By the summer of 1679, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle had approached his wit’s end. His faithful lieutenant, the Neapolitan Henri de Tonti, had already repulsed one attempt by the Seneca to burn La Salle’s soon-to-be sailing ship Le Griffon. A year earlier, in hopes to attain a promise of peace, La Salle had travelled seventy-five miles east to the Seneca village of Ganondagan, located on present-day Boughton Hill, just outside of the Village of Victor, about 20 miles south of Rochester.1 Peace was promised, but as the attempted arson proved, wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. So, ahead of schedule, on August 7, 1679, La Salle gave the order to weigh anchor and commanded twelve burly sailors to grab tow-lines and walk Le Griffon from the shallow ten-foot waters of Squaw Island, through the rushing rapids of the Niagara River and, with the help of a much hoped for northeast breeze, into the calm waters of what his native tongue called Lac du Chat (Lake Erie).2 Embarking on La Salle’s mission in search of the Northwest Passage, Le Griffon thus became the first large ship to grace the waters of the Great Lakes above the Niagara Falls.
But it also left several intriguing questions: How did the Lake he sailed into get its name? More interestingly, why did he need to travel to the east side of the Genesee River nearly to the other end of Western New York to speak to the Indians? Indeed, what had happened to the native (at least relative to the Europeans) Western New Yorkers?
We don’t know who first settled Western New York, but we have a good idea who called our region home just before the Europeans showed up. If you think “a good idea” sounds a little tentative, you’re right. In fact, it’s likely the only contact with this tribe occurred in 1615 when famed French explorer Samuel de Champlain dispatched several missionaries led by Étienne Brulé to meet these people near Niagara Falls.3,4 The Huron, in perpetual war with the Iroquois, told Champlain of a non-allied tribe called the “Attiouandaronk” or “Neutral Nation” that lived between the Hurons and the then Five Nations of the Iroquois.5 The expedition reported the previously unknown tribe occupied a vast territory extending from the Niagara gorge to the Genesee River, north to just shy of Lake Huron and south into the Allegany watershed in what is now Western Pennsylvania and Ohio.6,7
Who were these mysterious early inhabitants of Western New York and why have they become lost to history?
The Iroquois called them “Erielhonan,” meaning “long tail,” but today, being the lazy speakers we are, we’ve shortened the name to “Erie.”8 Indeed, what Champlain reported as one tribe may actually have been two, for competing histories say the Erie’s were merely allied with the Neutral Nation.9 We just don’t know. In fact, the only contemporary written record we have on the Erie comes from the Jesuits. For example, Jesuit Relation of 1653 says the region surrounding Lake Erie “was at one time inhabited toward the south by certain peoples whom we call the Cat Nation; but they were forced to proceed farther inland in order to escape their enemies whom they have toward the west.”10 This helps explain why French maps of the time of La Salle called Lake Erie “Lac du Chat.” Although we don’t know much of their history, the Jesuits did report the Erie was not a migratory tribe, settled in many villages and had a population of about 14,500 in the mid-seventeenth century just prior to their demise.11
We also know the Erie had an important role during the early years of European colonization. It’s a role that may have also led to their eventual extinction. You might recall from your high school history class that, rather than focusing on colonization like their Spanish and British brethren, the French, Dutch and Swedes instead prioritized acquiring some of the niftier natural resources our region offered – namely furs and pelts. This fur trade market impacted interior tribes like the Erie just as much as those having direct contact with the Europeans. Tribes like the Erie became harvesters, if you will, while tribes like the Huron and the Susquenhannock became the intermediaries, obtaining goods from the harvesters and trading them directly to the Europeans. Although it’s not clear why, most of the history suggests these intermediary tribes astutely avoided trading firearms or metal weapons to the Erie in exchange for their trappings.12 One source suggests it was the Dutch that entered into a treaty with their Iroquois trading partners to insure the Erie would receive no black powder muskets.13
The lack of gunpowder weapons may have hurt the Erie in their eventual showdown with the Iroquois, but it was likely their lust for beaver pelt which prompted the onset of hostilities with the Alqononquin in 1635 and the Erie’s abandonment of their western territories.14 Shortly thereafter, after a series of diplomatic missteps on the part of the Erie, the Iroquois attacked and defeated their northern allies, including the Huron. In 1651, several thousand escaping Huron sought refuge with the Erie, who happily accepted these warriors.15 The Iroquois, however, would have none of that. Led by the Seneca – their largest tribe and the one nearest the Erie – the Five Nations demanded the Erie turnover the refugees. Perhaps feeling threatened by both the loss of its northern ally and the eastern (Mohawk and Oneida) Iroquois’ war with their southern ally the Susquehannock, the Erie declined to release their new-found warriors.16
Tension between the two sides grew. It didn’t help that, at least as told by the Jesuit Relation of 1654, some of the Huron refugees fanned the flames of war.17 Things really came to a head in 1653 when, despite attempts to insure the peace, violence erupted and saw the Erie raiding the Seneca, killing a Seneca sachem by the name of Annencraos.18 According to the Jesuit Relation of 1655-58 (Chapter XI), a delegation of thirty ambassadors of the “Cat Nation” (i.e., the Erie) went to the Seneca Capital of Sonontouan in an attempt to prevent war.19 Unfortunately, tempers flared and “through the misfortune of accident,” one of the Erie representatives killed a Seneca.20 The Seneca responded “in kind” by killing twenty-five of the ambassadors.21
This is where the lack of firearms became significant. Although the Jesuit Relation of 1656 indicated an Erie palisade fell because of a munitions failure, it is commonly thought the Erie had no firearms. 22 As the same Relation says, the Erie “fight like Frenchmen, bravely sustaining the first charge of the Iroquois, who are armed without our muskets, and then falling upon them with a hailstorm of poisoned arrows.”23 How significant was this “hailstorm.” Think the movie 300, as the good Jesuits tell us the Erie could fire 8-10 rounds of arrows before the Iroquois could reload their muskets.24 The Erie proved they could match the combined forces of the Seneca and the campaign, fought in several locations across Western New York. Iroquois tradition, admittedly much less reliable than the more objective Jesuit Relations, claim the two warring parties first met in Seneca territory at Honeoye Lake (about half-way between present-day Canandaigua and the Genesee River) with the final battle occurring near Buffalo Creek with no surviving Erie.25 Ironically, it was only after two young Iroquois chiefs agreed to be baptized by the French missionary that the Erie met their match. These new converts donned the dress of the Frenchmen and talked their way into the now surrounded Erie stronghold. They told the Erie, “The Master of Life fights for us; you will be ruined if you resist him,” and then asked the Erie “Who is the Master of your lives?”26
The Erie, perchance presaging a Clint Eastwood squint, coldly responded “We acknowledge none but our arms and hatchets.”27
The Iroquois showed no mercy and wiped out the entire village and “wrought such carnage among the women and children that blood was knee-deep in certain places.”28
By 1656 – more than a decade before the arrival of La Salle – the Erie were extinct, the last six hundred surrendering and anonymously assimilated into the Iroquois tribes29, ending the long reign of the original inhabitants of Western New York. In truth, they suffered a face worse than mere extinction, all records of these once-proud people have been obliterated from the annals of human history. Oddly, the Seneca did not settle their newly won territory (at until forced from their homeland while suffering losses siding with the losing British during the Revolutionary War).30 That is why La Salle had to travel to the original Seneca territory to negotiate his tentative peace.
It has been said some Erie escaped and, indeed, the Iroquois did track a few down in what is now southern Pennsylvania in 168031, but, as far as our region is concerned, they have become the Lost Tribe of Western New York. Still, for all their mystery, including the fact we never had any direct contact with them, of all the tribes historically associated with Western New York, it is the name “Erie” that remains most often on our modern tongues. Between the namesake lake and county, Western New Yorkers pay homage to their region’s original inhabitants on a nearly daily basis.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.
1 Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, (University of Toronto, 2000), 1000-1700 (Volume I), http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=109
2 Mansfield, J.B., ed., History of the Great Lakes (Volume I), Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899, Chapter 3, http://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/documents/hgl/default.asp?ID=c007
3 Larned, Josephus Nelson. A History of Buffalo: Delineating the Evolution of the City, (New York: The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911), p. 4
4 Erie History, http://www.dickshovel.com/erie.html
5 Larned, Josephus Nelson. A History of Buffalo: Delineating the Evolution of the City, (New York: The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911), p. 4
6 Ibid, p.4
7 Handbook of Indians of Canada, James White, ed., Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 72-73, http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/encyclopedia/Erieindians.htm
8 Erie History
9 Handbook of Indians of Canada
12 Erie History
13 The Lost Erie Tribe, unclesamshistory, October 16, 2011, http://unclesamshistory.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/the-lost-erie-tribe/
14 Erie History
15 Axtell, Fred (Dancing Owl) and Victoria Taylor-True, Erie Indian History, Erie Indian Moundbuilders, 2005-2009, http://www.eriemoundbuilders.com/erie_indian_history/
16 Erie History
17 Handbook of Indians of Canada
18 Axtell, Fred
19 Handbook of Indians of Canada
25 Smith, H. Perry, ed., History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, (D. Mason & Co., Publishers, Syracuse, NY, 1884), Volume 1, p. 25,26 http://22.214.171.124/buffhist/erie1.html
30 Smith, H. Perry, p. 27
31 Axtell, Fred