The Native Americans - Where did they go, and Why?

September, 1655, at the entrance to Rocky River:

The six canoes of the dirty and wounded Eriehronon warriors made landfall on the Northern end of what today is known as Yacht Club Island.

The trip from Pennsylvania had been stormy and troubled, as, indeed, was the future of the Eriehronon peoples, also known as the Erie. During some games held with the Five Nations, war had broken out, and these few warriors and their families comprised some of the remnants of this once-proud people. The Erie were referred to as the "Cat Nation" by the French, although the tribe identified more with raccoons than with the wildcats and pumas along our North Coast. The Erie were not equipped with modern weapons, and were therefore unprepared for the incoming migrations: first by other Eastern tribes, and later by Whites.

The Five Nations, known as the Hau de no sau nee, or by their French name, Iroquois, had united into a federation long before, under Hiawatha, in about 1575, to face such a threat as the Erie had mounted. Having a centralized confederation, they were also pragmatic and quickly allied with the French. Later, after the French and Indian War ended to favor the British, the Iroquois shifted their alliance to the British Crown. When we Americans won our Revolution, the Iroquois would pay dearly for this decision.

The tribes of the Five Nations were equipped with firearms from their French allies... and the Erie were not. The resulting Iroquois extermination of the Eries was virtually a foregone conclusion. Even though the poisoned arrowheads of the Eries extracted a dear price from their enemies, firearm technology held the advantage. The Iroquois could stop well away from their adversaries, and cut them into ribbons The Erie fought bravely and well. As many as seven or eight of their arrows could be shot for every single musket ball that came their way. Still, with disciplined musket fire, the Iroquois prevailed. The few Eries remaining, who were not killed or tortured, were allowed to return to their burial ground to bury their leaders, and mourn their passing into history.

Behind them, only a few miles away, were the Iroquois war parties of Senecas, Cayugas, Mohawks, Onondagas, and Oneidas, waiting only for the end of the Erie warriors' funeral ceremonies. Soon, the remaining Erie warriors and their families would unite with the Five Nations, and the Cat Nation would be no more.
It would not be long before many of the warriors of the Five Nations, too, would be gone.

The story of Ohio's Native peoples is inconclusive and filled with mystery. The story above is fiction. Parts of the story are probably true. Years ago, Lakewood Sun Post columnist Dan Chabek wrote about the existence of Native American burial grounds at Yacht Club Island, as well as the removal of bones and artifacts from that place. We are grateful to some of the Jesuit Fathers as well for their contribution to our knowledge of the Eries in the late 1600's.

The history of the demise of the Native Americans in Ohio is shrouded in intrigue, and is intricately connected to the world politics of those days. England and France at that time were in a serious struggle as to which superpower would dominate North America, and the Native Americans were caught in the middle of it all.

In 1776, the year that our country was founded, there were many groups of Native Americans all over present-day Ohio. By the time Ohio became a state in 1803, very few remained. Where did they all go, in just 27 short years?

About a thousand years before the Iroquois and Erie peoples battled for the land now known as Ohio, the Mound Builders occupied much of the Midwest. Yes, there were many mounds, even here in Northeast Ohio, although the majority of the remaining mounds are in the Central and Southern parts of the state. Hopewell, Fort Ancient, and Adena are names given to these mound building cultures, although, in truth, their original names are lost to history. There are also old Native American stories concerning the demise of the Mound Builders by
"Serpent-People" from the South. Possibly, this group of "Serpent-People" took over the land from the Mound Builders, and this may be the hidden symbolism of the Serpent Mound in Southern Ohio.

After the demise of the Eries, the better part of Ohio came under control of the Iroquois. The Lakewood area had a number of "Indian" trails. In the first place, the old, former shorelines of the receding Lake Erie were natural trails, with few encumbrances to get in the way of the many active war and hunting parties of the Five, and later, Six Nations. (The Tuscararoras later allied with the Iroquois.) Present-day streets like Clifton and Detroit were often part of those former beaches of the shrinking Great Lake, and therefore made excellent passageways for Native Americans. It is well known that today's Warren Road was also an old trail.

Other Native peoples populated this area too. Yendats (or Wyandots), Shawnee, and Eastern tribes like the Delaware came into this area for the fine hunting, as well as to avoid the onrush of "civilization." When the United States defeated the British, the new Americans eagerly anticipated opening up the Ohio Country. This was easier said than done.

In many ways, there was great cooperation and mutual benefit in the beginning between Whites and Native Americans in this area. Trade in furs gave an immense economic boost to both groups, although the Native Americans began to lose much of their culture and identity.

Eventually, conflicts arose, and these turned bloody very quickly. Hundreds of killings and kidnappings occurred on both sides, and brutal murders by guns, knives and tomahawks turned dialogue and peacemaking into broken dreams. Bitter stories tell about the use of biological warfare, with smallpox-infested blankets killing off countless Ohio Native Americans (supposedly given to them at peace talks!). The stories of Tecumseh, Blue Jacket, Anthony Wayne, and The Battle of Fallen Timbers (in an area near Toledo) all serve to document the sad end of Native American efforts to hold onto Ohio. By the early 1800's, the few Native American groups left in Ohio were confined to reservations west of the Cuyahoga River.

After a time, the American government, pressured by military and business interests, decided that Native groups must move west of the Mississippi; so the Indian Removal Act was passed. Every school child knows about the Cherokee Trail of Tears in the South. Less well-known were the many other trails of tears of the other tribes...

The Wyandots were the last to leave Ohio in 1846. They left Upper Sandusky, travelled to Cincinnati, then boarded steamers for their own sad trip to the West-- a climax to what was possibly one of the worst acts of national ethnic cleansing that world had ever seen.

The Methodist Wyandot Mission in Upper Sandusky is a reminder of their former presense there and presents compelling evidence of Methodist assistance to these Native Americans. An early Methodist missionary, John Stewart, was part Black, part White, and part Native American. He was instrumental in helping establish warm relations between the Methodists and the Wyandots.

This past April, The American Indian Intertribal Association joined with Lakewood United Methodist Church to present a Spring/Easter party for Native American children. This marked the first time, to my knowledge, since the Indian Removal Act that an actual Native American activity has been held in Lakewood. It was a personal honor for me to assist with this historic event.

Although officially gone from most of the East for decades, in the 1960's Native Americans were encouraged to move back East to the cities from their reservations. Many did so. Several thousand are presently in the Cleveland area, although this is difficult to measure, since many people are of mixed lineage. In fact, even back in the early days of Ohio history, there were numerous documentations of mixed interracial marriages. After the Removal Act, many of these were probably kept secret, for obvious reasons.

As we welcome Native Americans back in their return to Lakewood, perhaps it would be well to ponder these somber words taken from Hardesty's 1886 Military History of Ohio (in reference to the "Indians" who came after the Mound Builders):

"These invaders are now being driven westward by the march of civilization and as years roll on they will doubtless be blotted from the face of the earth, as their numbers are being rapidly diminished. Is it but a just act of retaliation, ordained by an all-wise Providence?" There are other statements too, in that book: "all attempts at civilization have proved abortive," and "Their nature cannot be changed."

With these words, we find ourselves transported back to a mindset that could justify just about anything... in the name of "progress." Hopefully, these days, our progress will be much better.
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Volume 2, Issue 15, Posted 10:10 PM, 06.24.06