What Ever Happened to the Erie Indians?
Who Were the Erie?
As a Writer I do a lot of research. In my research, I sometimes discover interesting facts that don't have anything to do with my fiction, but I somehow have to share. Several years ago I took my son to Lake Erie to go swimming. While he was swimming in the lake, I pulled out the notebook that I always carried with me and began to write about my observations. I wrote about the wind and the water, and how it felt. I suddenly began to imagine what it was like there on the southern shores of Lake Erie before the white man came. I imagined women dressed in buckskin, tending fires, and tanning hides. I imagined bronze skinned men coming in from the hunt. I imagined children running in and out of longhouses. I began wondering about the native Americans who lived on these shores. I decided to research, and what I uncovered was an interesting story. The Indian nation who lived on these shores until the early 1600's were called Eries,Cats, Eirgas, Eriehronon, Riguehronon, or Carantolian, and from this tribe Lake Erie got its name. I learned that there was another name this tribe was sometimes mistakenly called was Eriez, but that was because of a mistake made by a French cartographer who inscribed the drawing of the name of Lake Erie or “Lac des Fries” with the “s” going in the wrong direction. The Erie also were not the Kahkwa as was sometimes recorded. The tribe that the Seneca called Kahkwa was the Attiwaudron or Neutral nation. This tribe inhabited the north shore of Lake Erie in Canada.
The Life of the Erie
All that is known about the Erie comes to us from French or the Seneca. The French were the only European country in the region at the time,but they had virtually trade with the Erie, and did not attempt to occupy or possess this territory until after the Erie were no more. They never sent missionaries to the Eries, and not even the Jesuits didn’t set up missions with this nation. In the summer of 1615 Champlain's adventurous interpreter, Etienne Brule visited the Erie in the summer of 1615.
Some speculation exists whether these people were called “the cat people” because there were a few cougars in the area or whether they were called that because the French mistook “raccoons” for cats.
These ferocious warriors fought with poisoned arrows, and for a long time they terrorized the Iroquois. History can't tell us how many Erie lived in this region. Indian tradition doesn't even tell us if this tribe had any towns or permanent abiding places. We don't even know if they practiced agriculture in even the most limited way. We do know however, that their territory covered many thousands of acres even though the Erie were few in number.
An one time, the Erie were part of the Iroquois confederacy. They were closely related to the Seneca nation who lived to the north and east. That's what makes it so hard for us in our culture to understand why one tribe so closely related to another tribe would be driven to genocide, as happened to the Eries at the hand of the Seneca. A study of the sociology of this culture is what it takes to understand the mindset of this Native American culture. The Iroquois strongly believed that anyone who did not follow certain ethics of the race are criminals and should be exterminated. This was mindset that lead to the annihilation of the Erie Indians.
Every Indian nation or tribe is subdivided into several clans. These clans cannot separate themselves from other clans but rather they were mingled throughout the nation. It was an abomination if anyone married within their own clan, so every family contained members of at least two clans. Each clan bore a symbol of an animal such as Hawk, Wolf or tortoise, and contained an emblem of that figure which was called totem. This totem was often tattooed on the clansman's body, or painted the clansman's lodge entrance. Each child belonged to the clan, not of the father, but of the mother. In other words, descent, not of the totem alone, but of all rank, titles and possessions, was through the female. To violate this doctrine was the basis for the friction between the Iroquois and the dissenting nations of the same family.
The Erie People's Demise
In 1653, according to Frenchman Father Le Moyne, he returned to Montreal with news that the Iroquois, with 1900 warriors, were on the warpath against the Eries. What exactly started this war between the Seneca and the Eries? It all began when the Erie had made a peace treaty with the Senecas. In the preceding year, the Erie had sent a deputation of thirty of their principal men to confirm it. While they were in the great Seneca town, a Seneca man was killed in a quarrel with an Erie. The Seneca were angry and murdered every one of the thirty deputies. War broke out between the entire Iroquois nation and the Erie. The Eries captured a famous Onondaga chief and were going to burn him at the stake, when he convinced them to reconsider. They agreed to allow him to marry the sister of one of the murdered deputies. This way, he would take the place of her dead brother. The sister, by Indian law,had the right to chose to marry him or to let him burn. She wasn't present when the agreement was made, but no one thought she would not agree to the arrangement. They dressed him in ceremonial wedding attire and the community began celebrating his adoption. while the partying was going on, the sister came home. To the Erie chiefs' dismay, she rejected the marriage agreement, and vowed that she would only accept revenge upon murdered her brother, by insisting that the prisoner be burned at the stake. Though the chiefs tried to get her to change her mind, she stubbornly refused. They stripped Onondaga of his festal robes, bound him to the stake, and put him to death. His dying words were that the Erie nation was doomed.
When the news spread that Onondaga was burned at the stake, the Iroquois Confederacy sang their war-songs took the warpath under their two war chiefs, and took off in their canoes on the lake to attack the Eries. As the Iroquois approached, the Eries fell back, and withdrew into the western forests gathering together until there was only one band. They fortified into forts and felled trees, and waited as the invaders approached. Estimates say that there were about 2000 Erie Warriors plus women and children.
Dressed as Frenchmen, the two Iroquois chiefs approached the Erie fort, and told the Erie to surrender. One of the chiefs which had been baptized by Father Le Moyne, shouted to the Eries, that if they did not surrender soon, they would all be dead men, for the Master of Life was on the side of the Iroquois. The Eries shouted back, "Who is this master of your lives?" The Iroquois replied, "our hatchets and our right arms are the masters of ours." The Iroquois ran an assault, but showers of poisoned arrows killed and wounded many of them, and drove the rest to retreat. The Iroquois attacked again. This time they carried their bark canoes over their heads to protect them from the arrows. The Iroquois then used their canoes as ladders to scale the Erie fort. Few of the Eries were able to escape, and no prisoners were taken. It was a fight to the finish.By the time the conflict was over, the Erie as a nation no longer existed. Even for the victors it was no easy victory.the Iroquois spent two months in Erie so that they could bury their dead and tend to their wounded. The area now belonged to the Seneca of the Iroquois confederacy, but they refused to live there. They very seldom even visited the land that once belonged to the Erie people.
Lake Erie, Lands End, Erie, Pennsylvania
White Men Finally Settle Area
For almost 200 years, there were no permanent settlers made a foothold in the region. Native Americans hunted there but did not settle on the land once inhabited by the Erie. During the 1750s, French and English forts began to spring up in the area, but conflict between the two created what was known by the English as the French and Indian War. Forts in the area--Presque Isle, Fort La Bouef-- were fought for during bitter the conflict. By the end of the war, the English won the war, but decided they could no longer maintain forts in the area. The land returned to the wilds.
After the War for American Independence, American settlers finally began to trickle into the area. Small settlements began to arise. The first European settler Colonel Seth Reed arrived in what would become the City of Erie from Geneva, New York in 1795.
Miller, J., (1909) Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pennsylvania,Volume I
The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois
© 2012 Donna Brown