A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "bury the hatchet"?

May 11, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

Any chance you can dig up the derivation of "bury the hatchet"?

"Bury the hatchet" is an Indianism (a phrase borrowed from Native American speech). The term comes from an Iroquois ceremony in which war axes or other weapons were literally buried in the ground as a symbol of newly made peace. The other two languages spoken by Europeans in close contact with the Iroquois in and around what is now New York state also use the phrase: enterrer la hache de guerre and de strijdbijl begraven. (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which is French and which is Dutch.)

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. I haven't been able to determine whether this was the first such ceremony or just a continuation of an older Iroquoian peace-making tradition.

European missionaries and settlers took note of the tradition in the seventeenth century. French records from 1644 relate that the Iroquois visiting Quebec "proclaim that they wish to unite all the nations of the earth and to hurl the hatchet so far into the depths of the earth that it shall never again be seen in the future" [translation from Thwaites' monumental Jesuit Relations].

The first mention of the practice in English is to an actual hatchet-burying ceremony. Years before he gained notoriety for presiding over the Salem witch trials, Samuel Sewall wrote in 1680, "I writt to you in one [letter] of the Mischief the Mohawks did; which occasioned 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; which ceremony to them is more significant & binding than all Articles of Peace[,] the hatchet being a principal weapon with them."

If the phrase is of Indian origin, why "hatchet" and not "tomahawk"? It wasn't always. 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." That's not inappropriate, since tomahawk is an Algonquian word, not Iroquoian.

Though the practice was familiar early on, the exact phrase "bury the hatchet" didn't crop up until 1753. On September 18th of that year, the 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 ..."

Non-Iroquois tribes were practicing the ceremony by the end of the French and Indian War. In 1761, after the French surrendered Canada, their traditional allies the Micmac (an Algonquian people) buried the hatchet with the British. In the decades after American independence, Congress buried the hatchet with several tribes, many of which (like the Chickasaw) were not Iroquoian.

The opposite of burying the hatchet is taking it up, which occurs in English as early as 1694. Variants include "dig up," "raise," etc. But these war-making phrases are now much more rare than "bury the hatchet."

Before the end of the eighteenth century, the phrase was extended to include peace between countries, specifically between the U.S. and U.K. After signing their treaty in 1794, John Jay wrote to Lord Grenville, "To use an Indian expression, may the hatchet be henceforth buried for ever, and with it all the animosities, which sharpened, and which threatened to redden it."

In the early nineteenth century, the phrase was extended further to refer to personal or professional relations between individuals, the sense in which it is most widely used today. In 1807, during the Aaron Burr trial, Maj. James Bruff testified, "I had long been persecuted by the General [Wilkinson], but wished to bury the hatchet." Knowing now that Wilkinson was a traitor, we can form our own opinions on where he should have buried it.

Further reading:

O Brave New Words!: Native American Loanwords in Current English (1994) by Charles L. Cutler

Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) (2000), edited by Bruce Elliott Johansen and Barbara Alice Mann

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