by Thomas J. Lappas
When faculty return to campus after a summer of doing research, attending conferences, and writing, we usually ask each other what we have been working on. This fall, when I responded, “Iroquois temperance societies,” I got a lot of blank stares. My response was not what many people expect from a historian. They generally expect something dealing with wars or politics, regardless of the time frame or geographic era in which you specialize. Many people know that the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, are the people who lived in western New York State at the time of European arrival, and still live here today. The Haudenosaunee were, and are, a confederacy of five (and later six) nations consisting of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations (and later the Tuscaroras).
Where temperance societies fit into their history is not well known to the general population, so I try to provide them with a little background. In the years following the American Revolution, the Iroquois in New York State, most of whom sided with the British during the war, lost almost all their territory to state and federal governments, and ultimately to land speculators, through a variety of treaties and questionable land sales. Faced with the loss of land, the fragmentation of the Iroquois Confederacy, and other pressures, many individuals turned to alcohol as an escape.
The increased rate of alcohol abuse in Native American communities had a parallel in the broader white community in America, however. Alcohol consumption and abuse increased in the entire U.S. population during the early nineteenth century. Scholars have estimated that the average American over eighteen years old consumed about seven gallons of pure alcohol per year during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. According to Thomas Pegram’s Battling Demon Rum, this level of imbibing was a marked increase from the Revolutionary generation and was about twice the present rate of consumption.
Although the two communities had substantial cultural differences, they shared the problem of rising alcohol abuse. Over the course of the nineteenth centuries, however, both communities developed ways of addressing the problems in front of them, based on their own cultural assumptions and needs. There was great diversity of opinion within any given community when it came to addressing the alcohol problem, and this guaranteed that the organizations they developed to curtail drinking, the so-called “temperance societies,” would differ in the American Indian and the non-Indian communities they sought to serve. And yet, my examination of Iroquois temperance societies has illuminated the ways in which the two societies interacted with and affected each other over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bridging some of the gaps between them.
One of the challenges of this project is avoiding the trap of perpetuating stereotypes of alcohol and American Indians. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to indicate all of the positive and early steps taken by Haudenosaunee leaders in the eighteenth century to curtail the alcohol trade. Haudenosaunee chiefs often tried to stop white traders from coming into their communities and pedaling liquor, which was, according to most colonial policies, illegal. Unfortunately, these attempts to control supply did not work since the colonial government of New York was not interested in putting forth the effort to stop the flood of illegal brandy and rum into Haudenosaunee villages.
Formal Temperance Societies
In the early nineteenth century, the temperance organizations that were formed in the non-Indian communities across the country began to have substantial influence on reservations in New York State. These organizations represented a shift in that they attempted to control demand for alcohol by getting drinkers to stop their bad habit. In the 1830s on the Tuscarora and Onondaga Reservations in the United States and on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, some Haudenosaunee leaders adopted the methods of the white Christian missionaries on the reservations, and formed organizations with names such as “The Six Nations Forest Temperance Society.” These organizations published and distributed temperance tracts, encouraged members to sign temperance pledges, and planned temperance parades complete with brass bands. On the other hand, these groups were not simply carbon copies of white organizations. Temperance organizations often met in the missionaries’ churches, but their activities spread to the traditional longhouses where only Iroquoian languages were spoken and rattles and drums replaced the European brass instruments.
Native Leadership in Predominantly White Organizations
The influence of white leadership on Indian communities went the other direction, too. One of the major temperance organizations in the late nineteenth century was the Independent Order of the Good Templars. This fraternal organization was characterized by its attempt to reform individuals through personal support rather than governmental intervention in the liquor trade. One of the organization’s most prominent leaders was Oronhyatekha, a Canadian Mohawk and physician, who became the Right Worthy Grand Templar in 1891 (basically, the president of the organization). According to the Good Templars historian Jessie Forsyth, Oronhyatekha’s speeches to audiences around the world addressed audiences in English and in Mohawk, always emphasizing his ability to work in both communities.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union
One of the most interesting aspects of the temperance societies has to do with women’s leadership in temperance efforts. The Haudenosaunee were and still are a matrilineal society. That is, people trace their family lineage or clan membership through their mother. Furthermore, women have had a strong role in political matters, selecting the male chiefs who would then work on behalf of their local communities at the larger confederacy meetings. It should not be too surprising, then, that when white women began forming the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the late nineteenth century, which had a strong presence in New York State, Haudenosaunee women were quick to form their own branches of the organization. The Onondaga leader, Eliza Pierce formed one called “The Hiawatha Women’s Christian Temperance Union” around 1900 on the Onondaga Nation, just south of Syracuse and served as its first president. Other officers within the organization consisted of many of her relatives, most of whom had spent time on white boarding schools.
My broader project goes into greater detail into the twists and turns of each of these groups. For instance, Oronhyatekha once introduced a new policy into the Templars that effectively led to its segregation of its African American branches in the American South. Eliza Pierce blamed many of her reservation’s problems on visiting young men from Oneida and Mohawk communities, suggesting inter-tribal conflict within the confederacy into the twentieth century. Furthermore, much remains to be explored about what happened to these organizations in the years during prohibition between 1919 and 1933—and what happened after its repeal.
Nonetheless, some trends remain clear. As the populations of Native Americans and non-Native peoples became increasingly intertwined in New York State, the temperance societies began to resemble each other in their conception of alcohol abuse and in their methods of curtailing alcohol use. Native temperance societies began to adopt Euro-American strategies and organizational structures, but always found ways to assert their Haudenosaunee identity within them. National and international temperance organizations contained local Native American branches and even accepted Native American leadership in at least one case. Ultimately, it is clear that all communities in New York State struggled with the social problems that alcohol abuse caused and communicated with one another about solutions. Although disagreements between the Native American and European American communities were frequent throughout the nineteenth century, it is important to note these places of commonality and shared experiences in order to complete our picture of New York State and American history.
This article originally appeared in
Connections Fall 2009
Thomas J. Lappas, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history and director of Freshman Seminar at Nazareth College.
[photo: Eliza Pierce scan]
Onondaga leader Eliza Pierce, first president of the Hiawatha Women’s Christian Temperance Union, “The Only Indian W.C.T.U. In This State,” Syracuse Sunday Herald, 20 July 1902, Temperance Collection, Onondaga Historical Association.
Professor Thomas Lappas