To Proceed Faithfully

I cannot tell you the names of the first postmen to pass through Skaneateles, but I am sure they were on foot, running rather than walking, wearing moccasins, men of the Iroquois Confederacy carrying messages.

The Confederacy was a nation of tribes – Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks – bound together by law, a long east-west trail, and extraordinary messengers. Running in relays, these men could convey a message from the “eastern door” of the Mohawk tribe, near what is now Albany, to the “western door” of the Seneca tribe, near Buffalo – 240 miles in all – in just 70 hours.

Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist who wrote about the Iroquois, told of messengers running in pairs “through the forest, one behind the other, in perfect silence.” After sunset, they navigated by the stars. They were iron men. During the Revolutionary War, one runner left Tonawanda at daybreak to carry word to Avon, 40 miles distant, and returned by noon. Settler James Emlen wrote in his 1794 journal that one of Chief Cornplanter’s runners, Sharp Shins, covered the 90 miles from Canandaigua to Niagara between sunrise and sunset.

The Confederacy’s Great Law provided explicit instructions for those who served. A messenger was bound “to remember his errand, to turn not aside but to proceed faithfully to his destination and deliver his message according to every instruction.”

Important news, such as the death of a chief or a call to a meeting, was spelled out in a belt of wampum – white and purple beads made from shells – to be interpreted and read aloud by the carrier when he arrived at his destination. It was then the duty of those who received the message to send out new runners to other localities until everyone had been notified.

Indians carried “our mail” as well. When Europeans first came to North America, they found the best way to send a letter into the interior was to entrust it to a native American. The Indians had three qualities that recommended them: They were fast, they didn’t get lost, and they didn’t read the letter.

White men, on the other hand, were famous for reading the letters of others, often aloud at every stop they made. Letters were the only news media in the wilderness, and were commonly treated as public property. Some arrived at their final destination so smudged with fingerprints and worn by countless refoldings that they could no longer be read. And so, in the wilds of our young nation, Indians were the postmen of choice, until the post office caught up with those settlers living on the frontier.

The first settlers arrived here in the summer of 1794 and organized mail service was not too far behind. A post office opened in Onondaga Hollow on April 1, 1795, and then another in Marcellus on April 17, 1797. Mail was brought to Skaneateles on foot from these post offices. One of the earliest carriers was a young man named Isaac Sherwood, whose stage coaches would one day carry mail from one end of the state to the other. But that is another story.

* * *

The Iroquois constitution, the Great Binding Law, the Great Law of Peace, was created some time between 1390 and 1560, and recorded in belts of wampum. (It was first written down in English in 1880.) The law brought peace to the warring tribes and laid down the rules that would govern them for centuries. The following passages relate directly to messengers:

3. When there is any business to be transacted and the Confederate Council is not in session, a messenger shall be dispatched either to Adodarhoh, Hononwirehtonh or Skanawatih, Fire Keepers, or to their War Chiefs with a full statement of the case desired to be considered. Then shall Adodarhoh call his cousin (associate) Lords together and consider whether or not the case is of sufficient importance to demand the attention of the Confederate Council. If so, Adodarhoh shall dispatch messengers to summon all the Confederate Lords to assemble beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

23. Any Lord of the Five Nations Confederacy may construct shell strings (or wampum belts) of any size or length as pledges or records of matters of national or international importance. When it is necessary to dispatch a shell string by a War Chief or other messenger as the token of a summons, the messenger shall recite the contents of the string to the party to whom it is sent. That party shall repeat the message and return the shell string and if there has been a summons he shall make ready for the journey.

33. When a Confederate Lord dies, the surviving relatives shall immediately dispatch a messenger, a member of another clan, to the Lords in another locality. When the runner comes within hailing distance of the locality he shall utter a sad wail, thus: “Kwa-ah, Kwa-ah, Kwa-ah!” The sound shall be repeated three times and then again and again at intervals as many times as the distance may require. When the runner arrives at the settlement the people shall assemble and one must ask him the nature of his sad message. He shall then say, “Let us consider.” Then he shall tell them of the death of the Lord. He shall deliver to them a string of shells (wampum) and say “Here is the testimony; you have heard the message.” He may then return home. It now becomes the duty of the Lords of the locality to send runners to other localities and each locality shall send other messengers until all Lords are notified. Runners shall travel day and night.

40. When the Lords of the Confederacy take occasion to dispatch a messenger on behalf of the Confederate Council, they shall wrap up any matter they may send and instruct the messenger to remember his errand, to turn not aside but to proceed faithfully to his destination and deliver his message according to every instruction.

41. If a message borne by a runner is the warning of an invasion he shall whoop, “Kwa-ah, Kwa-ah,” twice and repeat at short intervals; then again at a longer interval.


Sources: The Early History of the Colonial Post-Office, Mary E. Woolley, 1894; “History of the Town of Skaneateles” from Onondaga’s Centennial, Dwight Bruce, 1896; The Constitution of the Five Nations – or – The Iroquois Book of the Great Law, Arthur C. Parker, Bulletin 184, University of the State of New York, April 1, 1916; Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition, Peter Nabokov, 1981; Wampum Fact Sheet, State Education Dept., Albany. NY, 1989; Northeast Indian Quarterly, Spring 1990.


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