Huron Government and Law

Long before the European invasion of North America, five Iroquoian-speaking tribes formed a powerful confederation known as the League of Five Nations. The idea for this confederacy came from the prophet Deganawida who had been born to the Huron. The Huron, an Iroquoian-speaking nation, however, never joined the League of Five Nations.

The name Huron was given to them by the French and means “rough, boorish.” They call themselves Wendat, Guyandot, or Wyandot which means “islanders.” Their traditional territory was north of the Lake Simcoe region of Ontario. Their homeland is often referred to as Huronia in many of the historical accounts.

Like the other Iroquian-speaking Indian nations, the Huron were farmers with a slash-and-burn agriculture which was supplemented by some hunting and fishing and by the gathering of certain wild plants for both food and fiber. Corn, beans, and squash provided about two-thirds of the Iroquois caloric intake. By 1630 it is estimated that the Huron, with a population of about 21,000, were harvesting 189,000 bushels of corn from 7,000 acres.

The basic foundation of Huron society, like that of other Iroquois nations, was the clan system. Iroquois society is divided into matrilineal clans which are named after certain animals. Among the Huron there were eight matrilineal clans: Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Hawk, Porcupine, and Snake. The clans were exogamous, meaning the people had to marry outside of their own clan. Children belonged to their mother’s clans.

The Huron were a confederacy of four major tribes: Bear, Rock, Barking Dogs, and White Thorns (also known as Canoes). The people called their confederacy Wendat or People of the Peninsula. The major reason for the formation of the Huron confederacy was protection against common enemies. They were given the name Huron by the French.

There were three levels of government among the Huron: village, tribe, and confederacy. At the village level, clan chiefs organized councils in which older men and women expressed their opinions on matters concerning the village.

Each Huron village council met frequently, often daily, to discuss village affairs. According to anthropologist Bruce Trigger in his book The Huron: Farmers of the North:  “Often there was little business to transact, and the meeting took on the characteristics of an old boys’ club.”

Religion professor Henry Bowden, in his book American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict, reports:  “The council was not so much a governing body as a sounding board for canvassing attitudes and pointing out the popular choice on specific matters.”  Discussions would be continued until consensus was evident.

Among the Huron there were two kinds of chiefs: (1) civil chiefs who were concerned with everyday life and peace, and (2) war chiefs who were concerned exclusively with military matters. Being a Huron chief required both time and an expenditure of wealth. Anthropologist Elisabeth Tooker, in her book An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649, writes:  “Chieftainships, then, were partly elected and partly inherited: a chief was elected from among the relatives of the deceased chief.”

The person who was elected was usually not the child of the deceased chief, but was more often a nephew or a grandson.

In her book Chain Her by One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth-Century New France, Karen Anderson reports:  “It would appear that Huron clan leaders had little ability to control the behavior of either women or men who chose to disobey or to not follow the decisions that had been taken in council.”

The Huron recognized four main classes of crime: (1) murder and wounding and injury, (2) theft, (3) witchcraft, and (4) treason. Murder placed an obligation on the relatives to avenge the killing. Reparation payments helped alleviate the possibility of blood feuds. Anthropologist Bruce Trigger notes:  “Huron law did not permit society as a whole to punish individuals.”

Among the Huron, material gifts were often used as a way of restoring peace and mending the social fabric following a crime, such as murder or physical injury. The guilty party (including both the individual and the clan) would pay the victim’s family. According to Henry Bowden:  “Thirty presents was the usual indemnity for killing a man, but the murder of a tribeswoman called for forty gifts.”

In 1649, the Iroquois, well-armed with guns supplied by Dutch traders, attacked and destroyed the Huron. Historian Ian Steele, in his book Warpaths: Invasions of North America, writes:  “Archeologically and anthropologically, the Huron can be regarded as exterminated in 1649 because their sites were abandoned and their culture structures destroyed. Historically, however, many of these people survived the calamity.”

 

The Huron Confederacy

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The Huron, whose traditional homeland was north of the Great Lakes, were a confederacy of four major tribes: Bear, Rock, Barking Dogs, and White Thorns (also known as Canoes). The people called their confederacy Wendat or People of the Peninsula. They were given the name Huron by the French.  

Cultural Background: Agriculture

Among the Huron, agriculture produced about three fourths of the food which they consumed. As with other Iroquoian groups, the farming was done by the women in fields which had been cleared by the men. All uncleared land was considered common property.

The land was cleared by first girding the trees and then burning the underbrush and trees. In addition to providing a clear space for their fields, the ash from the fire also provided additional nutrients.  Generally, the cleared land would wear out in about a decade, forcing the Iroquois to clear new land, usually farther from the village. For the smaller villages – those with about 200 inhabitants – by the time the walking distance to the farthest field reached about 1 kilometer, the oldest abandoned fields could be re-opened. For the larger villages, however, it took about 50 years for the productive fields to become too distant and requiring the village itself to move.

Planting would usually begin when the white oak leaves were the size of a red squirrel’s foot. While men would assist in the initial clearing of the fields, planting was done by a party of women under the supervision of the clan mothers. Women did the planting, weeding, and harvesting.

By 1630 it is estimated that the Huron, with a population of about 21,000, were harvesting 189,000 bushels of corn from 7,000 acres.

Background: Tribal Government

There were three levels of government among the Huron: village, tribe, and confederacy. At the village level, clan chiefs organized councils in which older men and women expressed their opinions on matters concerning the village. Each Huron village council met frequently, often daily, to discuss village affairs. Discussions would continue until consensus was evident.  

There were two kinds of Huron chiefs: (1) civil chiefs who were concerned with everyday life and peace, and (2) war chiefs who were concerned exclusively with military matters. Being a Huron chief required both time and an expenditure of wealth. Upon the death of a chief, the new chief would often be selected from among the relatives of the deceased chiefs. The person who was elected was usually not the child of the deceased chief, but was more often a nephew or a grandson.

Background: War and Trade

For Huron men there were two ways to obtain wealth and prestige: war and trade. Traditionally, war was not waged to impose religious views on other people, or to capture new territory. Most frequently the reasons for war were honor and avenging some injury. Revenge raids were usually launched at the request of a clan mother.

While brave warriors were admired, so were clever traders. Trading had prestige because individual initiative and shrewd judgment came into play. It took courage and diplomacy to open new trade routes or to organize a wide network of business alliances. The purpose of acquiring wealth through trade was not to possess or display material goods, but to be able to give them away. Giving wealth away was a way of improving social status and respect.

History:

The first contact between the Huron and the Europeans was with the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535. At the palisaded Huron town of Hochelaga, the French were greeted by about a thousand Huron men and women.

In 1609, some Huron warriors joined French explorer Samuel de Champlain and a mixed group of Montagnais and Algonkin warriors. At the northern shore of what is today called Lake Champlain, they encountered a Mohawk war party massed in battle formation and wearing wooden body armor. The French firearms killed several Mohawk leaders and the Mohawk retreated.

A formal trading alliance between the French and the Huron Confederacy was negotiated in 1614. With this agreement, the Huron allied themselves with the French. The following year, Huron warriors accompanied Samuel de Champlain into Iroquois territory and attacked an Iroquois fort near present-day Fenner, New York. After the initial attack, the Huron warriors withdrew. Champlain then convinced the warriors to build large wooden shields for protection and a large moveable platform which overlooked the Iroquois palisades. While the plan had initial success, the Huron warriors, unused to the discipline expected by European military leaders, broke ranks and attempted to set fire to the palisades. The Iroquois, however, simply poured water into the troughs which formed their fire defense system and the fires were quickly extinguished. Champlain was hit twice by arrows and was severely wounded. The Huron retreated carrying their wounded, including Champlain, in improvised baskets.

The Iroquois, who had been trading with Dutch traders in New York, sent emissaries north to propose peace and trade with the French. This would allow them to play the two European powers against each other with regard to trade. While the French were concerned that the Iroquois would convince the Huron to start trading with the Dutch, they agreed to the peace in 1622.

As the European demand for furs increased during the seventeenth century, both the Iroquois and the Huron began to expand westward in search of new furs and new Indian trading partners. This expansion brought about some violent conflicts between the Huron and the western Indian nations such as the Winnebago (Ho Chunk) and Ottawa. In addition, conflict between the Huron and the Iroquois also increased.

In 1648, the Seneca and the Mohawk, both members of the Iroquois League of Five Nations, set out to destroy the Huron trading network. The Seneca, armed with firearms obtained from the Dutch, attacked the Huron town of Teanaostaiaé. Three hundred of the 2,000 inhabitants of the town were killed and 700 were taken captive. The following year, the Iroquois, supplied with 400 guns and unlimited ammunition on credit by the Dutch, attacked and destroyed the Huron. This marked the end of the Huron confederacy. Many of the Huron people took refuge with other Indian nations in the Great Lakes area. A new nation, however, the Wyandot, composed of Huron refugees as well as other Indian refugees, soon emerged, but did not challenge the Iroquois supremacy.