The Iroquois separated into five distinct nations, cantoned from east to west along the centre of New York, in the following order: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas to form the Iroquois Confederation.
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The Huron nation was a confederacy of four distinct contiguous nations, afterwards increased to five by the addition of the Tionnontates; — it was divided into clans; — it was governed by chiefs, whose office was hereditary through the female; — the power of these chiefs, though great, was wholly of a persuasive or advisory character; — there were two principal chiefs, one for peace, the other for war; — there were chiefs assigned to special national functions, as the charge of the great Feast of the Dead, the direction of trading voyages to other nations, etc.; — there were numerous other chiefs, equal in rank, but very unequal in influence, since the measure of their influence depended on the measure of their personal ability; — each nation of the confederacy had a separate organization, but at certain periods grand councils of the united nations were held, at which were present, not chiefs only, but also a great concourse of the people; and at these and other councils the chiefs and principal men voted on proposed measures by means of small sticks or reeds, the opinion of the plurality ruling.
[These facts are gathered here and there from Champlain, Sagard, Bressani, and the Jesuit Relations prior to 1650. Of the Jesuits, Brébeuf is the most full and satisfactory. Lafitau and Charlevoix knew the Huron institutions only through others.
The names of the four confederate Huron nations were the Ataronchronons, Attignenonghac, Attignaouentans, and Ahrendarrhonons. There was also a subordinate “nation” called Tohotaenrat, which had but one town. (See the map of the Huron Country.) They all bore the name of some animal or other object: thus the Attignaouentans were the Nation of the Bear. As the clans are usually named after animals, this makes confusion, and may easily lead to error. The Bear Nation was the principal member of the league.]
The Iroquois were a people far more conspicuous in history, and their institutions are not yet extinct. In early and recent times, they have been closely studied, and no little light has been cast upon a subject as difficult and obscure as it is curious. By comparing the statements of observers, old and new, the character of their singular organization becomes sufficiently clear.
[Among modern students of Iroquois institutions, a place far in advance of all others is due to Lewis H. Morgan, himself an Iroquois by adoption, and intimate with the race from boyhood. His work, The League of the Iroquois, is a production of most thorough and able research, conducted under peculiar advantages, and with the aid of an efficient co-laborer, Hasanoanda (Ely S. Parker), an educated and highly intelligent Iroquois of the Seneca nation. Though often differing widely from Mr. Morgan’s conclusions, I cannot bear a too emphatic testimony to the value of his researches. The Notes on the Iroquois of Mr. H. R. Schoolcraft also contain some interesting facts; but here, as in all Mr. Schoolcraft’s productions, the reader must scrupulously reserve his right of private judgment. None of the old writers are so satisfactory as Lafitau. His work, Mœurs des Sauvages Ameriquains comparées aux Mœurs des Premiers Temps, relates chiefly to the Iroquois and Hurons: the basis for his account of the former being his own observations and those of Father Julien Garnier, who was a missionary among them more than sixty years, from his novitiate to his death.]
Both reason and tradition point to the conclusion, that the Iroquois formed originally one undivided people. Sundered, like countless other tribes, by dissension, caprice, or the necessities of the hunter life, they separated into five distinct nations, cantoned from east to west along the centre of New York, in the following order: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas. There was discord among them; wars followed, and they lived in mutual fear, each ensconced in its palisaded villages. At length, says tradition, a celestial being, incarnate on earth, counseled them to compose their strife and unite in a league of defense and aggression.
Another personage, wholly mortal, yet wonderfully endowed, a renowned warrior and a mighty magician, stands, with his hair of writhing snakes, grotesquely conspicuous through the dim light of tradition at this birth of Iroquois nationality. This was Atotarho, a chief of the Onondagas; and from this honored source has sprung a long line of chieftains, heirs not to the blood alone, but to the name of their great predecessor. A few years since, there lived in Onondaga Hollow a handsome Indian boy on whom the dwindled remnant of the nation looked with pride as their destined Atotarho. With earthly and celestial aid the league was consummated, and through all the land the forests trembled at the name of the Iroquois.
The Iroquois people was divided into eight clans. When the original stock was sundered into five parts, each of these clans was also sundered into five parts; and as, by the principle already indicated, the clans were intimately mingled in every village, hamlet, and cabin, each one of the five nations had its portion of each of the eight clans.  When the league was formed, these separate portions readily resumed their ancient tie of fraternity. Thus, of the Turtle clan, all the members became brothers again, nominal members of one family, whether Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, or Senecas; and so, too, of the remaining clans. All the Iroquois, irrespective of nationality, were therefore divided into eight families, each tracing its descent to a common mother, and each designated by its distinctive emblem or totem. This connection of clan or family was exceedingly strong, and by it the five nations of the league were linked together as by an eightfold chain.
[1 With a view to clearness, the above statement is made categorical. It requires, however, to be qualified. It is not quite certain, that, at the formation of the confederacy, there were eight clans, though there is positive proof of the existence of seven. Neither is it certain, that, at the separation, every clan was represented in every nation. Among the Mohawks and Oneidas there is no positive proof of the existence of more than three clans, — the Wolf, Bear, and Tortoise; though there is presumptive evidence of the existence of several others. — See Morgan, 81, note.
The eight clans of the Iroquois were as follows: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Tortoise, Deer, Snipe, Heron, Hawk. (Morgan, 79.) The clans of the Snipe and the Heron are the same designated in an early French document as La famille du Petit Pluvier and La famille du Grand Pluvier. (New York Colonial Documents, IX. 47.) The anonymous author of this document adds a ninth clan, that of the Potato, meaning the wild Indian potato, Glycine apios. This clan, if it existed, was very inconspicuous, and of little importance.
Remarkable analogies exist between Iroquois clanship and that of other tribes. The eight clans of the Iroquois were separated into two divisions, four in each. Originally, marriage was interdicted between all the members of the same division, but in time the interdict was limited to the members of the individual clans. Another tribe, the Choctaws, remote from the Iroquois, and radically different in language, had also eight clans, similarly divided, with a similar interdict of marriage. — Gallatin, Synopsis, 109.
The Creeks, according to the account given by their old chief, Sekopechi, to Mr. D. W. Eakins, were divided into nine clans, named in most cases from animals: clanship being transmitted, as usual, through the female.]
The clans were by no means equal in numbers, influence, or honor. So marked were the distinctions among them, that some of the early writers recognize only the three most conspicuous, — those of the Tortoise, the Bear, and the Wolf. To some of the clans, in each nation, belonged the right of giving a chief to the nation and to the league. Others had the right of giving three, or, in one case, four chiefs; while others could give none. As Indian clanship was but an extension of the family relation, these chiefs were, in a certain sense, hereditary; but the law of inheritance, though binding, was extremely elastic, and capable of stretching to the farthest limits of the clan. The chief was almost invariably succeeded by a near relative, always through the female, as a brother by the same mother, or a nephew by the sister’s side. But if these were manifestly unfit, they were passed over, and a chief was chosen at a council of the clan from among remoter kindred. In these cases, the successor is said to have been nominated by the matron of the late chief’s household. [Lafitau, I. 471.] Be this as it may, the choice was never adverse to the popular inclination. The new chief was “raised up,” or installed, by a formal council of the sachems of the league; and on entering upon his office, he dropped his own name, and assumed that which, since the formation of the league, had belonged to this especial chieftainship.
The number of these principal chiefs, or, as they have been called by way of distinction, sachems, varied in the several nations from eight to fourteen. The sachems of the five nations, fifty in all, assembled in council, formed the government of the confederacy. All met as equals, but a peculiar dignity was ever attached to the Atotarho of the Onondagas.
There was a class of subordinate chiefs, in no sense hereditary, but rising to office by address, ability, or valor. Yet the rank was clearly defined, and the new chief installed at a formal council. This class embodied, as might be supposed, the best talent of the nation, and the most prominent warriors and orators of the Iroquois have belonged to it. In its character and functions, however, it was purely civil. Like the sachems, these chiefs held their councils, and exercised an influence proportionate to their number and abilities.
There was another council, between which and that of the subordinate chiefs the line of demarcation seems not to have been very definite. The Jesuit Lafitau calls it “the senate.” Familiar with the Iroquois at the height of their prosperity, he describes it as the central and controlling power, so far, at least, as the separate nations were concerned. In its character it was essentially popular, but popular in the best sense, and one which can find its application only in a small community. Any man took part in it whose age and experience qualified him to do so. It was merely the gathered wisdom of the nation. Lafitau compares it to the Roman Senate, in the early and rude age of the Republic, and affirms that it loses nothing by the comparison. He thus describes it: “It is a greasy assemblage, sitting sur leur derričre, crouched like apes, their knees as high as their ears, or lying, some on their bellies, some on their backs, each with a pipe in his mouth, discussing affairs of state with as much coolness and gravity as the Spanish Junta or the Grand Council of Venice.” [Lafitau, I. 478.]
The young warriors had also their councils; so, too, had the women; and the opinions and wishes of each were represented by means of deputies before the “senate,” or council of the old men, as well as before the grand confederate council of the sachems.
The government of this unique republic resided wholly in councils. By councils all questions were settled, all regulations established, — social, political, military, and religious. The war-path, the chase, the council-fire, — in these was the life of the Iroquois; and it is hard to say to which of the three he was most devoted.
– The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century Introduction by Francis Parkman
This was the Iroquois Confederation.
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.
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