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In July 1761, as Joseph Brant traveled east to join Wheelock’s school, Sir William Johnson headed west, ascending the Mohawk River into the country of the Six Nations. his five boats hauled thirty-eight soldiers, their equipment, and presents for the Indians. The traveling party also included his nineteen-year-old son, John, and their cousin and secretary, Guy Johnson. In high spirits, the Johnsons anticipated a victory tour in Indian country to consolidate the recent British conquest of French Canada. With the French banished from North America, British officials expected easily to control the Indians.
Instead, Johnson found pervasive Indian dread and disgust, even among the nearby Mohawks, who had so long cooperated with him. As British allies, the Mohawks had lost about 100 warriors, half of their men, during the recent war with the French. In return for that heavy sacrifice, the Mohawks expected Johnson to protect their villages against conniving land speculators and encroaching settlers. Frustrated in that expectation, the Mohawks complained bitterly to Johnson, who reported that they felt in “danger of being made slaves, and having their lands taken from them at pleasure, which they added would confirm what the French have often told the Six Nations.”
Preaching patience, Johnson promised justice to the Mohawks—but New York’s leaders and settlers kept breaking his every promise. Fed up, the Mohawks threatened to move away deeper within Indian country. That possibility delighted settlers and speculators who lusted after Mohawk land, but alarmed Johnson, who relied on his special Mohawk connection to influence the Six Nations. Without nearby and content Mohawks as allies, his superintendency would become impotent.
Proceeding upriver beyond the Mohawk country, Johnson reached German Flats, colonial New York’s westernmost settlement. There, Johnson met Oneidas, who also bitterly complained of encroaching settlers. The chief Conoghquieson warned Johnson that the Oneida settlers would fight rather than lose their lands. Instead of consolidating British power over the Indians, the conquest of Canada threatened to unravel the alliance with the Six Nations that was essential to frontier security.
In helping the British to attack Canada, the Iroquois had miscalculated, for they had never expected such a rapid and complete collapse by the French forces. No longer could the Indians play off the French against the British to maintain Iroquois independence, to maximize their presents, and to ensure trade competition. A British general explained, “They saw us sole Masters of the Country, the Balance of Power broke, and their own Consequence at an End. Instead of being courted by two Nations, a Profusion of Presents made by both, and two Markets to trade at, they now depend upon one Power.” That dependence exposed Iroquoia to land-hungry colonists.
THE SIX NATIONS
The Iroquois pursued a mixed subsistence strategy combining horticulture, gathering, fishing, and hunting. In fields of fertile, alluvial soil, they cultivated mounds of maize topped by climbing beans and surrounded by low-lying squashes and pumpkins. After the fall harvest, the natives dispersed into the hills, occupying many small camps, tended by women, while the men pursued bear, deer, and beaver for meat and pelts. Returning to their villages, they spent the early spring collecting maple sap to make a brown sugar. After planting their crops in May, the Iroquois spent June and July in fishing camps strung along the lakes and streams. Having exhausted the previous year’s harvest, the people sought relief by catching eels, salmon, trout, and whitefish. During that hungry season, the women and children also gathered wild onions, followed by strawberries, raspberries, whortleberries, and blackberries. From the forest floor, they also harvested ginseng for sale to colonial merchants.
This mobile, but seasonally patterned, way of life conserved most of the forest and streams—and their wild things—over the generations. Native use contrasted with the colonists’ drive to clear most of the forest to provide pastures for cattle and fields for grain. Compared to the colonists, the Iroquois used land extensively rather than intensively. The natives did clear and cultivate compact fields near their villages, but they kept most of their domain as a forest to sustain wild plants and animals. To colonial eyes, the Iroquois peoples wasted their land by keeping a wilderness; but the Indians exploited their domain in ways that the colonists did not understand.
Most colonists disdained the Iroquois as improvident, living from hand to mouth for want of incentives for accumulating private property. Indeed, the Iroquois considered it foolish and demeaning to labor beyond what they needed to subsist. Sir William noted, “The Indians are a Lazy people, & naturally Enemies to Labour.” But colonial charges of Indian indolence focused on men seen during the warm months in their villages or on visits to colonial towns: periods and places of male inactivity and heavy drinking. Colonial observers rarely saw Indian men during their strenuous winter hunts, when they endured severe hardships pursuing game for miles over rugged terrain in bitter weather. The colonial view also discounted the evident industry of native women in cultivating and gathering, which the colonists treated as exploitation by lazy husbands and fathers.
John Heckewelder, a missionary, noted that the Indians disliked the competitive and acquisitive values of the colonists: “They wonder that the white people are striving so much to get rich, and to heap up treasures in this world which they cannot carry with them to the next.”
They cherished the collective security maintained by expecting generosity from the fortunate to the needy. Instead of storing up wealth, prospering chiefs accumulated prestige by gifts to their kin and to the hungry and ragged. These values of hospitality and reciprocity spread resources through the seasons and across a village, sustaining a rough equality. No one starved in an Iroquois village unless all did so.
If paltry by colonial standards, the material wants of the Iroquois exceeded those of their ancestors. The eighteenth-century Iroquois relied upon traders to provide European manufactured goods that exceeded the Indian technology to make. In return for furs, the Iroquois procured metal knives, hatchets, axes, hoes, and kettles—all vastly better than their stone and wood predecessors. And with cloth, mirrors, glass and silver jewelry, and alcohol, the traders provided new luxuries to the Indians. Above all, they needed guns, gunpowder, and metal shot for hunting and war. Dependence on that imported technology also entailed an Indian reliance on colonial blacksmiths and gunsmiths to repair metal tools and weapons.
In personal appearance, the Iroquois conveyed a mix of tradition and adaptation, of America and Europe, of subsistence and commerce, and of ease and pride. Except for moccasins on their feet, the Iroquois donned more British cloth than traditional buckskin. In warm weather, men wore little more than a loose, linen shirt over their shoulders and a loincloth held by a leather belt. Women’s attire consisted of a linen shirt and a cotton petticoat. In colder weather, both men and women wrapped themselves in woolen blankets, while men covered their lower limbs with leather leggings. Both genders delighted in abundant jewelry, especially silver worn as bracelets, gorgets, rings, and earrings. Women and older men wore their hair long, but warriors shaved the sides of their head to leave a scalp lock on top. The young men also plucked their facial hair out by the roots.
Gender and age, rather than social class, structured Iroquois labor. Assisted by children, women tended the crops and gathered the wild plants, while men fished, hunted, waged war, and conducted diplomacy. Men’s activities took them deep into the forest and far from the villages. Consequently, those villages and their fields belonged to the women, the enduring people of the community. They controlled the harvest and determined the location of their village.
No land could be forsaken without their consent. In 1763, the Mohawks explained to Johnson that women were “the Truest Owners, being the persons who labour on the Lands.” The Mohawk matrons then assured Johnson that “they would keep their Land, and did not chuse to part with the same to be reduced to make Brooms.” The Mohawks well knew the Algonquian Indians of the Hudson Valley and New England as negative reference points: as native peoples who had lost most of their lands and become the impoverished makers of brooms and baskets for colonial consumers.
The Iroquois dispersed and divided political power from a dread of coercion. They understood the world as constantly embroiled in a struggle between the forces of good and evil, of life and death, of peace and war. Because those conflicts raged within every nation, village, and person, all forms of power had to be dispersed and closely watched to preserve the freedom of a people.
An Iroquois nation was an ethnic and linguistic group divided into several jealous villages and subdivided by internal factions led by rival chiefs. Although one village usually was a bit larger and more prestigious, hosting the council fire of the nation, the chiefs there could only admonish and advise, but never command, their fellow people in other, smaller villages. No nation was united under the rule of a single headman, although one chief might enjoy more honor as the keeper of sacred objects—principally wampum belts—and as the host of public councils. Instead of representing an entire village (much less the collective nation), a chief represented a particular clan, which the Iroquois called “a tribe.” Most Iroquois nations had three clans (or tribes): Bear, Wolf, and Turtle. A clan consisted of several extended families, related through the maternal line: matrilineages. Johnson noted that a chief’s clout depended on “the number of Warriors under his influence, which are seldom more than his own relations.”
The proper chief had been accomplished in war but mellowed by time, becoming eloquent, patient, tactful, dignified, and methodical. The duty of a chief was to keep his head while others were losing theirs. In 1765, Sayenqueraghta, a Seneca, described the ideal chief as “a wise, dispassionate man [who] thinks much & thinks slowly, with great caution & deliberation, before he speaks his whole mind.” A proper chief worked to soothe the discontented, to calm troubles, and to keep the peace by sage advice. Unable to command people, the chief exercised influence through persuasion, which rested upon his prestige, example, and reason. A bullying chief risked his life to assassination by disgruntled warriors.
The clan chiefs (or “sachems”) had to share village authority with warriors and matrons. The senior women of the matrilineages chose the chiefs who represented their clan on the village council. Although birth within the proper matrilineage mattered, the clan mothers favored merit and personality in determining their choice. In effect, chiefs were so many male ambassadors, representing matrilineages. Once chosen, a chief ordinarily served for life, but an incompetent could be ousted by the matrons of his clan.
Chiefs promoted harmony and peace, but they could not always succeed—especially beyond the nation among outsiders without kinship ties to the Iroquois. Consequently, the people also needed to summon the darker powers of their young warriors. They could not, and should not, possess the chiefly virtues of calm forbearance. Instead, warriors needed to be decisive, violent, cruel, and proud—quick to take offense and terrible in seeking vengeance. Without formidable warriors, no people could remain free. In theory, chiefs restrained warriors, but ambitious young men longed for the honors of war to demonstrate their courage and prowess. Bristling under restraint by their chiefs, warriors sometimes forced a war by raiding foes or by killing their emissaries. But women could compel the warriors to make peace by withholding the food needed for long-distance raids.
Within their villages, the Iroquois dreaded contention and coercion, preferring the deliberative search for consensus, however elusive. That search led to highly formalized speeches in public council by chiefs closely watched by all the villagers. If those deliberations failed to reach an acceptable consensus, the people agreed to disagree, permitting factions and families to chart varying courses. For example, during the imperial wars, the Oneidas disagreed on a common front, so some helped the French and others the British, while most clung to neutrality.
If a village majority did commit to a provocative decision, the disgruntled voted with their feet by moving away. Over the years, village populations ebbed and surged as some people moved out and others moved in. Driven by the elusive ideal of consensus, this fission helped to sustain that ideal—if not the reality—by temporarily ridding villages of the most discontented.
The lack of coercive power within the Six Nations frustrated colonial officials who hoped to command the Indians by co-opting their chiefs. Early and often, those chiefs tried to explain their limited influence over hotheaded warriors or over another village. Indeed, a chief lost influence if he did colonial bidding by coercing his own people. Johnson eventually gave up trying to mandate head chiefs for each of the Six Nations, explaining that “the extreme jealousy which the Northern Indians entertain of one another would render a particular choice of any one of them unserviceable; and make his Nation pay no regard to him.” Noting that chiefs had greater power in the past, or at a distance from the settlements, Johnson concluded that colonial meddling had weakened authority in Indian villages. But, of course, Johnson was the consummate meddler.
The imperial wars diminished the authority of the sachems. Eager to recruit warriors, colonial leaders treated the war chiefs as the real locus of power in an Iroquois village. Consequently, they could drive hard bargains to secure abundant presents including weapons and ammunition. By redistributing this largesse to their followers, war chiefs built their influence at the expense of the sachems. Indeed, warriors and their war chiefs waxed increasingly arrogant. In 1762, the Seneca war chiefs assured Johnson: “We are in fact the People of Consequence for Managing Affairs, Our Sachems being generally a parcell of Old People who say Much, but who Mean or Act very little.”
From a colonial perspective, the Iroquois lived in virtual anarchy—owing to the crisscrossing interests of chiefs, warriors, and women; the elusive ideal of consensus; and the powerful animus against coercion. And yet, native villages were remarkably harmonious—except when alcohol abounded. Heckewelder noted, “They have no written laws, but they have usages founded on the most strict principles of equity and justice. . . . They are peaceable, sociable, obliging, charitable, and hospitable among themselves.” Their public councils were dignified—in stark contrast to the rancor of colonial politics. Johnson marveled, “All their deliberations are conducted with extraordinary regularity and decorum. They never interrupt him who is speaking, nor use harsh language, whatever may be their thoughts.”
Kinship and conversation framed the obligations, duties, and norms of an Indian village. Authority ultimately lay in the constant flow of talk, which regulated reputation through the variations of praise and ridicule, celebration and shaming. The close quarters of Indian villages kept few secrets and enforced moral norms by rendering individuals hypersensitive to their standing in the eyes of kin and neighbors. Humiliated and shunned, a thief or rapist could not endure in an observant, gossiping village. Consequently, theft and rape were virtually unknown among the Iroquois.