L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Neutral Indian Nation
[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]
Neutrals. An important confederation of Iroquoian tribes living in the 17th century N. of lake Erie in Ontario, having four villages E. of Niagara r. on territory extending to the Geneses watershed; the western bounds of these tribes were indefinitely W. of Detroit r. and lake St. Clair. They were called Neutrals by the French because they were neutral in the known wars between the Iroquois and the Hurons. The Hurons called them Attiwandaronk, denoting 'they are those whose language is awry,' and this name was also applied by the Neutrals in turn to the Hurons. The Iroquois called them Atirhagenrat (Atirhaguenrek) and Rhagenratka. The Aondironon, the Wenrehronon, and the Ongniaahraronon are names of some of the constituent tribes of the Neutrals. Champlain, reporting what he saw in 1616, wrote that the "Nation Neutre" had 4,000 warriors and inhabited a country that extended 80 or 100 leagues E. and W., situated westward from the lake of the Seneca; they aided the Ottawa ( Cheueux releuez ) against the Mascoutens or "Small Prairie people," and raised a great quantity of good tobacco, the surplus of which was traded for skins, furs, and porcupine quills and quillwork with the northern Algonquian peoples. This writer said that the Indians cleared the land "with great pains, though they had no proper instruments to do this. They trimmed all the limbs from the trees, which they burned at the foot of the trees to cause them to die. Then they thoroughly prepared the ground between the trees and planted their grain from step to step, putting in each hill about 10 grains, and so continued planting until they had enough for 3 or 4 years' provisions, lest a bad year, sterile and fruitless, befall them."
The Rev. Father Joseph de la Roche Daillon, a Récollet, spent the winter of 1626 among this people for the purpose of teaching them Christianity. The first village, Kandoucho, or All Saints, welcomed him. He then went through four other villages, meeting with a friendly reception, and finally reached the sixth, where he had been told to establish himself. He had the villagers call a council of the tribe for the purpose of declaring to them his mission. He was adopted by the tribe, being given to Tsohahissen (Souharissen?), the presiding chief. Daillon says of the Neutrals: "They are inviolable observers of what they have once concluded and decreed." His "father and host," Tsohahissen, had ever travelled among all neighbouring tribes, for he was chief not only of his own village, but even of those of the whole tribe,. composed of about 28 villages, villas, and towns, constructed like those of the Hurons, besides many hamlets of 7 or 8 lodges for fishing, hunting, or for the cultivation of the soil. Daillon said that there was then no known instance of a chief so absolute; that Tsohahissen had acquired his position and power by his courage and from having been at war many times against 17 tribes, and had brought back heads (scalps?) and prisoners from all. Their arms were only the war club and the bow and arrow, but they were skilful in their use. Daillon also remarked that he had not found in all the countries visited by him among the Indians a hunchback, one-eyed, or deformed person.
But the Hurons, having learned that Father Daillon contemplated conducting the Neutrals to the trading place in the harbour of cape Victory in lake St. Peter of St. Lawrence r., approximately 50 m. below Montreal, spread false reports about him, declaring to the Neutrals that he was a great magician, capable of filling the air of the country with pestilence, and that he had then already taken off many Hurons by poison, thus seeking to compass his death by fomenting suspicions against him. The bearing of the accusation may be judged when it is known that sorcerers were regarded as public enemies and outlaws and were remorselessly slain on the slightest pretext.
The father declared that there were an incredible number of deer in the country, which they did not take one by one; but by making a triangular "drive," composed of two convergent hedges leading to a narrow opening, with a third hedge placed athwart the opening but admitting of egress at each end of the last one, they drove the game into this pen and slaughtered them with ease. They practised toward all animals the policy that, whether required or not, they must kill all they might find, lest those which were not taken would tell the other beasts that they themselves had been pursued, and that these latter in time of need would not permit themselves to be taken. There were also many elk, beaver, wild-cats, black squirrels, bustards, turkeys, cranes, bitterns, and other birds and animals, most of which were there all winter; the rivers and lakes were abundantly supplied with fish, and the land produced good maize, much more than the people required; there were also squashes, beans, and other vegetables in season. They made oil from the seeds of the sunflower, which the girls reduced to meal and then placed in boiling water which caused the oil to float; it was then skimmed with wooden spoons. The mush was afterward made into cakes and formed a very palatable food.
Daillon said that the life of the Neutrals was "not less indecent" than that of the Hurons, and that their customs and manners were very much the same. Like those of the Hurons, the lodges of the Neutrals were formed like arbours or bowers, covered with the bark of trees, 25 to 30 fathoms long and 6 to 8 in breadth, and had a passage running through the middle, 10 or 12 feet wide, from one end to the other. Along the sides was a kind of shelf, 4 ft. from the ground, whereon the occupants lay in summer to avoid the fleas. In winter they lay on mats on the ground near the fire. Such a lodge contained about 12 fires and 24 firesides. Like the Hurons they removed their villages every 5,10,15, or 20 years, from 1 to 3 or more leagues, when the land became exhausted by cultivation; for, as they did not make use of manure to any great degree, they had to clear more new and fertile land elsewhere. Their garments were made from the skins of various wild beasts obtained by the chase or through trade with the Algonkin, Nipissing, and other hunting tribes, for maize, meal, wampum, and fishing tackle.
The Seneca attacked and destroyed a town of the Aondironon in 1647. This seemingly unprovoked invasion was undertaken to avenge the capture among the Aondironon by the Hurons and the subsequent death of a Seneca warrior who had been among the Tionontati for the purpose of committing murder. This seeming rupture of the traditional neutrality existing between the Iroquois and the Neutrals caused the latter to prepare for war, and for a time both sides were on the alert and stood defiant. Finally the Neutrals decided to attempt to recover their captives by some peaceable means, and to await a more favourable opportunity to avenge themselves for this loss. But the sudden and complete destruction of the political integrity of the Hurons by their several defeats in 1648-49 by the Iroquois, caused the Neutrals now to fear the rising power of the Iroquois tribes, and they vainly sought to gain their good will by committing an act of hostility against their unfortunate Huron neighbours. When the Iroquois had sacked the most strongly palisaded towns of the Hurons, the Huron fugitives sought asylum in all directions, and many of them, placing their trust in the long-standing neutrality existing between the Iroquois and the Neutrals, which neither had yet sought to rupture, fled to the Neutral towns for refuge; but, instead of affording them protection, the Neutrals seized them as prisoners, and also that portion of the Hurons still remaining in their own country; and led them into captivity (Jes. Rel 1659-60).
Immediately after the political destruction of the Hurons by the Iroquois the latter again attacked the Neutrals. The entire conquest of the Neutrals in 1650-51 was the result of this war, and some remnants of the Neutral tribes were incorporated chiefly with the Seneca villages in New York .
The Neutrals were visited in 1640-41 by Fathers Breboeuf [Brébeuf] and Chaumonot. The tribe was then engaged in vigourous war against the western tribes, especially the Mescoutens. These two missionaries visited 18 villages or towns, stopping in 10 of them and expounding their own religious faith whenever they could assemble an audience. In these 10 settlements they estimated about 500 fires and 3,000 persons. On their return journey the fathers remained at Teotongniaton, situated midway between the chief town, Ounontisaston, and the town nearest the Huron country, Kandoucho, where they were compelled to remain on account of snow. While there, their hostess was at great pains to shield them from the abuse to which they were constantly subjected; she also aided them to learn the language and to harmonize it with that of these Neutrals. The Awenrehronon, who had formerly lived eastward of the Erie or Panther tribe, took refuge in Khioetoa, or St. Michel, a few years before this visit of the two fathers, and they were disposed to listen to the teachings of the missionaries.
As a sign of mourning for their friends and kin the Neutrals customarily blackened not only their own but also the faces of the dead. They tattooed the corpse and adorned it with feathers and other trinkets; if the person died in war, a chief delivered an address over the body, around which were assembled the friends and kin of the dead, who were urged by the orator to hasten to avenge the death. The Neutrals figuratively resurrected the dead, especially great chieftains and persons noted for valour and wisdom, by the substitution of some person whom they thought was like the deceased in person, age, and character. The selection was made in council, by the clan of the deceased person; then all the people except the one chosen arose, and the master of ceremonies, gently lowering his hand to the earth, feigned to raise the illustrious dead from the tomb and to give life to him in the person of the chosen one, on whom he then imposed the name and dignity of the dead chieftain, and the newly-made chieftain then arose amid the ceremonial acclaim of the people.
In 1643 the Neutrals sent an expedition of 2,000 warriors against the "Nation du feu," some of whom they attacked in a palisaded village defended by 900 men, who bravely withstood the first assaults; but, after a siege of 10 days, the Neutrals carried the palisade and killed on the spot many of its defenders and took about 800 captives. After burning 70 of the best warriors of the Nation du feu, they put out the eyes and girdled the mouths of the old men, whom they afterward abandoned to starve (Jes. Rel. 1643-44). The same authority also says that the Nation du feu alone was more populous than all the Neutral nation, all the Hurons, and all the Iroquois, showing that the term had not yet become restricted to those now called Mascoutens, or "Small Prairie people," but included all the so-called Illinois tribes as well.
From the Journal des PP. Jesuites for 1652-53 it is learned that the portions of the Tobacco Nation and of the Neutral Nation then remaining independent bodies of people were assembling with all neighbouring Algonquian tribes at A'otonatendie (Akotonatendike?) situated 3 days' journey southward from Skia'e (Sault Sainte Marie); that the Tobacco Nation wintered in 1653 at Tea'onto'rai, and the Neutrals, numbering 800, at Sken'hio'e (i. e., Fox place) in the direction of Te'o'chanontian, probably Detroit; that these two tribes would rendezvous in the autumn of 1653 at A'otomatendie, where they had assembled more than 2,000 warriors. This is perhaps the last historical mention of the Neutrals as an independent body. It is these Neutrals, apparently, whom Perrot ( Mémoire , chap. XIV, 1864) calls "Huron de la nation neuter" and "Hurons neutres."
In 1640 the Hurons offered a present of 9 hatchets (costly articles at that time) to the chieftains of the Neutral council, in the hope of inducing it to order the assassination of Fathers Breboeuf and Chaumonot, but after deliberating on the proposal all night the council refused to accept the gift.
As has been seen, Daillon said the Neutrals occupied 28 villages in 1626. In 1640, Breboeuf ascribed to them 40 villages with a minimum population of 12,000 persons, including 4,000 warriors. Only a few of the names of these have been preserved, among them being Kandoucho or Tous les Saints, Khioetoa or Saint Michel, Ongniaahra ("Ouaroronon," probably on the site of Youngstown , N. Y., a form of Niagara ), Ounontisaston, and Teotongniaton or Saint Guillaume .
Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 344-346.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College