More than 3 and 1/2 centuries have elapsed since the Huron Indians vanished from their ancient seats. Today we stand perplexed and wondering over the relics of these lost people.
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The fear of the Iroquois was everywhere; and as the voyager passed some wooded point, or thicket-covered island, the whistling of a stone-headed arrow proclaimed, perhaps, the presence of these fierce marauders. At Montreal there was no human life, save during a brief space in early summer, when the shore swarmed with savages, who had come to the yearly trade from the great communities of the interior. To-day there were dances, songs, and feastings; to-morrow all again was solitude, and the Ottawa was covered with the canoes of the returning warriors.
Along this stream, a main route of traffic, the silence of the wilderness was broken only by the splash of the passing paddle. To the north of the river there was indeed a small Algonquin band, called La Petite Nation, together with one or two other feeble communities; but they dwelt far from the banks, through fear of the ubiquitous Iroquois. It was nearly three hundred miles, by the windings of the stream, before one reached that Algonquin tribe, La Nation de l’Isle, who occupied the great island of the Allumettes. Then, after many a day of lonely travel, the voyager found a savage welcome among the Nipissings, on the lake which bears their name; and then circling west and south for a hundred and fifty miles of solitude, he reached for the first time a people speaking a dialect of the Iroquois tongue. Here all was changed. Populous towns, rude fortifications, and an extensive, though barbarous tillage, indicated a people far in advance of the famished wanderers of the Saguenay, or their less abject kindred of New England. These were the Hurons, of whom the modern Wyandots are a remnant. Both in themselves and as a type of their generic stock they demand more than a passing notice.
[The usual confusion of Indian tribal names prevails in the case of the Hurons. The following are their synonyms:
Hurons (of French origin); Ochateguins (Champlain); Attigouantans (the name of one of their tribes, used by Champlain for the whole nation); Ouendat (their true name, according to Lalemant); Yendat, Wyandot, Guyandot (corruptions of the preceding); Ouaouakecinatouek (Potier), Quatogies (Colden).]
More than two centuries have elapsed since the Hurons vanished from their ancient seats, and the settlers of this rude solitude stand perplexed and wondering over the relics of a lost people. In the damp shadow of what seems a virgin forest, the axe and plough bring strange secrets to light: huge pits, close packed with skeletons and disjointed bones, mixed with weapons, copper kettles, beads, and trinkets. Not even the straggling Algonquins, who linger about the scene of Huron prosperity, can tell their origin. Yet, on ancient worm-eaten pages, between covers of begrimed parchment, the daily life of this ruined community, its firesides, its festivals, its funeral rites, are painted with a minute and vivid fidelity.
The ancient country of the Huron Indians is now the northern and eastern portion of Simcoe County, Canada West, and is embraced within the peninsula formed by the Nottawassaga and Matchedash Bays of Lake Huron, the River Severn, and Lake Simcoe. Its area was small, — its population comparatively large. In the year 1639 the Jesuits made an enumeration of all its villages, dwellings, and families. The result showed thirty-two villages and hamlets, with seven hundred dwellings, about four thousand families, and twelve thousand adult persons, or a total population of at least twenty thousand.
[Lalemant, Relation des Hurons, 1640, 88 (Cramoisy). His words are, “de feux enuiron deux mille, et enuiron douze mille personnes.” There were two families to every fire. That by “personnes” adults only are meant cannot be doubted, as the Relations abound in incidental evidence of a total population far exceeding twelve thousand. A Huron family usually numbered from five to eight persons. The number of the Huron towns changed from year to year. Champlain and Le Caron in 1615, reckoned them at seventeen or eighteen, with a population of about ten thousand, meaning, no doubt, adults. Brébeuf, in 1635, found twenty villages, and, as he thinks, thirty thousand souls. Both Le Mercier and De Quen, as well as Dollier de Casson and the anonymous author of the Relation of 1660, state the population at from thirty to thirty-five thousand. Since the time of Champlain’s visit, various kindred tribes or fragments of tribes had been incorporated with the Hurons, thus more than balancing the ravages of a pestilence which had decimated them.]
The region whose boundaries we have given was an alternation of meadows and deep forests, interlaced with footpaths leading from town to town. Of these towns, some were fortified, but the greater number were open and defenseless. They were of a construction common to all tribes of Iroquois lineage, and peculiar to them. Nothing similar exists at the present day. [The permanent bark villages of the Dahcotah of the St. Peter’s are the nearest modern approach to the Huron towns. The whole Huron country abounds with evidences of having been occupied by a numerous population. “On a close inspection of the forest,” Dr. Taché writes to me, “the greatest part of it seems to have been cleared at former periods, and almost the only places bearing the character of the primitive forest are the low grounds.”] They covered a space of from one to ten acres, the dwellings clustering together with little or no pretension to order. In general, these singular structures were about thirty or thirty-five feet in length, breadth, and height; but many were much larger, and a few were of prodigious length. In some of the villages there were dwellings two hundred and forty feet long, though in breadth and height they did not much exceed the others. [ Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1635, 31. Champlain says that he saw them, in 1615, more than thirty fathoms long; while Vanderdonck reports the length, from actual measurement, of an Iroquois house, at a hundred and eighty yards, or five hundred and forty feet! ]
In shape they were much like an arbor overarching a garden-walk. Their frame was of tall and strong saplings, planted in a double row to form the two sides of the house, bent till they met, and lashed together at the top. To these other poles were bound transversely, and the whole was covered with large sheets of the bark of the oak, elm, spruce, or white cedar, overlapping like the shingles of a roof, upon which, for their better security, split poles were made fast with cords of linden bark. At the crown of the arch, along the entire length of the house, an opening a foot wide was left for the admission of light and the escape of smoke. At each end was a close porch of similar construction; and here were stowed casks of bark, filled with smoked fish, Indian corn, and other stores not liable to injury from frost. Within, on both sides, were wide scaffolds, four feet from the floor, and extending the entire length of the house, like the seats of a colossal omnibus. [Often, especially among the Iroquois, the internal arrangement was different. The scaffolds or platforms were raised only a foot from the earthen floor, and were only twelve or thirteen feet long, with intervening spaces, where the occupants stored their family provisions and other articles. Five or six feet above was another platform, often occupied by children. One pair of platforms sufficed for a family, and here during summer they slept pellmell, in the clothes they wore by day, and without pillows.] These were formed of thick sheets of bark, supported by posts and transverse poles, and covered with mats and skins. Here, in summer, was the sleeping place of the inmates, and the space beneath served for storage of their firewood. The fires were on the ground, in a line down the middle of the house. Each sufficed for two families, who, in winter, slept closely packed around them. Above, just under the vaulted roof, were a great number of poles, like the perches of a hen-roost, and here were suspended weapons, clothing, skins, and ornaments. Here, too, in harvest time, the squaws hung the ears of unshelled corn, till the rude abode, through all its length, seemed decked with a golden tapestry. In general, however, its only lining was a thick coating of soot from the smoke of fires with neither draught, chimney, nor window. So pungent was the smoke, that it produced inflammation of the eyes, attended in old age with frequent blindness. Another annoyance was the fleas; and a third, the unbridled and unruly children. Privacy there was none. The house was one chamber, sometimes lodging more than twenty families.
[One of the best descriptions of the Huron and Iroquois houses is that of Sagard, Voyage des Hurons, 118. See also Champlain (1627), 78; Brébeuf, Relation des Hurons, 1635, 31; Vanderdonck, New Netherlands, in N. Y. Hist. Coll., Second Ser., I. 196; Lafitau, Mœurs des Sauvages, II. 10. The account given by Cartier of the houses he saw at Montreal corresponds with the above. He describes them as about fifty yards long. In this case, there were partial partitions for the several families, and a sort of loft above. Many of the Iroquois and Huron houses were of similar construction, the partitions being at the sides only, leaving a wide passage down the middle of the house. Bartram, Observations on a Journey from Pennsylvania to Canada, gives a description and plan of the Iroquois Council-House in 1751, which was of this construction. Indeed, the Iroquois preserved this mode of building, in all essential points, down to a recent period. They usually framed the sides of their houses on rows of upright posts, arched with separate poles for the roof. The Hurons, no doubt, did the same in their larger structures. For a door, there was a sheet of bark hung on wooden hinges, or suspended by cords from above.
On the site of Huron towns which were destroyed by fire, the size, shape, and arrangement of the houses can still, in some instances, be traced by remains in the form of charcoal, as well as by the charred bones and fragments of pottery found among the ashes.
Dr. Taché, after a zealous and minute examination of the Huron country, extended through five years, writes to me as follows. “From the remains I have found, I can vouch for the scrupulous correctness of our ancient writers. With the aid of their indications and descriptions, I have been able to detect the sites of villages in the midst of the forest, and by time study, in situ, of archeological monuments, small as they are, to understand and confirm their many interesting details of the habits, and especially the funeral rites, of these extraordinary tribes.” ]
He who entered on a winter night beheld a strange spectacle: the vista of fires lighting the smoky concave; the bronzed groups encircling each, — cooking, eating, gambling, or amusing themselves with idle badinage; shriveled squaws, hideous with threescore years of hardship; grisly old warriors, scarred with Iroquois war-clubs; young aspirants, whose honors were yet to be won; damsels gay with ochre and wampum; restless children pell-mell with restless dogs. Now a tongue of resinous flame painted each wild feature in vivid light; now the fitful gleam expired, and the group vanished from sight, as their nation has vanished from history.
– The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century Introduction by Francis Parkman
This was how the Huron Indians lived.
The below is from Francis Parkman’s Introduction.
If, at times, it may seem that range has been allowed to fancy, it is so in appearance only; since the minutest details of narrative or description rest on authentic documents or on personal observation.
Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them, he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.
With respect to that special research which, if inadequate, is still in the most emphatic sense indispensable, it has been the writer’s aim to exhaust the existing material of every subject treated. While it would be folly to claim success in such an attempt, he has reason to hope that, so far at least as relates to the present volume, nothing of much importance has escaped him. With respect to the general preparation just alluded to, he has long been too fond of his theme to neglect any means within his reach of making his conception of it distinct and true.