Cayuga Tribe: History & Overview

Instructor: Richard Reid
Who are the Cayuga? In this lesson we will learn about the origins, development, integration into the Iroquois Confederacy, and eventual defeat at the hands of the Americans of the Cayuga Tribe.

Early Cayuga History

The Cayuga (pronounced kye-OO-gah) settled into what is today upper New York state sometime before the 1600s. Initially hunter-gatherers, when the Cayuga native Americans arrived in the fertile regions near the Great Lakes, they eventually turned to agriculture for subsistence. Women farmed for corn, squash, and legumes as well as foraged for berries, while the men went out to hunt elk in New York's dense forests and fish along Lake Ontario.

Finger Lakes region where the Cayuga settled

Their semi-sedentary lifestyle allowed for the development of a complex government system that equally favored both men and women. For example, it was expected that the male clan leaders would handle military matters, but the female clan leaders were the ones who elected and appointed their male counterparts. Furthermore, the Cayuga's highest tribal council was staffed entirely of matriarchs, or supreme female rulers. These matriarchs were in charge of delegating such important matters as marriage ties, planting/harvest seasons, and religious ceremonies. This egalitarian system was an important reason that they were able to thrive in the face of foreign pressures and prevent internal dissension.

Integration with the Iroquois

The Cayuga are most well known as being one of the five initial members of the Iroquois Confederacy, founded sometime between 1450 and 1600. Along with their neighbors the Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes (and, later, the Tuscarora), the Cayuga submitted delegations on clan matters to annual and bi-annual Confederacy meetings. While each of the five tribal members had relative autonomy, the larger Iroquois governing body made decisions about external wars, amounts and types of tributes given to other chiefs, and other larger affairs. If this model sounds familiar, there's a reason for that! When faced with the incredible task of creating a government from scratch, the young United States of America looked to the Iroquois Confederacy for inspiration on how to balance power between the states and federal government. What worked for the Iroquois so well also worked for the young American nation!

The Cayuga played an important role in the both the spiritual and governmental functions of the Iroquois state. The Cayuga matriarchs elected new male representatives to the Iroquois council every year, and other tribes often noted their superior skill and intellect. The Cayuga also contributed to the larger practices of restoring the 'Orenda' of the tribe, or spiritual force. Orenda was believed to be a life force that permeated throughout all living beings. One of the most important matters of the state was to restore the Orenda that was lost during a war. Cayuga chiefs would often integrate prisoners of war captured from those same wars back into the larger confederation. In this way, the Cayuga believed that they kept the spiritual continuity of their civilization from slipping away.

Conflicts with Europeans

The French and the Dutch were the first two groups of Europeans the Cayuga met. Initially relations were cordial, but quickly the relationships between the two worlds soured. The reason for this was because of two things: the European missionaries (unknowingly) carried smallpox to the Cayuga and the French deliberately sowed conflict among tribes in order to control the lucrative trade of furs. The Cayuga and the Iroquois Confederation fought against the French in what was called the Beaver Wars in the mid seventeenth century over those two issues. The fighting was bloody and intense on both sides, but the British eventually allied with the Iroquois to support them against France, their natural enemy. After the fighting was over, the victorious British and Iroquois Confederation created a more permanent alliance.

During the French and Indian War of 1754-1763, the Cayuga again sided with the British against the French. The Cayuga had hoped that the victorious British would grant them favors after the war and more permanently cement their claim over the land west of the British New York territory. The British even passed legislation after the war was over forbidding British settlers from crossing the Appalachian mountains and entering Iroquois territory. While this was upheld for a time, British America had many more problems on the horizon.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account