Dutch Minister Describes the Iroquois (1644)


[
The Rev. John Megapolensis was a minister at the Dutch church in Rensselaerwyck in New Netherlands, and he was a missionary to the Indians.]


The principal Nation of all the Savages and Indians hereabouts with which we are connected, are the
Mahakuaas [Mohawks], who have laid all the other Indians near us under Contribution. This Nation has a very heavy Language, and I find great difficulty in learning it so as to speak and preach to them fluently: there are no Christians who understand the Language thoroughly; those who have lived here long can hold a kind of Conversation, just sufficient to carry on Trade, but they do not understand the Idiom of the Language. I am making a Vocabulary of the Mahakuaa Language, and when I am among them I ask them how Things are called - then, as they are very dumb, I cannot sometimes get an Explanation of what I want. . . .

The Indians in this Country are of much the same Stature with us Dutchmen; some of them have very good Features, and their Bodies and Limbs are well proportioned; they all have black Eyes, but their Skin is tawney: . . . In Winter they hang loosely about them a Deer's, or Bear's, or Panther's Skin, or they take some Beaver and Otter Skins, or Wild-Cat's, Raccoons, Martin's, Otters, Mink's, Squirrel or several Kinds of Skins, which are Plenty in this Country, and sew some of them upon others, until it is a square Piece, and that is then a Garment for them, or they buy of us Dutchmen two and an half Ells of Duffils, and that they hang loosely on them, just as it was torn off, without any sewing, and as they go away they look very much at themselves, and think they are very fine. They make themselves Stockings and Shoes of Deer Skin, or they take the Leaves of their Corn, and plat them together and use them for Shoes. . . . the Wornen let their Hair grow very long, and tie it, and let it hang down their Backs: some of the Men wear their Hair on one Side of the Head, and some on both Sides, and a long Lock of Hair Hanging down: on the top of their Heads they have a Streak of Hair from the Forehead to the Neck, about the Breadth of three Fingers, and this they shorten till it is about two or three Fingers long, and it stands right on End like Hogs Bristles; on both Sides of this Streak they cut the Hair short off, except the aforesaid Locks, and they also leave on the bare Places here and there small Locks, such as are in Sweeping-Brushes, and they are very fine. They likewise paint their Faces, red, blue, &c. and then they look like the Devil himself. . . .

. . . The Women are obliged to prepare the Land, to mow, to plant, and do every Thing; the Men do nothing except hunting, fishing, and going to War against their Enemies: they treat their Enemies with great Cruelty in Time of War, for they first bite off the Nails of the Fingers of their Captives, and cut off some joints, and sometimes the whole of the Fingers; after that the Captives are obliged to sing and dance before them . . ., and finally they roast them before a slow Fire for some Days, and eat them: . . . Though they are very cruel to their Enemies, they are very friendly to us: we are under no Apprehensions from them; we go with them into the Woods; we meet with one another sometimes one or two miles from any Houses, and are no more uneasy about it than if we met with Christians: they sleep by us too in our Chambers; I have had eight at once, who laid and slept upon the Floor near my Bed, for it is their custom to sleep only on the bare Ground, and to have only a Stone or a Bit of Wood under their Heads, they go to Bed very soon after they have supped, but rise early in the Morning; they get up before Day Break. They are very slovenly and dirty; they neither wash their Face nor Hands, but let all the Dirt remain upon their tawney Skin, and look as dirty as Hogs. Their bread is Indian Corn beaten to Pieces between two Stones, of which they make a Cake and bake it in the Ashes; they eat with it Venison, Turkies, Hares, Bears, Wild Cats, their own Dogs, &c. . . . They make their Houses of the Bark of Trees, very close and warm, and place their Fire in the middle of them: they also make of the Peeling and Bark of Trees Canoes, or small Boats, which will carry four, five and six Persons: in like manner they hollow out Trees, and use them for Boats; some of them are very large. I have sometimes sailed with ten, twelve and fourteen Persons in one of these hollowed Trees; . . . The Arms used by the Indians in War were formerly a Bow and Arrow with a Stone Axe and Mallet, but now they get from our People Guns, Swords, Iron Axes and Mallets. Their Money consists of certain little Bones, made of the Shells of Cockles which are found on the Beach; a Hole is made through the middle of the little Bones; and they are strung upon Thread, or they make of them Belts as broad as a Hand or broader, which they hang on their Necks and on their Bodies; they have also several Holes in their Ears. and there they hang some; and they value these little Bones as highly as many Christians do Gold, Silver and Pearls, but they have no Value for our Money, and esteem it no better than Iron. I once shewed one of their Chiefs a Rixdollar, he asked how much it was worth among the Christians, and when I told him he laughed exceedingly at us, saying we were Fools to value a Piece of Iron so highly, and if he had such Money he would throw it into the River. . . .

They are entire Strangers to all Religion, but they have a Tharonhijouaagon, (which others also call Athzoockkuatoriaho) i.e. a Genius which they put in the Place of God, but they do not worship or present Offerings to him: they worship and present Offerings to the Devil whom they call Otskon or Airekuoni. . . . they have otherwise no Religion: when we pray they laugh at us; some of them despise it entirely, and some when we tell them what we do when we pray, stand astonished. When we have a Sermon, sometimes ten or twelve of them, more or less, will attend, each having a long Tobacco Pipe, made by himself, in his Month, and will stand a while and look, and afterwards ask me what I was doing and what I wanted, that I stood there alone and made so many Words, and none of the rest might speak? I tell them I admonished the Christians, that they must not steal, . . . get drunk, or commit Murder, and that they too ought not to do these Things, and that I intend after a while to preach to them, . . . They say I do well in teaching the Christians, but immediately add Diatennon jawij Assyreoni hagiouisk, that is, why do so many Christians do these Things. They call us Assyreoni, that is, Cloth-Makers, or Charistooni, that is, Iron-Workers, because our People first brought Cloth and Iron among them. . . .

The Government among them consists of the oldest, the most sensible, the best-speaking and most warlike Men; these commonly resolve, and the young and war-like Men carry into Execution; but if the common People do not approve of the Resolution, it is left entirely to the judgment of the Mob. The Chiefs are generally the poorest among them, for instead of their receiving from the common People as among Christians, they are obliged to give to them; especially when any one is killed in War, they give great Presents to the next of Kin to the deceased, and if they take any Prisoners they present them to that Family whereof one has been killed, and the Prisoner is adopted by the Family into the Place of the Person who was killed. There is no Punishment here for Murder and other Villainies, but every one is his own Avenger: The Friends of the deceased revenge themselves upon the Murderer until Peace is made by Presents to the next of Kin. But although they are so cruel, and have no Laws or Punishments, yet there are not half so many Villainies or Murders committed amongst them as amongst Christians, so that I sometimes think with astonishment upon the Murders committed in the Netherlands, notwithstanding their severe Laws and heavy Penalties. These Indians, though they live without Laws, or Fear of Punishment, do not kill People, unless they are in a great Passion or fighting wherefore we go along with them, or meet them in the Woods, without Fear.


Source: Ebenezer Hazard, Historical Collections (Philadelphia, 1792), 1, 520-526, reprinted in Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., American History Told by Contemporaries (New York, 1898), volume 1, 525-28.

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