St. Lawrence Iroquoians

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The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were a First Nations people who lived from the 14th century until about 1580 concentrated along the shores of the St. Lawrence River in present-day Quebec and Ontario, Canada, and New York State, United States, although their territory extended east. They spoke Laurentian languages, a branch of the Iroquoian family. They were believed to have numbered up to 120,000 people in 25 nations.[1] The traditional view is that they disappeared because of late 16th century warfare by the Mohawk nation of the Haudenosaunee, who wanted to control fur trade in the valley.[2] But other possibilities, including climate change and exposure to European diseases, may have been equally important.

Knowledge about the St. Lawrence Iroquoians has been constructed from the studies of surviving oral accounts of the historical past from the current Native people, writings of the French explorer Jacques Cartier, earlier histories, and anthropologists' and other scholars' work with archaeological and linguistic studies since the 1950s.[3] Archaeological evidence has established this was a people distinct from the other regional Iroquoian peoples, the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat (Huron). Recent archaeological finds suggest distinctly separate groups may have existed among the St. Lawrence Iroquoians as well.

Historical issues[edit]

Territory occupied by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, circa 1535

For years historians and other scholars debated the identity of the Iroquoian cultural group in the St. Lawrence valley which Jacques Cartier and his crew recorded encountering in 1535-1536 at Stadacona and Hochelaga. An increasing amount of archaeological evidence since the 1950s has settled some of the debate. Since the 1950s, anthropologists and some historians have used definitive linguistic and archaeological studies to reach consensus that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were peoples distinct from nations of the Iroquois Confederacy or the Huron.[4] Since the 1990s, they have concluded that there may have been as many as 25 tribes among the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, who numbered about 120,000 people.[5] They lived in the river lowlands and east of the Great Lakes, including in present-day northern New York and New England.[6]

Before this, some argued that the people were the ancestors or direct relations of historic Iroquoian groups in the greater region, such as the Huron or Mohawk, Onondaga or Oneida of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee encountered by later explorer Samuel de Champlain. Since the 18th century, several theories have been proposed for the identity of the St. Lawrence River peoples. The issue is important not only for historical understanding but because of Iroquois and other indigenous land claims.

In 1998 James F. Pendergast summarized the four major theories with an overview of evidence:

  • Huron-Mohawk Option:

Several historians combined data from early French reports, vocabulary lists and oral histories of accounts by Native tribes to theorize the early inhabitants were Iroquoian-speaking Huron or Mohawk, two well-known tribes in later history. There has not been sufficient documentation to support this conclusion according to 20th-century standards. In addition, archaeological finds and linguistic studies since the 1950s have discredited this theory.[7]

  • Mohawk Identity Option:

Based in part on material from the 18th century, Mark Linn-Baker and Lars Sweenburg developed a theory that the Mohawk (in some cases, they also postulated Onondaga and Oneida) had migrated and settled in the St. Lawrence River valley before relocating to their historic territory of present-day New York. Pendergast says that attribution of Stadacona or Hochelaga as Mohawk, Onondaga or Oneida has not been supported by the archaeological data.

"Since the 1950s a vast accumulation of archaeological material from Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York State consistently has provided compelling evidence to demonstrate that neither the Mohawk, the Onondaga, nor the Oneida homelands originated in the St Lawrence Valley."[8]

  • Laurentian Iroquoian and Laurentian Iroquois Identity: based on language studies, with material added since 1940;[9]and
  • St. Lawrence Iroquoian and St. Lawrence Iroquois Identity:

Since the 1950s, anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists and ethnohistorians have combined multidisciplinary research to conclude that "a wholly indigenous and discrete Iroquoian people were present in the St Lawrence Valley when Cartier arrived. The current anthropological convention is to designate these people St Lawrence Iroquoians, all the while being keenly aware that on-going archaeological research indicates that several discrete Iroquoian political entities were present in a number of widely dispersed geographical regions on the St Lawrence River axis."[10]

As noted, anthropologists and some historians have used definitive linguistic and archaeological studies to reach consensus that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were a people distinct from nations of the Iroquois Confederacy or the Huron, and likely consisted of numerous groups. Pendergast notes that while Iroquoians and topical academics have mostly reached consensus on this theory, some historians have continued to publish other theories and ignore the archaeological evidence.[11] The St. Lawrence Iroquoians did share many cultural, historical, and linguistic aspects with other Iroquoian groups; for example, their Laurentian languages were part of the Iroquoian family and aspects of culture and societal structure were similar.

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians appear to have disappeared from the St. Lawrence valley some time prior to 1580. Champlain reported no evidence of Native habitation in the valley. By then the Haudenosaunee used it as a hunting ground and avenue for war parties.

As the historian Pendergast argues, the determination of identity for the St. Lawrence Iroquoians is important because, "our understanding of relations between Europeans and Iroquoians during the contact era throughout Iroquoia hinges largely upon the tribe or confederacy to which Stadacona and Hochelaga are attributed."[12]

Migration into the St. Lawrence valley[edit]

Near 1000 AD, with the introduction of the maize culture in the North East region, many Iroquoian-speaking communities around the Great Lakes began to switch from nomadic life to more permanent settlements. The richness of the soil in the St. Lawrence valley, along with the abundance of fisheries nearby and of forests rich in game animals, provided a good place for northeastern Iroquoian settlements. By approximately 1300, their settlement patterns began to resemble the large fortified villages which Cartier described as characteristic of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.[citation needed]

The visit of Jacques Cartier[edit]

In his expedition of 1535 and 1536, the explorer Jacques Cartier observed several Iroquoian villages north of Île d'Orléans (near present-day Quebec), including the villages of Stadacona on the site of modern-day Quebec City, as well as Hochelaga in the vicinity of modern-day Montreal.[13] Archaeologists in the 20th century have unearthed similar villages further southwest, near the eastern end of Lake Ontario and are finding evidence of additional discrete groups of St. Lawrence Iroquoians.[14]

The people lived in villages that were usually located a few kilometres inland from the Saint-Lawrence River, outside the immediate floodplain. The settlements were often enclosed by a wooden palisade for defense. Up to 2000 persons lived in the larger villages.[14] Although Cartier mentioned the longhouses in Hochelaga, he left no further description of Stadacona or the other nearby villages.

At just about the period Jacques Cartier contacted them, Basque whalers started to frequent the area in yearly campaigns (peaking at around 1570-1580), holding friendly commercial relations with Saint Lawrence Iroquoians and other natives. The Basques referred to them as Canaleses. Basques and American natives of the Labrador-Saint Lawrence area developed a simplified language for the mutual understanding, but it shows a strong Mi'kmaq imprint.

The demise of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians[edit]

The archaeologist Anthony Wonderley found 500-year-old ceramic pipes in present-day Jefferson County, New York that were associated with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians and the tribes of the Haudenosaunee. Their use appear to have been related to diplomatic visits among the peoples, and he suggests they indicate a territory of interaction that may have preceded the Iroquois confederacy. Related design elements and long recounting in Iroquois oral histories have been significant.[15]

By the time the explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived and founded Quebec in 1608, he found no trace of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians and settlements visited by Cartier some 75 years earlier. Historians and other scholars have developed several theories about their disappearance: devastating wars with the Iroquois tribes to the South or with the Hurons to the West, the impact of epidemics of Old World diseases, or their migration westward toward the shores of the Great Lakes.[2] Innis[16] guessed that the northern hunting Indians around Tadoussac traded furs for European weapons and used these to push the farming Indians south.


Archaeological evidence and the historical context of the time point most strongly to wars with the neighbouring Iroquois tribes, particularly the Mohawk. Located in eastern and central New York, they had the most to gain in war against the St. Lawrence Iroquians, as they had the least advantageous territorial position in the area in relation to hunting and the fur trade along the St. Lawrence River. French trading was then based at Tadoussac, downstream at the mouth of the Saguenay River, within the territory of the Montagnais. The Mohawk wanted to get more control of the St. Lawrence trade routes connecting to the Europeans. During this period, Champlain reported that the Algonquian peoples were fearful of the powerful Iroquois. The anthropologist Bruce G. Trigger believes the political dynamics were such that the Huron were unlikely to enter Iroquois territory to carry out an attack against the St. Lawrence people to the north. In the mid- to late-16th century, the St. Lawrence Valley was likely an area of open conflict among tribes closer to the river. Because nothing remained of their settlements, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians appeared to have been overwhelmed by other groups. Some St. Lawrence Iroquoian survivors may have joined the neighbouring Mohawk and Algonquin tribes, by force or by mutual agreement.[2]

By the time Champlain arrived, the Algonquins and Mohawks were both using the Saint-Lawrence Valley for hunting grounds, as well as a route for war parties and raiding. Neither nation had any permanent settlements upriver above Tadoussac, the trading post in the lower St. Lawrence Valley which had been important for years in the fur trade.[2]

Historical debates[edit]

Although historians and other scholars have been studying the St. Lawrence Iroquoians for some time, such knowledge has been slower to be part of common historical understanding. The hypothesis about the St. Lawrence Iroquoians helps explain apparent contradictions in the historical record about French encounters with natives in this area.

The origins of the word canada, from which the nation derived its name, offers an example of the changes in historical understanding required by new evidence. By canada, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians of Stadacona meant "village" in their language. Cartier wrote, "[I]lz (sic) appellent une ville Canada (they call a village 'Canada')". Cartier applied the word to both the region near Stadacona and the St. Lawrence River that flows nearby.[17]

Both the Canadian Encyclopedia (1985) and various publications of the Government of Canada, such as "The Origin of the Name Canada" published by the Department of Canadian Heritage, suggest instead the former theory that the word "Canada" stems from a Huron-Iroquois word, kanata, that also meant "village" or settlement.

Historians now know that Cartier could not have encountered either the Iroquois or Huron, as neither group lived in the St. Lawrence valley in the 16th century. The account of Canada's name origin reflects theories first advanced in the 18th and 19th centuries. General texts have not kept up with the discrediting of such earlier theories by the linguistic comparative studies of the later 20th century. For instance, the "Huron-Iroquois theory" of word origin appeared in the article on "Canada" in the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1996.

The earlier mystery of annedda also shows how historical understanding has been changed by recent research. When Cartier's crew suffered scurvy during their first winter in Canada, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians provided them with a remedy, an herbal infusion made of the annedda. The French recorded this as the St. Lawrence Iroquoian name of the white cedar of the region. Cartier noted the word in his journal. On a later expedition when Champlain asked for the same remedy, the natives he met did not know the word annedda. This fact confused many historians. Given new evidence, it appears that Champlain met Haudenosaunee Iroquois who, although related, did not speak the same language as the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Thus, they did not know the word annedda and its reference.[citation needed]

Archaeologists have not determined the exact location of Hochelaga. In the early 20th century historians debated this vigorously and the reasons for its disappearance, but changing interests in the field led in other directions.[18] In the late 20th century, First Nations activism, as well as increased interest in history of indigenous peoples renewed attention to the early St. Lawrence Iroquoian villages.[19][20]

Language[edit]

Main article: Laurentian language

Linguistic studies indicate that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians probably spoke several distinct dialects of their language, often referred to as Laurentian. It is one of several languages of the Iroquoian language family, which includes Mohawk, Huron-Wyandot and Cherokee. Jacques Cartier made sparse records during his voyage in 1535-1536. He compiled two vocabulary lists totaling about 200 words. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians may have spoken two or more distinct languages in a territory stretching over 600 km, from Lake Ontario to east of Île d'Orléans.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Extensive archaeological work in Montreal has revealed the 1,000-year history of human habitation on the site. In 1992 a new museum, Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, opened here to preserve the archaeology and mark new understandings of the city and the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.[21]

Major exhibits have displayed the increasing knowledge about the St. Lawrence Iroquoians:

  • 1992, Wrapped in the Colours of the Earth. Cultural Heritage of the First Nations, McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec
  • 2006-2007, The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians. Corn People, Pointe à Callière, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, Montreal, Quebec. (The exhibition catalogue was published as a book under the same name.)

External Links[edit]

Virtual Museum of Canada, The St. Lawrence Iroquoians — a virtual exhibit on the culture of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "St. Lawrence Iroquoians: Corn People", 2006-2007 Exhibit, Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal, accessed 14 March 2012
  2. ^ a b c d Bruce G. Trigger, "The Disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians", in The Children of Aataenstic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, vol. 2, Montreal and London: Mcgill-Queen's University Press, 1976, pp. 214-218, 220-224, accessed 2 Feb 2010
  3. ^ James F. Pendergast. (1998). "The Confusing Identities Attributed to Stadacona and Hochelaga", Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 32, p. 149, accessed 3 Feb 2010
  4. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", pp. 156-157
  5. ^ "St. Lawrence Iroquoians: Corn People", 2006-2007 Exhibit, Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal, accessed 14 March 2012
  6. ^ Claude Chapdelaine, "The St. Lawrence Iroquoians, 1500CE", Wrapped in the Colours of the Earth. Cultural Heritage of the First Nations Exhibition Catalogue, Montreal: McCord Museum, 1992
  7. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", pp. 150-153
  8. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", pp. 153-154
  9. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", pp. 155-156
  10. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", pp. 156-157
  11. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", pp. 158-159
  12. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", p. 149
  13. ^ Jacques Cartier. (1545). Relation originale de Jacques Cartier. Paris: Tross (1863 edition)
  14. ^ a b James F. Pendergast. (1998). "The Confusing Identities Attributed to Stadacona and Hochelaga", Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 32
  15. ^ Wonderley, Anthony. 2005. "Effigy Pipes, Diplomacy, and Myth: Exploring Interaction between St. Lawrence Iroquoians and Eastern Iroquois in New York State", American Antiquity. 70, no. 2: 211, accessed 14 March 2012
  16. ^ Harold A Innis,"The Fur Trade in Canada",1956 revision of 1930, Chapter 1.
  17. ^ Weihs, Jean (1995). Facts about Canada, Its Provinces and Territories. H.W. Wilson Company. 
  18. ^ W. J. Wintemberg, "Was Hochelaga Destroyed or Abandoned?", American Anthropological Association, 1927, accessed 3 Feb 2010
  19. ^ Mark Abley, "Where was Hochelaga? Debate simmers over the location and fate of the Indian village Cartier visited in 1535", Canadian Geographic, 1 Nov 1994, accessed 3 Feb 2010
  20. ^ Pendergast (1998), "Confusing Identities", p. 150
  21. ^ "About Pointe-à-Callière", Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History website, accessed 14 March 2012

References[edit]

  • Jacques Cartier. (1545). Relation originale de Jacques Cartier. Paris: Tross (1863 edition). (Vocabulary list on pages 46 to 48)
  • James F. Pendergast. (1998). "The Confusing Identities Attributed to Stadacona and Hochelaga", Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 32, pp. 149-167.
  • Roland Tremblay. (1999). "Regards sur le passé: réflexions sur l'identité des habitants de la vallée du Saint-Laurent au XVIe siècle", Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, Volume 29, No.1, pp. 41–52.
  • Roland Tremblay. (2006). The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians. Corn People, Montréal, Qc, Les Éditions de l'Homme (Published in association with exhibit by same name, 2006-2007)
  • "Book Review: Roland Tremblay. (2006) The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians. Corn People", Canadian Journal of Archaeology / Journal Canadien d’Archéologie, 2007
  • Bruce G. Trigger and James F. Pendergast. (1978). "Saint Lawrence Iroquoians", in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 357–361.
  • Bruce G. Trigger. (1976) "The Disappearance of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians", in The Children of Aataentsic: a History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press, pp. 214–228.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jamieson, J.B. "The Archaeology of the St.Lawrence Iroquoians." The Archaeology of Southern Ontario to A.D. 1650, Occasional Publication of the London Chapter, OAS, No.5:385-404, 1990.
  • Junker-Andersen, Christen. Faunal Resource Exploitation Among the St. Lawrence Iroquoians: the Zooarchaeology of the Steward (BfFt-2) Site, Morrisburg, Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1984.
  • Pendergast, James F., "The Significance of a Huron Archaeological Presence in Jefferson County, New York," a paper read at McMaster University, 20 February 1982, vide Trigger (1985) 351.
  • Pendergast, James F. "The St.Lawrence Iroquoians: Their Past, Present and Immediate Future," The Bulletin (Journal of the New York State Archaeological Association), 102:47-74, 1991.
  • Pendergast, James F., Claude Chapdelaine, and J. V. Wright. "Essays in St. Lawrence Iroquoian Archaeology", Occasional Papers in Northeastern Archaeology, no. 8. Dundas, Ontario: Copetown Press, 1993. ISBN 1-895087-07-4
  • Trigger, Bruce G., Native and Newcomers: Canada's 'Heroic Age' Reconsidered, (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985) 144-8, 351