Droulers/Tsiionhiakwatha Archaeological Site Interpretation Center
Virtual Museum of Canada

The Iroquoian People

The Iroquoian People

Man sitting on the ground inside a longhouse manipulating projectile points to make arrows.

Man manipulating projectile points

Between 1300 and 1500 of our era, some 25 nations speaking Iroquoian languages lived in the St. Lawrence Valley and the eastern region of the Great Lakes. One of these nations was represented by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, whose communities were spread over a vast territory that extended from Lake Ontario all the way to the St. Lawrence Estuary. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were encountered by Jacques Cartier when he visited Hochelaga (today Montreal) in 1535, but they seemed to have completely deserted the Montreal region by the time Champlain arrived there in 1611.

Archaeology has contributed greatly our understanding of Iroquoian populations. Archaeological and linguistic research carried out in the past few years strongly suggests that people known as the St. Lawrence Iroquoians – a name given to them by archaeologists and ethnohistorians – corresponded to a network of groups that were more closely related with each other than they were with other Iroquoians like the Huron-Wendats, Petuns or the Five Nation Iroquois. Thus the St. Lawrence Iroquoians met by Cartier were distinct from the above-mentioned Iroquoian nations encountered by Europeans in the 17th century. Information about the St. Lawrence Iroquoian populations comes not only from Cartier's description of the first villages he saw, but also from various archaeological sites (villages and camps) attesting to a continuous Iroquoian presence in various places throughout the St. Lawrence Lowlands. The information gathered so far illustrates the geo-political complexity of human occupations in the St. Lawrence Valley before the arrival of the first Europeans.

Decorated vase sherd of the Late Woodland period decorated with punctation marks.

Decorated vase sherd

The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were a semi-sedentary people, who practised a corn-based agriculture and engaged in horticulture to grow beans, squash, tobacco and sunflowers. They lived in palisaded villages that contained several longhouses. The men were responsible for clearing the land needed to set up villages and lay out fields, but also built the longhouses, erected the palisades and made birch bark canoes, dugout canoes and snowshoes. Hunting and fishing, as well as trade and diplomatic expeditions, were almost exclusively masculine activities. The women, in addition to helping to clear the land, prepared and sowed the seeds, cared for and harvested the crops, processed the corn and stored surpluses. The women also prepared meals, collected firewood, drew water, gathered wild plants and made clothing, fishnets and baskets. They were skilful potters and produced ceramic vessels that were used for storing and cooking food. Playing a pivotal role in the Iroquoians' social organization, women also saw to the upbringing of children.

Reproduction of a drill made of stone, wood and leather.

Reproduction of a drill

While the men spent most of their time hunting game for meat, hides and fur, the women took care of almost all the activities having to do with agriculture and horticulture. This division of work was a new development and, as it became more complex, it led to the adoption of a system of matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence. Among Iroquoian populations, the family line was passed from mother to daughter, and after marriage men normally went to live in their wife's village. An individual's social identity was established in three ways: the household, the matrilineal line and the clan. A longhouse was home to a certain number of families related by the same maternal line and belonging the same clan, generally associated with a mythical ancestor who took the form of an totemic animal (bear, tortoise, deer, wolf, etc.). Within a household, the oldest woman held the position of "clan mother" and decided on matters having to do with the social and economic organization of the group. Along with the other clan mothers, she also took part in selecting and dismissing civil and spiritual chiefs.

Between 1300 and 1500 of our era, St. Lawrence Iroquoians occupied morainic ridges in the Saint-Anicet region. The presence of these early agriculturalists is attested by remains that have been identified on numerous sites in the region. Four of these sites – Berry, McDonald, Droulers/Tsiionhiakwatha and Mailhot-Curran – are particularly important. The Berry and McDonald sites are the oldest known Iroquoian sites, dating from the beginning of the 14th century, while the Mailhot-Curran site has revealed evidence of a later occupation, dating from the middle of the 16th century. The Droulers/Tsiionhiawatha site, the largest in the region, was occupied in the 15th century and several longhouses have been identified on it. The remains of these longhouses contain thousands of pottery sherds, pipe fragments, bone artifacts (beads, awls, harpoons and needles) and ground stone implements (celts (axes), millstones and pestles), as well as traces of food in numerous storage pits and middens, or rubbish heap. The material culture unearthed on the Droulers/Tsiionhiakwatha site makes it clear that the people who lived there formed an integral part of the patchwork of Iroquoian societies living in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence area. There is not the slightest hint of the changes that would occur by the following century.

Did you know?

Did you know?

The dispersion of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians and their absence from the St. Lawrence Valley at the beginning of the 17th century remains the object of many hypotheses to this day. One cause may have been epidemics that resulted in Iroquoian populations becoming slowly isolated.

As well, the Iroquoians were involved in numerous wars – particularly over the fur trade – at the time Europeans arrived. Together, these factors may have caused the St. Lawrence Iroquoians to gradually disperse and be absorbed into other communities, such as the Hurons, Abenakis and Iroquois.

Even now, the true story of what actually happened to the Iroquoians of Saint-Anicet remains a mystery.