"The People of the Long House" were known to their Algonquin enemies as Irinakhoiw "the rattlesnakes", and as is often the case the name stuck. The Iroquois had many enemies, for they were without military equal among the tribes of the eastern American woodlands and their influence stretched from Eastern Canada to the central Appalachians. From the 1500s when five culturally related tribes formed an unprecedented political alliance to the American Revolution, the Iroquois League was the dominant native North American power and a force to be reckoned with for the colonies of great powers across the sea. They destroyed, absorbed or subjugated numerous tribes during the course of nearly three centuries and compelled others to migrate. The Iroquois heartland of modern-day upstate New York explains why the phenomenon of the "Over Mountain Men" that took place along the southern frontier was not a factor in the Adirondacks.
Lee Sultzman's on-line Iroquois History describes the remarkable resilience of the Iroquois confederation but also highlights a weakness that would contribute to its ultimate destruction:
"The central authority of the Iroquois League was limited leaving each tribe free to pursue its own interests. By 1660, however, the Iroquois found it necessary to present a united front to Europeans, and the original freedom of its members had to be curtailed somewhat. In practice, the Mohawk and Oneida formed one faction in the council and the Seneca and Cayuga the other. The League's principal sachem (Tadodaho) was always an Onondaga, and as "keepers of the council fire" with 14 sachems (well out of proportion to their population), they represented compromise. This role was crucial since all decisions of the council had to be unanimous, one of the League's weaknesses. There was also a "pecking order" among members reflected by the eloquent ritual language of League debate. Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca were addressed as "elder brothers" or "uncles," while Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora were "younger brothers" or "nephews."
In this form, the Iroquois used a combination of military prowess and skilled diplomacy to conquer an empire. Until their internal unity finally failed them during the American Revolution, the Iroquois dealt with European powers as an equal. The League was a remarkable achievement, but it also had flaws, the most apparent was its inability to find a satisfactory means to share political power with its new members."
It is instructive to note that when the break in the League did come, it saw members of two of the lower power Iroquois groups - the Oneida and the Tuscarora - siding with the Patriots against their brethren with higher status who ended up supporting the Crown.
The Iroquois system of political organization set it apart from other indigenous groups and inspired the framers of the Articles of Confederation. It also constituted a direct threat to colonial territorial ambitions. While cross cultural exchange did occur, there were aspects of Iroquois culture and reputation for ferocity that were the stuff of frontier nightmare. Though not unique to the Iroquois, practices like taking white captives, ritual cannibalism and torture of prisoners made them dangerous and diabolical and in many colonial minds a civilization to be defeated rather than emulated. Nothing galvanized patriot support and resolve as much as the Tory and Indian atrocities that took place on the Northern Frontier. In fact, it was the internecine quality of the war in the northern theater that raised the stakes and ensured that if the Iroquois could not be kept neutral, they must be neutralized. But the timing and direction of Sullivan's Expedition in 1779 was determined by more than public outrage over notorious scalpings and Tory/Iroquois massacres at Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Cherry Valley, New York, though these deserve our consideration. That is a topic for tomorrow's post.