How The Iroquois Confederacy Got to the Grand River

I am currently doing some research into the history of the Grand River land grants made to the Six Nations after the U.S. Revolutionary War. The village of Conestogo sits on these lands – not to mention many of the cities and towns up and down the Grand River Valley: Kitchener, Cambridge, Brantford, Elora, Fergus, and many others.

This research sheds new light (for me) on the history of the entire northeastern part of North America from roughly 1600 to the mid 1800s – a critical period of about 250 years. As usual with most historical accounts the focus is mostly on battles between conflicting groups of people – winners and losers – but mostly the winners. In the case of the Iroquois it was an ongoing struggle to maintain control of the trade between first nations, the French, Dutch and British during this period. They ran what some historians consider an “empire” – the Iroquois League.

The Iroquois League (or “Confederacy”) was located in upstate New York and was formed sometime between 1390 and 1570 (the date is uncertain). The term “Iroquois” is a French-ified version of the name used by their allies the Hurons. It meant “rattlesnakes”. The Iroquois refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee.

Jacques Cartier had seen Iroquois villages up and down the St. Lawrence in 1541-42, but these were gone by the time Champlain visited the St. Lawrence in 1603. Some historians speculate that the Iroquois from the St. Lawrence migrated to upstate New York. But the relationship between these Iroquois and those in New York is not clear. What is generally accepted is that the Iroquois League had developed long before 1600.

Deganawide, the “Peacemaker”, is said to have inspired Haiawatha to bring the Iroquois together to form the Iroquois League.

Legend has it that two famous natives were involved in the formation of the Confederacy: Deganawide, known as the “Peacemaker”, and Hiawatha (or Ayewentha) an Onondega who had become a Mohawk chief. Together they convinced the other Iroquois chiefs to form a cooperative league in which they pledged never to kill each other.

The original confederacy was formed by an alliance between the Mohawk and Oneida in the eastern part of their territory, and the Seneca, Cayuga and Onandaga in the west. The Tuscarora nation joined in 1722 after they were forced to leave North Carolina.

This resulted in significant cooperation and gave the Iroquois considerable military and political power. As a result of their cooperation they were able to dominate (or subjugate) many of the neighbouring tribes right across the northeastern part of the continent. At various times their control extended as far north as parts of Ontario and Quebec, and as far west as the Ohio valley.

They did this by a rigorous policy of adoption from other tribes. As others were defeated in battle many of the warriors were simply captured and “adopted” into their own ranks.

Other tribes such as the Mingo, Mahican and Delaware were given membership in what was called the “Covenant Chain”. This made them allies, and gave the Iroquois the right to bargain with the Europeans on their behalf. But in the eyes of the Iroquois these tribes were second class citizens.

The End of the Original Confederacy

Since its beginning the council fire of the confederacy had been burning at the main Onondaga village near present day Syracuse. But a series of complex events led to the splintering of the confederacy and the extinguishing of the council fire in 1777.

The event that divided the Six Nations was the American Revolutionary War. The main character in this part of Iroquois history was Joseph Brant, an influential Mohawk also known as Thayendanega.

Joseph Brant sided with the British in the Revolutionary War and was instrumental in splitting the Iroquois League.

Brant had been taken under the wing of William Johnston, the British Indian commissioner. He had attended English schools, married Johston’s daughter (Molly) and even accepted a captain’s commission in the British army. Eventually he rose to a position of leadership with the Mohawks.

Not surprisingly Brant sided with the British in the conflicts that led up to the Revolutionary War. When the Iroquois League council decided to remain neutral between the British and Americans Brant opposed them. He was convinced that if the Americans won their independence the Iroquois would lose their lands completely.

As a result Brant led his own warriors against the Americans in a series of brutal battles between 1776 and 1783. Iroquois who had been allies for centuries now ended up fighting and killing each other in a war between two imperial powers to decide who would carve up the continent.

At the end of the war Brant led his warriors into Canada to the Grand River where the Six Nations confederation was reconstituted. For their loyal service to the British, Brant and his followers had been given 675,000 acres of land stretching along both sides of the Grand River in southern Ontario.

Approximately 2,000 Iroquois followed Brant to Canada. Most of them were Mohawk and Cayuga, but there were also remnants of all six Iroquois nations.

In New York the remaining Iroquois were considered a “conquered people” even though many of them had supported the American side during the war. As Brant had anticipated, they were forced to give up most of their land and were confined to a few small reservations.

Now two Iroquois confederacy council fires were burning – one in Ontario and another in New York. Initial cooperation between the two groups eventually ended around 1803.

Notes and Sources:
In the process of doing the research for this article I stumbled onto this very detailed history of the Iroquois Confederacy written and compiled by Lee Sultzman.

Another good summary of the history of the Iroquois Confederacy is here:

Native American History, by Judith Nies – puts Native American History into the context of world history.

In the Hands of the Great Spirit, by Jake Page – has a detailed description of the Haiawatha legend and the formation of the Iroquois League.


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