The Iroquois League was a Union of Iroquoian-speaking North American Indian peoples, originally composed of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Indians. The Tuscarora became the sixth member of the league in the early 18th century.
The tribes occupied a territory comprising what is now New York's Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes region, bordered on the north by Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks and the south by the Catskills and what today approximates the New York-Pennsylvania state line. Although the precise date of the league's founding is unknown, some historians suggest that the confederacy was probably formed by the early 16th century.
According to Iroquois legend, the league was founded by Deganawidah, a leader of divine status, who persuaded the original Five Nations to give up intertribal warfare marked by blood feud and cannibalism. Historians of Indian culture view its formation as a defensive response to warfare with neighboring Huron and other Algonquian-speaking tribes.
The prophet Hiawatha (c. 1550), Deganawidah's earthly spokesman, doggedly traveled among the five tribes in an attempt to unify them. His persistence succeeded, and the tribes united in what proved to be a nearly invulnerable political alliance until its eventual collapse during the American Revolution. Sporadic warfare and raiding against tribes outside the league afforded opportunities for young Iroquois warriors and to earn prestige and honor. Initially, conquest and the gaining of economic and political advantages were of secondary importance.
Eventually, however, in dealings with the British and French and, later the British and the colonists, the league skillfully played off opposing parties against one and subjugated neighboring tribes foe both economic and territorial gains. Before its collapse in the late 18th century, the Iroquois League dominated lands as far west as the Mississippi River. The league was modeled after already existing family, clan, and community organizations; its aim was not only to unite its members through symbolic kinship relationships but also to maintain the autonomy of individual tribal members.
The league's Grand Council consisted of 50 life-appointed male sachems, or peace chiefs, who were nominated by the headwoman of certain sachem-producing lineages in each clan. The Onondaga had 14 sachems, the Cayuga 10, the Oneida and Mohawk 9 each, and the Seneca 8. After lengthy ratification procedures, the council members became responsible for keeping the internal peace, representing the body of tribes to outsiders, and coordinating tribal activities in unified warfare against nonmembers.
Major decisions were reached through unanimity, compensating for otherwise unequal tribal representation. An individual sachem could be deposed through impeachment proceedings initiated by his lineage's headwoman. Some historians claim that the highly democratic political organization of the Iroquois League may have served as a model for the compilers of the United States Constitution.