The Oneida people, one of the five Iroquois nations, emerged as a distinct linguistic and cultural group around 1400. By the time of early European contact in the 1620s, the Oneida may have numbered as many as 3,000, established in a rich and vast territory. Their hunting grounds stretched approximately from present-day Utica, New York, to Lake Oneida and from the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario, bordered on the east and west by the Unadilla River and present-day Binghamton, New York.
Early Dutch and French explorers recorded visits to probable Oneida villages, which were palisaded and contained large longhouses that housed extended clans. The Oneida were accomplished fishermen and hunters, living on salmon and deer, as well as cultivated maize, squash, and beans. As with many other native peoples, however, the coming of the Europeans brought the Oneida exposure to disease and new technology. Smallpox and other epidemics may have halved the Oneida population, while the introduction of gunpowder weapons and the fur trade revolutionized native life. The fur and skins trade resulted in a scarcity of beaver and deer, forcing the Oneida to expand their hunting grounds. This, in turn triggered problems with neighboring tribes and fostered a dependence on European trade goods such as firearms, alcohol, and metal pots and tools. The Oneida also became involved in warfare between the Algonquin/French and the Iroquois/British, which was endemic during the 1650s. The situation was complicated by the conversion of some Oneidas to Catholicism, which tied them to France, while others converted to Anglicanism.
During the colonial wars of the late seventeenth century, the Oneida attempted to remain neutral, but, in 1696, they were attacked by Frontenac as potential allies of the British. Several villages were destroyed, and the population was further depleted. To make up the demographic loss, the Oneida took in refugees from other tribes and frequently adopted captives or remnants of other tribes such as the Tuscarora or Yamasee. Despite this, the Oneida people were increasingly scattered, as some retreated into Canada while others moved south into the Ohio Valley.
The mid-eighteenth century brought continuing waves of epidemic disease, which further weakened the Oneida, and political pressure threatened to split the tribe just as it increasingly pushed the American colonies away from Great Britain. Sir William Johnson, a British Indian agent, was particularly successful at cultivating the ginseng trade among the Oneida, binding some to Great Britain. On the other side, the arrival of the Congregational missionary Samuel Kirkland drew other Oneidas to the colonists’ cause. Kirkland, who had failed in an earlier mission to the Mohawks, skillfully identified significant cleavages among the Oneida, caused by the rising power of the warriors over the shamans and elders and by hopelessness due to the failure of traditional ways to protect the Oneida from disease and defeat. Kirkland’s fire-and-brimstone Puritanism drew in many converts, who eschewed alcohol, embraced radical Protestantism, and attempted to settle as farmers.
The American Revolution completed this split among the Oneida. The southern Oneida peoples, influenced by William Johnson, followed Johnson’s brother-in-law Joseph Brant into the British camp. The northern Oneida sided with New York colonists, even going so far as to supply volunteers for the Tryon County militia. Oneida warriors fought with the militiamen to relieve Fort Stanwix and were ambushed at Oriskany Creek in August 1777 by Joseph Brant. In this battle, colonists were amazed to see several Oneida women fight fiercely alongside their husbands.
Oneida who had connections in the south provided intelligence and took part in the harassing of General Burgoyne’s troops on their disastrous march to Saratoga. The Native Americans probably contributed crucially to the victory by significantly weakening the British forces before the battle. There also is a strong Oneida tradition relating how the tribe sent much-needed corn to the starving army at Valley Forge, although this is difficult to corroborate. Unfortunately, those Oneida fighting with the Americans also were used against the Onondaga, relatives and former allies of the Oneida, in a deadly raid by General John Sullivan. Although Sullivan requested and received officer’s commissions for many of the native leaders, the resistance of the Oneida to join the attack was compounded by a retaliatory raid by Brant in July 1780, which destroyed the main Oneida village and left hundreds homeless. General Philip Schuyler grudgingly housed the refugees in barracks at Schenectady, New York, while the Oneida warriors attached to the Americans harried a loyalist invasion of the Mohawk Valley in 1781.
After the war, although treated as allies of the victorious colonies and reimbursed $5,000 for their destroyed village, the Oneida were quickly squeezed by expansionist New York. New York manipulated the sale of Oneida land, which became three counties in 1784, despite a suit by the state of Massachusetts claiming that the sale was illegal under provisions of the Articles of Confederation; the case was later settled out of court. In 1788, New York allowed speculators to lease large tracts of Oneida lands for 999 years, again in contravention of state legislation, ostensibly to protect the Oneida tribe from fraudulent offers from land companies.
In 1795, the new federal government, led by Timothy Pickering, attempted to block New York’s further attempts to buy or lease lands in the hands of the Oneida. It was forced to give up in the face of intransigent state officials, who continued to cut land deals with individual Oneidas, even though the land the natives were selling often did not belong to them as single owners. Steadily, Oneida land in New York was reduced to a fraction of what the tribe had been guaranteed by postwar agreements, and many Oneida began to leave the state for the Ohio Valley or Canada. Even institutions such as the Oneida Academy, established to educate Oneida children, had become bastions of the New York white elite by the 1820s.
With these disappointments, most of the remaining Oneida followed Reverend Eleazer Williams to a settlement in Wisconsin, where a new town at Duck Creek was founded in 1825. New York, which had in 1838 promised to pay the selling Oneida annuities, left the new settlement stripped of this security and instead paid off the whole amount of the land sale in a lump sum in 1839. Margaret Sankey See also: Iroquois Confederacy; Native American-European Conflict; Native American-European Relations; Native Americans. Bibliography Campisi, Jack. History of the Oneida Indians. Seymour, WI: Seymour Community Schools, 1972. Campisi, Jack, and Laurence M. Hauptman, eds. The Oneida Indian Experience. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988. Richards, Cara. The Oneida People. Phoenix, AZ: Indian Tribal Series, 1974.
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