Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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





[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Further information on the Hurons may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]


Hurons, a confederation of four Iroquoian tribes, with several dependent groups, which, at the coming of the white man, occupied a territory, some­times known as Huronia, around Lake Simcoe and to the south and east of the Georgian bay. The name is derived from the old French word huron, meaning "a bristly or unkempt knave," and was apparently applied to the Hurons by the first French in Canada . The four tribes comprising the confederacy were the Bear, the Cord, the Rock, and the Deer. The Bear and the Cord tribes, who were the more important and more numerous, appear to have dwelt in Huronia for at least two centuries before the coming of the white man; but the Rock and Deer tribes joined the confederacy about the year 1600, having been driven thither from the St. Lawrence valley by the Iroquois. The smaller groups attached to the confederacy were mostly Iroquoian, but at least one was Algonkian, a fact which shows how slight the barrier was that language imposed. The name applied to the confederacy by the Hurons themselves was Wendat, meaning "islanders" or "dwellers on a peninsula"; whence came the term Wyandot, subsequently applied to the remnants of the Hurons and the Tobacco tribe.


Jacques Cartier in his voyage to Canada in 1534-43 found on the shores of the St. Lawrence Indians who belonged, if we are to judge by his vocabularies, to the Huron or Wendat group. By the time of Lescarbot and Champlain, however, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, these Indians had disappeared from the valley of the St. Lawrence, having been driven out apparently by the Iroquois to the south. When the French began to push into the interior, they came into armed conflict with the Iroquois, but they entered into trading relations with the Hurons; and in 1615 a French missionary, the Recollet Le Caron, established himself among the Hurons south of the Georgian bay. In 1626 the Jesuits established the first of their missions in Huronia; for nearly a quarter of a century the Jesuit missions among the Hurons constituted a brilliant chapter in the history of New France; and the Relations of the Jesuit missionaries during this period are a precious contribution to the history of the Huron confederacy. During this period, the teachings of the missionaries somewhat abated the war-like zeal of the Hurons, though there is evidence that they continued to raid their Iroquois foes to the south. But the Iroquois succeeded in obtaining from the Dutch of New York a plentiful supply of fire-arms; and these enabled them in 1649 virtually to wipe out the Huron villages south of the Georgian bay . Some of the Hurons took refuge with neighbouring tribes, such as the Neutral nation, the Tobacco tribe, and the Eries; others escaped with the surviving Jesuit missionaries to the Christian islands, and thence proceeded to the neighbourhood of Quebec, where their descendants are still found at Lorette. Those who took refuge with the Tobacco tribe were driven north to Manitoulin island and Michilimackinac, and thence into lake Michigan, where they merged with the Potawatomi. It was this group of fugitives who became known as Wyandots.


The Hurons represented a fairly advanced stage of Indian civilization. They practised agriculture, and every village had its cornfields, in which maize was grown, as well as beans, squashes, and pumpkins. They fished and hunted and gathered berries; but their villages were fairly stationary. They occupied their villages south of the Georgian bay continuously for from twelve to twenty years, until the fuel supply was depleted, and the unfertilized soil was exhausted. They lived in bark huts which housed from eight to twenty-four families, with an average of five or six persons to a family. Under normal conditions, each family was self-sustaining: it owned (in usufruct) a plot in the cornfields, caught its own fish, and obtained a share of the meat derived from the communal hunt. The women performed, as among other Indian tribes, much of the drudgery of existence; but they occupied a distinctly higher place in society than among many other tribes. The chiefs, in whom was vested the government of these tribes, were chosen by the suffrages of the child-bearing women, though their choice had to be submitted for confirmation to the councils of the clan, phratry, tribe, or confederation, as the case might be. The Hurons had, moreover, a well-defined system of law. They recognized and enforced the rights of ownership and inheritance of property, of liberty and security of person, of marriage, of hunting and fishing in specified territory, and other rights; though they regarded theft, adultery, maiming, and murder as crimes which consisted solely in the violation of the rights of a kinsman by blood or adoption, and it was not the rule to punish directly the guilty person, but on the contrary to require that the offender should offer recompense to the aggrieved. The greatest punishment that could be inflicted on a guilty person was for his kindred to refuse to defend him, thus making him virtually an outlaw.


The population of the Huron villages is difficult to estimate. When Champlain first visited them in 1615, he estimated from the statements of the Indians themselves that they numbered 30,000, distributed in 18 towns or villages; but he later reduced this estimate to 20,000. Sagard gave their population as 30,000, and Brébeuf as 35,000. But these figures are evidently guesses; and it seems probable that, before 1649, their total numbers did not exceed 20,000. Of these a large part were either killed or carried into captivity by the Iroquois; and of those who fled west or took refuge with the French in the St. Lawrence valley no group seems to have exceeded 500 in number. Including the remnants of the Wyandots and the Hurons at Lorette, there are probably to-day less than 1,000 Hurons in the United States and in Canada .


See E. J. Hathaway, The story of the Hurons (Toronto, 1915), and Peter D. Clarke, Origin and traditional history of the Wyandots, and sketches of other Indian tribes of North America (Toronto, 1870).


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Hurons", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 222-224.





© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College