A Legend from the Haudenosaunee Indians

The Legends of the Iroquois, by William W. Canfield, October, 1902 - Copy
The Legends of the Iroquois, by William W. Canfield, October 1902 – Copy


The Indians neither built monuments nor wrote books. The only records they made were those picture writings known in after years as wampum, which were mere symbols, recording feats of arms. Consequently, all that is known of them prior to the coming to America of Europeans is traditional or conjectural. Not a page of their history has ever been written by any save their foes, and the history thus written is so distorted and marred by prejudice that much of it is misleading.

The legends common to one clan were known all over the continent wherever Indians of that clan lived, and there is little doubt that many of the legends of the Iroquois can be found in some form among those of the Western Indian tribes of the present time. Yet the traditions of the Iroquois herein contained are known positively to be two hundred years old, and are confidently believed to be the stories told by the red men thousands of years ago.

The Confederation of the Iroquois, as told by the Cornplanter
The Confederation of the Iroquois, as told by the Cornplanter

The Confederation of the Iroquois

There was peace in the land of the Senecas. The red men were away upon the chase, or busied themselves in fashioning the arrow-points and in shaping the mighty bows from which the shafts of death were sent forth when food was needed in the wigwam. The Indian women stooped among the blades of growing corn and tilled the soil between the thrifty stalks with sharp-pointed branches from the strong young hickory. The children ran and leaped in the sunshine and their laughter filled the air and mingled with the low, crooning songs of the old men and women who watched them, while dreams of their youth rose like phantoms from the past. Under the fresh verdure of a new-born summer, groups of the young men and maidens were plaiting the soft and flexible willows into baskets, mats and coverings. Abroad on the hills the medicine men roamed, marking the places where the prized and cherished herbs that drove away the bad spirits of suffering and sickness had put forth their vigorous shoots.

There was peace in the land of the Senecas, and for many moons they had waged no war against their brothers. Their villages were growing in strength; their numbers were increasing in greatness. The young men were taught to follow the chase, but their ears had drunk the stones of wars, and their hearts burned to be upon the trail, seeking conquest over the powerful tribes of the Mohawks, Onondagas or Oneidas. When the soft winds came, some of them said to their elders, “We will go into the country of the Mohawks and learn from our brothers there if the Manito gave them corn for the winter, and if the venison was sweet to their tongues.”

Five suns they threaded the forests and sported along the pleasant streams. At last they came upon some young men and maidens of the Mohawk nation engaged in preparing the ground for the maize. Forgetting the counsels of their elders, or heedless of what they had said to them, and eager to show their cunning, they surprised and bound the young Mohawks and carried them away as captives toward the land of the Senecas.

When they had passed the homes of the Onondagas, which they did without discovery, they released one of the young men and told him to go back to the Mohawks and say to them that they would find their maidens in the wigwams of the Senecas, their young men slaves in the villages.

The wise men and sachems of the council shook, their heads gravely when the young warriors boasted of their conquest, for they knew that the peace of the Senecas was broken.

A few days had passed, when, one evening as the fires began to cast their red lights against the rough sides of the great trees, five Mohawk warriors appeared at the council village of the Senecas.

“Let the swift runners say to the chiefs of the Senecas that the warriors of the Mohawks have been long upon the trail and must not sleep. By the light of the council-fire they would tell the message that is sweet to the tongues of the Mohawks but which will burn the ears of the Senecas who listen.” Thus spoke Orontadeka, the strong chief of the Mohawks, as he strode to the council-place of the Senecas, followed by the four solemn and determined sachems who accompanied him on the mission. They at once took seats upon the ground and in silence awaited the coming of the Senecas.

Soon the fire-keepers of the tribe came to the council-place, and with due ceremony started three fires. When the last was lighted, the Seneca chiefs, sachems and warriors took their stations in silence around the blazing resinous wood. Dark forms hurried from the well-beaten paths which led through the forest to the different villages of the Senecas, and, without a word or sign of recognition, the warriors who had been notified by the swift runners and had come from their distant homes, took their places by the council-fire. At length, when all had assembled, the Seneca chief, Kanyego, arose and said:

“Will the great chiefs of the Mohawks eat?”

“The Mohawks have heavy trouble on their hearts and the food of the Senecas would choke their voices,” replied Orontadeka.

“Shall the bowl of the pipe be filled, that the Mohawks may be happy in its visions?” again asked Kanyego.

“The Mohawks would see clearly, and the clouds from the peacemaker might blind their eyes,” was the reply.

“The Senecas have food for their brothers, the Mohawks, and the fire-keepers have in readiness the pipe that the Great Spirit gave to our fathers,” said Kanyego. “The Senecas also have ears to hear what the Mohawks would say. Let Orontadeka speak.”

Mohawk Warrior and Political Leader
Mohawk Warrior and Political Leader

Rising suddenly from his crouching position on the ground, Orontadeka walked rapidly around the council-fires several times and then addressed the assemblage:

“My Brothers: When the warm suns came and the death-sheets of snow that covered the ground were turned to leaping streams of laughing water, the Mohawks were happy in their homes, where Kanyego has many times smoked the pipe of peace and eaten the food given him by his brothers. The plague had not come from its home in the north during the winter, and the wigwams were fat with their store of corn and beans. The swift runners went away to the shining waters beyond the big mountains, and after many suns they returned to say that the enemies of the Mohawks had gone beyond the great pine trees and would plant and till new fields and follow the chase in strange forests.

“My Brothers: The Mohawks were happy, for their wigwams had need to be made greater, and there is much work for the men to do. The women and children sang because the warriors went not upon the trail, and the old men turned their thoughts to the passing of peaceful days in the villages. Suddenly an alarm came to our ears, and the hopes in our hearts fled in terror. As the red fox steals upon the nest of the partridge and carries her chickens away to his home in the rocks, so came those who should be our friends and took as prisoners three of our young men and their five sisters. When the great light drew within the door of his wigwam, the people in the village looked in vain for the coming of their children. The grief of the lonely parents whose children were lost went out to all our villages. After seven suns a party of our warriors came upon one of the young men wandering alone and without food in the forest. Then to our wondering ears came the story that his brothers were slaves in the land of the Senecas, and that his sisters had become the wives of the Seneca robbers.

“My Brothers: The council-fire was lighted at night, for the Mohawks must talk of war. Gwagonsha stood before his people and told them how he had heard the birds and the wind talking together in the tree-tops, and how they agreed between them that the Senecas had wandered away toward the warm lands, and the wolves now lived in their deserted lodges. Owennogon said that even the fishes knew that the Senecas were afraid to seek their slaves in the Cat Nation beyond the thundering waters, and for that reason they had sent out scouts to steal children. Kanentagoura « 29 »stood before the council-fire and said that the women of the Senecas were no longer young, but came into the world with many moons upon their heads, while their backs were bent with age, and wrinkles were upon their faces. If the Seneca warriors would have wives they must steal them from the Mohawks, the Onondagas or the Oneidas, for they had no wampum or canoes with which to buy them. Kantaga told his people that their arrows must be made ready and the thongs of their bows must be strengthened. If the Senecas had gone away to the warm lands, and wolves had taken possession of their villages, the wolves must be killed, for they were dangerous animals. If the Senecas had become cowards and were afraid to seek their slaves in the Cat Nation, they should be killed, for the earth had no room upon it for cowards. Or, if the women of the Senecas were such monsters that they could not be taken as wives, and the Senecas had no wampum or canoes with which to buy maidens for their wigwams, then they must surely be killed, for the Great Spirit was displeased with them.

Haudenosaunee Indians - Gathering
Haudenosaunee – Gathering

“My Brothers: The warriors of the Mohawks set out at once through the forest-paths for the land of the Senecas, and when they reached the village of the Onondagas they told them the cause of their journey, and the warriors of the Onondagas left their lodges to the care of the old men and women and followed the Mohawks on the trail. They remain beside the long waters while Orontadeka and his friends visit the council-fire of the Senecas. We look around us and we find that some of the stories told of the Senecas are not true. The Senecas still inhabit their own lodges, and have not been driven away by wolves. Upon your streams and lakes are plenty of canoes, and in the wigwams hang many strings of wampum. The women of the Senecas are not old and ugly, for we see maidens here whose eyes are like the fires lighted by the Great Spirit when the sun has gone in his wigwam, and whose forms are straight as the ash trees.

“But we know that the young men of the Mohawks were made slaves in the villages of the Senecas, and that the Mohawk maidens are now the wives of your young chiefs. We are full of sorrow. We have not sought war, and we know that much suffering must be the result, for the warriors of the Mohawks and the Onondagas are many and their arrows are long. They will burn your villages and send many of your warriors to their long journey. Your wives and little ones will be driven helpless into the forest, and your old men will speak wisdom only to the fishes. The Senecas are child-stealers and cowards, and the Mohawks and Onondagas will drive them to the warm lands, where they can wear the tobacco pouches of the women and become slaves.”

A murmur of sharp anger ran through the crowd of listening Senecas when these bold words were spoken by Orontadeka. A sudden gesture of Kanyego, chief of the Senecas, suppressed it, however, and he rose to make his reply. For a long time he stood silent, with folded arms and bent head, and then he said:

“My Brothers: When Orontadeka, the Mohawk, has walked forth in the forest and has watched the young of the bear at play, he has seen that they are never still, but are full of life and daring deeds, even though their parents reprove them with harsh voices. So has my brother seen the fawns run like the wind across the plains, darting back and forth as though they could never tire, until their elders draw in a circle about them and will not let them out. My brother knows that the young men are as full of life as the young animals, and, like the storms, cannot be restrained in their course by those who look upon their destructive ways with fear.

“When the young men of the Senecas journeyed on the trail they were counseled by their elders to be wise, but their ears were stopped and their eyes were closed to the dangers that lay in their path. They forgot what had been told them, and from the homes of the Mohawks they brought maidens for their wigwams. They had fears that the young Mohawk braves would be lost in the forest without the maidens to guide them, and so they led them to the land of the Senecas, where they might be taught to fashion the bow and be of use to the women in keeping the birds from the corn. The chiefs and sachems of the Senecas were not pleased that their young warriors should have done this, but young men should never be punished for deeds of bravery, even when they have forgotten the wise counsel of the old men, lest they become cowards.

Iroquois Warriors
Iroquois Warriors

“My Brothers: If the Mohawks had come to the council-fire of the Senecas and asked that canoes and wampum and the warm furs of the bear and the beaver be given them for their maidens the council would have heeded their request, for have we not plenty? Even the young Mohawks would have been returned to the care of their fathers, so that they might be kept safe and not become wanderers where the wolves and panthers might harm them. But the Mohawks have not thought best to do this, and have come to the council-fire at night, when only war can be talked. They have refused to eat the food offered them by the Senecas, and when the fire-keepers would light the peace-pipe, they turned their heads. They come to tell us that the warriors of the Mohawks have aroused the warriors of the Onondagas, who are now upon the trail, ready and waiting to destroy the homes of the Senecas, and anxious to drive us from the land the Great Spirit gave us.

“When the red men of the valley have come to the council-fire of the Senecas without threats of war in their mouths they have always been welcome, and when they had talked they departed in peace. But now they come as spies and say that we are cowards, and bring the Mohawk and Onondaga warriors behind them to destroy our villages. For this reason let the Mohawk chiefs remain at our council-fire and the young Mohawk men and women will be brought to keep them company. If the warriors of the Mohawks and Onondagas come too close to the village of the Senecas they will see Orontadeka and his friends start forth on the long journey, and they will know that many will be sent to follow the same trail.”

The Mohawks were wholly unprepared for this turn of affairs, which must have been agreed upon by the Senecas before the council opened. They were quickly bound as prisoners. When the dawn broke the five Mohawk chiefs, with the maidens and young men who had been stolen from their homes, were held under a strong guard on a slight eminence near the village, and the order had been given that if the invading warriors approached the village Orontadeka and his fellow-prisoners should at once be put to death. Scores of Seneca scouts were scouring the woods in every direction, and a young Seneca, fearless of the dangers to which he was exposed, had long ago started on his way to the camp of the superior force to inform them that the Mohawk chiefs were held as hostages. He fulfilled his mission and was at once made a prisoner.

In the Seneca village all was activity. The women and children were making ready to hurry away under guard, while the warriors were planning ambuscades, in order that they might hold back the attacking force as long as possible and cover the escape of their women and children toward the south.

The sun rose higher in the heavens and the scouts of the Senecas returned one by one from the forest, telling of the advance of a great war-party of Mohawks and Onondagas. Nearer and nearer they approached, evidently believing that their great numbers rendered caution unnecessary, and that the Senecas would either flee in panic or sue for peace at whatever terms the invaders might dictate. A short distance from the village a party of five Senecas came forward to meet them, and in loud voices warned their foes to approach no nearer if they would save the lives of their chiefs and of the Indian boys and girls held as prisoners with them. A halt was called and the attacking party was upon the point of parleying with the Senecas when the voice of Orontadeka was heard:

“The Senecas should be driven away by the warriors of the Mohawks and the Onondagas,” he cried, “for not only are they child-stealers and cowards, but traitors, who have forgotten that the Great Spirit made the council-fire and commanded that it should not be violated. Orontadeka is ready to go on his long journey. Let the warriors advance and see the cowards run through the forest. Orontadeka and his friends will teach them how to die.”

The guards over the captive Mohawks seized their victims and raised their heavy stone-hatchets to strike the death-blows. The Mohawks and Onondagas knew that advance on their part meant certain death to their chiefs and the other prisoners, but they prepared to go forward with a rush.

The Confederation of the Iroquois
Iroquois Confederation

Then the voice of one of the young Mohawk girls rose in a cry that fastened the attention of the warriors of both parties. Her gaze was directed toward the sun, and from her lips came words that carried fear and consternation to all their hearts.

“See, see, my Brothers! The Great Spirit hides his smiling face and will not look upon the battle of the red men. He will go away and leave them in darkness if they burn the villages and with their poisoned arrows send the hunters and the women and the children on their long journey before they have been called. Look thou, my brothers, he has seen the Mohawk maidens happy in the lodges of the Senecas, and he will not look upon them in misery and death. He hides his face, my brothers! He hides his face!”

A moan of terrible fear went up from the warriors men who could meet death on the chase or in the battle with a smile were unnerved by that awful spectacle. They saw a black disc moving forward over the face of an unclouded sun.

The guards released their prisoners and fell at their feet. Mohawks, Senecas and Onondagas mingled, imploring each other for pardon and protesting the most profound friendship. The Seneca women and children hurried from the woods, where they had been in hiding, and lent their voices to the general clamor of fear. The wild, savage faces, streaked with the various colored earths and pigments, were turned in fearful apprehension toward the fast-darkening heavens, becoming wilder and more savage by the terrible fear that filled them. The sachems and wise men hid their faces in their fur robes, and the warriors groveled in terror upon the ground. The eagle, the hawk and flocks of smaller birds darted blindly among the branches of the trees, while strange cries of alarm and distress came from every side. The panther and the bear ran whimpering and whining with the rabbit; the fox and other denizens of the forest sought the frightened red men for protection, or lay trembling and panting under the cover of some prostrate giant of the forest.

On, on crept that fearful black shadow, eating its way into the disc of the beautiful sun, like a mighty demon that had come to blot out of existence the source of light and warmth and life, while over the fresh and budding earth spread the ghostly gloom that never fails to inspire the most careless observer with awe. The flowers that filled the woods with such profusion closed as though night had suddenly fallen upon them; the warmth and fragrance of the day that had opened with such glory gave way to the damps of evening, while the stars and planets appeared again in the heavens. Over the whole face of nature was thrown an unearthly, cadaverous hue, and in the sudden chill everything was cold and sodden with the falling dew.

Iroquois Confederacy
Iroquois Confederacy

At last, through that awful gloom, the frightened and trembling red men saw the once tall and erect, but now bent and tottering, form of Sagoyountha, the aged sachem of the Senecas, creeping forth from his wigwam. Reaching the center of the terror-stricken assemblage, the aged man appeared to be suddenly endowed with the vigor of youth, and stood before them like a mighty warrior, while his scarred and wrinkled face, upon which had beaten the storms of more than a hundred winters, was turned toward the dread spectacle in the heavens, the like of which even Sagoyountha had never looked upon. His voice rang once more with the clear tones that had awakened the echoes of the forests long before any of his listeners were born, and it sounded strangely sharp and loud in the awesome silence that prevailed.

“My children, Sagoyountha speaks to you in the voice of the past, but his eyes are looking into the future. The Great Spirit is angry with his children, for he would have them live in peace. He has drawn the door of his wigwam before his smiling face, and his children will see him no more, unless they smoke the pipe that he gave their fathers when he sent them forth from the Happy Hunting-Grounds. Sagoyountha has spoken. Will his children hear his voice?”

Kanyego sprang from the ground as though stung by an adder, and, crouching low, ran rapidly to the village. He was absent but a few moments, and came running once more to the circle of chiefs, bearing in his hands the sacred pipe, in which was glowing the fragrant tobacco. From one to another it was hastily passed, while the anxious faces were upturned in mute appeal towards the darkened sun.

Look! Ah, look! The aged Sagoyountha reaches out his arms in supplication, and the bright and dazzling edge of the beautiful orb of day once more appears!

Shouts of joy arise from the red men, while the women and children cry aloud with gladness, as hope once more comes to their hearts. The aged Sagoyountha sinks to the ground, and, with feeble voice and trembling lips, commences the chanting of his death-song. Fainter and fainter are the words borne upon the air as the light of the sun increases, and, finally, the breathless throng lose the tones wafted back from the journeying spirit as it reaches the very portals of the Happy Hunting-Grounds.

In the light of the twice-dawned day, and in the presence of the sacred dead, who had pointed out to the red men the path by which to escape the displeasure of their Father, the Confederacy of the Iroquois was formed.