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Erie Indians (Huron: yěñresh, ‘it is long-tailed’, referring to the eastern puma or panther; Tuscarora, kěn’räks, ‘lion’, a modern use, Gallicised into Eri and Ri, whence the locatives Eri’e, and Riqué, ‘at the place of the panther’, are derived. Compare the forms Erieehronon, Eriechronon, and Riquéronon of the Jesuit Relations, signifying ‘people of the panther’. It is probable that in Iroquois the puma and the wild-cat originally had generically the same name and that the defining term has remained as the name of the puma or panther).
A populous sedentary Iroquoian tribe, inhabiting in the 17th century the territory extending south from Lake Erie probably to Ohio river, east to the lands of the Conestoga along the east watershed of Allegheny river and to those of the Seneca along the line of the west watershed of Genesee river, and north to those of the Neutral Nation, probably on a line running eastward from the head of Niagara river (for the Jesuit Relation for 1640-41 says that the territory of the Erie and their allies joined that of the Neutral Nation at the end of Lake Erie), and west to the west watershed of Lake Erie and Miami river to Ohio river. Their lands probably adjoined those of the Neutral Nation west of Lake Erie. The Jesuit Relation for 1653, speaking of Lake Erie, says that it “was at one time inhabited toward the south by certain peoples whom we call the Cat Nation; but they were forced to proceed farther inland in order to escape their enemies whom they have toward the west.” In this eastward movement of the Erie is probably found an explanation of the emigration of the Awenrehronon (Wenrohronon) to the Huron country in 1639 from the east border of the lands of the Neutral Nation, although the reason there given is that they had for some unknown reason ruptured their relations with the Neutral Nation, with whom, it is stated, they had been allied, and that, consequently, losing the powerful support of the populous Neutral Nation, the Wenrohronon, were left a prey to their enemies, the Iroquois. But the earlier Jesuit Relation (for 1640-41), referring undoubtedly to this people, says that a certain strange nation, the Awenrehronon, dwelt beyond the Cat Nation, thus placing them at this time east of the Erie and apparently separate from the Neutral Nation; so that at that time the Wenrohronon may have been either entirely independent or else confederated with the Eric.
Historically little is definitely known of the Erie and their political and social organization, but it may be inferred to have been similar to that of the Huron. The Jesuit Relations give only a few glimpses of them while describing their last wars with the Iroquois confederation; tradition, however, records the probable fact that the Erie had had many previous wars with these hostile tribes. From the Relations mentioned it is learned that the Erie had many sedentary towns and villages, that they were constituted of several divisions, and that they cultivated the soil and spoke a language resembling that of the Hurons, although it is not stated which of the four or five Huron dialects, usually called “Wendat ” (Wyandot) by themselves, was meant. From the same source it is possible to make a rough estimate of the population of the Erie at the period of this final war. At the taking of the Erie town of Riqué in 1654 it is claimed that the defenders numbered between 3,000 and 4,000 combatants, exclusive of women and children; but as it is not likely that all the warriors of the tribe were present, 14,500 would probably be a conservative estimate of the population of the Erie at this period.
The Jesuit Relation for 1655-56 (chap. xi) gives the occasion of the final struggle. Thirty ambassadors of the Cat Nation had been delegated, as was customary, to Sonontouan, the Seneca capital, to renew the existing peace. But through the misfortune of an accident one of the men of the Cat Nation killed a Seneca. This act so incensed the Seneca that they massacred all except 5 of the ambassadors in their hands. These acts kindled the final war between the Erie and the confederated tribes of the Iroquois, especially the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga, called by the French the ‘upper four tribes’, or ‘les Iroquis supérieurs’. It is further learned from the Jesuit Relation for 1654 that on the political destruction of their country some Hurons sought asylum among the Erie, and that it was they who were actively fomenting the war that was then striking terror among the Iroquois tribes. The Erie were reputed brave and warlike, employing only bows and poisoned arrows, although the Jesuit Relation for 16,56 declares that they were unable to defend one of their palisades against the Iroquois on account of the failure of their munitions, especially powder, which would indicate that they used firearms. It is also said that they “fight like Frenchmen, bravely sustaining the first charge of the Iroquois, who are armed with our muskets, and then falling upon than with a hailstorm of poisoned arrows,” discharging 8 or 10 before a musket could be reloaded. Following the rupture of amicable relations between the Erie and the Iroquois tribes in 1653, the former assaulted and burned a Seneca town, pursued an Iroquois war party returning from the region of the great lakes, and cut to pieces its rear guard of 80 picked men, while the Erie scouts had conic to the very gates of one of the Iroquois palisaded towns and seized and carried into captivity Annenraes (Annencraos), “one of the greatest captains.” All this roused the Iroquois tribes, which raised 1,800 men to chastise the Erie for these losses. A young chief, one of the two leaders of this levy, was converted by Father Simon Le Moine, who chanced to be in the country at the time, and was baptized. These two chiefs dressed as Frenchmen, in order to frighten the Erie by the novelty of their garments. When this army of invaders had surrounded one of the Erie strongholds, the converted chief gently asked the besieged to surrender, lest they be destroyed should they permit an assault, telling them: “The Master of Life fights for us; you will be ruined if you resist him.” “Who is this. Master of our lives?” the Erie defiantly replied. “We acknowledge none but our arms and hatchets.” No quarter was asked or given on either side in this war. After a stubborn resistance the Erie palisade was carried, and the Onondaga, “entered the fort and there wrought such carnage among the women and children that blood was knee-deep in certain places.” This was at the town of Riqué, which was defended by between 3,000 and 4,000 combatants, exclusive of women and children, and was assailed by about 1,800 Iroquois. This devastating war lasted until about the close of 1656, when the Erie power was broken and the people were destroyed or dispersed or led into captivity. Six hundred surrendered at one time and were led to the Iroquois country to be adopted as one of the constituent people of the Iroquois tribes. The victory at Riqué was won at a great loss to the Iroquois, who were compelled to remain in the enemy’s country two months to care for the wounded and to bury the dead.
Only two of the Erie villages are known by name, Riqué and Gentaienton. A portion of the so-called Seneca now living in Indian Territory are probably descendants of Erie refugees.