By Charles Garrad and John Steckley
Wyandot people and tribes have existed in North America since an unknown time in varying combinations of clans and phrateries. However, the Wyandot Tribe, as a distinct historical, political, military and social entity in the history of the Detroit Valley, Ohio, Kansas and Oklahoma through the last three centuries, began when its three component Deer, Wolf and Turtle phrateries first came together. This recorded historic event occurred in 1649 at Craigleith, Ontario.
The Wyandot people and the Wyandot Tribe
In 1639, father Jerome Lalemant asked the Huron what they called themselves. The answer was “Wendat” (JR 16:227). Had the Petun, Neutral, Wenro, Eries and other Iroquoians been asked the same question, they would have probably given the same answer. “Wendat”, like “Christian”, refers more to a belief system than to a race or ethnic class.
The word “Wendat” (8endat, Ouendat, Wendat, Houandate, Wyandotte, Wyandot and other renderings) has proved difficult to translate, possibly because of its antiquity, but conveys the meaning “People of the Island” (Steckley, discussion with Garrad). The “Island” was not Huronia, nor North America, but the mythical island formed by the original animals on the back of a turtle to receive Aataentsic, the original woman who fell from above, and where all of her descendants, and those of the animals which played a part in the creation of the island dwell. Anyone who believes we dwell on “Turtle Island”, to use the current vernacular, and is of a clan descended from one of those original animals, is a Wyandot, regardless of blood or race.
As the belief that the world was supported by a turtle was common to all pre-Christian Iroquoians, they were all Wyandots, including the Huron, Petun, Neutral, and Wenro, and the five (originally) tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. Modern Six Nations art illustrating the Confederacy symbol, the Great Tree of Peace, usually represents it as growing out of the back of a turtle, combining more recent and very ancient symbolism. The Huron of Lorette in Quebec, whose ancestors came from Ontario in the seventeenth century have as much right as anyone to call themselves Wendat, as they do. They are related to, but not part of, the historic Wyandot Tribe.
At the time of the seventeenth century Dispersal, various Huron, Petun, Neutral and Erie tribes dispersed in several directions, particularly south to New York and east to Quebec, some to join other tribes, all to reform new political combinations. One of these combinations added a Turtle element to an existing Deer and Wolf arrangement and went in a third direction, west, because of an alliance with the western Odawa. It was this new Deer-Wolf-Turtle combination which emerged into later history as the Wyandot Tribe.
The Origins of the Deer and Wolf
Before the arrival of the French, groups of Wyandot people had migrated north to the southern shore of Georgian Bay and there formed new combinations and alliances. Those east of the Nottawasaga River were named by the French as Huron, and those west of the River as Petun (Tobacco Nation). In 1648, a Jesuit recorded that the Petun were composed of two “Nations”, the Deer and the Wolves (JR33:143). As presented the Deer and the Wolves seem to have been, at the same time, “Nations”, phrateries 1 and clans. The earlier origins of these two groups are not yet known, but at the time, the Petun Deer Nation (not to be confused with the Huron Deer clan) were at the north end of the Petun country, with its principal village EKARENNIONDI and a secondary village near the shore at Craigleith. The Petun Wolf were further inland and south with its principal village ETHARITA near Duntroon. The Petun were known to the Huron as “People of the Hills” “Khionontateronons” (JR20:43), Tionnontatehronnnons” (JR41:77), “Tionnontatez” (Charlevoix 1960:26-27) and other variants.
The Origins of the Turtle
Who the Turtle people were , or where they came from, and when, where and why the Turtle joined the Petun Deer and Wolf to become the Wyandot has not previously been explained.
The key to identifying the Turtles lies in that the word more frequently used by the later Oklahoma Wyandot descendants for the Big Turtle clan actually meant the “moss back turtle” (Barbeau 1915:86). The “moss back turtle” people are known in the historical literature as the Wenro, of whom some historical facts are known.
Modern historic and linguistic studies, combined with recent archaeology and reasonable speculation, now provide a cohesive and plausible understanding of the sequence of events leading to the Wenro Turtles joining the Petun Deer and Wolf, the climax of which may be regarded as resulting in the birth of the historic Wyandot Tribe.
The name “Wenro” (8enrohronons, Wenrohrononons, other variants) was long thought to mean “people of the place of the floating scum” (JR17:24,25; Hewitt cited in White 1978:409-411).
When first mentioned in history the Wenro were in western New York State, allied to the Neutral, but in 1638, the Wenro abandoned their homeland and began the long trek to join the Huron of Ontario. More than six hundred Wenro refugees were accommodated in the Huron village of Ossossane and nearby dependent villages (JR 17:25-31). Why they went to Ossossane, and what happened to them subsequently are questions to which answers are now available as the result of recent research.
Modern research into the Wenro in Huronia was inaugurated by archaeologist Frank Ridley when he observed that the geographic distribution of a New York pottery type “Genoa-Frilled” corresponded to the described distribution of the Wenro refugees. At the principal village of Ossossane, “Wenro pottery”, as Ridley termed it comprised 22% of the total pottery types. At another village, three miles distant, it was as high as 90% (Ridley 1961:43, cited in Ridley 1973; Ridley 1973:10-19). Later research extended the distributional range and somewhat amended the figures, but confirmed the basic interpretation. Genoa Frilled pottery in Ontario is accepted as Wenro.
Across Nottawasaga Bay from Huronia, Genoa Frilled has been found on two and only two, late Petun sites. These are near the shore at Craigleith. The significance of this will be discussed below under “Dispersal and Migration”.
Linguist John Steckley examined and rejected the long-accepted translation of the name “Wnerohronons” as meaning “people of the place of the floating scum”. By recombining the elements and dividing a compound word, he produced the revised meaning ”moss-backed turtle (people)”. He then pointed out that this was the name of the later Wyandot Big Turtle Clan (Steckley 1985:17). His proposal is logical and accepted because all known elements of Iroquoian society at the time, nations, moieties, phrateries and clans were named for animal ancestors, not places.
How the Wenro Turtles who had moved from the Neutral to the Huron, then joined with the Petun Wolf and Deer to form the three-phratery Wyandot Tribe is nowhere specifically recorded, but can be reasonably deduced, supported by the archaeological evidence of the pottery and by the later historical record. However, it is first necessary to consider why they settled in and about Ossossane.
At the time the French arrived, the Bear was the largest of the four Huron Nations. The Bear Nation comprised two historically, archaeologically and linguistically distinguishable groups, the Northern and Southern Bear, interpreted as two phratries. Each had two clans. The Southern Bear clans were the Turtle and Beaver, forming the Turtle phratry. Ossossane was the principal village of the Southern Bear and of the Turtle phratry. Logically, the Wenro went to Ossossane because they were themselves Turtles, and could claim kinship and adoption in the Turtle phratry (based on Steckley 1982). They were received there as relatives (JR17:27-29).
Ossossane Evacuated and Etharita Attacked
It is known that the Huron Turtle and Petun Deer, who could see each other’s territory across Nottawasaga Bay, were close allies. They shared a similarity of dialects suggesting their relationship continued from ancient times (Steckley 1993).
On the night of March 19, 1649, the Turtle people of Ossossane learned that the Iroquois enemy could be approaching. They abandoned their village and district, and fled to the Petun, supposedly across the ice of frozen Georgian Bay. When they arrived at the two Petun Deer villages at Craigleith the Turtle people of Ossossane were received as refugees, allies and kin, although to house and feed them without notice at the end of winter, and to provide hospitality on the necessary scale, must have strained Petun resources substantially. It is a tribute to the organization and hospitality of the Petun Deer that they were both able and willing to do so.
The two villages where the Turtle refugees obtained refuge with the Petun are known, being both logical and confirmed by archaeology. On a high ridge inland from the Nottawasaga Bay (of Georgian Bay) shores at Craigleith, the two villages controlled access inland from the beach and would necessarily be the first two villages reached by the refugees crossing from Ossossane. The larger was EKARENNIONDI, in its last location, then the principal town of the Petun confederacy, and of the Deer nation, phratry and clan. The smaller village served as a detached suburb. That the Turtles who took refuge in the two Petun villages at Craigleith included Wenro is certain. “Genoa Frilled” pottery has been found on both sites, but on no other in the Petun country (Garrad 1980).
Father Joseph Marie Chaumonot, the Jesuit Father resident at Ossossane, accompanied the refugees, who he described as “almost entirely Christian”, and stayed with them in the Petun country until May 1, 1649 when he and “many of his dispersed flock” left the Petun and moved to Christian Island where other Huron had already taken refuge (Jones 1909:379, 382-3; Martin 1885:93,94).
If the population of Ossossane “was almost entirely Christian”, there were some who were not. If “many” of the Christians departed with Chaumonot, there were some who did not. From this it is evident, even though not specifically stated, that a sizable contingent of people from Ossossane and district remained with the Petun after Chaumonot’s Christian party left on May 1, 1649. The Turtles had arrived.
On December 7, 1649, ETHARITA, the principal village of the Petun Wolves, further south, was attacked and destroyed by the Iroquois. The survivors consolidated for the winter in the two overburdened northern villages near the Craigleith beach. In the spring of 1650, the Petun abandoned their country forever. Following their Odawa allies westward, the Petun Deer and Wolves were accompanied by their new Turtle compatriots. This threesome, still called Huron by the French, would remain together through a long migration and a difficult future, and become known in future history under the collective name of Wyandot.
The two villages on the ridge south of the present shore at Craigleith, which played an essential role in the birth of the Wyandot Tribe, are today well known archaeological sites, recorded with the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Citizenship and Recreation, and the federal Archaeological Survey of Canada under the names Plater-Martin BdHb-1 and Plater-Fleming BdHb-2. Because of them and other later historic associations, the ridge itself has become known as “Craigleith Heritage Ridge”.
Dispersal and Migration
The route followed by the amalgamated Petun Deer and Wolf and Huron-Wenro Turtle in their subsequent migration, and their later history as the Wyandot Tribe is well known. At St. Ignace, Michigan ca. 1677, a Christmas was recorded in which “All the Hurons Christians and non-Christians divided themselves into three companies, according to the different nations that consitute their village” (JR61:115). This suggest the Turtles had been elevated into a phratry with the Deer and Wolf. The refugee Wyandot underwent several later similar internal reorganizations.
At Detroit, as late as 1721, the principal Petun Deer and Wolf element among the Wyandots was recognized when they were described as “the Tionnontatez, a tribe of the Hurons” (Charlevoix in Lajeunesse 1960:26-27). In 1747, a detailed census of the Wyandots by Father Pierre Protier confirmed there were three phrateries, the Deer, Turtle
and Wolf (Potier in Lajeunesse 1960:37). The stronger Turtle had superseded the weakened Wolf. Eventually the Turtle would supersede even the Deer.
Working with the Oklahoma Wyandot in 1911-12, the Canadian researcher Marius Barbeau found disagreement concerning whether the Deer or Big Turtle was anciently the most senior “…the Big Turtle people unanimously claim the Big Turtle clan to be the most ancient and first in rank, while the members of the Deer phratry claim their own clan and phratry to be the foremost”. Barbeau concluded these opinions went back to the time when both clans, as Nations, were still independent and supreme (Barbeau 1915:85), and in this opinion is undoubtedly correct. The passing years and centuries had erased the memory of when the Deer gave the Turtle refugees sanctuary on Craigleith Heritage Ridge.