Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
October 2004

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


Ottawa Indians



[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.]


[Further information on the Onondagas may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]



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Ottawa (from adawe, 'to trade,' 'to buy and sell,' a term common to the Cree, Algonkin, Nipissing, Montagnais, Ottawa, and Chippewa, and applied to the Ottawa because in early traditional times and also during the historic period they were noted among their neighbours as intertribal traders and barterers dealing chiefly in corn-meal, sunflower oil, furs and skins, rugs or mats, tobacco, and medicinal roots and herbs).


On French r., near its mouth, on Georgian bay, Champlain in 1615 met 300 men of a tribe which, he said, "we call les cheueuz releuez." [freely translated: those that wear their hair up] Of these he said that their arms consisted only of the bow and arrow, a buckler of boiled leather, and the club; that they wore no breech-clout, and that their bodies were much tatooed in many fashions and designs; that their faces were painted in diverse colours, their noses pierced, and their ears bordered with trinkets. The chief of this band gave Champlain to understand that they had come to that place to dry huckleberries to be used in winter when nothing else was available, In the following year Champlain left the Huron villages and visited the Cheueux Releuez (Ottawa), living westward from the Hurons, and he said that they were very joyous at "seeing us again." This last expression seemingly shows that those whom he had met on French r. in the preceding year lived where he now visited them. He said that the Cheueux Releuez waged war against the Mascoutens (here erroneously called by the Huron name Asistagueronon), dwelling 10 days' journey from them; he found this tribe populous; the majority of the men were great warriors, hunters, and fishermen, and were governed by many chiefs who ruled each in his own country or district; they planted corn and other things; they went into many regions 400 or 500 leagues away to trade; they made a kind of mat which served them for Turkish rugs; the women had their bodies covered, while those of the men were uncovered, saving a robe of fur like a mantle, which was worn in winter but usually discarded in summer; the women lived very well with their husbands; at the catamenial period the women retired into small lodges, where they had no company of men and where food and drink were brought to them. This people asked Champlain to aid them against their enemies on the shore of the fresh-water sea, distant 200 leagues from them.


In the Jesuit Relation for 1667, Father Le Mercier, reporting Father Allouez, treated the Ottawa, Kiskakon, and Ottawa Sinago as a single tribe, because they had the same language and together formed a common town. He adds that the Ottawa (Outsoüacs) claimed that the great river (Ottawa ?) belonged to them and that no other nation might navigate it without their consent. It was, for this reason, he continues, that, although very different in nationality, all those who went to the French to trade, bore the name Ottawa , under whose auspices the journey was undertaken. He adds that the ancient habitat of the Ottawa had been a quarter of lake Huron, whence the fear of the Iroquois drove them, and whither were borne all their longings, as it were, to their native country. Of the Ottawa the Father says: "They were little disposed toward the faith, for they were too much given to idolatry, superstitions, fables, polygamy, looseness of the marriage tie, and to all manner of license, which caused them to drop all native decency."


According to tradition the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi tribes of the Algonquian family were formerly one people who came from some point N. of the Great lakes and separated at Mackinaw, Mich. The Ottawa were placed by the earliest writers and also by tradition, on Manitoulin id. and along the N. and S. shores of Georgian bay.


Father Dablon, superior of the missions of the Upper Algonkin in 1670, said: "We call these people Upper Algonkin to distinguish them from the lower Algonkin who are lower down, in the vicinity of Tadousasc and Quebec. People commonly give them the name Ottawa, because, of more than 30 different tribes which are found in these countries, the first that descended to the French settlements were the Ottawa, whose name remained afterward attached to all the others." The Father adds that the Saulteurs, or Pahoüiting8ach Irini, whose native country was at Saut Sainte Marie, numbering 500 souls, had adopted three other tribes, making to them a cession of the rights of their own native country, and also that the people who were called Noquet ranged, for the purpose of hunting, along the a. side of lake Superior, whence they originally came; and the Chippewa (Outcibous) and the Marameg from the N. side of the same lake, which they regarded as their native land. The Ottawa were at Chagaouamigong or La Pointe de Sainte Esprit in 1670 (Jes. Rel. 1670, 83, 1858).


Father Le Mercier (Jes. Rel. 1654), speaking of a flotilla of canoes from the "upper nations," says that they were "partly Ondataouaouat, of the Algonquine language, whom we call les Cheueux Releuez." And in the Relation for 1665 the same Father says of the Ottawa that they were better merchants than warriors.


In a letter of 1723, Father Sébastian Rasles says that he learned while among the Ottawa that they attributed to themselves an origin as senseless as it was ridiculous. They informed him that they were derived from three families, each composed of 500 persons. The first was that of Michabou (see Nanabozho ), of the Great Hare, representing him to be a gigantic man who laid nets in 18 fathoms of water which reached only to his armpits and who was born in the island of Michilimackinac, and formed the earth and invented fish-nets after carefully watching a spider weaving its web for taking flies; among other things he decreed that his descendants should burn their dead and scatter their ashes in the air, for if they failed to do this, the snow would cover the ground continuously and the lakes would remain frozen. The second family was that of the Namepich, or Carp, which, having spawned its eggs on the shore of a river and the sun casting its rays on them, a woman was thus formed from whom they claimed descent. The third family was that of the Bear's paw, but no explanation was given of the manner in which its genesis took place. But when a bear was killed a feast of its own flesh was given in its honour and an address was made to it in these terms: "Have thou no thoughts against us because we have killed thee; thou hast sense and courage; thou seest that our children are suffering from hunger; they love thee, and so wish to cause thee to enter their bodies; and is it not a glorious thing to be eaten by the children of captains?" The first two families bury their dead ( Lettres Edif ., IV, 106, 1819.).


It has been stated by Charlevoix and others that when they first became known to the French they lived on Ottawa r. This, however, is an error, due to the twofold use of the name, the one generic and the other specific, as is evident from the statements by Champlain and the Jesuit Relations (see Shea in Charlevoix, New France, II, 270, 1866); this early home was N. and W. of the Huron territory. No doubt Ottawa r., which they frequently visited and were among the first western tribes to navigate in trading expeditions to the French settlements, was named from the Ottawa generically so called, not from the specific people named Ottawa . There is unquestioned documentary evidence that as early as 1635 a portion of the Ottawa lived on Manitoulin id. Father Vimont, in the Jesuit Relation for 1640, 34, 1858, says that "south of the Amikwa [Beaver Nation] there is an island [Manitoulin] in that fresh water sea [lake Huron], about 30 leagues in length inhabited by the Outaouan [Ottawa], who N. a people come from the nation of the Standing Hair [Cheueux Releuez ]." This information he received from Nicolet, who visited the Ottawa there in 1635. On the Du Creux map of 1660, on a large island approximating the location of Manitoulin id., the "natio surrectorum capillorum," i.e. the Cheveux Releves , or Ottawa , is placed. They were allies and firm friends of the French and the Hurons, and conducted an active trade between the western tribes and the French. After the destruction of the Hurons, in 1648-49, the Iroquois turned their arms against the Ottawa , who fled with a remnant of the Hurons to the islands at the entrance of Green bay , where the Potawatomi, who had preceded the Ottawa and settled on these islands, received the fugitives with open arms and granted them a home. However, their residence here was but temporary, as they moved westward. a few years afterward, a part going to Keweenaw bay, where they were found in 1660 by Father Menard, while another part fled with a band of Hurons to the Mississippi , and settled on an island near the entrance of lake Pepin. Driven away by the Sioux, whom they had unwisely attacked, they moved N. to Black r., Wis., at the head of which the Hurons built a fort, while the Ottawa pushed eastward and settled on the shore of Chaquamegon bay. They were soon followed by the missionaries, who established among them the mission of St. Esprit. Harassed by the Sioux, and a promise of protection by the French having been obtained, they returned in 1670-71 to Manitoulin id., in lake Huron. According to the records, Father Allouez, in 1668-69, succeeded in converting the Kiskakon band at Chaquamegon, but the Sinago and Keinouche remained deaf to his appeals. On their return to Manitoulin the French fathers established among them the mission of St. Simon. There is a tradition that Lac Court-Oreilles was formerly called Ottawa lake because a band of the Ottawa dwelt on its shores, until they were forced to move by the attacks of the Sioux (Brunson in Wis. Hist. Coll ., IV). Their stay on Manitoulin id. was brief; by 1680 most of them had joined the Hurons at Mackinaw, about the station established by Marquette in 1671.


The two tribes lived together until about 1700, when the Hurons removed to the vicinity of Detroit, while a portion of the Ottawa about this time seems to have obtained a foothold on the W. shore of lake Huron between Saginaw bay and Detroit, where the Potawatomi were probably in close union with them. Four divisions of the tribe were represented by a deputy at the treaty signed at Montreal in 1700. The band which had moved to the S. E. portion of the lower Michigan peninsula returned to Mackinaw about 1706. Soon afterward the chief seat of a portion of the tribe was fixed at Waganakisi (L'Arbre Croche), near the lower end of lake Michigan. From this point they spread in every direction, the majority settling along the E. shore of the lake, as far S. as St. Joseph r., while a few found their way into S. Wisconsin and N. E. Illinois. In the N. they shared Manitoulin id. and the N. shore of lake Huron with the Chippewa, and in the S. E, their villages alternated with those of their old allies the Hurons, now called Wyandot, along the shore of lake Erie from Detroit to the vicinity of Beaver cr. in Pennsylvania. They took an active part in all the Indian wars of that region up to the close of the War of 1812. The celebrated chief Pontiac was a member of this tribe, and Pontiac 's war of 1763, waged chiefly around Detroit , is a prominent event in their history. A small portion of the tribe which refused to submit to the authority of the United States removed to Canada, and together with some Chippewa and Potawatomi, is now settled on Walpole id. in lake St. Clair. The other Ottawa in Canadian territory are on Manitoulin and Cockburn ids. and the adjacent shore of lake Huron.


All the Ottawa lands along the W. shore of lake Michigan were ceded by various treaties, ending with the Chicago treaty of Sept. 26, 1833, wherein they agreed to remove to lands granted them on Missouri r. in the N. E. corner of Kansas. Other bands, known as the Ottawa of Blanchard fork of Great Auglaize r., and of Roche de Boeuf on Maumee r., resided in Ohio, but these removed W. of the Mississippi about 1832 and are now living in Oklahoma. The great body, however, remained in the lower peninsula of Michigan, where they are still found scattered in a number of small villages and settlements.


In his Histoire du Canada (I, 190, 1836), Fr. Sagard mentions a people whom he calls "la nation du bois." He met two canoe loads of these Indians in a village of the Nipissing, describing them as belonging to a very distant inland tribe, dwelling he thought toward the "sea of the south," which was probably lake Ontario. He says that they were dependents of the Ottawa ( Cheueux Releuez ) and formed with them, as it were, a single tribe.


The men were entirely naked, at which the Hurons, he says, were apparently greatly shocked, although scarcely less indecent themselves. Their faces were gaily painted in many colours in grease, some with one side in green and the other in red; others seemed to have the face covered with a natural lace, perfectly well-made, and others in still different styles. He says the Hurons had not the pretty work nor the invention of the many small toys and trinkets which this "Gens de Bois" had. This tribe has not yet been definitely identified, but it may have been one of the three tribes mentioned by Sagard in his Dictionnaire de la Langue Huronne, under the rubric "nations," as dependants of the Ottawa (Andatahoüat), namely, the Chisérhonon, Squierhonon, and Hoindarhonon.


Charlevoix says the Ottawa were one of the rudest nations of Canada , cruel and barbarous to an unusual degree and sometimes guilty of cannibalism. Bacqueville de la Potherie ( Hist. Am. Sept ., 1753) says they were formerly very rude, but, by intercourse with the Hurons, they have become more intelligent, imitating their valour, making themselves formidable to all the tribes with whom they were at enmity and respected by those with whom they were in alliance. It was said of them in 1859: "This people is still advancing in agricultural pursuits; they may be said to have entirely abandoned the chase; all of them live in good, comfortable, log cabins; have fields inclosed with rail fences, and own domestic animals". The Ottawa were expert canoe-men; as a means of defence they some times built forts, probably similar to those of the Hurons.


In the latter part of the 17 th century the tribe consisted of 4, possibly 5, divisions. It is repeatedly stated that there were 4 bands, and no greater number is ever mentioned, yet 5 names are given, as follows: Kishkakon, Sinago, Keinouche, Nassauaketon, and Sable. La Mothe Cadillac says there were 4 bands: Kiskakon, Sinago, Sable, and Nassauaketon (Verwyst, Miss. Labors , 210, 1886). Outaoutiboy, chief of the Ottawa , speaking at the conference with Gov. de Callières, Sept. 3, 1700 , said: "I speak in the name of the four Outaouais nations, to wit: The Outaouaes of the Sable, the Outaouaes Sinago, the Kiskakons and the people of the Fork" (Nassawaketon). In addition to these chief divisions there were minor local bands, as Blanchard Fork, Kajienatroene, Maskasinik, Negaouichiriniouek, Niscak, Ommunise, Otontagan, Talon, and Thunder Bay . Chauvignerie in 1736 distinguished the Ottawa of Grand River, lake Nipissing, Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Saginaw. According to Morgan the names of the Ottawa gentes are unknown, but Chauvignerie in 1736 mentioned the bear, otter, grey squirrel, and black squirrel as the totems of different bands of the tribe. According to Charlevoix the Ottawa signed with a hare the provisional treaty concluded at Montreal in 1700. At the great conference on the Maumee in 1793 they signed with the otter totem. In Tanner's Narrative is given a list of 18 totems among the Ottawa and Chippewa, but there is nothing to indicate which are Ottawa and which Chippewa.


The Ottawa entered into numerous treaties with the United States, as follows: Ft. McIntosh, Jan. 21, 1785; Ft. Harmar, Ohio, Jan. 9, 1789; Greenville, Ohio, Aug. 3, 1795; Ft. Industry, July 4, 1805; Detroit, Mich., Nov. 17, 1807; Brownstown, Mich., Nov. 25, 1808.; Greenville, Ohio, July 22, 1814; Spring Wells, Mich., Sept. 8, 1815; St. Louis, Mo., Aug. 24, 1816; on the Miami, Ohio, Sept. 29, 1817; St. Mary's, Ohio, Sept. 17, 1818; L'Arbre Croche and Michilimackinac, Mich., July 6, 1820; Chicago, Ill., Aug. 29, 1821; Prairie du Chien, Wis., Aug. 19, 1825; Green Bay, Wis., Aug. 25, 1828, Prairie du Chien, Wis., July 29; 1829; Miami Bay, Ohio, Aug. 30, 1831; Maumee, Ohio, Feb. 18, 1833; Chicago, Ill., Sept. 26, 1833; Washington, D.C., Mar. 28, 1836; Council Bluffs, Iowa, June 5 and 17, 1846; Detroit, Mich., July 31, 1855, and Washington, D.C., June 24, 1862.


The population of the different Ottawa groups is not known with certainty. In 1906 the Chippewa and Ottawa on Manitoulin and Cockburn ids., Canada, were 1,497, of whom about half were Ottawa; there were 197 Ottawa under the Seneca School, Okla., and in Michigan 5,587 scattered Chippewa and Ottawa in 1900, of whom about two-thirds are Ottawa. The total is therefore about 4,700.


The following are or were Ottawa villages: Aegakotcheising, Anamiewatigong, Apontigoumy, Machonee, Manistee, Menawzhetaunaung, Meshkemau, Michilimackinac, Middle Village , Obidgewong (mixed), Oquanoxa, Roche de Boeuf, Saint Simon (mission), Shabawywyagun, Tushquegan, Waganakisi, Walpole Island , Waugau, Wolf Rapids.


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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. 374-377.





© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College