Aboriginals in Niagara

Thousands of years ago Niagara was discovered by its first inhabitants, aboriginal peoples. The Neutral Indians have been recorded as one of the earliest native tribes residing in the Niagara region. It is estimated that in the early 1600s there were approximately 12,000 Neutrals living in the area, which made them the largest Native group in the Northeast in the 17th century. Their territory was situated around the western end of Lake Ontario and to the north of Lake Erie, and they claimed the land on both sides of the Niagara River. This entire district was called Onguiaahra, which means, “the strait” or “thundering water”. The name Niagara was derived from this Native word, and was also used to name the thundering waters.

The villages of the Neutrals were situated in the forests not far away from the waterways. This tribe had established semi-permanent villages in the area by the 17th century. The Neutrals like other Indian tribes used their surroundings to survive. They used the bark from local trees to make their homes and to build canoes for usage on the waterways for transportation. The Neutrals also learned how to harness the land. They grew beans, corn, and pumpkins and found many deer, elk, and beavers to hunt. They used the maple trees as a source of sugar and created flour from the acorn of the white oak trees. They also gathered nuts, berries, and herbs. The Neutrals were excellent fisherman and their diet consisted of many types of fish, as the waterways in Niagara were an abundant source of trout, sturgeon, and salmon. The men hunted and fished while the women gathered wild foods and prepared meat and hides. Children also had a role to play as they were expected to gather water and wood for the village.

The Neutrals received their name from, French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he came to the region in 1615. He named them “The Neutrals”, because they were neutral in the ongoing battles between the feuding Iroquois, who lived to the south of the Neutrals, and the Hurons who lived to the north.

The Neutral Indians would prove to not be the only Indian tribes residing in Ontario, the Huron and Petun resided north of Lake Ontario, with the Huron living around Lake Simcoe, and the Petun living near Lake Huron. The Erie and the Wenro lived to the southeast of Lake Erie, in present day New York.

The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondgo, Oneida and Mohawk Nations lived to the south of Lake Ontario in present day western New York. These tribes spoke the Iroquoian language, and in the 15th century the Iroquois speaking tribes banded together and formed an alliance between each other, which was known as the League of 5 Nations or the League of Iroquois. It would eventually grow to 6 Nations by 1720 when the Tuscarora Indians migrated to the area from North and South Carolina and joined. Historians have determined that the league was established to bring unity and peace between the Iroquois-speaking nations. The league had a very successful political structure, and it is believed that it would later be the model for the first constitution of the United States.

The Great Lakes area had a large beaver population, which would prove to be very important for the local Indian tribes who had established well defined trading networks, trading furs along the St. Lawrence Seaway into Quebec. The Indians used the waterways for transportation and would portage the waterways in their canoes which were filled with beaver pelts.
The New York Iroquois, wanted control of the Niagara region for its abundant beaver stocks, and in 1652 they moved into the region destroying the Neutral Indians villages and claiming them as their own. Many of the Neutrals were forced eastward to Albany New York, however the majority of the Neutrals were systematically killed by the Iroquois and they ceased to exist as an Indian Nation by 1653. Surviving Neutrals assimilated with the Seneca and Huron tribes.
The New York Iroquois were also feuding with the Hurons who had established good trading relations with the French. The Iroquois demanded that the Hurons share the burgeoning fur trade with them. Talks broke down between the two tribes and the Iroquois turned to war to gain control of the area. Many Hurons perished in the ongoing feuds for domination of the area and the surviving members of the tribe would eventually flee the area. The Jesuit missionaries of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons, who had settled in the area to convert the Native Indians to Christianity, also perished along with the Hurons. The Iroquois briefly settled in this area during the late 17th century.

Historians believe the Iroquois were an agricultural society. They were excellent farmers and grew mostly beans, squash and corn. They also ate fish and meat when available, but their diets primarily consisted of vegetables, because farming provided a much more stable supply of food than did hunting. They lived in fairly permanent settlements, occupying territory for 15-20 years until their fields were exhausted of their supply. The Iroquois lived in wooden long-houses, where several families cohabited.

The Iroquois were known as fierce fighters and they were feared by Indian tribes and settlers alike. They set their sights on domination of the entire fur trade and for 10 years they pillaged the land, killing other tribes in their wake. The Iroquois were trading furs with the Dutch, who had threatened to cut off their supply of guns if the Iroquois stopped providing them with the highly sought after beaver pelts. They held control of both sides of the St. Lawrence to the rapids and the fur trade, until French settlers arrived in the 17th century.