Lost Nation of the Erie Part 1

  • Thursday, January 21, 2016
  • Chuck Hamilton

Part 1, The Story of the Erie

Very few nations, tribes, bands, or peoples of American Indians have been as legended and mythologized, and caught the fancy of both their fellow Native American First Nations and anthropologists throughout the Western world, as have the confederacy of tribes most commonly known, at least in the USA, as the Erie.  The best graphic evidence we have comes from the Jesuit missionaries of New France in the seventeenth century, and even that is but second and third hand.  Only one firsthand account, of an English trader out of Jamestown in 1632 who met some of their representatives among the Massawomeck, exists.  Much of the information we have is cartographical or archaeological.

The most mention the Erie usually get is that a war started between them and the Five Nations Iroquois in 1653 during the Beaver Wars, and by 1656 it was all over and done with and the Erie were no more.  The problem is that those “facts” contain only a smidgen of truth.  Yes, the Erie were conquered and subjugated in the seventeenth century, except for those who left the region, but it was not in 1656 that all of those remaining in the north were conquered or had surrendered; in fact, the war itself lasted until 1664 and the last Erie did not surrender until 1682.  But even then that was not the last of them.

The name of the Erie

The Erieronon, to use the Huron suffix, or Eriehaga, to use the Iroquois suffix, are called by a large variety of names in the Jesuit Relations of 1610-1791 and in related documents of New France from the period, including maps.  Variations include Enrielhonan, Rhiierrhonnon, and Enrie, as well as Rigueronnon, Riquehronnon, Erieckrenois, and Eriegoneckkak, the latter group also versions of the name of the leading tribe of the confederacy which the Virginian trader among the Massawomeck, Edward Fleet, mangled into Hereckeenes.

The French usually called them ‘Nation du Chat’ or ‘Nation des Chats’, a translation into French of the meaning of their name in Huron and other languages, ‘people of the long-tails’, about which there is a debate over whether this refers to raccoons or cougars, with solid evidence on both sides.

More properly, the Huron referred to them as the Yenresh, which would be Yenreshronon with the suffix, meaning ‘long-tailed’ or ‘long-tailed people’.  The Tuscarora name for them was Kenyrak.  The Onondaga name for the raccoon, ‘tsho-eragak’, may be related.  The Seneca, physically their closest neighbors among the Five Nations, called them the Gwageoneh.  The Mohawk called them the Arrigahaga, ‘people of Arrigha’, their chief town.  As a whole, the Five (later Six) Nations Iroquois also referred to them as the “Otkons”, or “bad spirits”.

Another name, possibly Onondaga, was Onnontioga.  The name occurs only in the Jesuit Relations discussing the peoples of the town among the Seneca made entirely of assimilated persons named Gandougaraé, where the Black Robes had their Mission of Sainte-Michel.  The other two peoples inhabiting the town were the Huron and the Chonnonton (Neutrals), and since it is known positively from elsewhere in the Relations and other sources that Erie made up a large portion of the population, the Onnontioga can be none other than they.

The Dutch referred to them as the Black Minqua, their approximation of the Algonquian term, ‘Minqua’ deriving from ‘Mengwe’, the name by which they and most Algonquian-speakers called the Iroquoian-speakers, meaning literally “without penis”.  No one can say Indians don’t have a sense of humor.  The Lenape called them Alligewi or Talligewi.  Their nearer Algonquian neighbors the Ottawa called them the Olighin.

Other names or versions of names for the Erie are Erigas, Erighek, Achawi, Kauneastekaroneah, Squakihaw, Tchoueregak, and Kahgwageono.  Sometime during the eighteenth century, their Seneca name, Gwageoneh, had metamorphosed into Kahkwa, and it is under that name that much of the legending and mythologizing took place.  The Tuscarora artist David Cusik is the source for the name Squakihaw, while Mohawk historian John Norton is the first literary source for the name Kahkwa.

The Seneca stories about their war with the Kahkwas which filled up much of their popular tales in the nineteenth century gave the impression to some scholars that here was a tribe previously unheard of whose nature was just waiting to be discovered.  This mistake continues even today, as a couple of recent publications have made a distinction between the Kahkwa and the Erie, in spite of the fact that the first person to write of the “Kahkwa”, John Norton, said quite explicitly that the Kahkwa were the same as the Erie.  Henry Schoolcraft picked up on this, but many others who have written on the Erie or the Kahwah have missed it completely.

“Kahkwa”, or the earlier version “Gwageoneh”, is the only way Seneca-language speakers can approximate the more common name as used by the French, since the language lacks the letter “R”.  Interestingly, Norton also called them the “Rad-irakeai-ka”, and wrote that they lived in the town of “Kaghkwague”.

The Erie probably shared the same autonym as the Huron and the Petun:  Wendat.  The Black Robes (the Huron nickname for the Jesuits) wrote that the language of the Erie was nearly identical to Huron, and the Huron did not call them “Attawandaron”, meaning, colloquially speaking, “those people who talk funny”, as they did the Chonnonton (aka “Neutral Nation”) to their west and the Massawomeck to their southeast beyond the Erie.  ‘Attawandaron’ signifies an Iroquoian language but a separate dialect, while ‘Akwanake’ signifies a speaker of an entirely different language altogether.  For instance, the Huron called all Algonquian-speakers Akwanake, and the Cherokee as well, though the reason for that are another story.

Names on the landscape

The example which stands out most is the second of the Great Lakes from the east, Lake Erie, which the French called both Lac du Chat and Lac de Chonty, both references to the Erie.  For English speakers, and some French speakers, the more common early name was Lake Okswego, apparently the Huron name.  One more that appears on some late seventeenth century French maps is Lac Teiocharontiong, another native name; Jolliet called it Lac Teiocharontiong des Erie, making clear which was meant.

Less obvious are the Allegheny River, the Allegheny Mountains, and the Allegheny Plateua, all deriving from Alligewi or Talligewi, the Lenape name for the Erie and/or the Cherokee.  My contention for several years has been that the two are one in the same. 

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, there was likewise a town of Allegheny across the Ohio River and slightly upstream from Shannopin’s Town of the Lenape.  It stood at the site of the later American town of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which existed from 1788 until 1907, when it was annexed by the growing city of Pittsburgh.

What is now called the Allegheny River was considered the upper part of the great Ohio River In earlier centuries.  In fact, when the Lenape called the Ohio the Alligewi-sipu or Talligewi-hanna, they meant the whole length from the headwaters of the Allegheny.  Same for the Ottawa, who called it Olighin-sipu, a name which makes the transition from the Algonquian-language names for the Erie, Alligewi and Olighin, to Allegheny, even easier to see.  Ohio, by the way, was the Seneca name for the whole river.  An early name for the river among the colonists of the British provinces referencing the Erie was Black Mingo River.

At one time, the Lenape referred to the entire region which the Erie occupied as “Alligewinek”, or ‘place of the Alligewi.

To this day, the Seneca name for Eighteen Mile Creek that enters Lake Erie at Hamburg, the location of the Kleis Site, is “Koghquaga”, a reference to the Kahkwa.

Their territory

Though many sources claim that their territory spread from Niagara River around the southern shores of Lake Erie to Sandusky Bay in the west and to the southeast to the Ohio River.  One historian even claimed the Erie occupied the Ohio River from Beaver Creek to the Wabash River, which would be the western border of Indiana.  Some have even claimed the Erie were the people who built the Fort Ancient Culture in southern Ohio.

The archaeological record does not support either of those contentions.  Archaeologically, the Erie sites are identified as the Ripley Focus of the Iroquois Aspect of the Northeastern Phase of the Woodland Pattern.  The sites belonging to the Ripley Focus stretch from East Aurora, NY southwest to Erie, PA, and some believe that sites within Buffalo, NY may be included as well.  While realizing that the confederacy’s territory would not have been confined to their towns and farming plots, it would still be but a fraction of the larger claims.  The probable true boundaries of the territory of the Erie were the lake on the north, the Genesee River on the east, the Allegheny River on the south, and the Grand and Mahong Rivers on the west.

Five major terminal sites have been discovered at distances of between twenty and twenty-five miles from each other, indicating a separate polity or tribe but sharing enough characteristics to signify belonging to a larger body as well.  Each of these protohistorical sites contains European trade goods, is palisaded, and quite large.  Within proximity to each are three to five earlier sites suggesting that within each group a single body of people migrated from one to the other.  The terminal sites show no sign of several dependent villages as had been the case with earlier stages, mirroring the tribes of the Five Nations in centralizing population for defense.

From east to west, the five known terminal sites, as identified by anthropologists Marian White and William Enghlebert, are the Bead Hill Site in East Aurora, NY; the Kleis Site in Hamburg, NY; the Silverheels-Highbanks Site near Irvine on the Cattaraugus Creek Reservation; the Ripley Site in Ripley, NY; and the East 28th Street Site in Erie, PA. 

There may very well be other, even larger sites as well that have not been discovered; only recently, within the past decade or so, town sites in Huron territory have been found large enough to support the French figures of a Huron population of thirty thousand at the beginning of the colonial era.  The same holds true for satellite village sites connected to the central fortified towns at the five terminal sites; the Franquelin map of 1684 shows “19 v. detruits” for the Ganientonga, one of the tribes of the Erie confederacy, meaning sixteen to eighteen dependent villages in addition to the one to three large palisaded towns. 

Some nineteenth century accounts claim for the Erie “twelve towns and twenty-eight villages”, but here they are confused with the Chonnonton, the autonym for the confederacy and proto-chiefdom commonly known to Americans as the Neutral Nation.

Constituent subtribes

Of these there were four, maybe five: (1) Arrigahaga; (2) Kentaientonga; (3) Oniasontke; (4) Atrakwaeronon; (5) Takoulguehronnon.

When encountered by the French and until the destruction of their seat in 1654, the leading tribe were the Arrigahaga (Erigaronon), centered on the town of Rigue, or Arrigha, and maybe limited to it.  Several of the names from contemporary accounts and maps use names to refer to the entire Erie people which more specifically refer to the people of this town: Riquehronnon, Rakouagega, Kakouagoga, Rigueronnon, Erieckrenois, Erigas, and Eriegoneckkak. 

The Arrighahaga are the “Kahkwa” proper; Kahkwa, or Gwageoneh, derives from the Seneca language, which has no letter “R”, nor a letter “L” for that matter, and therefore cannot say “Arrigha” or “Rigue”.  The earliest cartographical evidence of this name lies written on the 1680 Bernou map, which shows “Kakouagoga” as a “nation detruite” approximately where Hamburg or Buffalo lie now.  The next appearance is on the 1688 Franquelin map, located in what appears to be a more southerly spot at the southeast corner of the lake in the form “Rakouagega”; later maps use Bernou’s form.

The second tribe were the Kentaientonga, or in other forms, Gentaguega, Gentaguetehronnon, Gentaientonga, and Kentayentonga.  The one time the name of their central town or village is mentioned, it is given as “Gentaienton”.  The only time they appear on a map, Franquelin in 1688, they are located on the Allegheny River, though this may not be accurate, and they are listed as formerly having had nineteen villages, which probably is accurate.

The third tribe were the Oniasontke, also written Honniasont and Honniasontkeronon, meaning, ‘people of the place of crook-necked squashes’.  They first appear on the Franquelin map of 1688 on the Allegheny or Ohio River downstream from the Kentaientonga, with the notation, “2 vill destruits”, but they are mentioned in Abbe Galinee’s journal in 1669.  Their name appears on maps into the early eighteenth century.

The fourth tribe were the Atrakwaeronon, under which name they appear in the Jesuit Relation for 1652, which gives the name of their main town as “Atrakwae”.  On the anonymous map of “Nouvelle France” dated 1641 (probably created by Bourdon), the tribe appears as the “Akhrakvaetonon”, which according to anthropologist John Steckley, last remaining speaker of the Huron language, means ‘people of the east’.  They appear elsewhere under the name versions Akhrakuaeronon and Ohreokouaehronon.

A possible fifth tribe may have been the Takoulguehronnon, whose sole appearance is in a list of nations conquered by the Five Nations Iroquois in the Jesuit Relation of 1656, preceding the “Gentaguetehronnon”, one of the forms of Kentaientonga.  The 1862 work, A Description of the Province and City of New York, gives the name of their town as “Takoulgue”.  Anthropolgists Steckley and James Pendergast believe that the Takoulguehronnon were the same as the Atrakwaeronon, so it is clear they both believe the group to be an Erie subtribe, but the two names bear little if any resemblance.

Culture of the Erie confederacy

The Erie shared a many features of a common culture with the western Iroquois tribes and confederations: Huron, Petun, Chonnonton, Wenro, and possibly Chondake and Massawomeck.  The statements of the Black Robes that the Erie spoke an identical language to that spoken by the Huron and Petun plus the fact that the Huron did not call them Attawandaron as they did the Chonnonton and the Massawomeck tells us their language was essentially Huron.

We know from various contemporary annals and journals that the Erie were led by a female chief, though probably not one holding the fanciful titles given her by the Iroquois.  The same was likely true for each of the constituent tribes.  The office would have been on the “white” or peace side of the leadership structure; as far as well can tell, the leaders in the field of war were all men.  Each town  and perhaps dependent village would have been self-governing, with decisions made by the larger group by concensus.

As for their religion, they probably gave homage to a number of spirits of varying degrees of significance, and believed in an overall force that gave life to all living things.  This the western Iroquois shared with their eastern neighbors.  Among the Huron and Petun, and probably among the Erie also, this force was called Orenda or Iarenda; among the Mohawk and Cayuga it was called Orenna or Karenna; among the Oneida it was Olenna or Kalenna; among the Onondaga and the Seneca, it was called Oenna or Gaenna.

The Orenda compares to the Nu of the Kapampangan people of the Philippines, the Mana of the Polynesians and Melanesians, the Wakonda of Siouan-speakers, the Manitou of Algonquian-speakers (though these also use the word manitou in other ways), and the Kami of Japanese aboriginals known as the Ainu.  The Huron have other words for ‘spirit’, ‘ghost’, ‘god’, and ‘soul’; the Orenda is a separate concept from any of those.

They were unique among North American Indians for using poison-tipped arrows to great effectiveness during war, and perhaps hunting.

Like most other Native Americans, they tortured select prisoners for several hours or even days before burning them to death, adopting the rest or using them as slaves for a time, which was usually followed by adoption.  Like their fellow Iroquioans, they also probably partook in ritual cannibalism, especially of honored enemies.  Given the status in which they clearly held women, the Erie followed the practice of the Huron of avoiding the torture and burning of women which the Chonnonton and Five Nations Iroquois engaged in.

While previous each of their constituent tribes had lived in scattered villages with a large fortified town as their center of society, by the early seventeenth century, certainly by the fourth decade, most of the tribes had converged within themselves into a single larger densely palisaded town, with perhaps small hamlets outside the walls.  This was almost certainly true for the easternmost subdivisions of the confederacy.  The earlier pattern, however, may have held at least for the Kentaientonga, if Franquelin’s comment is correct.

In the decades before the Beaver Wars began in earnest, the Erie were allied militarily with the Chonnonton confederacy and with the Wenro, and also with the Mississauga.  Upon the entrance of the Europeans onto the scene, they forged trade relationship with the English of Virginia through the Massawomeck and with the Dutch and the Swedes of New Netherlands and New Sweden through the Andaste (Susquehannock).  Their military alliance with the Chonnonton collapsed in 1648, and in 1653 they forged a military alliance with the Andaste.

The Erie-Iroquois War

The war between the Erie and the Iroquois did not start in 1653, when the Erie attacked the Seneca, but in 1651, when the western Iroquois attacked the Atrakwaeronon and finished the job the next year.  The desruction of Atrakwae may have been intended as an object lesson to a powerful neighbor.  Why the Erie attacked in 1653 may have been as simple as realizing they were the next conquest after the fall of the Huron, the Petun, and the Chonnonton. 

That the Erie were a large people adept at war is proven by the fact that the Onondaga, the central tribe geographically and politically, representing all the Five Nations, sought an audience with the French asking their assistance in the war against the Erie, which was apparently not going very well in 1654.  Besides their poison-tipped arrows, which the Erie archers could fire at a rate of eight to ten compared to time it took for a single shot of the Iroquois with the Dutch supplied arquebuses.  The Erie had these too, but not as much access to shot and powder as their antagonists from the east.

The Erie-Iroquois War did not end in 1656, despite the commentary of some of the Jesuits in letters and in Relations (a “relation” was an annual report to the head of the Jesuit Society’s missions in New France back in Paris).  Eight hundred Honniasont warriors and their families took up residence with the Andaste in 1662 to aid them in their war with the western Iroquois and their allies.  The Jesuit Relation of 1664 describes the report from the Iroquois of the final defeat of the Erie that year.  But it is not until 1682 that the Iroquois report was is supposedly the last group of Erie finally surrendering, a group numbering some six hundred persons.

Some of the Erie were adopted and assimilated (except for those who were tortured, burned, and eaten), but the majority of those who surrendered lived in communities with other surrenderees like those in the town of Gandougarae in Seneca territory. 

The final group of surrenderees described just previously may have formed the community that lived at Mingo Flats in the current Mingo, West Virginia.  That population town became the core of Crow’s Town on the Ohio River (now Mingo Bottom, Steubenville, OH) during the French and Indian War.  The town spread across the river to Follansbee, WV, occupying both sides until the Treaty of Fort Stanwix restricted them to the right bank of the river.  Its population, known to Americans as Mingo along with other Iroquoian-speakers (including a sizable number of Erie desecendants) who had earlier moved into what is now western Pennsylvania, migrated to the Ohio Country in 1774.

After their central town, Arrigha, was destroyed and much of the population killed or made captive, the Rigueronon, still with 600-700 warriors, transferred to the outskirts of Virginia, where the local tribes called them the Richahechrians.  In 1656, they fought a battle against colonial rangers and a party of Pamunkey, and won.  By 1670, the “Rickohockans” were in the mountains to the west of the colony of North Carolina.

Fate of the Erie

Joined by other northern refugees, picking up others along the way, and assimilating the remnants of the Mississippian survivors in the areas they settled, the Richahechrian-Rickohockan were initially identified on maps as three separate groups: the Tchalaka, the Kituwagi, and the Taligui. After a few decades, they were known as the Cheraqui/Cherekay/Cherokee.

Several sources report the origins of the Cherokee in the north.  Some of those and others report the Cherokee establishing towns in the Upper Allegheny-Ohio Valley, in the late eighteenth century, trying to gain, or regain, a foothold in the north.  According to Bishop Johannes Ettwein of the Moravian Brethren, the war between the Lenape and the Cherokee over this territory began in 1698, and that by 1710-1715 they had driven them out with the help of the Iroquois; Mooney gives the date as 1708. 

This incursion can easily be understood as a desire to return to their home territory, or at least near it, on the part of the Cherokee, who were formerly Erie and Huron and Chonnonton (and Shawnee and Powhatan, according to the Moravian Brethren).  It also explains the willingness of the core Iroquois, the “old stock”, to release its firm grasp on its dependents and allow the Lenape, Shawnee, and Mingo (descendants of Erie, Huron, and Chonnonton living among them) to settle what is now western Pennsylvania.

Descendants of the Erie survive today among the Six Nations, the Seven Nations of Canada, the Seneca-Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and in the three tribes of the Cherokee (Eastern Band, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and Keetoowah Band).  The Seneca-Cayuga descend from the Seneca of Sandusky who were actually Mingo, later joined by two separate groups of Cayuga.  The Eastern Shawnee descend from the Mixed Band of Seneca and Shawnee formerly on the Scioto River, the “Seneca” portion actually being Mingo.


Chuck Hamilton


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