While North America had been visited by Europeans on an increasing scale since the end of the 15th century, it was not until the voyages of Jacques Cartier in the 1530s that Europeans visited Ontario Iroquoians in their home territories. During these first explorations, Cartier encountered and described a series of large palisaded villages along the St. Lawrence River. One of these villages, called Stadacona, was located at present day Quebec City while a second, called Hochelaga, was located at present day Montreal. When Europeans returned to this area in the early 17th century, however, they found the villages of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians abandoned and the area occupied by Algonquian speaking people.

Beginning in the early 17th century, French explorers and fur traders such as Samuel Champlain and Etienne Brule travelled into southern Ontario and visited the Hurons and other groups. Because of raiding by New York Iroquoians, they took a somewhat round-about northern route and met and described a number of Algonquian speaking groups along the way. Included among these people were the Algonquins along the Ottawa River, the Nipissings around Lake Nipissing and the French River, and the Adawa, or Ottawa, along the east shore of Georgian Bay, on Manitoulin Island and on the Bruce Peninsula. These people all lived in small seasonal camps and did not practice intensive corn horticulture but did participate in the fur trade by trading furs, especially beaver, for various European goods and corn grown by the Hurons. Additionally, the Nipissings and the Adawa were known to have wintered among the Petuns and Hurons, respectively.

Until relatively recently, little was known of these Algonquian speaking people beyond the historical documents. Excavations of Nipissing sites along the French River and Lake Nipissing had revealed that much of their material culture was adopted from the Hurons. Similarly, recent archaeology in the Bruce Peninsula has indicated that the Adawa were involved in long distance trade spanning from the Petun and Huron homelands to the far ends of Lakes Superior and Michigan. Pottery on their sites appears either like that of the Huron and Petun or like the peoples of Wisconsin and Michigan. Similarly, it appears that they were responsible for bringing exotic chert into Ontario and European trade goods to the distant people they visited. Early in the 17th century the spread of European trade goods seems to have been confined to the Lake Huron basin but it is found on later sites to the west and south.

The Hurons, who became the focus of French interest in the first half of the 17th century, were a confederation of four or five tribes in what is now Simcoe County. The Hurons lived in 18 to 25 palisaded villages with a total population of just over 20,000 people. They subsisted primarily on corn horticulture, producing enough in most years to trade surpluses with neighbouring people. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the Huron were acting as middle men in the fur trade between the French and various other First Nations people further to the interior of the continent.

Using Huronia as a base, the missionaries also attempted to visit some of the neighbouring peoples. The Petun, who lived in the Collingwood area, were believed to total 6,500 people in 1615 and over 10,000 people in 1623, living in 7 to 9 villages. The Petun, like the Huron, practised corn horticulture and participated in the fur trade.

Another important Iroquoian group whom the Jesuits briefly visited and described in the 17th century was the Neutrals who occupied the Niagara Peninsula as far north as Milton, as far west as Brantford and across the Niagara River into New York state. The Neutrals were also a confederacy of between eight and eleven tribes with a total population of as many as 40,000 people before the epidemics, living in as many as 30 villages plus some hamlets. Like the Hurons, the Neutrals subsisted primarily on corn horticulture, with some other food crops, gathering, hunting and fishing adding to the diet and participated in the fur trade. The Neutrals are believed to have traded with the Hurons for French goods but also with more southern groups such as the Susquehannock, an Iroquoian people living in the Chesapeake Bay area, and the New York Iroquoians for Dutch trade goods.

The Neutrals did not participate in the war between the Hurons and the New York Iroquoians until the 1650s but instead were involved in warfare with Algonquian speaking people in Michigan. These Algonquian people were known as the "Fire Nations" and were the descendants of the Western Basin Algonquians who had previously occupied southwestern Ontario.

By the 1630s, Huron involvement with the French had become so important to the French that the Jesuits had begun a massive campaign to Christianise them. One measure to aid this was the construction of a fortified retreat, called Sainte Marie, in the Wye Marsh near present day Midland. While these increased contacts with the Hurons did bring some advantages to the Hurons, such as large amounts of European goods like iron axes and brass kettles, they also brought devastation in the form of infectious diseases. Plagues of measles, influenza and smallpox, for which the Hurons and others had no immunity, are believed to have killed as many as 60% of the population between 1634 and 1640. The damage caused to social and cultural systems of the Hurons, and other groups, by the plague cannot be measured and much important knowledge, such as the medicinal properties of some plants, may have also been lost to subsequent generations.

A chronic problem for the French and Huron fur trade all through the first half of the 17th century was the warfare between the Hurons and their allies and the New York Iroquoians. Known as the League of Five Nations, a confederacy of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk tribes, these people were allied first with the Swedes and Dutch and later with the English along the east coast. Antagonism between the Hurons and the "League" was encouraged by both the English and the French in order to gain increased supplies of furs for the competing traders and as extensions of the wars between the European powers.

In 1638 numbers of Wenro, an Iroquoian tribe in the western New York/Pennsylvania area, abandoned their homeland and joined the Neutrals and Hurons because of League raids. Increased raiding by the League in the late 1640s led to the dispersal of the Hurons in 1649, the Petun in 1650 and the Neutral by 1655. Factors which led to this dramatic victory by the League include greater access to European guns, the devastating depopulation of the Ontario Iroquoians by the plagues which had not as yet had as big an impact on the New York Iroquoians and the break down of social and political cohesion among the Hurons and Petuns. This breakdown in unity among the Hurons and Petuns was caused by the presence of two factions among these people, some who were Christian and/or pro-French and those who longed for the traditional way of life and wanted to be rid of the Europeans, if not their trade goods.

Because of the variation in the ways the Ontario Iroquoians responded to European influences, there was considerable variation in the ways they responded to the breakdown of their tribal areas. Among the Hurons and Petuns, for example, some joined the League of Five Nations, either as individuals or as large groups. Several entire villages, for example, are known to have joined the League as whole units, settling near Seneca or Onondaga villages and eventually becoming adopted as full members of those tribes. Another large group settled on Christian Island where the Jesuits built another fort. A winter of starvation, disease and constant raiding by the League Iroquois in this area, however, led to total abandonment of Huronia the following spring. The remnant groups either travelled with the French to the Montreal area, where some remain to today, or dispersed to other locations, mostly to the west. Of these latter groups, some joined other allied groups while a large group, now called the Wyandot, travelled to the north and west and eventually occupied a reservation in northeastern Oklahoma.

This summary of Ontario Archaeology was taken from the Discovering Ontario Archaeology - Speakers Kit. The original texts were written by Jeff Bursey, Hugh Daechsel, Andrew Hinshelwood and Carl Murphy.

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