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Peaceful tribe met a violent end in long-ago wars

I have been fortunate to know several Native Americans who have gained my respect independent of their antecedents. I am also embarrassed at our checkered history of dealings with these people who were here first. It is, however, inappropriate for us to portray any group as all good any more than we should portray them as all bad.

I introduce those reservations at the outset because I will tell in this column the sad story of the Neutral Indian nation, a story that may not reflect well on another regional tribe. I have drawn mostly on Rev. Thomas Donohoe's "The Iroquois and the Jesuits" for this brief history.

The Neutrals, also known as the Neuters, the Attawandaron or the Kahquahs, once lived in a territory encompassing about 150 square miles on both sides of the Niagara River. Their principal villages were in Canada possibly as far away as the Grand River and Sarnia, but before 1650 there were four villages on this side as well: two near Buffalo, one in West Seneca and one in Lewiston.

The name Neutral derives from the tribe's role as a buffer and trader between the tribes of the Iroquois as well as the Erie, Cat Nation and Susquehannas to the south and the Hurons to the north. (James Fenimore Cooper's villain Magua in "The Last of the Mohicans" was a Huron.) According to Bob Chambers, the Neuters "had somehow managed to take a non-violent stance and remain neutral in the many generations old Iroquois-Huron War. Thus we live in the land of the only known peaceful, non-violent tribe in North America." In fact, Chambers says, only one other such tribe exists in the Western Hemisphere, that one in Equador.

The almost certainly apocryphal legend of the Maid of the Mist is associated with the Neutrals. Wikipedia tells us: "As an annual offering of gratitude for the blessings they had received during the year, and for their deliverance from many evils which had threatened them, they offered up each spring the fairest maiden of their tribe, sending her over the falls in a white canoe filled with fruits and flowers, the canoe being guided by her own hand."

Early documents suggest that the population of the Neutrals declined during the first part of the 17th century, from 40,000 to 12,000, due to the devastating effect of famines and the newly-arriving European diseases. Worse was to come.

A number of Catholic missionaries visited the Neutrals in the early 1600s as they did other Indian tribes. Some Huron converts to Christianity followed them into Neutral villages, which may have caused the Senecas to believe that the tribe was siding with their northern enemy.

Whether that was true or not, the Senecas followed up a successful campaign against the Hurons by turning on the Neutrals. According to Donohoe, "They sent an army of 1,200 warriors to attack the frontier of the Neuters in the autumn of 1650, and they destroyed one of the large towns." All of its inhabitants were either killed or captured.

Angered by this attack, the Neuters rejected their long-standing peaceful posture and fought back. Donohoe continues: They "gathered all their warriors and transferred the scene of carnage to the land of the Iroquois. They succeeded in killing a large number of the Iroquois, probably near the Genesee River." At that time they evidently erected, according to an historical marker, the only double-palisaded fort in New York, about three-quarters of a mile east of Salt Road between Blair and Ryan Roads in the Town of Shelby.

However, Donohoe tells us, "the Iroquois patiently waited till spring, when their entire army of warriors crossed the border and made a savage attack upon the Neuter towns. They completely routed the Neuters, burned their towns, and destroyed the entire nation. Many of the Neuters fled, like their Huron brethren, to the islands or bays of the west or south, to seek a new home among some friendly tribe, whilst many more meekly followed their captors to strengthen their army or replenish their numbers."

Thus ended the history of a peaceful nation of our own region.

e-mail: insrisg@buffalo.edu

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