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200 Years of Tuscarora Beadwork

12-0011200 Years of Tuscarora Beadwork at Niagara Falls: the War of 1812 to Present

There are a number of suggestions on the origin of the name of the falls. Bruce Trigger who writes about Iroquois suggests it is derived from “Niagagarega”, the name given to a local group of the Neutral Confederacy. George Stewart who studies origins of place names believes it comes from “Ongniaahra”, an Iroquois town whose name means “point of land cut in two”. While the ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft proposed that the name was Mohawk, coming from the word “onyara”, meaning neck as the Mohawk pronounced “Niagara” as “O-ne-au-ga-rah”.

Prior to 1812 the primary visitors to Niagara Falls were explorers. Samuel de Champlain was the first European visitor in 1604 and members of his party reported to him the spectacular waterfalls which he described in his journals. Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm provided the first scientific description in the early 18th century, but it is Belgian missionary Louis Hennepin who is recognized as the first to provide a description of the falls in 1677, and who brought the falls to the attention of Europeans.

Following the war of 1812 an increasing number of tourists came to the falls. Sherman Zavitz noted that for most people living in the 19th century, a visit to the falls was the trip of a lifetime. British author Fanny Trollope wrote of her visit with her daughters “We drenched ourselves in spray; we cut our feet on the rocks; we blistered our faces in the sun; we looked up the cataract and down the cataract; we perched ourselves on every pinnacle we could find…we strove to fill as many niches of memory with Niagara as possible.”

Early Visitors to Niagara Falls

Iroquois Beadwork

The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, and their ancestors have made and worn beads for thousands of years. The earliest beads were formed from items found in nature; Shiny stones were polished, drilled, and used as jewelry while animal bones, antlers, and clam shells were carved and drilled for pendants and earrings, and sometimes sewn onto clothes. Porcupine quills were more often attached to clothing for decoration and could be colored with dye.

The first glass beads arrived from Europe in the 1500s and were traded into Iroquois territory up the Susquehanna River in the south, the Hudson River in the east, and the St. Lawrence River in the north, each of which led to the Atlantic Ocean making them convenient trade routes. However it was not until the early 1700s that Iroquois beadworkers began to use glass beads, which were sewn onto leggings, fingerwoven sashes and red and blue wool cloth. By the late 1700s the Seneca were sewing glass beads onto pincushions in geometrical and often symmetrical patterns, though these designs became more imaginative over the next few decades.

facebook - seneca women selling at falls 1859Tuscarora Beadwork at Niagara Falls

The Tuscarora Nation is a sovereign Native American nation in the Niagara region of upstate New York, and a member of the “Six Nations” of the Iroquois Confederacy. Tuscarora beadworkers are renowned around the world for their “raised” or “embossed” beadwork, which involves sewing beads in raised arches or on top of one another and is referred to as the “hump stitch” or “rope stitch”. The Tuscarora joined the Iroquois Confederacy in the early 1700s for protection from the Tuscarora Wars and slave hunters in North Carolina. In the late 18th century around 2000 Iroquois refugees were settled along an 8 mile stretch between Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario as a result of General John Sullivan’s 1779 “scorched earth” campaign against the British Loyalists and Haudenosaunee allies. They lost access to vast areas of their traditional hunting grounds, but those who had supported the defeated British followed Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant to Canada where they were granted a substantial tract of land along the Grand River.

The war forced many Haudenosaunee communities to find new ways to live, such as using their beadworking skills to produce souvenir beadwork for tourists. Travelers were unable to avoid the Iroquois in the area and many went to them in search of beadwork. The traditional styles that existed before the American Revolution changed and largely vanished, to be replaced by the distinct, less elaborate styles, sold mainly at Niagara Falls.No vacation was complete without a trip to Tuscarora reservation which was considered second only to the falls.

Picture 082Tuscarora beadwork, referred to as “whimsies” by Europeans, created a cottage industry selling beautiful beaded art at the “Brink of the Falls” or “along the Rapids”. They combined traditional Iroquois designs with Victorian fashions. They adorned souvenirs such as purses, pin cushions, frames, jewellery boxes and wall hangings with flowers, animals, dates, sentiments, or place names such as “from Niagara Falls”.

The Tuscarora were the only Nation to have the right to sell their souvenirs upon the privately owned lands by the falls, though other nations made and sold beadwork. According to Tuscarora oral tradition, Tuscarora men served and protected U.S. General Peter B. Porter during the War of 1812, who was captured by the British and taken to Fort George, in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Tuscarora scouts rescued General Porter and as a reward for his safe return, the Porter family, who owned the land by Niagara Falls, gave Tuscarora women the permanent right to sell their beadwork along the Niagara rapids..

In 1885 though, private land was nationalized, resulting in the creation of the Niagara State Reservation. Tuscarora women were able to continue to sell their beadwork in what is now Prospect Park but in May 1936 the Niagara State Reservation police barred them from doing so. In June 1936, the State created a permit system which allowed the Tuscarora to sell their goods along the rapids, but they have since lost their exclusive right to sell their goods on Park lands. Currently, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation use a lottery system, open to any Native American lucky enough to receive one of the five permits issued.

Over 200 years later, Tuscarora beadworkers still produce their beautiful beadwork with notable artists including Dolly Printup Winden, Mary Annette Clause, Grant Jonathan, Bryan Printup and Rosemary Rickard Hill (Biron, 2011). Many beadwork artists still use traditional techniques and styles, but others are more contemporary in their work. Today beadwork can be found not only on clothing and accessories but even pottery, jewellery, menus and business cards, and the art from is used to teach history, patience and self-respect. Tuscarora beadwork can still be purchased today on the grounds of Niagara Falls, despite the complex rules and restrictions of the permitting system limit their ability to sell our beadwork along the falls. Today visitors can also purchase beadwork at the Tuscarora and Friends Gallery located in Lewiston NY as well as enjoy an exhibit Tuscarora raised beadwork.


Biron, Gerry (31st May 2011) “Niagara Falls and Tuscarora Beadwork” [Accessed 14th August 2012].

Biron, Gerry [Accessed 16th August 2012].

DeVeaux, S. (1839) The Falls of Niagara or Tourist’s Guide to this Wonder of Nature. Buffalo: William B. Hayden, The Press of Thomas & Co.

Schoolcraft, Henry R. (1847) Notes on the Iroquois. pp. 453-454.

Stewart, George R. (1967) Names on the Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company: pg. 83.

Trigger, Bruce (1987) The Children of Aataentsi., Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press: p. 95.

“Beadworking” [Accessed 14th August 2012].

“Niagara Falls” (25th July 2012) [Accessed 14th August 2012].

“The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents Volume 33″ [Last modified 16th October 2010].

Research and writing Anna Leslie, August 12, 2012