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The Iroquoian Raid of Manitoulin Island

In efforts to control the fur trade, the Iroquois tribe used many different tactics to block trade to the English and French. The Iroquoians, in 1652, raided the largest freshwater island in the world, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. The island was inhabited by three sub-tribes of the Ottawa. After the annihilation of multiple Huron settlements in the Penta tang peninsula, the Iroquois headed to Manitoulin Island in the north region of Lake Huron. With the use of unconventional geurilla style battle tactics the Iroquois were a force to be reckoned with. The Iroquoians were feared by many due to their infamously relentless reputation.

Early Iroquoian Tribe (WSBS)

Conflict Is Everywhere

In the mid 17th century, war was not a stranger to anyone on earth. At this time, thousands of tribes, states, confederations, and countries were on a seemingly nonstop war path in hopes of gaining freedoms, wealth, territory, and natural resources. In the north east of what is now the United States of America, Indian tribes all over the terrain were consistently in skirmishes to keep their land and resources. One particular conflict took place on a great lakes island known as Manitoulin island, where the Iroquoian tribe made quick work of the island’s inhabitants.

Manitoulin Island Map (Grand Trunk)

Manitoulin Island (before the raid) was inhabited by many tribes of the Ottawa peoples. The main Ottawan tribes that accounted for the majority of the early population on the island were the Oddawa, Ojibwe, and the Potawatomi tribes. They were on the island for many years in a state primarily consisting of peace until about 1640 when there was Indian conflict all over the continent. Just one decade later the peoples of this great lakes island would be exterminated from Manitoulin by the brute force of the Iroquoians during their raid. The island went from a settlement, a home for the Ottawans, to a vast wasteland tattered and destroyed by Iroquoian hand in a matter of days.

The Iroquois: Behavior, Tactics, and Recent Events

From about 1630 to 1640 the Iroquois along with many other tribes were plagued with disease. “Apparently the epidemic had been carried to the Iroquois by a trading party of six coureurs de bois who, the Dutch were told, had come to the Mohawk River in August of 1634″ (Jameson 1909:149). There is no record of the number of Iroquoian casualties during this plague of smallpox and other fatal diseases. After the disease leveled out and Iroquoian population was beginning to replenish. Many skirmishes and small battles take place for the Iroquois with enemies including the French, Algonquians, and many more. Soon the Iroquois would hit their stride as a hard hitting force of hungry warriors.

The Iroquois had not been playing by the same wartime standards as other tribes and militant forces of the time. They broke treaties, forced thousands of other tribes and peoples to flee their land, and peacetime did not seem to be their ultimate goal. “When a band of Ottawa still left on Manitoulin Island fled to Quebec in 1650, they found the whole country along the French and Ottawa rivers deserted as far as Montreal, on account of Iroquois” (Goodrich 1932 p.400). The Canadian’s descriptions of the Iroquoian methods and mentalities are as follows, “They are termed the ‘Iroquois menace,’ ‘la nuisance’ and ‘le peril iroquois’, the ‘Iroquois peril’ and ‘pillaging’, liked to ‘the pirates of the sea’, all of which at least imply unprovoked hostility or banditry on the part of the Indians.”(Eid 1979 p.310).  They forced the Hurons and the Ottawa peoples out of the surrounding lands forcing them to disperse amongst the Tobacco Hurons, the Erie, neutral nation, and French settlements, amongst others. George T. Hunt gives a theory on the reason for the Iroquoian behavior and actions in the mid 17th century,“He concluded that northeastern Indian tribes, including the Iroquois, attempted to seize a monopoly of the northern and western fur trade in order to control the distribution of French goods. — each tribe sought desperately and tried to maintain by preventing direct “commercial inter- course” by peoples on either side, (Hunt 1967:63). Among many other theories this theory is one often favored by historians due to the significance and economic opportunity that the fur trade entailed. The Iroquoians were likely battling in such a savage manner due to a goal or dream of being the ruler of the fur trade and prospering from it for years to come. Exacting their conquest, the Iroquoian powerhouse set sail for Manitoulin Island.

Iroquois Warriors (Wikipedia)

The Raid

With the fur trade still being debated and ridiculed, the Iroquois set sail for Manitoulin Island where they found the 687,000 acre land mass inhabited by natives primarily of the Ottawa tribe. As was the story in previous Iroquoian encounters, very efficiently, they traveled to each settlement on the island, looting, shooting, and booting any and all the island’s previous inhabitants. The Ottawa peoples were forced to flee out of their land as their war tactics and training were subpar in comparison to “the Iroquois Menace”. The complete disregard for the “morals” and “rules” of war and battle was likely integral in the many Iroquois successes of this nature. They swept the land attaining any and all resources and “enemy” lives along the way. The Iroquois conquered the Ottawans of Manitoulin Island, with little or no friction. This greedy disposition along with having a large force of men gave the Iroquois the edge in nearly every battle, or raid they were involved in. The Iroquois peoples destroyed what was essentially every known establishment during their raid/removal of the Ottawa settlements and people. Following these actions, the Iroquois moved onward, leaving the tattered, vacant island behind them.


With the island deserted, the Iroquoians effectively stripped a massive tribe of Ottawa of their home/land, only to leave the island vacant. The only things that they truly gained from the situation were the few valuable items and resources found raiding the settlements. They also gained more momentum going into the remainder of the beaver wars. After their destruction Manitoulin Island sat in Lake Superior uninhabited for nearly 150 years. It was not until shortly after the war of 1812 that the native peoples returned to the Island. Ottawans, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi tribes were of the people to reclaim the island. The Island was claimed by the British Crown in 1836, and later by Ontario, Canada, as it remains.

Following the destruction of the island before the Huron left the island, the Jesuit Bressani recorded the following said by a Huron chief, whose name was unfortunately not recorded,

“Brother, thine eyes deceive thee when thou lookest at us;Thou thinkest that thou seest living men, and we are nothing but ghosts, and souls of the dead. This Land which Thou treadest is not solid; it will open very soon to swallow us, and to put us among the dead, among whom we therefore already reckon ourselves. This night, in a secret council, it has been resolved to abandon it before it opens. Some retreat to the woods, accounting themselves more secure among the wild beasts than when exposed to the Hiroquois; others are going away, 6 days’ journey toward the North, upon the rocks of the fresh-water sea, in company with the Algonquins; others to New Sweden, 500 miles distant. Still others openly say that they themselves will take their wives and children to the country of the enemies, where they will find many of their captive kinsmen, who exhort them to flight unless they will utterly perish”.

(Thwaites, 1653, 40:53-55)

This quote shows how truly broken down these tribes were, ensuing that many of the people would rather live amongst the fear of the wild beast than the Iroquois people. The aggression of the Iroquois forced the Ottawan and Hurons to many different places, leaving them with a weary unsure future.

“By 1655 the Iroquois scourge had swept the islands of the great lakes clean of inhabitants. A few Hurons had found an asylum among the Conestoga living along the Susquehanna River.”(Goodrich). The Iroquois were still a thriving power for many years to come, continuing their epic conquest of the west. Following the removal of the Ottawans, the Iroquois remained a power in the North controlling much of the fur trade, they continued to conquer land until their eventual agreeance to France’s treaty around 1665 which lasted nearly two decades. The Irooquois at a population about one eight that of the European population in 1660, 75000. The Iroquois had become victims of their own success, and were now helpless against such a significant deficit of people. Finally, the Iroquoian progress in the west was halted. With the help of the Illinois, amongst other tribes, the Ottawa and the Hurons exacted their revenge on the Iroquois tribe. With proper fortification and preparedness, the Iroquois met the end of their reign in the west. “–the Iroquois were badly defeated and their further western progress stopped.” (Goodrich, 1932). This defeat came upon the Iroquois because of the Huron’s ability to overcome the tricky tactics of the Iroquois. “these Hurons were familiar with the military tactics of the Iroquois, and could be depended upon to withstand a determined Iroquois attack.– Radisson expresses the opinion that, if it had not been for the Hurons, “that knewed the Iroquoits’ tricks,” the whole squadron would have fled in dis-may, with a good prospect that the entire party would have been massacred.”. (Goodrich 1932). The Hurons had become familiar enough with Iroquoian style warfare, due to its overwhelming presence in recent years, that they were able to outsmart the Iroquois, and jump start what would become the end of their western conquest.

Conclusion and Discussion

The Iroquois utilized many tactics in warfare that would be viewed by many as immoral or animalistic. Although the recorded history of the events are quite gruesome, the Iroquoians felt that they were fighting for  purpose. They envisioned a life of ease and wealth in the event that they could indefinitely control the fur trade. Whether their actions were solely for economic or personal prosperity, the way that they conquered, and killed for that matter, is what people remember. “There are various kinds of savagery: emotional, spiritual, economic, and cultural savagery”—Don Winslow. The raid of Manitoulin is a conflict not often surfaced or spoken of, although it was a major rung on the Iroquoian ladder to conquering the fur trade in the northeast, as well as maintaining their reputation as a dominant, ruthless force. They eventually were halted by the Hurons and other tribes due to their adaption to Iroquoian war tactics. Conclusively, the raid of Manitoulin Island is a conflict of the northern great lakes that is often swept under the rug in conventional history. It is important to signify the importance of battles and raids of this nature, for they shape many of the political decisions, and actions of war, while not necessarily making a huge impact in well known or common history. The raid on Manitoulin island was a massacre of the Ottawan people that should be noted when speaking of the conquest of the Iroquois peoples to control the fur trade.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

  1. Thwaites, Rueben Gold (ed.)(1959) The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. New York: Pageant Book Co., 72 volumes (reprint).
  2. Beauchamp, William, Martin (1892) The Iroquois Trail, or Footprints, of the Six Nations, in Customs, Tradition, and History
  3. I Contacted the Ontario Historical Society for more primary sources but never got a reply

Secondary Sources

  1. Eid, Leroy V. (1979). “The Ojibwa-Iroquois War: The war the 5 nations did not win,” Ethnohistory 26: p.297-324
  2. Goodrich, Albert M. (1932). “The Radisson Problem: The Prairie Island Case Again,” Minnesota History 13: p.395-402
  3. Putnam, D. F. (1947). “Manitoulin Island,Geographical Review 37: p.649-662
  4. Trigger, Bruce G. (1965). “The Jesuits and the Fur Trade,” Ethnohistory 12: p.30-53

Further Reading