The basic house type of northern Iroquoian peoples such as the Huron and Iroquois, the longhouse sheltered a number of families related through the female line. It was established throughout the Iroquoian area by the 12th century. They were 8 m wide but of variable length (one 94 m long was uncovered at the Moyer site in southern Ontario). Longhouses described by the early French explorers and by the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century were somewhat shorter. In the 18th century, longhouses were replaced by single-family dwellings for residences, but continued as political and ceremonial structures. Followers of the Handsome Lake Religion continue to refer to the buildings that house their ceremonies as longhouses.
The 17th-century dwelling was constructed by driving flexible poles into the ground at fixed intervals. These were then bent over and lashed together. Horizontal poles strengthened the frame, and cedar-bark (Huron) or elm-bark (Iroquois) sheathing covered the structure. Sleeping platforms ran the length of the house. Each of the three to five hearths, 6 m apart down the middle of the longhouse, was shared by two nuclear families of five or six persons. Firewood was stacked in vestibules near the entrances at either end of the structure. The Iroquois characterized their confederacy as a longhouse of five fires.