The Iroquois Confederacy was a union of five separate tribes unified by a constitutionally-bound representative democracy. Residing in the area that is today upper New York State, the Iroquois were one of the most formidable bodies of natives that Europeans ever encountered.
According to the founding legend of the nation, the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy - the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Onieda and the Mohawk - were originally locked in a perpetual war. This state of continual attrition, which showed no signs of abating, threatened to destroy them all until a Huron prophet, known as the Great Peace Maker, and a messenger known as Hiawatha, began spreading a word of unity and equality among the tribes, bringing the bloodshed to a halt. The Peace Maker and Hiawatha brought with them a democratic code of laws known as the Great Law of Peace, which was readily adopted by the five tribes and became the constitution of the unified Iroquois Confederacy. While it is debated exactly when this unification took place, it is generally assumed to have occurred somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries AD.
Upon their arrival to North America, the Europeans were quick to strike deals with the Iroquois. The English were the first to ally themselves with the Iroquois, in no small part because the hated French had already allied themselves with the Algonquin and the Huron, the rivals of the Iroquois. The Iroquois engaged in innumerable raids and minor skirmishes against the French and their allies, in the hopes of bringing them to their knees. The Iroquois were also one of the main forces on the side of the English during the French and Indian War. In thanks for their participation in England's victory in that conflict, the English king, George III, declared that the lands of the Iroquois should remain in their control.
Yet the Revolutionary War, beginning in 1775, would mark the beginning of a great decline for the Iroquois. Four of the nations remained loyal to England during the war, but two, the Onieda and a group of newcomers known as the Tuscarora, allied themselves with the nascent colonies, effectively shattering the Confederacy. As a result, when the colonies emerged victorious, great numbers of those Iroquois loyal to the English migrated to what is now Ontario, where they remain to this day. Many Iroquois, however, still populate the regions of northern New York where their ancestors had lived for centuries.
With almost 200 years of close contact with Europeans, the Iroquois had an important influence on their neighbors, in food, language, and indeed lifestyle. However, their greatest contribution may be the influence their system of government had on modern democracy. Their constitutionally-based, bicameral, representative democracy stood as an example of a fully functioning democratic government, just at the time when a group of English colonists were trying to build one of their very own. The Iroquois system of government left an impression on many of the founding fathers of America, particularly author and scientist Benjamin Franklin. American democracy, which would later spread around the world, is in part, Iroquois democracy.