Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians by Elias Johnson - HTML preview

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The more you read, and the better you understand Indian history, the more you wil be impressed with the injustice which has been done the Iroquois, not only in dispossessing them of their inheritance, but in the estimation which has been made of their character. They have been represented, as seen in the transition state, the most unfavorable possible for judging correctly. In the chapter of National Traits of Character, I have in two or three instances quoted Washington Irving and might again al ow his opinions to relieve my own from the charge of partiality. He says, in speaking of this same subject, that "the current opinion of Indian character is too apt to be formed from the miserable hordes which infest the frontiers, and hang on the shirts of settlements.

These are too commonly composed of degenerate beings, corrupted and enfeebled by the voice of society, without being benefited by its civilization."

"The proud independence which formed the main pillar of motive virtue has been spoken down, and the whole moral fabric lies in ruins. The spirits are humiliated and debased by a sense of inferiority, and their native courage cowed and daunted by the superior knowledge and power of their enlightened neighbors. Society has advanced upon them like one of a those withering airs that wil sometimes breed desolation over a whole region of fertility. It has enervated their strength, multiplied their diseases, and superinduced upon their original barbarity the law-vices of artificial life. It has given them a thousand superfluous wants, while it has diminished their means of mere existence. It has driven before it the animals of the chase, who fly from the sound of the axe and the smoke of the settlement and seek refuge in the depths of remote forests, and yet untrodden wilds. Thus do we often find the Indians in the frontiers to be mere wrecks and remnants of once powerful tribes, who have lingered in the vicinity of settlements, and sunk into precarious and vagabond existence. Poverty, repining and hopeless poverty--a canker on the mind before unknown to them--corrodes their spirits and blights every free and noble qualities of their nature. They loiter like vagrants about the settlements among spacious dwel ings, replete with elaborate comforts, which only renders them more sensible of the comparative wretchedness of their own condition. Luxury spreads its ample board before their eyes, but they are excluded from the banquet; plenty revels over the fields, but they are starving in the midst of abundance. The whole wilderness blossomed into a garden, but they feel as reptiles that infest them. How different was their state while undisputed lords of the soil? Their wants were few, and the means of gratification within their reach, they saw every one among them sharing the same lot, enduring the same hardships, feeding on the same aliments, arrayed in the same rude garment. No roof then rose under whose sheltering wings, that was not ever open to the homeless stranger, no smoke curled among the trees, but he was welcome to sit down by its fire and join the hunter in his repast."

In discussing Indian character, writers have been too prone to indulge in vulgar prejudice and passionate exaggeration, instead of the candid temper of the true philosopher. They have not sufficiently considered the peculiar circumstance in which the Indians have been placed, and the peculiar principles under which they having been educated. No being acts more rigidly from rule than the Indians, his whole conduct is regulated according to some general maxims early implanted in his mind. The moral laws which govern him are few, but he conforms to them all. The white man abounds in laws and religion, morals, and manners, but how many of them does he violate. In their intercourse with the Indians the white people were continual y trampling upon their religion and their sacred rights.

They were expected to look merely on while the graves of their fathers were robbed of their treasures, and the bones of their fathers were left to bleach upon the fields. And when exasperated by the brutality of their conquerors, and driven to deeds of vengence, there was very little appreciation of the motives which influenced them, and no attempt was made to pal iate their cruelties.

It was their custom to bury the dead with their best clothing, and the various implements they had been in the habit of using whilst living. If it was a warrior that they were preparing for burial, they placed his tomahawk by his side and his knife in his shield; with the hunter, his bow and arrows and implements for cooking his food; with the woman, their kettles and cooking apparatus and also food for al . Tobacco was deposited in every grave; for to smoke was an Indian's idea of felicity in the body and out of it, and in this there was not so much difference as one might wish, between them and gentlemen of a paler hue.

Among the Iroquois, and many other Indian nations, it was the custom to place the dead upon scaffolds, built for the purpose, from tree to tree, or within a temporary inclosure, and underneath a fire was kept burning for several days.

They had known instances of persons reviving after they were supposed to be dead, and this led to the conclusion that the spirit sometimes returned to animate the body after it had once fled. If there was no signs of life for ten days, the fire was extinguished and the body left unmolested until decomposition had begun to take place, when the remains were buried, or, as was often the case, kept in the lodge for many years.

If they were obliged to desert the settlement where they had long resided, these skeletons were collected from al the families and buried in one common grave, with the same ceremonies as when a single individual was interred.

They did not suppose the spirit was instantaneously transferred from earth to Heaven, but that it wandered in aerial region for many moons. In later days they only al owed ten days for its flight. Their period for mourning continued only whilst the spirit is wandering, as soon as they believe it has entered Heaven they commenced rejoicing, saying, there is no longer cause for sorrow, because it is now where happiness dwel s forever. Sometimes a piteous wailing was kept up every night for a long time, but it was only their bereavement that they bewailed, as they did not fear about the fate of those who died. Not until they had heard of Purgatory from the Jesuits, or endless woe from Protestants, did they look upon death with terror, or life as anything but a blessing.

They were sometimes in the habit of addressing the dead, as if they could hear. The following are the words of a mother as she bends over her only son to look for the last time upon his beloved face: "My son, listen once more to the words of thy mother. Thou wast brought into life with her pains, thou wast nourished with her life. She has attempted to be faithful in raising you up. When you were young she loved you as her life. Thy presence has been a source of great joy to her. Upon thee she depended for support and comfort in her declining days. But thou hast outstripped her and gone before. Our wise and great Creator has ordered it thus. By his wil , I am left yet, to taste more of the miseries of this world. Thy relations and friends have gathered about thy body to look upon thee for the last time. They mourn, as with one mind, thy departure from among us. We, too, have but a few days more and our journey will be ended. We part now, and you are conveyed out of our sight. But we shal soon meet again, and shall look upon each other, then we shal part no more. Our Maker has called thee home, and thither wil we follow."

After the adoption of the league of the Iroquois, and they dwel ed in vil ages, this was one of the duties enjoined by their religious teacher at their festivals: "It is the wil of the Great Spirit that you reverence the aged, even though they be helpless as infants." And also,

"Kindness to the orphan, and hospitality to all." "If you tie up the clothes of an orphan child, the Great Spirit will notice it, and reward you for it." "To adopt an orphan, and bring them up in virtuous ways, is pleasing to the Great Spirit." "If strangers wander about your abode, welcome him to your home, be hospitable towards him, speak to him with kind words, and forget not, always to make mention of the Great Spirit."

The Indians lamentations, on being driven far away from the graves of their fathers, have been the theme of all historians and travelers. It can be easily imagined how those who so loved their homes and revered their fathers' graves, would become fierce with indignation and rage, on seeing themselves treated as without human feeling, and the sacred relics of the dead ploughed up and scattered as indifferently as the stones, or the bones of the moose and the deer of the forest. It was this feeling that often prompted them to acts of hostility, which those who experienced them, ascribed to wanton cruelty and barbarity.

In many of the vil ages there was a strangers home, a house, for strangers where they were placed, while the old men went about col ecting skins for them to sleep upon, and food for them to eat, expecting no reward.

They cal ed it very rude for them to stare at them as they passed in the streets, and said that they had as much curiosity as the white people, but they did not gratify it by intruding upon them, by examining them.

They would sometimes hide behind trees in order to look at strangers, but never stood openly and gaze at them.

Their respective attention to missionaries was often the result of their rules of politeness, as it is a part of the Indian's code. Their councils are eminent for decorum, and no person is interrupted during a speech.

Some Indians, after respectfully listening to a missionary, thought they would relate to him some of their legends, but the good man could not restrain his indignation, but pronounced them foolish fables, while what he told them was sacred truth. The Indian was, in his turn, offended, and said, we listened to your stories, why do you not listen to ours? you are not instructed in the common rules of civility.

A hunter, in his wandering for game, fel among the back settlements of Virginia, and on account of the inclemency of the weather, sought refuge at the house of a planter, whom he met at the door. He was refused admission. Being both hungry and thirsty, he asked for a bit of bread and a cup of cold water. But the answer to every appeal was, "_You, shal have nothing here, get you gone you Indian dog!_"

Some months afterwards this same planter lost himself in the woods, and after a weary day of wandering, came to an Indian cabin, into which he was welcomed. On inquiring the way and distance to the settlement, and finding it was too far to think of going that night, he asked if he could remain. Very cordially the inmates replied, that he was at liberty to stay, and all they had was at his service. They gave him food, they made a bright fire to cheer and warm him, and supplied him with clean deerskin for his couch, and promised to conduct him the next day on his journey. In the morning the Indian hunter and the planter set out together through the forest, when they came in sight of the white man's dwel ing, the hunter, about to leave, turned to his companion, and said,

"Do you not know me?" The white man was struck with horror, that he had been so long in the power of one whom he had so inhumanly treated, and expected now to experience his revenge. But on beginning to make excuses, the Indian interrupted him saying, "when you see a poor Indian fainting for a cup of cold water, don't say again, 'get you gone, you Indian dog.'" and turned back to his hunting grounds. Which best deserved the appel ation of a christian, and to which wil it most likely be said,

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me."





The Tuscarora tradition opens with the notion that there were original y two worlds, or regions of space, that is an upper and lower world. The upper world was inhabited by beings resembling the human race. And the lower world by monsters, moving on the surface and in the waters, which is in darkness. When the human species were transferred below, and the lower sphere was about to be rendered fit for their residence; the act of their transferrance is by these ideas, that a female who began to descend into the lower world, which is a region of darkness, waters, and monsters, she was received on the back of a tortoise, where she gave birth to male twins, and there she expired. The shell of this tortoise expanded into a continent, which, in the English language, is called

"island," and is named by the Tuscaroras, Yowahnook. One of the children was cal ed Got-ti-gah-rah-quast, or good mind, the other, Got-ti-gah-rak-senh, or bad mind. These two antagonistical principles were at perpetual variance, it being the law of one to counteract whatever the other did. They were not, however, men, but gods, or existences, through whom the Great Spirit, or "Holder of the Heavens," carried out his purposes.

The first work of Got-ti-gah-rah-quast was to create the sun out of the head of his dead mother, and the moon and stars out of the other parts of her body. The light these gave drove the monsters into the deep waters to hide themselves. He then prepared the surface of the continent and fitted it for human habitation, by making it into creeks, rivers, lakes and plains, and by fil ing them with the various kinds of animals and vegetable kingdom. He then formed a man and a woman out of the earth, gave them life, and cal ed them Ongwahonwd, that is to say, a real people. Meanwhile the bad mind created mountains, water-falls, and steeps, caves, reptiles, serpents, apes, and other objects supposed to be injurious to, or in mockery to mankind. He made an attempt also to conceal the land animals in the ground, so as to deprive men of the means of subsistance. This continued opposition, to the wishes of the Good Mind, who was perpetually at work, in restoring the effects and displacements, of the wicked devices of the other, at length led to a personal combat, of which the time and instrument of battle were agreed on. They fought two days; the Good Mind using the deer's horn, and the other, using wild flag leafs, as arms. Got-ti-gah-rah-quast, or Good Mind, who had chosen the horn, final y prevailed. His antagonist sunk down into a region of darkness, and became the Evil Spirit of the world of despair. Got-ti-gah-rah-quast, having obtained his triumph, retired from the earth.

The earliest tradition that we have of the Iroquois is as fol ows: That a company of Ongwahonwa being encamped on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, where they were invaded by a nation--few in number, but were great giants, called "Ronongwaca." War after war was brought on by personal encounters and incidents, and carried on with perfidity and cruelty. They were delivered at length by the skill and courage of Yatontea, who, after retreating before them, raised a large body of men and defeated them, after which they were supposed to be extinct. And the next they suffered was from the malice, perfidity and lust of an extraordinary appearing person, who they cal ed That-tea-ro-skeh, who was finally driven across the St. Lawrence, and come to a town south of the shores of Lake Ontario, where, however, he only disguised his intentions, to repeat his cruel and perfidious deeds. He assassinated many persons, and violated six virgins.

They pointed to him as a fiend in human shape.

In this age of monsters, the country was again invaded by another monster, which they called Oyahguaharh, supposed to be some great mammoth, who was furious against men, and destroyed the lives of many Indian hunters, but he was at length killed, after a long and severe contest.

A great horned serpent also next appeared on Lake Ontario who, by means of his poisonous breath, caused disease, and caused the death of many. At length the old women congregated, with one accord, and prayed to the Great Spirit that he would send their grand-father, the Thunder, who would get to their relief in this, their sore time of trouble, and at the same time burning tobacco as burned offerings. So finally the monster was compel ed to retire in the deeps of the lake by thunder bolts. Before this calamity was forgotten another happened. A blazing star fel into their fort, situated on the banks of the St. Lawrence, and destroyed the people. Such a phenomenon caused a great panic and consternation and dread, which they regarded as ominious of their entire destruction. Not long after this prediction of the blazing star it was verified. These tribes, who were held together by feeble ties, fell into dispute and wars among themselves, which were pursued through a long period, until they had utterly destroyed each other, and so reduced their numbers that the lands were again over-run with wild beasts.

At this period there were six families took refuge in a large cave in a mountain, where they dwelled for a long time. The men would come out occasional y to hunt for food. This mammoth cave was situated at or near the fal s of the Oswego River. Taryenya-wa-gon (Holder of the Heavens) extricated these six families from this subterraneous bowels and confines of the mountain. They always looked to this divine messenger, who had power to assume various shapes, as emergency dictated, as the friend and patron of their nation.

As soon as they were released he gave them instructions respecting the mode of hunting, matrimony, worship and many other things. He warned them against the evil spirit, and gave them corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tobacco, and dogs to hunt their game. He bid them go toward the rising of the sun, and he personal y guided them, until they came to a river, which they named Yehnonanatche (that is going around a mountain,) now Mohawk, they went down the bank of the river and came to where it discharges into a great river, running towards the midway sun, they named it Skaw-nay-taw-ty (that is beyond the pineries) now Hudson, and went down the banks of the river and touched the bank of the great water. The company made an encampment at this place and remained for a while. The people was then of one language. Some of them went on the banks of the great waters, towards the midway sun, and never returned. But the company that remained at the camp returned as they came--along the bank of the river, under the direction of Taryenyawagon (Holder of the Heavens).

This company were a particular body, which cal ed themselves of one household. Of these there were six families, and they entered into an agreement to preserve the chain of alliance which should not be extinguished under any circumstance.

The company advanced some distance up the river of Skawnatawty (Hudson).

The Holder of the Heavens directed the first family to make their residence near the bank of the river, and the family was named Tehawrogeh (that is, a speech divided) now Mohawk. Their language soon changed. The company then turned and went towards the sun-setting, and traveled about two days and a half, then came to a creek, which was named Kawnatawteruh (that is pineries). The second family was directed to make their residence near the creek; and the family was named Nehawretahgo (that is big tree) now Oneida. Their language was changed likewise. The company continued to proceed toward the sun-setting under the direction of the Holder of the Heavens. The third family was directed to make their residence on a mountain, named Onondaga (now Onondaga), and the family was named Seuhnowhahtah (that is, carrying the name.) Their language also changed. The rest of the company continued their journey towards the sun-setting. The fourth family was directed to make their residence near a large lake, named Goyogoh (that is a mountain rising from water) now Cayuga, and the family was named Sho-nea-na-we-to-wah (that is a great pipe). Their language was altered. The rest of the company kept their course towards the sun-setting. The fifth family was directed to make their residence near a high mountain, situated south of Canandaigua Lake, which was named Tehow-nea-nyo-hent (that is possessing a door) now Seneca. Their language was also changed. The sixth, and last family, went on their journey toward the sun-setting, until they touched the bank of the great lake, which was named Kan-ha-gwa-rah-ka (that is a Cape) now Erie, and then went toward, between the midway and sun-setting, and traveled a great distance, when they came to a large river, which was named O-nah-we-yo-ka (that is a principal stream) now Mississippi. The people discovered a grapevine lying across the river, by which a part of the people went over, but while they were crossing the vine broke. They were divided, and became enemies, to those that were over the river in consequence of which, they were obliged to abandon the journey. Those that went over the river were final y lost and forgotten from the memory of those that remained on the eastern banks.

Ta-ren-ya-wa-go (the Holder of the Heavens), who was the patron of the five home bands, did not fail, in this crisis, to direct them their way also. He instructed those on the eastern bank the art of the bow and arrows, to use for game and in time of danger. After giving them suitable instructions, he guided their footsteps in their journeys, south and east, until they had crossed the Al eghany Mountains, and with some wanderings they finally reached the shores of the sea, on the coast which is now cal ed the Carolinas. By this time their language was changed.

They were directed to fix their residence on the banks of the Gow-ta-no (that is, pine in the water) now Neuse River, in North Carolina. Here Taren-ya-wa-gon left them to hunt, increase and prosper, whilst he returned to direct the other five nations to form their confederacy.

Tarenyawagon united in one person the power of a God and a man, and gave him the expressive name of the Holder of the Heavens, and was capable of assuming any form or shape that he chosed, but appeared to them only in the form of a man, and taught them hunting, gardening, and the knowledge of the arts of war. He imparted to them the knowledge of the laws and government of the Great Spirit, and gave them directions and encouragement how to fulfill their duties and obligations. He gave them corn, beans, and fruits of various kinds, with the knowledge of planting those fruits. He taught them how to kill and to cook the game. He made the forest free to all the tribes to hunt, and removed obstructions from the streams. He took his position, sometimes, on the top of high cliffs, springing, if needs be, over frightful chasms; and he flew, as it were, over great lakes in a wonderful canoe of immaculate whiteness and of magic power.

Having finished his commission with the Tuscaroras at Cautanoh, in North Carolina, and the other five families, which were left at the north, he came down to closer terms and intimacy with the Onondagas. He resolved to lay aside his divine character and live among them, that he might exemplify the maxims which he had taught. And for this purpose he selected a handsome spot of ground on the southern banks of Cross Lake, New York. Here he built his cabin, and from the shores of this lake he went into the forest, like the rest of his companions, in quest of game and fish. He took a wife of the Onondagas, by whom he had an only daughter, whom he tenderly loved, and most kindly and carefully treated and instructed, so that she was known far and near as his favorite child, and was regarded almost as a goddess. The excel ence of his character, and his great sagacity and good counsels, led the people to regard him with veneration, and they gave him, in his sublunary character, the name of Hi-a-wat-ha (a wise man). People came to him from al quarters, and his abode was thronged by al ages and conditions who came for advice.

He became the first chief of all the land, and whomsoever he made his companions and friends were likewise clothed with the authority of chiefs in the tribe. In this manner all power came naturally into his hands, and the tribe rejoiced that they had so wise and good a man as their ruler.

For in those days each tribe was independent of al others; they had not yet formed a league, but fought and made war with each other.

Nothing that belonged to Hiawatha, in his character of Tarenyawagon, was more remarkable than his light and magic canoe, which shone with a supernatural lustre, and in which he had performed so many of his extraordinary feats. This canoe was laid aside when he came to fix his residenee at Cross Lake, and never used it but for great and extraordinary purposes. When great councils were called, and he assembled the wise men to deliberate together, the sacred canoe was carefully lifted from the grand lodge; and after these occasions were ended, it was careful y returned to the same receptacle, on the shoulders of men, who felt honored in being the bearers of such a precious burden.

Thus passed away many years, and every year saw the people increasing in numbers, skil , arts and bravery. It was among the Onondagas that Tarenyawagon had located himself, although he regarded the other tribes as friends and brothers; he had become indentified as an adopted member of this particular tribe. Under his teaching and influence they became the first among al the original tribes, and rose to the highest distinction in every art which was known to or prized by the Akonoshuni (Iroquois). They were the wisest counsellors, the best orators, the most expert hunters, and the bravest warriors. They also afforded the highest examples of obedience to the laws of the Great Spirit. If offences took place, Hiawatha redressed them, and his wisdom and moderation preserved the tribe from feuds. Hence, the Onondagas were early noted among all the tribes for their pre-eminence. He appeared to devote his chief attention to them, that he might afterwards make them examples to the others, in arts and wisdom. They were foremost in the overthrow of the Stonish Giants and the kil ing of the great Serpent. To be an Onondaga was the highest honor.

While Hiawatha was thus living in domestic life quietly among the people of the hil s, and administering their simple government with wisdom, they became alarmed by the sudden news of the approach of a furious and powerful enemy from north of the great lakes. As the enemy advanced, they made an indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children. The people fled from their vil ages a short time before them, and there was no heart in the people to make a stand against such powerful and ruthless invaders. In this emergency, they fled to Hiawatha for his advice. He counseled them to call a general council of all the tribes from the east and west. "For," said he, "our strength is not in the war club and arrows alone, but in wise counsels." He appointed a place on the banks of Onondaga Lake for the meeting. It was a clear eminence from which there was a wide prospect. Runners were dispatched in every direction, and the chiefs, warriors and headmen forthwith assembled in great numbers, bringing with them, in the general alarm, their women and children.

Fleets of canoes were seen on the bosom of the lake, and every inteterior warpath was kept open by the foot-prints of the different tribes, hurrying to obey the summons of Hiawatha. All but the wise man himself had been there for three days, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Hiawatha, when a messenger was dispatched after him. They found him gloomy and depressed. Some great burden appeared to hang on his mind. He told them that evil lay on his path, and that he had fearful forebodings of il -fortune. He felt that he was cal ed to make some great sacrifice, but he did not know what it was, it seemed to be hid from him. Least of all did he think it was to be his daughter: ever careful of her, he bade her kindly to accompany him. Nothing happened to hinder, or at all interrupt their voyage. The Talismanic canoe, which held them, gllded silently down the waters of the Seneca; not a paddle was necessary to give it impetus, while it pursued the downward course of the stream till they reached the point of the lake outlet. At this point Hiawatha took his paddle and gave it impetus against the current, until they entered on the bright and calm surface of the Onondaga, cradled, as this blue sheet of water is, among the lofty and far-swelling hil s. When the white canoe of the venerable chief appeared, a shout of welcome rang among those hil s. The day was calm and serene. No wind ruffled the lake, and scarcely a cloud floated in the sky above. But while the wise man was measuring his steps towards the place designated for the council, and while ascending from the water's edge, a rumbling and low sound was heard, as if it were caused by the approach of a violent, rushing wind.

Instantly al the eyes were turned upwards, where a smal and compact mass of cloudy darkness appeared. It gathered in size and velocity as it approached, and appeared to be directed inevitably to fall in the midst of the assembly. Every one fled in consternation but Hiawatha and his daughter. He stood erect, with ornaments waving in his frontlet, and besought his daughter calmly to await the issue, "for it is impossible,"

said he, "to escape the power of the Great Spirit. If he has determined our destruction we cannot, by running, fly from him." She modestly assented and they stood together, while horror was depicted in the faces of the others. But the force of the descending body was that of a sudden storm. They had hardly taken the resolution to halt when an immense bird, with long, extended wings, came down with swoop. This gigantic agent of the sky came with such force that the assembly felt the shock. The girl being in a nature, and embodied in the combination of the Terrestial and Celestial nature, was beautiful and fascinating in her looks and form, was borne away by this Celestial Bird to be seen no more upon the earth.

But Hiawatha was inconsolable for his loss. He grieved sorely, day and night, and wore a desponding and dejected countenance. But these were only faint indications of the feelings of his heart. He threw himself upon the ground, and refused to be comforted. He seemed dumb with melancholy, and the people were concerned of his life. He spoke nothing; he made no answers to questions put to him, and laid still as if dead.

After several days the council appointed a certain merry-hearted Chief to make him a visit, and to whisper a word of consolation in his ears to arouse him from his stupor. The result was successful. He approached with ceremonies and induced him to arise, and named the time when the council would convene. Yet haggard with grief