The Origins of the Wyandots
The story of the Wyandot Nations is both heroic and bitter. Once among the greatest of Indian tribes in northeast America, a warrior race whose influence reached from Canada to Kentucky, the Wyandots were betrayed by time, circumstance, and the White man. Today, more than three hundred years after their Golden Age, the Huron Indian Cemetery and Huron Place mark the worldly end of their last great dream.
The history of the Wyandot begins in legend in common with other related tribes they claim descent from the first dwellers on the Great Island (North America). The Great Island was formed for them on the back of a turtle. Hence the name Wyandot may be translated "People of the Island" but also has the meaning "Turtle People."
When Europeans first encountered them in 1534, about 70,000 Wyandots were living in Ontario, divided into three groups or confederacies of tribes named Huron, Petun, and Neutral by the French. The name Huron, meaning "bristly-haired," was the name by which they were remembered in the works of James Fenimore Cooper and by the English who died by their hand in the French and Indian Wars. South and west were other related peoples, including the Confederated Five Tribes calling themselves "The People of the Longhouse" who were living in New York. This group the French named the Iroquois.
Early in the 17th century the Wyandots reached the height of their power. They dwelt in numerous towns and villages in southern Ontario in sturdy bark-covered houses usually surrounded by a defensive palisade. They lived principally by trading and agriculture, as well as by hunting and fishing. Their crops of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco
were in part exchanged for furs brought by the Ottawa from farther north.
The Wyandot believe the supernatural powers of the world above included the sun, moon, wind and the thunderers. The Milky Way was regarded as the Path of Souls. Celebrations of special significance included the Green Corn ceremony; Sun or "War" Dance; Blackberry Feast in honor of the Moon; and the Great Feast of the Dead, in which the graves of those who had died since the last feast were opened and the remains reburied in one common pit. This aided the progress of the departed souls.
By the 1800's, the tribe was divided into ten clans, membership passing from mother to child. Every clan had an animal totem as its distinguishing sign. These are represented, one above each of these ten plaques, according to kinship: Big Turtle, Small Turtle, Prairie Turtle, Hawk, Deer, Snake, Bear, Porcupine, Beaver, and Wolf.
Households may have camped, migrated and traveled in clan order. Although the tribal organization was essentially democratic, some clans were deemed "royal", in that the head chief was chosen from Deer or Bear Clan, the tribal herald and sheriff from among the men of the Wolf. Usually the eldest woman was the nominal head of each household within the clan. Chiefs of the council were selected on the basis of clan affiliation, and these women had a voice in their selection.
The Coming of the French
The arrival of the French, valued as allies and for the goods they brought to trade, in reality brought disaster, for they brought European diseases too, often resulting in the near-extinction of the villages they visited. The French traders tried to divert all the northern furs into their hands. The Iroquois tried to peacefully restore their supply of furs and while the Wyandots were willing, the French were not.
Finally the Iroquois attempted to displace French influence and restore the northern trade by force. Wyandot canoe brigades and trading parties were attacked and those frontier towns containing Frenchmen were burned. In 1649 the Iroquois struck deep into Wyandot territory in two major raids, each time burning principal villages and killing the Frenchmen they found in them. The Huron Confederacy, diminished by disease and weakened by internal dissesion [sic], disintegrated under the Iroquois attack.
The Flight Westward
Huron-Wyandots dispersed in many directions - to their Petun and Neutral kin, to their Ottawa allies and even to the Iroquois. Those that stayed with the French were terribly reduced by famine through the following winter. They moved to Quebec in 1650 where their descendents, the Hurons of Lorette, still reside.
The Petun Confederacy, also reduced by disease and disheartened by the loss of their principal town to the Iroquois, left Ontario in 1650, spending the first winter on Mackinac Island and moving in 1651 with their allies to an island in Green Bay.
The Neutral Confederacy was so named by the French because they took no active part in the wars between their Wyandot and Iroquois kin. But in 1651 the Neutral-Wyandots were attacked by the Iroquois and dispersed. Some moved to Green Bay and joined the Wyandots there, losing their separate neutral identity. Others fled south to Ohio. Thus was the Nation scattered into two groups.
The Northern Wyandots moved from Green Bay inland, reached the Mississippi, turned north and emerged at Chequamegon on Lake Superior in Sioux country. Here, again in contact with the French they and their Ottawa allies resumed the fur trade. In 1671, after provoking their Sioux hosts into antagomism, they moved to Michilimackinac. In 1701 they moved again, to the new French outpost of Detroit.
The Catholic mission there was named "The Mission of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Among the Hurons," and their French name was given to one of the Great Lakes.
Wars for a Continent
The British colonists opposed to French expansion were alarmed at the establishment of Detroit. Too remote and weak to dislodge the French themselves, an ally was found in Chief Nicholas of the Ohio Wyandots, who planned to remove all the French, beginning at Detroit. In this he failed, succeeding only in burning the Assumption Mission church in 1747.
From this time on, the Wyandots were enmeshed in the trade, politics, and wars of the dominant powers. The Northern Wyandots were staunch allies of the French against the British, often with prominence, as with the defeat of General Braddock near Fort Duquesne in 1755. After the British occupied Detroit in 1760, the Wyandots accepted the new regime. Other Indians under Chief Pontiac of the Ottawas did not, compelling the Wyandots, by force, to join his plan to massacre the new garrison. When Pontiac's Rebellion failed, the Wyandots were the first to ask for peace.
When the American Revolution began, the Wyandots found themselves allied to their ancient enemies the Iroquois in a common cause with the British. After peace was signed in 1783 they carried on the war, defeating in 1790 and 1791 American armies sent against them. In 1794 the power of the allied Indians was broken by General Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. All but one of the participating Wyandot war chiefs are said to have been killed. White settlers swarmed onto the vast tracks [sic - tracts] of land the Indians ceded in 1795 at the ensuing Treaty of Greenville.
When war broke out in 1812, Wyandots from Michigan and Canada, led by Walk-In-The-Water and Roundhead, joined the Shawnee chief Tecumseh in supporting the British cause, while other Wyandots from Michigan and Ohio remained neutral or joined the Americans. This last major attempt at a unified Indian resistance was crushed at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and Tecumseh himself was slain at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. In recognition of their assistance to the government the Ohio Wyandots were given a grist mill and a saw mill on the Sandusky River.
The Wyandot Reserve
By the Fort Meigs Treaty of 1817 and the Treaty of St. Mary's in 1818, the U.S. Wyandots surrendered all their remaining lands in Ohio and Michigan except for two small reserves and the Grand Reserve of 12 by 19 miles in north-western Ohio. By the time they settled their smallpox and almost two hundred years of war had reduced their number to a scant 700 souls.
The Wyandots had long made a practice of adopting white captives into the tribe and adoption by marriage occurred as well, with many of these whites achieving positions of prominence in the tribe. This was the source of the English sounding names found here in the Huron Cemetery. Surrounded by White men, they lived with them peacefully, adopting their culture, language and religion.
In 1816 there came to the Wyandots a Black man, a freeborn mulatto named John Stewart. Frail and slender, he had a gift for oratory that charmed the Wyandots for whom declamation was a highly regarded art. One of those characters like Johnny Appleseed that gave the old Northwest Territory its unique flavor, Stewart was a regenerate sinner who was determined to convert the Indian.
As a Black man, Stewart would have found it perilous to minister to any of the frontier towns of the 19th century,
but among the Wyandots who knew only toleration in adopting both Blacks and Whites into the tribe, he was a charismatic success.
Chiefs of the tribe requested that the Methodist Episcopal Church grant Stewart a license and aid in building a school. The church soon martialed men and monies in support of his work. A Methodist mission was established among the Ohio Wyandots, the first Methodist mission in North America, and there followed a struggle that would determine the future of the tribe.
A schism developed in the Wyandots between the Methodist and non-Methodist chiefs. In one dramatic confrontation, Chief De-Un-Quot and his traditionalist supporters, resplendent in buckdeer dewclaws, paint and feathers, invaded the huckabuck and linen world of a Methodist Indian meeting to argue religion to a standstill. But increasingly, the missionary forces gained control. As the hunting lands of the Wyandots dwindled, so did the power and esteem of the traditional way of life.
The Last Battle
In 1830 the Indian Removal Act provided for all eastern Indians to be "removed" west to Indian territory. Tribe after tribe of the Ohio allies departed until only the Wyandots were left. While the alternative remained of moving to Canada, the Wyandots resisted the pressure to move west, agreeably sending inspectors to the new lands in 1831 and 1834 to report them unsuitable. In 1832 and 1836 they made conciliatory land sales to appease the Ohio Whites. By one account, they resisted government attempts to resettle them sixteen different times. One of the inspectors they sent west to survey the land proposed for resettlement was William Walker, Jr. Along the way, Walker helped to change the course of history.
He accomplished this with a mere letter, surely one of the great documents of American history, reprinted in the Christian Advocate and Journal and widely read up and down the East Coast. He painted in poignant detail the plight of the Northwest Indians crying in the wilderness for Christian teaching.
Through this letter Walker provided a great impetus to the sense of Manifest Destiny and sent surging across America a zeal for the salvation of souls in distant lands. Selfless men and women picked up from their comfortable homes and went west to Oregon to succor the Indians and in their wake went the whole great tide of westward migration.
In 1842, disheartened by the murder of the chief Summundowat and his family, the Wyandots succumbed to pressure to follow other resettled tribes from Ohio to Kansas. The Ohio Wyandots were joined in the emigration by kinsmen from Michigan and Canada when they began their journey on July 12, 1843. By the terms of a treaty signed in that year, the Wyandots were to receive 148,000 acres of land in the west, $17,500 annuity with $500 annually for the support of a school and the payment of tribal debts in the amount of $23,000. Many terms of the treaty were never fulfilled.
Originally, the Wyandots were granted land in southeast Kansas. The territory known everywhere east of St. Louis as the "Great American Desert," was thought to be no great bargain. It was considered unfit for civilized habitation, an opinion with which the Wyandots agreed, and consequently they made arrangements to purchase land near Westport from their old allies the Shawnee.
But when the Wyandots arrived here in 1843 after an 800-mile trek from their Ohio homes, the Shawnees refused to sell and fever and hardship began taking its toll on
their meagre number. In desperation they bought 36 sections of land from the Delaware Indians, also a resettled tribe. The Delaware were reminded that when they were homeless their Wyandot brothers had "spread the deerskin" for them and made them welcome. The Wyandot Purchase forms the heart of the present Kansas City, Kansas.
Their first mark on the land was the Huron Indian Cemetery: between 100 and 200 graves date from that first tragic year. By April 1844 they had completed a log meetinghouse located near the present intersection of Twenty-third Street and Washington Boulevard. This was soon followed by a parsonage said to have been the first frame structure in Wyandotte County, and by a school on the east side of Fourth Street, between State and Nebraska Avenues.
For a time, the Wyandots found a new vigor and sense of purpose in their town at the bend of the Missouri. The 1850's saw the Indian nation strike a bold and original blow for freedom and self-preservation. The Wyandots saw that their land was crucial to the coming transcontinental railroads and realized, too, that the organization of a territorial government would strengthen their position. On October 12, 1852, an election was held in the Council House of the Wyandot Nation and Abelard Guthrie, a Wyandot by adoption, was elected delegate to Congress, though the House of Representatives refused to seat him.
In this way the Wyandots seized the political initiative in the territory. The following year, in their traditional role of Keepers of the Council Fire, they convened a Council of all emigrant Indian tribes at Wyandott. At this convention the allied tribes forged a complete territorial government and elected William Walker Provisional Governor. Unhappily, this, the first provisional territorial government cast wholly by Indians, was rejected by Congress in 1854. Walker's pro slavery sympathies, though
a minority opinion among the Wyandots, brought into the open the future of slavery in the territory, a factor in the subsequent repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the secession of the pro slavery states and the resulting civil war.
The dispute over slavery had already severely divided the Wyandot. In 1847 their Methodist church was split in two by pro and antislavery factions, and both churches were burned by mobs on April 8, 1856.
In 1854 Congress had enacted the Kansas-Nebraska Act throwing the territory open to settlement with scant regard for the guarantees so recently made to the Indians there. Against the strong opposition of Chief Tauromee, the Wyandots reluctantly agreed in 1855 to a treaty terminating the tribe's existence. The tribal lands were allotted to individuals on receipt of which they became U.S. citizens. Many were quickly deprived of their lands and proceeds by trickery and illegally imposed taxes. Fortunately, a provision for deferment of loss of Indian status postponed the total extinction of the tribe.
As part of this historic treaty, the Huron Cemetery on this spot was to be preserved forever. This would have been only one more empty promise, were it not for the efforts of the Conley sisters, Eliza, Helena, and Ida, descendants of one of the oldest Wyandot families and as proud and strong-willed as any of their ancestors. In 1906 Congress provided for sale of the cemetery, contrary to treaty. Congress reckoned without the three Conleys, however, who took possession of the cemetery, padlocked the iron gate, and built a six-by-eight shanty over the graves, arming themselves with their father's shotgun and standing off both government and realtors.
Eliza Conley, a lawyer, became the first woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court while pressing the fight through legal channels. In the end it was public opinion, mobilized by the last stand of the Conley sisters, that saved this historic ground.
The Final Journey
Many Wyandots adapted to the treaty's terms and some, such as Silas Armstrong, played important roles in the growing city. In 1856 a number of prominent Wyandots including Armstrong joined with Westport business men in platting the city of Wyandott, incorporated in 1859. Thus the present Kansas City, Kansas has an unbroken link to that first settlement in 1843, but many of the Wyandots were dispersed, some to the Huron Reserve in Canada, and about 200, led by Chief Matthew Mudeater, accepted an offer of refuge on the Seneca lands in Oklahoma. In 1857 the Senecas assigned the Wyandots a 20,000 acre parcel for a permanent home. After the Civil War the Wyandots who had retained Indian status by defering [sic] citizenship were joined by many of the disillusioned new citizens who wanted to become Indians again. In 1867 a new treaty regularized the situation, confirming the legal existence of the Wyandotte tribe and their title to the former Seneca lands. This enabled the citizens to be adopted back into the tribe in 1877 with full restoration of Indian status.
The tribe was reorganized as the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma in 1915. The most recent tribal census of 1956 lists 1,157 Wyandottes with 948 descendents living in 27 states and Canada. As a member of the Eight Tribe Inter-Tribal Council, Inc., the Wyandotte tribe still plays, in modern form, a role reminiscent of the ancient alliances even though they are no longer the Keepers of the Council Fire. The Wyandottes were restored as a federally recognized supervised tribe by order of President James E. Carter on May 15, 1978.
The legacy they have left us is a rich one; the first free school in Kansas, the first territorial government, landmarks in Indian civil rights, the opening of the West, and an abiding instinct for toleration and democracy.
The Huron · Wyandot Migration
1. 1534-43...Cartier contact at Quebec and Montreal
2. 1615...Champlain contact at Lake Simcoe.
3.4. 1649-53...War of extermination of the Wyandots by Indians of the Iroquois Confederacy, Wyandots flee to Upper Michigan and Ohio.
5. 1671...Majority settle at Michilimackinac.
6. 1701...Establish villages at French outpost of Detroit.
7. 1730...Ohio Wyandots settle along Upper Sandusky River.
8. 1755-63... French and Indian wars - French and Indians led by Wyandots defeat General Braddock and George Washington at Fort Duquesne.
9.10. 1763-66...Join N.W. Confederacy under Pontiac to fight encroaching whites. Pontiac's Rebellion fails and the Wyandots are further fragmented.
11. War of 1812...Wyandots who maintain neutrality are granted a Reserve at Upper Sandusky, Ohio.
12. 1842-43...Sell reservation to U.S. Government and purchase what is now part of Kansas City, Kansas from the Delawares.
13. 1855...Cede tribal status for U.S. citizenship and land except for those who emigrate to Oklahoma.