Niagara History: The Early Inhabitants of Niagara

history of niagara


Man has probably been on the Niagara Frontier for 9,000 years. The earliest stone tools left by wandering hunters have been tentatively dated at 7000 B.C. Artifacts uncovered at River-haven on Grand Island and at Lewiston are believed to date from 1000 B.C. and 160 A.D. respectively.

Although discoveries from pre-Christian time have brought to light many artifacts connected with ceremony, ornamentation, pottery and the use of animal skins for clothing, it is not until several centuries A.D. that unmistakable signs of agriculture appear. By 1000 A.D. the use of corn and beans had permitted the Indians to establish more or less permanent village sites. There are signs of groups living together in a long house typical of the Iroquoian culture.

niagara indianThe Iroquoian people are generally believed to have moved into the Lake Ontario region from farther south. There is however, a considerable amount of archaeological evidence to support the supposition that this culture developed in this region rather than as the result of a migration.

Early Iroquoian village sites were generally chosen for their defensive characteristics. The general use of double stockades indicates that warfare between groups was common. According to Indian tradition this continuous warfare had reached a peak in the early 15th century, when an Onondaga sachem, Hiawatha, proposed an agreement of peaceful co-existence among the Iroquois tribes. Although scorned at first, the agreement was eventually adopted by five of the Iroquoian tribes – the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas and Mohawks. Left outside the League were the Hurons, the Neutrals of the Niagara region and the Tobacco or Petun Indians.

When the white men first penetrated the interior of America, the Iroquois League was a firmly established and politically well-organized entity. So successful was the League that for over 150 years it resisted the efforts of the Europeans to disrupt it. It was even cited as a model for the first constitution of the United States.

first nations niagara
The red man’s time in the history of Niagara was one of violence and change, even before the white man came. It might almost be said, particularly before the white man came. But the country did not change. It still has not changed in its essential character. It was a lush and favorable country for the Indians. It is, in a different way, a country of plenty for the whites.

To the Indians, the cataract of Onguiaahra must have been relatively unimportant. It was just another manifestation of the works and mysteries of the spirits of the forests and the waters, stupendous, awe-inspiring, full of danger, but not of absorbing interest. To the Indians, this was a country of immense forests. There were towering pines and spruce and hemlock, great maples and immense oaks, and slim, useful birches.

Nature had dealt out its bounties with a lavish hand. There was more than anyone needed. There were fish in the many streams and lakes in an abundance which is inconceivable today. In the forests there were the deer and the bear and the woodland bison and the beaver and the otter and the wolves and a great variety of smaller animals; food and clothing for the taking. To them, it bad always been that way and always would be.
How long all this had been nature’s routine before the first white man came, no man knows. Centuries piled upon centuries, the waters that accumulate from nearly a quarter of the continent had continued to flow through the narrow channels of the Niagara, more a strait than a river, and roar their way over the crest almost literally never ceasing the thunder of waters and going on in a channel, at first turbulent and then silent to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence, and the sea, unsung except as the red men sang of the spirits of the rushing waters about their campfires and in their longhouses.

seneca tribe niagaraFor generations, the Attawandaronks or Neutrals called Neutres by Champlain and the French as early as 1615, had lived chiefly west of the Niagara and north of Lake Erie. In: fact, they at one time occupied the whole of the Niagara Peninsula as far west as Lake Huron. For at least a generation they had managed to maintain neutrality between the Hurons to the north and the Senecas to the east who had been, almost constantly at each other’s throats. Of the many Indian tribes who lived at one time or another in Niagara Country, the Neutrals appear to have been the only ones who gave much consideration to Niagara Falls in a spiritual sense, if some of the legends are to be believed. The Neutrals thought that Niagara Falls was divine. To them, the thunder of the waters was the voice of the Great Spirit and the ever-rising mist was the habitat of the divinity. They made sacrifices to the Niagara human sacrifices, and fruits and flowers and food. The Neutrals had very little direct contact with the white men. They did most of their trading with the French through the Hurons and Algonkins, and with the Dutch and English to the east through the Wenroes. The Neutrals seem to have reached the peak of their prosperity and numbers in the early 1640’s. There were upwards of forty large villages and any number of small hamlets of six and eight families. They lived in bark huts, some conical shaped and others similar to the longhouses of the Senecas; dressed in furs and skins in the winter and next to nothing in the summer. They went in for tattooing their skins, first drawing a design directly on the skin, then puncturing the skin with an awl, and rubbing powdered charcoal into the punctures to create the permanent design. Their burial customs seem odd. They held a mass burial of all dead every ten years, called the “Feast of the Dead.” In the meantime, when a person died, members of his family would wrap him in furs and keep him in the cabin until the stench got too great. Then the body would be removed to a scaffold in a tree. As soon as the flesh was gone, the bones would be cleaned and wrapped in fresh fur and stowed away in the family cabin until the next “Feast of the Dead.” Of morals by the standards of Jesuit observers meaning sexual morals they had none, especially the women. But they admired courage, honored warriors.

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