The Iroquois Confederacy and the Lenape in the 1700s

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The late 17th and early 18th centuries saw an era of mutual incorporation. While European nations were competing among themselves to gain hold of Native lands, the Natives were trying to pull the newcomers in their world, but on their own terms. How did it play out? And, what role did intertribal relations play?

Flag of the Iroquois painted on a brick wall.
The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk served as the member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. (Image: danielo/Shutterstock)

The fluidity of the colonial world gave rise to individuals—both Native and non-Native—who served as go-betweens or cultural brokers. They acquired languages, understood the manners and expectations of both Native and  non-Native  cultures,  and  often  served as interpreters, emissaries, and mediators.

Native Diplomacy and Incorporation

The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk served as the member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, though they referred to themselves as the Haudenosaunee or People of the Longhouse.

Longhouses weren’t only places of residence but also symbols of a way of life that revolved around kinship. So, how and why did the Iroquois become the People of the Longhouse, united in a Great League of Peace and Power?

We find the answer in a centuries-old oral history of the confederacy’s origins: the Deganawidah Epic. The Epic tells of a time of warfare:

Amid the tumult, Hiawatha—who soon would become a leader of the nascent Iroquois Confederacy—lost his three daughters. As he grieved, Hiawatha went walking in the woods. Dictates of the mourning war would’ve called him to seek out his enemies, to cover the dead by killing or adopting an enemy. Another native leader named Deganawidah—a Wendat who had been adopted by the Iroquois—came to see Hiawatha.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Natives Learn Ritual of Condolence

Known as the Peacemaker, Deganawidah taught Hiawatha that there was a better way than seeking revenge through war. Deganawidah proceeded to teach Hiawatha the ritual of condolence.

The words of this ritual were meant first to dry his weeping eyes, then to open his ears, third to unstop his throat, and then to relieve his sorrow and restore his reason.

In doing so, Deganawidah also taught him ritual means of bringing Iroquois people into a union to be called the League of the Iroquois or the Great League of Peace.

Within the Great League, each nation would retain control over its own local affairs. Through a Grand Council they would meet, discuss, and make decisions about things of common concern. War would no longer be needed to settle disputes.

Treaty making, then, became an extension of the Great League of Peace.

Learn more about the Pueblo War for independence.

Two Row Wampum Treaty Belt

The concept of a measured separatism was an integral component of treaty making, both among Native tribes and with colonial settlers. This can be seen in the Gushwenta—or Two Row—wampum.

It featured two rows of purple beads against a white background. Running parallel to one another, the rows were emblematic of two nations that respected each other’s sovereignty. It conveyed the idea that coexistence among sovereigns was not only possible but desirable.

Iroquois Form Covenant Chain Alliance with the Dutch

Drawing of the Iroquois with various goods, presumably western goods, which they traded for.
The Iroquois used a playoff system to destabilize the imperial aspirations of the Europeans and to advance their own. (Image: Bacqueville de La Potherie/Public domain)

During the 1660s, the Iroquois extended the relationship of mutuality, reciprocity, kinship, and measured separatism woven into the Two Row wampum belt. The Iroquois called this alliance the Covenant Chain and likened it to a series of silver links that needed to be kept bright at regular intervals through councils and treaties that dealt with everything from conflict to commerce.

The Iroquois also used the Covenant Chain to engage in what European contemporaries called the modern Indian politics.

European Dislike of Native Indian Politics

The modern Indian politics was, in fact, a carefully constructed and managed playoff system.

The Iroquois used this playoff system to destabilize the imperial aspirations of the Europeans and to advance their own. In doing so, the Iroquois used the Covenant Chain to advance their own interests and preserve their own independence.

Native nations, other than the Iroquois, experienced very different relations with the various colonies along the Eastern Seaboard. An example could be of the Lenape—or Delaware— people..

Learn more about Iroquoia and Wendake in the 1600s.

The Lenape—or Delaware—People

At the time of contact with Europeans, the Lenape might have had a total population of 8,000 to 12,000.

By the early 18th century, the Lenape had concentrated in what is today Pennsylvania, and there, William Penn and the Quakers generally earned a reputation of dealing fairly with tribal communities.

Lands were obtained, more often than not, through negotiated treaties. But that didn’t last forever, as in 1737, the Lenape were the victims of one of the most infamous land grabs in American Indian history.

The Walking Purchase

Vintage drawing showing William Penn purchasing land from the proprietors of Pennsylvania and the Lenape.
The Walking Purchase connoted the assumed means of travel. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Thomas Penn—the son of the colony’s founder—claimed to have found a deed made in 1686, in which the Lenape granted his father land “as far as a man can go in a day and a half”, and from there to the Delaware River—and down its course.

It was called the Walking Purchase to connote the assumed means of travel. But Pennsylvanians willfully misinterpreted the intended meaning of the deed.

Instead of walkers, the colonists produced a team of runners. Even more dubiously, they cleared a path for the runners in advance. By the time the prescribed duration of the so-called walk ended, the colonial relay team had covered some 65 miles, and taken from the Lenape the last of their lands in the upper Delaware and Lehigh valleys.

The Lenape’s Reaction to the Walking Purchase

The Lenape retaliated and complained to the Pennsylvania authorities. It’s here that we might gain insight into yet another layer of complexity in the politics of preserving Native ground: intertribal relations.

To counter Lenape dissent, Pennsylvania  officials  turned to the Iroquois for support in the summer of 1742. And the Iroquois, in turn, used the colonials’ appeal to advance their own interests.

During a council held in Philadelphia, the Onondaga leader Canasatego asserted Iroquois sovereignty and superiority over the Lenape, and insisted that the Lenape accept their fate.

And it worked. The Lenape were compelled to set out on a long journey to the West.

Common Questions about the Iroquois Confederacy and the Lenape in the 1700s

Q: Who were the member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy?

The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk served as the member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Q: Where did the Lenape people live?

The Lenape people were concentrated in what is today Pennsylvania.

Q: What was the Walking Purchase?

In 1737, Thomas Penn claimed to have found a deed, in which the Lenape granted his father land “as far as a man can go in a day and a half”, and from there to the Delaware River and down its course.
It was called the Walking Purchase. Through this the colonists took from the Lenape all their lands in the upper Delaware and Lehigh valleys.

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