Their material culture was the most advanced of the Eastern Woodlands area, but they exhibited many traits peculiar to other areas, and this leads many authorities to believe that the Iroquois at some time in the distant past migrated from the lower Mississippi valley. They lived in palisaded villages; the men hunted deer and small game, and the women raised corn, squash, tobacco, and beans. Women held a high status in the society, and descent was matrilineal. Even before the formation of the confederation, the Iroquois families lived in the distinctive bark-covered rectangular structure known as the long house.
When the prophet Deganawidah and his disciple Hiawatha founded (c.1570) the confederacy (to eliminate incessant intertribal warfare and to end cannibalism), this dwelling became the symbol of the Five Nations. They thought of themselves metaphorically as dwelling in a large long house, which had a door on the eastern end, guarded by the Mohawk (in the extreme geographical east), and a door on the western end, guarded by the Seneca (in the extreme west). The Onondaga, keepers of the council fires and the wampum records, were between the Cayuga on the west and the Oneida on the east. The main Onondaga village served as the capital, or meeting place, of the federated council. Voting in the council was conducted by tribe, and a unanimous decision was necessary to wage war. Nevertheless, intertribal war was not unknown.
The Iroquois were second to no other Native Americans N of Mexico in political organization, statecraft, and military prowess. In the mid-17th cent. the Iroquois Confederacy, equipped with Dutch firearms, made its united force felt. It dispersed the Huron in 1649, the Tobacco and the Neutral Nation in 1650, the Erie in 1656, the Conestoga in 1675, and the Illinois c.1700. Depleted by continual warfare, they increased the population by the wholesale adoption of alien tribes, so that by the end of the 17th cent. they numbered some 16,000. At this time they controlled the territory bounded by the Kennebec River, the Ottawa River, the Illinois River, and the Tennessee River. Their conquests were checked in the west by the Ojibwa, in the south by the Cherokee and the Catawba, and in the north by the French.
Many historians argue that the hostility of the Iroquois toward the French was caused by Samuel Champlain when in 1609 he accompanied a Huron war party armed with French guns into Iroquois territory. In any case, the Iroquois, firm allies of the British, opposed the French at every step until the French lost control of Canada in 1763. The French, partly in the hope of winning over the Iroquois, sent missionaries to them. Isaac Jogues, a notable Jesuit missionary, was killed by the Iroquois as a sorcerer in 1646, but the missionaries were somewhat successful, and a considerable number of the Mohawk withdrew from the confederacy and founded (c.1670) a Catholic settlement. These Catholic Iroquois, called French Mohawks, took the part of the French against their former brethren.
In the early 18th cent. the Five Nations became the Six Nations when the Oneida adopted (c.1722) the remnants of the Tuscarora Confederacy. British settlers had expelled (1711) the Tuscarora from North Carolina, and by 1712 they had moved north. The British, who had used the Six Nations as a buffer against the advance of the French from Canada in the French and Indian Wars, attempted to retain their favor by accrediting various agents, notably Sir William Johnson (Johnson of the Mohawks).
The American Revolution was disastrous for the Iroquois. The confederacy, as such, refused to take part in the conflict but allowed each tribe to decide for itself, and all the tribes, except the Oneida, joined the British. Samuel Kirkland, a Protestant missionary, was largely responsible for winning over the Oneida, who rallied to the side of the colonists after remaining neutral for two years.
Cornplanter, Red Jacket, and Joseph Brant (who was educated by Sir William Johnson) led the Iroquois who remained loyal to the British. Brant, the principal leader of the Iroquois troops, participated with the Tory Rangers of Walter Butler in raids in New York and Pennsylvania, particularly the Cherry Valley and Wyoming Valley massacres. The Continental Congress sent out a punitive expedition under John Sullivan, who in 1779 defeated Butler and his Iroquois allies. After the Revolution, Brant, in contrast to the other two chiefs, remained adamant in his hostility toward the United States.
Altogether, there were over 50,000 Iroquois in the United States in 1990. Some 17,000 Mohawk and over 11,000 Oneida live in the United States, in addition to around 10,000 people of Seneca or mixed Seneca-Cayuga heritage. Close to 10,000 Mohawk live in Canada, many on the St. Regis and the Six Nations reserves in Ontario and the Caughnawaga Reserve in Quebec. Many Cayuga, who were strong allies of the British, also live on the Six Nations Reserve, which is open to all members of the confederacy. Most of the remaining Iroquois, except for the Oneida of Wisconsin and the Seneca-Cayuga of Oklahoma, are in New York; the Onondoga reservation there is still the capital of the Iroquois Confederacy. Large numbers of Iroquois in the United States live in urban areas rather than on reservations. Many Mohawk and Oneida work as structural steelworkers, and the Oneida opened a large gambling casino near Syracuse, N.Y., in 1993. In recent years the Iroquois nations have pursued land claims in New York in the federal courts, with mixed results. Most Iroquois are either Christians or followers of Handsome Lake, a Seneca prophet of the 18th cent. who was influenced by the Quakers.
The Iroquois have been the subject of much study and literature. Early students included Cadwallader Colden and Lewis Henry Morgan. See G. T. Hunt, The Wars of the Iroquois (1940, repr. 1960); F. G. Speck, The Iroquois (2d ed. 1955); J. V. Wright, The Ontario Iroquois Tradition (1966); Conference on Iroquois Research, Iroquois Culture, History and Prehistory (1967); A. F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (1969); B. Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1972); G. P. Jemison and A. M. Schein, eds., Treaty of Canandaigua 1794: 200 Years of Treaty Relations between the Iroquois Condederacy and the United States (2000).
Confederation, an association of sovereign states or communities. Examples include: