Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Iroquois Longhouse Interior

If you’re like me, you love to “feather your nest” as the old saying goes. Most women and even many men love nesting, and playing around with my home’s d├ęcor is one of my favorite pastimes. So when I began research on the Seneca for The Return, I was especially interested in discovering how Iroquois longhouses were constructed, and not only how the interior spaces were used, but also how they were decorated. After all, native peoples weren’t any different from European settlers in wanting their homes to offer a pleasing appearance in addition to utility and comfort.

Iroquois Longhouse Interior

Longhouse Framework

The pole framework of the longhouse divided its interior into a series of compartments from front to back, with a 10-foot-wide aisle running down its center. The compartment inside the entry at each end of the structure served as common storage for food supplies, firewood, and other items too large to be kept in the individual families’ personal living space. The rest of the compartments provided space for the families that lived there.

Longhouse Interior
Two families lived in each compartment, on opposite sides of the central aisle. They shared a fire pit, which occupied the center of the aisle, so there was a row of fire pits extending from the front to the back of the longhouse, except in the storage areas. To vent the smoke, a hole was made in the roof above each fire pit, with a sheet of bark that could be slid over it in bad weather. When the smoke hole was closed, smoke collected at the high ceiling above the living space for a while, but I’m sure the atmosphere became pretty thick if the vents had to be kept closed for very long! Vents were also sometimes built into the walls to let air and light in, and these also could be closed as needed.

Each family’s living space measured about 6 by 10 feet. Wooden screens and mats or hangings of animal skins separated the families’ personal spaces along each wall and offered a certain amount of privacy. A platform built about a foot above the floor along its exterior wall provided seating, work space, and a bed. Woven rush mats and animal pelts covered the platform and the exterior wall to serve as decoration, padding, and insulation, and pelts and blankets were used as covers. Each family stored personal items like tools and clothing beneath the platform as well as some food and a small store of firewood.

A raised platform of the same size was often hung about five feet above the lower one, and a third might be added above that. These were used to store clothing and other items and for extra sleeping space as needed. Braided ears of corn and sacks of grain, nuts, and other foods were hung from the rafters, and additional household goods were hung on the walls and partitions.

It sounds like a pretty practical and efficient living space to me for wilderness areas, though it’s probably not very comfortable in cold or hot weather. When you consider the community that developed in each longhouse as the clan expanded, you gain a new perspective on the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” However, as one reader commented on last month’s post, think of what it would sound like at night with all those men snoring! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Iroquois Longhouse

Native Americans figure prominently in both the Northkill Amish Series and my American Patriot Series, and I’ve done quite a bit of research into the tribes who appear in the stories. It’s been, to say the least, fascinating. It’s well known that our Hochstetler ancestors were carried off into captivity by a band of Indians who attacked their farm during the French and Indian War. The father, Jacob, ended up with the Seneca in the town of Buckaloons. His sons, Joseph and Christian, most likely were given to the Leni Lenape, or Delaware. Consequently these tribes are the focus of our research.

The Seneca belong to the Six Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy. Historically the Iroquois called themselves People of the Longhouse, which naturally sparked my curiosity about longhouses. I’d heard of them, of course, but when you’re writing about people who live in them, it’s necessary to describe these structures in some detail. In my next few posts I’m going to delve into the lives of the Seneca in the 18th century, beginning with the homes they lived in: the longhouse. I hope you find it as interesting as I do!

18th Century Longhouses

Iroquois Longhouse
Eighteenth-century longhouses were large wooden buildings ranging in length from 30 to several hundred feet that housed the members of a single clan. Its length was determined by the size of the extended family that would live in it; the larger the family, the longer the longhouse. As the size of the extended family grew, the building was enlarged to make room for its expanding population. Archeologists have discovered the post-hole patterns of two enormous longhouses that were 364 feet and 400 feet long—longer than a football field and even a block; however, the typical Iroquois longhouse was between 180 to 220 feet long, which is still pretty impressive.

Longhouse with Front Shed
Longhouses were generally about 20 feet wide and 20 feet high and symmetrical, with a rounded rather than peaked roofline. There was a single door at each end, covered with a fur pelt or piece of rawhide to keep out the weather. This seemed to be the general rule; only one longhouse has ever been discovered that had an extra door, located in the middle of one side. The ends of the structure were usually rounded, but some longhouses had squared ends with a flat roof overhanging the doorway.


The forest provided the posts, poles, and bark the Iroquois used as building materials. Saplings with tall, straight trunks were cut into lengths to form the framework. To reduce insect damage and decay the bark was peeled off in narrow strips and saved for other uses. The builders set two parallel rows of strong upright posts into holes dug in the ground, spaced from 10 to 12 feet apart along each side of the longhouse. They added thinner interior posts between the outer rows to outline the walls of compartments and a central aisle, then lashed strong, flexible rafter poles to the tops of the posts horizontally from side to side across the building and bent them to form an arch. They laid more poles down the longhouse’s length to stabilize the roof, then placed additional poles along the sides to form a grid pattern to which large sheets of bark were attached to cover the walls.

Daily Life in an Iroquois Village
Since the Iroquois had no nails, they tied or lashed their buildings together by winding strips of rawhide or long, flexible strips or ropes of bark around the poles and posts. When these dried, they shrank and stiffened, tightening the joint. The bark of basswood and hickory trees works well for this purpose. The Iroquois used elm bark whenever available for the large sheets that covered the exterior of the longhouse. After the bark was hung on the frame, it had to be held down to keep it flat and to prevent the wind from lifting it. Another framework of smaller poles laid across the outside of the bark served this purpose.

Bark can be peeled off certain types of trees during the spring while the sap flows freely and the leaves are still small. Large sheets must be flattened out with weights while they dry to keep them from curling. The Iroquois may have stored extra bark they harvested under water to keep it supple until it was needed. A sheet of elm bark that has been flattened and dried is as strong as a piece of plywood. Although it has deep furrows in it that run vertically along the trunk, the Iroquois usually applied it with the groves running horizontally. This probably was done because it was easier to keep the bark flat by securing it horizontally against the vertical posts. One account describes some Iroquois smoothing out these furrows with an adz to prevent them from catching rainwater running down the roof and sides of the longhouse.

Iroquois Villages

Iroquois Village
The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy lived in villages and towns near waterways such as rivers and creeks. They were often surrounded by a palisade wall to keep out enemies. The land surrounding the village was cleared into fields belonging to the women, where they grew the crops used for food.

In my next post I’ll describe how the longhouse was divided up among families and how they furnished and used this communal interior space.