Episode 24: Iroquois and Algonquin Prior to Conquest
Ancient Civilizations of North America
Dr Edwin Barnhart (2018)
Prior to European contact, peoples speaking Iroquoian and Algonquian languages were located mainly in the Northeastern US and Canada. The Alqonquian speakers lived along the East coast and north of the Great Lakes. The Iroquoian speakers were essentially limited to modern day New York and Pennsylvania.
The Iroquois Confederation
The Iroquois were hunter gatherers until 1000 AD when interaction with the Mississippian civilization led them to take up corn, squash and bean agriculture. The Algonquin, in contrast, remained hunter gatherers. Those in Canada did so because it was too cold to grow corn. Those on the Northeast coast had no need for it, owing to abundant food resources (fish and shellfish in summer and moose, caribou and deer in winter).
Prior to adopting corn agriculture, the Iroquois lived in dome shaped wigwams with thin pole frames covered with bark.
After adopting agriculture, they lived in multi-family long housees.
Corn resulted in a major shift in Iroquois gender roles. As women became farmers and pot makers, they assumed a more dominant role in both Iroquois culture and village life. According to Barnhart as Iroquois society became matrilineal, men became “commodities traded between the female blood lines.”
Owing to soil depletion, Iroquois tended to move villages every 20 years. Very large villages (2,000-3,000 people and growing land scarcity leading to increased led to increased warfare between villages. Iroquois warfare sometimes included ritual sacrifice of prisoners or cannibalization. After 1300 AD, Iroquois adopted defensive palisades (see photo above) and made their long houses more defensible by eliminating the windows and reducing the sie of their doors.
In the 17th century, five Iroquois nations (Mowhawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) united under the Iroquois Confederacy to form a pact of nonviolence. Fifty sachems (chiefs) elected by female clan elders met at Lake Onondago to draw up the 117 articles of confederation, which were recorded in wampum. The latter was a primitive system of writing also used to record council decrees, tell stories and designate individuals of high rank.
After unification, the Iroquois successfully spread their influence west to the Mississippi River.
History of European Contact
In his final lecture, one of Barnhart’s goals is to establish (contrary to what we’re taught in school) that the 1620 Plymouth Rock settlers weren’t the first Europeans to make contact with indigenous Americans.
The first European contact with North America (confirmed by carbon dating) occurred when the Viking explorer Leif Erickson said up a trading colony in Vineland Newfoundland a little before 1000 AD. The Vikings returned to Vineland episodically to trade unti the 1300s.
In 1497, explorer John Cabot, who had read Viking descriptions of Vineland, found evidence of European trade there but no surviving Vikings.
Between 1500-1501 the Corte-Real brothers also sought out Vineland and claimed Newfoundland for Portugal. In 1506 the Portuguese cod trade in Newfoundland was so robust, the king imposed a tax on it.
French Explorers and Settlers
- In 1531, the French sent Verrazzano to North America to hold informal meetings with the Algonquin chiefs.
- In 1535-36 Explorer Jacques Cartier mapped the St Lawrence.
- In 1603-1609 de Champlain allied with the Algonquin in a war against the Iroquois. The Iroquois won. In 1608, he made Quebec the capitol of new France.
Squanto, the native American who helped the Plymouth Rock settlers in 1620, had been kidnapped and sold into slavery (in Spain) in the early 17th century. He somehow made his way way to England where he learned English and negotiated his return to North America. When he arrived home, he discovered his entire tribe had been decimated.
 Matrilineal societies trace kinship through the female, rather than male, line.
 On which the American colonists’ Articles of Confederation was based.
 Wampum was also used as currency until the Europeans deliberately destroyed its value by mass producing it.
 His full name was Tisquantum meaning wrath of God.
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Isn’t it interesting that the Iroquois long house was very similar to what the Celts and Vikings built during the middle ages?
According to Barnhart, the Vikings had a really vigorous trade in cod going in Vineland that was well known throughout Europe. They surely would have had some conduct with East coast indigenous cultures.