WHAT IS A LONGHOUSE?
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        Drawing by Mohawk artist,
        John Fadden

 

LONGHOUSES AND ARCHEOLOGY

On April 27, 1995 Dean Snow shared with our members and guests the results of his research on longhouses since 1982. His presentation was part of the Museum’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. The following is synopsis of his talk written by Dr. John Ferguson.

Dr. Snow began by noting that the longhouse is an important metaphor for the Iroquois -- much more than a residence --an abstract kind of notion that has a kind of symbolism for the Iroquois. Political systems use metaphors. The League itself for example, is a giant abstract longhouse that extends across upstate New York. Chiefs are said to be like posts that support that house.

Historically, the longhouse was a multi-family residence containing the extended matrilineal family with a senior woman as the leader of a clan segment. It was physically and symbolically an important structure.

Longhouses were used usually for only a decade or two. They were temporary structures affected by a number of factors. Changing demography influenced the size of the buildings -- in other words, affecting how they packaged themselves. Exhausted firewood supplies and soil and the build-up of pests could cause the moving of settlements, often an average of two kilometers away. Sometimes just on the other side of the old corn fields. Another cause of movement was warfare. Stresses and change in family structure further affected longhouse design and Iocation.

Information on longhouses basically comes from three sources: (1) early European maps, drawings, and descriptions; (2) archeological evidence -- only what was in the ground because the upper part left no traces; (3) oral history of the Iroquois. Most European observers did not understand what they saw, or some never were here in the first place and wrote second-hand descriptions. We expect too much of oral history if we wish it to tell us what happened in 1635 when the smallpox hit -- 18 generations ago. Things, deemed unimportant, get dropped out of narratives, or new ideas can be introduced.

Early European depictions are interesting, however. An early sketch of Hochelaga, based upon descriptions brought back by Cartier, looks more like a palisaded garrison in a medieval fortress, with expected siege machinery and boiling oil, than an Iroquois community. By the mid 1700s a map detail of Fort Frontenac, now Kingston, Ontario, shows accurately a building with vertical posts every three feet, with bark behind them, and curved posts on the arched roof, also with bark behind them. The bark on the sides and top is held down by a lighter framework of poles. A flap over the door is shown. Three hearths shown would serve six families -- three pairs of families facing each other across the fire.

In another 1700s view, the eave of the longhouse is shown at ten feet from the ground, then another eave ten feet higher. The house is always as wide as it is high. A low doorway keeps the heat in, and a high ceiling keeps the smoke high over the head.

By the 1740s, however, a traveler to Onondaga, John Bartram, is staying in and describing a Ionghouse "motel". The Iroquois themselves by then are living in log homes like the Joseph Brant log structure excavated by SUNY Albany at Indian Castle. The longhouse by mid-eighteenth century has been preserved as a place for people like Bartram to stay in overnight.

The longhouse as it was before that time has been studied by a number of archeologists. James Tuck discovered at Onondaga an example over 400 feet long, with partitions to block off each family’s living space and a corner aisle with hearths spaced at intervals about equal to the width of the house. At the Draper Site in Toronto evidence was found for extensive change caused apparently by several smaller villages joining together, necessitating the expansion of the town --a pattern also seen in the Mohawk Valley archeologicaI excavations.

By the early 1500s Mohawks became involved with warfare that caused them to create larger villages in defensible positions, if necessary giving up good farm land to do so.

By 1634-35 the first epidemics of European diseases cut the population in half, and the houses were too large. Even though, earlier, the Iroquois typically had only three or so children per family, these longhouses were built for 80 to 120 people. A woman would have had to live to be 60 years old to fill these large longhouses with her own family. The evidence suggests that something was going on politically and socially in order to manage a denser population, a larger local population, and a larger household.wpe33.jpg (7046 bytes)

After 1635, disease disrupted families so much that fictive kinship was invented to allow the repackaging of people into Ionghouses once again. New relationships were created to regroup the half-destroyed population, but these seventeenth century innovations are long forgotten. Oral tradition says little of the change. Archeology is the only source of such understanding.

 

Archeology reveals other details. There was a work area along side of the house; thus the sleeping benches did not necessarily go right up to the side. The dimensions of classical Ionghouses were apparently measured in fathoms (about 6 feet; the distance between a human’s outstretched arms). The width of the longhouse and the length of each compartment was three fathoms. Storage compartments for corn could be found at either end. In the Mohawk Valley each Ionghouse also had a large post that was apparently moved from place to place, not abandoned to rot in place. Quite possibly those posts had clan carvings on them, but no surviving examples exist.

When the Iroquois Ieft the bark longhouse for log structures, they had the hearth in the center of the floor, with a central smoke hole. Later, the hearth was moved to the side and a chimney built. Doors were put in sides of the house instead of at the ends. (Editor’s Note: Drawing of 1700s "Schohary Wigwam" in Schoharie exhibit case shows this evolution, but with side doors and smoke hole.) Stone versions of these log structures were later built at Caughnawaga, Quebec, by French stone masons.

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Longhouse at Tonawanda 1980s

 

Today, members of the traditional Iroquois religion hold their ceremonies at the longhouse. In some communities, the political body meets in the longhouse. Often social gatherings are held there.  Longhouses in modern Iroquois communities are in the European style. Some use logs, but most are framed. A pot-bellied stove is placed at each end. Today's Ionghouse reminds some observers of two compartments of the old longhouses spliced together, with a hearth at either end. Ceremonies continue to sort people into groups by gender and the ancient clans.

Many attempts at re-creation of bark longhouses have been made, usually with unwitting errors. Typical mistakes include not, enough height, bent poles from the ground so that the sides are not straight (as they should be), a quonset-hut shape, post and beam construction, sleeping area too narrow, center aisle too wide, too flat a roof, or a continuous sleeping bench not interrupted, as it should be, with work areas.

The best re-creation is the one on exhibit at the New York State Museum. The roof line and interior structure are right. To accommodate school groups, the center aisle had to be made too wide, and, to satisfy the fire marshall, the door had to be placed on the side, but the other details of the longhouse are accurate.

The geographic extent of the traditional longhouse may include Massachussets, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and even West Virginia and New Jersey, but there are regional variations.

We need, Dean Snow concluded, to escape diffusionist thought of the past and develop some new much more sophisticated explanations of the evidence we are acquiring.

Note:Thanks to Dean Snow for allowing us to make a video tape of this Iecture, from which John Ferguson made the version above.

Visitors familiar with the Museum will note that architect C. Treat ArnoId did his homework well when he designed the Museum to be a modern version of the traditional structure. The proportions are correct. The original Museum "longhouse’’ is now also flanked, to follow Dean Snow’s time line, by two log homes from Six Nations Reserve.