The New Moon Arrives!

December 29, 2009

Well, Christmas is over. I hope everyone had a fine holiday. I enjoyed three Christmas dinners but I’m paying for it. I now have a few extra pounds to work off! My last post had the Three Fires warriors stealthily move into place for an all out attack on the Iroquois in Southern Ontario.

When the new moon arrived all four divisions went on the offensive. The western division had been camping along the western shore of Lake St. Clair and when the time arrived we moved around the top of the lake to the eastern shore and up the Horn River. We called it the Horn because it took the shape of an antler. The French would later call it Riviere La Trenche but today it is known as the Thames.

About 12 miles up the Thames, just west of the current city of Chatham, Ontario there was a very large Seneca town. Young Gull and his warriors put it under seige. During the first offensive against the well fortified town some Seneca warriors escaped with the plan to flee back to their homeland in up-state New York  then return with reinforcements. Young Gull sent a large force of Wyandotte in hot pursuit.

The seige lasted a few days before Young Gull’s forces finally burned their way through the double palisade. There was little the town’s 400 warriors could do. The western division was there with all its might, 3200 warriors minus the Wyandotte pursuing the escapees. A tide of fierce Ojibwa and Potawatomi warriors surged into the town massacring everyone in sight. None survived. The end was furious but mercifully it came quick.

All of the bodies of the slain were desecrated. They were decapitated and all the heads piled in a large pyramid. Later this pyramid of skulls would serve as a warning to all of the fierce power the Three Fires Confederacy.  The remainder of the bodies were dismembered and scattered. This was our practice and would prevent the enemy from entering the afterlife.

The warriors of the western division that fell in battle were buried in a mass grave with all funeral rites afforded the brave and loyal. They were buried with all of their weapons and daily utensils. This would provide them with the necessary items to make their four-day journey to the land of souls as easy as possible. The mass grave created a huge burial mound. It was still there some 115 years later when recorded on a British Naval Surveyor’s Map of the River Thames c 1815. The note on this map reads, “In the side of this knoll there are great quantities of human bones. A battle is said to have been fought between the Chippewas and Senekies contending for the dominion of this country, when the latter were put to flight with great slaughter and driven across the river at Niagara.”

The Seneca reinforcements never arrived. Young Gull’s Wyandotte warriors returned from Niagara to lay in wait at Long Point on Lake Erie. A huge force of Seneca came skirting along the north shore of the lake headed pell-mell for their town on the Thames. When they arrived at Long Point they were ambushed. The Iroquois typically used dug out canoes which were much heavier and more cumbersome than bark canoes. The Seneca were easily outmanoeuvred and all were killed on the lake. This is one of the few Native American naval battles to have occurred.

The victorious pursuers rejoined the main body of Young Gull’s warriors. They moved up the St. Clair river and then northward along the eastern shoreline of Lake Huron. Meanwhile, the other three divisions moved on their targets with equal devastation.

NEXT WEEK: A Four Pronged Attack!

The Iroquois War

December 23, 2009

Wow, one day left till Christmas! Guess I better get shopping. I’ve been posting to this blog since September and we’ve moved through a half century of history and learned a little bit about Ojibwa culture. Now for some more history.

We are now approaching the end of the 1600’s. For the latter half of the 17th century the Iroquois Five Nations were flexing their muscles by expanding their territory and annoying their neighbors. This was especially true of the Seneca and Mohawk nations. They had moved into Southern Ontario and at first used it only as beaver trapping grounds, but after a couple of decades they began to move there by establishing several towns.

The Mohawk nation had pushed at the Three Fires Confederacy’s territory making many raids waylaying trading expeditions to Montreal and stealing their pelts. Threats were made, peace agreements were agreed to and then broken. The Ojibwa’s patience was running out. They had taken the brunt of the Iroquois raids so they threatened to bring the whole weight of the Three Fires Confederacy to bear. A peace conference was scheduled to take place at a major Mohawk town at the mouth of the Saugeen River.

According to a traditional story told to me by my grandmother who came from Saugeen a delegation left Superior country for the peace conference. While they were on their way a Mohawk raiding party attacked an Ojibway village and kidnapped the Ojibway chief’s young son. They returned to the Saugeen by a different route and double time arriving there before the Three Fires delegation. The young boy’s father was among the delegates.

When they arrived they received the royal treatment. A huge feast was put on for them and there was one particular dish not recognized, however the meat was delicious. A new agreement was quickly reached and the Algonquian speaking delegates left for home not realizing their antagonists had cooked and fed the son to his own father!

The news spread and the Ojibwa were outraged. A Three Fire’s Grand Council was called and many of the council members called for a war of expulsion. There was little or no opposition. They devised a stratagem where they would leave the next spring with four divisions of warriors. They would only travel at night and when all were in place would attack simultaneously on the new moon.

The eastern division was made up of the largest of the Ojibwa tribes, the Mississauga, and was led by their war chief Bald Eagle. They were to use the trade route to Montreal. That would have been up the French River and across Lake Nipissing, portage to the Mattawa River and halfway down the Ottawa River. They then turned inland to confront the Iroquois towns from the east.

There were two divisions that moved in unison southward from Bawitig which today is called Sault Ste. Marie. The division that was made up of Amikouai or Beaver tribe warriors was led by White Cloud. They made their way to the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula to lay in wait for the new moon.

The other division that was to attack directly south was made up of Ottawa warriors led by their great war chief Sahgimah. They arrived at the Penetanguishene Peninsula where they lay in wait.

My forefather Young Gull had by this time become a major Ojibwa war chief and he led the western division. They were made up of Ojibwa, Potawatomi and Wyandotte warriors and they made their way down the lower peninsula of Michigan to Round Lake (Lake St. Clair) where they would attack from the west. According to Young Gull’s son, my great-great grandfather, Animikeence or Little Thunder the western division consisted of 400 war canoes each manned by eight warriors. They stretched out the entire length of the St. Clair River from its mouth at Lake Huron to Bkejwanong or Walpole Island. When all were in place and the new moon arrived they attacked. This time the Iroquois adversaries had 50 years of trading with the French for guns so they were equally well-armed. However, population tipped the balance of power to the Three Fires’ side. They outnumbered the Iroquois by four to one!

NEXT WEEK: The New Moon Arrives!

The First Ojibwa/French Alliance

December 17, 2009

Good morning everyone! Well, at least it’s morning as I write this. I had some problems with my blog this past week. It was suspended for suspicion of violating the terms of service. It was a mistake and as you can see I’m back on-line. Sometimes I long for the ‘good old days’. Now, back to some Great Lakes history!

You will recall that the French had moved their endeavors north to Superior country. The Iroquois had moved into the rich beaver hunting grounds of Southern Ontario. The military advantage the Dutch had given them made their ego soar along with their arrogance. The British had taken over the Dutch colony and changed the name of the main post from Orange to Albany. They also continued to supply the Iroquois with firearms. The Iroquois continued to harass their neighbors and were continually making war on the French. Such was the situation when we pick up our story in the year 1686.

The Governor of New France, Monsieur Le Marquis de Nonville , ordered the explorer Du Lhut to build a military post at de Troit. This was the name the French called the waterways between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. It means the strait. The main purpose of a military fort at the lower end of Lake Huron was to keep the British out of the upper Great Lakes. He chose a spot where the St. Clair River was the narrowest and established Fort St. Joseph. That site is located in what is now Pinegrove Park in downtown Port Huron, Michigan.

In 1687 de Nonville decided to have a war of extermination of the Seneca. They had embarrassed the French by slaughtering many colonists in constant raids and had totally defeated the Miamis and the Illinois who had put themselves under the protection of the French. To this end he gathered an army of 1500 French regulars and 500 praying Indians from Quebec. These were mostly Iroquois the French had converted to Christianity. He also ordered Du Lhut to gather a force of Far Indians to join the expedition.

Du Lhut convinced some of the war chiefs to follow him in this venture and some 500 warriors from the Potawatomi, Ottawa, Wyandotte and Ojibwa began gathering at Fort St. Joseph. However, most of them were Saulteux Ojibwa from the St. Marys River district. My great, great, great-grandfather, Kioscance or Young Gull was a war chief of the Saulteux at the time and was in all likelihood leading this group of warriors. When they had all arrived they left to meet de Nonville’s forces at Irondequoit on the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

The French forces left Montreal and part of them moved along the north shore of Lake Ontario and part of them moved along the south shore. They did this in case the weather presented any strong winds that would prevent either one of the groups from reaching the rendezvous place the other group would make it there on time. However the weather was fine and all three forces met at Irondequoit Bay on the same day.

De Nonville first sent scouts up the Genesee River to survey any Seneca towns and their strengths. The Seneca knew they had arrived so they sent their women, children and old people further into Seneca country for protection. They gathered a force of 500 warriors and lay in wait hiding themselves in the underbrush waiting for the ambush. The French scouts passed them, found the first town they encountered burned and deserted. They found two more towns further upstream in the same condition so they returned to make a report to the governor. All the time they were unaware of the 500 Seneca warriors who watched them from their hiding places.

The French governor decided to move the French regulars upstream to the three Seneca towns. As they were passing the hidden Seneca they sprung their ambush. The French soldiers were taken completely by surprise and panicked. Some fled east and some west and they began firing back on each other. The Seneca had bested them but the Indian forces arrived and they were much more adept at forest warfare. The tide turned and the Seneca retreated back up the river. 

When de Nonville arrived at the towns he stopped. He was quite shaken by the disarray of his soldiers. After all they were regulars and the best the French had. He ordered the fields burned, which took several days while the native allies looked on with disbelief. They knew the enemy was in full retreat and they thought the best course of action was to pursue and finish the job. As the soldiers cut down the corn and beans and gathered the squash the Ojibwa and their Three Fires brothers fumed. De Nonville then ordered a retreat saying the Seneca had been taught a good lesson. The Ojibwa and their allies accused de Nonville of doing nothing but warring on the cornfields and left in a huff. It would be a long time before they would again join the French in any military campaigns.

NEXT WEEK: The Iroquois War

Ojibwa Systems and Beliefs

December 9, 2009

The Snowshoe Dance by George Catlin, 1835.


Greetings once again. I spent this a.m. fixing my crashed satellite system. Now that I’m online once again we can continue with the social aspects of the Ojibwa people.  

Our traditional political system was extremely flat or another way to describe it is it had very little hierarchy. Each village had a council made up of elders. This council held the only coercive power in the community. Certain elders were asked by the council to serve by sitting on the council as a member. Of course these would be people who showed they learned and used the wisdom earned by a lifetime of experiences. Not a bad idea to marry political power to the wisdom of the community.  

There were two kinds of chiefs, a war chief and a civil chief. They were asked to serve by the council. These chiefs had charismatic power only. If a war chief wanted to raise a war party then he had to convince the warriors of his village to follow him into battle using his charisma. The civil chief was chosen to serve because he displayed good negotiating skills and was a good orator. However, he only had the power to commit to what the council had already instructed him to do. It was the council that made the important decisions for the village. Each village was autonomous making decisions based on what they thought was best for the village so there was in effect no central government. There was an alliance called the Three Fires Confederacy which was mainly a military alliance between the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi nations. However, they held no power over individual villages.  

If there was no central government what held the nation together? Two things, a common language and family. The family was the most important social structure in the nation. Each family had a family mark called a odem or totem. They were usually animals, birds, fish, amphibians or reptiles but sometimes they were other objects. For example my totem is oak. The rules for the family structure were fairly simple. No two people with the same family mark could get married. This of course was designed to prevent intermarriage. There were no distant relatives. Everyone with the same totem was considered a close relative such as brother, sister, aunt or uncle. Even if a stranger having the same totem passed through the village from a distant part of the territory and he was by western standards a third cousin once removed, he could not marry one with the same family mark. The family of the village was also expected to treat him with the respect due to a visiting brother. They were to provide him with shelter, food and gifts even though they may not know him. It was this understanding of closeness that was the glue that held the Ojibwa nation together.  

The traditional Ojibwa person did not have a personal relationship with God. He was called the Great Mystery and remained transcendental and mysterious. The Ojibwa’s worldview was very spiritual. It was one filled with spirit beings called muneedoog or manitous. These manitous interacted with the people. Some of these spirits were helpers and some were mischievous and a few were evil. They had humanlike qualities in that they could change depending on the circumstances.  

Our understanding of the cosmos was that life was an illusion, a sort of imitation of the real world which was the spiritual realm. There were certain portals to the real world through which messages or directions could be transferred. Seers used chants and ceremonies such as the shaking tent ceremony to communicate with the manitous. Healers also used drumming, chanting to get direction from their spirit guides on how to release the spiritual power contained in certain herbs and medicines. The most important portal for the common person were dreams. This is why dreams were held in such high regard and used extensively to guide each on their journey through life.  

Shaking Tent Ceremony


When an individual died the cross over into the real world was not instantaneous. It was a journey. The body would be placed in the grave facing west. That is the direction which we believed the afterlife existed. All that person’s utensils were placed with them as they would need them on their four-day journey. A small bark house about two feet high was built over the grave. It had a small door on the west end to allow the person’s soul to escape when they started on their spirit journey. When they reached their final destination they would be in a place of bliss and happiness enjoying the company of loved ones that had made the journey before them.  

I’ve just touched on the culture and traditions of the Ojibwa in order to give you a flavor of their practices and lifestyle. For a much fuller description see my book Ways of Our Grandfathers. When reading about the history of a people I believe some knowledge of the culture helps to understand why they did the things they did.    

NEXT WEEK: The First Ojibwa/French Military Alliance

Lifestyle and Worldview of the Ojibwa

December 2, 2009

Well, another week has just flown by. Thanksgiving has come and gone and now we’re looking at Christmas. Happy holidays everyone! I’m going to continue for this week and next describing the Ojibwa’s lifestyle and traditions then we’ll get back to the history of the Great Lakes region. 

The Ojibwa had larger territories than the Iroquoian speaking peoples. This was due to different lifestyles. Ojibwa villages were smaller and more temporary. Each territory had one or more main villages consisting of family lodges called wigwams. These villages had from a few hundred to 1,000 inhabitants. There were no palisades and the villages were often moved to different locations but in the same general area. 

Ojibwa Lodge by Paul Kane 1846


Village members would congregate at the villages in the summer months. Summer was a time of rest and relaxation. Time was spent tending small gardens, gathering fruits and berries as they ripened and trading with our allies. It was a time for festivals called gatherings or powwows. Many would come from other territories to participate in the drumming, dancing, singing and feasting. There was great competition in the games played with much wagering on the athletes. Each evening the village storyteller would mesmerize both children and adults alike with his repertoire of traditional stories told around a huge community fire. 

Lacrosse Game by George Catlin c 1800's


When the leaves began to turn color we would strike the main village and break up into small groups of two or three families. Each would head out to the winter hunting camps which were located throughout our territory. We would spend the winter there, hunting and trapping. The men would do the hunting and manage the trapping lines and the women and children would dry the meat and stretch the skins. The long winter nights were spent in our lodges repeating traditional stories around a small campfire. 

In mid February we would leave the hunting camps and gather in larger groups of five or six families at the sugar bushes. For two or three weeks while the sap rose in the maple trees we would produce our sugar products. The men would tend the lines and the women and children would run the sugar lodges. This was a long lodge 30 or 40 feet long by 12 or 15 feet wide. Three or four very hot fires were continually tended boiling down the sap to syrup. If the weather was conducive the boiling was done outside the lodge. It took 30 to 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. In March when the sap stopped running utensils were stored in small tepees to be used again the following year. 

Ojibwa Sugar Camp c 1850


Carrying our meat and sugar products with us each group would move on to the fishing camps. These camps were made up of much larger groups and were often located at the mouths of rivers and streams or at rapids where the fishing was good. The spring runs produced the huge quantities of fish that were caught in our nets or weirs. Whitefish was a staple of the Ojibwa diet and there were huge runs on the St. Mary’s, St. Clair and Niagara Rivers. Ojibwa men would go out into the rapids in canoes, float downstream and while standing scoop large quantities of fish into the canoes with a long poles that had nets attached to the ends of them. Needless to say we had an uncanny sense of balance and were excellent canoeists. The men did the fishing and the women and children dried or powdered the fish. When the fish runs over we all moved back to the main village for another summer of leisure. Such was the lifestyle of the Ojibwa. It was a good life and we were a happy and contented people.  

Fishing in the St. Mary's River c 1900

New Policies,New Allies

November 25, 2009

Hi everyone!

First let me apologize for the map enlarging instructions I gave in my last post. It worked perfectly when I previewed my post but after I published it that function was lost. Sorry.

You will recall in my last post the remnants of the Huron, Tobacco Nation and Neutrals joined and fled north to Michilimackinac and became known as the Wyandotte. France changed their governor and the Church changed its bishop. These two new administrators of New France also changed the policy of “no guns to the Indians”. Still enemies with the Iroquois they needed to find new allies and trading partners. They looked northward to the Ojibwa.

The Ojibwa held the richest trapping grounds on the continent. We were also the largest military power on the continent. The French established a trading post at Michilimackinac. The Church established their main mission on the St. Mary’s River near present-day Sault Ste. Marie.

Now for a change of pace. This week and maybe the next two I want to describe the culture and some of the traditions held by France’s native allies. More of how we lived than what we did. The Ojibwa were Algonquian-speaking people and we had a far different lifestyle than the Iroquoian-speaking people we have been learning about.

“Iroquoian Longhouse”

The Iroquoian-speaking people were agrarian people. They produced excess farm products particularly squash, beans and corn. Their towns were considerable in size with one to two thousand or more people living there. They constructed double palisades around the town. Inside the palisades they constructed long houses about 100 feet long and 30 feet high. On the insides they sectioned off double bunks where a whole families would sleep in each of the sections. Communal fires were placed every 30 feet or so for cooking.

Iroquian LonghouseCutaway view of Iroquoian Longhouse

Outside the palisades they farmed large tracts of land. They understood the principle of crop rotation but practiced it differently than Europeans. Their towns were not as permanent as those build by the Europeans so they rotated the entire town approximately every ten years. They would move to a previously used site, build a whole new town and let the fields at the old site go fallow. They usually had two or three town sites they would rotate.

This agrarian lifestyle made the Huron good candidates as trading partners for the Algonquin speaking peoples. The Ojibwa and Ottawa were hunters and fishers and their lifestyle produced an excess of meat and fish products.

The economic system of the native peoples was totally unlike the economic system of Europe. For example, in Europe if there was a nation of fishers on the coast and a nation of farmers on a plain they would trade by bargaining. One may offer a bushel of wheat for three barrels of fish. The other would counter offer a barrel of fish for a bushel of wheat. They may come to an agreement of two barrels of fish for a bushel of wheat. Or they may not be able to come to an agreement. If they could not they would let the excess produce rot.

Not so with the aboriginals of North America. They had no monetary system and their worldview would not allow them to waste their extra produce. The Europeans’ Judeo-Christian teachings said that humanity was God’s crowning achievement and they were to dominate and subdue the world. The product of their work was theirs to do with as they wished. 

On the other hand native peoples saw humanity at the bottom of a hierarchy the weakest of God’s creatures. Naked and vulnerable our teachings said that the Great Mystery asked mother earth to sustain us. That included the animals, fish and birds giving up their lives for our sustenance. They agreed so everything that we had including life itself was a gift from the Creator. It would be an affront to mother earth who sustained us and to the Master of Life who ordained it so to let the Great Spirit’s gifts go to waste.

There was no haggling over excesses. We would give to each other freely. If one suffered a drought and crops failed the other trading partner would give up all their excess meat and fish knowing that what goes around comes around. The Ojibwa word for this type of trading was “daawed”. Here is a hint. This word is going to come up much later so this type of trade is important to remember.

NEXT WEEK: Lifestyle and Worldview of the Ojibwa.

About the Author

October 15, 2009

My name is David D Plain and I’m an historian/author and I’ve published two books. One is a history book on the Chippewas of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada called The Plains of Aamjiwnaang – Our History and the other is Ways of Our Grandfathers – Our Traditions. They were both published in 2007 by Trafford Publishing and both cover the early contact period with Europeans c 1600-1850. I am a graduate of Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, Canada with a focus on Church History. The books were launched in 2008 at the Lambton County Library auditorium. Since the launch The Plains of Aamjiwnaang won a Golden Scribe Award for best non-fiction . Both books have been reviewed by The Diocesan Times, Halifax, Canada. Here is an excerpt: 

They speak about territory we know about, and might have lived in or visited (the area straddling both sides of the St. Clair River, extending into both present-day Michigan and Ontario). But they do it from a very different perspective than most of us comprehend. In fact we might say that these books are sorts of historical travel guides, telling the story of a place of which many of both its current inhabitants are unaware. David Plain writes not so much to make a point as to revive a long memory, and offer the unique perspective that comes with such an exercise. The review can be found on page 7.