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The Iroquois

The Iroquois were originally natives of the plain, connected very probably with the Dakotas of the west. But they moved eastwards from the Mississippi valley towards Niagara, conquering as they went. No other tribe could compare with them in either bravery or ferocity. They possessed in a high degree both the virtues and the vices of Indian character--the unflinching courage and the diabolical cruelty which have made the Indian an object of mingled admiration and contempt. In bodily strength and physical endurance they were unsurpassed. Even in modern days the enervating influence of civilization has not entirely removed the original vigor of the strain. During the American Civil War of fifty years ago the five companies of Iroquois Indians recruited in Canada and in the state of New York were superior in height and measurement to any other body of five hundred men in the northern armies.

When the Iroquoian Family migrated, the Hurons settled in the western peninsula of Ontario. The name of Lake Huron still recalls their abode. But a part of the race kept moving eastward. Before the coming of the whites, they had fought their way almost to the sea. But they were able to hold their new settlements only by hard fighting. The great stockade which Cartier saw at Hochelaga, with its palisades and fighting platforms, bore witness to the ferocity of the struggle. At that place Cartier and his companions were entertained with gruesome tales of Indian fighting and of wholesale massacres. Seventy years later, in Champlain's time, the Hochelaga stockade had vanished, and the Hurons had been driven back into the interior. But for nearly two centuries after Champlain the Iroquois retained their hold on the territory from Lake Ontario to the Hudson. The conquests and wars of extermination of these savages, and the terror which they inspired, have been summed up by General Francis Walker in the saying: 'They were the scourge of God upon the aborigines of the continent.'

The Iroquois were in some respects superior to most of the Indians of the continent. Though they had a limited agriculture, and though they made hardly any use of metals, they had advanced further in other directions than most savages. They built of logs, houses long enough to be divided into several compartments, with a family in each compartment. By setting a group of houses together, and surrounding them with a palisade of stakes and trees set on end, the settlement was turned into a kind of fort, and could bid defiance to the limited means of attack possessed by their enemies. Inside their houses they kept a good store of corn, pumpkins and dried meat, which belonged not to each man singly but to the whole group in common. This was the type of settlement seen at Quebec and at Hochelaga, and, later on, among the Five Nations. Indeed, the Five Nations gave to themselves the picturesque name of the Long House, for their confederation resembled, as it were, the long wooden houses that held the families together.

All this shows that the superiority of the Iroquois over their enemies lay in organization. In this they were superior even to their kinsmen the Hurons. All Indian tribes kept women in a condition which we should think degrading. The Indian women were drudges; they carried the burdens, and did the rude manual toil of the tribe. Among the Iroquois, however, women were not wholly despised; sometimes, if of forceful character, they had great influence in the councils of the tribe. Among the Hurons, on the other hand, women were treated with contempt or brutal indifference. The Huron woman, worn out with arduous toil, rapidly lost the brightness of her youth. At an age when the women of a higher culture are still at the height of their charm and attractiveness the woman of the Hurons had degenerated into a shriveled hag, horrible to the eye and often despicable in character. The inborn gentleness of womanhood had been driven from her breast by ill-treatment. Not even the cruelest of the warriors surpassed the unhallowed fiendishness of the withered squaw in preparing the torments of the stake and in shrieking her toothless exultation beside the torture fire.

Where women are on such a footing as this it is always ill with the community at large. The Hurons were among the most despicable of the Indians in their manners. They were hideous gluttons, gorging themselves when occasion offered with the rapacity of vultures. Gambling and theft flourished among them. Except, indeed, for the tradition of courage in fight and of endurance under pain we can find scarcely anything in them to admire.

North and west from the Algonquins and Huron-Iroquois were the family of tribes belonging to the Athapascan stock. The general names of Chipewyan and Tinne are also applied to the same great branch of the Indian race. In a variety of groups and tribes, the Athapascans spread out from the Arctic to Mexico. Their name has since become connected with the geography of Canada alone, but in reality a number of the tribes of the plains, like the well-known Apaches, as well as the Hupas of California and the Navahos, belong to the Athapascans. In Canada, the Athapascans roamed over the country that lay between Hudson Bay and the Rocky Mountains. They were found in the basin of the Mackenzie river towards the Arctic sea, and along the valley of the Fraser to the valley of the Chilcotin. Their language was broken into a great number of dialects which differed so widely that only the kindred groups could understand one another's speech. But the same general resemblance ran through the various branches of the Athapascans. They were a tall, strong race, great in endurance, during their prime, though they had little of the peculiar stamina that makes for long life and vigorous old age. Their descendants of to-day still show the same facial characteristics--the low forehead with prominent ridge bones, and the eyes set somewhat obliquely so as to suggest, though probably without reason, a kinship with Oriental peoples.

The Athapascans stood low in the scale of civilization. Most of them lived in a prairie country where a luxuriant soil, not encumbered with trees, would have responded to the slightest labor. But the Athapascans, in Canada at least, knew nothing of agriculture. With alternations of starvation and rude plenty, they lived upon the unaided bounty of tribes of the far north, degraded by want and indolence, were often addicted to cannibalism.

The Indians beyond the mountains, between the Rockies and the sea, were for the most part quite distinct from those of the plains. Some tribes of the Athapascans, as we have seen, penetrated into British Columbia, but the greater part of the natives in that region were of wholly different races. Of course, we know hardly anything of these Indians during the first two centuries of European settlement in America. Not until the eighteenth century, when Russian traders began to frequent the Pacific coast and the Spanish and English pushed their voyages into the North Pacific,--the Tlingit of the far north, the Salish, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl-Nootka and Kutenai. It is thought, however, that nearly all the Pacific Indians belong to one kindred stock. There are, it is true, many distinct languages between California and Alaska, but the physical appearance and characteristics of the natives show a similarity throughout.

The total number of the original Indian population of the continent can be a matter of conjecture only. There is every reason, however, to think that it was far less than the absurdly exaggerated figures given by early European writers. Whenever the first explorers found a considerable body of savages they concluded that the people they saw were only a fraction of some large nation. The result was that the Spaniards estimated the inhabitants of Peru at thirty millions. Las Casas, the Spanish historian, said that Hispaniola, the present Hayti, had a population of three millions; a more exact estimate, made about twenty years after the discovery of the island, brought the population down to fourteen thousand! In the same way Montezuma was said to have commanded three million Mexican warriors--an obvious absurdity. The early Jesuits reckoned the numbers of the Iroquois at about a hundred thousand; in reality there seem to have been, in the days of Wolfe and Montcalm, about twelve thousand. At the opening of the twentieth century there were in America north of Mexico about 403,000 Indians, of whom 108,000 were in Canada. Some writers go so far as to say that the numbers of the natives were probably never much greater than they are to-day. But even if we accept the more general opinion that the Indian population has declined, there is no evidence to show that the population was ever more than a thin scattering of wanderers over the face of a vast country. Mooney estimates that at the coming of the white man there were only about 846,000 aborigines in the United States, 220,000 in British America, 72,000 in Alaska, and 10,000 in Greenland, a total native population of 1,148,000 from the Mississippi to the Atlantic.

The limited means of support possessed by the natives, their primitive agriculture, their habitual disinclination to settled life and industry, their constant wars and the epidemic diseases which, even as early as the time of Jacques Cartier, worked havoc among them, must always have prevented the growth of a numerous population. The explorer might wander for days in the depths of the American forest without encountering any trace of human life. The continent was, in truth, one vast silence, broken only by the roar of the waterfall or the cry of the beasts and birds of the forest.

The Dawn of Canadian History, A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, 1915


Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada

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