The Iroquois Phratry

Definition of a Phratry.—Kindred Gentes Reunited in a Higher Organization.—Phratry of the Iroquois Tribes.—Its Composition.—Its Uses and Functions.—Social and Religious.—Illustrations.—The Analogue of the Grecian Phratry; but in its Archaic Form.—Phratries of the Choctas.—Of the Chickasas.—Of the Mohegans.—Of the Thlin-keets.—Their Probable Universality in the Tribes of the American Aborigines.
— Orly

The phratry (φρατρία) is a brotherhood, as the term imports, and a natural growth from the organization into gentes. It is an organic union or association of two or more gentes of the same tribe for certain common objects. These gentes were usually such as had been formed by the segmentation of an original gens.

Among the Grecian tribes, where the phratric organization was nearly as constant as the gens, it became a very conspicuous institution. Each of the four tribes of the Athenians was organized in three phratries, each composed of thirty gentes, making a total of twelve phratries and three hundred and sixty gentes. Such precise numerical uniformity in the composition of each phratry and tribe could not have resulted from the subdivision of gentes through natural processes. It must have been produced, as Mr. Grote suggests, by legislative procurement in the interests of a symmetrical organization. All the gentes of a tribe, as a rule, were of common descent and bore a common tribal name, consequently it would not require severe constraint to unite the specified number in each phratry, and to form the specified number of phratries in each tribe. But the phratric organization had a natural foundation in the immediate kinship of certain gentes as subdivisions of an original gens, which undoubtedly was the basis on which the Grecian phratry was originally formed. The incorporation of alien gentes, and transfers by consent or constraint, would explain the numerical adjustment of the gentes and phratries in the Athenian tribes.

The Roman curia was the analogue of the Grecian phratry. It is constantly mentioned by Dionysius as a phratry. There were ten gentes in each curia, and ten curiae in each of the three Roman tribes, making thirty curiae and three hundred gentes of the Romans. The functions of the Roman curia are much better known than those of the Grecian phratry, and were higher in degree because the curia entered directly into the functions of government. The assembly of the gentes (comitia curiata) voted by curiae, each having one collective vote. This assembly was the sovereign power of the Roman People down to the time of Servius Tullius.

Among the functions of the Grecian phratry was the observance of special religious rites, the condonation or revenge of the murder of a phrator, and the purification of a murderer after he had escaped the penalty of his crime preparatory to his restoration to society. At a later period among the Athenians—for the phratry at Athens survived the institution of political society under Cleisthenes—it looked after the registration of citizens, thus becoming the guardian of descents and of the evidence of citizenship. The wife upon her marriage was enrolled in the phratry of her husband, and the children of the marriage were enrolled in the gens and phratry of their father. It was also the duty of this organization to prosecute the murderer of a phrator in the courts of justice. These are among its known objects and functions in the earlier and later periods. Were all the particulars fully ascertained, the phratry [Pg 90]would probably manifest itself in connection with the common tables, the public games, the funerals of distinguished men, the earliest army organization, and the proceedings of councils, as well as in the observance of religious rites and in the guardianship of social privileges.

The phratry existed in a large number of the tribes of the American aborigines, where it is seen to arise by natural growth, and to stand as the second member of the organic series, as among the Grecian and Latin tribes. It did not possess original governmental functions, as the gens, tribe and confederacy possessed them; but it was endowed with certain useful powers in the social system, from the necessity for some organization larger than a gens and smaller than a tribe, and especially when the tribe was large. The same institution in essential features and in character, it presents the organization in its archaic form and with its archaic functions. A knowledge of the Indian phratry is necessary to an intelligent understanding of the Grecian and the Roman.

The eight gentes of the Seneca-Iroquois tribe were reintegrated in two phratries as follows:

First Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Bear.  2. Wolf.  3. Beaver.  4. Turtle.
Second Phratry.
Gentes.—5. Deer.  6. Snipe.  7. Heron.  8. Hawk.

Each phratry (De-ă-non-dă′-a-yoh) is a brotherhood as this term also imports. The gentes in the same phratry are brother gentes to each other, and cousin gentes to those of the other phratry. They are equal in grade, character and privileges. It is a common practice of the Senecas to call the gentes of their own phratry brother gentes, and those of the other phratry their cousin gentes, when they mention them in their relation to the phratries. Originally marriage was not allowed between the members of the same phratry; but the members of either could marry into any gens of the other. This prohibition tends to show that the gentes of each phratry were subdivisions of an original gens, and therefore the prohibition against marrying into a person’s own gens had followed to its subdivisions. This restriction, however, was long since removed, except with respect to the gens of the individual. A tradition of the Senecas affirms that the Bear and the Deer were the original gentes, of which the others were subdivisions. It is thus seen that the phratry had a natural foundation in the kinship of the gentes of which it was composed. After their subdivision from increase of numbers there was a natural tendency to their reunion in a higher organization for objects common to them all. The same gentes are not constant in a phratry indefinitely, as will appear when the composition of the phratries in the remaining Iroquois tribes is considered. Transfers of particular gentes from one phratry to the other must have occurred when the equilibrium in their respective numbers was disturbed. It is important to know the simple manner in which this organization springs up, and the facility with which it is managed, as a part of the social system of ancient society. With the increase of numbers in a gens, followed by local separation of its members, segmentation occurred, and the seceding portion adopted a new gentile name. But a tradition of their former unity would remain, and become the basis of their reorganization in a phratry.

In like manner the Cayuga-Iroquois have eight gentes in two phratries; but these gentes are not divided equally between them. They are the following:

First Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Bear.  2. Wolf.  3. Turtle.  4. Snipe.  5. Eel.
Second Phratry.
Gentes.—6. Deer.  7. Beaver.  8. Hawk.

Seven of these gentes are the same as those of the Senecas; but the Heron gens has disappeared, and the Eel takes its place, but transferred to the opposite phratry. The Beaver and the Turtle gentes also have exchanged phratries. The Cayugas style the gentes of the same phratry brother gentes to each other, and those of the opposite phratry their cousin gentes.

The Onondaga-Iroquois have the same number of gentes, but two of them differ in name from those of the Senecas. They are organized in two phratries as follows:

First Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Wolf.  2. Turtle.  3. Snipe.  4. Beaver.  5. Ball.

Second Phratry.
Gentes.—6. Deer.  7. Eel.  8. Bear.

Here again the composition of the phratries is different from that of the Senecas. Three of the gentes in the first phratry are the same in each; but the Bear gens has been transferred to the opposite phratry and is now found with the Deer. The division of gentes is also unequal, as among the Cayugas. The gentes in the same phratry are called brother gentes to each other, and those in the other their cousin gentes. While the Onondagas have no Hawk, the Senecas have no Eel gens; but the members of the two fraternize when they meet, claiming that there is a connection between them.

The Mohawks and Oneidas have but three gentes, the Bear, the Wolf, and the Turtle, and no phratries. When the confederacy was formed, seven of the eight Seneca gentes existed in the several tribes as is shown by the establishment of sachemships in them; but the Mohawks and Oneidas then had only the three named. It shows that they had then lost an entire phratry, and one gens of that remaining, if it is assumed that the original tribes were once composed of the same gentes. When a tribe organized in gentes and phratries subdivides, it might occur on the line of the phratric organization. Although the members of a tribe are intermingled throughout by marriage, each gens in a phratry is composed of females with their children and descendants, through females, who formed the body of the phratry. They would incline at least to remain locally together, and thus might become detached in a body. The male members of the gens married to women of other gentes and remaining with their wives would not affect the gens since the children of the males do not belong to its connection. If the minute history of the Indian tribes is ever recovered it must be sought through the gentes and phratries, which can be followed from tribe to tribe. In such an investigation it will deserve attention whether tribes ever disintegrated by phratries. It is at least improbable.

The Tuscarora-Iroquois became detached from the main stock at some unknown period in the past, and inhabited the Neuse river region in North Carolina at the time of their discovery. About A. D. 1712 they were forced out of this area, whereupon they removed to the country of the Iroquois and were admitted into the confederacy as a sixth member. They have eight gentes organized in two phratries, as follows:

First Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Bear.  2. Beaver.  3. Great Turtle. 4.  Eel.
Second Phratry.
Gentes.—5. Gray Wolf.  6. Yellow Wolf.  7. Little Turtle. 8. Snipe.

They have six gentes in common with the Cayugas and Onondagas, five in common with the Senecas, and three in common with the Mohawks and Oneidas. The Deer gens, which they once possessed, became extinct in modern times. It will be noticed, also, that the Wolf gens is now divided into two, the Gray and the Yellow, and the Turtle into two, the Great and Little. Three of the gentes in the first phratry are the same with three in the first phratry of the Senecas and Cayugas, with the exception that the Wolf gens is double. As several hundred years elapsed between the separation of the Tuscaroras from their congeners and their return, it affords some evidence of permanence in the existence of a gens. The gentes in the same phratry are called brother gentes to each other, and those in the other phratry their cousin gentes, as among the other tribes.

From the differences in the composition of the phratries in the several tribes it seems probable that the phratries are modified in their gentes at intervals of time to meet changes of condition. Some gentes prosper and increase in numbers, while others through calamities decline, and others become extinct; so that transfers of gentes from one phratry to another were found necessary to preserve some degree of equality in the number of phrators in each. The phratric organization has existed among the Iroquois from time immemorial. It is probably older than the confederacy which was established more than four centuries ago. The amount of difference in their composition, as to the gentes they contain, represents the vicissitudes through which each tribe has passed in the interval. In any view of the matter it is small, tending to illustrate the permanence of the phratry as well as the gens.


The Iroquois tribes had a total of thirty-eight gentes, and in four of the tribes a total of eight phratries.

In its objects and uses the Iroquois phratry falls below the Grecian, as would be supposed, although our knowledge of the functions of the latter is limited; and below what is known of the uses of the phratry among the Roman tribes. In comparing the latter with the former we pass backward through two ethnical periods, and into a very different condition of society. The difference is in the degree of progress, and not in kind; for we have the same institution in each race, derived from the same or a similar germ, and preserved by each through immense periods of time as a part of a social system. Gentile society remained of necessity among the Grecian and Roman tribes until political society supervened; and it remained among the Iroquois tribes because they were still two ethnical periods below civilization. Every fact, therefore, in relation to the functions and uses of the Indian phratry is important, because it tends to illustrate the archaic character of an institution which became so influential in a more developed condition of society.

The phratry, among the Iroquois, was partly for social and partly for religious objects. Its functions and uses can be best shown by practical illustrations. We begin with the lowest, with games, which were of common occurrence at tribal and confederate councils. In the ball game, for example, among the Senecas, they play by phratries, one against the other; and they bet against each other upon the result of the game. Each phratry puts forward its best players, usually from six to ten on a side, and the members of each phratry assemble together but upon opposite sides of the field in which the game is played. Before it commences, articles of personal property are hazarded upon the result by members of the opposite phratries. These are deposited with keepers to abide the event. The game is played with spirit and enthusiasm, and is an exciting spectacle. The members of each phratry, from their opposite stations, watch the game with eagerness, and cheer their respective players at every successful turn of the game.

In many ways the phratric organization manifested itself. At a council of the tribe the sachems and chiefs in each phratry usually seated themselves on opposite sides of an imaginary council-fire, and the speakers addressed the two opposite bodies as the representatives of the phratries. Formalities, such as these, have a a peculiar charm for the Red Man in the transaction of business.

Again; when a murder had been committed it was usual for the gens of the murdered person to meet in council; and, after ascertaining the facts, to take measures for avenging the deed. The gens of the criminal also held a council, and endeavored to effect an adjustment or condonation of the crime with the gens of the murdered person. But it often happened that the gens of the criminal called upon the other gentes of their phratry, when the slayer and the slain belonged to opposite phratries, to unite with them to obtain a condonation of the crime. In such a case the phratry held a council, and then addressed itself to the other phratry to which it sent a delegation with a belt of white wampum asking for a council of the phratry, and for an adjustment of the crime. They offered reparation to the family and gens of the murdered person in expressions of regret and in presents of value. Negotiations were continued between the two councils until an affirmative or a negative conclusion was reached. The influence of a phratry composed of several gentes would be greater than that of a single gens; and by calling into action the opposite phratry the probability of a condonation would be increased, especially if there were extenuating circumstances. We may thus see how naturally the Grecian phratry, prior to civilization, assumed the principal though not exclusive management of cases of murder, and also of the purification of the murderer if he escaped punishment; and, after the institution of political society, with what propriety the phratry assumed the duty of prosecuting the murderer in the courts of justice.

At the funerals of persons of recognized importance in the tribe, the phratric organization manifested itself in a conspicuous manner. The phrators of the decedent in a body were the mourners, and the members of the opposite phratry conducted[Pg 96] the ceremonies. In the case of a sachem it was usual for the opposite phratry to send, immediately after the funeral, the official wampum belt of the deceased ruler to the central council fire at Onondaga, as a notification of his demise. This was retained until the installation of his successor, when it was bestowed upon him as the insignia of his office. At the funeral of Handsome Lake (Gä-ne-o-di′-yo), one of the eight Seneca sachems (which occurred some years ago), there was an assemblage of sachems and chiefs to the number of twenty-seven, and a large concourse of members of both phratries. The customary address to the dead body, and the other addresses before the removal of the body, were made by members of the opposite phratry. After the addresses were concluded, the body was borne to the grave by persons selected from the last named phratry, followed, first, by the sachems and chiefs, then by the family and gens of the decedent, next by his remaining phrators, and last by the members of the opposite phratry. After the body had been deposited in the grave the sachems and chiefs formed in a circle around it for the purpose of filling it with earth. Each in turn, commencing with the senior in years, cast in three shovelfuls, a typical number in their religious system; of which the first had relation to the Great Spirit, the second to the Sun, and the third to Mother Earth. When the grave was filled the senior sachem, by a figure of speech, deposited “the horns” of the departed sachem, emblematical of his office, upon the top of the grave over his head, there to remain until his successor was installed. In that subsequent ceremony, “the horns” were said to be taken from the grave of the deceased ruler, and placed upon the head of his successor. The social and religious functions of the phratry, and its naturalness in the organic system of ancient society, are rendered apparent by this single usage.

The phratry was also directly concerned in the election of sachems and chiefs of the several gentes, upon which they had a negative as well as a confirmative vote. After the gens of a deceased sachem had elected his successor, or had elected a chief of the second grade, it was necessary, as elsewhere stated, that their choice should be accepted and confirmed by each phratry. It was expected that the gentes of the same phratry would confirm the choice almost as a matter of course; but the opposite phratry also must acquiesce, and from this source opposition sometimes appeared. A council of each phratry was held and pronounced upon the question of acceptance or rejection. If the nomination made was accepted by both it became complete; but if either refused it was thereby set aside, and a new election was made by the gens. When the choice made by the gens had been accepted by the phratries, it was still necessary, as before stated, that the new sachem, or the new chief, should be invested by the council of the confederacy, which alone had power to invest, with office.

The Senecas have now lost their Medicine Lodges which fell out in modern times; but they formerly existed and formed a prominent part of their religious system. To hold a Medicine Lodge was to observe their highest religious rites, and to practice their highest religious mysteries. They had two such organizations, one in each phratry, which shows still further the natural connection of the phratry with religious observances. Very little is now known concerning these lodges or their ceremonies. Each was a brotherhood, into which new members were admitted by a formal initiation.

The phratry was without governmental functions in the strict sense of the phrase, these being confined to the gens, tribe and confederacy; but it entered into their social affairs with large administrative powers, and would have concerned itself more and more with their religious affairs as the condition of the people advanced. Unlike the Grecian phratry and the Roman curia it had no official head. There was no chief of the phratry as such, and no religious functionaries belonging to it as distinguished from the gens and tribe. The phratric institution among the Iroquois was in its rudimentary archaic form; but it grew into life by natural and inevitable development, and remained permanent because it met necessary wants. Every institution of mankind which attained permanence will be found linked with a perpetual want. With the gens, tribe and confederacy in existence the presence of the phratry was substantially assured. It required time, however, and further experience to manifest all the uses to which it might be made subservient.

Among the Village Indians of Mexico and Central America the phratry must have existed, reasoning upon general principles; and have been a more fully developed and influential organization than among the Iroquois. Unfortunately, mere glimpses at such an institution are all that can be found in the teeming narratives of the Spanish writers within the first century after the Spanish conquest. The four “lineages” of the Tlascalans who occupied the four quarters of the pueblo of Tlascala, were, in all probability, so many phratries. They were sufficiently numerous for four tribes; but as they occupied the same pueblo and spoke the same dialect the phratric organization was apparently a necessity. Each lineage, or phratry so to call it, had a distinct military organization, a peculiar costume and banner, and its head war-chief (Teuctli), who was its general military commander. They went forth to battle by phratries. The organization of a military force by phratries and by tribes was not unknown to the Homeric Greeks. Thus; Nestor advises Agamemnon to “separate the troops by phratries and by tribes, so that phratry may support phratry and tribe tribe.”74 Under gentile institutions of the most advanced type the principle of kin became, to a considerable extent, the basis of the army organization. The Aztecs, in like manner, occupied the pueblo of Mexico in four distinct divisions, the people of each of which were more nearly related to each other than to the people of the other divisions. They were separate lineages, like the Tlascalan, and it seems highly probable were four phratries, separately organized as such. They were distinguished from each other by costumes and standards, and went out to war as separate divisions. Their geographical areas were called the four quarters of Mexico.  

With respect to the prevalence of this organization, among the Indian tribes in the Lower Status of barbarism, the subject has been but slightly investigated. It is probable that it was general in the principal tribes, from the natural manner in which it springs up as a necessary member of the organic series, and from the uses, other than governmental, to which it was adapted.

In some of the tribes the phratries stand out prominently upon the face of their organization. Thus, the Chocta gentes are united in two phratries which must be mentioned first in order to show the relation of the gentes to each other. The first phratry is called “Divided People,” and contains four gentes. The second is called “Beloved People,” and also contains four gentes. This separation of the people into two divisions by gentes created two phratries. Some knowledge of the functions of these phratries is of course desirable; but without it, the fact of their existence is established by the divisions themselves. The evolution of a confederacy from a pair of gentes, for less than two are never found in any tribe, may be deduced, theoretically, from the known facts of Indian experience. Thus, the gens increases in the number of its members and divides into two; these again subdivide, and in time reunite in two or more phratries. These phratries form a tribe, and its members speak the same dialect. In course of time this tribe falls into several by the process of segmentation, which in turn reunite in a confederacy. Such a confederacy is a growth, through the tribe and phratry, from a pair of gentes.

The Chickasas are organized in two phratries, of which one contains four, and the other eight gentes, as follows:

I. Panther Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Wild Cat.  2. Bird.  3. Fish.  4. Deer.
II. Spanish Phratry.
Gentes.—5. Raccoon.  6. Spanish.  7. Royal.  8. Hush-ko′-ni.  9. Squirrel.  10. Alligator,  11. Wolf.  12. Blackbird.

The particulars with respect to the Chocta and Chickasa phratries I am unable to present. Some fourteen years ago these organizations were given to me by Rev. Doctor Cyrus Byington and Rev. Charles C. Copeland, but without discussing their uses and functions.

A very complete illustration of the manner in which phratries are formed by natural growth, through the subdivision of gentes, is presented by the organization of the Mohegan tribe. It had three original gentes, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Turkey.

Each of these subdivided, and the subdivisions became independent gentes; but they retained the names of the original gentes as their respective phratric names. In other words the subdivisions of each gens reorganized in a phratry. It proves conclusively the natural process by which, in course of time, a gens breaks up into several, and these remain united in a phratric organization, which is expressed by assuming a phratric name. They are as follows:

I. Wolf Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Wolf.  2. Bear.  3. Dog.  4. Opossum.
II. Turtle Phratry.
Gentes.—5. Little Turtle.  6. Mud Turtle.  7. Great Turtle.  8. Yellow Eel.
III. Turkey Phratry.
Gentes.—9. Turkey.  10. Crane.  11. Chicken.

It is thus seen that the original Wolf gens divided into four gentes, the Turtle into four, and the Turkey into three. Each new gens took a new name, the original retaining its own, which became, by seniority, that of the phratry. It is rare among the American Indian tribes to find such plain evidence of the segmentation of gentes in their external organization, followed by the formation into phratries of their respective subdivisions. It shows also that the phratry is founded upon the kinship of the gentes. As a rule the name of the original gens out of which others had formed is not known; but in each of these cases it remains as the name of the phratry. Since the latter, like the Grecian, was a social and religious rather than a governmental organization, it is externally less conspicuous than a gens or tribe which were essential to the government of society. The name of but one of the twelve Athenian phratries has come down to us in history. Those of the Iroquois had no name but that of a brotherhood.

The Delawares and Munsees have the same three gentes, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Turkey. Among the Delawares there are twelve embryo gentes in each tribe, but they seem to be lineages within the gentes and had not taken gentile names. It was a movement, however, in that direction.

The phratry also appears among the Thlinkeets of the Northwest coast, upon the surface of their organization into gentes. They have two phratries, as follows:

I. Wolf Phratry.
Gentes.—1. Bear.  2. Eagle.  3. Dolphin.  4. Shark.  5. Alca.
II. Raven Phratry.
Gentes.—6. Frog.  7. Goose.  8. Sea-lion.  9. Owl.  10. Salmon.

Intermarriage in the phratry is prohibited, which shows, of itself, that the gentes of each phratry were derived from an original gens.75 The members of any gens in the Wolf phratry could marry into any gens of the opposite phratry, and vice versâ.

From the foregoing facts the existence of the phratry is established in several linguistic stocks of the American aborigines. Its presence in the tribes named raises a presumption of its general prevalence in the Ganowánian family. Among the Village Indians, where the numbers in a gens and tribe were greater, it would necessarily have been more important and consequently more fully developed. As an institution it was still in its archaic form, but it possessed the essential elements of the Grecian and the Roman. It can now be asserted that the full organic series of ancient society exists in full vitality upon the American continent; namely, the gens, the phratry, the tribe, and the confederacy of tribes. With further proofs yet to be adduced, the universality of the gentile organization upon all the continents will be established.

If future investigation is directed specially to the functions of the phratric organization among the tribes of the American aborigines, the knowledge gained will explain many peculiarities of Indian life and manners not well understood, and throw additional light upon their usages and customs, and upon their plan of life and government.



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


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