Mr. Morgan, in his work on "Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family" (p. 151), fixes the date of the formation of the Iroquois league at about the middle of the fifteenth century. He says: "As near as can now be ascertained, the league had been established about one hundred and fifty years when Champlain, in 1609, first encountered the Mohawks within their own territories, on the west coast of Lake George. This would place the epoch of its formation about A. D., 1459." Mr. Morgan, as he informed me, deduced this conclusion from the testimony of the most intelligent Indians whom he had consulted on the subject. His informants belonged chiefly to the Seneca and Tuscarora nations. Their statements are entirely confirmed by those of the Onondaga record-keepers, both on the Syracuse Reservation and in Canada. When the chiefs at Onondaga Castle, who, in October, 1875, met to explain to me their wampum records, were asked how long it had been since their league was made, they replied (as I find the answer recorded in my notes)
that "it was their belief that the confederacy was formed about six generations before the white people came to these parts." Hudson ascended the river to which he gave his name in September, 1609. A boat from his ship advanced beyond Albany, and consequently into the territories of the League. "Frequent intercourse," says Bancroft, in his account of this exploration, "was held with the astonished natives of the Algonquin race; and the strangers were welcomed by a deputation from the Mohawks." If we allow twenty-five years to a generation, the era of the confederacy is carried back to a period a hundred and fifty years before the date of Hudson's discovery,--or to the year 1459. This statement of the Onondaga chiefs harmonizes, therefore, closely with that which Mr. Morgan had heard among the other nations.
I afterwards (in 1882) put the same question to my friend, Chief John Buck, the keeper of the wampum-records of the Canadian Iroquois. He thought it was then "about four hundred years" since the League was formed. He was confident that it was before any white people had been heard of by his nation. This opinion accords sufficiently with the more definite statement of the New York Onondagas to be deemed a confirmation of that statement.
There are two authorities whose opinions differ widely, in opposite directions, from the information thus obtained by Mr. Morgan and myself. David Cusick, in his "Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations," supposes that the League was formed "perhaps 1000 years before Columbus discovered America." His reasons for this supposition, however, do not bear examination. He makes Atotarho the hereditary title of a monarch, like Pharaoh or Cæsar, and states that thirteen potentates bearing that title had "reigned" between the formation of the confederacy and the discovery of America by Columbus. The duration of each of these reigns he computes, absurdly enough, at exactly fifty years, which, however, would give altogether a term of only six hundred and fifty years. He supposes the discovery of America to have taken place during the reign of the thirteenth Atotarho; and he adds that the conquest and dispersion of the Eries occurred "about this time." The latter event, as we know, took place in 1656. It is evident that Cusick's chronology is totally at fault. As an Iroquois chief was never succeeded by his son, but often by his brother, it is by no means improbable that thirteen persons may
have held successively the title of Atotarho in the term of nearly two centuries, between the years 1459 and 1656.
On the other hand, Heckewelder, in his well-known work on the "History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations," cites a passage from a manuscript book of his predecessor, the Rev. C. Pyrlæus, formerly missionary among the Mohawks, from which a comparatively recent date would be inferred for the confederation. The inference, however, is probably due to a mistake of Heckewelder himself. The passage, as it stands in his volume, 1 is as follows:--
"The Rev. C. Pyrlæus, in his manuscript book, p. 234, says: 'The alliance or confederacy of the Five Nations was established, as near as can be conjectured, one age (or the length of a man's life) before the white people (the Dutch) came into the country. Thannawage was the name of the aged Indian, a Mohawk, who first proposed such an alliance.'"
The words which Heckewelder has here included between parentheses are apparently explanations which he himself added to the original statement of Pyrlæus. The first of these glosses, by which an "age" is explained to be the length of a man's life, is doubtless correct; but the second, which identifies the "white people" of Pyrlæus with the Dutch, is probably wrong. The white people who first "came into the country" of the Huron-Iroquois nations were the French, under Cartier. It was in the summer of 1535 that the bold Breton navigator, with three vessels commissioned to establish a colony in Canada, entered the St. Lawrence, and ascended the great river as far as the sites of Quebec and Montreal. He spent the subsequent winter at Quebec. The presence of this expedition, with its soldiers and sailors of strange complexion and armed with terrible weapons, must have been known to all the tribes dwelling along the river, and would naturally make an epoch in their chronology. Assuming the year 1535 as the time when the white people first "came into the country," and taking "the length of a man's life" at seventy-five years (or three generations) we should arrive at the year 1460 as the date of the formation of the Iroquois League. 2
The brief period allowed by Heckewelder's version is on many accounts inadmissible. If, when the Dutch first came among the Iroquois, the confederacy had existed for only about eighty years, there must have been many persons then living who had personally known some of its founders. It is quite inconceivable that the cloud of mythological legends which has gathered around the names of these founders--of which Clark, in his "Onondaga," gives only the smaller portion--should have arisen in so short a term. Nor is it probable that in so brief a period as has elapsed since the date suggested by Heckewelder, a fourth part of the names of the fifty chiefs who formed the first council would have become unintelligible, or at least doubtful in meaning. Schoolcraft, who was inclined to defer to Heckewelder's authority on this point, did so with evident doubt and perplexity. "We cannot," he says, "without rejecting many positive traditions of the Iroquois themselves, refuse to concede a much earlier period to the first attempts of these interesting tribes to form a general political association." 1
In view of all the facts there seems no reason for withholding credence from the clear and positive statement of the Iroquois chroniclers, who place the commencement of their confederate government at about the middle of the fifteenth century.
179:1 p. 56 of the revised edition of 1875, published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
179:2 There is an evident difference between the expression used by my p. 180 Onondaga informants and that which is quoted by Heckewelder from Pyrlæus. The latter speaks of the time before the white people "came into the country;" the Onondagas referred to the time before they "came to these parts." The passage cited from Bancroft seems to indicate that the white men of Hudson's crew presented no novel or startling aspect to the Mohawks. The French had been "in the country" before them.
180:1 "Notes on the Iroquois." p. 75.