Historical fiction resources on The Longhouse

In order to support the historical fiction writers out there, let me suggest a few books on The Longhouse, the confederacy of “Iroquois” nations (they called themselves Haudenosaunee) during the colonial period preceding the American Revolution.

I have multiple motivations.

Firstly, I thoroughly believe that the power of historical fiction rests on the quirky details of historical reality, because the real world provides surprising twists that grab the imagination precisely because the events of history start in the imagination of the people who lived it.

In fact, the key difference between history and realistic fiction is that, after the initial moment of imagination, one person acts and the other person writes.

Secondly, this is perhaps the period in American history least known by the general public, despite the fact that it is filled with adventure, conflict, political intrigue, and larger-than-life personalities on all sides.  Sitting in a dark corner of the Renaissance, in that literary gap between the overmythologized Medieval and Revolutionary War periods, the first few centuries of European presence in North America enjoys little attention beyond Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, and the Salem witch trials.

Which brings me to the story-telling wealth waiting to be mined. 

The simplistic British-Patriot dichotomy of the Revolution conceals an array of peoples who had struggled for centuries on American soil.  The imported conflict between the Catholic French and Protestant English ended mere years before the Boston Tea Party, and the distinctions between the various Native American peoples had not yet been subsumed by the simplistic post-Revolutionary dichotomy of American v. Indian.  The tension between Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples (and the constant fighting between Longhouse Iroquois and everyone else) adds enormous depth to the narrative possibilities of the period.

There are tales of subjugation and rebellion in the way the Longhouse (ethnically Iroquoian) treated the Delaware Indians (ethnically Algonquian) as tributaries until the Delaware defied the Longhouse as the dominant force among the so-called “Ohio Indians.”

There is tragedy in the short-lived career of Teedyuscung, the “King of the Delawares.” 

There are family dynamics to be explored between the Mohawk Joseph Brant and his sister Molly, who married British businessman and agent of the Crown, Sir William Johnson. 

There is the fall of Onondaga from the proud capital of a powerful confederacy to an impoverished, rum-sodden ruin.  The narrative threads are spun and just waiting to be woven together.

The imagery is also seductive.  The etiquette and rhetoric of the Iroquois at treaty conferences contrasted with the often crude and blunt behavior of the colonials.  Humbled Delawares living on the outskirts of European settlements, trading brooms and baskets, contrasted with the formidable warriors of the Longhouse. 

And the story simmers ever hotter as intrigue piles upon intrigue, until finally boiling over in a war that shocks in its brutality: scores of Native American towns utterly destroyed, children skewered on bayonets for the sport of soldiers, Onondaga itself laid waste by a sudden plague, thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives.

In fact, I think the best venue for a story with so many colorful characters and such an epic scope would be a premium channel series, like HBO’s Rome, or Showtime’s The Tudors.  Screenwriters take note!  (In fact, I have already sketched out a rough outline for a four-season series using the working title The Longhouse.)

Also, considering that Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series is now being transformed into an HBO series, novel writers might also put pen to paper.  In any case, let me present the following three books as a great place to start research into this rich yet poorly explored history:

Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier by Timothy J. Shannon.  All three of these books were fun to read, just the right combination of good writing and raw information to provide excellent background material for historical fiction.  However, as a place to start, Shannon’s Iroquois Diplomacy is the obvious choice, as it has a more narrative focus than the other two and, despite its title, bridges the Iroquois and colonial orientation of the other two books.

The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization by Daniel K. Richter.  A remarkable account of the encounter between Native Americans and colonials from the Iroquois perspective, Richter’s Ordeal not only contains a good deal more information on the effect of the encounter with Europeans on Iroquois society, but also discusses more Iroquois individuals than the other two.  An excellent resource for maintaining a sense of realism and for identifying possible “Vorenus and Pullo” type characters.

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson.  Focusing on the conflict between the French and British, Anderson’s book nevertheless discusses the Iroquois extensively, and provides a more in-depth discussion of the tragic climax of the story of The Longhouse than Iroquois Diplomacy.

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1 Comment

  1. Mr. Leith,
    My historical novel, “Wah-say-lan, A Tale of the Iroquois in the American Revolution,” was published by Plaidswede, Concord, NH in 2009. It is told from the point of view of a Young Seneca woman, Wah-say-lan.
    Below are some published reviews.
    J.H. Smith

    I had the best time with the novel, a good novel . . . the sex is terrific and it’s hard to write sex, it needs to reflect the growing relationship. . . she is a strong independent woman and very intelligent.
    Faith Middleton

    Wah-say-lan and Jamwesaw have a bond that holds throughout the narrative and makes their reunion at the end, though fraught with sadness and loss and change, a satisfying coda to a richly detailed historical novel.
    Waterbury (CT) Republican-American

    Although love is a key element in this tale, it is not a love story. It’s much more complicated than that. For much of the book, the two are not even together, as they strive separately to save the lives and heritage of those they love by struggling against the powerful social forces that are turning their world upside down.
    Manchester (CT) Journal-Inquirer

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