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Niagara's First People

The story of Niagara would have taken a far different turn had it not been for the indigenous people of Canada. They were instrumental in helping Britain win the War of 1812 against the U.S. They were also invaluable to the early colonists, for without their expertise as guides many newcomers to Upper Canada would have surely perished.

When Jacques Cartier arrived in 1534 from France he encountered Indians known as the Iroquois. Almost seventy years later in 1603 when Champlain made his historic voyage to “New France” he encountered a totally different group of Indians with a different language and different customs. These people he called the Huron and it seemed they were at constant war with the Iroquois.

However there was another group of Indians, separate from the Iroquois and Huron in the area bordering the Niagara River, up to Lake Erie and as far as Detroit. They were known as the Tobacco Nation and were at peace with the Iroquois and Huron. They cultivated tobacco, which they traded with their Indian neighbours and this highly prized commodity could have played a role into why other tribes did not seek war with them.

Champlain named these people the Neutrals, because of their neutrality when dealing with their rivals, the Huron and the Iroquois. The Neutrals had their chief camp at the mouth of the Niagara River, where it meets Lake Ontario, at present day Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Neutrals called this main camp Onghiara. Eventually the Iroquois waged war upon the Hurons and in turn upon the Neutrals wiping out every man, woman and child. The only lasting remnant of this once powerful nation is the name Onghiara…a precursor to the present day name Niagara.

By the 1700’s Britain’s presence was firmly entrenched in Upper Canada. The British strategy was to befriend the Indians, and use their knowledge in warfare to the British advantage. The Indians were being expelled from the American colonies and Britain was welcoming them with open arms. This strategy seemed to pay off and through all this upheaval Britain continued to keep close ties with its Indian allies, allowing Indians as well as colonists to share in the provisions at Fort George.