Iroquois: The Iroquois Confederacy

Confederacies Natural Growths.—Founded upon Common Gentes, and a Common Language.—The Iroquois Tribes.—Their Settlement in New York.—Formation of the Confederacy.—Its Structure and Principles.—Fifty Sachemships Created.—Made Hereditary in certain Gentes.—Number assigned to each Tribe.—These Sachems formed the Council of the Confederacy.—The Civil Council.—Its Mode of Transacting Business.—Unanimity Necessary to its Action.—The Mourning Council.—Mode of Raising up Sachems.—General Military Commanders.—This Office the Germ of that of a Chief Executive Magistrate.—Intellectual Capacity of the Iroquois.
— Orly

A tendency to confederate for mutual defense would very naturally exist among kindred and contiguous tribes. When the advantages of a union had been appreciated by actual experience the organization, at first a league, would gradually cement into a federal unity. The state of perpetual warfare in which they lived would quicken this natural tendency into action among such tribes as were sufficiently advanced in intelligence and in the arts of life to perceive its benefits. It would be simply a growth from a lower into a higher organization by an extension of the principle which united the gentes in a tribe.

As might have been expected, several confederacies existed in different parts of North America when discovered, some of which were quite remarkable in plan and structure. Among the number may be mentioned the Iroquois Confederacy of five independent tribes, the Creek Confederacy of six, the Otawa Confederacy of three, the Dakota League of the “Seven Council-Fires,” the Moqui Confederacy in New Mexico of Seven Pueblos, and the Aztec Confederacy of three tribes in the Valley of Mexico. It is probable that the Village Indians in other parts of Mexico, in Central and in South America, were quite generally organized in confederacies consisting of two or more kindred tribes. Progress necessarily took this direction from the nature of their institutions, and from the law governing their development. Nevertheless, the formation of a confederacy out of such materials, and with such unstable geographical relations, was a difficult undertaking. It was easiest of achievement by the Village Indians from the nearness to each other of their pueblos, and from the smallness of their areas; but it was accomplished in occasional instances by tribes in the Lower Status of barbarism, and notably by the Iroquois. Wherever a confederacy was formed it would of itself evince the superior intelligence of the people.

The two highest examples of Indian confederacies in North America were those of the Iroquois and of the Aztecs. From their acknowledged superiority as military powers, and from their geographical positions, these confederacies, in both cases, produced remarkable results. Our knowledge of the structure and principles of the former is definite and complete, while of the latter it is far from satisfactory. The Aztec confederacy has been handled in such a manner historically as to leave it doubtful whether it was simply a league of three kindred tribes, offensive and defensive, or a systematic confederacy like that of the Iroquois. That which is true of the latter was probably in a general sense true of the former, so that a knowledge of one will tend to elucidate the other.

The conditions under which confederacies spring into being and the principles on which they are formed are remarkably simple. They grow naturally, with time, out of pre-existing elements. Where one tribe had divided into several and these subdivisions occupied independent but contiguous territories, the confederacy re-integrated them in a higher organization, on the basis of the common gentes they possessed, and of the affiliated dialects they spoke. The sentiment of kin embodied in the gens, the common lineage of the gentes, and their dialects still mutually intelligible, yielded the material elements for a confederation. The confederacy, therefore, had the gentes for its basis and centre, and stock language for its circumference. No one has been found that reached beyond the bounds of the dialects of a common language. If this natural barrier had been crossed it would have forced heterogeneous elements into the organization. Cases have occurred where the remains of a tribe, not cognate in speech, as the Natchez, have been admitted into an existing confederacy; but this exception would not invalidate the general proposition. It was impossible for an Indian power to arise upon the American continent through a confederacy of tribes organized in gentes, and advance to a general supremacy unless their numbers were developed from their own stock. The multitude of stock languages is a standing explanation of the failure. There was no possible way of becoming connected on equal terms with a confederacy excepting through membership in a gens and tribe, and a common speech.

It may here be remarked, parenthetically, that it was impossible in the Lower, in the Middle, or in the Upper Status of barbarism for a kingdom to arise by natural growth in any part of the earth under gentile institutions. I venture to make this suggestion at this early stage of the discussion in order to call attention more closely to the structure and principles of ancient society, as organized in gentes, phratries and tribes. Monarchy is incompatible with gentilism. It belongs to the later period of civilization. Despotisms appeared in some instances among the Grecian tribes in the Upper Status of barbarism; but they were founded upon usurpation, were considered illegitimate by the people, and were, in fact, alien to the ideas of gentile society. The Grecian tyrannies were despotisms founded upon usurpation, and were the germ out of which the later kingdoms arose; while the so-called kingdoms of the heroic age were military democracies, and nothing more.

The Iroquois have furnished an excellent illustration of the manner in which a confederacy is formed by natural growth assisted by skillful legislation. Originally emigrants from beyond the Mississippi, and probably a branch of the Dakota stock, they first made their way to the valley of the St. Lawrence and settled themselves near Montreal. Forced to leave this region by the hostility of surrounding tribes, they sought the central region of New York. Coasting the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in canoes, for their numbers were small, they made their first settlement at the mouth of the Oswego river, where, according to their traditions, they remained for a long period of time. They were then in at least three distinct tribes, the Mohawks, the Onondagas, and the Senecas. One tribe subsequently established themselves at the head of the Canandaigua lake and became the Senecas. Another tribe occupied the Onondaga Valley and became the Onondagas. The third passed eastward and settled first at Oneida near the site of Utica, from which place the main portion removed to the Mohawk Valley and became the Mohawks. Those who remained became the Oneidas. A portion of the Onondagas or Senecas settled along the eastern shore of the Cayuga lake and became the Cayugas. New York, before its occupation by the Iroquois, seems to have been a part of the area of the Algonkin tribes. According to Iroquois traditions they displaced its anterior inhabitants as they gradually extended their settlements eastward to the Hudson, and westward to the Genesee. Their traditions further declare that a long period of time elapsed after their settlement in New York before the confederacy was formed, during which they made common cause against their enemies and thus experienced the advantages of the federal principle both for aggression and defense. They resided in villages, which were usually surrounded with stockades, and subsisted upon fish and game, and the products of a limited horticulture. In numbers they did not at any time exceed 20,000 souls, if they ever reached that number. Precarious subsistence and incessant warfare repressed numbers in all the aboriginal tribes, including the Village Indians as well. The Iroquois were enshrouded in the great forests, which then overspread New York, against which they had no power to contend. They were first discovered A. D. 1608. About 1675, they attained their culminating point when their dominion reached over an area remarkably large, covering the greater parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio,85 and portions of Canada north of Lake Ontario. At the time of their discovery they were the highest representatives of the Red Race north of New Mexico in intelligence and advancement, though perhaps inferior to some of the Gulf tribes in the arts of life. In the extent and quality of their mental endowments they must be ranked among the highest Indians in America. Although they have declined in numbers there are still four thousand Iroquois in New York, about a thousand in Canada, and near that number in the West; thus illustrating the efficiency as well as persistency of the arts of barbarous life in sustaining existence. It is now said that they are slowly increasing.

When the confederacy was formed, about A. D. 1400-1450, the conditions previously named were present. The Iroquois was in five independent tribes, occupied territories contiguous to each other, and spoke dialects of the same language which were mutually intelligible. Beside these facts certain gentes were common in the several tribes as has been shown. In their relations to each other, as separated parts of the same gens, these common gentes afforded a natural and enduring basis for a confederacy. With these elements existing, the formation of a confederacy became a question of intelligence and skill. Other tribes in large numbers were standing in precisely the same relations in different parts of the continent without confederating. The fact that the Iroquois tribes accomplished the work affords evidence of their superior capacity. Moreover, as the confederacy was the ultimate stage of organization among the American aborigines its existence would be expected in the most intelligent tribes only.

It is affirmed by the Iroquois that the confederacy was formed by a council of wise-men and chiefs of the five tribes which met for that purpose on the north shore of Onondaga lake, near the site of Syracuse; and that before its session was concluded the organization was perfected, and set in immediate operation. At their periodical councils for raising up sachems they still explain its origin as the result of one protracted effort of legislation. It was probably a consequence of a previous alliance for mutual defense, the advantages of which they had perceived and which they sought to render permanent.

The origin of the plan is ascribed to a mythical, or, at least, traditionary person, Hä-yo-went′-hä, the Hiawatha of Longfellow’s celebrated poem, who was present at this council and the central person in its management. In his communications with the council he used a wise-man of the Onondagas, Da-gä-no-we′-dä, as an interpreter and speaker to expound the structure and principles of the proposed confederacy. The same tradition further declares that when the work was accomplished Hä-yo-went′-hä miraculously disappeared in a white canoe, which arose with him in the air and bore him out of their sight. Other prodigies, according to this tradition, attended and signalized the formation of the confederacy, which is still celebrated among them as a masterpiece of Indian wisdom. Such in truth it was; and it will remain in history as a monument of their genius in developing gentile institutions. It will also be remembered as an illustration of what tribes of mankind have been able to accomplish in the art of government while in the Lower Status of barbarism, and under the disadvantages this condition implies.

Which of the two persons was the founder of the confederacy it is difficult to determine. The silent Hä-yo-went′-hä was, not unlikely, a real person of Iroquois lineage;87 but tradition has enveloped his character so completely in the supernatural that he loses his place among them as one of their number. If Hiawatha were a real person, Da-gä-no-we′-dä must hold a subordinate place; but, if a mythical person invoked for the occasion, then to the latter belongs the credit of planning the confederacy.

The Iroquois affirm that the confederacy as formed by this council, with its powers, functions and mode of administration, has come down to them through many generations to the present time with scarcely a change in its internal organization. When the Tuscaroras were subsequently admitted, their sachems were allowed by courtesy to sit as equals in the general council, but the original number of sachems was not increased, and in strictness those of the Tuscaroras formed no part of the ruling body.

The general features of the Iroquois Confederacy may be summarized in the following propositions:

I. The confederacy was a union of Five Tribes, composed of common gentes, under one government on the basis of equality; each Tribe remaining independent in all matters pertaining to local self-government.

II. It created a General Council of Sachems, who were limited in number, equal in rank and authority, and invested with supreme powers over all matters pertaining to the Confederacy.

III. Fifty Sachemships were created and named in perpetuity in certain gentes of the several Tribes; with power in these gentes to fill vacancies, as often as they occurred, by election from among their respective members, and with the further power to depose from office for cause; but the right to invest these Sachems with office was reserved to the General Council.

IV. The Sachems of the Confederacy were also Sachems in their respective Tribes, and with the Chiefs of these Tribes formed the Council of each, which was supreme over all matters pertaining to the Tribe exclusively.

V. Unanimity in the Council of the Confederacy was made essential to every public act.

VI. In the General Council the Sachems voted by Tribes, which gave to each Tribe a negative upon the others.

VII. The Council of each Tribe had power to convene the General Council; but the latter had no power to convene itself.

VIII. The General Council was open to the orators of the people for the discussion of public questions; but the Council alone decided.

IX. The Confederacy had no chief Executive Magistrate, or official head.

X. Experiencing the necessity for a General Military Commander they created the office in a dual form, that one might neutralize the other. The two principal War-chiefs created were made equal in powers.

These several propositions will be considered and illustrated, but without following the precise form or order in which they are stated.

At the institution of the confederacy fifty permanent sachemships were created and named, and made perpetual in the gentes to which they were assigned. With the exception of two, which were filled but once, they have been held by as many different persons in succession as generations have passed away between that time and the present. The name of each sachemship is also the personal name of each sachem while he holds the office, each one in succession taking the name of his predecessor. These sachems, when in session, formed the council of the confederacy in which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers were vested, although such a discrimination of functions had not come to be made. To secure order in the succession, the several gentes in which these offices were made hereditary were empowered to elect successors from among their respective members when vacancies occurred, as elsewhere explained. As a further measure of protection to their own body each sachem, after his election and its confirmation, was invested with his office by a council of the confederacy. When thus installed his name was “taken away” and that of the sachemship was bestowed upon him. By this name he was afterwards known among them. They were all upon equality in rank, authority, and privileges.

These sachemships were distributed unequally among the five tribes; but without giving to either a preponderance of power; and unequally among the gentes of the last three tribes. The Mohawks had nine sachems, the Oneidas nine, the Onondagas fourteen, the Cayugas ten, and the Senecas eight. This was the number at first, and it has remained the number to the present time. A table of these sachemships is subjoined, with their names in the Seneca dialect, and their arrangement in classes to facilitate the attainment of unanimity in council. In[Pg 130] foot-notes will be found the signification of these names, and the gentes to which they belonged.

Table of sachemships of the Iroquois, founded at the institution of the Confederacy; with the names which have been borne by their sachems in succession, from its formation to the present time:


I. 1. Da-gä-e′-o-gă.88 2. Hä-yo-went′-hä.89 3. Da-gä-no-we′-dä.90

II. 4. So-ä-e-wä′-ah.91 5. Da-yo′-ho-go.92 6. O-ä-ä′-go-wä.93

III. 7. Da-an-no-gä′-e-neh.94 8. Sä-da′-gä-e-wä-deh.95 9. Häs-dä-weh′-se-ont-hä.96


I. 1. Ho-däs′-hä-teh.97 2. Ga-no-gweh′-yo-do.98 3. Da-yo-hä′-gwen-da.99

II. 4. So-no-sase′.100 5. To-no-ä-gă′-o.101 6. Hä-de-ä-dun-nent′-hä.102

III. 7. Da-wä-dä′-o-dä-yo.103 8. Gä-ne-ä-dus′-ha-yeh.104 9. Ho-wus′-hä-da-o.105


I. 1. To-do-dä′-ho.106 2. To-nes′-sa-ah. 3. Da-ät′-ga-dose.107

II. 4. Gä-neä-dä′-je-wake.108 5. Ah-wä′-ga-yat.109 6. Da-ä-yat′-gwä-e.

III. 7. Ho-no-we-nă′-to.110

IV. 8. Gä-wă-nă′-san-do.111 9. Hä-e′-ho.112 10. Ho-yo-ne-ä′-ne.113 11. Sa-dä′-kwä-seh.114

V. 12. Sä-go-ga-hä′.115 13. Ho-sa-hä′-ho.116 14. Skä-no′-wun-de.117


I. 1. Da-gä′-ă-yo.118 2. Da-je-no′-dä-weh-o.119 3. Gä-dä′-gwä-sa.120 4. So-yo-wasé.121 5. Hä-de-äs′-yo-no.122

II. 6. Da-yo-o-yo′-go.123 7. Jote-ho-weh′-ko.124 8. De-ä-wate′-ho.125

III. 9. To-dä-e-ho′.126 10. Des-gä′-heh.127


I. 1. Ga-ne-o-di′-yo.128 2. Sä-dä-gä′-o-yase.129

II. 3. Gä-no-gi′-e.130 4. Sä-geh′-jo-wä.131

III. 5. Sä-de-a-no′-wus.132 6. Nis-hä-ne-a′-nent.133

IV. 7. Gä-no-go-e-dä′-we.134 8. Do-ne-ho-gä′-weh.135

Two of these sachemships have been filled but once since their creation. Hä-yo-went′-hä and Da-gä-no-we′-da consented to take the office among the Mohawk sachems, and to leave their names in the list upon condition that after their demise the two should remain thereafter vacant. They were installed upon these terms, and the stipulation has been observed to the present day. At all councils for the investiture of sachems their names are still called with the others as a tribute of respect to their memory. The general council, therefore, consisted of but forty-eight members.

Each sachem had an assistant sachem, who was elected by the gens of his principal from among its members, and who was installed with the same forms and ceremonies. He was styled an “aid.” It was his duty to stand behind his superior on all occasions of ceremony, to act as his messenger, and in general to be subject to his directions. It gave to the aid the office of chief, and rendered probable his election as the successor of his principal after the decease of the latter. In their figurative language these aids of the sachems were styled “Braces in the Long House,” which symbolized the confederacy.

The names bestowed upon the original sachems became the names of their respective successors in perpetuity. For example, upon the demise of Gä-ne-o-di′-yo, one of the eight Seneca sachems, his successor would be elected by the Turtle gens in which this sachemship was hereditary, and when raised up by the general council he would receive this name, in place of his own, as a part of the ceremony. On several different occasions I have attended their councils for raising up sachems both at the Onondaga and Seneca reservations, and witnessed the ceremonies herein referred to. Although but a shadow of the old confederacy now remains, it is fully organized with its complement of sachems and aids, with the exception of the Mohawk tribe which removed to Canada about 1775. Whenever vacancies occur their places are filled, and a general council is convened to install the new sachems and their aids. The present Iroquois are also perfectly familiar with the structure and principles of the ancient confederacy.

For all purposes of tribal government the five tribes were independent of each other. Their territories were separated by fixed boundary lines, and their tribal interests were distinct. The eight Seneca sachems, in conjunction with the other Seneca chiefs, formed the council of the tribe by which its affairs were administered, leaving to each of the other tribes the same control over their separate interests. As an organization the tribe was neither weakened nor impaired by the confederate compact. Each was in vigorous life within its appropriate sphere, presenting some analogy to our own states within an embracing republic. It is worthy of remembrance that the Iroquois commended to our forefathers a union of the colonies similar to their own as early as 1755. They saw in the common interests and common speech of the several colonies the elements for a confederation, which was as far as their vision was able to penetrate.

The tribes occupied positions of entire equality in the confederacy, in rights, privileges and obligations. Such special immunities as were granted to one or another indicate no intention to establish an unequal compact, or to concede unequal privileges. There were organic provisions apparently investing particular tribes with superior power; as, for example, the Onondagas were allowed fourteen sachems and the Senecas but eight; and a larger body of sachems would naturally exercise a stronger influence in council than a smaller. But in this case it gave no additional power, because the sachems of each tribe had an equal voice in forming a decision, and a negative upon the others. When in council they agreed by tribes, and unanimity in opinion was essential to every public act. The Onondagas were made “Keepers of the Wampum,” and “Keepers of the Council Brand,” the Mohawks, “Receivers of Tribute” from subjugated tribes, and the Senecas “Keepers of the Door” of the Long House. These and some other similar provisions were made for the common advantage.

The cohesive principle of the confederacy did not spring exclusively from the benefits of an alliance for mutual protection, but had a deeper foundation in the bond of kin. The confederacy rested upon the tribes ostensibly, but primarily upon common gentes. All the members of the same gens, whether Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, or Senecas, were brothers and sisters to each other in virtue of their descent from the same common ancestor; and they recognized each other as such with the fullest cordiality. When they met the first inquiry was the name of each other’s gens, and next the immediate pedigree of their respective sachems; after which they were usually able to find, under their peculiar system of consanguinity, the relationship in which they stood to each other. Three of the gentes, namely, the Wolf, Bear and Turtle, were common to the five tribes; these and three others were common to three tribes. In effect the Wolf gens, through the division of an original tribe into five, was now in five divisions, one of which was in each tribe. It was the same with the Bear and the Turtle gentes. The Deer, Snipe and Hawk gentes were common to the Senecas, Cayugas and Onondagas. Between the separated parts of each gens, although its members spoke different dialects of the same language, there existed a fraternal connection which linked the nations together with indissoluble bonds. When the Mohawk of the Wolf gens recognized an Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga or Seneca of the same gens as a brother, and when the members of the other divided gentes did the same, the relationship was not ideal, but a fact founded upon consanguinity, and upon faith in an assured lineage older than their dialects and coeval with their unity as one people. In the estimation of an Iroquois every member of his gens in whatever tribe was as certainly a kinsman as an own brother. This cross-relationship between persons of the same gens in the different tribes is still preserved and recognized among them in all its original force. It explains the tenacity with which the fragments of the old confederacy still cling together. If either of the five tribes had seceded from the confederacy it would have severed the bond of kin, although this would have been felt but slightly. But had they fallen into collision it would have turned the gens of the Wolf against their gentile kindred, Bear against Bear, in a word brother against brother. The history of the Iroquois demonstrates the reality as well as persistency of the bond of kin, and the fidelity with which it was respected. During the long period through which the confederacy endured, they never fell into anarchy, nor ruptured the organization.

The “Long House” (Ho-de′-no-sote) was made the symbol of the confederacy; and they styled themselves the “People of the Long House” (Ho-de′-no-sau-nee). This was the name, and the only name, with which they distinguished themselves. The confederacy produced a gentile society more complex than that of a single tribe, but it was still distinctively a gentile society. It was, however, a stage of progress in the direction of a nation, for nationality is reached under gentile institutions. Coalescence is the last stage in this process. The four Athenian tribes coalesced in Attica into a nation by the intermingling of the tribes in the same area, and by the gradual disappearance of geographical lines between them. The tribal names and organizations remained in full vitality as before, but without the basis of an independent territory. When political society was instituted on the basis of the deme or township, and all the residents of the deme became a body politic, irrespective of their gens or tribe, the coalescence became complete.

The coalescence of the Latin and Sabine gentes into the Roman people and nation was a result of the same processes. In all alike the gens, phratry and tribe were the first three stages of organization. The confederacy followed as the fourth. But it does not appear, either among the Grecian or Latin tribes in the Later Period of barbarism, that it became more than a loose league for offensive and defensive purposes. Of the nature and details of organization of the Grecian and Latin confederacies our knowledge is limited and imperfect, because the facts are buried in the obscurity of the traditionary period. The process of coalescence arises later than the confederacy in gentile society; but it was a necessary as well as vital stage of progress by means of which the nation, the state, and political society were at last attained. Among the Iroquois tribes it had not manifested itself.

The valley of Onondaga, as the seat of the central tribe, and the place where the Council Brand was supposed to be perpetually burning, was the usual though not the exclusive place for holding the councils of the confederacy. In ancient times it was summoned to convene in the autumn of each year; but public exigencies often rendered its meetings more frequent. Each tribe had power to summon the council, and to appoint the time and place of meeting at the council-house of either tribe, when circumstances rendered a change from the usual place at Onondaga desirable. But the council had no power to convene itself.

Originally the principal object of the council was to raise up sachems to fill vacancies in the ranks of the ruling body occasioned by death or deposition; but it transacted all other business which concerned the common welfare. In course of time, as they multiplied in numbers and their intercourse with foreign tribes became more extended, the council fell into three distinct kinds, which may be distinguished as Civil, Mourning and Religious. The first declared war and made peace, sent and received embassies, entered into treaties with foreign tribes, regulated the affairs of subjugated tribes, and took all needful measures to promote the general welfare. The second raised up sachems and invested them with office. It received the name of Mourning Council because the first of its ceremonies was the lament for the deceased ruler whose vacant place was to be filled. The third was held for the observance of a general religious festival. It was made an occasion for the confederated tribes to unite under the auspices of a general council in the observance of common religious rites. But as the Mourning Council was attended with many of the same ceremonies it came, in time, to answer for both. It is now the only council they hold, as the civil powers of the confederacy terminated with the supremacy over them of the state.

Invoking the patience of the reader, it is necessary to enter into some details with respect to the mode of transacting business at the Civil and Mourning Councils. In no other way can the archaic condition of society under gentile institutions be so readily illustrated.

If an overture was made to the confederacy by a foreign tribe, it might be done through either of the five tribes. It was the prerogative of the council of the tribe addressed to determine whether the affair was of sufficient importance to require a council of the confederacy. After reaching an affirmative conclusion, a herald was sent to the nearest tribes in position, on the east and on the west, with a belt of wampum, which contained a message to the effect that a civil council (Ho-de-os′-seh) would meet at such a place and time, and for such an object, each of which was specified. It was the duty of the tribe receiving the message to forward it to the tribe next in position, until the notification was made complete. No council ever assembled unless it was summoned under the prescribed forms.

When the sachems met in council, at the time and place appointed, and the usual reception ceremony had been performed, they arranged themselves in two divisions and seated themselves upon opposite sides of the council-fire. Upon one side were the Mohawk, Onondaga and Seneca sachems. The tribes they represented were, when in council, brother tribes to each other and father tribes to the other two. In like manner their sachems were brothers to each other and fathers to those opposite. They constituted a phratry of tribes and of sachems, by an extension of the principle which united gentes in a phratry. On the opposite side of the fire were the Oneida and Cayuga, and, at a later day, the Tuscarora sachems. The tribes they represented were brother tribes to each other, and son tribes to the opposite three. Their sachems also were brothers to each other, and sons of those in the opposite division. They formed a second tribal phratry. As the Oneidas were a subdivision of the Mohawks, and the Cayugas a subdivision of the Onondagas or Senecas, they were in reality junior tribes; whence their relation of seniors and juniors, and the application of the phratric principle. When the tribes are named in council the Mohawks by precedence are mentioned first. Their tribal epithet was “The Shield” (Da-gä-e-o′-dä). The Onondagas came next under the epithet of “Name-Bearer” (Ho-de-san-no′-ge-tä), because they had been appointed to select and name the fifty original sachems. Next in the order of precedence were the Senecas, under the epithet of “Door-Keeper” (Ho-nan-ne-ho′-ont). They were made perpetual keepers of the western door of the Long House. The Oneidas, under the epithet of “Great Tree” (Ne-ar′-de-on-dar′-go-war), and the Cayugas, under that [Pg 139]of “Great Pipe” (So-nus′-ho-gwar-to-war), were named fourth and fifth. The Tuscaroras, who came late into the confederacy, were named last, and had no distinguishing epithet. Forms, such as these, were more important in ancient society than we would be apt to suppose.

It was customary for the foreign tribe to be represented at the council by a delegation of wise-men and chiefs, who bore their proposition and presented it in person. After the council was formally opened and the delegation introduced, one of the sachems made a short address, in the course of which he thanked the Great Spirit for sparing their lives and permitting them to meet together; after which he informed the delegation that the council was prepared to hear them upon the affair for which it had convened. One of the delegates then submitted their proposition in form, and sustained it by such arguments as he was able to make. Careful attention was given by the members of the council that they might clearly comprehend the matter in hand. After the address was concluded, the delegation withdrew from the council to await at a distance the result of its deliberations. It then became the duty of the sachems to agree upon an answer, which was reached through the ordinary routine of debate and consultation. When a decision had been made, a speaker was appointed to communicate the answer of the council, to receive which the delegation were recalled. The speaker was usually chosen from the tribe at whose instance the council had been convened. It was customary for him to review the whole subject in a formal speech, in the course of which the acceptance, in whole or in part, or the rejection of the proposition were announced with the reasons therefor. Where an agreement was entered upon, belts of wampum were exchanged as evidence of its terms. With these proceedings the council terminated.

“This belt preserves my words” was a common remark of an Iroquois chief in council. He then delivered the belt as the evidence of what he had said. Several such belts would be given in the course of a negotiation to the opposite party. In the reply of the latter a belt would be returned for each proposition accepted. The Iroquois experienced the necessity for an exact record of some kind of a proposition involving their faith and honor in its execution, and they devised this method to place it beyond dispute.

Unanimity among the sachems was required upon all public questions, and essential to the validity of every public act. It was a fundamental law of the confederacy. They adopted a method for ascertaining the opinions of the members of the council which dispensed with the necessity of casting votes. Moreover, they were entirely unacquainted with the principle of majorities and minorities in the action of councils. They voted in council by tribes, and the sachems of each tribe were required to be of one mind to form a decision. Recognizing unanimity as a necessary principle, the founders of the confederacy divided the sachems of each tribe into classes as a means for its attainment. This will be seen by consulting the table, (supra). No sachem was allowed to express an opinion in council in the nature of a vote until he had first agreed with the sachem or sachems of his class upon the opinion to be expressed, and had been appointed to act as speaker for the class. Thus the eight Seneca sachems being in four classes could have but four opinions, and the ten Cayuga sachems, being in the same number of classes, could have but four. In this manner the sachems in each class were first brought to unanimity among themselves. A cross-consultation was then held between the four sachems appointed to speak for the four classes; and when they had agreed, they designated one of their number to express their resulting opinion, which was the answer of their tribe. When the sachems of the several tribes had, by this ingenious method, become of one mind separately, it remained to compare their several opinions, and if they agreed the decision of the council was made. If they failed of agreement the measure was defeated, and the council was at an end. The five persons appointed to express the decision of the five tribes may possibly explain the appointment and the functions of the six electors, so called, in the Aztec confederacy, which will be noticed elsewhere.

By this method of gaining assent the equality and independence of the several tribes were recognized and preserved. If any sachem was obdurate or unreasonable, influences were brought to bear upon him, through the preponderating sentiment, which he could not well resist; so that it seldom happened that inconvenience or detriment resulted from their adherence to the rule. Whenever all efforts to procure unanimity had failed, the whole matter was laid aside because further action had become impossible.

The induction of new sachems into office was an event of great interest to the people, and not less to the sachems who retained thereby some control over the introduction of new members into their body. To perform the ceremony of raising up sachems the general council was primarily instituted. It was named at the time, or came afterwards to be called, the Mourning Council (Hen-nun-do-nuh′-seh), because it embraced the twofold object of lamenting the death of the departed sachems and of installing his successor. Upon the death of a sachem, the tribe in which the loss had occurred had power to summon a general council, and to name the time and place of its meeting. A herald was sent out with a belt of wampum, usually the official belt of the deceased sachem given to him at his installation, which conveyed this laconic message;—“the name” (mentioning that of the late ruler) “calls for a council.” It also announced the day and place of convocation. In some cases the official belt of the sachem was sent to the central council-fire at Onondaga immediately after his burial, as a notification of his demise, and the time for holding the council was determined afterwards.

The Mourning Council, with the festivities which followed the investiture of sachems, possessed remarkable attractions for the Iroquois. They flocked to its attendance from the most distant localities with zeal and enthusiasm. It was opened and conducted with many forms and ceremonies, and usually lasted five days. The first was devoted to the prescribed ceremony of lamentations for the deceased sachem, which, as a religious act, commenced at the rising of the sun. At this time the sachems of the tribe, with whom the council was held, marched out followed by their tribesmen, to receive formally the sachems and people of the other tribes, who had arrived before and remained encamped at some distance waiting for the appointed day. After exchanging greetings, a procession was formed and the lament was chanted in verse, with responses, by the united tribes, as they marched from the place of reception to the place of council. The lament, with the responses in chorus, was a tribute of respect to the memory of the departed sachem, in which not only his gens, but his tribe, and the confederacy itself participated. It was certainly a more delicate testimonial of respect and affection than would have been expected from a barbarous people. This ceremonial, with the opening of the council, concluded the first day’s proceedings. On the second day, the installation ceremony commenced, and it usually lasted into the fourth. The sachems of the several tribes seated themselves in two divisions, as at the civil council. When the sachem to be raised up belonged to either of the three senior tribes the ceremony was performed by the sachems of the junior tribes, and the new sachem was installed as a father. In like manner, if he belonged to either of the three junior tribes the ceremony was performed by the sachems of the senior tribes, and the new sachem was installed as a son. These special circumstances are mentioned to show the peculiar character of their social and governmental life. To the Iroquois these forms and figures of speech were full of significance.

Among other things, the ancient wampum belts, into which the structure and principles of the confederacy “had been talked,” to use their expression, were produced and read or interpreted for the instruction of the newly inducted sachem. A wise-man, not necessarily one of the sachems, took these belts one after the other and walking to and fro between the two divisions of sachems, read from them the facts which they recorded. According to the Indian conception, these belts can tell, by means of an interpreter, the exact rule, provision or transaction talked into them at the time, and of which they were the exclusive record. A strand of wampum consisting of strings of purple and white shell beads, or a belt woven with figures formed by beads of different colors, operated on the principle of associating a particular fact with a particular string or figure; thus giving a serial arrangement to the facts as well as fidelity to the memory. These strands and belts of wampum were the only visible records of the Iroquois; but they required those trained interpreters who could draw from their strings and figures the records locked up in their remembrance. One of the Onondaga sachems (Ho-no-we-nă′-to) was made “Keeper of the Wampum,” and two aids were raised up with him who were required to be versed in its interpretation as well as the sachem. The interpretation of these several belts and strings brought out, in the address of the wise-man, a connected account of the occurrences at the formation of the confederacy. The tradition was repeated in full, and fortified in its essential parts by reference to the record contained in these belts. Thus the council to raise up sachems became a teaching council, which maintained in perpetual freshness in the minds of the Iroquois the structure and principles of the confederacy, as well as the history of its formation. These proceedings occupied the council until noon each day; the afternoon being devoted to games and amusements. At twilight each day a dinner in common was served to the entire body in attendance. It consisted of soup and boiled meat cooked near the council-house, and served directly from the kettle in wooden bowls, trays and ladles. Grace was said before the feast commenced. It was a prolonged exclamation by a single person on a high shrill note, falling down in cadences into stillness, followed by a response in chorus by the people. The evenings were devoted to the dance. With these ceremonies, continued for several days, and with the festivities that followed, their sachems were inducted into office.

By investing their sachems with office through a general council, the framers of the confederacy had in view the threefold object of a perpetual succession in the gens, the benefits of a free election among its members, and a final supervision of the choice through the ceremony of investiture. To render the latter effective it should carry with it the power to reject the nominee. Whether the right to invest was purely functional, or carried with it the right to exclude, I am unable to state. No case of rejection is mentioned. The scheme adopted by the Iroquois to maintain a ruling body of sachems may claim, in several respects, the merit of originality, as well as of adaptation to their condition. In form an oligarchy, taking this term in its best sense, it was yet a representative democracy of the archaic type. A powerful popular element pervaded the whole organism and influenced its action. It is seen in the right of the gentes to elect and depose their sachems and chiefs, in the right of the people to be heard in council through orators of their own selection, and in the voluntary system in the military service. In this and the next succeeding ethnical period democratic principles were the vital element of gentile society.

The Iroquois name for a sachem (Ho-yar-na-go′-war), which signifies “a counselor of the people,” was singularly appropriate to a ruler in a species of free democracy. It not only defines the office well, but it also suggests the analogous designation of the members of the Grecian council of chiefs. The Grecian chiefs were styled “councilors of the people.”140 From the nature and tenure of the office among the Iroquois the sachems were not masters ruling by independent right, but representatives holding from the gentes by free election. It is worthy of notice that an office which originated in savagery, and continued through the three sub-periods of barbarism, should reveal so much of its archaic character among the Greeks after the gentile organization had carried this portion of the human family to the confines of civilization. It shows further how deeply inwrought in the human mind the principle of democracy had become under gentilism.

The designation for a chief of the second grade, Ha-sa-no-wä′-na, “an elevated name,” indicates an appreciation by barbarians of the ordinary motives for personal ambition. It also reveals the sameness of the nature of man, whether high up or low down upon the rounds of the ladder of progress. The celebrated orators, wise-men, and war-chiefs of the Iroquois were chiefs of the second grade almost without exception. One reason for this may be found in the organic provision which confined the duties of the sachem to the affairs of peace. Another may have been to exclude from the ruling body their ablest men, lest their ambitious aims should disturb its action. As the office of chief was bestowed in reward of merit, it fell necessarily upon their ablest men. Red-Jacket, Brandt, Garangula, Cornplanter, Farmer’s Brother, Frost, Johnson, and other well known Iroquois, were chiefs as distinguished from sachems. None of the long lines of sachems have become distinguished in American annals, with the exception of Logan, Handsome Lake, and at a recent day, Ely S. Parker. The remainder have left no remembrance behind them extending beyond the Iroquois.

At the time the confederacy was formed To-do-dä′-ho was the most prominent and influential of the Onondaga chiefs. His accession to the plan of a confederacy, in which he would experience a diminution of power, was regarded as highly meritorious. He was raised up as one of the Onondaga sachems and his name placed first in the list. Two assistant sachems were raised up with him to act as his aids and to stand behind him on public occasions. Thus dignified, this sachemship has since been regarded by the Iroquois as the most illustrious of the forty-eight, from the services rendered by the first To-do-dä′-ho. The circumstance was early seized upon by the inquisitive colonists to advance the person who held this office to the position of king of the Iroquois; but the misconception was refuted, and the institutions of the Iroquois were relieved of the burden of an impossible feature. In the general council he sat among his equals. The confederacy had no chief executive magistrate.

Under a confederacy of tribes the office of general, (Hos-gä-ä-geh′-da-go-wä) “Great War Soldier,” makes its first appearance. Cases would now arise when the several tribes in their confederate capacity would be engaged in war; and the necessity for a general commander to direct the movements of the united bands would be felt. The introduction of this office as a permanent feature in the government was a great event in the history of human progress. It was the beginning of a differentiation of the military from the civil power, which, when completed, changed essentially the external manifestation of the government. But even in later stages of progress, when the military spirit predominated, the essential character of the government was not changed. Gentilism arrested usurpation. With the rise of the office of general, the government was gradually changed from a government of one power, into a government of two powers. The functions of government became, in course of time, co-ordinated between the two. This new office was the germ of that of a chief executive magistrate; for out of the general came the king, the emperor, and the president, as elsewhere suggested. The office sprang from the military necessities of society, and had a logical development. For this reason its first appearance and subsequent growth have an important place in this discussion. In the course of this volume I shall attempt to trace the progressive development of this office, from the Great War Soldier of the Iroquois through the Teuctli of the Aztecs, to the Basileus of the Grecian, and the Rex of the Roman tribes; among all of whom, through three successive ethnical periods, the office was the same, namely, that of a general in a military democracy. Among the Iroquois, the Aztecs, and the Romans the office was elective, or confirmative, by a constituency. Presumptively, it was the same among the Greeks of the traditionary period. It is claimed that the office of basileus among the Grecian tribes in the Homeric period was hereditary from father to son. This is at least doubtful. It is such a wide and total departure from the original tenure of the office as to require positive evidence to establish the fact. An election, or confirmation by a constituency, would still be necessary under gentile institutions. If in numerous instances it were known that the office had passed from father to son this might have suggested the inference of hereditary succession, now adopted as historically true, while succession in this form did not exist. Unfortunately, an intimate knowledge of the organization and usages of society in the traditionary period is altogether wanting. Great principles of human action furnish the safest guide when their operation must have been necessary. It is far more probable that hereditary succession, when it first came in, was established by force, than by the free consent of the people; and that it did not exist among the Grecian tribes in the Homeric period.

When the Iroquois confederacy was formed, or soon after that event, two permanent war-chiefships were created and named, and both were assigned to the Seneca tribe. One of them (Ta-wan′-ne-ars, signifying needle-breaker) was made hereditary in the Wolf, and the other (So-no′-so-wä, signifying great oyster shell) in the Turtle gens. The reason assigned for giving them both to the Senecas was the greater danger of attack at the west end of their territories. They were elected in the same manner as the sachems, were raised up by a general council, and were equal in rank and power. Another account states that they were created later. They discovered immediately after the confederacy was formed that the structure of the Long House was incomplete because there were no officers to execute the military commands of the confederacy. A council was convened to remedy the omission, which established the two perpetual war-chiefs named. As general commanders they had charge of the military affairs of the confederacy, and the command of its joint forces when united in a general expedition. Governor Blacksnake, recently deceased, held the office first named, thus showing that the succession has been regularly maintained. The creation of two principal war-chiefs instead of one, and with equal powers, argues a subtle and calculating policy to prevent the domination of a single man even in their military affairs. They did without experience precisely as the Romans did in creating two consuls instead of one, after they had abolished the office of rex. Two consuls would balance the military power between them, and prevent either from becoming supreme. Among the Iroquois this office never became influential.

In Indian Ethnography the subjects of primary importance are the gens, phratry, tribe and confederacy. They exhibit the organization of society. Next to these are the tenure and functions of the office of sachem and chief, the functions of the council of chiefs, and the tenure and functions of the office of principal war-chief. When these are ascertained, the structure and principles of their governmental system will be known. A knowledge of their usages and customs, of their arts and inventions, and of their plan of life will then fill out the picture. In the work of American investigators too little attention has been given to the former. They still afford a rich field in which much information may be gathered. Our knowledge, which is now general, should be made minute and comparative. The Indian tribes in the Lower, and in the Middle Status of barbarism, represent two of the great stages of progress from savagery to civilization. Our own remote forefathers passed through the same conditions, one after the other, and possessed, there can scarcely be a doubt, the same, or very similar institutions, with many of the same usages and customs. However little we may be interested in the American Indians personally, their experience touches us more nearly, as an exemplification of the experience of our own ancestors. Our primary institutions root themselves in a prior gentile society in which the gens, phratry and tribe were the organic series, and in which the council of chiefs was the instrument of government. The phenomena of their ancient society must have presented many points in common with that of the Iroquois and other Indian tribes. This view of the matter lends an additional interest to the comparative institutions of mankind.

The Iroquois confederacy is an excellent exemplification of a gentile society under this form of organization. It seems to realize all the capabilities of gentile institutions in the Lower Status of barbarism; leaving an opportunity for further development, but no subsequent plan of government until the institutions of political society, founded upon territory and upon property, with the establishment of which the gentile organization would be overthrown. The intermediate stages were transitional, remaining military democracies to the end, except where tyrannies founded upon usurpation were temporarily established in their places. The confederacy of the Iroquois was essentially democratic; because it was composed of gentes each of which was organized upon the common principles of democracy, not of the highest but of the primitive type, and because the tribes reserved the right of local self-government. They conquered other tribes and held them in subjection, as for example the Delawares; but the latter remained under the government of their own chiefs, and added nothing to the strength of the confederacy. It was impossible in this state of society to unite tribes under one government who spoke different languages, or to hold conquered tribes under tribute with any benefit but the tribute.

This exposition of the Iroquois confederacy is far from exhaustive of the facts, but it has been carried far enough to answer my present object. The Iroquois were a vigorous and intelligent people, with a brain approaching in volume the Aryan average. Eloquent in oratory, vindictive in war, and indomitable in perseverance, they have gained a place in history. If their military achievements are dreary with the atrocities of savage warfare, they have illustrated some of the highest virtues of mankind in their relations with each other. The confederacy which they organized must be regarded as a remarkable production of wisdom and sagacity. One of its avowed objects was peace; to remove the cause of strife by uniting their tribes under one government, and then extending it by incorporating other tribes of the same name and lineage. They urged the Eries and the Neutral Nation to become members of the confederacy, and for their refusal expelled them from their borders. Such an insight into the highest objects of government is creditable to their intelligence. Their numbers were small, but they counted in their ranks a large number of able men. This proves the high grade of the stock.

From their position and military strength they exercised a marked influence upon the course of events between the English and the French in their competition for supremacy in North America. As the two were nearly equal in power and resources during the first century of colonization, the French may ascribe to the Iroquois, in no small degree, the overthrow of their plans of empire in the New World.

With a knowledge of the gens in its archaic form and of its capabilities as the unit of a social system, we shall be better able to understand the gentes of the Greeks and Romans yet to be considered. The same scheme of government composed of gentes, phratries and tribes in a gentile society will be found among them as they stood at the threshold of civilization, with the superadded experience of two entire ethnical periods. Descent among them was in the male line, property was inherited by the children of the owner instead of the agnatic kindred, and the family was now assuming the monogamian form. The growth of property, now becoming a commanding element, and the increase of numbers gathered in walled cities were slowly demonstrating the necessity for the second great plan of government—the political. The old gentile system was becoming incapable of meeting the requirements of society as it approached civilization. Glimpses of a state, founded upon territory and property, were breaking upon the Grecian and Roman minds before which gentes and tribes were to disappear. To enter upon the second plan of government, it was necessary to supersede the gentes by townships and city wards—the gentile by a territorial system. The going down of the gentes and the uprising of organized townships mark the dividing line, pretty nearly, between the barbarian and the civilized worlds—between ancient and modern society.



Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was a pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist who worked as a railroad lawyer. He is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois. Interested in what holds societies together, he proposed the concept that the earliest human domestic institution was the matrilineal clan, not the patriarchal family.

Also interested in what leads to social change, he was a contemporary of the European social theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were influenced by reading his work on social structure and material culture, the influence of technology on progress. Morgan is the only American social theorist to be cited by such diverse scholars as Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Morgan served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879.
— Orly

Adapted from:  Lewis Morgan, LL.D. , Ancient Society or Researches in the LInes of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization


Aztec: The Aztec Confederacy

Mythology: Creation in the Americas