Cooper’s Indians

Paul A.W. Wallace * (Editor, Pennsylvania History)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 423-446 (Special Issue — James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal).

Papers from the 1951 James Fenimore Cooper Conference, Cooperstown, New York.

Copyright © 1954, New York State Historical Association.

Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

FOR a hundred years “The Leather-Stocking Tales” cast a spell over the reading public of America and Europe, and determined how the world was to regard the American Indian.

As a writer of strong Gothic affinities, Cooper is hardly to be surpassed. His best pictures of the woods — whether he is handling impressionistic effects like that of the “broad and seemingly interminable carpet of foliage, that stretched away toward the setting sun,” or closer studies of individual scenes, like the first view of the “Glimmerglass” in The Deerslayer — are as good as anything in that kind which the author of The Romance of the Forest has given us. As for the supernatural, what more is needed than he has provided: the demon-like forms of the “savages,” whose steps are noiseless, whose purposes are “secret and bloody,” whose yells (in their more demonstrative moods) mingle with “every fitful gust?” These are the Mingoes, whose cruel, crafty, non-human devices takes the place of Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiendish barons or the spectral appearances of Horace Walpole, “Monk” Lewis, and Beckford of Fonthill.

When he deals with Indians, our author in great part relinquishes his rôle of critic of society and surrenders himself and his readers to the delights of wonder and terror: wonder at the path-finding exploits of Hawkeye and his Delaware companions; terror at the deviltries of the Mingoes, whose “gift” it is to cause “the blood of the timid to curdle” with “tales of midnight murder.”

Both the noble Delawares and the fiend-like Mingoes are somewhat visionary in conception: But Fenimore Cooper was too good an artist to leave his Indians without foundation. Into his Delawares and Mahicans, who are presented as members of a vanishing race, he projected something of himself, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be an Indian. He succeeds, as a result, in investing them with something of tragic grandeur. His Mingoes, on the other hand, are quite outside himself, and, except in rare instances, outside humanity. They are motivated by blood lust, and operate solely by stealth and the techniques of treachery. Even for this phenomenon, like the mysteries so matter-of-factly unraveled in the novels of Ann Radcliffe, Cooper has an explanation. He throws an air of historicity about it to take the place of common sense.

In John Heckewelder’s Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States (Philadelphia, 1819), Cooper found the philosopher’s stone — a curious view of Indian relations which, in the hands of a romancer, was capable of transmuting base metals of fact into fairy gold. This precious instrument was discovered by our author in a legend, recorded by Heckewelder from Delaware informants, which gave seeming historical dimension to a fantastic vision of the American forest peopled by good spirits and bad: a vision that provided the novelist not only with a colorful background for Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas, but also with the moral sanctions (so precious to adolescent readers) appropriate to the Indian slaughters of which these tales are full.

Ironically, the theory Cooper seized on in Heckewelder’s History constituted the principal error in the missionary’s literary work: an idea that the woods of America were divided between Indians of two sorts, the noble savage and the savage fiend, the former personified, with qualifications, in the Lenni Lenape or Delawares (with all their related Algonquian tribes, including the “Mohicans”); the latter, without qualification, in the “Mingoes” (“Maquas”) or Iroquois, i.e., the Six Nations. Since this mistaken but popular belief (which still troubles, while it amuses, many good citizens among us whose ancestors of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations provided a wall of safety for the English colonies during a hundred and fifty years of national adolescence) lies at the heart of “The Leather-Stocking Tales,” it may be profitable to look into its origin.

How Heckewelder fell into this error is an interesting story in itself. He was one of the leaders in a wise and far-sighted attempt made by the Moravian Church, from its headquarters in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to give the Indians assistance, through the agency of native Christian communities, in riding “the wave of the future”: in other words, to show them how they could adopt the best of the white man’s ways without losing their own identity. A mission was established among some bands of New York Mahicans in 1740. Persecution forced the missionaries to move with their flock to Pennsylvania and (persecution still following them) to settlements farther west in what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and the Province of Ontario. During these years of migration, the original Mahican bands became merged in much larger accretions of Delaware Indians, a people of the same stock, whom the Mahicans acknowledged as their “grandfathers.” Heckewelder’s intimate knowledge of Indians was acquired among these mission Delawares and Mahicans as he followed their wandering from Wyalusing on the Susquehanna to Gnadenhütten on the Muskingum, and thence to Upper Sandusky, Petquotting, and Fairfield (Moraviantown) in Upper Canada. He associated freely also with the so- called “pagan” Delaware communities by which the mission villages were surrounded in the West.

The Western Delawares (those, that is, who lived outside the mission, with whom, nevertheless, Heckewelder had almost daily contact) had been, from the time of Braddock’s defeat, engaged in a struggle for independence. The movement, indeed, at least in the diplomatic field, had long antedated Braddock. When, early in the eighteenth century, certain bands of Delawares had first moved west into the French sphere of influence in the Ohio country, they had left the Six Nations orbit — the pax iroquoia which prevailed throughout the back country of the Middle Atlantic Colonies — and lighted council fires of their own beyond the Allehenies. By the time Heckewelder came to know them (his first mission venture on the Muskingum was in 1762), these western Delawares were well committed to the new policy of independence.

It was John Heckewelder’s great virtue as a missionary and teacher that he not only lived among the Indians he had come to help but lived with them as well — attuned his mind to theirs and absorbed their interests. A generous warmth of temperament, which is evident everywhere in his life and writings, led him to sympathize with them, to try to see life as they saw it. He shared their griefs and their enthusiasms. He even accepted their national prejudices, wherever these did not run counter to his Christian beliefs and (during the Revolution) to his American patriotism.

He espoused with all his heart the cause of Delaware independence. In his published History, he makes much of this motif, and takes sides so warmly that he allows his historical judgment to become unbalanced. In particular, when handling the Delawares’ rationalization of the subordinate position held by them in the Iroquois political system, he presents the legend in which they give form to their feeling of grievance, as if it were sober history and not, as it actually is, folklore.

This is the legend as he gives it to us: The Iroquois, ancient enemies of the Delawares, jealous of their power but unable to conquer them in war, hit upon a device to subdue them without the risk of battle. “This plan was very deeply laid,” writes Heckewelder, “and was calculated to deprive the Lenape and their allies, not only of their own power but of their military fame, which has exalted them above all the other Indian nations. They were to be persuaded to abstain from the use of arms, and to assume the station of mediators and umpires among their warlike neighbours. In the language of the Indians they were to be made women. ... In a luckless hour they gave their consent. ... “

The Dutch, he tells us abetted the Iroquois in a great peace conference at which the Delaware people, fired by a desire to serve mankind, accepted the robe, the corn- pounder, and the peace-making function of “woman.” Then the Iroquois — “base and perfidious nation,” as Heckewelder calls them — having thus disarmed their rivals, secretly other induced nations to attack them. When the Delawares, through these treacheries, had become so depleted in numbers as to hold but a shadow of their former power, their old enemies announced that they, the Iroquois, had “conquered the Delawares in fair battle, and compelled them to submit to the greatest humiliation to which a warlike spirited people can ever be reduced; not a momentary humiliation, as when the Romans were compelled by the Samnites to pass under the Caudine forks, but a permanent disgrace, which was to last as long as their national existence.”

That was the spark which touched off Cooper’s imagination. In The Pioneers, first of “The Leather-Stocking Tales” to come from his pen, he writes thus of the Delawares: “This people had been induced to suffer themselves to be called women, by their old enemies, the Mingoes, or Iroquois, after the latter, having in vain tried the effects of hostility, had recourse to artifice, in order to prevail over their rivals.”

Once he had picked up that trail, Cooper followed it with a whoop, wielding his pen like a tomahawk over the discomfited Mingoes. This great people, the United Nations of the Iroquois, who called themselves Kanonsionni, “the Long-house” (i.e., the United Household), who lived under an ancient constitution which they called the Great Law, and whose confederacy provided Benjamin Franklin inspiration for his scheme of union, — Cooper completely misunderstood. He represented them, although they had been for so many years the chief Indian allies of the English colonies, as tools of the French. No expression was too vile for him to throw at them. “Iroquois-devil-Mingoes-Mengwes, or furies — ,” said Pathfinder (Leather-Stocking), “all are pretty much the same. I call all rascals Mingoes.”

“The Mingoes and the Delawares are born enemies,” said Chingachgook, the “Mohican” chief whose tribe Cooper equates with the Delaware. “But he will go to the country where his fathers have met. The game shall be plenty as the fish in the lakes. No woman shall cry for meat; no Mingo can ever come.”

From end to end of “The Leather-Stocking Tales,” Cooper’s readers follow this trail. The theme of Iroquois malignity is pursued through The Deerslayer (taking the “Tales” in the order, not of their writing, but of the events described in them), The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie.

In The Deerslayer, war has just broken out, some time in the 1740’s, between the French, who are supported by the “nat’rally perverse and wicked “Mingoes” (who mysteriously metamorphose into Hurons), and the English, who have Delawares and Mohicans on their side. Deerslayer (Leather-Stocking) is in the first flush of manhood, which is fortunate for the inhabitants of Floating’s Tom’s ark, who have a raft of adventures to pass through on the waters of the Glimmerglass, Otsego Lake. Chingachgook (“the Mohican or Delaware”), identifiable among other denizens of the forest by a hawk’s feather worn above his left ear, is represented as a son of the great Chief Uncas — a name which his own son bears in the next of these tales. In the spelling “Mohican,” the distinction between two separate tribes, the Mahican, who were native to the upper Hudson River Valley, scene of the next story in the series, and the Mohegan of Connecticut and Rhode Island (the historical Uncas was a Mohegan), is comfortably obliterated. The words of the “red girl,” Wah-ta!-Wah, “Mingo cruel, and love scalp for blood — Delaware love him for honor,” give the ethnographical tone of this and the succeeding volumes.

In The Last of the Mohicans, the scene is the Adirondacks and the headwaters of the Hudson. The time is the summer of 1757, during the French and Indian War. “The knavery of the Iroquois” (“these greedy and lying Mohawks and Oneidas with their six nations of varlets”) provides an obstacle the overcoming of which keeps the story moving. Leather-Stocking and Chingachgook are at the height of their manhood. The injuries of the Delawares, “a scandalized and wronged race,” give excuse for the free-handed killing of enemy redskins.

“I had thought, says Duncan, “the Delawares a pacific people, and that they never waged war in person; trusting the defense of their lands to those very Mohawks that you slew?”

“’Tis true in part,” replies Leather-Stocking, “and yet at bottom ‘tis a wicked lie. Such a treaty was made in ages gone by, through the deviltries of the Dutchers, who wished to disarm the natives that had the best right to the country, where they had settled themselves.”

Leather-Stocking explains that, while the Mingoes are good skulkers, for bravery in fighting and skill on the warpath the Delawares (and Mohicans) are your only people.

Cooper does, in an aside, pay deference in this novel to the facts of history, which do not support his thesis that the Delawares, rather than the Iroquois, were our friends during the French and Indian War. He notes that the Delawares were at this time divided among themselves, and that, while some, such as Chingachgook and his son Uncas, were fighting for the British, “by far the largest portion of his nation were known to be in the field as allies of Montcalm.” But he does not go so far as to acknowledge the profound and, as some think, decisive help the Iroquois gave, through a benevolent neutrality, to the cause of the British colonies.

In The Pathfinder we again pursue the Iroquois through bloody episodes of the French and Indian War, but this time, for the most part, on the waters of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. The elements have changed, but not the Indians. Chingachgook still wields his knife against a treacherous foe: “Whenever you find the Mingo blood ... you find a knave.”

The Pioneers brings us back to Otsego Lake, scene of The Deerslayer, but some fifty years later. The date is 1793. By this time the beginnings of settlement and the law of the landowner have destroyed the free forest life to which Chingachgook had been born and which Leather-Stocking had adopted. This, the first of the Leather-Stocking Tales to be written, is in some ways the most thoughtful of them all. “Mohegan” or Old Indian John (Chingachgook) is presented not as the romantic, dashing warrior, hot to redress wrongs by killing Mingoes. He is shown, rather, as a relic of a broken and dispersed people, living in his own country with the status of a “displaced person”: lonely, frustrated, drunken, proud. His dignity, what remains of it, stems from the consciousness that his own personal tragedy is but a symbol of the tragedy wrought on his race by “war, time, disease, and want.”

There is in Cooper no forward glimpse of the resuscitation of the Indian race which the twentieth century has seen. He looks back only. Old Indian John is “a noble soul mourning for glory once known.” Memories come to him of warpaths he has followed and enemies he has slain. But it is not hate that fills his mind. It is the sadness that comes with dispossession unaccompanied by change of scene, when objects still familiar bring futile memories of the time that is gone. In the forest fire that provides excitement toward the end of the book, he makes no effort to save himself. His life — the heroic life of the woods — has already departed from him. He can recover it now only by way of the spirit trail. “He looks on the valley,” — it is Old John himself who is speaking — “he looks in the hunting grounds — but he sees no Delawares. Every one has a white skin. My fathers say, from the far-off lands, come.” As a story, no one will call The Pioneers the best among the Leather- Stocking quintet. But, as far as Indians are concerned, it is the most honest. It contains less fustian than any of the others. Cooper says he wrote it “to please himself.”

The Prairie brings us back to the Gothic. Leather-Stocking has grown old. “To escape the sound of the ax,” he has left the by-now-too-well-settled regions of the east and has come west, as a trapper, to the prairie in search of a vanishing freedom. He brings with him his hates and his enthusiasms. Out here, of course, they cannot be attached to the Mingoes and Delawares, since these, too, he has left far behind him. But that is no obstacle to his creator, Fenimore Cooper, who endows his hero with the same sentiments regarding the Sioux and the Pawnee as he had formerly entertained for the Mingo and the Delaware.

The Sioux: “A band of beings, who resembled demons rather than men”; “a treacherous and dangerous race”; “red devils.”

The Pawnees: “There is something in these Loups [Pawnees] which opens my inmost heart to them; they seem to have the courage, ay, and the honesty, too, of the Delawares of the hills.”

Often his mind goes back, as he approaches his end, to the “thieving Mingoes” and the noble Chingachgook: “Ah’s me! your Delawares were the red-skins of which America might boast; but few and scattered is that mighty people now!”

It was a strong seed that John Heckewelder sowed, and, pace the muse of history, much good has come of it. I belong to a happy generation that nourished its youth on Fenimore Cooper and the Leather-Stocking Tales. I remember well that wonderful age when Hawk-eye, alias the Deerslayer, and Chingachgook, the Great Serpent, served on alternate days as my beau ideal. Their unerring ear for the snapping twig, and their skill in detecting, even through the dense foliage, the “glaring eyeballs of a prowling savage,” were my admiration and envy. Whatever primitive moral sense I may have possessed, I exercised, not as today’s youth by watching the Ranger rescue the innocent on television, but by contrasting the noble Delawares and Mohicans on the one hand with the false and cruel Mingoes of Cooper’s pages on the other. I make this personal confession because I would not have it thought for a moment that any question here raised about the authenticity of Cooper’s Indians betokens the denigration of his literary achievement. In his pages we really do catch what Dr. Spiller calls “the fresh tang of the North Woods”; and, by some quirk of genius, Cooper has made the world accept as real the fantastic creatures with which he peopled them.

The very evidences of his power, as seen in this world-wide misconception of Indian nature, make us the more curious, not only about the direct sources of the error, but about the ultimate sources. In other words, we are impelled to go behind both Cooper and Heckewelder, and try to discover from the historical records what the causes were of all this hullabaloo about the Delawares being, or not being, “women.”

To do this is to undertake a perilous voyage. It is not an uncharted one, but the charts are misleading. As the years go by, students of ethno-history becomes less and less confident in the information which has been most readily available to them on the subject of Iroquois-Delaware relations. Until recently we have depended very largely for our knowledge of the early Five (who later became the Six) Nations — the Iroquois — on two principal sources: the Jesuit Relations, and John Heckewelder’s History. The world is profoundly indebted to the Jesuit Relations, not only for a story almost without parallel of missionary devotion, but also for important studies, such as that of the Hurons, among whom the Jesuits’ chief successes lay. The Relations, nevertheless, had a blind spot. The missionaries whose narratives are there reproduced knew only too well the cruelties of the Iroquois. They were, in consequence, somewhat incurious about the nobler manifestations of the Iroquois mind. They make only slight and indirect reference to the great Iroquois reformers, Deganawidah and Hiawatha, founders of the Five Nations Confederacy. This blind spot reappears in the work of so great a man as Francis Parkman, who, knowing nothing of the Deganawidah epic — one of the noblest and most moving culture legends in the history of man — satisfied himself with such phrases as “insensate fury” and “homicidal frenzy” in explaining the motivation of Iroquois international policies.

Heckewelder, in defending the Delawares by attacking the Iroquois, admitted himself to be a special pleader for the Indians among whom his missionary labors lay. We must be on our guard against such leanings in source materials; and it is necessary for us, therefore, in order to get a balanced and unprejudiced view of Indian relations, to rely not solely on the reports of men whose circumstances had led them to take a partisan view. We must examine the reports of men such as Conrad Weiser, who were not hostile to the great Confederacy; and we must take into account also records that have been handed down by early “wampum keepers” (the ancient Indian archivists) and by historians among the modern Six Nations and Delawares — who are not so difficult to find as some writers would have us believe.

A further word of caution is needed. If we are to have any understanding of the relationships existing between the Six Nations and the Delaware during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we must realize that our language is a barrier. The words we commonly use to describe those relationships — “tributaries,” “women,” “nephews,” and the like — are English words and have an English connotation for us. They suggest only in the clumsiest and most inadequate way certain nuances of Indian social and political relations which have no equivalent in American and European society.

When Conrad Weiser said of the Delawares that they were “tributary in an Indian sense,” 1 he was offering a hint which, unhappily, few students of Indian affairs in his day or ours have understood how to take. When we are informed that the Six Nations today still call the Delawares “women,” we should not forget that the Iroquois word so rendered in English, the word ganitowïsas, is, as Merle Deardorff of Warren, Pennsylvania, who has frequently heard it used by the Senecas at Cornplanter and Allegheny, always insists, “not an opprobrious word.” It directs attention, not to any supposed frailty in the gentler sex, but to woman’s official status in the Iroquois world.

Above all else, those interested in the Five Nations and their international affairs will do well to understand Deganawidah’s Constitution and the story of the founding of the Confederacy. This absorbing conglomeration of history, legend, law, and poetry, which is still closely woven into Iroquois council ceremonial, has for centuries impregnated Iroquois thinking from the international level down to that of the family fire. In 1743 Conrad Weiser observed how the special meeting of the Onondaga Council, called to hear his message from Virginia delivered in the house of the Wampum Keeper, was opened by the Onondaga chiefs rehearsing “the beginning of the Union of the Five Nations.”

If we are to understand the relations between the Five Nations and their tributaries, we must understand certain metaphors embodied in the Constitution, and we must exercise a little imagination and understand them “in their Indian sense.” If we are too literal, and try to strip these terms of their poetry, we shall lose sight of the thing they were the best medium to express: compromises of some complexity in social and political relationships which had been worked out through the ages by a people who, with all their primitiveness in the matter of mechanical gadgets (they being, as far as tools are concerned, of the stone age), were highly developed in matters of social apprehension. Certainly, if we try to get to know the Iroquois and their dealings with other peoples without first understanding their Tree of Peace — a concept that dominated their international as well as their inter-tribal relations — we shall find ourselves making just as foolish a blunder as some nations on the other side of the world today are making who see only the surface materialism of the United States and fail to take into account also the underlying idealism of our people.

The Tree of Peace, planted metaphorically by Deganawidah at Onondaga, the great white pine which “pierced the sky” and “reached the sun,” symbolized not any vague, abstract idea of peace but the very solid structure of their newly formed Confederacy, which had brought together five warring people under a constitution the avowed aim of which was to abolish war. Following out the metaphor, the branches of the tree represented the shelter and security available to any people who accepted the authority of this great Peace-Law.

According to the Constitution, surrounding nations were to be encouraged, sometimes with a push, to take shelter under the Tree. “Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace,” so runs the version of the Constitution published by Arthur Parker. ” ... The name of these roots is the Great White Roots and their nature is Peace and Strength. If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace ... they may trace the Roots to the Tree, and if their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Confederate Council, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree. ... ” 2 During the years of Iroquois supremacy, many individuals and many nations — Wyandots (Hurons), Tuscaroras, Tuteloes, Nanticokes, certain bands of Delawares, and others — did take shelter under the Tree. You have only to go to the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford today and visit the Delaware Line or observe the Tutelo Spirit Adoption Ceremony performed there 3 to see the truth of this.

It must be admitted, of course, that, even after the admission of the Tuscaroras had changed the name of the Confederacy to the Six Nations, the five original members (among whom Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas ranked as Elder Brothers, Oneidas and Cayugas, as younger) continued to regard themselves as the prime guardians of the Tree of Peace. They alone provided the roster of forty-nine or fifty chiefs for the Great Council. But that restriction on the rights of the newcomers was not actually severe. The Tuscaroras and Delawares, for instance, sent to the Council authorized representatives who, though according to protocol they spoke “through the voice” of their sponsors Senecas and Cayugas respectively), were nevertheless listened to with respect. Old Chief Joseph Montour, for years the foremost Delaware counselor on the Six Nations Reserve, showed me with pride the seat he had at one time occupied on the Cayuga side of the Council House at Ohsweken.

Besides the metaphor of the Tree of Peace, with its roots offering guidance and its branches offering shelter to all right-minded people, the Constitution employed another vivid metaphor to explain the peculiar relationships subsisting among the Five Nations and between them as a unit and the outside world. They called their union by the familiar name of the Longhouse. Geographically, this represented the long line of their national territories, stretching from the lower reaches of the Mohawk River past Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga Lakes to Seneca Lake and the Genesee country, with a war path, henceforth to be called the Ambassadors’ Road, connecting the main villages of the Five Nations. Politically, the image of the longhouse represented (as did its physical counterpart, where several family fires were within the same walls and united under the supervision of a matron) that blend of unity with independence of which contemporary instances are to be found, in some degree at least, in modern British Commonwealth and in the United Nations.

Iroquois architecture was innocent of flying buttresses, but the Constitution reminds us that the pole-and-bark frames of their village longhouses were often shored up against the storms by means of wooden props or braces. The figure is an important one. “When a nation,” said Deganawidah (whose words form the Constitution), “guided by the Great White Roots, shall approach the Tree, you shall welcome her here and take her by the arm and seat her in the place of council. She will add a brace or leaning pole to the Longhouse and will thus strengthen the edifice of Reason and Peace.” 4 With these metaphors in mind, we are ready to get into the body of our subject.

Early records, Delaware as well as Iroquois, agree that the Delawares were “women” and “tributaries” of the Five Nations. But of the origins of that status the most widely conflicting accounts have appeared. At Philadelphia in 1742, Canasatego, an Onondaga, asserted (as far as we can tell from the English translation of his speech) that the Six Nations had conquered the Delawares and reduced them to the position of women. “We conquer’d You we made Women of you,” he is reported to have said; “you know you are Women and can no more sell Land than Women.”

The Delawares, on the other hand, as first recorded by the Quakers from a statement made about 1757 by Moses Tatamy, 5 and sixty years later developed into a piece of bitter polemics by John Heckewelder in his History, claimed that they had been made “women” by a trick, and that the cunning Mingoes had then persuaded the white men to accept this fiction. Neither the Delaware version as presented by Heckewelder, nor the Six Nations version as presented by Canasatego, is correct. The Delaware version is a piece of folk ... rationalization; Canasatego’s is, as Brinton called it, “braggart falsehood.” 6 The Delaware apologists, and Canasatego — with Red Jacket after him — did not know what they were talking about. All were confused by the intrusion of European meanings upon distinctively Indian concepts.

To save myself, if that is possible, from the tangles that threaten the work of anyone who tries to mend the Delaware petticoats, let me propose three simple questions and attempt to answer them.

The first is this: Were the Delawares actually conquered by the Five Nations?

The second: In what sense were the Delawares “women”?

The third: Had the Delawares a grievance?

There is evidence that the Delawares were conquered by the Five Nations and made tributary shortly after the end of the war between the Five Nations and the Susquehannocks. Certainly there can be no dispute (C. A. Weslager 7 of Delaware has brought the evidence together) that the Delawares had previously been subdued by the Susquehannocks, some time during the early seventeenth century. Amandus Johnson, in his Swedish Settlements on the Delaware, sets the date of this conquest at between 1630 and 1636. There is reason to believe that, after that time and during the long war between the Susquehannocks and the Five Nations, the former called for, and received, aid from the Delawares. Miss Anna Dill Gamble of York, Pennsylvania, whose forthcoming book, The Struggle for the Gateway: The Lower Susquehanna River from 1609/10 to 1810, will throw light on our problem, has drawn my attention to a letter written by the Secretary of the Dutch colony on the Delaware to Peter Stuyvesant in 1663, at the time of the unsuccessful Seneca attack on the Susquehannock fort. In this letter, Andries Hudde noted that in the fort were a hundred River Indians (meaning Delawares). If we need look for a particular motive for subsequent forays made by the Five Nations against the Delawares, this will provide it.

There is, however, no record of any concerted campaign by the Five Nations against the Delawares, such as that which destroyed the military power of the Hurons in 1649 and of the Mahicans and Susquehannocks later. George T. Hunt, in his Wars of the Iroquois, makes no mention of a Delaware War. Miss Gamble is of the opinion that the Five Nations “inherited” the Delawares from the conquered Susquehannocks. However that may be, the evidence of conquest, at least “in an Indian sense,” is strong. We know from the Pennsylvania Colonial Records 8 that in 1712 Sassoonan and other Delawares spoke to the Governor and Council at White Marsh about having been “subdued” by the Five Nations and obliged to be “their tributaries.” They showed thirty-two wampum belts which they were about to take north as tribute. The subjection they referred to had probably occurred in 1676 or 1677, shortly, that is, after the close of the Susquehannock War, though an earlier date is not impossible. Beekman reports the killing of twelve Delawares by the Senecas in 1661. 9 According to the statement of Sassoonan’s Delawares in 1712, their submission had occurred within living memory, which would fit either date, 1661 or 1677. Hanna, in The Wilderness Trail, proposes 1677 as the date most likely. That was the year in which a number of Senecas are known to have been at Shackamaxon (Philadelphia) for the purpose, so it is said in the minutes of the Upland Court, 10 of fetching some Susquehannocks who were living there among the “River Indians.” The Jesuit Relations for 1676 11 speak of prisoners taken by the Iroquois from the Loups, with whom, it is said, they have been at war “for a short time” (depuis peu). Loups, “wolves,” is the term used by the French for the Delawares, though it is also applied to the closely-related Mahicans. Since, however, the great war with the Mahicans had ended in 1673, and these prisoners were taken in 1676, it is more likely that the reference is to the Delawares.

If it be objected that the Delawares were without a central council fire and scattered, as in fact they were, among a number of independent communities, so that no single military blow could paralyze them, such as the strokes which had crushed the Hurons and Susquehannocks, the reply is that we are indeed speaking of a different kind of warfare, and one which our histories have not found it easy to record. There was no central Delaware stronghold to be stormed. But there were many small communities to be warned to mind their “uncles,” on occasion to be taught a lesson by scalping parties, and slowly, family by family and hunting territory by hunting territory, brought to understand the facts of life: namely, that, after the disappearance of their Susquehannock overlords, the Delawares could find security only under the Five Nations’ Tree of Peace. The evidence of Sassoonan’s wampum belts points in that direction, indicating that the subjugation had been of individual families and small communities. Each of the thirty-two belts of wampum was accompanied by a message in which the sender, usually a woman, expressed the desire in one form of words or another that the group for which she spoke might “have fair weather & sunshine with ye 5 nations.” The fifth belt, so runs the record, “is to Inform, that tho’ the principal of the family that sends it be Dead, Yet they Continue their Obedience & shew their Intention by this present.”

To use one of Deganawidah’s metaphors, the Delawares in 1712 seem to have been in process of following the Great White Roots to the shelter of the Tree of Peace. They were being prepared for membership in the League. Perhaps they were already in it. That point is not clear. Certainly they had renounced the right to make war — at least, that is to say, on their own initiative. Decisions concerning peace and war were the prerogative of the Five Nations, who were the special guardians of the Tree of Peace. This was undoubtedly a limitation on Delaware sovereignty. At the same time, the Delawares remained autonomous in local affairs. Rudyard Kipling caught something of the same idea, many years ago, when he tried to express in verse what “dominion status” meant in the British Empire of his time:

Daughter am I in my mother’s house,

But mistress in my own.

Under the Tree of Peace, the Delawares retained the right to own, and even to sell, land. Canasatego had forgotten both history and Iroquois law when he would have denied them that right as “women.” Whatever of self-effacement Indian etiquette may have required of modest women in the presence of strangers, Iroquois matrons were not bashful before their own men folk, with whom they held joint ownership of the land. They had, indeed, a higher political status than any white women of that day. Certainly they did not have “the subdued mildness that marks the degraded condition of a savage’s wife,” which Cooper makes much of. Living in a matriarchal society, Iroquois women had their own council fires, as the men had; and the matrons of certain lineages appointed, even on occasion recalled, the council chiefs.

The Delawares, moreover, had the privilege, which at times they successfully invoked, of calling on the Iroquois to aid them, as they had formerly called on the Susquehannocks. It was, in fact, their known intention to do just that, to call on the Six Nations for help in connection with the Walking Purchase scandal, which caused James Logan and the Proprietaries of Pennsylvania to involve themselves in the unsavory counter measures that climaxed that wretched episode.

The Delawares, in a word, had accepted the status of “women,” and they acted out their part, in Indian fashion, as though it were a game of charades. The seventeenth of Sassoonan’s belts was accompanied by a promise that the senders would “always keep an Open Clean House for the 5 nations, & be ready to receive them” — a form of expression that has been used from that day to this for those who were the adopted guests of the League.

In approaching the second question, in what sense were the Delawares women, we meet an initial difficulty. The Delawares had an atomistic society, broken up into many small units, each independent of the others, with nothing but language, customs, and a general body of tradition to hold them together. The relationship of one community with the Five Nations might not be identical with that of its neighbor. Sassoonan and his group in 1712 did not speak for all the Delawares. Individual communities, moreover, were undergoing great changes during the migrations which the white man’s pressure was forcing upon them. They were regrouping themselves in constantly changing combinations. What I am about to say of the status of “women” in the League probably could be applied to the Delawares as a whole after the end of the Susquehannock War. But we wish to base our conclusions on something with cleaner edges and solider substance than mere probability can offer. We can say with confidence that what follows does certainly apply to that group of so-called “Susquehanna-Delawares,” former followers of Teedyuscung at Wyoming, who, after his death, moved up into the Six Nations home territory and were adopted into the League. The descendants of this group live on the Delaware Line, where they may be observed. Though acculturation has brought changes among them, something still survives of the ancient Delaware way of thinking.

The word gantowisas, used by the Six Nations when they refer to the Delawares as women, conveys no reproach. Mr. Deardorff tells me he has never heard this word, nor, indeed, any other Iroquois word for “woman,” used contemptuously by the Six Nations. He has drawn my attention to the fact that the Moravian missionary, David Zeisberger, who was a linguist as well as something of a diplomat and who therefore picked his words carefully, when he came down from Onondaga to minister to the Pennsylvania Delawares addressed them as “sisters.” “The name sister ... is best suited for the Delaware,” writes Zeisberger of his visit to Packanke’s Town in 1770, “because they know quite well and are not ashamed :of the fact that they are women. ... ” It is true, of course, that the Indians could and did at times use the difference between the sexes to give edge to sentiments of contempt. No man likes to be called effeminate, just as no woman likes to be called a virago. But gantowisas, as it is used today, has no belittling connotation. Anthony Wallace, who questioned Chief Deskaheh on the Six Nations Reserve about this word, reports that it denotes mature woman in her official capacity. He quotes Deskaheh 12 as saying that no Delaware should feel insulted to hear his nation referred to as tcukanha gantowisas. “That is a compliment,” he said.

A particularly keen student of these affairs, Mrs. Kellogg of the Oneida nation, whom I met some time ago at Onondaga, expressed the opinion that the term “woman” as applied to the Delawares denoted a certain stage of entrance into the League. That was the opinion of the Tuscarora scholar, J. N. B. Hewitt of the Smithsonian Institution. To accept the woman’s office, with the corn pestle and hoe that went with it, was to receive a kind of adoption, to enter “a state of probation.” It was not full membership. That was reserved for the original five nations. But, as I have learned recently, it was as high a station as any other nation ever received in the League, as high a station as that of the Tuscaroras, the sixth nation in the Confederacy.

For evidence on this last point, I offer a recently discovered interpretation by Seth Newhouse, a Canadian Mohawk, of the constitutional status of the Tuscaroras and Delawares. It is found in his earliest, 1885, version of the Constitution — an unpublished document which, despite its inferiority in certain respects to later versions, is, I am told, regarded among the Six Nations as “the canon.” 13 Newhouse informs us (after a preliminary warning that he is about to “disagree with the Historians of the ‘Pales faces,’”) that both the Tuscaroras, who were first “entertained in the bosom of the Oneidas,” and the Delawares, who were first “entertained in the bosom of the Mohawks,” were “clothed in Woman’s clothes,” and given corn-pounders and mortars. He continues, “And when it so happens the Lords [chiefs of the Five Nations] journey through Tuscaroras’ or Delawares’ localities, they shall always be in readiness to entertain the Confederate Lords in their Wigwam, and give them corn-bread and corn-soup with bear’s meat in it.”

When I asked Dewaserage (the late Chief William D. Loft, who held the Mohawk title of Sharenkowane in the great Council of the Six Nations) how the Delawares came be called women, he expressed himself in much the same manner:

“The Delawares begged to be allowed to live with our people. So I told them [he correctly used the first person, as a chief should, when speaking of the official actions, even in the distant past, of his people], ‘All right, you can stay, but. u have got to do a certain kind of work.’”

Chief Joseph Montour, the Delaware, wrote me a letter shortly before his death in which he said that the title “woman” given to the Delawares was not a rebuke “but the highest honor, like queen. ... We kept house, had meals ready, and had everything in good shape.”

The Delawares are not now, as formerly, under the Mohawk aegis, but under that of the Cayugas. The late Chief Hess (at one time known as “the pagan preacher of the Cayugas’) explained the change to me in these words:

“They [the Delawares] joined the Mohawks first. ... At last the head chief of the Mohawks said, ‘You must go away; you cannot stay.’”

Chief Hess explained that the Delawares were too quarrelsome. He resumed the narrative, from the Cayuga point of view:

“First thing, the Cayugas saw a whole string of boats come down, people crying.

“The Delawares said the Mohawks had sent them away. ‘Can I stay here?’ they said.

“’Yes, you can stop, if you behave yourselves.’” And the Delawares have remained with the Cayugas from that day to this.

The same story was told, with a slightly different twist, to Anthony Wallace by a Cayuga informant, Mrs. George N. Green: “The Delawares said they only wanted to stay overnight — but morning never came!”

In Chief Hess’s account of the incident, the Cayugas explained to their guests that they, like the Tuscaroras, must be denied permanent seats at the council fire. If they spoke, it could be only through the voice of their host. Furthermore, “If you are not good,” Chief Hess represented the Cayugas as saying, “I will take your leggings away from you, and you will be like women.”

You detect, in that last remark, a false note and an apparent flaw in my argument. For the moment Chief Hess, who was speaking in English, used the word “women” in contempt. Which brings us to our third and last question: Did the Delawares have a grievance?

During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Delaware position as League probationers was honorable. If it restricted their right to jump into a war, it gave them a security they had not known before. They were regarded as important “props” of the Longhouse, and, for the most part, were treated with respect by the Iroquois, who valued their support. Even Teedyuscung, after his brief revolt during the French and Indian War, was honored by receiving appointment from the Six Nations as their agent to hold the Wyoming Valley against the whites.

“The majority of the Six Nations,” said Chief Joseph Montour to me, “loved us.”

But the title “woman” was mocked at by white men, among whom woman’s position during the eighteenth century was lower than it was in Iroquois society. As we have already seen, the women of the Six Nations had joint ownership of the land. Matrons appointed, and if necessary recalled, the chiefs. The white man’s influence, however, based on numbers and self-assurance, was pervasive, not only in trade but also in the realm of ideas. In the latter area, indeed, it was almost inexpugnable, especially among a dispossessed and incohesive people like the Delawares of that time, among whom the gracious old terms of political reference were in consequence losing their significance. The meaning of the term “woman,” in their minds, became debased.

The year 1742 was a crucial one in Indian semantics. That was when Canasatego, in a famous outburst of rhetoric on behalf of the Walking Purchase settlement, applied the word “women” to the Delawares with ignorant contempt. The Delawares, smarting under the insult, determined to fling their petticoats and corn-pounders back at the Six Nations. They would declare their independence.

Here, surely, is the genesis of the story Heckewelder picked up and handed on to Cooper: the fable of the Delawares being tricked into donning the petticoat, only to find it poisoned like Nessus’ shirt.

Today, on the Six Nations Reserve, though the honorable term gantowisas is still used in serious discourse, Delaware petticoats, nevertheless, provide occasion for railery. The Cayugas have a social dance, the Round Dance, with a song attached to it which, in one passage, laughs at the Delawares: “They wear skirts.” Chief Joseph Montour, a descendant of Teedyuscung, was condemned by some of his people because, on receiving appointment as Delaware representative on the Great Council (with a seat behind the Cayuga chiefs), he accepted the ceremonial designation of “woman” for his people. He took the term in its historic and honorable sense. His critics took it the other way.

It might seem from this last incident that, instead of clearing up the mystery of the Delaware petticoats, I have only complicated it by demonstrating that the Indians themselves have been at times as much baffled by it as the white man. But perhaps, on the other hand, two doors here opened may found, on further investigation, to lead toward solutions: first, the suggestion that in the poetry of the great Iroquois people a clue may be found to some things that have puzzled us in their political life; and, second, the suspicion that the Delawares were happy enough to be “women” under the Tree of Peace until white men taught them to be ashamed of the word.

In coming to these conclusions, or opinions, we have traveled a long way from Fenimore Cooper. It is pleasant to back to him. He looks, actually, a little fresher than he when we last saw him on the prairie, attending to last rites for Natty Bumppo. We blame him less for having got his Indians mixed up, when we see how uncertain real Indians have been about untangling themselves. Be that as it may, let us come back to the Glimmerglass and do honor, as we should, to the magician whose spell has made Otsego Lake, with the hills that surround it and the great river that flows out of it, one of the world’s prime symbols of romance.


1 Weiser: “Memorial of the Six Nations,” American Magazine, December, 1744.

2 Arthur C. Parker: “The Constitution of the Five Nations or the Iroquois Book of the Great Law,” New York State Museum Bulletin, No. 184 (April 1916), p. 50.

3 Frank G. Speck: The Tutelo Spirit Adoption Ceremony: Reclothing the Living in the Name of the Dead (Harrisburg, 1942).

4 “The Deganawii-dah Legend: a Tradition of the Founding of the League of the Five Iroquois Tribes,” dictated by Chief John Arthur Gibson to J. N. B. Hewitt (1899), translated by William N. Fenton and Simeon Gibson. This MS. is in the Bureau of American Ethnology. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

5 “The Forbidden Path: Teedyuscung’s Embassy to the Western Indians in 1760.” by William H. Hunter (MS. in the Division of Public Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg), note 202.

6 Daniel Brinton: The Lênapé and Their Legends (Philadelphia, 1885), p. 121.

7 Weslager: “The Minquas and Their Early Relations with the Delaware Indians,” Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Delaware. Vol. IV, No. 1 (May, 1945).

8 Vol. II, pp. 546-47.

9 Weslager, op cit., p. 18.

10 March 19, 1676/77. See Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Vol. VII, p. 49.

11 “Vol. LX, p. 185 (Cleveland, 1896): Jean de Lamberville writing from Onondaga, June 18, 1676.

12 Anthony F. C. Wallace: “Woman, Land, and Society: Three Aspects of Aboriginal Delaware Life.” Pennsylvania Archaeologist, Vol. XVII, Nos. 1-4 (1947), p. 27.

13 A microfilm copy is in the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

* Paul A. W. Wallace, editor of Pennsylvania History, is the author of Conrad Weiser: Friend of Colonist and Mohawk, The Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania, and The White Roots of Peace. He is at present making a survey of Pennsylvania’s Indian paths for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.