THE HURONS ... Allied To The French
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Our Hurons, as you see, are not the dullards one might think. They seem to me to be people of common sense and I find them invariably quite docile. - Father Jean de Brebeuf
This is a brief look at the Huron people of the 17th and 18th century. For more history, please visit the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, Jesuit Relations, First Nations, and St. Marie Among the Huron web sites, all of which can be found on our History Links Page.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are taken from the Jesuit Huron Relations, with these particular quotes excerpted from the 1634-36 accounts written by Father Jean De Brebeuf. It offers a first hand account of life among the Huron of the 17th century. The Relations are an invaluable source of early Canadian/Huron history.
The Huron. Partially through James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans", partially through their alliance with France, the Huron embody the "savage" enemy of English settlements ... the scourge of the Anglo frontier. Were they more ruthless, more blood thirsty than other players of the North American war game? No. But their allegiance was clearly with France and their long standing hatred of the Iroquois made the Huron a perfect symbol of wild savagery waiting to be unleashed upon defenseless women and children. But who were the Huron really?
Known also as the Wyandot, the Huron were among the first Indian people to have contact with the French. It was they who Jacques Cartier met during his exploration of the St. Lawrence region in 1534 and again during subsequent trips. The friendship begun between the Huron and the French in the 16th century was to prove long lasting and invaluable. It also cemented mutual enemies, namely the Iroquois and the English. French assistance to Algonquians and Hurons in their wars against the Iroquois was to mark France as yet another enemy of the Five Nations.
Belonging to the Iroquoian linguistic group, Wyandot, Ouendat, or Guyandot, meant either "dwellers on a peninsula" or "islanders". The name Huron is derived from the French hure`, or "rough". The earliest known homelands of the Huron were the territory from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay, and the St. Lawrence River Valley. There were approximately 10 principal villages during Cartier's visits, two of which were the sites of present day Quebec and Montreal (Stadacona and Hochelaga). When Samuel de Champlain explored the region in 1603, he listed several more and noted that there were four confederated Huron tribes, all south of Georgian Bay.
Huron homelands were known as Ouendake, which loosely translates to "home of the island dwellers". Ouendake was surrounded by water, making river and lake travel an essential part of everyday life in Huronia. This in turn caused the Huron to become superb in the production and use of canoes. Traveling at great distances, the people of Ouendake became active traders. Their skills with canoes, great stamina, and flourishing trade activity, no doubt factored into their relations with the French in early 17th century. A formal trading alliance was entered into and ratified in 1614 between the Huron Confederacy and France.
Huronia's fertile soil, numerous waterways, and population density was described by Father de Brebeuf:
The Huron country is not large. Its greatest extent can be covered in three or four days. It is a beautiful and largely flat land. It is surrounded and criss-crossed by a number of very beautiful lakes or rather seas. From this we know the one which lies to the north and northwest as the fresh-water sea (la mer douce). We cross it on the way from the Bissirinians.
Though the Huron were of the Iroquoian linguistic family and were culturally similar, the family connection ended there. The relationship between the two was inherited hostility. The Five Nations were a rapidly growing super power, gaining strength through their confederacy, subjugating neighboring tribes, and instilling fear throughout the northeast. Continual wars erupted until the Iroquois finally crushed the Huron confederacy in 1648-49 (Father de Brebeuf was martyred in 1649 during a particularly brutal killing at the hands of attacking Iroquois). Though not annihilated, many surviving Huron were absorbed into the Iroquois Confederacy while others fled into exile. This victory is known as the "dispersal". The following, written in 1635, shows the degree in which fear of the enemy was an ever present consideration.
Last year, 1634, when we reached Three Rivers, the now established trading post, we were beset with some difficulties and perplexities. In the first place, there were only 11 Huron canoes to accommodate 10 extra of us, who were planning to go with them to their home. And we were in serious doubt about any other (Huron) coming down this year because of the great defeat suffered last spring in battle with the Iroquois (called Sonontrerrhonons) and the fear they had of encountering a new force. This made us hesitate whether to take advantage of the present opportunities or wait for a better one.
Following the Iroquois victory of 1648/49, the Hurons were found primarily in two locations; at Lorette near Quebec ( known as Lorette Hurons), and Michigan, where Antoine de Lamathe Cadillac later established a trading post called Fort Ponchartrain. Fort Michillimakinac (Huron for 'turtle'), shortened to Fort Makinac, situated at the confluence of Lakes Huron and Michigan was inhabited by over 7,000 French, Ottawa, and Huron during the early years of the French and Indian War. The Michigan Hurons continued to spread into the western Great Lakes region (Detroit). These Huron refugees came to be known by their own name, Wyandot. It was from these two regions, Detroit and Quebec, Huron warriors were recruited to aid in New France's war with England. This was Huron Land.
In 1615, French missionaries (Franciscans) began the first travels among the Huron. In 1626, one year after a wave of disease decimated many Huron villages, the Jesuits entered Huronia, ushering in an era of intense missionary endeavours and stability which was to prove as crucial to France as it was to the Huron. The Black Robes preached and lived among the Huron, learned the language, and wrote extensive notes (often on birch bark) pertaining to these fascinating people of the St. Lawrence region. Father de Brebeuf's Huron Relations resulted in an early written history of eastern Canada and the people who inhabited the lake and river country. The Jesuit missionary endeavours were successful, flourishing until the blow dealt by the Iroquois in 1648-49. Despite the upheaval, which exiled the Jesuits as well as the Hurons, the influence and good relations continued well into the 18th century. Jesuits, for their part, learned, spoke, and recorded the Huron language in writing, allowing the preservation and study of the tongue of this Iroquoian speaking people as it was spoken centuries ago. The Jesuits also translated the earliest written text in a Native language, the Huron Bible. Father de Brebeuf wrote "The Huron Carol", in the native language, called "Lesous Ahatonnia" (Jesus, He Is Born). Understanding the ways and words of the Huron was clearly given great import by the missionaries.
Yet, trusting in the goodness of God and not in our own strength or efforts, here is what we have done for the conversion of this race since our coming. First of all we busied ourselves, studying the language which because of the complexity of its compound words seems endless. But we can, none the less, do nothing without such study. Everyone here has applied himself most zealously, reviving the ancient way of writing on birchbark, for lack of paper. More than anyone else, Fathers Davost and Daniel have worked at it. They know as many words as I do and perhaps more. But they have had as yet no practice in quickly forming and joining them together, although Father Daniel already expresses himself quite passably. As for myself, I am teaching it to our French. If God does not give me some extra assistance, I shall be a long time at school to the Indian, so rich is their language.......
I am glad to find that this is a language common to some twelve other nations, all sedentary and numerous. These are the Conkhandeerrhonons, Khionontaterrhonons (Tobacco), Atinouandaronks (Neutrals), Sonontoerrhonons (Senecas), Onontaerrhonons (Onandagas), Ouioenrhonons (Cayugas), Onoiochronons (Oneidas), Agnierrhonons (Mohawks), Andastoerrhonons (Andastes), Scahentoarrhonons, Rhiierrhonons (Eries), and Ahouenrochrhonons. The Hurons are friendly to all except the Sonontoerrhonons (Senecas), Onontaerrhonons (Onandagas), Ouioenrhonons (Cayugas), Onoiochrhonons (Oneidas) and Agnierrhonons (Mohawks), all of whom group under the name Iroquois. And yet they are already at peace with the Sonontoerrhonons (Senecas) since they defeated them last year in springtime. Delegates from the entire area have gone to Sonontoen to ratify this peace, and it is said that the Onontaerrhonons, Ouioenrhonons, Onoiochronons and Agnierrhonons wish to become parties thereto.
The Relations offer a first hand look at everyday life in Huronia; food, travel, war, family relations, religious practices, treatment of guests, prisoners, and so on. So rich in observations of geography, culture, and manners are these writings, that the volumes are invaluable as a source of information on Huronia in the early contact period. They are filled with uneventful, common, daily aspects of life. Accounts of travel reveal the difficulty and skill required to navigate a canoe through rough waters, with little food, and through a wayward course due to the conscious effort to avoid the enemy Iroquois. One is left with a greater appreciation for the skills required and the dangers present with these frequent canoe trips.
Wearisome, not only on account of its length, and of the poor food along the way, but also because of the detours which have to be made in coming here from Quebec by way of the Bissirinians and the Little Nation. I understand that this makes a journey of more than 300 leagues. The trip it is true is shorter by way of the St. Louis Rapids and the Lake of the Iroquois. But the fear of enemies and the few advantages to be met with made that route unusable. Of two of the usual difficulties, the first is that of the rapids and portages. Your Reverence has already seen enough of the rapids near Quebec to know what they are like. All rivers in this country are filled with them and this is particularly true of the St. Lawrence River when one gets beyond the River of the Prairies. From that point onwards it has no smooth bed but is broken up in several places, rolling and leaping fearfully as an impetuous torrent. In places it can even drop suddenly many feet. As we made our way, I remembered the cataracts of the Nile as described by historians. When one approaches these falls or rushing rapids, one needs must land to carry all the baggage, and even canoes, on one's shoulders through woods and over high and troublesome rocks. Great effort must be put in this for there are portages of one, two, and three leagues, to which must be added the necessity for making several trips, no matter how few packages one has.
... On the simplicity and scarcity of food.
The ordinary meal is only a little Indian corn, crushed rather crudely between two stones, or sometimes left whole, and then taken with fresh water. This is not very appetizing. Now and again there is fish, but only by chance, except when one meets another tribe where one can buy it.
Father de Brebeuf's attachment to the Hurons with whom he lived and died is evident in his writings. Oftentimes, the Relations contain samplings of Huron sentiments toward him.
As soon as I was spotted from the village, the cry was raised by some "Echon is back." This is the name they gave me. Everyone rushed out to greet me and welcome me - each one calling me by name and calling "Echon - my nephew, my brother, my cousin, have you really come back to us?"
The Huron, of course, were not nomadic. They hunted, fished and grew corn, beans, tobacco, sunflowers, and squash. Though the land was fertile, and produced good crops, food supplies were often low. Despite this, according to the Black Robe, the Huron were very hospitable. Generosity was often extended upon pain of hunger for the host. Whatever was available was to be shared.
You may dwell wherever you like, for this nation more than all others is extremely hospitable to anyone, even to a complete stranger. You may stay with them as long as you please, well treated according to the manner of the country. On leaving, you have no further obligation than a Ho! Ho! Ho! etc. or a hearty thanks, at least among themselves.
Huron "cabins" were modest but comfortable. These pole framed, bark covered "longhouses" were of the same style and construction as homes of other eastern woodland Indians. The Jesuits lived in the same bark covered dwellings as their hosts. Though they were smoky, dark, and dirty, they provided warmth and shelter - which was what they were intended for.
I cannot better explain the nature of Huron cabins than to compare them to the bowers and garden arbours (at home), some of which instead of branches and greenery, are covered with cedar bark, others with large pieces of ash, elm, fir, or spruce bark. Although cedar is best according to common thought and practice, it has this danger that it is almost as easy to set aflame as matches, whence many a town is burnt out. To mention no others, this year two were entirely destroyed in less than a ten day period and another, that of Louis de Sainte Foy, partially burned. And once we also saw our cabin ablaze but thank God we extinguished the flames at once. These cabins or bowers are of fifty, a hundred, one hundred and fifty, two hundred feet. The usual width is about twenty feet and the height is about the same. The is only one story and there is no cellar, nor room, nor garret. There is no window, no chimney - only a miserable aperature in the roof of the cabin, left to permit smoke to escape. This is the way they built our house for us. The people of Oenrio and of our village worked at it in return for some gifts from us. It took a lot of effort on our part to have it completed, as much because almost all the Indians were sick, as because of the working together of the two villages. Although the work was not great, those of our village imitated those of Oenrio, who, hoping to attract us, in the end, to their village, simply amused themselves without advancing the work. We were almost into the month of October before we were under shelter. We have fitted up the inside to suit ourselves. Even though it is not much, the Indians never tire of coming to see it and seeing it to wonder at it.
In his instructions to other missionaries, Father de Brebeuf reveals a strong familiarity with Huron ways and offers a glimpse of Huron customs and manners. He cautions his fellow missionaries to use common sense and respect. An introduction to the guidelines from the Wyandot Nation of Kansas reads; "In 1637, Father Jean de Brebeuf drew up a list of instructions for Jesuit missionaries destined to work among the Huron. These reflect his own experience and a genuine sensitivity toward our people."
You must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers.
Huron men are described as slender, not excessively muscular, with typical height ranging from 5'9" to 6'. They were noted for their great stamina and ability to travel great distances with little food. Hair length and style varied according to individual preference. Long, braided, half shaved, scalplock, ... with many warriors shaving or cutting prior to their departure in a war party.
Clothing items remained constant, with no major changes in dress until the mid 18th century. Huron men typically wore blackened buckskin with red borders and large clan symbols. Attire included the atenionta (breech clout) which was nearly knee length in front and back, gathered-style moccasins, tunics, leggings, and sometimes a kilt. Sleeves were attached in the winter, and black fox robes were worn for warmth. A Huron pouch differed from others in that it usually had a long flap. Women wore tunics, leggings, moccasins, etc., and also attached sleeves in the winter. Snow shoes were worn, as well as cornhusk overshoes. Quillwork and moose hair embroidery was used to adorn articles of clothing worn for ceremonies or special occasions. Though the blackened buckskin was eventually replaced with black trade cloth, the dominant colors in the dress of the Hurons remained black and red.
Marriage between Huron women and French traders was common, giving rise to the term Metis, which refers to those of both French and Indian parentage. Through missionary activity, trade agreements, and the 'acculturation' of the Coureur de Bois, the Franco-Huron bonds were strong. A friend of one was assumed to be a friend to the other; an enemy was likewise an enemy to both. Thus as the English settled the northern regions of America, they came not only as enemies of France, but also of the Huron Nation. And through their courting and favor of the Iroquois, the English were seen as a despised enemy. (This was not to change until early 19th century, when a Huron alliance was made with England against the Americans in the war of 1812.)
As the colonial wars raged throughout eastern North America, the Hurons proved themselves to be unwavering in their support of New France. The skills they possessed in tracking, raiding, and ambushing were invaluable to the war efforts. Where there were French, there were probably Hurons. Capitaine Pierre Pouchot recorded the presence of Hurons at Fort Niagara. Huron warriors were part of the French Indian force that defeated the garrison at Fort William Henry. Like at Forts Makinac and Detroit, they were very much a part of life at Fort DuQuesne prior to its fall to the English, along with the one Six Nations tribes that overtly cooperated with France and with whom the Huron had made peace, the Seneca.
The value of Huron support should not be underestimated when one reflects upon the numerous French victories in the French and Indian War. Without Indian allies beside them, including Huron warriors, it is doubtful that France could have obtained the success she did before finally being defeated by England. Perhaps it could be said that the Huron ultimately paid for choosing the "wrong" side. With an English victory ending the colonial wars, and an American victory over England to follow, the Huron or Wyandot were left as nomads in a country far from their homelands. This is in stark contrast to the fate of the Iroquois, who by their strength and political shrewdness, were insured possession, even today, of Iroquoia.
During the 19th century, the Wyandots, as they were known south of Canada, were forced westward until they were finally removed to Indian Territory. Today, the Wyandot Nation lives on, though they live far from Huronia. There are Huron communities in the Georgian Bay region of Canada.
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