The Influence of the Iroquois League

Dublin Core


The Influence of the Iroquois League


Iroquois, English, French, Geography, Culture, Diplomacy, Military


     During a time of devastation and hardship that was to come as the Europeans brought their ambitions of God, Gold, and Glory to the Americas, one group of Native Americans managed to overcome the obstacles and even, in some cases, benefit from their arrival. The Iroquois League originally encompassed five groups of villagers who spoke related languages and were settled in the land of Iroquoia-present-day Upstate New York. The group consisted of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and the Senecas and were later on joined by the Tuscaroras in the eighteenth century.[1] The Iroquois League took advantage of their geographic location during the time of European colonization, being in between the French and English (who took over the role of the Dutch) in the Northeast as well as cultural advantages that allowed for the Iroquois to adapt at a faster rate.[2] The Iroquois League was highly influential as well, with many letters being documented from French and English sources asking for aid militarily as well as sources attributing political thought to the League. At a time when Native groups quickly fell to the might of the European colonizers, the Six Nations was an outlier as they managed to hold the upper hand and keep the Europeans powers at bay for an unprecedented amount of time.            
     Geographic location played an important role in allowing the Iroquois League to adapt and overcome these new ordeals brought by the colonizers. This geographical advantage that the Iroquois had made for three key factors. First, the Iroquoia’s confederacy sat atop of many of the important trade routes in the Northeast. This gave the Iroquois League an advantage by allowing them access both to European colonial markets and the sources of the peltries that the colonizers demanded.[3] Even with this key advantage, many native people dwelled along the trade routes apart from the Five Nations, and even with their better access to the colonial goods and peltries, they rapidly lost their economic and political independence. Moreover, their inland location placed the peoples of the Longhouse at a sufficient distance from centers of European expansion to allow them to adapt to changed circumstances before being assailed by epidemics and overrun by colonists, missionaries, and other interlopers.[4] Even so, Hurons of the Georgian Bay region had been destroyed by various factors such as disease, economic dependence on French traders, political and cultural controversies spawned by French missionaries, and attacks by ancient Iroquois enemies. This led to the third, and arguably the most effective, factor that the Iroquois League benefitted from. Not only was their geographic location atop trade routes and inland, it also sat in between the major European powers. From the early seventeenth century on they stood between the last two competing colonial centers: the French on the St. Lawrence and Dutch on the Hudson, who were later replaced by the English of New York. Access to alternative markets and imperial centers gave the Iroquois League maneuvering room to preserve their independence and keep Europeans at a safe distance in ways many of their neighbors could not.

     Culturally, three connected factors allowed for Iroquoia sustenance Much like other native groups in the location, the Iroquois were horticultural villagers, thus protected from an immediate overturn of traditional methods of subsistence because of altered hunting patterns inspired by trade with the Europeans for furs did not. Like other native societies, the Iroquois dealt with depopulation in their society by acquiring captives in mourning wars. Here their geographic location gave them the political and economic advantage to be far more successful in sustenance than their neighbors. The final advantage was the Iroquois Great League of Peace and Power. It fostered the acceptance of diverse peoples of varying speech and customs while providing a rock of traditional rituals to which the peoples of the Longhouse could cling on to as they adapted to new ways of life.[5]

     The latter half of the eighteenth century saw a decline in power from the Iroquois league. Following the Seven Years war, the confederacy was fragmented.[6] It was during this time that the Iroquois began to participate in a form of shrewd diplomacy. The Iroquois League wrongly claimed that all land east of the Mississippi River belonged to them when it did not; this land belonged to the people of the Ohio Country. The Iroquoia did so because it benefitted both indigenous peoples and  Europeans alike. In acting as the official negotiators, the Iroquois could reap the material and strategic benefits that came with being seen as an indispensable ally to the British, and the Crown was able to gain territory. With the conflict in Europe at an end, however, the Iroquois needed further resources in order to ensure a future for themselves. With both the Crown and the Iroquois League in need of land, both parties turned their attention to the highly coveted Ohio Country which covered tens of millions of acres. Both parties knew that with the alliance of the British and Iroquois League, wherever the Iroquois could establish their authority so, too, might the British colonial system be extended. The British believed that in doing so this would lead to an effective trade network being established that would allow for buying and selling of land, as well as its improvement.[7] Ultimately, this plan did not go as anticipated. Because the Iroquois League’s power was declining and with their authority spread so thin, they were unable to effectively rein in their Ohio “brothers” and “cousins.”[8] This was not to be the end of Iroquoia diplomatic powers however, as can be seen in the process that ultimately ended with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. Fort Stanwix sat in the Oneida Carry and despite setbacks in its preparation, by 1768 the fort had been operational for nearly a decade. Even before its completion, the fort served as protection to more than four hundred soldiers during the winter of 1758-1759.[9] It was here, during negotiations with the Six Nations, that the British were able to secure the largest land succession in colonial North America. At this point, the main priority for the Iroquois was to gain security, but they would not do so while agreeing to terms that would harm them. In fact, it was the negotiators on behalf of the Six Nations who wielded the power to finalize the agreement. The Iroquois demanded the treaty acknowledge their land claim that extended down to the Cherokee River.[10] With the acceptance of Iroquois land claims, the Six Nations agreed to opening up the Ohio Country to settlement (ignoring the self-interested Ohio Iroquois of whom they tried to reign in previously). Apart from just security, the Iroquois League collected a king’s ransom at the treaty of Fort Stanwix and momentarily alleviated European encroachment on eastern Iroquois homelands as the Europeans focused on settling their new lands in the Ohio Country.[11]

     European colonizers needed the Iroquois League for more than just trade and diplomacy. By gaining the upper hand through trade, the Iroquois were the most powerful native group in the Northeast during this time. As European conflicts escalate outside of the North American continent, there was little attention paid to the colonies. The West Indies were identified as the Crown’s jewels in the Americas, so if problems were to erupt their attention was focused more so there than in present day America. In order to ensure their safety, the Iroquois League was needed. Governor Hunter’s letter addressing the Five Nations at the time stresses this fact. His letter explains to the Five Nations that so long as they uphold their agreement of keeping the peace amongst one another and coming to the protection of the British if needed, the King will ensure his good will and safety to them as well as being gifted a handsome reward. [12] The letter was one of reassurance for the British, making sure they are adequately defended and prepared in case of an attack from the French or French allied natives.  For a European power to formally call upon the Iroquois League in this manner is a testament to the latter’s strength. A direct request to use the might of the Iroquois League came from a letter by Richard Ingoldesby. Here he calls upon the Five Nations to participate in a land raid against the French in Canada. To convince them, Ingoldesby cites numerous times when the French showed themselves to be true enemies to the Iroquois and enticed them by describing how their shamans would sing war songs while clasping the hands of the British as a sign of their commitment. [13] In the letter Ingoldesby discusses the issue of the Senecas who have joined sides with French as they have fallen under the influence of the Jesuits. This shows that it was not only the British in need of the Iroquois but the French could benefit from them as well.

     The founding of the United States has the markings of Iroquois principles scattered throughout. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote to James Parker discussing the advantageous of forming a union of their own. In it Franklin shows amazement of how “Six Nations of ignorant savages would be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble.” [14] Franklin goes on to mention that a union of English colonies would serve a better purpose. Essentially, Franklin was planting the seeds of revolution by seeing hope in the way the Iroquois operated. The Iroquois influenced the founding fathers as they looked to create a new government. The Iroquois League and the colonies both were in the same geographic region, and with the Iroquois League predating the colonies by some five hundred years, it may not be so unusual that the political system that the founders agreed upon shared many similar characteristics as the Longhouse. [15] The Iroquois influenced the American union in two ways: the direct advice spoken to the creators of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution by Iroquois spokesman, through the force of example exerted by Iroquois political practices that American leaders observed and used as models in devising a new system of government.[16] The Iroquois League practiced a type of politics that saw a central government with limited powers and substantially autonomous local governments. John Adams noted “the form of government of the ancient Germans and modern Indians…the existence of three divisions of power is marked with a precision that excludes all controversy". [17] The idea of separation of powers coming from the “modern Indians” is an ode to the Iroquois League as there were no other native groups that the Americans could have directly observed in their area.[18]

     The Iroquois League’s influence in North America was unprecedented among other native groups. Through their geographic location and cultural practice, they could exploit European counterparts and benefit greatly from trade as well as adapt to the drastic changes that were occurring. Their power led them to be sought after both by diplomatic means as well as sheer force. Arguably their most important influence came in the forming of this country itself, with very clear traces of Iroquois principles present in the United States government as well as famous American’s such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams both crediting the Iroquois on an aspect of government that was to be adopted.

[1] Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill London, 1992), 1.

[2] Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 2.

[3] Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 2.

[4] Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 2-3.

[5] Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse, 3.

[6] William J. Campbell, Speculators in Empire: Iroquoia and the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2012), 69.

[7] Campbell, Speculators in Empire, 69

[8] Campbell, Speculators in Empire, 79

[9] Campbell, Speculators in Empire, 139

[10] Campbell, Speculators in Empire, 151

[11] Campbell, Speculators in Empire, 167

[12] Robert Hunter, “Proposition to the Five Nations”

[13] Richard Ingoldesby, “Proposition to the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Cayugas”

[14] Benjamin Franklin on the Iroquois League, in a letter to James Parker, 1751

[15] Elisabeth Tooker, “The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League,” Page 305

[16] Samuel B Payne Jr, “The Iroquois League, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution,” 607

[17] Payne, The Iroquois League, 608

[18] Payne, The Iroquois League, 608-609



Ibraheme Bayakly


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University of Memphis




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Collection Items

Richard Ingoldesby makes a direct request by way of letter to use the military might of the Iroquois League. Here he calls upon the Five Nations to participate in land raid against the French in Canada. This letter was written during the time of…

As European conflicts escalate outside of the North American continent, there was little attention paid to the colonies. The West Indies were identified as the crown jewels of the Americas, so if problems were to erupt their attention was focused…

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote to James Parker discussing the advantageous of forming a union of their own. In it Franklin shows amazement of how “Six Nations of ignorant savages would be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to…
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