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LONGHOUSES

The design of the longhouse reflected the social organization of Iroquois culture, 300 - 500 years ago. Its architecture and construction are adapted to the raw materials available to the Iroquois in their immediate surroundings, and to the tools and technology in their possession.

longhouse
Figure 1. An Iroquois longhouse


Longhouses are exactly that: long houses that have a long, narrow, rectangular shape. They have been built by many different cultures around the world. Long ago, Vikings lived in longhouses; today, some rice-farming people in Borneo live in them. All longhouses have the same general shape, but were built with different kinds of materials and by different methods. Longhouses were the traditional homes for many of the farming tribes of American Indians that lived in southern New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The Iroquois people of upstate New York were among them. The Iroquois longhouse in particular is the topic here.

Longhouses have another thing in common besides their shape: they were built to serve as a home for a large extended family. An extended family includes a number of family units consisting of parents and children, plus grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. In an Iroquois longhouse there may have been 20 or more families which were all related through the mothers' side, along with the other relatives. All these families belonged to the same clan; each clan in a village had its own longhouse; the clans had branches in other villages. Clans were named for animals and birds; Turtle, Bear and Hawk are examples. The symbol for the clan was used in decorations of household objects, in tattoos, and on the front of the longhouse.

Members of a clan are all descendants of the same person. In Iroquois clans this person was a woman. All the people in the clan traced their heritage back to her through their female ancestors. Each Iroquois person was born into a clan and remained in that clan for life. Being related, people within a clan could not intermarry; one had to marry someone in a different clan. When a young woman married, her husband came to live in her longhouse, where they would make their new home. When a young man married, he moved away from the longhouse where he'd been raised into his bride's longhouse, but he continued to have close ties with his own clan.

The extended family not only shared the same building for their home, but they also worked together to make their living. The clan was the basic social and economic unit in Iroquois society and the leadership in the clans was through the women, because the kinship followed the mother's bloodline. The women managed the affairs of their longhouse, the farming, and distribution of food. They also selected the men who would represent their clan in the tribal council.

To the Iroquois people, the longhouse meant much more than the building where they lived. The longhouse was also a symbol for many of the traditions of their society. Five nations formed the original Iroquois Confederacy. These nations shared a territory they thought of as a large longhouse. The Senecas, who lived in the western end of this territory, were the "Keepers of the Western Door" of the Longhouse. The Mohawks, who lived in the eastern end of the territory, were the "Keepers of the Eastern Door". The Onondagas held the important role of "Keepers of the Central Council Fire and Wampum". To the modern Iroquois people, the Longhouse remains a powerful symbol of the ancient union and is important to many traditions.

How we know about longhouses.

Our knowledge of longhouse life comes from three kinds of sources: archeology, Iroquois oral traditions, and descriptions written by early European explorers.

Archeological record. Our knowledge of longhouses is derived largely from archeological excavations on Iroquoian village sites dating from the 1400s through the 1600s. Excavations on longhouse sites in New York State and adjacent areas of Quebec and Ontario Provinces, and in Pennsylvania, have provided a wealth of information about longhouse lengths, widths, interior spatial organization, and the uses of these spaces.

Iroquois oral language. Other details about longhouses - from the floor up - are found in the Iroquoian languages themselves. Word lists collected as early as the 1600s preserve names for longhouse parts and uses. Similarly, oral traditions often describe longhouses and longhouse life of long ago.

Descriptions by Europeans. Firsthand descriptions of longhouses made by European explorers, missionaries, and travelers provide information that adds to the archeological record and the languages and oral traditions of the Iroquoian peoples. Jacques Cartier described Iroquoian longhouse villages that he visited along the St. Lawrence River in the mid-1530s. His is the first written description of Iroquoian longhouses.

The French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, traveled and lived among the Huron Iroquois of Ontario, Canada, in the early 1600s, and left descriptions of longhouses and longhouse life among these people. Other detailed descriptions of Huron Iroquoian longhouses were recorded by missionaries, such as Gabriel Sagard-Theodat in the 1620s, and many Jesuit missionaries who also worked among the Hurons and their Iroquoian neighbors in New France in the 1630s and 1640s, and later among the Iroquois of New Netherland/New York though the end of the 1600s.

Descriptions made by these explorers and missionaries record early changes to longhouse and longhouse village architecture introduced by the use of European metal tools, particularly, trade axes, and by Europeans themselves who at times remodeled longhouses for their own and special uses. The most detailed description available to us is that of another Jesuit missionary, Reverend Father Joseph-Francois Lafitau. It dates to the 1720s and was written at the Mohawk Iroquois mission community of Kahnawake, near Montreal.

Later, travelers among the New York Iroquois, like John Bartram and Conrad Weiser, described some of the last of the long-longhouses, built of post, poles, and saplings, and covered in bark. By this date (1740s) many Iroquois were living together in smaller extended families, requiring smaller, or at least shorter longhouse quarters. These were built on the traditional pattern and of traditional materials, while the homes of some neighbors were log cabins of hewn or peeled logs and with bark roofs.

Longhouse structure.

A longhouse has a framework built of posts and poles and is covered with sheets of bark. The following description is based on many different sources of information.

Archeologists explore sites of old Iroquois villages by digging carefully in the upper layers of the soil. At some of these sites, they found traces of many longhouses in the form of circular stains in the earth where wooden posts had once been set as a frame for a longhouse. When the posts rotted away long ago, they left these stains in the soil which are called post molds. The pattern of these post molds makes the outline of the missing longhouse.

archeological digFigure 2. An archeological excavation.
Archeologists have carefully removed the soil a little at a time to reveal evidence of village life. They set stakes where interesting things are found and make notes describing them. Then they make a map to show how things were arranged. The group of stakes near the young man with the hoe shows where post molds were found. These are the circular stains left when a post rotted away. Notice three that have not yet had stakes driven in them.

Iroquois longhouses ranged in length from 30 to several hundred feet. Archeologists have found the post hole patterns of two longhouses that were 364 feet and 400 feet long: longer than a football field, and even longer than a city block! However, a typical Iroquois longhouse was 180 to 220 feet long. The length of a longhouse was determined by the size of the extended family that would live in it. The larger the family, the longer the longhouse needed to be. As the size of the extended family grew, because of more marriages, the building was enlarged to make room for the expanding population.

Longhouses were almost always about 20 feet wide and 20 feet high despite differences in their length. Seen from one end, the roof line of a typical Iroquois longhouse was rounded rather than peaked. There were two doors for the entire building, one at each end. There were no other doors in the building. We know of one exception to this rule of two doors; one longhouse had an extra door in the middle. Longhouses were symmetrical about a centerline along their length. Inside, the right and left sides were identical. The ends were usually rounded and were used as storage areas, shared by the families living in the longhouse. Some longhouses had flat ends. A flat-roofed shed or porch was built over the doorways at both ends of the longhouse.

Use of interior space.

The length and interior space of the longhouse was divided up into compartments or apartments, which were 20 feet long. Two families lived in each compartment, one on each side of an aisle that ran down the center. The aisle extended from one compartment to the next and ran the full length of the longhouse. The aisle was 10 feet wide and was a common space used by both families in the compartment.

longhouse interiorFigure 3. Interior of a longhouse.

A fire was placed in the middle of the aisle in the center of each compartment for heating, cooking, and light. Smoke escaped from a hole left in the roof above it. A sheet of bark could be adjusted to cover the smoke hole in bad weather. When the smoke hole was closed, the high ceiling in the building allowed some of the smoke to rise above the living space. The two families shared the fire and the central aisle.

Each family had its own space on one side of the aisle for sleeping and storage of personal items. In the family space, a platform was built a foot or so above the floor to form a bench where they sat, slept and worked. It extended for most of the compartment's length. The platform bench was closed at the ends by partitions. Storage closets filled the spaces along the wall that were not occupied by the benches. Another platform of the same size was built about five feet above the bench like a bunk bed. This shelf completed a cubicle, which was heated by the fire that was in the aisle. The inside of the wall was lined and insulated with woven mats or furs. The benches were also covered with mats and furs for comfort.

The space under the bench generally was used to store firewood. The shelf above it was used to store clothes and other items. Braids of corn and sacks of other foods were hung in the high ceiling space. Other household goods were hung on the walls and partitions.

Materials.

The forests where the Iroquois lived provided them with plenty of posts, poles and bark that were the basic components of longhouse structure. Because the trunks of the large trees of a virgin forest are much too large to handle without machinery, the Iroquois harvested their materials from second growth forest. Such forests arise in clearings in the old growth forests where the trees were killed by fire or by girdling their trunks. Here small trees grow close together with tall straight trunks that can be fashioned into framework components by merely cutting them to length. The large trees in the adjacent old growth forest could provide bark in large sheets, to be used for covering the structure.

Framework.

Parts of the frameworkFigure 4. Sketch showing a few parts of the framework.
One end shows the bark covering and the external framework that holds the bark sheets down against the wind.

The framework of the longhouse started with rows of posts that were set into holes dug into the ground. The posts were set vertically and formed the frames for the outside walls. There were interior posts as well that formed the center aisle. All posts had to be strong and stiff and set firmly in the ground because they were the foundation of the building. Horizontal poles lashed to the posts, both across and along the length of the longhouse, greatly strengthened the structure. The roof was supported by poles that were attached at the tops of the posts and were bent into an arch that reached from one wall across the building to the opposite wall. These roof supports are called rafters. They had to be strong and flexible. Other poles were fastened across the rafters along the length of the longhouse, to make the roof stable. When it was finished, the framework made a grid pattern. This framework was the skeleton of the building to which sheets of bark were attached to complete the roof and walls. The parts of the frame had to be close enough together to support the sheets of bark, which were peeled from large trees. The posts and poles came from small trees (saplings) that were tall and straight. These trees were cut to the proper length and the bark was removed from the posts and poles to reduce insect damage and decay. This bark was peeled off in narrow strips, and was saved for future use.

Different types of trees were used in various parts of the building. For example, a strong, stiff tree would be used for the outer posts. A strong but flexible tree would be used in the curved rafters. The Iroquois probably bent their rafters from freshly cut trees, because green wood is much more flexible than dry.

Fasteners.

lashingFigure 5. Lashing.
The parts of the framework were tied together with strips of bark.

Holding the parts of a building together is an essential part of construction. Modern wooden houses are held together with steel nails, but the Iroquois had no nails. Instead, they tied or lashed their buildings together with long strips of bark, or with ropes made by braiding strips of bark. When the bark is fresh and wet, it is flexible and can be wound around poles and posts to tie them together. When it dries, it shrinks a little and becomes stiff, thereby tightening the joint. Useful strips of bark can be pulled off some trees for a brief period in the spring when the sap is flowing freely. Basswood and hickory trees are good. Because the sap did not flow all year, the Iroquois probably harvested the bark when they could, then kept it under water until needed.

Covering.

The framework of the longhouse was covered with sheets of bark. Trees whose bark could be peeled into large sheets were preferred because big sheets made the job easier. The Iroquois used elm bark if it was available. Bark must be harvested in the spring while the leaves are still small, because that is when it is easily peeled off the tree. The sheets must be flattened out and held with weights while they dry to keep them from curling up. A sheet of elm bark that has been flattened and dried is quite strong, like a piece of plywood. The bark of an elm tree has deep grooves or furrows in it that run up and down along the trunk. However, the Iroquois usually lashed the bark to the frame of the longhouse with these groves running horizontally. This probably was done because it was easier to keep the bark flat by pressing it against the vertical posts. There is an eyewitness report of the Iroquois using an adz to smooth out these furrows so that they wouldn't catch the rainwater as it ran down the roof and sides of the longhouse. After the bark was hung on the frame it needed to be held down to keep it flat and to keep the wind from lifting it. The Iroquois put another framework of small poles on the outside of the bark for these purposes. This is shown in Figures 1 and 4.

 
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