Mashantucket Pequot Museum Library and Archives Blog

Friday, October 3, 2008

Question & Answer: Iroquois Tattoos

As an occasional feature, we will post some of the interesting email questions we receive.

Question: I am currently writing a novel that focuses on the role the Iroquois played in the American Revolution. Consequently, I want to include as many accurate details as possible about the Iroquois of that time. One of these concerns Iroquois tattoos. What designs would have been common and were there more likely areas of the body to be tattooed? Any help you could give me with these questions would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Thanks for contacting us. This passage, mentioning an Iroquois warrior’s thigh tattoos, is famously quoted in the article Sinclair, A.T. “Tattooing of the North American Indians“ (American Anthropologist 1909/11, No. 3, p. 362-400):

“Near this place we surprised the Captain General of the Iroquois, surnamed Nero by our Frenchmen who have been in their country, because of his notorious cruelty. This in time past has led him to sacrifice to the shade of a brother of his, slain in war, eighty men, burning them all at a slow fire, and to kill sixty more with his own hand. He keeps the tally of these on his thigh, which consequently appears to be covered with black characters.” --Source: The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Vol. XLVIII. Lower Canada, Ottawas: 1662 — 1664.

You should also take a look at the famous "Four Indian Kings" portraits painted by John Verelst in 1710 which show historically accurate Iroquois facial and body tattoos. (A set of prints are part of the MPMRC's archival collection, though images of them can also be found online- here's one resource.) The four "Kings” were sachems representing the Five Nations Confederacy of the Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawk) who visited Queen Anne's court to ask for military assistance against the French.

For an historical and cultural analysis of the paintings, see the following two articles from MPMRC's CrossPaths magazine.

Campisi, Jack. “More Than Meets the Eye: John Simon’s Engravings of the Four Kings.” Cross Paths Fall 2002:4,10-11.

Cook, Stephen. “The Art and Material Culture of the Four Indian Kings Paintings.” Cross Paths Fall 2002: 5, 12.

I hope this information is of some help and good luck with your novel.

Email your questions to: reference [at]

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