Part 1 of 3
Discussing the Indigenous history of St. Catharines and the Niagara Region can be a particularly challenging task. As is the tragic case throughout Canada, when trying to piece together a narrative there are the usual colonial spectres to navigate. These include one-sided and prejudiced written documents and treaties, bulldozed archaeological sites, and lost culture, tradition, and language due to residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and population decimation by European disease and conquest. But on the Niagara Peninsula the challenge becomes even greater because the Indigenous nation with the most significant historical ties to this specific stretch of land was wiped out over 350 years ago, which was over 100 years before significant European settlement in the area. The nation I am referring to is the Neutrals.
The Indigenous community in St. Catharines and the Niagara Region today is vibrant. The area is home to Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Metis, Inuit, and other peoples, some of whom have lived here for many generations, while others have moved here more recently. As these communities are still present, it is their prerogative to tell their own stories, so aside from providing a general description, a few key dates, and some historical and geographical context, I will not delve too deeply into the lived experience of these Peoples here. As a non-Indigenous settler, I can neither claim to understand Indigenous lives, emotions, or perspectives, nor to have the right to represent them.
I can, however, tell the history of these Peoples’ subjugation and decline because it is a settler story – it would not have happened if not for European presence. It is, indeed, my responsibility to tell this story and to encourage other settlers to learn and acknowledge it. Anything less would be evasive and counter to ongoing efforts toward Truth and Reconciliation. What’s more, the St. Catharines Museum identifies itself as a community resource devoted to “telling the story of the city through artifacts, and preserving, sharing, and celebrating the cultural identity and history of the city”. The museum cannot be a community resource if it only engages in historical and cultural conversations about some of its community members. And most foundationally of all, the story of St. Catharines simply cannot be told without including the Neutral Nation, the Haudenosaunee, and the Mississaugas. To skip these chapters would be academically irresponsible and historically inaccurate.
The closest First Nations reserves to St. Catharines are the adjoining Six Nations and Credit Mississaugas reserves just west of the Niagara Peninsula, near Brantford. Both groups had periods of historical presence in Niagara and continue to live here today. Six Nations, also known as Haudenosaunee, include the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora Peoples. They are a confederacy of culturally and linguistically related groups under the “Iroquoian” umbrella, which was historically known for semi-permanent longhouse villages, Three Sisters agriculture, and lacrosse. Other Iroquoian nations who are not members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy include the Wendat, Erie, Wenro, Petun, and Neutral Nations, who are all relevant in today’s story. The Mississaugas, on the other hand, are closely related to Ojibwe Peoples, and fall under the Anishinaabe umbrella. In contrast to Iroquoian Peoples, the Anishinaabe were historically known for a more nomadic lifestyle, including the wigwam.
The generally accepted series of events regarding historical Indigenous presence in and around Niagara goes something like this1:
In the centuries before major European presence in this area, the primary residents of the southernmost part of Ontario from the west side of the Niagara River to perhaps as far as what is now London were the Neutrals. These people were labeled “Neutral” by French missionaries for their non-involvement in ongoing feuds between Haudenosaunee and Wendat on either side of them. They were, however, known by several Iroquoian names including “Ongiara,” which is the source of the modern “Niagara”.
In the late 1640s, invading Haudenosaunee – perhaps more specifically the Seneca – stormed in from their traditional territory in the Finger Lakes Region in upstate New York. In less than five years, the Neutrals, and also the Wendat, Petun, Wenro, and Erie, encompassing the entire traditional Iroquoian population of Southern Ontario, were completely wiped off the map. Many were killed, some were assimilated into the culturally similar Haudenosaunee, and others fled and dispersed. The Wendat later re-established communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan, and Quebec, far from their traditional territory. The Neutrals, Petun, Wenro, and Erie were lost to history. See Post 2 for a closer look into why this invasion happened.
The Haudenosaunee only stuck around Southern Ontario for about 50 years at this time. The dispersal of this area’s population made it attractive to the more northerly Ojibwe Peoples who moved seasonally and were always on the lookout for new hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds. The Ojibwe managed to oust the Haudenosaunee back across the Niagara River by the end of the 17th century and soon evolved into the distinct Mississauga culture that remains present today. It is these people that the English first encountered when they began settling Southwestern Ontario in the second half of the 18th century.
When French colonies were transferred to the British after the Seven Years War, the Indigenous inhabitants’ land rights were guaranteed, at least on paper, by the Royal Proclamation (1763) and Treaty of Niagara (1764). This set the requirement for subsequent land treaties, several of which were signed with the Mississaugas between 1781 and 1820, covering the entire Golden Horseshoe. Haudenosaunee, under the leadership of Joseph Brant, returned permanently in 1784 when they were granted the Haldimand Tract by the British Government for having sided with them in the American Revolutionary War. This tract was carved out of land obtained from the Mississaugas in Treaty 3 and spanned the entire Grand River, including 6 miles on either side. The modern Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve is what remains of this grant.
And so reads the written (European) historical record of the events that led to the current Indigenous make-up of the Niagara Region. For a more complete picture of the motivations, individual families and figures, and cultural effects and implications of these events, one must defer to the communities who were present. Both Mississauga and Haudenosaunee oral (and sometimes written) traditions are strong and I encourage readers to seek out and value their stories and perspectives (I suggest starting here, here, and here).
But what of the Neutral Nation? The voice of these People has been lost for over three centuries and even European interactions with them were few. The story of the people who lived on this land before European arrival is therefore fragmented at best. The small handful of puzzle pieces we have were gleaned from a few Jesuit writings, a limited archaeological record, and the closely related Wendat and Haudenosaunee nations. Putting together anything resembling a complete picture may never be possible, but it is important to keep searching, listening, and learning. In their story we may discover the historical seeds to local features like lacrosse fandom, wavy streets, and paddle sports. But furthermore, as we face the ever-mounting challenges of climate change, intolerance, and extreme partisanship, the long-time stewards of this place may also teach us valuable lessons for the present.
I’ll pick up with the story, as we know it, of the Neutral Nation in what is now St. Catharines next week in Part 2 of this blog series.
Sean Dineley is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre
- This series of events has been repeated in many historical studies. Here are a few relevant sources:
White, Marian E. “On Delineating the Neutral Iroquois of the Eastern Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.” Ontario Archaeology 17.3. 1968.
Jackes, Mary. “The Mid Seventeenth Century Collapse of Iroquoian Ontario: Examining the Last Burial Place of the Neutral Nation.” 2008.
Praxis Research Associates. The Mississaugas of the Credit: Historical Territory, Resource and Land Use. 2008.
Six Nations Lands and Resources Department. Land Rights: A Global Solution for the Six Nations of the Grand River. 2019. ↩︎
- See Post 2 for a closer look into why this invasion happened. ↩︎