According to the 2010 Census, there are over 5.2 million American Indian and Alaska Native people and 566 federally recognized tribal nations that exist as sovereign nations within 33 states of the United States. As Native American Heritage Month, November is an important time to celebrate the current and historic role the Native American voice has played in the United States.
Our Local Story
Many different Native American tribes inhabited the Northeastern region of the United States prior to European contact. The arrival of Europeans drastically changed tribal boundaries and the number of native inhabitants. Warfare sparked by trade disagreements, as well as the spread of foreign diseases such as smallpox, ravaged Indian populations, resulting in the shift of tribal boundaries. The Europeans’ desire to expand their colonial empires also resulted in the shrinking of tribal territories. As the early settlers and explorers claimed more and more land for colonial development, less and less was available for the Native Americans.
Very little is known about the Erie Indians, because they no longer lived along the Lake Erie shore by the time European explorers and missionaries arrived. The information that is available to modern historians (young and old) primarily came from French explorers and missionaries who recorded accounts of the Erie Indians from the neighboring Huron and Neutral Indians, as well as the rival Seneca.
There are very few facts pertaining to the Erie Indians that are not debated by local historians. It is readily accepted that the Erie Indians occupied lands along the southeastern shore of Lake Erie; however, precise boundaries are unclear. Some historians assert that Erie territory included western New York, northwestern Pennsylvania, and northeastern Ohio. Estimates concerning the Erie population range from 4,000 to 15,000. It is also readily accepted that the Erie, a group linguistically related to the Iroquois, ceased to exist as a distinct cultural group by 1656.
At the start of European contact, many newcomers offered peace and trade with local inhabitants. The natives, viewing friendly relations with the new settlers as signs of strength and prestige, accepted European offers. As the fur trade (1650-1870) developed, the French befriended the Huron, the strongest group in their region of settlement (Lower Canada), and the Dutch befriended the Mohawk, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca, Tuscarora), near Albany. The Huron quickly developed a fur trade monopoly on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River with the French in Montreal. The two tribes encountered opposition hunting and trading expeditions in their territories, for the fur trade quickly depleted traditional hunting grounds. Angered by the encroaching Huron hunters, the Mohawk, aided by their Iroquois allies, raided and pillaged Huron villages between 1648 and 1650. Many Huron survivors sought refuge with the Erie, and were absorbed into Erie villages. The Iroquois also defeated the Neutral Indians (Lower Canada) in 1650, and they too sought refuge with the Erie. (This offers one reason for dramatic differences in population estimates of the Erie.)
Peace between the Erie and the western Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga) was kept for only a few years. The Erie were defeated and dispersed in 1656 by Seneca warriors and their Onondaga allies. Many Erie, Huron and Neutral refugees were absorbed into various Seneca tribes.
Iroquois Lands Diminish…The United States Expands
Seneca Indians and their Iroquois allies inhabited this region after the fall of the Erie, and until the newly formed United States began its ambitious expansion project following the Revolutionary War. Due to vaguely worded charters (unclear boundary lines), New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania all laid claims to the Erie Triangle. (The Erie Triangle makes up most of Erie County today.) In 1780, the Triangle was ceded to the federal government. In 1792, the state of Pennsylvania purchased the Triangle from the federal government. Concurrently, federal and state governments were negotiating a succession of treaties with Native Americans in the surrounding areas. Despite these treaties and negotiations, the Six Nations claimed ownership of the Triangle.
The Fort Harmar Treaty, signed 1789, confirmed an earlier treaty and fixed the western limits of the possessions of the Six Nations. The Fort Harmar Treaty outlined hunting and fishing rights, and awarded the Iroquois $2,000 from the state of Pennsylvania, and an additional $1,200 from the United States government for the Triangle. Dissatisfaction with the terms of the treaty was widespread among the Iroquois. Seneca chief Ki-on-Twog-Ky, known as Cornplanter, was unable to resolve the differences among the tribes. Confident Western Woodland Indian tribes would provide much needed support, the Six Nations disregarded boundaries outlined by the Fort Harmar Treaty and refused to relinquish claims to the Erie Triangle. Continued threats of violence delayed settlement of the Erie Triangle until 1795.
The Six Nations signed a treaty forfeiting claims to the Triangle after receiving news of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Western Woodland Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Fallen Timbers was a decisive victory by the Legion of the United States led by Wayne over a confederacy of Native Americans from what was to become Ohio and Indiana. It opened the Northwest Territory for white settlement. Fallen Timbers extinguished the Iroquois’ last hope of creating an independent state in the Erie Triangle. The Iroquois were not able or willing to wage war with the United States without the help of the Western Woodland tribes. The Canandaigua Treaty was signed in 1794. Several chiefs received payment for their roles in negotiating the treaty.
Andrew Ellicott and his surveying party laid out “A Town at Presque Isle” in 1795.