The idiom “bury the hatchet” means to end a quarrel or disagreement and make peace. It is thought to have originated among Native American tribes in North America. In some Native American cultures, it was a common practice for two warring tribes to bury a hatchet as a symbol of their truce. The hatchet represented the weapons that had been used in the conflict, and burying it signified that the fighting was over. The idiom “bury the hatchet” is a powerful expression that has been used for centuries to describe the end of a conflict or disagreement. It is a reminder that even the most bitter enemies can find peace if they are willing to forgive and forget.
Origin of “bury the hatchet”
It is generally assumed that the phrase comes from Native American warfare practices, from a centuries-old practice involving the literal burying of a hatchet, seen among the Native American tribes of North America. Chiefs would meet and bury their weapons as a symbolic gesture of peace.
There is an Iroquois folk legend about two leaders who convinced the five great nations – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca – to stop fighting and form a confederacy. To celebrate the peace, they buried their weapons under the roots of a large, white pine tree, and an underground river washed them away.
This said, aroud 90-77BC the Lamanites were converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ when they saw the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were not fighting back. They then laid down their weapons of war and buried them, which could well be the earliest known case of burying the hatchet.
A translation of Thwaites’ monumental work Jesuit Relations, 1644, is the first known written suggestion of burying a hatchet, without using the exact phrase. He suggests that feuders should:
“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 English reference to the specific phrase comes from Judge Samuel Sewall – who would later become notorious for presiding over the Salem witch trials – in 1680:
“I write to you of the Mischief the Mohawks did… they came to an agreement and buried two Axes in the Ground; one for the English 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.”
The settlers adopted the phrase ‘bury the hatchet’ and used it as a call for peace. In the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell, Colonel Benjamin Hawkins wrote: “The hatchet shall be buried forever.” In 1761, a Burying the Hatchet Ceremony took place between the British and Mi’kmag tribe in Nova Scotia.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) believe the phrase is a reference to Alma 24:19:
“… and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.”
The earliest recorded use of the idiom “bury the hatchet” in English dates back to 1634. It was used in a letter written by Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who had lived among the Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island. In the letter, Williams wrote about the importance of peace between the Native Americans and the colonists. He said that “it is high time for us to bury the hatchet and live like neighbours.”
The idiom “bury the hatchet” quickly became popular in English-speaking cultures. It was used in both formal and informal settings, and it appeared in a variety of literary works. In 1775, for example, the American revolutionary leader Patrick Henry used the idiom in a speech urging his fellow colonists to fight for independence from Great Britain. He said, “We must bury the hatchet with the British lion and unite in one common cause.”
The idiom “bury the hatchet” has continued to be used in English-speaking cultures up to the present day. It is a common expression used to describe the end of a conflict or disagreement. It is also used in a more figurative sense to mean to forget about past problems and start fresh.
“Bury the Hatchet” across America
An early mention of the practice is to an actual hatchet-burying ceremony in Massachusetts. Samuel Sewall wrote in 1680
“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 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.”
The Treaty of Hopewell, signed by Col. Benjamin Hawkins, Gen. Andrew Pickens and Headman McIntosh, in Keowee, South Carolina in 1795 established the boundary of the Cherokee Nation, and made use of the phrase “bury the hatchet”. Article 11 reads,
“The hatchet shall be forever buried, and the peace given by the United States, and friendship re-established between the said states on the one part, and all the Cherokees on the other, shall be universal; and the contracting parties shall use their utmost endeavors to maintain the peace given as aforesaid, and friendship re-established.”
At the Return Day festival in Georgetown Delaware, which occurs after each election, a “burying of the hatchet” ceremony is performed by chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties. The ceremony symbolizes the two parties making peace after the election and moving on.
In 1926, fifty years after the Battle of Little Bighorn Sioux Chief White Bull and General Edward Godfrey buried the hatchet at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Garryowen, Montana. It was near this site that Custer began his attack against the Sioux,
The Burying the Hatchet ceremony happened in Nova Scotia on June 25, 1761. It ended more than seventy-five years of war between the British and the Mi’kmaq.
“Bury the hatchet” was used in 1759 by the Shawnee orator Missiweakiwa when the French war effort during the Seven Years War was collapsing. The Shawnees had sided with the French against the English, but now the Shawnee would “bury the bloody Hatchet” with the English.
The first record of a peace ceremony in San Antonio, Texas was in 1749 between the Spanish commander of the presidio Captain Toribio de Urrutia, Fray Santa Ana, and the Lipan Apache people.
“Bury the hatchet” in literature
Here are some examples of the idiom “bury the hatchet” being used in literature:
- In the novel “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper, the character of Hawkeye uses the idiom to describe the end of a conflict between the Mohicans and the Hurons. He says, “Now we must bury the hatchet, and live like neighbours.”
- In the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator uses the idiom to describe his desire to end his grief over the loss of his beloved Lenore. He says, “And I am fain to think there is some peace in store,/For I have buried the hatchet of despair.”
- In the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, the character of Atticus Finch uses the idiom to describe his belief in the power of forgiveness. He says, “We’re supposed to forgive. It’s one of the things that make us civilized.”
“Bury the hatchet” in popular culture
The idiom “bury the hatchet” has also been used in popular culture, including music, paintings, and cinema.
- In the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, the singer uses the idiom to describe his desire to end a cycle of violence. He sings, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. We could all use a little “burying the hatchet” now and then.”
- In the painting “The Burial of the Hatchet” by John Gast, the artist depicts a scene of Native Americans and white settlers burying a hatchet as a symbol of their peace treaty.
- In the film “The Godfather” by Francis Ford Coppola, the character of Michael Corleone uses the idiom to describe his decision to end the violence between his family and the rival Tattaglia family. He says, “It’s time to bury the hatchet.”
Using “bury the hatchet”
Here are some examples of how the idiom “bury the hatchet” might be used in the modern context:
- In business: The idiom “bury the hatchet” is often used in business to describe the process of resolving a conflict between two or more parties. For example, two companies that have been competing for the same market share may decide to “bury the hatchet” and form a partnership.
- In friendships: The idiom “bury the hatchet” is also used in friendships to describe the process of forgiving and forgetting a disagreement. For example, two friends who have had a falling out may decide to “bury the hatchet” and move on with their friendship.
- In families: The idiom “bury the hatchet” is also used in families to describe the process of resolving a conflict between family members. For example, a parent and child who have been arguing may decide to “bury the hatchet” and try to have a more harmonious relationship.
- In romantic relationships: The idiom “bury the hatchet” is also used in romantic relationships to describe the process of forgiving and forgetting a betrayal or other wrongdoing. For example, a couple who has been through a rough patch may decide to “bury the hatchet” and try to rebuild their relationship.
In all of these cases, the idiom “bury the hatchet” is used to convey the idea that two parties are willing to put aside their differences and move on. It is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and it can be a powerful tool for healing relationships.