The Neutral Nation
Location of a Neutral fort (today a quarry replaces much of the marsh)
I have been fortunate to know several Native Americans who have gained my respect independent of their antecedents. I am also embarrassed at our checkered history of dealings with these people who were here first. It is, however, inappropriate for us to portray any group as all good any more than we should portray them as all bad, as Native Americans were in those old cowboy movies.
I introduce those reservations at the outset because I will tell in this column the sad story of the Neutral Indian nation, a story that may not reflect well on another regional tribe. I have drawn mostly on Rev. Thomas Donohoe's "The Iroquois and the Jesuits" for this brief history.
The Neutrals, also known as the Neuters, the Attawandaron or the Kahquahs, once lived in a territory encompassing about 150 square miles on both sides of the Niagara River. Their principal villages were in Canada possibly as far away as the Grand River and Sarnia, but before 1650 there were four villages on this side as well: two near Buffalo, one in West Seneca and one in Lewiston.
The name Neutral derives from the tribe's role as a buffer and trader between the tribes of the Iroquois as well as the Erie or Cat Nation and Susquehannas to the south and the Hurons to the north. (James Fenimore Cooper's villain Magua in The Last of the Mohicans was a Huron.) According to Bob Chambers, the Neuters "had somehow managed to take a non-violent stance and remain neutral in the many generations old Iroquois-Huron War. Thus we live in the land of the only known peaceful, non-violent tribe in North America." In fact, Chambers says, only one other such tribe exists in the Western Hemisphere, that one in Equador.
Early documents suggest that the population of the Neutrals declined during the first part of the 17th century from 40,000 to 12,000 due to the devastating effect of famines and the newly arriving European diseases. Worse was to come.
A number of Catholic missionaries visited the Neutrals in the early 1600s as they did other Indian tribes. Some Huron converts to Christianity followed them into Neutral villages, which may have caused the Senecas to believe that the tribe was siding with their northern enemy.
Whether that was true or not, the Senecas followed up a successful campaign against the Hurons by turning on the Neutrals. According to Donohoe, "They sent an army of 1,200 warriors to attack the frontier of the Neuters in the autumn of 1650, and they destroyed one of the large towns." All of its inhabitants were either killed or captured.
Angered by this attack, the Neuters rejected their long-standing peaceful posture and fought back. Donohoe continues: they "gathered all their warriors and transferred the scene of carnage to the land of the Iroquois. They succeeded in killing a large number of the Iroquois, probably near the Genesee River." At that time they evidently erected, according to an historical marker, the only double-palisaded fort in New York, about 3/4 mile east of Salt Road between Blair and Ryan Roads in the Town of Shelby.
However, Donohoe tells us, "the Iroquois patiently waited till spring, when their entire army of warriors crossed the border and made a savage attack upon the Neuter towns. They completely routed the Neuters, burned their towns, and destroyed the entire nation. Many of the Neuters fled, like their Huron brethren, to the islands or bays of the west or south, to seek a new home among some friendly tribe, whilst many more meekly followed their captors to strengthen their army or replenish their numbers."
Thus ended the history of a peaceful nation of our own region. Cooper could have titled another novel, The Last of the Neutrals.-- Gerry Rising
Posted September 12, 2009: Western New York historian Sidney Horton has led me to additional information about the Neutral nation, which extends and in some cases is at variance with what I have reported here. He points out that, while the Neutrals maintained good relations with the Hurons to the North and the Senecas to the East, their relations with other nations were more warlike. In particular he led me to James H. Coyne's The Country of the Neutrals. Coyne's description of the Neutrals places the nation in a larger context: "Friendly as they were to the Hurons and Iroquois, the Neutrals engaged in cruel wars with other nations to the west, particularly the Nation of Fire.... The previous year [apparently 1639] a hundred prisoners had been taken from the latter tribe. This year, returning with 2,000 warriors, the Neutrals had carried off more than 170."