beliefs – specifically, traditional beliefs that nature was filled with spirits and humans needed to be stewards of the land – and caused an environmental catastrophe out of greed and material reliance. So, the Haudenosaunee launched military campaigns into the upper Great Lakes region. Using guns provided by Dutch traders, the five tribes wreaked havoc on the tribes of the Great Lakes – such as the Wendats, Mohicans, Hurons, Abenakis, and others – causing the French to arm some of these tribes to fight back. Over the course of the century, the tribes devastated one another in order to gain control of the animal pelts market. Eventually, the Haudenosaunee “won” the wars by essentially defeating all the tribes of the Great Lakes and establishing a relationship with the French in 1701. However, the consequences were horrific.

During this century, particularly during the latter half, the Iroquois also warred with the Susquehannocks, a tribe historically ranging from much of southern, central, and eastern Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay region. The Susquehannocks actually repulsed the warriors of the five tribes from their lands, but not without significant destruction in eastern Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay region.

These 17th century Iroquois conflicts had a catastrophic ripple effect on native America. Caught in between these wars were tribes like the Lenape, Munsee, Shawnee, Conoy, and Nanticoke, who would be forced to seek refuge in the Wyoming Valley due to their homelands being shattered by conflict.

These wars of course cannot be understood without an examination of disease. It is estimated that up to 90% of native populations would die within a few years of contact with Europeans. Couple that with Haudenosaunee mourning war practices and one can easily see a major issue. Not only were the Haudenosaunee fighting for military and economic power, they were also fighting for spiritual and demographic replenishment. The Haudenosaunee were just as much fighting for the sake of survival as they were for power over colonial trade markets. European colonization created an environment in which it seemed that survival hinged upon destroying all competition. How else could the Iroquois find a way to prosper in the new world? The reality is that the Haudenosaunee were both defending against annihilation and striving to expand their power during the seventeenth century, as counterintuitive or paradoxical as it may seem. In fact, this century of conflict not only displaced many enemies and neighbors of the Haudenosaunee, it even displaced many members of the League themselves. For example, some Senecas sought a new life in southern Pennsylvania alongside ravaged Susquehannocks. Together, they settled and became a new people – the Conestogas. Further, one historian even estimated that two-thirds of Mohawks fled into Canada due to the suffering they were enduring in New York. 

Thus, the Haudenosaunee are a puzzling people. Were they an empire? Were they themselves colonizers? Or rather, were they merely trying to survive? Did a fatal mix of colonial devastation and vestiges of spiritual beliefs make the consequences of the seventeenth century inevitable? The questions pile up the more one examines the Haudenosaunee. Making sense of them is a messy game. To simplify their place in the narrative of the Wyoming Valley, they can be seen both as tragic victims of colonization and an oppressive power over smaller tribes whose displacement and suffering was due, in part, to Haudenosaunee actions. What cannot be denied, however, is that the corruption and desecration of the eastern woodlands, Chesapeake Bay, and Great Lakes regions in the seventeenth century was spurred by deplorable European colonial practices.

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