At one time, the Iroquois people were fractured into five warring camps -- the Oneida, the Cayuga, Onandaga, Seneca and Mohawk. According to legend, a saviour named Dekanawidah emerged to end the hostilities. The "Heavenly Messenger", as he is called in mythology, was sent by the Great Spirit and born to a virgin mother in a Huron village near the Bay of Quinte. He became the founder of the Five Nations confederacy (later to become the Six Nations).
Dekanawidah first crossed Lake Ontario in a stone canoe and went to the Onondaga (near Syracuse, New York) to deliver his message of conciliation. Through a combination of diplomacy, threat and supernatural display, he brought about peace, tricking a cannibal into giving up his habit of eating men, surviving a raging river, and finally convincing the Seneca by producing a solar eclipse. Through various displays of his power he passed on his message of peace to all five camps.
At the camp of the Mohawk the legend says Dekanawidah proved his might by surviving a dangerous test.
"Dekanawidah goes to the Mohawk settlement... he spends the night at the shore of the river near the settlement. When, next morning, the inhabitants of the settlement see the smoke of his fire their chief sends a scout to go and fetch Dekanawidah.
"Before accepting the message of peace they wish to test Dekanawidah, in order to see if he possesses supernatural power. Dekanawidah climbs a tree and when he sits perched at its very top the warriors cut it down so that it falls over the precipice into the gorge and Dekanawidah disappears into the river's turbulent waters. Early the next morning a young man sees smoke rising near the edge of a cornfield, comes closer and recognizing Dekanawidah runs to tell the chief."
After convincing all five Iroquois nations to form a political union, Dekanawidah bound them all into the confederacy with a symbolic bundle of arrows.
"And each nation will contribute one arrow to form a single strong bundle bound together with the sinew of a deer. So joined, the arrows represent the confederacy's solidarity... he warns them that if the arrows are withdrawn from the bundle that represents the power of their solidarity, the bundle of arrows will weaken."
The sophisticated political infrastructure formed by the Five Nations allowed for peace among the Iroquois. "The land shall be beautiful," declared the Five Nations, "the river shall have no more waves, one may go everywhere without fear." The Tree of Peace was planted, a white pine with roots that would reach to the four corners of the earth. Beneath it was a cavern in which the weapons were buried.
In the eighteenth century the Tuscarora became the sixth nation in the league which then became the Six Nations.
Dekanawidah's existeance may have been a myth, a prophet's dream, or a man given a god's power, but the Five Nations Confederacy is an established fact and was probably created sometime in the fifteenth century. In 1654 the Jesuit missionary Le Mercier suggested that the Confederacy was already long established. A century later, Benjamin Franklin said it "appears indissoluble."
However it was formed, the Iroquois alliance made them the strongest political and military force in eastern North America -- undisputed masters of their terrain. But within a few decades they would face an unimaginable challenge -- from the other side of the world.