Iroquois history – Native Americans

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Mohawk pottery

Early Iroquois history: Mohawk pottery


Early Iroquois history starts when the Iroquois originally came to America with the other Native Americans. They may have first settled around what’s now Maryland around 1000 AD. The Iroquois didn’t call themselves “Iroquois”, which is an Algonquin insult meaning “snakes”. They called themselves the “Haudenosaunee”, meaning “people who live in longhouses.” Or they called themselves by the kind of Iroquois they were – the Cayugas, the Mohawks, the Oneida, or the Seneca, for example.

The Iroquois move north

Global warm weather between 1000 and 1300 AD may have encouraged the Iroquois (EAR-oh-koi)  to move northward. They moved up the Susquehanna river into what’s now Pennsylvania and New York. When the Iroquois moved north, they ran into a smaller group of Woodland nomadic people and took their land. In the 1200s AD, for instance, the Allegans controlled a trade town where two important trails crossed at the north end of Owasco Lake. It’s now the town of Auburn. Cayugas (a kind of Iroquois) drove the Allegans away and took it over.

Iroquois wampum belt

Iroquois wampum belt

Iroquois farming: the Three Sisters

The Iroquois probably brought farming with them when they arrived in this area. Iroquois farmers grew corn and beans and squash– the Three Sisters – and also sunflowers and tobacco.

Little Ice Age

Around 1350 AD, the warm weather ended, and the environment began a “Little Ice Age“, with colder weather. The Iroquois started to fight a lot of wars around this time. They built their villages on high ground and surrounded them with strong log walls. One of their main enemies was the Algonquin, who were trying to move further south where the weather would be warmer.

Iroquois Confederacy

At some point around the 1400s AD, the Iroquois formed a confederacy (con-FED-ur-ah-see), which is a sort of club or organization. This was an agreement between the different groups of Iroquois – the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Cayuga, the Seneca, and the Onandaigua – to get along and fight as allies against their enemies, instead of fighting each other. Iroquois leaders recorded their agreement with wampum.

Wampum was a kind of decoration made by fastening thousands of tiny seashell beads together. It was super hard to make wampum. So Iroquois people used wampum to mark very important occasions like marriages, or treaties. But wampum was also a kind of money, because it was rare and hard to get, like gold.

Learn by doing: making a wampum belt
More about the Iroquois

Bibliography and further reading about early Iroquois history:

The Iroquois: The Six Nations Confederacy, by Mary Englar (2006).

If You Lived With The Iroquois, by Ellen Levine (1999). Written – very lively and with a lot of good detail about daily life. I really liked it.

The Iroquois, by Barbara Graymont (2004). More detailed information.

Iroquois history after 1500
Cherokee history
Algonquin history
Native Americans home

By |2018-04-24T10:24:00+00:00August 9th, 2017|History, Native American|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Iroquois history – Native Americans. Study Guides, August 9, 2017. Web. January 23, 2019.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Edward F Bundshuh March 5, 2018 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    Karen, Hello, my name is Edward I have been working on Haudenosaunee studies for many years. I’m currently building an understanding about the farming methods used by the people, and have found other than the early 1600’s information about how they farmed there is no first hand descriptions of the farming skills used by the 6 Nations in the 1750’s. As contact with White culture had impacted many things, did it also impact and change the farming methods used is unclear. Can you offer any source information I can read to improve my understanding of what farming methods were used in 1750’s.

    • Karen Carr March 5, 2018 at 10:52 pm

      Hi Edward,
      Wow, that is a hard question, but a good one. I think that of course contact with Europeans must have changed Haudenosaunee farming methods, for instance by providing the Haudenosaunee with iron shovels and scythes, when before they only had wooden ones. Europeans also brought new crops, like apples, which I would think Haudenosaunee people probably started to grow. I’m afraid I don’t know offhand of any sources about this, but I’ll get back to you on that.

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