Sunday, 8 December 2019

The Iroquois Confederacy: How The Revolutionary War Broke A Centuries-Old Alliance

Council meeting of the Iroquois Confederacy. (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
The original Iroquois Confederacy, called the Five Nations, was an arrangement between the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Onondaga tribes. By all accounts, it was an ideal organization. The individual tribes retained their own traditions and cultures but could count on the other tribes in times of war, dispute, hunting, and celebration. However, the Revolutionary War broke apart this centuries-old alliance, effectively ending the Iroquois's dominance in the New World. Let's look at how that happened. 
The Iroquois Confederacy was a strong alliance. (

Iroquois Strong

The Iroquois Confederacy was based in what is now New York. It's not clear when it was formed, but by the time European settlers showed up, it was already a well-established institution. It was no accident that it lasted so long: The alliance allowed the different tribes to maintain control over their territories and hunting grounds without worrying about disputes with the other tribes.
The Iroquois traded with British settlers. (

The Arrival Of The White Man

When European settlers first came to the New World and encountered the Iroquois people, they noted the strength of the alliance and deemed it "unbreakable." The Iroquois noted something about the white men, too---their guns.  
The Iroquois quickly realized that firearms could make them more powerful and feared. (

The Power Of Guns

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Iroquois hunted and fought with bows and arrows or hatchets, so when they started trading with the white settlers for their guns, it was a real game-changer. First, the guns had shock value. The loud, unexpected noise of gunfire frightened and stunned their enemies. Guns were also more effective, both in hunting and warfare. The Iroquois soon developed an insatiable craving for firepower.
The Iroquois traded fur for guns. (

Trading Fur For Guns

To feed their new addiction, the Iroquois tried to trade whatever they could with the Europeans. Most of the items they had to trade---corn, baskets, beads---didn't interest the settlers, but one item did: fur. As a result, the Iroquois changed their traditional ways, with a new focus toward getting that fur. 
The French dominated the North American fur trade. (

The French And The British

Both the French and the British had established competing trading outposts in the New World, but New France monopolized the fur trade business in the northeast part of the continent. This required an agreement with the Iroquois Confederacy, as well as other native tribes, about which areas were off-limits to native hunting. To continue supplying the British with enough furs to ensure a steady stream of guns, however, the Iroquois people had to break their agreement with New France and trap in their area, as well as other tribes' territories. Naturally, this caused some conflict.
The Iroquois formed an alliance with their former enemies. (

Switching Alliances

The British wanted to keep the French from expanding their colonies and trading posts, so they encouraged the Iroquois Confederacy to disrupt New France's alliance with other native tribes. Unbeknownst to the French, the Confederacy convinced the other tribes to send more fur to the English, and the whole thing just turned into an American version of Game of Thrones. It caused a bunch of drama, with the governor of New France working to fracture the alliance between the Native Americans and the British trying to use the Iroquois to antagonize the French. Figuring out who was allied with whom at any given time involved a lot of red string and headaches.
The Revolutionary War was the beginning of the end for the Iroquois Confederacy. (

The Revolutionary War

When the Revolutionary War broke out, the Iroquois Confederacy found themselves caught in the middle between the British, the French, and the colonists. At first, the confederacy voted to stay neutral in the conflict, but as the war progressed, it began more and more difficult for the Native Americans to refrain from picking sides.
That became a problem when the five tribes that formed the Iroquois Confederacy failed to agree on a side. A few of the tribes wanted to support the British, a loyal trading partner that kept them in firearms, while others wanted to support the colonists and oust the British. Still others wanted to maintain their alliance with the other area tribes, which meant supporting the French. 
After the war, the Iroquois were considered a "conquered people" by the new United States. They lost their trade partners and much of their land to the colonists, and neither the French nor the British offered the Iroquois any money or protection in exchange for their help in the war.
The Iroquois Confederacy never regained its former power. (

The End Of The Iroquois Confederacy

Had it not been for the desire for guns and the shifting alliances of the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois Confederacy may have remained unbroken for several more centuries. Alas, the divisions caused by the war proved too much for the once-mighty Iroquois Confederacy, and the strongest and most powerful of all the Native American alliances finally broke apart.

1 comment:

  1. By the time of the American Revolution, the French were no longer in Canada. It was actually the French & Indian War that eroded the strength of the Iroquois League, which was, as this excerpt suggests, finally broken after the American Revolution. To better understand what happened to the Iroquois League, I recommend Allan Eckert's, The Wilderness Empire. It's long, but it covers what happened during the French & Indian War, and in the conclusion it provides a good synopsis of why the strategic decisions by the Iroquois ultimately led to their demise.