From Huronia to Wendakes: Adversity, Migration, and Resilience, 1650-1900

From Huronia to Wendakes: Adversity, Migration, and Resilience, 1650-1900

by Thomas Peace, Kathryn Labelle

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From the first contact with Europeans to the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, the Wendat peoples have been an intrinsic part of North American history. Although the story of these peoples—also known as Wyandot or Wyandotte—has been woven into the narratives of European-Native encounters, colonialism, and conquest, the Wendats’ later experiences remain largely missing from history. From Huronia to Wendakes seeks to fill this gap, countering the common impression that these peoples disappeared after 1650, when they were driven from their homeland Wendake Ehen, also known as Huronia, in modern-day southern Ontario.

This collection of essays brings together lesser-known historical accounts of the Wendats from their mid-seventeenth-century dispersal through their establishment of new homelands, called Wendakes, in Quebec, Michigan, Ontario, Kansas, and Oklahoma. What emerges from these varied perspectives is a complex picture that encapsulates both the cultural resilience and the diversity of these peoples. Together, the essays reveal that while the Wendats, like all people, are ever-changing, their nations have developed adaptive strategies to maintain their predispersal culture in the face of such pressures as Christianity and colonial economies.

Just as the Wendats have linked multiple Wendakes through migrations forced and voluntary, the various perspectives of these emerging scholars are knitted together by the shared purpose of filling in Wendat history beyond the seventeenth century. This approach, along with the authors’ collaboration with modern Wendat communities, has resulted in a rich and coherent narrative that in turn enriches our understanding of North American history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806156880
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Series: New Directions in Native American Studies Series , #15
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Thomas Peace is Assistant Professor of History at Huron University College and a founding editor of the website Active History.
Kathryn Magee Labelle, Assistant Professor of Aboriginal History at the University of Saskatchewan, is the author of the award-winning book Dispersed but Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People.

Read an Excerpt

From Huronia to Wendakes

Adversity, Migrations, and Resilience, 1650â"1900

By Thomas Peace, Kathryn Magee Labelle


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5688-0


"Like Wolves from the Woods"


Kathryn Magee Labelle

In the summer of 1648 the Wendat Confederacy faced a seemingly hopeless situation. Within less than a year the Haudenosaunees ("People of the Long house") waged a series of raids to pillage several major villages, leaving Wendats engulfed in a crisis of death and destruction.Jesuit missionaries living within Wendake recorded the events with grief and despair. "The country of the Hurons," they observed, "is seen to be in desolation; fifteen villages have been abandoned, the people of each scattering where they could, — in the woods and forests, on the lakes and rivers, and among the islands most unknown to the enemy." This language of "desolation," emphasizing the "scattering" of traumatized Wendats, has fed historical interpretations of this period in Wendat history for generations.

Scholars have both informed and perpetuated this tradition by continuing to promote a narrative of victimhood that pins the Wendats between the "evil" Haudenosaunees, who pushed them to evacuate their homes "like wolves from the woods," and the insightful Jesuits, who herded them like sheep to relocation settlements. With this narrative in mind, the Wendats are often depicted as passive victims rather than independent instigators of innovative relocation strategies. This is not to say that the Haudenosaunees and Jesuits are irrelevant to the story, nor to assert that the Wendats were not victims. Rather, it recognizes that there has been an overemphasis on these aspects of their history. Scenes of Wendats scattering dominate the narrative and overshadow the Wendats' simultaneous attempts to maintain order and create solutions.

In April 1649 six thousand Wendat survivors convened at the mission of Sainte Marie (after successfully defending the mission from another Haudenosaunee attack) to discuss the most effective way to secure a plan for their future.After hours of deliberation, the majority resolved to move to the island of Gahoendoe, located roughly three miles from the northernmost part of Wendake and the southern tip of Georgian Bay. This was one of the Wendats' first major attempts at relocation, yet its importance in the process of dispersal has received little attention. For the most part, the Gahoendoe experience has been used to reinforce the narrative of Wendat victimhood, marginalizing the significance of this migration by depicting it as a complete failure and a brief stopover in the much longer and geographically distant migrations later in the seventeenth century.

Consequently, this chapter seeks to unpack the Gahoendoe experience and reevaluate the established narrative of victimhood by highlighting moments of Wendat perseverance and agency in the immediate aftermath of the Haudenosaunee conquest. To refocus our attention, the chapter looks at the decision-making process that preceded the move to Gahoendoe in 1649, as well as the circumstances that pushed the Wendats to reconsider their choice a year later. How did Wendats negotiate their removal? What criteria informed these decisions?

Seventeenth-century Native North Americans functioned within a unique system of power structured by waterways.By 1649 the Wendats had a well-established alliance with their Anishinaabe and French neighbors. Linked together by the French, Mattawa, Ottawa, and Saint Lawrence Rivers, these societies shared a complex network based on kinship and trade. The Wendats served as "middlemen" in this system, acquiring furs from the Anishinaabeg in exchange for corn, then providing the French with furs in exchange for European goods.

Can the move to Gahoendoe be seen as a Wendat attempt to maintain their status as middlemen and cultural brokers in their Anishinaabe-French alliance? By understanding the island relocation as a continuation of Wendat ideas of place and power, can Gahoendoe be interpreted as an integral part of a calculated plan to overcome the military defeat by the Iroquois and keep a foothold in the geopolitical world of the Northeast? If so, does this interpretation complicate the established reference to chaotic "scattering," offering a more nuanced description of a complicated strategy characterized by deliberate decision making and action? Overall, this chapter uses the Gahoendoe experience to unpin the Wendats from their customary position as Haudenosaunee foes (wolves) and Jesuit followers (sheep), creating a new narrative focused on Wendat agency and perseverance.


In order to fully understand the motivations and process that led Wendats to support a relocation strategy, we must return to the spring meeting at Sainte Marie in 1649. It was there that six thousand Wendats met to evaluate the severity of their situation. The Wendats considered the repercussions of consecutive Haudenosaunee attacks: many of their villages were already destroyed, and the conflict was unlikely to end soon. The human loss was also significant. In addition to the many men, women, and children taken as captives, the Wendats lost approximately 630 to 880 warriors. The loss of so many young men weakened the Wendats' ability to fend off future invasions, not to mention the destabilized psychological state of victims' families and loved ones. The nature of the Haudenosaunee retreat further debilitated the Wendat survivors. With their fields destroyed, the Wendats were faced with the horrific circumstance of being unable to grow crops for the coming year. The Haudenosaunees not only took the Wendats' remaining provisions for the winter months but also their corn seeds. Even their untouched fields could not be sown. In the end, the attacks created a situation where the future of the Wendats was almost certainly one of eventual demise if they remained within the borders of Wendake mainland. The group decided that creating a plan of evacuation and relocation was the next and most needed strategy.

Wendats followed traditional protocol in order to facilitate their migration. Leaders conducted councils to identify potential strategies of relocation. One of the first issues they dealt with was whether to remain together or split into smaller groups. The Wendat Confederates had lived for centuries within a relatively confined territory in close proximity to one another. To depart from this familiar custom would have been to restructure their entire approach to village life. Still, some argued that smaller groups, the size of small bands and families, would allow for easier mobility and the potential to hide from the enemy.

Another suggestion was to have entire villages reestablish themselves or create new villages. This approach appealed to those that wanted to maintain their village identity, as well as a higher level of security and resources. Most believed, however, that this strategy still left them too vulnerable, because the new villages might not be able to defend and sustain themselves independently. Thus, after weighing the odds and options, the majority of Wendats concluded that they would remain together and relocate to an island. Such a move, they felt, would provide protection and power to ensure their survival.


At first, the island of Ekaentoton seemed like a promising option. Located in the northern part of Lake Huron and approximately 108 nautical miles from Sainte Marie, this island was 1,068 square miles with 108 freshwater lakes. It was already inhabited by the Anishinaabe nations of the area, and a Jesuit mission had recently been established there as well. During the deliberations at Sainte Marie, the Jesuits tried to persuade the Wendats to make the move. The land, they argued, was said to be good and the fishing excellent. Most likely, of course, the presence of other missionaries on the island also encouraged the Jesuits to support a move there. The Wendats considered the Jesuit proposal but remained hesitant because of the location's long frost season.

The Wendats also had to weigh the geopolitical ramifications of moving to Ekaentoton. By joining the Anishinaabeg, the Wendats would have been required to relinquish their position as middlemen within the French-Wendat-Anishinaabe fur trade. If the Wendats relocated to an Anishinaabe settlement, the French would have direct access to the Anishinaabeg and would not need to go through the Wendats for furs. Further, Ekaentoton was in Anishinaabe territory, outside the spatial power of Wendake. By relocating to this island the Wendats risked losing prestige and power within trade networks, which depended heavily on their geographic location.

These factors led the Wendats to reject the Jesuit proposal of Ekaentoton in 1649 and convinced them to look closer to home. Located approximately twenty-three nautical miles northwest of Sainte Marie, the island of Gahoendoe was one of the largest islands within Wendake. Its 13,413 acres provided ample space for agriculture, and the fishing was plentiful. The island also had an established and thriving Wendat village.

Security was another factor in the Wendats' decision to move to Gahoendoe Island, which was easily defendable. Because it lay only three miles from the mainland, the Wendats had the advantage of being able to see any impending attacks from the island's eastern shore (the western shore had no significant land mass in proximity). The location also facilitated future opportunities to return to the mainland and recruit allies from other Wendat villages.

The relationship between the occupied space at Gahoendoe and maintenance of power within the geopolitical and economic Wendat world also mattered. Wendake was the heart of commercial activity for the Saint Lawrence fur trade. This island was, therefore, not only within the influence of Wendat territorial authority but also an established stopover for the Anishinaabeg and Wendats. It was here that Algonquin boats would unload furs and conduct trade with their Wendat allies. Partially because of this trade, Gahoendoe was a strategic location at the confluence of Anishinaabe and Wendat spheres of influence. Its former role as a meeting ground would be strengthened if the Wendat community took the island as the central seat of their Confederacy. Despite the frequency of warfare with the Haudenosaunees, trade between the Anishinaabeg, Wendats, and French continued throughout 1648 and 1649, with an accumulation of more than five thousand livres in beaver furs. Thus, the Wendats perceived Gahoendoe as an option that would provide not only subsistence and physical safety but also a viable location for maintaining their traditional role as middlemen and securing Wendat hegemony in the fur trade. With these factors in mind, the majority of the Wendats agreed to move to Gahoendoe.


Before this move could take place, however, the decision had to be ratified by the community as a whole. Deliberations took place on several levels, beginning with the Women's Council. Although the Jesuits did not record the details of these meetings, the resulting wampum belt — made by the women themselves — and the messages delivered by the headmen at subsequent village and confederacy councils on their behalf make it clear that women continued to congregate and initiate decisions for their communities. The Wendats followed traditional protocol despite the urgency and seriousness of the situation. Women's councils informed civil leaders of their decisions, and civil leaders publicized the decisions that were then voted on and ratified through consensus. The decision to leave the mainland was not made in a state of panic and haste.

As a final step in solidifying their impending departure, the women sent twelve of the most prominent headmen to invite the Jesuits to join them in their migration to Gahoendoe. This invitation was made for two reasons. First, the Jesuits played a crucial role as liaisons to the French fur traders and colonial officials. By keeping the missionaries in close proximity, the Wendats ensured that their relationship with the French would continue. Second, the Jesuits also controlled access to a number of items the Wendats hoped to use. Guns, for example, promised a potential advantage in the event of future Haudenosaunee invasions.

Further, because the Wendats were able to fend off the Haudenosaunees at Sainte Marie, the Jesuits there were one of the few groups able to maintain decent amounts of livestock and agricultural provisions, which could help support their population. In their storage, the missionaries had at least ten fowls, two pigs, two bulls, four cows, and a substantial amount of corn (which had been provided by the Wendats in the last harvest). These goods would have provided much-needed support in the first phase of relocation.

The official invitation to the Jesuits followed Wendat diplomatic protocol. The headmen called a council during which they proceeded to speak about the Wendat decision and the reasons why they wished the Jesuits to accompany them. Their appeal was provocative and deliberate, playing on the missionaries' religious goals of conversion and their concern for women and children. Although the group already included some Christian converts, the headmen suggested that they would encourage the refugees on Gahoendoe to convert and increase the number of Wendats willing to partake in baptism. In addition, they pointed to the weakened state of their people and their inability to properly defend themselves without French help. The headmen then called attention specifically to the struggling widows and children, urging the missionaries to have compassion. Next, the headmen presented the Jesuits with ten wampum belts representing "the voice of the women and children." According to one headman, the message of these symbolic gifts was both to have compassion for the widows and their children and "to revive in [the Jesuits] the zeal and the name of Father Echon (the name which the Hurons have always given to Father Jean de Brébeuf); ... that [the Wendats] hoped that his example would touch [the Jesuits], and that [their] hearts could not refuse to die with them, since they wished to live as Christians." In other words, the women desired that the Jesuits support the Wendats' decision to move to Gahoendoe, in light of the high number of struggling widows and orphaned children, who, in return for assistance, would accept Christianity and serve as a willing population for future conversions. It was this last presentation to the council that helped convince the Jesuits. According to the missionaries it was "the disposition of their souls, and the reasons which nature could supply them — [that] conquered us." Shortly after, the Jesuits agreed to relocate to Gahoendoe.

The negotiations that led to the Wendat migration to Gahoendoe resulted from calculated planning and strategic decision making. Although the options were limited, Gahoendoe represented the best opportunity for survival. Much of the scholarship discussing this point in Wendat history tends to overemphasize the role of the Jesuits in these deliberations. The actual circumstances, however, depict a different situation. The move to Gahoendoe was clearly a Wendat decision. The Jesuits had wanted to go to Ekaentoton, an idea that was rejected by the Wendats. Further, the Jesuit decision to accompany the Wendats to Gahoendoe was made in response to invitations instigated by Wendat women.


The initial stages of the relocation were a success. Roughly eight thousand Wendats (86 percent of the total population) took part. Wendat nations and villages combined in this mass relocation effort. The loss of so many warriors in the spring of 1649 has led scholars to suggest that the majority of the population was made up of women. The Haudenosaunee wars had taken hundreds of able-bodied Wendat men, with the Jesuits contending that there were "hundreds and hundreds of widows who had lost entire house holds." That said, if the overall population before 1649 was around ten thousand and 86 percent moved to Gahoendoe after the dispersal, it is unlikely that the Wendat predispersal population was as unbalanced as scholars have suggested. This is not to make light of the loss of hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand warriors, but in the context of the entire population, it is hard to believe that nearly 90 percent of the survivors were women. There is no doubt, however, that the sixty Europeans who took up residency on the island were all men. This group consisted of thirteen priests, including Fathers Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot and Paul Ragueneau; four assistants; twenty-two donnés(secular employees who served the Jesuits); eleven domestics; six soldiers; and four boys.


Once on the island, the Wendats made concerted efforts to organize their new home in ways that matched the villages they had left but also reflected their new circumstances and war time conditions. Building around the longhouses that had been built before their arrival, Wendat refugees established two large villages as well as several outlaying long houses located in more remote areas.


Excerpted from From Huronia to Wendakes by Thomas Peace, Kathryn Magee Labelle. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Foreword: Reflections from Chief Janith English, Wyandot Nation of Kansas,
Kathryn Magee Labelle and Thomas Peace,
CHAPTER 1. "Like Wolves from the Woods": Gahoendoe Island and Early Wendat Dispersal Strategies Kathryn Magee Labelle,
CHAPTER 2. "Over the Lake": The Western Wendake in the American Revolution Andrew Sturtevant,
CHAPTER 3. Maintaining Connections: Lorette during the Eighteenth Century Thomas Peace,
CHAPTER 4. Wendats, Presbyterians, and the Origins of Protestant Christianity on the Sandusky River Michael Leonard Cox,
CHAPTER 5. Economic Activity and Class Formation in Wendake, 1800–1950 Brian Gettler,
CHAPTER 6. Wendat Arts of Diplomacy: Negotiating Change in the Nineteenth Century Annette de Stecher,
Concluding Voices Kathryn Magee Labelle and Thomas Peace, with Sallie Cotter Andrews, Darren English, Judith Pidgeon-Kukowski, Jonathan Lainey, John Nichols, Beverlee Ann Pettit, and Linda Sioui,
Further Reading,
List of Contributors,

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