The Neutral Confederacy were a North American indigenous people, who lived near the northern shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The largest group referred to themselves as Chonnonton ("Keepers of The Deer") - partly due to their practice of herding deer into pens. Another group, the Onguiaahra ("Near the big waters" or possibly "The Strait") populated the more southern Niagara Peninsula - and are the origin of the word "Niagara". The Chonnonton territory contained large deposits of flint - a valuable resource for cutting tools, fire starting and post contact for firearms - and a primary reason they managed to trade between other differing Nations. The Neutrals were a largely agrarian society and comprised about 40 permanent settlements.
They belonged to the Iroquoian Language group which included their neighbours, the Wendat (Huron) Nation who referred to the Chonnonton rather impolitely as "Attawandaron" meaning "Those whose speech is awry", because their dialect was different. It is also possible that the Neutrals spoke an Algonquian dialect as many of the Nations in Canada did at the time and still do throughout Ontario with the exception of the Haudenosaunee (aka Six Nations Confederacy) - though they speak a southern variant of the Iroquoian Language base that evolved from the Cherokee language. Because the language of the Neutral Nation is extinct, as are many of the original northern Iroquoian based languages, what little is known about the Neutrals speech is based on a few notes made by early French priests.
The Jesuit Relations of 1652 describes tattooing among the Petun and the Neutrals: "And this (tattooing) in some nations is so common that in the one which we called the Tobacco, and in that which—on account of enjoying peace with the Hurons and with the Iroquois—was called Neutral, I know not whether a single individual was found, who was not painted in this manner, on some part of the body."
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the territory of the Attawandaron was mostly within the limits of present-day southern Ontario. There was a single population cluster to the east, across the Niagara River near modern-day Buffalo, New York. The western boundary of their territory was the valley of the Grand River, with population concentrations existing on the Niagara Peninsula and in the vicinity of the present-day communities of Hamilton and Milton, Ontario.
McMaster University professor William Noble has excavated and documented the existence of many villages south west of Hamilton comprising a Neutral Confederacy which he believes was centered at the "Walker" site and was presided over by a super war chief named Souharissen. Noble was instrumental in excavating and documenting other Neutral sites in Thorold, Grimsby, and Binbrook.
Souharissen was the mighty auspicious warrior king who took on and defeated the "Fire" Nation in the present state of Michigan and with whom the Recollect priest Joseph Roche Daillon resided for five months in the winter of 1626–27. In his sojourn, Daillon visited 28 Neutral villages, including the capital which came to be called Notre Dame de Angels. The fertile flats of the various oxbows that Big Creek, three miles from its mouth at Grand River make are ideal for long term settlement pattern. Noble even uses the term "Neutralia" to designate this concentration of Iroquoian-speaking natives.
Documentary sources indicate that the population of the historic Neutrals ranged from 12,000 to 40,000 persons, with the lower number indicating the devastating effect of new European infectious diseases and periods of famine during the first half of the 17th century.
F. Douglas Reville's The History of the County of Brant (1920) stated that the hunting grounds of the Attawandaron ranged from Genesee Falls and Sarnia, and south of a line drawn from Toronto to Goderich.
Étienne Brûlé passed through the Attawandaron territory in 1615 but left no documentation of his presence. Joseph de La Roche Daillon conducted a missionary journey in Neutral territory in 1626. St. Jean de Brébeuf and Chaumonot visited eighteen villages of the Neutrals in 1640–1641, and gave each a Christian name. The only ones mentioned in their writings were Kandoucho, or All Saints, the nearest to the Huron Nation; Onguioaahra, on the Niagara River; Teotongniaton or St. William, in the centre of their country; and Khioetoa, or St. Michael.
F. Douglas Reville described their territory as having been heavily forested and full of "wild fruit trees of vast variety", with nut trees, berry bushes, and wild grape vines. "Elk, caribou, and black bear; deer, wolves, foxes, martens and wild cats filled the woods."
The Neutrals were called Attawandaron by the Huron, meaning "people whose speech is awry or a little different". Both people spoke Iroquoian languages but were culturally distinct and competed for resources.
The French called the people "Neutral" (French: la Nation neutre) because they tried to remain neutral between the warring Huron and nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Neutral territory contained flint grounds near the eastern end of Lake Erie. This important resource was used to make spearheads and arrowheads, and its importance gave the Neutral power to maintain their neutrality. Once the neighboring countries began receiving firearms through trade with the Europeans, however, the possession of the flint grounds served as no advantage.
The chief of the Neutrals in their last years was named Tsouharissen ("Child of the Sun") who led several raids against the Mascouten (aka "The Fire Nation"), who lived in territory in present-day Michigan and Ohio. Tsouharissen died around 1646.
The Neutrals had an alliance with the Wenrohronon, both Iroquoian-language peoples, to defend against the powerful Iroquois Nations, who were also Iroquoian speakers. This dissolved in 1639, with devastating effects, particularly to the Wenro. They made an alliance with the Huron, who were located further away and could not offer much support.
Around 1650, during a period now loosely referred to as the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois Confederacy declared war on the Attawandaron; by 1653, the Confederacy had practically annihilated the smaller people, destroying their villages, including Kandoucho. The last mention of the Neutrals in French records was in 1671.
The Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario, is located adjacent to the site of another 500-year-old Neutral village. This village, designated as the Lawson Prehistoric Iroquoian Village, has been under study since the early 1900s. A portion of the village, including its palisades and longhouses, has been reconstructed. A large collection of Neutral artifacts recovered there is displayed in the museum.
An Ontario Historical Plaque commemorates the role of the Lawson Prehistoric Indian Village Site in Ontario's heritage.
While the Neutral Nation's decline and eventual end can be attributed to colonialism and genocide, the final catastrophe that led to the death of the Neutral Nation by the early 1650s was investigated by Archaeologist Mary Jackes. The demise of the Neutral Nation occurred in spite of reports by the French who first met them "in 1610 as strong, healthy and numerous. They lived in the most fertile and warmest part of Ontario. They were determined to remain neutral in the conflicts between the Iroquois from south of the Great Lakes and the Ontario Iroquoians who lived to the north of the Neutral. They throve on trade, rather than war." Jackes re-examined French reports including the Jesuit Relations and the artifacts found in the Grimsby site. When grounds were prepared for a new housing development in Grimsby, Ontario, in 1976, a Neutral Nation burial site was uncovered in sheltered embayment of the Niagara Escarpment. The excavation by Kenyon was closed after only two months in 1977 and the skeletons were reburied near the original site. Estimates of over a hundred bodies were made at the time. "Natural disruption, disease, famine and years of severe weather would have been sufficient to begin population decline. Intensifying war, with many killed, taken captive or forced to become refugees, led to almost complete population collapse." Jackes suggested that this burial site "had significance and that it was a place of refuge...especially for women and children".
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- Jackes, Mary (2008), Luc Buchet, Catherine Rigeade, Isabelle Séguy, Michel Signoli, eds., "The mid seventeenth century collapse of Iroquoian Ontario: examining the last burial place of the Neutral Nation" (PDF), 9e: journées d’anthropologie de Valbonne:Vers une anthropologie des catastrophes: (Valbonne: CEPAM): 347–373, retrieved 22 September 2013
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