I grew up in New York State and local history was the theme for 7th Grade Social Studies. This included the Iroquois Nations, as I was recently reminded by today’s phrase – to bury the hatchet is to cease and forgive previous hostilities. The phrase gives me a chance to return to a favorite site, The Straight Dope.
According to tradition–no doubt based largely on fact–the Iroquois leaders Deganawidah and Hiawatha convinced the Five Nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) to stop fighting amongst themselves and form a confederacy. This probably happened before Columbus sailed, but how much before is a matter of dispute. To celebrate the new peace, the Iroquois buried their weapons under the roots of a white pine. An underground river then miraculously washed the weapons away so the tribes could never use them against each other again.
French records from 1644 mentioned the tradition, but the first English citation of a literal hatchet-burying came from 1680 and Samuel Sewall (later of Salem Witch Trials fame.)
Major Pynchon’s goeing to Albany, where meeting with the Sachem the[y] came to an agreemt and buried two Axes in the Ground; one for English another for themselves…
In 1705 Beverly wrote of “very ceremonious ways to concluding of Peace, such as burying a Tomahawk.” Tomahawk variations remained popular for over a century, but eventually “hatchet” buried “tomahawk.”
The exact phrase comes from September 18, 1753.
Lord Commissioners of Trade and the Plantations in London wrote a letter to the Governor of Maryland that reads, “His Majesty having been pleased to order a Sum of Money to be Issued for Presents to the Six Nations of Indians [the Iroquois] and to direct his Governour of New York to hold an Interview with them for Delivering those presents [and] for Burying the Hatchet …”
I love Cecil Adams and his Science Advisory Board – such a nicely assembled article.