Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Life and Times of
Sir William Johnson, Bart.,
by William L. Stone
Vol. II
Albany: J. Munsell, 78 State Street, 1865.


No. VI.

Letter from Sir William Johnson to Arthur Lee, Esq., of the Philosophical Society, upon the Language, Customs, &c., of the Six Nations.

JOHNSON HALL, Feb. 28th, 1771.

"I should be wanting in duty to the public if I withheld from a gentleman of Dr. Lee's character any information I am capable of affording, the subject of your letter, which, through my absence from home, having been for some time in the Indian country, and since entirely occupied with affairs of a public nature, it was not in my power to answer till now.

"I am only apprehensive that any account in my power respecting such inquiries amongst the unlettered Indians will prove inadequate to the expectation formed in your letter; for, notwithstanding my long residence in this country, the nature of my office and the most diligent inquiries into these various particulars, I find all researches of that sort, for reasons which I shall give presently, involved in such difficulty and uncertainty, as to afford but slender satisfaction- at least far short of my inclination to gratify your desires thereon. However, I shall endeavor to make some atonement by giving you some account of these difficulties, together with such other hints as from the motives of inquiry suggested in your letter, may, I flatter myself, be of some use or amusement to you.

"It will be unnecessary to enlarge on the want of laws, government merit, letters, or such other particulars as are to be found in most authors who have treated of the American Indians. These are general observations as generally known. To show wherein they are defective, and to account for it by putting forth the present state of the Several Indian Nations is a subject of greater importance, as it will lead to other matters more interesting.

"I must therefore observe that the customs and manners of the Indians are in several cases liable to changes which have not been thoroughly considered by authors, and therefore the description of them (as is usual) at our particular period, must be insufficient; and I must further premise, that I mean to confine my observations to those of the Northern Nations, with whom I have the most acquaintance and intercourse. In all inquiries of this sort, we should distinguish between the most remote tribes and those Indians who, from their having been next to our settlements several years, and relying solely on oral tradition for the support of their ancient usages, have lost a great part of them, and have blended some customs amongst ourselves, so as to render it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace these customs to their origin, or to discover their application. Again, those Indians who are a degree farther removed, have still a good deal of intercourse with our traders, and having altered their system of politics, though they still retain many ancient customs, they are much at a loss to account for them, whilst those who are far removed from any intercourse with the whites, (a few traders excepted), are still in possession of the greater part of their primitive usages, although they cannot give a satisfactory account of their original signification, and having blended the whole with fables, as to render it matter of great difficulty to separate truth from it; add to this, that above a century ago, they had French Jesuits among them, who partly for religious purposes, but chiefly to secure particular ends in the wars they often fomented, introduced some of their own inventions, which the present generation confound with their ancient ceremonies.

"If these remarks are confined to the Confederacy of the Six Nations, the Mohawks; who have long lived within our settlements, and come under the first predicament, though greatly reduced in number, are still the acknowledged head of that alliance, but in their present state, they have less intercourse with the Indians and more with us than formerly, besides which, they are at present members of the church of England. Most of them read, and several write very well. When, therefore, they subscribe an ordinary deed they frequently make use of a cross after the example of the illiterate amongst us, and sometimes write their names; but in things of much consequence, they usually delineate a steel, such as is used to strike fire out of a flint, being the symbol of their nation. This steel which is their language, they call Canniah, themselves Canmugaes, but from hence little can be deduced, as they had not the use of any instrument in that form before their commerce with the whites. The Tuscaroras I omit, as they are a southern people, not long introduced into the alliance, making the Sixth Nation.

"The Oneidas who inhabit the country a little beyond our settlements, are in the next class, for although some efforts have been made to civilize and Christianize them, a great part are still in the primitive way; but being also reduced in numbers, and their political system much changed, their intercourse with the more remote Indians is lessened, and their knowledge of ancient usages decayed. They have in use symbols, a tree, by which they would express stability. But their true symbol is a stone called Onoyat, and they call themselves Onoynts, a particular instance of which I can give from an expedition I went on to lake St. Sacrament, in 1746, when to show the enemy the strength of our Indian alliances, I desired each nation to affix their symbol to a tree. The Oneidas put up a stone which they painted red. The Onondagas, whose residence is 40 miles farther, are somewhat better versed in the customs of their ancestors. They call themselves a people of the Great Mountain. The Cayugas, who are about the same distance beyond them, have for their symbol a pipe.

"The Senecas are the most numerous and most distant of the Six Nations; have several towns and symbols, from which, however, little can be understood; and leaving this Confederacy, we shall find that the nations to the northwest, though they have their symbols, are not able to explain them to any degree, of satisfaction; for as they scatter more in quest of a livelihood, they have not the same opportunity or inclination to cultivate and explain oral tradition.

"To the southwest, the Indians are better versed in these matters; but this is a field too large for what I now propose, though by another opportunity I shall most willingly assist your inquiry therein, returning now to other observations. The Indians, taken collectively, did certainly a few centuries ago live under some more order and government than they do at present. This, I know, is not a natural position in ordinary speculation, because the Romans found the nations of the north little better than barbarians, but left them vastly improved, and not only capable of relishing the sweets of civil society, but actually enjoying a species of order and government to which in their rude state they were strangers; and therefore it would appear an apt conclusion that the Indians must, from similar circumstances, be likewise improved. But, that the reverse is the truth may seem odd, but it is the truth; for their intercourse in general being with the lower class of our traders, they learn little from us but our vices; and the long wars they have sustained, together with the immoderate use of spirituous liquors, have so reduced them, as to render that order which was first instituted unnecessary and impracticable. Since the reduction of Canada, their system of politics is changed. Their eyes are upon us, whom they consider too formidable, and much of their time is much spent in intrigues of state, to which other matters have given place. But though it does not appear that they had the use of letters, yet the traces of government may still be seen, and there is reason to believe that they made use of hieroglyphics, understood to be figures, intended to conceal somewhat from the vulgar. But they are drawn to the utmost of their skill to represent the thing intended, for instance: when they go to war, they paint some trees with the figures of men, often the exact number of the parties, and if they go by water, they delineate a canoe. When they make any achievement, they mark the handle of their tomahawks with human figures to signify prisoners, but bodies without heads to express scalps. The figures which they affix to deeds, have led some to imagine that they had characters or an alphabet. The case is this: every nation is divided into a certain number of tribes, of which some have three, as the turtle, bear and wolf, to which others add the snake, deer, &c. Each of these tribes form a little Community within the nation, and either nation has its peculiar symbol, (as the flint for the Mohawks, the stone for the Oneidas, and the pipe for the Cayugas), so each tribe has the peculiar badge from whence it is denominated, and a sachem of each tribe being a necessary party to a fair conveyance, such sachem affixes the mark of the tribe thereto, which is not that of a particular family (unless the whole tribe is so deemed) but rather as a public seal of a corporation.

"As this letter is already of an immoderate length, I shall only at present, add that, with respect to the deed of 1726, of which you sent me the signature, the transaction was in some measure of a partial nature, which I can at another time explain. All the nations of the Confederacy did not subscribe it, and those chiefs that did, neglected to pay due regard to the proper symbols, but signed agreeably to fancy, of which I have seen other instances, although the manner I have mentioned is the most authentic and agreeable to their original practice.

"As to the information-which you observe I formerly transmitted to the governor of New York concerning the belt and 15 bloody sticks sent by the Mississageys, the like is very common, and the Indians, use sticks, as well to express the alliance of castles, as the number of individuals in a party. These sticks are generally six inches in length, very slender, and painted red, if the subject is war, but without any peculiarity of shape. Their belts are mostly black wampum, painted red when they denote war. They describe castles sometimes upon them as square figures of white wampum, and in alliance, human figures holding a chain of friendship, each figure representing a nation. An axe is also sometimes described, which is always an emblem of war. The taking it up in a declaration, and the burying it a token of peace.

With respect to your questions concerning the chief magistrate, or sachem, and how he acquires his authority, &c., I am to acquaint you that there is, in every nation, a sachem or chief, who appears to have some authority over the rest, and is it the greatest amongst the most distant nations. But in most of those bordering on our settlements, his authority is scarcely discernible, he seldom assuming any power before his people. And, indeed, this humility is judged the best policy; for, wanting coercive power, their commands would perhaps occasion assassination, which sometimes happens.

The sachems of each tribe are usually chosen in a public assembly of the chiefs and warriors, when a vacancy happens by death or otherwise. They are generally chosen for their sense and bravery from among the oldest warriors, and approved of by all the tribe, on which they are saluted sachems. There are, however, several exceptions, for some families have a kind of inheritance in the office, and are called to this station in their infancy.

The chief sachem, by some called the king, is so either by inheritance or by a kind of tacit consent, the consequence of his superior abilities and influence. The duration of his authority depends much on his own wisdom, the number and consequence of his relations, and the strength of his particular tribe. But even in those cases where it descends, should the successor appear unequal to the task, some other sachem is sure to possess himself of the power and the duties of the office. I should have observed, that military services are the chief recommendations to this rank. And it appears pretty clearly that heretofore the chief of a nation had, in some small degree, the authority of a sovereign. This is now the fact among the most remote Indians. But as, since the introduction of firearms, they no longer fight in close bodies, but every man is his own general, I am inclined to think this has constituted to lessen the power of a chief. This chief of a whole nation has the custody of the belts of wampum, &c., which are as records of public transactions; he prompts the speakers at all treaties, and proposes affairs of consequence. The chief sachems form the grand council, and those of each tribe often deliberate apart on the affairs of their particular tribes. All their deliberations are conducted with extraordinary regularity and decorum. They never interrupt him who is speaking, nor use harsh language, whatever may be their thoughts.

The chiefs assume most authority in the field; but this must be done even there with great caution, as a head warrior thinks himself of most consequence in that place. The Indians believe in, and are much afraid of witchcraft; those suspected of it are therefore often punished with death. Several nations are equally severe on those guilty of theft (a crime indeed uncommon among them); but in cases of murder, the relatives are left to take what revenge they please. In general, they are unwilling to inflict capital punishments, as these defeat their grand political object, which is to increase their numbers by all possible means.

On their hunts, as upon all other occasions, they are strict servers of meum and tuum, and this pure principle, holding theft contempt, so that they are rarely guilty of it, though tempted by articles of much value. Neither do the strong attempt to seize the prey of the weak; and I must do them the justice to say that unless heated by liquor or inflamed by revenge, their ideas of right and wrong, and their practices in consequence of them, would, if more known, do them much honor. It is true, that, having been often deceived by us in the purchase of lands, in trade, and other transactions, many of them begin now to act the same part. But this reflects most on those who set them the example.

As to your remark on their apparent repugnance to civilization, I must observe, that this is not owing to any viciousness of their nature, or want of capacity, as they have a strong genius for arts, and uncommon patience. I believe they are put to the English schools too late, and sent back too soon to their people, whose political maxim, Spartan-like, is to discountenance all pursuits but war, holding all other knowledge as unworthy the dignity of man, and tending to enervate and divert them from that warfare on which they conceive their liberty and happiness depend. These sentiments, constantly instilled into the minds of youth, and illustrated by examples drawn from the contemptible state of the domesticated tribes, leave lasting impressions, and can hardly be defeated by an ordinary school education.

I wish my present leisure would allow me to give you as many specimens of their language as would show that (though not very wordy), it is extremely emphatical; and that their style abounds with noble images, strong metaphors, and equal in allegory to many of the eastern nations. The article is contained in the noun, by varying the termination; and the adjective is combined into one word. Thus of echin, a man, and gowana, great, is formed echingouana, a great man. Cahyunghaw is a creek, caghyunga, a river; caghyunghaowana, a great river; caghyungheeo, a fine river. Haga, the inhabitants of any place, and tierham the morning; so, if they speak of eastern people, they say tierhans-aga, or people of the morning. Eso is expressive of a great quantity, and esogee is the superlative. The words goronta and golota, which you mention, are not of the Six Nations, but a southern language. It is curious to observe that they have various modes of speech and phrases peculiar to each age and sex, which they strictly observe. For instance, a man says when he is hungry, cadagcariax, which is expressive both of his want and of the animal food he requires to supply it; whilst a child says, in the same circumstances, cautfore, that is, " I require spoon-meat."

Indeed, whatever agreement there is in the manners, there: is so remarkable a difference in the language of the Five Nations from all the rest, as affords some grounds for inquiry into their distinct origin, for the Indians north of the St. Lawrence, those west of the great lakes, with the few who inhabit the sea coasts of New England, and those again who live about the Ohio, notwithstanding the respective differences between them, speak a language radically the same, and can, in general, communicate their wants to each other, whilst the Five nations who live in the midst of them, are incapable of conveying a single idea to their neighbors; neither can they pronounce a word of their language with correctness. There is, indeed, some difference of dialect amongst the Five Nations themselves, but there is little more than may be found in the provinces of large states in Europe. In particular, the letters M and P, which occur frequently in the language of the rest, cannot be pronounced by the Five Nations without the utmost difficulty, and are not in this language.

But as I have already accounted for not going into further particulars at present, I shall conclude with assuring you that if these remarks prove of any use to you, I shall readily descend to any other matters of information that may demonstrate how much I am,
Your very humble servant,
Arthur Lee, Esq."1

1 Manuscript letter. It is much to be regretted that the other letters in this series--if this one was followed up as the writer intimates it would be--cannot be found.

Thanks to James F. Morrison for loaning his book for the purpose of putting it on the internet.

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