In the sixteenth century, Hurons lived in the Saint Lawrence River Valley. By 1600 at the latest, they inhabited an area known as Huronia, which included land between Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) and Lake Ontario. From a level between 16,000 and 30,000 people in the early seventeenth century, the Huron population dropped to about 10,000 in the midseventeenth century and to fewer than 200 in Canada in the early nineteenth century. Huron/Wyandottes spoke mutually intelligible dialects of a Northern Iroquoian language.
The Hurons recognized an almost unlimited number of spirits and deities, the most powerful of which were the sun and sky. Dreams were considered important as foreshadowing good or evil. There were four types of annual religious feasts: prewar singing, the departure of a dying man, thanksgiving, and healing. Of these, the last were related to medicine societies.
The Dance of the Fire, which involved physical contact with boiling water and hot stones or coals, was meant to attract the assistance of a curing spirit. The most important celebration was the Feast of the Dead, held every ten years or so. Relatives cleaned, rewrapped, and buried bones in a common tribal grave. Then they feasted and honored their ancestors' lives in story. This ceremony was accompanied by games, contests, and gift giving.
The tribes of the Huron Confederacy were led by a council of chiefs from each tribe. This council had no jurisdiction in purely local matters. The position of chief was inherited matrilineally, but within that context it was subject to merit criteria and a confirmation process. Large villages were governed by clan civil and war chiefs. The chiefs' male relatives acted as their councilors. Decisions were made by consensus and were not, strictly speaking, binding on individuals or, if a tribal-level decision, on villages.
Generosity was valued to the point where stinginess could leave one open to charges of witchcraft, a capital offense. Each of the constituent clan families was led by the senior mother. Collectively, these women also selected the chiefs from within the appropriate families. Certain lineages in clans were more important than others; holding feasts was a means to achieve status. Crimes against the body politic, such as witchcraft or treason, were punishable by death, but serious crimes like murder were subject to settlement, including compensation.
Premarital sexual relations, beginning shortly after puberty, were common and accepted, within certain clan restrictions. A couple need not marry in the eyes of society, but, if they chose to, marriages were apparently monogamous. Divorce was unusual after children had been born.
Corpses, wrapped in furs, lay in state for several days, during which time people gave speeches and feasted. A mourning period lasted a year, during which time a surviving spouse could not remarry. Every ten years or so the tribe held a feast of the dead.
There were at least eighteen villages in the early seventeenth century. Villages were located on high ground near waterways and woods. The larger ones were often palisaded with up to five rows of sharpened stakes. Public spaces were located between the longhouses. Larger villages had up to 100 longhouses and 2,000 people or more; the average size was perhaps 800 people. Villages were moved every ten to twenty years, after the local soil and firewood were exhausted.
The people built pole-frame, bark houses, twenty-five to thirty feet wide and high and about 100 to 150 (even up to 240) feet long. Each longhouse was home to eight to twenty-four families, with an average of about six people per family. The long-houses tended to be smoky, and fleas and mice were particular pests. The larger house of chiefs also served as council/ceremonial houses.
Villages were economically self-sufficient. Women grew corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. Men may have grown some tobacco. Corn, the staple food, was eaten mainly as soup with some added foods. Women also gathered blueberries, nuts, and fruits as well as acorns in times of famine.
Men hunted deer, bear, numerous other large and small game, and fowl. Bears were occasionally trapped and then fattened for a year or two before being eaten for special feasts. Dogs were also eaten, as were fish, clams, crabs, and turtles.
The digging stick and an antler or bone hoe were the primary agricultural tools. Women wove mats, baskets, and nets of Indian hemp, reeds, bark, and corn husks. They also made leather bags; these and the baskets were painted or decorated with porcupine quills. Men made wooden items such as utensils, bowls, and shields as well as stone or clay pipes and heavy stone tools such as axes. Pottery and wooden mortars were related to food preparation.
Most people traded to acquire goods to give away and thus acquire status. The Hurons were important traders even before the French arrived. They had a monopoly on corn and tobacco. They also dealt in furs and chert, wampum beads, dried berries, mats, fish, and hemp. Extensive trade routes took the Hurons all over much of the eastern Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River region and kept their society rich and stable. Trade routes were owned or controlled by the people who had made them as well as by other members of their lineage. Intratribal use of the trails entailed payment of a fee. Intertribal use was prohibited. Rivers were navigated via birchbark canoe.
Women made clothing from buckskin. It consisted generally of shirts, breechclouts, leggings, skirts, and moccasins. Fur capes were added in the winter. Clothing was decorated with fringe and brightly painted designs. Face painting and tattooing were popular, especially among men.
Hurons never achieved the kind of unity of purpose and command essential for defeating or even realistically engaging an enemy as powerful as the Iroquois. People fought mainly for blood revenge as well as to gain personal status. Most fighting was practiced by surprise attacks on small groups. Captives were often ritually tortured and sometimes eaten. Some, especially women and children, might be adopted.
The Hurons probably originated with other Iroquoians in the Mississippi Valley. They encountered Jacques Cartier in 1534 and Samuel de Champlain in 1609. The Iroquois wars probably began sometime in the sixteenth century, if not earlier, when those people drove the Huron tribes out of the Saint Lawrence Valley, lands that they may originally have taken by warfare from the Iroquois. Thereafter the Hurons sided with the Algonquins against the Iroquois.
The people entered the fur trade in the early seventeenth century, mainly as intermediaries between the French and other tribes. Catholic missionaries soon followed the traders, as did venereal disease and alcohol. Until the late 1640s, the Hurons dominated the French beaver pelt trade. The French, however, were reluctant to sell arms to unconverted Hurons, a policy that was to have disastrous consequences. Severe epidemics in the late 1630s were followed by more Christian conversions and increased factionalism.
The Iroquois, armed with Dutch firearms, launched their final invasion in 1648. These tribes were allied with the British and sought to expand their trapping area and their control over neighboring tribes. Within two years they had destroyed the Hurons. Some Hurons escaped to Lorette, near Quebec City, where they were granted land. They continued to grow crops, hunt, and trap until the end of the nineteenth century, when craft sales and factory work became the most important economic activities. They also intermarried regularly with the French.
Other Hurons settled among tribes such as the Eries, who were themselves later destroyed by the Iroquois. Many were adopted by the victorious Iroquois nations. Some Hurons escaped to the west, where they joined with the Tionotati (Petun, or Tobacco nation), a related tribe. Under continuing pressure from the Iroquois, they began wandering around the Michilimackinac–Green Bay region, where they hunted and remained active in the fur trade. Although never a large tribe, membership in various alliances allowed them to play an important role in regional affairs.
Jesuits continued to minister to these people, who migrated to Detroit around 1700. They split into pro-British (at Sandusky) and pro-French groups in the mideighteenth century. The latter group became known as the Wyandottes and claimed territory north of the Ohio River, where they allowed Shawnee and Lenápe bands to settle. Wyandottes fought the British in Pontiac's Rebellion (1763).
Land cessions to non-Natives began in 1745 and continued into the nineteenth century. Wyandottes sold their lands on the Canadian side of the Detroit River in 1790 in exchange for reserves, most of which were ceded in the early nineteenth century; the rest were allotted in severalty later in the century. These people sided with the British in the Revolutionary War and split their allegiance in the War of 1812.
Their land in Ohio and Michigan was recognized by the United States after the War of 1812, but the tribe ceded most of it by 1819. With the decline of the fur trade, many Wyandottes began farming and acculturating to non-Native society. More land was ceded in 1832, and in 1842 the people had ceded all Ohio and Michigan lands and moved to the Indian Territory (Kansas), on land purchased from the Lenápes and on individual sections. During this period, the question of slavery increased factionalism among tribal members; some were slaveholders, whereas others were adamant abolitionists.
An 1855 treaty provided for land allotment (most allotments were soon alienated) and divided the tribe into citizens and noncitizens. Three years later, roughly 200 Wyandottes settled on the Seneca Reservation. The more traditional (noncitizen) group relocated to the new Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1867, after the Seneca-Cayugas agreed to donate part of their reservation there. This reservation was allotted in 1893. The Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma was created in 1937. It was terminated in the 1950s but was rerecognized in 1978. The citizen group remained in Kansas, incorporating as the Wyandot Nation of Kansas in 1959.
The tribe in Oklahoma provides several important services, including student scholarships and meals for the elderly. The people are working on identifying and preserving aspects of their cultural traditions. The Hurons of Lorette (Quebec) are all Catholic and part French. The Canadian National Railway bisects the reserve. Most Indians own property. Children attend school on the reserve through grade four. The reserve is similar to neighboring towns in Quebec. There is some effort to revive the Native language.