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Strange Works and Stranger Ways

The life of these tribes, their homes, food, clothes, tools and weapons, their domestic customs, their manner of marriage, warfare, and burial, are all strange to the conceptions of our time. Luckily the Jesuits, who lived among the Huron at a slightly later period, have given us a full and graphic account of their works and ways, an account whose completeness and reliability render almost superfluous the abundant corroboration of modern archaeological research.

The typical Huron house consisted of a scaffolding of saplings, about thirty feet in length, breadth and height, and covered over with sheets of bark. Doors opened at opposite ends, and on entering one saw a single room with broad shelves four feet from the ground, running along the wall on either hand, as in a large sleeping car. Fires were built on the earthen floor down the center of the room, and the smoke filtered out through a hole in the roof. At night such a Huron lodge would be like a glimpse of hell, a chaos of fire and smoke, with dark, naked bodies strewn around amid a bedlam of shrieking children and snarling dogs. In some of the larger villages, a house was sometimes extended to many times its normal length and here the infernal confusion was even worse confounded. From twenty to one hundred families would be mingled together in a welter of noisy lawlessness, in which privacy, restraint and decency were inconceivable.

Their staple food was Indian corn, without salt, prepared in a variety of unpleasant forms. Dog flesh was highly prized and easily obtained, while the more elusive venison and bear meat were reserved for times of special feasting. Human flesh was also devoured whenever they were fortunate enough to capture some of their enemies. There was always a prelude of torture, after which the bodies were divided and boiled in kettles. On a single occasion in 1639, one hundred Iroquois prisoners were added to the Huron dietary. The Jesuit missionaries at St. Joseph, twelve miles west of Orillia, were repeatedly urged to join in the feast, and their hosts even threw a cooked portion in through their chapel door.

Agriculture was the foundation of the Huron system of society, yet their methods were very primitive. The land was cleared by alternate burnings and choppings around the base of each individual tree. The charred stumps were left in place and the squaws scratched the ground between them with hoes of wood and bone. The crop consisted of corn, beans, pumpkins, tobacco, hemp and sunflowers. The sunflowers were used only for the purpose of securing hair oil from their seeds. This hair oil constituted the complete summer costume of one of the Grey County tribes.

The general dress of the Huron was, however, more adequate, and was formed of skins, cured with smoke. The men in summer re-trenched to moccasins and a breech clout; but the women were commended by the Jesuits for the modesty of their attire. Girls at dances were the only notorious exception. In winter, the warriors donned tunics and leggings of skin, and on occasions of ceremony wrapped themselves in robes of beaver or otter fur, embroidered with porcupine quills.

Huron women lived most unlovely lives. A youth of wantonness passed quickly into an old age of drudgery. Romantic love and courtship, occasionally ascribed to these people by irresponsible sentimentalists in our own day, were smothered out in the hot, dissolute shamelessness of the crowded lodge. Marriage was usually temporary and experimental, and consisted in a girl's acceptance of a gift of wampum. Divorce could be secured at the whim of either party, and as the gifts were never returned, attractive and enterprising girls often amassed a ,great store of wampum. Before passing final judgment on such customs, we would do well to remember that equal licentiousness exists in the modern State of California, where the nominally civilized white population have long recorded two divorces to every five marriages.

Once a mother and established as a permanent wife, the Huron woman became a household drudge, sowing maize, tilling the charred earth, harvesting, collecting firewood, smoking fish, curing skins, and making clothing. All pottery was of her manufacture. For this, she would take suitable clay, and knead it thoroughly with her hands and feet, adding betimes some such tempering material as pulverized shells, quartz, or mica. The resultant paste would then be rolled out into long snakelike strips and these carefully coiled up into the form of a pot. As the vessel took shape it was continually smoothed and fashioned inside and out by the bare hand moistened with water. The finished product was a globular urn with a constricted neck and a decorated collar. For its final hardening, it was dried and then baked in coals from the fire.

The men's manufactures included their homes, their tools and weapons of flint, their pipes, and their birch bark canoes. The fashioning of flint was a quick and simple process. The fragments of stone were first secured by lighting a fire on the bedrock and then throwing cold water on the heated surface. Then from the hollow shaft of a goose quill would be formed an instrument like a medicine dropper or a fountain pen filler, and to its upper end was lashed an animal's bladder filled with cold water. The prospective tomahawk or spearhead was next heated in the fire and held between two sticks while the flint worker touched it here and there with the cold, moist quill tip and splintered off the flakes of rock with great skill and greater rapidity. Some writers have in the past claimed that the cold flint was shaped with a small chisel of bone, but Indians themselves have assured me that the "heat and water method" was the only genuine, as well as the only practicable, system in existence. Five flint workshops have been located in Victoria County, as follows:

(1) . On the south west corner of Ghost Island, Balsam Lake.
(2). On Lot 5, South Portage Road, Bexley, on a flat bank near Grass River.
(3). On Block C, Bexley, on the shore of Balsam Lake near the Trent Canal entrance.
(4). On the west and south shores of Bobcaygeon Island.
(5). On Lot 9, Con. 1, Fenelon.

Another product of masculine ingenuity was the wampum. This was a mysterious fabric of white and purple beads made from the inner parts of certain sea shells from the Gulf of Mexico. Wampum was used for necklaces, collars and bracelets by girls at dances. t also served as currency, and for the confirmation of treaties. The tribal records were likewise kept in strings of wampum, and in such cases beads of different colors and sizes were taken to represent certain syllables, thus making the wampum the equivalent of a written language. Certain men in each tribe were trained to an understanding of this mnemonic system and even today a few individuals remain who can "read the wampums."

In summer and autumn the men would engage in their more serious employment, fishing from their birch canoes with bone hooks or hempen nets, hunting for deer, trading wampum and corn for the fish and furs of their nomad Algonquin neighbors on the north, or risking their lives on some far-off foray into the territory of their enemies. But before the New Year all would be gathered in their villages for the winter season of idleness. Gambling, smoking, feasting and dancing now took up their time. Their gambling was a primitive "crap" game played with plum stones or wooden lozenges or even with discs of pottery. No limits existed in their reckless betting, and a man often staked and lost his weapons, his clothes, and his wife. Feasting was entered upon almost as desperately and a Huron host would frequently sink all his substance in providing one superlative banquet to the entire village.

One of the most remarkable customs of the Huron was their Feast of the Dead, held every twelve years. As individuals died from time to time, their bodies were either buried in the earth in a crouching posture or strapped on a scaffold in a tree. These obsequies were, however, only temporary, and at intervals of twelve years all the corpses of the tribe were brought together and buried in one large, circular pit. The Jesuit Fathers were eye witnesses of one of these ghastly celebrations, and have left us their report. Each village first exhumed its dead, and carefully scraped the bones of all except the most recent corpses. These hideous relics were then suspended from the rafters of homes while mourners held a funeral feast beneath them. They then set out for the central burying place of the tribe, marching along the forest paths with their carrion and bundles of bones on their shoulders. When all the villages had assembled, funeral games were held and orations made by the chiefs. Then all complete corpses were carefully ranged around the bottom of the pit and the loose bones thrown in pellmell on top amid indescribable clamor and lamentation. Finally logs, earth and stones were thrown on top and the unearthly shrieking subsided into a despairing chant.

Four of these ossuaries have been located within a sixteen-mile radius of Lindsay, as follows:
(1). On the west half of Lot 10, Concession 1, Fenelon, on the top of a sandy hill about a quarter of a mile east of Goose Lake. This was first opened in the 'seventies by the late Dr. Hart of Cannington, the late A. B. Coates, of Cambray, and his son, Mr. G. R. B. Coates.
(2). On Lot 28, Concession 8, Verulam, owned by Mr. R. C. Devitt. This pit, however, is likely to contain the Indians slain in battle in comparatively recent times, for iron tomahawks were found in it and tradition tells of a nearby conflict in Mississaga times.
(3). On Lot 3, Concession 11, Manvers, two miles from Scugog Lake in a line due east from Washburn's Island. This lot is on Mr. Thos. Syer's farm. The ossuary was opened about thirty years ago and contained several hundred skeletons.
(4). Five miles east of the Syer ossuary, on Lot 18, Concession 8, Manvers, owned by Mr. R. Fallis. This burial pit is on a high, gravelly hill and was grown over with trees from three to four centuries in age.

It was first investigated in the early 'forties by Mr. Thos. Graham and Mr. Peter Preston. General Sir Sam Hughes also excavated here in 1871. The contents of the pit were estimated at one thousand skeletons. Both this ossuary and the one on the Syer farm are indubitable specimens of the Huron period.

Such were the customs and manners of the Huron when the French first found them in Simcoe County in 1615, and such, undoubtedly, had been the customs and manners of those living in Victoria County a few years before.

But Victoria was soon to be depopulated. The Iroquois Confederacy in New York State was developing such societal concentration and warlike ferocity as to menace the existence of all its neighbors. In 1595, according to Lescarbot, a war party of Iroquois wiped away all tribes from the St. Lawrence Valley. This great danger doubtless forced the retirement of the Rock and Deer Huron to the west of Lake Simcoe, as well as the development there of the large palisaded towns so common in Simcoe County but apparently so rare in the more peaceful era when Victoria County was occupied.

Annals of the Red Man

Victoria County


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