Mourning Wars

The Haudenosaunee Longhouse, centered at Onondaga, with the Mohawks and Senecas respectively as the keepers of the eastern and western doors, preserved peace among its members. Like other peoples in the Eastern Woodlands, the Iroquois lived in villages surrounded by fields planted with maize, beans and squash, the mythical “Three Sisters.” Orchards stood nearby.Evidence of farming, of active management of the landscape, is apparent deep in Livingston County’s archaeological record. Iroquois women tended these crops and played a leading role in community affairs. While men served as sachems and warriors, and moved through the woods to hunt and fish and fight, within the clearings women appointed the League sachems and influenced the community’s decisions about peace and war and the disposition of captives. The men and women of Iroquoia, whose gendered roles balanced and complemented one another, performed the rituals necessary to keep the world in balance and to allow them to interact effectively with the forces, human and other-than-human, that inhabited their cosmos.

They were no strangers to change, and by the time English settlers established Jamestown in 1607, the Iroquois world long had been in flux. For the most part, Haudenosaunee contact with the newcomers remained indirect. They valued the trade goods that flowed into the Longhouse both for their utilitarian function and their spiritual value. The metal tools they acquired allowed them to perform traditional tasks easily and more expeditiously, but they also manifested the great power that the newcomers seemed to possess.Iroquois men and women wanted more of these items.Even the Senecas, farthest geographically from the nascent European outposts, acquired some of these goods. Archaeologists have found European metal objects—copper and iron—at the Seneca sites at Richmond Mills and Phelps (both in Ontario County) as well as among the Onondagas and Mohawks as early as 1540, though it is unclear how these goods arrived in the Senecas’ homeland. By the early seventeenth century, the quantity of these goods increased in Seneca sites, and the Senecas began to bury more of their dead with trade goods. Archaeologists believe that the Senecas joined the Iroquois League at about this time, gaining allies among the four nations to their east and the ability to carry their furs into and through the territories of their neighbors. Seneca men traveled widely to trade either with the Dutch directly or with the rest of the Haudenosaunee.

Still, other native communities limited the amount of direct contact with Europeans. The Canadian Algonquins, Montagnais, and Hurons occupied the territories between the Iroquois and the fledgling French outpost established at Quebec in 1608.The Susquehannocks, who sometime in the sixteenth century left their homes in south-central New York for the headwaters of the Potomac, occupied those lands between the Five Nations and the English settlement at Jamestown. The Mahicans, finally, occupied those Hudson valley lands that lay between the Mohawks and the Dutch.

In 1609, a significant breach in this isolation occurred. The French began to probe the margins of Iroquoia. The Dutch, meanwhile, began to explore the Hudson and other rivers flowing into Long Island Sound.By 1624, they had established Fort Orange, at the site of today’s Albany and, in 1626, New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The newcomers kept their distance from the Iroquois. With a small population, the Dutch hoped to collect furs at Fort Orange and ship them to market in Holland. By 1628, aided apparently by an outbreak of European disease among their Mahican enemies, the Mohawks routed their eastern rival and gained access to the storehouse at Fort Orange.

The Mohawks acquired from Dutch traders pipes, tobacco, and wampum, the shell beads acquired from their Algonquian trading partners on Long Island Sound and vital to the conduct of Iroquois diplomacy. Mohawk traders acquired kettles and pots that creative native artisans fashioned into metal arrowheads and ornaments. They also traded their furs for guns and ammunition. These items moved throughout the Longhouse. Some made it as far west as the Genesee Valley.

The Five Nations saw commerce not simply as a business transaction— the exchange of pelts for European manufactured goods— but as part of a relationship based on reciprocity, respect, and kinship. Mohawk orators at Fort Orange lectured the Dutch on the behavior they expected from their “brothers.” They provided the Dutch with etiquette lessons, rules for behaving in a relationship that had obvious economic elements but was to the members of the Five Nations also emotional and spiritual. Iroquois orators at Fort Orange spoke of drying tears, of clearing throats, of setting minds right and removing the obstructions from the path to the Dutch post. They described to the Dutch a relationship between kin secured by the reciprocal exchange of gifts and kindness. The Dutch do not seem to have recognized the values and beliefs that shaped Five Nations economic behavior. Iroquois diplomacy, the Dutch learned, took time. Iroquois leaders sought understanding and consensus, what they called a good mind. The potential for misunderstanding always existed, and violence threatened frequently. Mohawks complained of Dutch traders, on occasion, who attempted to coerce the Iroquois into trading exclusively with them at Fort Orange. In the case of the relationship between the Five Nations and the Dutch, however, the demands of intercultural trade allowed for a working relationship. The Dutch did not intrude into Haudenosaunee territory in a sustained fashion, and they did not take their land. The principle underscoring this relationship Haudenosaunee people today call “Guswenta,” which they assert is represented by the “Two-Row” wampum belt: like the two purple, parallel lines on this belt, the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee would travel the same river together in peace and cooperation, but their paths would not cross, and they would not interfere in the internal affairs of the other.

This relationship worked, but the same waves of European epidemic disease that earlier had devastated the Algonquian peoples of New England to their east, cut into the heart of Iroquoia, and continued to descend upon the Longhouse regularly for several decades. Measles hit in 1633, and smallpox followed the next year. The Mohawk population, which stood at 8000 at the beginning of 1634, fell to around three thousand within a matter of months. The nearby Mohawks suffered most heavily, but not even the distant Senecas were spared the devastation of epidemic disease. In the wake of these epidemics, the Senecas and their longhouse kin began to attack their neighbors, intensifying their decades’ old raiding. From Seneca villages near today’s Geneva, New York, they launched raids against a series of traditional rivals, including the “Neutral Nation” that then occupied the Genesee Valley. The “Massawomecks,” who John Smith learned had fought against the Powhatans prior to the arrival of the English in the Chesapeake, may have been Senecas marching south from the Genesee valley. Iroquois warriors began to attack the Wendats, themselves members of a confederacy of Iroquoian peoples whose culture and history paralleled that of the Five Nations in important ways, in the 1630s. There were furs in the Wendats’’ homeland, but more than that these Iroquois warriors sought prisoners, prospective adoptees, who could take the place of Iroquois people who had died in wars and from epidemic diseases. The members of the Five Nations believed that the power of a lineage, a clan, a village or a community suffered for each individual lost. Iroquois peoples, as well, recognized that grief unassuaged could bring destruction. This the legend of the Peacemaker made clear.The adoption of captives was one socially-sanctioned way to alleviate this grief. As a result, Iroquois raids on their neighbors took on the quality of a “mourning war.”

The easternmost of the Five Nations ambushed Wendat parties on the St. Lawrence, as they made their way from their hunts north and west of Lake Ontario to the French post at Montreal. The western Iroquois—Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—crossed the Niagara River to attack the Wendats on their own ground. These attacks increased in size and frequency over the course of the 1640s. The final assault began in 1648, one of many stories related in the annual “Relations” written by Jesuit Priests in New France to their supporters back home in Europe.

An invasion force made up mostly of Senecas attacked the Wendat village at Teanaostaiae. Ravaged by the diseases brought by Jesuit missionaries, the Wendats were outmanned and outgunned. The Senecas first killed the priest, chopped up his body, and burned his remains in the church. The Senecas then pursued the Wendats who survived the initial attack, adopting hundreds of captives. The Wendats launched a number of retaliatory raids, but by the end of 1649, their villages had been destroyed, their population dispersed. The survivors took refuge near Quebec, or they fled to the west, finding respite, albeit temporarily, near present-day Sandusky, Ohio, where they became known as Wyandots. The Iroquois adopted many others and incorporated them into their towns.The Senecas absorbed more than five hundred Wendats. That some of these adoptees were Catholic converts would soon color and shape Iroquois village politics. We must not assume that the adoptees surrendered their culture entirely; they brought into their new villages systems of belief and philosophy that enriched the community and complicated its relations with outsiders.

Seneca attacks also fell upon the Neutrals. They struck them beginning in the late 1649s, but assaults launched in 1650-1651, according to historian Jon Parmenter, resulted in the taking of large “numbers of captives, among whom were members (or descendants) of sixteen other Native nations then reportedly living in Neutral towns.” By the end of the year, the Neutrals and been defeated and dispersed, with many of the survivors adopted.

Seneca raiders fell as well upon the Susquehannocks, who by the 1640s lived at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1663, after two decades of Iroquois raids, the Susquehannocks drove back the Senecas and their Longhouse kin, inflicting heavy casualties as they did so. The defeat was the first of a number of disasters to strike the Five Nations that year. The Mohawks faced attack from Christian Indians and Mahicans armed by the New England Puritans. The Sokokis of the Connecticut River Valley repulsed a force of Onondagas, Mohawks and Oneidas who attacked them. French-allied Algonquians, meanwhile, prepared raids against the Longhouse. Smallpox struck again, and the Dutch outposts on the Hudson fell to an English military invasion in 1664. The Susquehannocks razed Onondaga in 1666 before retiring with heavy casualties of their own, and the French launched raids against the Mohawks.

The Haudenosaunee faced a significant crisis.Disease led to more deaths, and left more Iroquois grieving. As the epidemics killed more members of the Longhouse, the Five Nations needed growing numbers of captives to fill their places. This dynamic rests at the heart of historian Daniel Richter’s work on the Iroquois “Mourning War Complex,” a historical interpretation that has sparked widespread debate and discussion in the field of Haudenosaunee studies. Mourning warfare, Richter argued, once a specific and episodic response to a specific situation, became endemic, with enormous human consequences. But that was not all. The peoples upon whom Iroquois raids fell, as the seventeenth century progressed, increasingly armed themselves with the same firearms that the warriors of the Five Nations carried. Few Iroquois war parties managed to return home without suffering casualties. A dangerous spiral resulted: disease led to more frequent mourning wars fought with firearms that made these raids more dangerous; the need for guns and ammunition to fight these wars led to an increased demand for the pelts needed to trade for them; Iroquois hunters and warriors traveled farther and farther to acquire the furs necessary for this trade, provoking new wars with native peoples farther a field. And through it all the spiral of death continued, sucking the Five Nations into a destructive cycle of warfare and violence.

Iroquois warriors in the 1660s struck native peoples to their east, Algonquians and other French-allied Indians to their north, Dakota Sioux in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the scores of native communities huddled in the region south of the Great Lakes that the French called the pays d’en haut, and natives to their south like the Susquehannocks. Today’s Livingston County was the hub from which the Senecas launched raids against dozens of Indigenous communities. Indeed, as the seventeenth century moved towards the eighteenth, Livingsto County more than Ontario County became the site of much Seneca activity. There the Iroquois absorbed an enormous number of captives. French missionaries estimated that two-thirds of the people living in Iroquoia were adoptees.

Even with these adoptees, Iroquois population continued to decline.The Iroquois suffered badly in this warfare, which could be horrifically violent.A Seneca party, for instance, in the 1660s raided a Miami village in northern Ohio. With the Miami men away hunting, the Senecas destroyed the village and took their wives and children captive. The Miami hunters, upon discovering what had happened, gave chase to the Senecas and confronted head-on the violence that could characterize indigenous warfare. Each night, according to the surviving Miami account, the Senecas ate one child. And every morning, they took another child, stuck a spear through its head, and left the child for their pursuers to find. The Senecas moved fast, but the grieving Miamis ran them down one day shy of the Senecas’ village. They attacked and killed all but two of the warriors who had killed their children. They freed their remaining people. The Miamis, then, cut the hands, noses and ears off from the two survivors, and sent the maimed men home with a grisly message: necklaces made from the heads and hands of their dead comrades. Clearly the mourning war complex no longer fulfilled its cardinal function of restoring the longhouse to peace and a good mind. The Mohawks had nearly eight hundred warriors in the 1640s; by the 1670s fewer than three hundred remained in the Mohawk valley. Many had died, while others relocated to the St. Lawrence valley. The rest of the Five Nations suffered similarly, with people lost and people leaving. European observers noted the divisions in Iroquois communities between Christians and non-Christians, and those who leaned towards the French or towards the English, and between those who hoped to remain apart, and survive as an autonomous people.

Further Reading:

Aquila, Richard.“Down the Warrior’s Path: The Causes of the Southern Wars of the Iroquois,” American Indian Quarterly, 4 (August 1978), 211-221.

Brandao, Jose Antonio.Nation Iroquoise: A Seventeenth-Century Ethnography of the Iroquois, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

________. “Iroquois Expansion in the Seventeenth Century: A Review of Causes,” European Review of Native American Studies, 15 (no.2, 2000), 7-18.

________.Your Fyre Shall Burn No More: Iroquois Policy Toward New France and Its Native Allies to 1701, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

Carpenter, Roger M. The Renewed, the Destroyed, and the Remade: Three Thought Worlds of the Iroquois and Huron, 1609-1650. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004).

________. “Making War More Lethal: Iroquois vs. Huron in the Great Lakes Region, 1609-1650.” Michigan Historical Review, 27 (Fall 2001), 33-51.

Cook, Peter.“Onontio Gives Birth: How the French in Canada Became Fathers to their Indigenous Allies,” Canadian Historical Review, 96 (June 2015), 165-193.

Dennis, Matthew.Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Eid, Leroy V.“The Ojibwa-Iroquois War: The War the Five Nations Did Not Win,” Ethnohistory, 26 (Autumn 1979), 297-324.

Given, Brian James. “The Iroquois Wars and Native Firearms,” Canadian Ethnology Society Papers from the Sixth Annual Conference, 1979, National Museum of Man Mercury Series Canadian Ethnology Service Paper 78 (1981). 84-94.

Hunt, George T.The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study in Intertribal Trade Relations, reprint, (Madison: University Press of Wisconsin, 1967).

Jaenen, Cornelius J.Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth And Seventeenth Centuries, (New York, 1976).

Keener, Craig S. “An Ethnohistorical Analysis of Iroquois Assault Tactics Used Against Fortified Settlements of the Northeast in the Seventeenth Century,” Ethnohistory, 46 (Autumn 1999), 777-807.

Labelle, Kathryn Magee. Dispersed But Not Destroyed: A History of the 17th Century Wendat People,(Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013).

Leavelle, Tracy Neal.The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Midtrod, Tom Arne. The Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Oberg, Michael Leroy. Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Otterbein, Keith F. “Huron vs. Iroquois: A Case Study in Inter-Tribal Warfare,” Ethnohistory, 26 (Spring 1979), 141-152.

________.“Why the Iroquois Won: An Analysis of Iroquois Military Tactics,”Ethnohistory, 11 (1964), 56-63.

Parmenter, Jon.The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010).

Peace, Thomas and Kathryn Magee Labelle, eds., From Huronia to Wendakes: Adversity, Migrations, and Resilience, 1650-1900, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

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

Richter, Daniel K. and James H. Merrell, eds.Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987).

________. “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience,” William and Mary Quarterly, 40 (October 1983), 528-559.

Schlesier, Karl H.“Epidemics and Indian Middlemen: Rethinking the Wars of the Iroquois, 1609-1653,” Ethnohistory, 23 (Spring 1976), 129-145.

.Snow, Dean R. and Kim M. Lanphear.“European Contact and Indian Depopulation in the Northeast: The Timing of the First Epidemics,” Ethnohistory, 35 (Winter 1988), 15-33.

Trigger, Bruce G.The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, 2 vols., (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976).

Wright, Gordon K. The Neutral Indians: A Sourcebook. NYSAA Occasional Papers, No. 4, (Rochester: New York State Archaeological Association, 1963).