The Mohawk were a branch of the Iroquoian language group in North America and one of five founding members of the Iroquois Confederacy. Their villages lay northeast of Lake Erie in what is now upstate New York. Because of their easternmost position in the lands of the confederacy, the Mohawk were known as the “Eastern Doorkeepers.” Mohawk was the name applied to the people by their Algonquin enemies; their real name is Kanien’Kehake, meaning “The People of the Flint.”
Like other Eastern woodlands native peoples, the Mohawk practiced a mixed subsistence economy hunting and gathering, supplemented by agriculture. Labor was divided between the sexes, with women doing the farming and food gathering while men hunted and fought as warriors. Households and clans were matrilineal. Clan mothers had great power over the domestic sphere and even wielded significant influence over the tribal leadership. The main factor that enhanced the influence and power of the Mohawk in the region was their development, along with the other Iroquois Five Nations, of a more complex political and diplomatic structure. According to Iroquois traditional lore, it was the Mohawk leader Hiawatha who established the Great League or Confederacy. This probably occurred in the early sixteenth century. Prior to this, there were numerous and destructive wars between the Five Nations. Hiawatha also allegedly established the main diplomatic instrument for preventing such conflicts the condolence ceremony, whereby ritual and tribute settled blood feuds before they escalated into war. Once they were at peace with one another, the Iroquois turned their aggressions outward. Young Iroquois warriors were always eager to earn the prestige that came with victory in battle. In addition to honor, warfare also brought captives who replenished the tribe’s population, and, according to Native American religious beliefs, enhanced the tribe’s spiritual power.
By the seventeenth century, the need for captives was more pressing because diseases brought to North America by Europeans were rapidly diminishing the population of the native peoples. Clan mothers demanded more captives to replace those in their communities lost to smallpox and other epidemics. Tribal leaders complied by attacking their Algonquin neighbors and other Iroquoian-speaking tribes that were not part of the league. However, these conflicts, called “mourning wars,” were trivial compared to the much greater intertribal wars that resulted from the expansion of the European fur trade in the Great Lakes region.
The French were the first Europeans to establish trading settlements in the region, founding Quebec in 1608. Their presence had an instant effect on the native population. French traders formed alliances with the Algonquian-speaking peoples north of the Great Lakes. The Huron, an Iroquoian tribe, broke with the Five Nations and joined the French trading bloc. The allies of New France were the most able hunters of the region and had access to the richest hunting grounds for beaver, but the men of the Five Nations were the better warriors. Effectively shut out of the fur trade, the Mohawk and their Five Nations brethren began attacking trading parties of French-allied neighbors, seizing fur-laden canoes on their way to Quebec. With superior weapons provided by French traders, the enemies of the Mohawk began to turn the tide and defeated the Mohawk in 1609.
Disaster for the Five Nations Iroquois was averted when a new European power entered the colonial arena in North America. In 1614, the Dutch established a permanent trading colony at New Amsterdam and built Fort Orange on the Hudson River near Mohawk lands. The Dutch became the principal rival to the French on the St. Lawrence River for access to the furs of the Great Lakes. The Iroquois Confederacy established trading ties with the Dutch, who could supply them with the weapons their enemies to the north received from New France. The region now became a battleground between the two commercial-military alliances.
During the intense and ferocious “Beaver Wars” that ensued, the Mohawk became the military arm of the Dutch trading empire. As the easternmost member of the league, the Mohawk became middlemen, providing Dutch guns and other manufactured goods to the Five Nations. As their own importance within the confederacy was enhanced, the Mohawk led fierce attacks on the Algonquin and Huron allies of the French. The desire for access to lucrative trade was reinforced by the need to replace their own growing losses to war and disease with captives. The Five Nations crushed the Huron, destroying entire villages and adopting the surviving women and children. In doing so, they also cemented their own central position in the European trading system.
In the 1660s, new challenges confronted the Iroquois. The English conquered the Nations’ trading partners, the Dutch. Commercial rivals, the Susquehannock and Mahican, succeeded in beating back Iroquois assaults. Furthermore, French reprisals against Mohawk villages had begun to take a heavy toll on the tribe’s population. According to some estimates, the Mohawk lost six out of every ten warriors. Never again would the tribe be as dominant as it was in the 1640s. To escape these attacks, many Mohawks fled to Canada and joined “praying Indian” villages supervised by the Jesuits. During the eighteenth century, the Mohawk and the confederacy adapted and recovered their central position in the fur trade. They adopted a strategy of playing the British and French against one another to negotiate more generous trade concessions. By remaining neutral in Anglo-French conflicts, the Iroquois hoped to have the best of both worlds. The fall of New France in 1763 irreparably undermined this strategy.
During the American Revolution, the Mohawk, led by their chief, Joseph Brant, split with the Five Nations and gave their support to the British. When the colonists won the war, it spelled doom for the Mohawk in their traditional homeland. After the war, remaining members of the tribe relocated to Canada, where the British government rewarded them for their support with land.
David Ballew See also: Iroquois Confederacy; Native American-European Conflict; Native American-European Relations; Native Americans. Bibliography Axtell, James. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Nash, Gary. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000. Trigger, Bruce G., and Wilcombe E. Washburn, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 1,North America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.