People of the Long House

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe Six Nations, or Iroquois, have been praised and abused more than any other Indians in North America. Cadwallader Colden praised them for their manly virtues: their courage, patriotism, and love of liberty. Conrad Weiser praised them for their honesty and democratic simplicity. Both men admired them for their statesmanship. The English colonies valued them highly as allies. There might be no United States today, and no Canadian partner in the British Commonwealth, if the Iroquois had not sheltered our forefathers during the long struggle with France in America. Yet Fenimore Cooper excoriated them (under the name of “Mingoes") as treacherous fiends, and even such historians as Francis Parkman quite clearly thought them motivated by blood lust and maniacal frenzy.

Their friends and foes agree on one thing: the extraordinary influence they exerted on American history, an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. At no time, not even when they were winning the series of military victories which gave them control of a realm roughly the size of the old Roman Empire, did they have a population of more than 15,000 men, women and children. Yet they not only established their so-called Great Peace throughout the woods of eastern North America, but they held two mighty European empires in check until well on in the Eighteenth Century. During the French and Indian War, when the population of the English colonies was about eighty times that of the Iroquois, we sought—and received—their protection.

There were many Iroquois-speaking peoples—the Hurons or Wyandots, for instance, the Cherokees, the Eries, the Susquehannocks. But it was to another group of Iroquoian tribes that the French applied the name “Iroquois”: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. These were the so-called Five Nations, who became known as the Six Nations after the Tuscaroras from North Carolina had joined them.

They called themselves people of the “Long House,” from their characteristic lodging—a timber and bark building, perhaps a hundred feet in length, with tiers of bunks along the sides and fireplaces down the middle—to describe a political union in which each nation preserved the essentials of its sovereignty although a common roof sheltered them all.


When the English colonies came to know them, the Five Nations were seated in northern New York, between the lower Mohawk River and the Genesee. For some time before 1600, the Mohawks and Onondagas seem to have been on the St. Lawrence River, where Jacques Cartier found them on his second voyage in 1535. It is thought that the Iroquois as a whole came originally from the Southwest; but it is unsafe, at the present stage of archaeological research, to speculate on their movements. It is sufficient to know that in historic times their habitat was the Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes.

They were a people of mixed race. Their custom of adopting prisoners of war precluded any attempt to preserve a pure blood stream. The Senecas are said to have had, at one time, more aliens than natives in their population. How, then, did the Iroquois come to have their distinctive traits?

There were many contributing causes, the principal ones being found in their political and social pattern. Although the Five Nations did not have the external trappings of a great civilization—stone buildings, a written literature, scientific laboratories, schools of painting and music—they did have a highly developed political organization: a confederacy of which John Collier wrote recently in Indians of the Americas, “I think no institutional achievement of mankind exceeds it in either wisdom or intelligence.”

In setting up this confederacy, they were impelled by the inexorable necessity: to unite or perish. Five hundred and more years ago, they were in great peril. They were taking a drubbing from their Algonkian neighbors, and at the same time they were feuding disastrously among themselves. It was their good fortune to discover at this time a man of genius, who brought the Five Nations together in a confederacy that ensured internal peace and offered the hope that, if other nations joined them, peace might be extended in an ever-widening circle. After his death, the Indians so revered his memory that they built a vast legend about him, a legend that has itself been one of the main causes for the continuing success of the structure he founded.

According to this legend, the Great Spirit, seeing man in danger of destroying himself with wars, sent to earth a prophet, Deganawidah, to show the nations how to organize for peace. He was born among the Hurons on the north shore of Lake Ontario. While still a young man, hearing rumors of the wars that were destroying the Iroquois peoples on the south side of the lake, he developed his doctrine of Peace and Power. He believed that it was not enough for men to renounce war as an instrument of national policy; it was also necessary to gather as many nations as he could enlist, organize them under a common law, and support that law with military force.