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Covenant Chain.                 more selected entries

Alliance and treaty system between the Iroquois and English. From 1677 to 1777 the Iroquois and their allies met almost annually in Albany with the English from colonial New York and other English colonies to renew the terms of the alliance.


The Covenant Chain grew out of the governing practices of the Iroquois Confederacy and diplomatic relations between the Europeans and American Indians living in New York. Government among the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy was an extension of their clan system. Links were forged with other tribes in the confederacy through a series of real and fictive kinship ties. There was no governing body permanently in session overseeing affairs. When coordinated village, tribal, or confederacy action was needed, the clan system provided the needed mechanism for joint action. Group decisions were made in councils and reached by consensus. Wampum strings and belts served to record and confirm what was said and done, and speeches at councils were laden with rich metaphors. When one tribe, or group within a tribe, no longer wished to adhere to some course of action, it was free to do as it wished. For these reasons, alliances—a form of group decision making—needed to be carefully monitored. The terms of alliance and the duties of each party needed to be repeated and reaffirmed; any breaches needed to be explained and amends made for them.

The Iroquois extended this same process to their dealings with tribes outside of their confederacy. Each new partner was given a kinship term (brother, uncle, father, nephew) to designate the nature of the relationship to the Iroquois, and periodic councils were held to renew and reaffirm the alliance. When Europeans intruded into Iroquoia, the Iroquois followed the same process with them, and European negotiators quickly learned the protocols of councils and adapted to the Iroquois way. Used to formal written treaties, Europeans tried to follow their own protocols and kept extensive written records of meetings between the Iroquois and Dutch, French, and English traders, missionaries, and government officials. But Europeans learned to view matters in Iroquois terms and soon were involved in the series of at least annual negotiations to work out trade relationships and military alliances. Although Europeans may have come to North America with ethnocentric notions of their superiority, of their "right" to native land, and of natives as "subjects" of European crowns, the actions of the Dutch and English governments of New Netherland and New York Colony belie that arrogance. Their participation in alliances with the Iroquois showed that they viewed the Iroquois as nations with rights to negotiate treaties.


The term Covenant Chain entered the written record around 1677, shortly after the English had regained control of New York from the Dutch. Prior to that date, the Iroquois had made treaties with Dutch traders and officials but had not used the term. At a council in 1659 between the Mohawk and Dutch, official reference was made to a 1643 treaty in which the Mohawk claimed that they had metaphorically bound themselves to the Dutch by an "iron chain." By the late 1670s the term Covenant Chain was increasingly used to convey that sense of alliance. At meetings in Albany and various Iroquois villages, participants renewed alliances, claiming that they came to "polish" the chain. In later Iroquois oral traditions, Iroquois leaders expressed how their relationships with Europeans grew in significance by describing how their alliances had gone from one bound by "rope" to one linked by a "chain of silver."

Over time the Iroquois became increasingly linked to New York, seeking guns, ammunition, and even military support for their wars against the French and French native allies. When Iroquois aspirations, military or otherwise, in areas controlled by other English colonies led to difficulties, the Iroquois used their English allies in New York to help resolve matters. New York officials, in turn, sought to use their connection with the Iroquois to promote their trade and imperial ambitions at the expense of other colonies. Thus the Covenant Chain alliance grew to include more and more tribes and colonies, all trying to use the mediation process promoted by the alliance to achieve their own ends. No one group ever controlled the Covenant Chain, and preeminence within it varied across time. As the aims of the various groups came into sharper opposition during the 18th century, the Covenant Chain became less useful as a means to reach accord. Alliances were not renewed, amends were not made for deaths incurred in sporadic raids, and with the increasing encroachments of the English onto Iroquois-claimed lands, the Iroquois became less willing to trust their partners. Gen Maj John Sullivan's raid into Iroquoia in 1779 only confirmed how badly the Covenant Chain alliance had been sundered.

Jennings, Francis. "The Constitutional Evolution of the Covenant Chain," American Philosophical Society Proceedings 115 (Apr 1971): 88-96

m dashm dashm dash. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies, from Its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744 (New York: Norton, 1984)

m dashm dashm dash, ed. The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ Press, 1985)

Richter, Daniel K., and James H. Merrell, eds. Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800 (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ Press, 1987)

José António Brandão


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