Niagara Falls History - Indians & Early Exploration

Niagara Falls' Horseshoe Falls The first humans, the Clovis people, arrived in Niagara Region almost 12,000 years ago, around the time of the birth of the Falls, when the land was tundra with spruce forests. These nomadic hunters camped along the old Lake Erie shoreline, in small dwellings, and left little behind except chipped stones, likely used to hunt caribou, mastodons, moose and elk.

By 9,500 years ago deciduous forest covered southernmost Ontario, supporting wildlife like deer, moose, fish and plants, enabling small groups to hunt in the winter, coming together into larger groups during the summer, to fish at shorelines and at the mouths of rivers.

About 2,000 years ago, the Woodland Period brought Iroquois culture in southern Ontario. These peoples began agriculture based on crops of corn, bean and squash, which supported a boom in population and a rich culture with small palisaded villages in which extended families occupied individual longhouses. They developed ceramics technology and forged strong inter-village alliances.

By the time the European explorers and missionaries arrived in the early 1600s, the Iroquoian villages had elected chiefs and were allied within powerful tribal confederacies. The Neutral Indians were the leaders of a group of ten tribes of the Iroquois Nation. Other tribes included the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Huron, Petun, Erie and the Susquehannock. The French explorers , gave this Indian tribe the name "Neutrals", because of their position and status as peace keepers between the warring Hurons and Iroquois. Unfortunately, inter-tribal warfare was made worse by the intrusion of the Europeans.

In May 1535, Jacques Cartier left France to explore the New World, and was told by the Indians he met along the St.Lawrence River about Niagara Falls. When Samuel de Champlain visited Canada in 1608, he too heard the stories, but it was Etienne Brule, who in 1615 was the first European to see the Falls as well as explore Lakes Ontario, Erie Huron and Superior. He was followed shortly by the Recollet missionary explorers, and a decade later by the Jesuits. It was a Jesuit father, Gabriel Lalemant, who first recorded the Iroquios name for the river- Onguiaahra, meaning "the Strait". "Niagara" is a simplification of the original.

In 1641 the Onguiaahra Indians (also called the "Neutral" Indians) were the predominant tribe along the Niagara River. The French initiated a fur- trade rivalry between the Huron and Iroquois, which turned into a 6 year long Indian war which pushed the Huron Nation to the north and scattered them throughout Ontario. The Iroquois moved into the Niagara area, pushing the Neutral Indians eastward to the area of Albany, New York. The wars also managing to keep Europeans settlers away until after the American Revolution.

On December 7th 1678, Jesuit Priest Father Louis Hennepin, and the great explorer La Salle established an outpost at the mouth of the Chippawa Creek at the Niagara River. The next day they saw the Falls and Father Louis Hennepin made a sketch of it, published in a 1699 book entitled "New Discovery" (first French edition 1697). He estimated their height to be 183 metres, more than three times what it really is.

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