The Iroquois were an important confederacy of indigenous peoples of the Iroquoian language family and of the Eastern Woodlands culture area. It was founded in the 16th century in what is now central New York State. The original confederacy consisted of five tribes—the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca—and was known as the Five Nations, or the League of Five Nations. Sometime between 1715 and 1722, however, the Tuscaroras, an Iroquoian tribe originally of North Carolina, which had migrated to New York, was formally admitted to the confederacy, and the name of the league was changed to the Six Nations, or the League of Six Nations. As representative members of the Iroquoian family, and the ones first encountered and later most intensively studied by white people, the Iroquois gave their name to the family of which they are a part.
The Iroquois had an agricultural economy, based mainly on corn, with supplementary crops of pumpkins, beans, and tobacco and later of orchard fruits such as apples and peaches. They made fine pottery, splint baskets, and mats of corn husk and used wampum as a medium of exchange. Public records were woven into the designs of large wampum belts. Each town contained several long, bark-covered communal houses, which had both tribal and political significance; along their inner sides the families of a clan lived in semiprivate compartments, and the central areas were used as social and political meeting places. The common council of the entire confederacy met in such meeting places. These councils were fairly democratic in composition; delegates were elected by members of various lineages, and each delegate represented both a tribe and one of the matrilineal clans within a tribe. The office of delegate was restricted to chiefs, and every delegate had to meet the approval of both tribal and league councils. If the conduct of any delegate was perceived as improper, or if he lost the people’s confidence, the women of his clan officially expelled him and chose another delegate to serve in his place. The league as a whole had no single head, and deliberative decisions were usually made by a unanimous vote of the league council.
The complexity and stability of this political organization, together with a carefully nurtured skill in warfare and the early acquisition of firearms, enabled the Iroquois to achieve and maintain a position of great power during the colonial period of American history. During their formative period in the 17th century they broke up the tribal confederacies to their west, notably that of the Hurons. They continued to expand the territory under their dominion until by 1720 they had subdued almost all the tribes in a vast region extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and from the St. Lawrence River to the Tennessee River.
In their relations with white settlers, the Iroquois from the start played the role of an independent power. During the colonial period they held the balance of power between the French and English, particularly in the area around the Canadian border. With few exceptions, chiefly factions of the Mohawk and Cayuga, who came under the influence of French Jesuit missionaries, the Iroquois allied themselves with English interests. They bitterly opposed the extension of French settlement southward from Canada, and they were responsible for preventing the English colonies from being flanked on the west by the French.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the league council declared for neutrality but allowed each of the six component tribes to take sides as it saw fit. Most of them joined the British. After the revolution, the Mohawk, under their leader, Joseph Brant, crossed into Canada; they were followed by the Cayuga, and both tribes were eventually settled on two reservations to the north of Lakes Erie and Ontario. The Tuscarora are scattered, although a number have found a home among the Mohawk; most of the Oneida are settled at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and most of the Seneca in western New York; the Onondaga still hold their valley near Syracuse, New York. Despite their political importance, the confederacy probably never numbered more than 25,000. In 1990, 49,038 people in the United States identified themselves as Iroquois.