Longhouses of the indigenous peoples of North America

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Earlier version of Iroquois longhouse housing around 30-40 people
Later day Iroquois longhouse housing 50-60 people
Interior of a longhouse with Chief Powhatan (detail of John Smith map, 1612)

Longhouses were built by native peoples in various parts of North America.

Iroquois and the other East Coast longhouses[edit]

The Iroquois (Haudenosanee or "People of the Longhouses") who lived in New York, New England, Ontario, and Quebec built and lived in longhouses , sometimes reaching over 100 m (330 ft) in length but generally around 5 to 7 m (16 to 23 ft) wide. The dominant theory is that walls were made of sharpened and fire-hardened poles (up to 1,000 saplings for a 50 m (160 ft) house) driven into the ground and the roof consisted of leaves and grass. Strips of bark were then woven horizontally through the lines of poles to form more or less weatherproof walls, with doors usually both ends of the house covered with an animal hide to keep warm, although doors also were built into sides of especially long longhouses. Longhouses featured fireplaces that kept them warm. On top of the longhouses they made holes to keep the smoke out so they didn't lose oxygen. This can be a problem when it rains or snows. Longer than they were wide, these longhouses had openings at both ends that served as doors and were covered with animal skins during the winter to keep out the cold.

On average a typical longhouse was about 80 by 18 by 18 ft (24.4 by 5.5 by 5.5 m) and was meant to house up to twenty or more families, most of which were typically matrilineally related. Poles were set in the ground and braced by horizontal poles along the walls. The roof is made by bending a series of poles, resulting in an arc-shaped roof. The frame is covered by bark that is sewn in place and layered as shingles, and reinforced by light poles.

Missionaries who visited these longhouses often wrote about how dark the interior of the dwelling was.

At the outer regions of the woodland housing locality were inviolable protective palisades that stood 14 to 16 ft (4.3 to 4.9 m) high keeping the longhouse village safe. Ventilation openings, later singly dubbed as a smoke pipe, were positioned at intervals possibly totalling five to six along the roofing of the longhouse.

Tribes or ethnic groups in the northeast of North America, south and east of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie that had traditions of building longhouses are, among others, the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) including the Five Nations Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk. Also the Wyandot and Erie. Another large group that built longhouses, among others, were the Lenni Lenape, living from the lower Hudson River, along the Delaware River and on both sides of the Delaware Bay, and the Pamunkey of the maybe-related Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia.

Northwest Coast longhouses[edit]

These longhouses are built with logs or split-log frame and covered with split log planks, and sometimes an additional bark cover. Cedar is the preferred resource. The length of these longhouses is usually 60–100 ft (18–30 m).[citation needed] The wealthy built extraordinarily large longhouses. The Suquamish Old Man House at what became the Port Madison Indian Reservation was 500×40–60 ft (152×12–18 m), c. 1850.[1][2]

Usually there is one doorway that faces the shore. Each longhouse contains a number of booths along both sides of the central hallway, separated by wooden containers (akin to modern drawers). Each booth also has its own individual fire. Usually an extended family occupied one longhouse, and cooperated in obtaining food, building canoes, and other daily tasks. The roof is a slanted shed roof and pitched to various degrees depending upon the rainfall.[citation needed] The gambrel roof was unique to Puget Sound Coast Salish.[1] The front is often very elaborately decorated with an integrated mural of numerous drawings of faces and heraldic crest icons of raven, bear, whale, etc. A totem pole is often accompanied with a longhouse, though the style varies greatly, and sometimes is even used as part of the entrance way.

Tribes or ethnic groups along the North American Pacific coast with some sort of longhouse building traditions are among others Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Makah, Clatsop, Coast Salish and Multnomah (tribe).

Excavations at Ozette, Washington[edit]

From beneath mud flows dating back to about 1700, archaeologists have recovered timbers and planks, and with them has come a unique chance to see household arrangements from the distant past. In the part of one house, where a woodworker lived, tools were found and also tools in all stages of manufacture. There were even wood chips. Where a whaler lived, there lay harpoons and also a wall screen carved with a whale. Benches and looms were inlaid with shell and there were other indications of wealth.

A single house had five separate living areas centered around cooking hearths, each still safeguarding evidence of what its occupants did. More bows and arrows were found at one living area than any of the others, an indication that hunters lived there. Another had more fishing gear than other subsistence equipment, and at another, more harpoon equipment. Some had everyday work gear and very few elaborately ornamented things. The whaler's corner was just the opposite.

The houses were built so that planks on the walls and roofs could be taken off and used at other places as people moved seasonally. Paired uprights supported rafters, which, in turn, held roof planks that overlapped like tiles. Wall planks were lashed between sets of poles. The position of these poles depended on the lengths of the boards they held, and they were evidently set and reset through the years the houses were occupied. Walls met at the corners by simply butting together. They stayed structurally independent, allowing for easy dismantling. There were no windows. Light and ventilation came by shifting the position of roof planks, which were simply weighted with rocks, not fastened in position.

Benches raised above the floor on stakes provided the main furniture of the houses. They were set near the walls. Cuts and puncture marks indicated they served as work platforms; mats rolled out onto them tie with elders' memories of such benches used as beds.

Storage concentrated behind the benches, along the walls and in corners between benches. These locations within the houses have yielded the most artifacts. The rafters must have also provided storage, but the mudflow carried away this part of the houses.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Suttle & Lane (1990), p. 491
  2. ^ Old Man House is occasionally found (incorrectly or from Chinook Jargon) as Ole Man House or Oleman House.

Further reading[edit]