American Indian Peoples & Cultures of the East

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

At the time of the European arrival to North America, there were numerous Native American tribes populating the eastern seaboard. This lesson looks at three the dominant tribes in that region, including the Iroquois, the Cherokee and the Algonquin.

Iroquois Confederacy

The East Coast of the United States was home to numerous Native American tribal groups, each with its own unique culture. Despite this, several tribal groups stand out as being major local military or cultural powers.

The most powerful tribal group in the Northeast was known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois were composed of five individual, yet related, tribes: the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Mohawk. These tribes had occupied their territory in what is today New York State for centuries prior to the arrival of the first Europeans and were already considered a local power by that point.

The Iroquois tribes spoke related languages and were matrilineal, meaning they traced descent through the female side of the family, and husbands joined their wives' families. Female elders, known as Tribal Mothers had great influence and would help select chiefs. However, they had not always been united in their Confederacy. Oral histories of the Iroquois peoples state that all five tribes had warred against one another for years. It wasn't until the arrival of an outsider named Deganawida that the five Iroquois tribes coalesced into the Confederacy. Deganawida allied with the chief Hiawatha as he brought his message of peace to the five tribes.

The Confederacy that developed has often been considered by historians to be an inspiration for the Constitution of the United States. Under the Confederacy, fifty chiefs would be elected each year by clan mothers and travel to League Council. The Council would meet annually to read the laws and discuss any conflicts or differences between the tribes. The Mohawk and Seneca were both considered Door-Keepers, since their lands were on the eastern and western edges of the Confederacy's territory.

Any issue brought before the Council would first be discussed by the Mohawk representatives, and then the Seneca. Any decision made by the Council had to be unanimous, and any chief could veto a decision, thereby showing that all tribes remained equal. Tribes were also forbidden to war against other members of the Confederacy, but could declare war, independently, upon any other group without the consent of the Council.


Although they lived among the southern Appalachian mountains by the time that the Europeans made contact, the Cherokee originally migrated there from the Great Lakes region. In fact, the Cherokee are related to the Iroquois peoples, speaking a related language and, much like their northern cousins, being a matrilineal society. In their society, women were in charge of growing and planting crops, while men were responsible for hunting. Due to the society being matrilineal, inheritance went through the mother's line, and as a result, young people were required to marry into a separate clan from the one which they had been born into.

During the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, the Cherokee supported the British government. When the Americans won the later war, the Cherokee did the best they could to maintain themselves as a separate people.

In order to pacify their neighbors, the Cherokee tried to assimilate; they took to living in European style villages, wear European clothing and converted to Christianity. As their tribe was located mainly in Georgia, there were many Cherokee who also took to owning slaves. Unfortunately, it would not be enough.

In 1835, gold was discovered on Cherokee lands, and the government of Georgia passed a law evicting them from their lands. Although the Supreme Court ruled this law unconstitutional, President Andrew Jackson chose to ignore the court and side with the state of Georgia. He ordered the army to round the Cherokee up and force them to move to a reservation west of the Mississippi River. The journey would take 116 days through terrible conditions, and many died, leading to the exodus being remembered as The Trail of Tears.

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