Huronia 1600s

Champlain’s battle against the Iroquois near Ticonderoga in 1609. Behind the French officer are his Huron and Algonquin allies.

Huron warrior wearing slat armour, from Champlain’s Voyages of 1619.

Ste. Marie Among the Hurons, an overview. This oblique artist’s representation shows the extent of the Jesuit headquarters in Huronia.

Huronia in the 1600s, showing the relationship of some Huron villages to modem communities.

The story of the first Europeans in central Canada is the story of the struggle to control the fur trade. To any European furs were a great bargain. Although some items exchanged for furs were useful, such as knives, axes, kettles and cloth, many were cheap trinkets, or liquor, which did unpardonable harm to native people unaccustomed to it. The European appetite for furs was insatiable, and the quest to find new areas where animals were plentiful led to the exploration of more and more of the interior.

In the process the natives developed such an appetite for trade goods that competing European powers were able to form alliances with individual nations or tribes to keep the Indians divided. United, they might have been able to preserve their territories and way of life much longer. The natives helped the newcomers by showing them how to live as they did; otherwise the interlopers would not have taken control of the country so easily. European penetration of the interior was done with native cooperation. The destruction of Huronia – the land of the Huron Indians – came about as a consequence of these alliances and rivalries.

New France began in 1608 when Samuel de Champlain founded his little settlement of traders at Quebec, choosing the site for its defence possibilities. If the French were to survive they needed allies. Champlain was quick to perceive the disunity that prevailed among the different nations. By accompanying some Huron and Algonquin warriors to attack the Iroquois in the vicinity of Lake Champlain in 1609, Champlain committed France to an alliance with these nations. Henceforth the warriors of the five Iroquois nations – Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas – were France’s enemies despite certain successes when the French lured some Iroquois close to Montreal to live. The real losers in the struggle between France and the Iroquois were the Hurons.

The Hurons and the Iroquois shared an Iroquoian language, and their longhouses in stockaded villages, and the fields where corn, beans and squash were grown on mounds were similar. Otherwise they were rivals who had fought each other long before the arrival of Europeans – a rivalry that the Dutch and French, and later the English, could exploit.

Huronia, the country of the four nations that made up the Huron, or Wendat, Confederacy, lay between Lake Simcoe and the shores of Georgian Bay. The Hurons, whose numbers have been estimated as 16,000 at the time of their first contact with Europeans, were a trading people. Their own country, where they practiced their shifting agriculture and lived in some eighteen villages, was not rich in beaver. They traded with tribes farther afield and sold pelts to French traders. The members of the Iroquois Confederacy, whose tribal lands lay south of the Great Lakes, had a similar trading relationship with the Dutch in the 1600s, when they had a fur fort at Albany.

No one specific site can be called a battlefield, but a number of archaeological sites have been identified. The most important is Sainte Marie among the Hurons, near Midland, which has been restored, even to locks on the Wye River that runs through this Jesuit mission to the Huron people. At a visitors’ centre a film recreates life in the mission. Above Sainte Marie on the hill stands the Shrine, built to commemorate the six priests and two lay brothers who were killed by the Iroqouois. More of the Huron way of life is shown at the Huronia Museum and a reconstructed Huron village in Little Lake Park, Midland.

Four other sites have been identified and marked. One is St. Ignace II. A plaque marking the site is on the south side of Highway 12 between Coldwater and Victoria Harbour in Tay Township. Cahiagué, an important Huron village, has been partly excavated, near Warminster, fifteen kilometres west of Orillia off Highway 12. A marker in Victoria Harbour commemrates the St. Louis mission; the site is about three kilometres up the Hogg River. Sainte Marie II is on Christian Island, the marker on the east side of the island above the bay and close to the shore.

The first Frenchman to live in what is now Ontario was Etienne Brulé, a teen-aged servant of Samuel de Champlain. At Tadoussac in 1609, New France’s first governor met some Hurons who had come to trade their furs. Champlain decided to send young men to live among these natives to learn their language and customs. When more Hurons came with furs the following year, Champlain sent Brulé home with them. He spent the winter of 1610-1611 in Huronia, but the exact location is uncertain. (The first Englishman to visit Ontario was spending the same winter in James Bay. He was Henry Hudson, and his ship Discovery was frozen in for the season.)

Trade was a powerful motive for having contact with the Indians. The propagation of the gospel of Christianity was another, especially for the French. Almost from their first contacts with the natives, the French sent Roman Catholic missionaries among them. The first missionary to the Hurons was Father Joseph Le Caron, in the grey robes of the Récollet order, who, in 1615, travelled with some guides up the Ottawa River, along Lake Nipissing and the French River to Lake Huron, thence to Huronia. Not many days later Champlain followed the same route, accompanied by some Frenchmen and native guides. In Huronia he found that a large war party was forming at Cahiagué to go to attack the Iroquois in their own country. Impressed by the Frenchmen’s ‘fire sticks’ the warriors asked Champlain and his men to accompany them, and the governor agreed.

South of Huronia was the country of the Petuns, and along Lake Erie that of the Neutrals. Like the Hurons and Iroquois, the Petuns and the Neutrals spoke an Iroquoian language. The latter two tried to avoid the rivalry that existed between the Wendat and Iroquois Confederacies. The war party Champlain and his men accompanied travelled by canoe through the Kawartha Lakes and the Trent River to Lake Ontario, and from there they ascended the Oswego River into the country of the Oneidas. The Hurons were defeated and forced to withdraw. Champlain received an arrow in the leg and was taken back to the Huron country to recuperate. When he returned to Quebec the following year, Father Le Caron went with him.

For a time the French missionaries concentrated their efforts at conversion among the tribes of the eastern woodlands — nomadic hunters who were not easy to find. Hoping for better luck with natives who lived in more permanent agricultural villages, the Missionaries turned their attention to Huronia. Several Récollets went there, and more of Champlain’s young men joined Etienne Brulé.

The Récollets were a very poor order, lacking the money for an effective mission, and consequently, they invited the wealthy Jesuit order to join them. The first black-robed Jesuits arrived in Quebec in 1625. At that time the Récollet, Nicolas Viel, living in a cabin at the Huron village of Toanaché, on the west shore of Penetanguishene Bay, was exhausted. He set out for Quebec to have a rest, but his canoe was swamped in the rapids near the Island of Montreal and he drowned.

In 1626 three priests went westwards – the Récollet La Roche de Daillon, and Jesuits Jean de Brébeuf and Anne de Nouë. They occupied Father Viel’s cabin at Toanché, where Brébeuf remained for three years. The other two left in 1628.

In 1629, Captain David Kirke was sent with three ships to Quebec to capture the stronghold for England. Etienne Brulé and Nicolas Marsolet went to pilot in a French fleet Champlain was expecting. Instead, Brulé and Marsolet met Kirke’s ships at Tadoussac and agreed to guide them into Quebec’s harbour. Champlain surrendered, and Kirke sent the governor and all the missionaries back to France. Three years later, in 1632, by the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, Canada was returned to France. Etienne Brulé, living at Toanché, was murdered by the Hurons, who feared Champlain’s wrath if he caught them sheltering the turncoat. Thus ended the life of the first Frenchman to explore Ontario.

Champlain returned from France, accompanied by black-robed Jesuits but no Récollets, for economy reasons. The Jesuits could pay their own way. In 1634 the Jesuit Fathers, Jean de Brébeuf, Antoine Daniel and Ambroise Davost, with some hired men, went to Huronia. At Ihonatiria, near the northern tip of the Penetanguishene peninsula, they started a mission named St. Joseph.

During the 1635 growing season, both drought and disease struck Ihonatiria, and the survivors left the village. When new Jesuits arrived, Brébeuf moved to the village of Ossossané on Nottawasaga Bay, and opened a new mission, La Conception de Notre Dame. In 1637, Father Jérôme Lalemant opened another mission, St. Joseph II, at Teanaustayé on the upper reaches of the Sturgeon River.

Seeing the need for a well-fortified, centrally-located mission, Lalemant built Sainte Marie (now restored) on the shore of wye River. His workmen opened the first canal in central Canada, with three small locks to divert water within the stockade of Sainte Marie. The Hurons began to trust the missionaries but these were also years when new diseases swept the country. The well-meaning priests and their helpers, all unaware, were the cause of these misfortunes. Measles and smallpox, introduced by Europeans, took a fearful toll despite the efforts of the missionaries to care for the sick.

In the 1640s, when the Hurons had been weakened by disease, the Iroquois saw their opportunity to end the threat posed by the Wendat-French alliance, and to gain control of the fur trade for themselves. Both native confederacies wanted the fire sticks but the French were reluctant to trade such weapons. The Dutch had no such scruples, and they supplied their Iroquois allies with muskets and ammunition. In 1642 the Iroquois attacked the Huron village of Contarea, near the shore of Lake Simcoe (south of Orillia), killed everyone they found, and put the settlement to the torch. Next, they isolated the Hurons by occupying lands along the Ottawa River that belonged to the Algonquin tribe, cutting off communication with Quebec for months, since they also had villages close to the St. Lawrence.

In 1645, Father Jérôme Lalemant left Huronia and the new Superior was Father Paul Ragueneau, who was based at Sainte Marie. By that time the Jesuits had fifty-eight men in Huronia — twenty-two soldiers, eighteen priests, the rest engagés who were allowed to earn money trading, or donnés who were unpaid volunteers. The Jesuits had opened a dozen missions, nine to the Hurons, and three among the Petuns and Algonquins. Land around Sainte Marie had been planted with crops so that the Black Robes, as the Hurons called them, could feed the hundreds who visited them.

The first of the Jesuit martyrs met their fate in 1646. Emboldened by their success in Huronia, the Jesuits attempted to found a mission to the Iroquois. They chose Father Isaac Joques, who had been in Huronia but was then on the Island of Montreal, to go into the Mohawk Valley. In late August, Father Joques set out, accompanied by a lay brother, Jean de Lalande. The Mohawks killed them, placed their heads on a palisade, and threw their bodies into the Mohawk River.

At Teanaustayé, Father Antoine Daniel was in charge of St. Joseph II mission. On 4 July 1648, the Iroquois attacked, and Father Daniel was among those killed. On 14 March 1649, they struck the mission of St. Ignace, on a tributary of the Coldwater River. Hurons fleeing from St. Ignace stopped at St. Louis mission, to the west, to warn the two missionaries then living there, Fathers Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement (a nephew of Father Jérôme Lalement). The two priests refused to desert their flock at St. Louis and both were subsequently tortured to death. Word reached Sainte Marie, where Father Ragueneau decided to evacuate the mission. A war party of Hurons headed for St. Louis mission (on the Hogg River south of Victoria Harbour) to try and turn back the Iroquois. They fought furiously while Father Ragueneau and his followers burned Sainte Marie. The black robes and some Hurons headed for Christian Island for safety, and there they started a second Sainte Marie.

While the destitute Hurons fled to the new Sainte Marie for succour, the Iroquois attacked the three missions to the Petun and Algonquin Indians, and they killed Fathers Charles Garnier and Nöel Chabanel. At Sainte Marie II, the winter was exceedingly severe, for there was not enough food on the island for all the refugee Hurons. In the spring Father Ragueneau evacuated the mission, and with about sixty Frenchmen and 300 Hurons, he set off in canoes for Quebec. The Jesuits’ plan for Huronia had ended in flames at the hands of the Iroquois.

Now the Iroquois turned on the rest of the Petuns, and on the Neutrals, killing them and driving the survivors west and south; later they regrouped and called themselves Wyandots. When the warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy returned to their own country deep inside New York State, the lands of their fellow-Iroquoians lay desolate and deserted. Gradually the Mississaugas, who spoke an Algonkian language, drifted southwards and hunted through the once fertile fields.

In 1664, England wrested the colony of New Netherlands from the Dutch and renamed it New York. The change only intensified the rivalry over the fur trade, and convinced the French to move farther inland. As beaver disappeared from one area through over-trapping, explorers moved on in search of new territory where the animal was still plentiful. As the fur traders moved on towards the west, so did the missionaries, until Britain finally succeeded in acquiring New France slightly more than a century after the demise of the Jesuit missions to Huronia.

Flint and Feather


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