Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Indians of Canada



[This text was written by J. Castell HOPKINS in 1898. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Hopkins uses here the terminology commonly used in the late XIXth century to describe Natives: Indians, Savages, wild men, etc. As such, the article may be read as much for the information it imparts about the perspective of Canadians on the aboriginal people of Canada in the late Victorian era as for the history of the Natives it attempts to provide. The picture Hopkins paints of the Amerindians is an ambiguous one where awe, condescension and paternalism, pity and admiration constantly mingle. He leaves us with an image of savagery; yet, as well, of nobility of character. Throughout, in his analysis, the British and Canadians compare favorably with Americans in their treatment of Natives. His was a world where "national characteristics" were used to explain the actions of people; political correctness had not yet been born.]


THERE has been no figure in all history   so picturesque and peculiar as that of the North American Indian. The storm-tossed life of the various na­tions or tribes ; the concentrated cruelty of individual character, combined with loyalty and honour in tribal relations ; the constant and bloody struggles between each national unit and the prolonged conflict with the white invaders of a continent ; the complexity of the savage tem­perament    in its mingled simplicity and guile, its courage and endurance, its treachery towards foes and   cruelty in war, its pride and prudence combined with periods of insane recklessness and a humility akin to that of a beggar, its self­restraint and moments of unbridled rage, its strange conjunction of greatness and littleness; stamps the American aborigine as the most extraordinary product of the vast wilderness and forest home of his wandering race.


History has yet to do him justice. The pen of the poet, the voice of the preacher, or the thought of the philosopher, seem alike unfitted to cope with his difficult environment and curious character. Cold and hard, passionate and revengeful, ignorant and superstitious, keen and quick in thought, he has yet never in pre-civilization days been guilty of the effeminate and meaner vices which destroyed peoples such as the Roman or the Aztec. Love of liberty in its wilder forms, and contempt for all arbitrary rule or personal control, he carried to an extreme greater than can be elsewhere paralleled. Sleepless suspicion of others was a part of his surroundings of war and treachery. Like the Italian he preferred to send a secret blow, or despatch the shaft of an ambushed arrow, to open fighting or public revenge. Like the Spaniard he was dark and sinister in his punishments and retaliations. Like nearly all savage races his warfare was one of sudden and secret surprise, ruthless and unhesitating slaughter. A native of the wilds, a product of primeval conditions, he could not change his character without deterioration, or his mode of life without physical and mental injury. Civilization, indeed, has destroyed the Indian. In curbing his wilder passions it has usually developed the meaner ones, and in destroying the environment which made him the barbarous yet noble owner of a boundless continent it has cramped his intellectual acuteness, dulled his powers of perception, starved his wonderful physical qualities, and fatally affected the peculiar morality which he undoubtedly possessed. Christianity and agricultural pursuits may fit the survivors for life amidst new conditions, but the result of this development is no more the Indian of past centuries than the Greek of to-day is the true heir of Leonidas at Thermopolyae or the modern native of Rome the just inheritor of Imperial valour.


When the first discoverers and explorers found their way amidst the wilds of Canada , they came into collision with various Indian nations. The great family of the Algonquins extended right up through the centre of the continent. They formed the chief central race of early Canada, and reached in scattered masses from the Atlantic to Lake Winnipeg and from the Carolinas to Hudson's Bay. Cartier met them when he ascended the St. Lawrence, the early English settlers encountered them along the coasts of Virginia , the people of New England fought them under the King Philip of historic memory. William Penn made peace with them under the trees of the Keystone State, and the French Jesuits and fur traders found the same race in the valley of the Ohio, on the shores of Lake Superior, and at the rapids of Sault Ste. Marie.


Of this race were the Delawares and the Shawnees. The latter were a strange and wandering people, whose location it was always difficult to fix, but who are known to have more than once come into conflict with the French. They eventually settled on Canadian soil and played a brief but important part under the great Tecumseh. The former were at one time conquered by the Iroquois and compelled to bear the opprobrious Indian name of women, but in one of the French and English wars they recovered at once their courage and their position by espousing the side of the French. Other branches dwelt along the Canadian shores of the Atlantic and in the wastes north of Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron. The latter tribes included the Ojibiways, Pottawatamies and Ottawas, who at one time formed a sort of loose union and offered a yielding but efficient check to the course of Iroquois conquest. In this region also were the Sacs, the Foxes, and other smaller divisions of the Algonquin race. Other branches in Nova Scotia were known as the Micmacs, in western New Brunswick as the Etchemins, in Quebec as the Montagnais , and in the far North as the Nipissings.


The Iroquois stretched across what afterwards became the State of New York into Ontario and Quebec, and included the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. Though united in a sort of loose confederacy and by a system of clanship, they seem to have had no clearly defined and continuous ruler, but to have trusted their joint affairs to the central council at Onondaga. And though numbering only about four thousand warriors in their day of greatest power, they were able to make the name of the Five Nations a word of terror to all the tribes from Quebec to the Carolinas and from the far West to the Atlantic shores. To the French and the American Colonists they were a continuous source of dread, and to the English forces in Canada at a later period they became an arm of military strength a little difficult to define in degree.


A people not inferior in courage but not nearly so aggressive in character as the Iroquois were the Hurons, whose name is so well known through their intercourse with the brave French Jesuit priests. Their population is estimated by Parkman as having been about 10,000 souls, though other writers place the number at double that figure. In the superior nature of their dwelling houses, in their manners and customs and superstitions, they closely resembled the Iroquois. They met destruction at the ruthless hands of the great confederacy, and after 1680 disappear from view, except in a few isolated settlements under French protection. The Neutral nation, living along the north shore of Lake Erie and remaining for a long period neutral between the Hurons and the Five Nations; the Andastes, dwelling in fortified villages in the valley of the Susquehanna; the Eries, living in the vicinity of the lake which bears their name; were all of kin to the Iroquois and were all conquered and practically destroyed in time by that most powerful of the savage nations of North America. Then followed the conquest of the Delawares, or Lenapes, and the expulsion of the Ottawas from the vicinity of the great river which now runs by the Capital of Canada and onward through the towns and villages of a peaceful civilization. In 1715 the Iroquois were strengthened by the admission of the Tuscaroras, a warlike people of admitted kinship, to the confederacy as a sixth nation.


These confederated peoples seem to have been at once the best and the worst of all the Indian nations. Their pride was intense and overmastering, their lust of conquest was individually and personally as strong as that of an Alexander or Napoleon, their savage passions and cruelties were vented to an indescribable degree upon their enemies. Yet in courage, constancy, and concentrated energy it would be difficult to find their equal amongst the savage races of the world. As with most Indians, though in perhaps greater degree, where they inflicted pain they were ready to endure it, and the cruelties perpetrated upon their miserable captives were those which they would themselves receive without murmuring in the event of defeat.


The original population of these various tribes and races and nations of kindred origin, can, of course, only be estimated. Garneau, in his History of French Canada, puts the Algonquin total at 90,000 souls, the Hurons and Iroquois together at about 17,000, the Mobiles of the far south at 50,000, and the Cherokees, of what is now the centre of the United States , at 12,000. His total is 180,000 for the greater part of the continent, and in view of the constant condition of warfare in which they were involved, and the statements of travellers like Cartier, Joliette, Marquette, De la Jonquière, etc., it is probable the estimate is not too small. Even as it is, however, the fact of the dominating power of a few thousand Iroquois during so many years illustrates the romantic possibilities of conquest amongst savages as well as civilized peoples.


In conduct it should be remembered the early Indian was kind and hospitable to the exploring European. The Jesuit and Recollet missionaries bear testimony in many cases to this fact. Hakluyt in his account of Cartier's first visit to Hochelaga (1535) says that "the Indians brought us great store of fish and of bread made of millet, casting them into our boats so thick that you would have thought it to fall from Heaven." In Turnbull's work upon Connecticut we are told that the Indians at the first settlement of the English performed many acts of kindness towards them. "They instructed them in the manner of planting and dressing the Indian corn . . . and by selling them corn when pinched with famine they relieved their distress, and prevented them from perishing in a strange land." This is an exceptional American tribute, and deserves consideration. So with regard to the first landing of nearly all the explorers and early travellers upon this continent we find a kindness of treatment which made Cartier no exception to what was rather a general rule. Deceit or indignity from visitors met swift resentment and revenge, but otherwise they were usually sure of good treatment. The special ability of the Iroquois has met with distinct modern recognition, and has forced it even from their enemies, the Americans. The Hon. Cadwallader Colden, of New York, in his well-known historical work of over a century ago, says:


"Each of these nations is an absolute republic in itself. . . The authority of the rulers is gained by and consists wholly in the opinion the rest of the nation have of their wisdom and integrity. They never execute their resolutions by force upon any of their people. Honour and esteem are their principal rewards, as shame and being despised are their punishments . . . . Their great men, both sachems and captains, are gener ally poorer than the common people, for they affect to give away and distribute all the presents and plunder they get in their treaties or in war, so as to have nothing for themselves. There is not a man in the ministry of the Five Nations who has gained his office otherwise than by merit, and there is not the least salary or any sort of profit annexed to any office to tempt the covetous or sordid, but on the contrary every unworthy action is attended with the forfeiture of their commission, for their authority is only the esteem of the people, and closes the moment that esteem is lost. Here we see the natural origin of all power and authority amongst a free people."


Indian appearance, customs, and beliefs have been often described and with most varying degrees of accuracy or the reverse. The fact is that changing conditions brought about frequent changes in manners and appearance. The Huron or Wyandot in days when he was a successful rival of the Iroquois could hardly be recognized in the fearful and unaggressive convert of the missionaries during the years of his final massacre and disappearance. The Delawares in their period of active life and power were not the same people as the subject slaves of the Iroquois, nor were the latter in their earlier times of peace and trade like the fiery savages whose conquering warwhoop became a signal of death from the great lakes to the Mississippi .


The Indian races were emphatically the product of nature, however, and amongst them all were similarities which stamped them as of the same origin and as possible descendants of migrating Tartars from the Steppes of Central Asia. They were as a rule tall and slender and agile in form, with faces bronzed by sun and rain and winds. Their expression was stern and sombre, seldom or never marked with a smile. Their heads had high cheek-bones, small, sunken, and keenly flashing eyes, narrow foreheads, thick lips, somewhat flat noses and coarse hair. The senses of sight, and sound, and feeling were developed into a sort of forest instinct which seemed almost supernatural to the first white settlers and finds most vivid expression in Fenimore Cooper's wonderful romances.


Their costumes of deer-skin and moccasins, their necklaces of wampum, beads, or shells, their ornaments of feathers and claws and scalps are well known, as is the vermilion paint with which they delighted to daub their faces and bodies. The only weapons they possessed before the Europeans came were the arrow and the toma­hawk. Hunting or fishing was their occupation, war their pastime. Both these pursuits made per­manence of dwelling very difficult and involved naturally a life of ceaseless wandering - one indeed which made them the Arabs of the Ameri­can wilderness. Their religion was always a peculiarly mixed quantity. Champlain states that the Micmacs had neither devotional ideas nor ceremonies. Other tribes assured him that each man had his own god whom he wor­shipped in silence and secretness. They seem, however, to have all worshipped something, whether the spirit of good, the spirit of evil, the spirit of storm, the god of war, the spirit of the mountains, or a spirit of the waters-lake, or sea, or river.


Sacrifices were not uncommon, and Father Jogues is authority for having seen at least one human sacrifice amongst the Iroquois. How far they really worshipped one Great Spirit is a matter of some uncertainty and it has been claimed that the early missionaries rather suggested to their minds an idea which they were quick to absorb through the questions and answers naturally given. However that may be, there can be no doubt of their intense belief in spiritual manifestations and interventions. They peopled the very air with friendly or hostile spirits and created amongst themselves those powerful manipulators of superstition - the medicine men - to control the surrounding demons of storm and famine, and disease and death. To the same men were given the care of the sick, and, mixed up with much that was harmful, there were no doubt many simple remedies used amidst the mass of incantations and superstitious mummery.


Dreams they put great faith in, and oratory was almost as much a factor in success as bravery. But the chief and all important customs of the Indians turned upon war and its occasionally brief concomitant, peace. A struggle between two tribes or nations could be brought on by the most trivial cause, or by almost any ambitious and restless individual. When determined upon, it became the source of uncontrollable joy, of wild dances, of eloquent harangues, of multitudinous prayers and sacrifices, of feasts, and endless bravado and boasting. Then followed silence and secret departure on the expedition, and a long patient waiting for the return. Perhaps the warriors never came back, but if they did, and brought a prisoner with them, the welcoming din of shouts, and shrieks, and tom-toms presented a perfect pandemonium of sound. Then followed the frightful and indescribable torture of the captive, modified if he were of low degree or ordinary position, but always borne with a stoical endurance not excelled by the Protestant victims of the Inquisition, the Jesuit missionaries to the Hurons, or the southern victims of the Spaniard.


In the wars between the French and English and Americans, which devasted parts of North America during nearly three hundred years, the Indians exercised a large influence, and had they been united might more than once have expelled the white invader altogether. Roughly speaking the Algonquins and Hurons stood by the French, the Iroquois and some minor nations by the Eng­lish. When the Five Nations had beaten the Algonquins and destroyed the Hurons, they turned their attention to the French, and several times brought the settlements on the St. Lawrence to the very verge of destruction. After the supremacy of England seemed finally established there existed for some years a sort of brooding stillness which might well have boded trouble. The New England colonists had never treated the Indians upon their borders well, and the result had been a long series of reprisals and wasting war. Greedy traders and unscrupulous speculators in land had robbed the Indians of their intellect by brandy, and of large tracts of land by fraud. The American Colonies, indeed, claimed the whole soil, and without British permission, though in the King's name, made frequent and large grants of Indian territory and then seemed surprised when the tomahawk and scalping knife were used in response by the untutored savage.


Finally, land regulations were made by the Home Government which to some extent stopped this sort of lawlessness, and were respected in Canada, though more or less disregarded in the Thirteen Colonies as the spirit of local revolt developed. Sir William Johnson, of the Mohawk Valley, in New York, was appointed Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, and he did his best to enforce these regulations. Indirectly they were one great cause of the subsequent rebellion through the dissatisfaction created amongst masses of traders and border settlers. After the Revolution, it may be said here, they were repealed, and the course of unwise oppression entered upon which has made the modern history of the Indian a standing reproach to the United States and a blood-red blot upon its annals. In Canada they were maintained.


Meantime, the trouble already hinted at silently developed, and in 1763 what is known as the Conspiracy of Pontiac set the whole frontier in a blaze of flame - lit villages. This great savage stands out with Tecumseh and Thayendanegea upon the pages of American history as illustrating the possibilities of his race, though, unfortunately, his intellect was directed very differently from that of the other two chiefs. Though only a chieftain of the Ottawas, he had succeeded in extending a sort of personal influence over the Sacs, the Pottawatamies, the Ojibiways, the remainder of the Hurons, the Delawares, the Shawnees, and had even detached the Senecas from the Six Nations. His power reached from the Ottawa River down to the far frontiers of Virginia. He had accepted the sovereignty of the English at first, but speedily saw that the victory of Wolfe had rung the death-knell of Indian influence in America.


His people were no longer the balance of power between rival nations of white men, and he saw a vision of the united white race of Englishmen extending over the whole continent and driving before them the one-time rulers of the forest and prairie. There is little doubt too that the haughty chieftain was not treated with the respect and conciliation which was his due. Gifts and compliments were no longer showered upon him, and his consequence seems to have become suddenly shrivelled up. The result was a scheme to unite all the Indians, to surprise and massacre the English by wholesale, and drive them into the sea. The conspiracy was well planned. On the day arranged, Pontiac just failed to capture Detroit through the plot being revealed by a squaw. Michilimackinac, Sandusky , Presqu'Ile and other places were captured and destroyed, while Detroit itself was closely besieged and a relief party from Niagara surprised and cut to pieces. The borders of Pennsylvania , Maryland, and Virginia were the scenes of slaughter and untold suffering. For three years the war continued, and then at last Sir William Johnson obtained the submission of Pontiac, and with it peace upon the frontiers. Two years later the great chieftain was killed in some trivial quarrel with another Indian - probably by treachery.


When the Thirteen Colonies plunged into revolution it was natural that the bulk of the Indians should stand by Great Britain. Those who did not take an active part with the Iroquois stood aloof - with the exception of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras - and refused all the efforts of Congress to obtain their co-operation. The result is a bitterness traceable through many American histories of the period ; a hatred wreaked at the time upon the unfortunate Mohawk residents of the peaceful, beautiful, and highly cultivated valley which bore their name; a prejudice which has had its effect upon all the subsequent national treatment of the race; a misrepresentation which in this war and in that of 1812 denounces every form of cruelty upon the Indian allies of England. Aside from these greater wars, however, the English Colonies had just cause to fear the Indians. The sweeping plot disclosed by Pocahontas in 1609; the struggle of eight years when the settlers from Naragansett to Penobscot were swept away by pestilence and the savages combined ; the massacre of 347 Virginians by the Indians in 1622 ; the Connecticut war with the Pequot tribes fifteen years later; the second raid into Virginia in 1644; the New England war with King Philip in 1675-6, when the chief was ultimately killed and his tribe destroyed; the eight years, or King William's war, of 1689-97 ; the death of 137 people at Roanoke at the hands of the Tuscaroras in 1712, and the driving of this nation out of North Carolina after three years of war; were incidents of struggle which provoked naturally hostile recollections. How far the troubles themselves were caused by wanton Colonial aggression or dictatorial conduct it is not necessary here to discuss. They form pages of Indian annals which have not yet been written except by the historic and natural enemies of the Indians themselves.


Two events connected with the War of the Revolution should, however, be referred to. One is the massacre of Wyoming, to which Campbell has given as poetical and inaccurate a colouring as Longfellow did to the expulsion of the Acadians. In 1778 this little town, which was filled with supporters of Congress, was attacked by a force of Loyalists and Indians sent from Niagara under Colonel Butler of the Rangers, and a number were killed. Hence the designation of massacre for an attack which averted one from the enemy upon Niagara itself. The expedition was carried out with little regard to considerations of mercy towards armed opponents, and so far it may be condemned.


But the second instance was a far worse illustration of merciless warfare. The Continental leaders had determined to seek vengeance upon the Six Nations for their support of the British, and in 1779 a force of 6,000 men under General Sullivan was sent to destroy the villages, crops, and means of subsistence of the Indian inhabitants - mainly women and children - of the Mohawk valley. Eighteen villages were accordingly devasted, and a smiling, fruitful region reduced to a wilderness.


At the close of the Revolutionary War the Iroquois were given large grants of land, and under the guidance of Joseph Brant - Thayendanegea - the brilliant chief who had led them throughout the contest, they settled in various parts of the new Province of Upper Canada . In 1812 many served again under the British flag, while other nations and tribes were brought together by the genius and influence of Tecumseh - a leader worthy of being associated with Sir Isaac Brock, and one who fills a page of high martial deeds in Canadian history. Since then the Indians of Canada, with the exception of a very few who were led astray by Louis Riel in the North-West troubles of 1885, have lived at peace with themselves and the white man, and have been trying to accustom themselves to a life of monotonous civilization, and, to them, somewhat degrading labour. Very different has it been in the United States. The increasing power and population of the Republic was amply sufficient to overcome the natural Indian turbulence of character, had only justice marked American treatment of their claims and peculiar position. But the unfortunate Indian was driven from pillar to post, from one treaty to another, from surrender to surrender, from the rapacious control of one set of agents to those of a still worse lot, from reserve to reserve, until at last, in sheer desperation, he would turn like a tiger upon his prey and rend the nearest victims of his savage passion. In 1790 there were Indian wars in Ohio and Indiana . In 1811, during a war with the Shawnees in Indiana, General Harrison won his famous victory of Tippecanoe. The following year saw a fierce and merciless conflict with the Creeks of Tennessee. In 1817-18 occurred the first Seminole war in Florida , a ruthless struggle on both sides, though with the Indians it was a desperate effort to retain their soil from the steady pressure of the advancing host of settlers. From 1835 to 1842 the second and last Seminole war raged. In 1869 there were troubles with the Arapahoes, in 1870 with the Indians of Texas, in 1871 with the Sioux in Dakota, and a little later with the Apaches in Arizona . The so-called Custer massacre - a straight fight between Indians and United States troops in which the latter were worsted - and many subsequent little wars with the Sioux under Sitting Bull, and other northern and western tribes, marked the closing years of this civilized century.


Altogether the history of the Indian is a melancholy one. Nature cast him in a noble mould and gave him at first a vast and splendid environment. That he was ignorant of his opportunities and became subservient to the passions of pride and cruelty was his misfortune though, perhaps, not altogether his fault. Compared with the greater knowledge, the gentler faith, the more cultured surroundings, the kindlier home life of the white man, his chances were, after all, very little and his faults not colossal. The Christian Spaniard with his brilliant and advanced civilization was more inherently and remorselessly cruel than ever was the Indian of the American wilds. The Italian bravo was as stealthy and treacherous as ever was an Indian brave. The Puritan New-Englander who burned witches to death, the Englishmen who guided the fires of Smithfield, the rulers who executed the decrees of Titus Oates, the woman who directed the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the Russians who used to flay their prisoners alive, the Turks who have filled the pages of history with nameless atrocities, all had advantages and powers and privileges which the wandering and ignorant Indian never pos­sessed or dreamed of.


But his career as a nomadic race of free-born savages is closed. It is an extraordinary page in history and one which Canadians upon the whole have little to regret in their contemplation of. The Indian has always been faithful to those who have been true to him, true to their individual engagements, true to their national pledges. To the British Crown and the Canadian Provinces he has in the past century been friendly and this fact speaks abundantly for itself, for the credit of the flag of England, and for the honour of the Dominion of Canada.


Back to the Indians of Canada and Quebec page

Source : J. Castell HOPKINS , "The Indians of Canada ", in Canada. An Encyclopaedia of the Country, Vol. 1, Toronto, The Linscott Publishing Company, 1898, 540p., pp. 206-214.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College