Bury the Hatchet by Neal Murphy

December 3, 2015 - So you and your friend have had an argument. There appears to be no solution in which each can save face. What can you do? We have all found ourselves in situations in which severe difference of opinions have resulted in total severance of contact. Perhaps the answer would be what the American Indians did, bury the hatchet. But, is this a figure of speech, or a literal action?

Research into these words reveals that it did originate as an American Indian tradition. Hatchets were buried by the chiefs of tribes when they came to a peace agreement. This phrase is recorded from the 17th century in English, but the practice it refers to is much earlier. In fact, the following sentence is found in a writing of a 1644 document: “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.”

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 wrote to you in a letter of the mischief the Mohawks did; which occasioned Major Pynchon’s going to Albany where meeting with the Sachem, they came to an agreement and buried two axes in the ground, one for English and another for themselves; which ceremony to them is more significant and binding than all Articles of Peace, the hatchet being a principal weapon with them.”

According to tradition, the Iroquois leaders Deganawidah and Hiawatha convinced the Five Nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) to stop fighting among themselves and form a Confederacy. This probably happened before Columbus arrived, but how much before is a matter of controversy. To celebrate the new peace, the Iroquois buried their weapons under the roots of a large white pine tree. An underground river then miraculously washed the weapons away. The tribes could never use them against each other again.

Before the end of the eighteenth century, the phrase was extended to include peace between countries, specifically between the U.S. and the 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 further extended 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 General Wilkinson, but wished to bury the hatchet.”

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 rarer than “bury the hatchet”.

These days the actual burying of a hatchet is no longer done physically. It is more of a symbolic gesture referring to parties forgiving each other. I hear the phrase used rather frequently between feuding parties. I have even heard it said by one of the parties, “I buried the hatchet but left the handle showing so I can locate it and dig it up again.” So, it appears that the hatchet must be completely buried, handle and all, if it is to mean anything to both parties.

Do you have anyone in your life with a hatchet that needs burying? There is no time like the present to do so.