Huron Co History – Pre-Settlement

“We would like to acknowledge that the land we stand upon today is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Neutral peoples. We recognize the First Peoples’ continued stewardship of the land and water, and that this territory was subject to the Dish with One Spoon wampum, under which multiple nations agreed to care for the land and resources by the Great Lakes in peace. We would also like to acknowledge and recognize the Upper Canada Treaties signed in regards to this land, which include Treaty #29 and Treaty #45 1/2, and our roles as treaty people, committed to moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation, gratitude, and respect with all First Nation, Métis and Inuit people.”

Thanks to the Huron County Library for sharing this beautifully written acknowledgement

The Attawandaron:  Huron’s First People

By David Yates

            Ironically, Huron County is named after an aboriginal group that never lived here. The Huron or Wendot nation for whom the county is named inhabited the region closer to Georgian Bay.

            When “Tiger’ Dunlop made his appearance at the mouth of what is now the Maitland River in 1827, he encountered ‘wigwams’ of Chippewa Indians encamped along the river flats.   Indeed, in 1825, it was the Chippewa people from whom the Crown negotiated the purchase of the Huron Tract in Amherstburg. 

            The Chippewa who would return every summer to the Maitland, until about 1900, were not the first inhabitants of Huron County.  The earliest known settlers of the Huron Tract were the Attawandaron people.       

            Samuel de Champlain referred to them as the Neutral Nation because using skilful diplomacy, the Attawandaron were able to remain aloof from the conflicts between the powerful Iroquois Confederacy in the south and the Hurons in the north.  The Attawandaron controlled southwestern Ontario from the Niagara Peninsula to the Detroit River with present day Huron County forming the northern fringe of their settlement area.

            As the Attawandaron left no written records, everything known about them is derived from outside sources.  Even the name ‘Attawandaron’ is a Huron phrase which roughly translates into “people of a similar language’ indicating that the Attawandaron were a branch of the Huron.

            The Neutrals were a powerful native group. They controlled the vital supply of flint produced near Ipperwash.  Flint was a precious commodity necessary to make tools and fire. The Attawandaron successfully exploited their monopoly on flint production to become excellent traders with their more powerful neighbours.

            The first French missionary to visit Attawandaron territory was Father d‘Aillan, a Recollet priest who live amongst them in 1626.  His impressions are one of the few firsthand accounts of Neutral life.  Although he expressed shock at the complete nudity of the Attawandaron in summer,  he commented that their morals were “not less indecent” than the Huron.  D’Aillan could not help but notice that they were “physically the finest body of men I have ever seen anywhere.”

            Another missionary, Father Jerome Lalemant suggested that he did “not believe there is any people on earth freer than they, and less able to yield subjection of their wills to any power whatever, so much so that fathers here have no control over their children, or chiefs over their subjects. There is no punishment inflicted on the guilty.”

            A chief’s influence over his following was never absolute according to d’Aillon.  An Attawandaron chief’s status was directly related to bravery in battle and his powers of persuasion. One chief named Tsohahissen who had adopted Father d’Aillon into his lodge earned the respect of his village by his ferocity in battle. He had brought back many scalps from the 17 tribes he had fought against.

            Women could also play a leadership role.  The Attawandaron, like the Huron, were a matrilineal society who traced their ancestry through the mother.  One oral legend credits a female chief named Jikonsaseh or “Queen of Peace” with preserving the Attawandaron’s independence from the Huron and Iroquois on at least one occasion.

            All accounts agree that they were a sophisticated native group.  In addition to exercising skilful diplomacy, the Attawandaron were semi-nomadic in that they stayed in one village long enough to cultivate a wide variety of vegetables including beans, tobacco, corn and squash. Villages moved periodically to prevent soil depletion from over farming.

            In the summer, some members of the village migrated to rivers and lakes to take advantage of plentiful fishing.  Father d’Aillan even recorded seeing white tailed deer in pens to provide a ready supply of fresh meat. 

            Like their Huron blood cousins, the Attawandaron lived in lodges with up to 12 fires or approximately 48 people per lodge.  One modern estimate suggests that most native women were almost blind by age 40 because of the poor smoke ventilation in the lodges.  However, famine in an area where fish and game were so plentiful was a rare occurrence.

            The population of the Attawandaron is difficult to estimate. Father d’Aillon counted 28 villages in 1626. Jesuit missionaries Fathers Jean Brebeuf and Pierre Chaumonot in 1640-41 counted 40 semi-permanent villages in Neutral territory.  They guessed that their numbers were not less than 12 000 souls including 4 000 warriors.

            However, powerful forces beyond Attawandaron control were at work which would soon lead to their doom. The precarious balance of power that allowed the Attawandaron to maintain an independent neutrality was about to change forever.

            In the seventeenth century Anglo-French rivalry for empire, the French backed the Huron while the British allied themselves with the Iroquois.  Stone tools and weapons gave way to iron tools and muskets.  Any tribe who had access to European goods was at a tremendous advantage over those who did not.

            The Attawandaron, lacking European allies, were caught between two well-armed and now technologically advanced Indian nations.  Beginning in 1647, the Iroquois violated Attawandaron neutrality and systematically destroyed Huron and Attawandaron villages alike.

            The Iroquois massacre of the Huron and Neutrals was made all the more easy by the spread of disease that severely weakened the Neutral people. Virtually every native lodge and village was ravaged by the pox.

            By 1653, the twin disasters of war and disease drove the Attawandaron from their homeland. The surviving remnants fled north and west to seek refuge with other tribes.  They ceased to exist as a people. 

            The last of the pure blood Attawandaron is recorded as living in Michigan territory in 1780.

            “After the massacre of the Neutrals there was nothing. No settlement, no trade and commerce”, is how James Scott began his book The Settlement of Huron County (1966). The Chippewa used the area as a “causal hunting ground.” Chippewa names such as Wawanosh and Menesetung live on in Huron County but there is no reminder of the Attawandaron nation who were the first farmer-settlers of  Huron County.

Thanks to David Yates, teacher, historian and author for allowing us to share this history

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