Life at the Western Door

The Senecas and their kin in the Iroquois League ultimately expected much more from their French and English allies than the two imperial powers were prepared to give, and shortly after 1701, the neutrality of the Iroquois faced significant challenges. First, though the French did little to restrain the Senecas in the west, they also did little to protect them from New France’s Indian allies.A Miami raiding party killed several Senecas and Oneidas on the Great Lakes in 1704 and, one year later, a party of Ottawas took several dozen captives in the Seneca country. Some Iroquois wanted war.

The French sent Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire as their emissary to live among the Senecas. Though the other Iroquois nations opposed his meddling in League politics and the favoritism he showed the Senecas, Joncaire, through deft trade and diplomacy, managed to keep the Senecas aligned with New France. In the east, Iroquois raiders aided the French in attacks on the English after war resumed between the two powers in 1702, most famously in the attack on the Massachusetts town of Deerfield in February of 1704. There, League warriors took eleven captives who they later adopted. They also demonstrated their importance to the French as allies, solidified their reputation as warriors, and in essence directed imperial warfare away from the Haudenosaunee homeland.

The British, meanwhile, hoped to enlist the Iroquois in an assault upon New France. Neither imperial power demonstrated much interest in fighting the other directly. Both employed their Indian allies to do the dirty work of extending their empires. The Iroquois quickly learned that they could rely upon neither the English nor the French as military allies. English assistance always arrived too little, too late, and too reluctantly. English military ventures during the war ended in disaster, campaigns conducted by unimpressive soldiers commanded by incompetent and pompous officers. After the Peace of Utrecht, which ended the conflict in 1713, the Iroquois emerged even more committed to neutrality.

It was not an easy neutrality to maintain. Many Tuscaroras moved north to become, by 1714, the sixth Iroquois nation. They settled in the southern parts of Iroquoia, along the Susquehanna River in New York. They may have maintained some contacts with those Tuscaroras who did not accompany them on their northern march. The immigrants left behind them warfare in the Carolinas. They settled amongst the Iroquois in opposition to the wishes of New York’s governor Robert Hunter. One of their towns was located at Ohagi, located within the bounds of today’s Leicester, New York. To remain neutral, the Iroquois needed to convince their neighbors that Six Nations warriors could threaten their security should they become disaffected. The role they played in the early rounds of the European imperial struggle contributed to a perception of Iroquois strength, but the Six Nations needed additional warriors to make a convincing case. This gave the Haudenosaunee the incentive they needed to admit the Tuscaroras, a culturally related group who had followed the “White Roots of Peace” into the Iroquois longhouse.

To sustain their neutrality, the Six Nations needed as well informed and skillful diplomacy. The path their warriors took along trails south involved the Iroquois in the affairs of a growing number of colonies, including Pennsylvania, which transformed the Iroquois into overlords, granting them an empire in order to claim it for themselves. The western Iroquois could claim, with Pennsylvania’s support, considerable influence. Both the British and French, of course, intended their alliance with the Six Nations to serve the ends of empire. Both European powers wanted to control the west, and began to plan for the construction of forts in the homelands of the Iroquois. The French built Fort Niagara in 1720, an attempt to stop the diversion of furs from western Indians through Iroquoia to the better prices and more abundant goods at the British posts in New York. By the middle of the 1720s, the British began the construction of Fort Oswego, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The post, British imperial officials hoped, would draw in furs otherwise headed toward Montreal. Constructing Oswego may have rendered the position of the eastern Iroquois nations less important to the conduct of the fur trade, since traders could travel to a British post without passing through their territories.

These changes, however, do not appear to have affected the Senecas. The European posts were distant from the core Seneca area. The Senecas had occupied a key position in the fur trade after 1701 as geographic middlemen. Before the construction of the forts at Niagara and Oswego, western Indians traveling to Montreal or Albany had to pass through the Senecas’ homeland, and doing that required the formation and maintenance of alliances, the regular exchange of gifts, and the establishment of peace.Both the English and the French made overtures to the Senecas in an attempt to persuade them to direct their western allies toward either Albany or Montreal. They also presented the Senecas with gifts to secure their assistance. The archaeological evidence shows clearly that the benefits of this trade reached the Senecas at Canawaugus, living at the intersection of two major transportation routes. One moved east and west, through the Haudenosaunee Longhouse. The other moved north and south along the Genesee, piercing what now is Livingston County, linking the Senecas with the Lake and the Susquehanna river drainage.

Painting of Fort Niagara in 1728.
Painting of Fort Niagara 1728.

Even after the construction of Oswego western Indians traveling to the English post would have stopped along the shore of Lake Ontario in Seneca territory.Indians making this voyage still visited the Senecas, and renewed the ties of kinship and exchange that had been forged after 1701. During these years, the Senecas altered their settlement patterns. They abandoned the western “Seneca Castle” near Canandaigua Lake at some point in the 1740s and moved westward toward the Genesee River, in today’s Livingston County. They did not move toward Lake Ontario to intercept western Indians, but greeted these travelers at home, a sign that the alliances they forged remained strong, and that their role in the western fur trade remained viable.

As they relocated, the Senecas also abandoned life in multi-family longhouses packed tightly behind defensive palisades.Benefiting economically from the passage of western nations through their lands, and enjoying a period of unprecedented peace at home, Seneca families dispersed across the countryside in single family farmsteads that preserved an open, central hearth. On the flats at Canawaugus, near today’s Avon, New York, or farther south, and farther upriver, in the towns that came to be known as Big Tree and Little Beard’s Town, Senecas planted their crops and enjoyed a period of relative peace. One historian called this the era of the Iroquois Restoration. Looking at their households as evidence in the archaeological record, Kurt Jordan described this as “the Seneca Restoration.” Women, the performers of agricultural labor, chose to live closer to their fields and to supplies of water.They continued to plant the “Three Sisters,” maize, beans and squash, while men entered the woods to hunt. There were challenges. Alcohol acquired from traders could cause problems, and Iroquois leaders complained to the English at Albany about the effects of the rum trade on their communities.But the Senecas were far from powerless. They occupied a strategically critical territory and enjoyed an era of peace in their homeland after the settlement of 1701. They possessed abundant lands in New York, and asserted control over the lands of other nations. Because doing so made their lives easier, many colonists recognized these claims. This, coupled with the still-considerable military power of the Six Nations, and the enormous respect with which their warriors were viewed, ensured the Senecas and the Six Nations a fundamental role in the fate of the European empires in America when imperial war returned to the continent in the 1740s. The Six Nations remained a force with which Europeans must reckon.

Further Reading:

Aquila, Richard. The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701-1754, (Detroit: Wayne State University PRess, 1983).

Jordan, Kurt A. “Enacting Gender and Kinship around a Large Outdoor Fire Pit at the SenecaIroquois Townley-Read Site, 1715-1754,” Historical Archaeology, 48 (no. 2., 2014), 61- 90.

________. “Regional Diversity and Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Iroquoia,” in Iroquoian Archaeology and Analytic Scale, eds. Laurie E. Miroff and Timothy D. Knapp., (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009).

________. The Seneca Restoration, 1715-54: An Iroquois Local Political Economy, (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2008).

________. “Seneca Iroquois Settlement Pattern, Community Structure, and Housing, 1677- 1779,” Man in the Northeast, No. 67, (2004), 23-60.

MacLeitch, Gail. Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

________. “’Red’ Labor: Iroquois Participation in the Atlantic Economy,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, 1 (no. 4, 2004), 69-90.