The Seneca: Tribes & History

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the history of the Seneca people. Traditionally located in the western part of New York State, the Seneca were a large and influential tribe in colonial times who fought on the British side in the American Revolution.

Quick Thinking

When was the last time someone told you to 'Think on your feet?' Perhaps it was at work, or on the ball diamond, or even on the street in a particularly dangerous area. Being able to assess circumstances, whether expected or unforeseen, and make quick decisions is key to success in a range of areas. That was certainly the case for North America's Native Americans, who were forced to accommodate new influences and forces in their world with the arrival of European colonizers. Some tribes were able to 'think on their feet' better than others and exploit the circumstances for their own gain. One tribe that prospered at first under these changing circumstances was the Seneca.

Culture and Lifestyle

The Seneca tribe traditionally lived in what is today New York State. Largely concentrated between the Genesee River and Seneca Lake in western New York (south of modern-day Rochester) and perhaps as far south as the Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Seneca were the largest and westernmost tribe of the Iroquois League. The Seneca relied largely on agriculture for sustenance, growing mainly corn, squash, and beans. The Seneca were also avid fishers and hunters, and any intra-tribal trade was largely in animal products, such as skins and tallow.

The Seneca tended to live in small, semi-permanent villages that could be quickly relocated. This is in large part due to the tumultuous coexistence of the Seneca with their neighbors, the Algonquin to the east and the Huron to the west and north, with whom the Seneca were often in varying states of war. Politically, most clans were led by a matriarch. In many tribes, the elder women chose the tribal leaders, but decisions concerning the larger tribe were often made at semi-democratic 'council fires' often made up mostly of these male leaders.

Rudimentary male and female spheres existed in the individual familial unit, as Seneca women were the primary caregivers and practitioners of agriculture while the men hunted or searched for new areas of settlement. However, these spheres were far less rigid than in early modern European society.


What we know of Seneca history largely comes as a result of its inclusion in the Iroquois League. The League and the Seneca's relationship with the landing Europeans varied wildly over time. Strikes at European trading posts or settlements were often made in reaction to European incursions against Seneca settlements or into traditionally-Seneca hunting lands. Nonetheless, the Seneca were involved in the fur trade from an early stage, particularly with the Dutch, who were largely friendly with the Seneca. Through this trade, the Seneca were some of the first native tribes in their region to gain access to firearms as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century.

During the time of European settlement in North America, the Seneca exploited their various relationships with European powers and vanquished many of their traditional enemies, often resettling what remained of the tribes either between Seneca and European settlements as a buffer, or within Seneca settlements for the purpose of assimilation. In 1648 the Seneca and the League thoroughly destroyed their longtime foes, the Huron, assimilating the survivors. They similarly defeated the Neuter tribes to the west in 1651 and the Erie in 1656.

The Seneca and the Iroquois League as a whole vacillated back and forth over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries between friendly relations with the French and British, all the while attempting to maintain some semblance of independence. For example, in 1687, the French set out to annihilate the Seneca under the command of the Marquis de Denonville, allied with several tribes hostile to the Iroquois, such as the Ottawa, Chippewa, and the few remaining Huron bands. The allied force managed to send many Seneca settlements fleeing eastward toward the relative safety of British North America, though a Seneca ambush stopped Denonville's march at the Bay of Irondequoit. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the Seneca preferred relations with the French over the British, whom they viewed as neglectful of Seneca interests.

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