The expression comes 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.
An old Iroquois legend tells of 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.
Although it is believed that burying the hatchet ceremonies took place long before Christopher Columbus, the only surviving records come from European accounts. The French Jesuit Relations from 1644 described that when the Iroquois visited Quebec, they wished 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 mention comes from Judge Samuel Sewall – who would later become notorious for presiding over the Salem witch trials – writing in 1680:
“I writt to you of the Mischief the Mohawks did… 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 & binding than all Articles of Peace, the hatchet being a principal weapon with them.”
It wasn’t long before the settlers latched onto the phrase and used ‘bury the hatchet’ as a figurative call for peace. In the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell, Colonel Benjamin Hawkins wrote: “The hatchet shall be buried forever”, and in 1761, a Burying the Hatchet Ceremony took place between the British and Mi’kmag tribe in Nova Scotia.