A Brief History of the Oneida Tribe

Few Native American tribes have been as instrumental to the history of the United States as the Oneida Tribe. 

The Oneida Tribe made its mark very early in US history, thanks to its peaceful approach to American settlers and its desire to assimilate into colonial culture. 

While the Oneida tribe currently has a reservation in Wisconsin, it took them hundreds of years to get there. 

They may come from humble beginnings, but the Oneida tribe has become one of the proudest, most famous, and most beloved Native American tribes in history. 

Origins of the Oneida Tribe

The Oneida tribe is an Iroquois-speaking nation and one of the original five tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy. 

The Oneida tribe also goes by Oneyoteka, which means People of the Standing Stone. They gave themselves this name because of the large, red boulder in the middle of the original Oneida village in New York. 

The first mention we have of the Oneida tribe was in the 1500s when they became one of the founding members of the Iroquois Confederacy in what is now New York state. 

As such, while the origin and journey of the Oneida tribe are mostly unknown, the first white Americans made contact with them in New York in the 1600s. 

How did the Oneida Tribe live? 

The Oneida were known as a matriarchal society regarding their living conditions. As such, entire families of maternal descent lived together in longhouses anywhere from 40 to 200 feet long. 

It’s unknown how many people lived in each longhouse, but most estimates believe up to 60 people lived in a single structure. 

How did the Oneida Tribe live?  

In general, the Oneida were known as a proud, friendly, and resourceful tribe. 

Like most of the other Iroquois tribes at the time, the Oneida lived a semi-sedentary lifestyle, so they could move an entire village at a moment’s notice. 

They mainly subsisted on corn, hunting, and gathering, which was never a problem in the early days. 

Initially, the Oneida tribe had more than 5 million acres in New York and Pennsylvania, where they could farm, hunt, and gather food. 

However, when colonial settlers arrived in full swing in the 18th century, the size of their land was depleted little by little. 

Eventually, the Oneida were forced to leave New York and PA altogether and find a new home in Wisconsin. 

What was the Oneida Tribe Known For? 

The Oneida people were known for a great many things throughout history. 

However, when it comes to US history, they’re best known for being the first and one of the only Native American tribes to side with America during the Revolutionary War. 

The Oneida people served as fighters and scouts and played a significant role in several major battles in New York. 

They’re also credited with helping save George Washington and his army while wintering at Valley Forge in 1778. 

The Oneida supplied Washington with hundreds of bushels of corn, which saved thousands of American lives and helped the Continental Army survive the winter. 

Who is the Most Famous Oneida Chief?

While the Oneida tribe has had many important leaders throughout history, Chief Shenandoah is often considered the most famous. 

Chief Shenandoah was born in 1706 and lived to the ripe old age of 110. It’s unclear how long Shenandoah was chief, but it’s worth mentioning that he was one of the tallest people in the country during his life, and his height is often estimated at around 6’5″. 

In addition to his height, Shenandoah is best known for getting the Oneida tribe to side with American colonists during the Revolutionary War. 

The Oneida were the only Native Americans, aside from the Tuscarora, to side with America rather than Britain. Shenandoah was also one of the first Native American chiefs to sign a treaty with George Washington. 

The Treaty of Canandaigua, in 1794, as it’s now known, officially made Oneida a sovereign nation. 

The Oneida Tribe Through the Years

Unfortunately, early Americans had very short attention spans, and greed got the better of them. 

After the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794, the Oneida tribe was supposed to have 300,000 acres of land in central New York. However, by the early 1800s, white settlers and the US government had already begun pressuring the Oneida people to give up their land and move out of New York. 

Because of increasing pressure, the Oneida people slowly but surely began moving out of New York, starting in 1816. 

By 1840, nearly all members of the Oneida tribe had relocated to what is now the state of Wisconsin, near Green Bay, and the Oneida were left with only 4,500 acres in New York. 

This was a far cry from the 6 million acres they had before European exploration in the 1500s and 1600s. 

From 1816 to 1824, the Oneida made a series of treaties to establish their own land and nation in Wisconsin. Eleazor Williams led treaty negotiations on behalf of the Oneida. 

During the first round of negotiations in 1821, Williams secured around 860,000 acres for the Oneida nation. 

A second round of negotiations in 1822 secured an additional 6.7 million acres. However, this led to various disputes and additional negotiations until the land was reduced to just 500,000 acres in 1832. 

Finally, in 1838, when the Oneida people in Wisconsin numbered fewer than 700, the federal government reduced their land to just 65,000 acres. 

The Oneida Tribe Today 

As was the case during the Revolutionary War, the Oneida people have always had a reputation for being patriotic and fighting for American causes. 

They were represented in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II and often played significant roles. 

Today, there are between 16,000 and 17,000 members of the Oneida nation, many of which live on the 65,400-acre Oneida Reservation just outside Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

The Oneida people are self-governed, self-regulated, and self-sufficient and play a significant economic role in Brown County, Wisconsin.  

While the Oneida people have been cheated and persecuted by the United States throughout their history, they remain a peaceful, resourceful, and proud nation. 

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