2015 AGM Speaker

The 2015 AGM speaker was past bookstore owner, local historian and past Purple Hills president, Pat Raible. Her fascinating insights into the 17th century daily lives of the Petun Indians brought history alive.


By Pat Raible

An admiring look at the First Nations peoples who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, lived in and near what is present-day Creemore.

Notes of a talk presented by Pat Raible at the Purple Hills Arts & Heritage Society’s Annual Meeting held in Creemore, March 29, 2015, in celebration of the visit made by Samuel de Champlain to the Petuns in January 1616.

Before we adjourn for what I know will be a delicious lunch, I would ask you to take a short walk with me … not literally, but in your minds. Let’s leave the Station on the Green and walk west on Francis Street. At Collingwood Street we’ll turn right (north). We’ll cross the County Road, and go on north up Collingwood Street to the top of the hill, near the reservoir. Let us pause there and look south. We will see a “country full of hill slopes and little level stretches which make it a pleasant land.” I am sure these words will seem familiar to you … you have seen them before, including on the PHAHS historical plaque which celebrates Samuel de Champlain’s visit, in 1616, to the people he referred to as the “Petuns”.

We in PHAHS are keen on our local history – we are, after all, a Heritage as well as an Arts Society – and thanks to Helen Blackburn we know a lot about this history, starting when our 19th century forebears, the Websters and others, settled this area. But several hundred years before these good souls, there were people living and prospering here and near here, from Creemore and on up to Craigleith.

These First Nations people we call the Petun (or Petuns), and this area in which they lived for about seventy years we call “the Petun Country.” These early residents would not have recognized that name. We do not know what name they might have used. We do know (according to their later Jesuit visitors) that their neighbours referred to them as the Tionontaté (various spellings, including my favourite: Khionontaterrhonon).

So why “Petun?” The name, “Petun,” was ascribed to them by Champlain, who had somehow got the impression (perhaps from his Huron hosts) that they were “The Tobacco People.” For Champlain and his French companions, a term for “tobacco” was “petun” (or “petum”). Is this the usual French word for tobacco? Clearly not. Apparently, its origin is from the language of the Tupi-Guarani, a tribe of indigenous people living in South America. Perhaps it was the term used by 16th century Portuguese traders for the tobacco procured from the Tupi-Guarani. Appropriate or inappropriate, “Petun” is the name that has stuck.

Champlain was not here for tobacco – he was here to promote TRADE. And of particular importance in the early 17th century was the FUR TRADE. Fur was of great value to 16th and 17th century Europeans, for clothes, for blankets, for hats. In Europe, the fur-bearing animals had pretty much been hunted to extinction. Lo and behold, here in this “new” continent were furs in abundance! Enter the French and Dutch … complete with their trade goods, which were as desirable to the native peoples as the furs were to the Europeans. A Montagnais chief is said to announced: “The Beaver does everything perfectly well … it makes kettles, axes, swords, knives, bread: in short it makes everything!”

And this is where “our” Petun step in – they were fur trappers, par excellence.

How do we know what we think we know about the Petun? They left no written documents: no letters, diaries, treaties or legal papers. However, their 17thcentury European visitors could and did write. For example, Champlain reported to French government authorities. He also wrote travel books – his Voyages du Sieur de Champlain was a very popular “read” in the 17th century. And the Jesuit priests reported to their superiors in France, in a series of documents referred to as theJesuit Relations. (Both Champlain’s and the Jesuits’ works are available at the Collingwood Public Library, fortunately translated into English from the original 17thcentury French.)

However, we should be very careful about how we read this material. We need to recognize their European bias and feelings of superiority. The Jesuits came to convert “les sauvages” to Christianity, and Champlain came as a colonizer and to trade. Champlain sees the “country full of hill slopes” and “the pleasant land” (which is where we started today), but he later has absolutely no hesitation in saying: “Their life is wretched by comparison with ours, but happy for them since they have not enjoyed any better one.” How’s that for European ethnocentrism! (In fact, I think we’ll see that their life in terms of health and well-being compared very favorably with that of their European contemporaries.)

Later historians, anthropologists, geographers, and archaeologists are, we believe, much less biased in their opinions. My remarks today are based primarily on that wonderful new book, Petun to Wyandot: The Ontario Petun from the Sixteenth Century, by archaeologist Charles Garrad (who came here to Creemore some years ago to present much appreciated slide lectures and workshops).

So who were these Petun that Champlain (and later the Jesuits) visited, and where had they come from? Garrad says they were two tribes of Iroquoian Wendats (ouendat, 8endat, Wyandots), the Wolf and the Deer, who made their way here, very gradually moving north over many, many years, and not necessarily together.

Garrad believes they were substantially Neutrals, or, very possibly a late offshoot of the Neutrals and shared a very recent common ancestry.

Since our time today is limited – pleasing aromas of our soup beckon – perhaps we may be permitted to allow ourselves to concentrate on the three Petun Wolf villages close by – close to what would one day be the Village of Creemore.

The Petuns’ first recognizable presence here was a village on the western edge of Creemore, in what archaeologists have dubbed the “Sidey-Mackay” site. (This clearly is not a Petun name; it is the name used by the archaeologists who first excavated the site, and is made up of the names of the then landowners, Mr. Sidey and Mr. Mackay. I gather this is normal archaeological procedure.) The Petun made this village their home for approximately twenty years (from about 1580-1600) until they moved north up the hill to the “Melville” site. This is where Champlain visited them in January 1616 and commented upon the “pleasant land.” (When the Melville site was abandoned some time after Champlain’s visit, our Petun moved to the “Hamilton-Lougheed” site, just north of the County Road on the way to Dunedin.)


We can guess from these locations (and others which followed) that the Petun preferred to site their villages on high ground, perhaps for visibility and certainly above flood plains. Of course, prime necessities were access to water, to wood (for their buildings and their fires), and, crucially, access to beaver. But they also needed arable land nearby. Arable land, you ask? Yes. The Petun were very definitely farmers as well as hunters and gatherers. (I’ll come back to their farming a little later.) Their villages (which were often palisaded) consisted of a series of longhouses. Champlain has left us a reasonably accurate description of a typical longhouse (undoubtedly there was some variation, of course): 

 “Their lodges are fashioned like arcades or vaulted arbours, covered with tree bark … leaving in the middle a passage, from ten to twelve feet wide, which runs from one end to the other. On both sides is a short platform, four feet in height, on which they sleep in summer to escape the annoyance of fleas, of which they have very many, and in winter they lie below on mats near the fire, in order to be warmer. They gather a supply of dry wood and fill their lodges with it, to warm themselves in winter. At the end of these lodges is a space, in the middle of their dwelling,  where they keep their Indian corn, which they put into great casks made of tree bark. Pieces of wood are suspended, on which they put their clothes, provisions and other things, for fear of mice, which are in great numbers.

“In one such lodge there will be 12 fires, which is 24 households, and there is smoke in good earnest in winter, causing many to get serious ailments of the eyes from it … for there is no window nor opening, except the one in the roof of their lodges, by which the smoke escapes.”

Anthropologists say that each longhouse was likely the home of one extended family – in a matrilocal pattern – a mother (or grandmother) and her daughters, or perhaps a group of sisters, together with their husbands and their children, in other words several “nuclear” families, all related to each other (in a matrilineal pattern).


The Petun, like their Iroquoian-Wendat ancestors and their contemporary Huron and Neutral neighbours, were farmers as well as hunter-gatherers. That is, the WOMEN were the farmers – it was their job to hoe up the land into a series of small “hills” into which to plant their beans, squash, sunflowers, and corn. (Of these crops, it was the corn that was their most important crop, providing a large percentage of their diet.) The women were also the gatherers: of fruits, nuts, and a variety of other wild plants.

So …After tilling the soil, planting, watering, and weeding, the women harvested the corn and beans, and gathered wild plants. They then went into to their longhouses … they lit the cooking fires with the wood they had previously gathered; theycooked and served the meals (in the clay pots they had fashioned. When not farming or gathering or cooking, they sewed everyone’s clothing … they made the winter sleeping mats out of reeds and corn … they wove baskets out of reeds and birchbark. AND, of course, they took care of the children …. Indeed, one could truly say:  “A Petun woman’s work was never done!”

What were the men doing all this time, just lazing around, smoking? Possibly, some of the time, but in fairness we must recognize that their contribution was no less important. Certainly, they did “the heavy lifting.” The men cleared new fields, chopping down small trees with stone axes (no wonder they welcomed the French fur traders’ iron axes!) The larger trees they girdled. Why the “new fields?” It had to do with the fertility of the fields. The Petun women planted their corn and  other vegetables in the same hills each year, until the fertility of the soil was depleted. (The Petun had no farm animals to produce manure, and apparently they did not plant “a fish in every hill” as their New England counterparts are reputed to have done.) Because corn was so very crucial to their diet, when the cornfields were exhausted, it was time to move on: thus the new fields. In the new villages, the men were the builders (and repairers) of the family longhouses and of the palisades, if the village was palisaded.

Most importantly, of course, as we noted earlier, the men were skilled beaver hunters, trapping the beavers and then preparing their pelts for the fur trade. They were also hunters and fishers for food, providing valuable protein for the cooking pots. (Yet another desirable source of protein … I hope the squeamish among you will not be offended … came from the dogs the Petun kept – as pets, but also as prized sources of meat, especially for their feasts!)

And, as Iroquoian-Wendats, the men would have played an important role in government and clan life. Each clan had two headmen, one a civil leader and one a war chief. And go to war they probably did – when time permitted, or protocol demanded.


But mostly, Petun life seems to have been pleasant and peaceful. As already mentioned, each extended family lived together in their family longhouse. Children were prized and loved. By sixteenth century standards, the children were “spoiled” by their indulgent parents and grandparents, much to the disapproval of the Jesuit Fathers. Girls learned the skills they would need by watching and helping their mothers and aunts. Boys were trained to use weapons – they spent time outdoors, shooting arrows, spearing fish, playing ball, all of which helped to develop a boy’s vision, hearing, sense of smell, as well as manual dexterity: skills that would be needed in manhood.

Marriage was early and universal, and the Petun attitude to teenage sex was very relaxed. It was expected that girls and boys would engage in sexual relationships soon after puberty and that they would have a number of partners. Usually, when a girl became pregnant a marriage was arranged, and the girl could choose which of her lovers she preferred as a husband. After a marriage feast, the boy went to live in his new wife’s family longhouse.

Divorce was quite common and accepted, again to the dismay of the Jesuits, one of whom reported: “The Savages have been for many ages in possession of a complete brutal liberty, changing wives when they pleased – taking only one or several, according to their inclinations. Now that they have become Christians, they must bend their heads under the yoke of single marriage, which perhaps will, some day, seem to them very hard.”

Of course, not all became Christians! The Jesuit Fathers found to their dismay that many of the native peoples had beliefs that suited them very well, and it was a wide cultural divide that they had to cross. One Father reported that the Indians listened patiently, but one elder said: “You can have your way, and we … ours!”

Nevertheless, the Jesuits persisted and were successful in “saving some souls.” Their Mission of the Apostles encompassed a number of the Petun villages, including St Pierre & St Paul, “our” Hamilton-Lougheed village. However, Father Jérôme Lalement complained, “This whole country is filled with evil reports … about us. The children … exclaim that famine and disease are coming; some women flee, others hide their children from us … they treat us very ill, in order to oblige us to leave … The children scream after us, as after sorcerers!”


We might suppose that at first the Petun were pleased to see their French visitors, including Champlain, whom they had welcomed with feasting, but with the French visitors also came their terrible diseases against which the native peoples had no natural immunitysmallpox, measles, chicken pox, influenza.

And along with the diseases came another scourge … WAR! From the South came Iroquois warriors (probably mainly Mohawk), fighting with an intensity and cruelty perhaps never before witnessed. (Surely, not the sort of ritual warfare that Champlain had witnessed. I think perhaps he would have been horrified, but, of course, he had died in 1635, on Christmas Day.)

The Jesuit priest Father James Lalement wrote in 1642:

“It is certain that to the village of Ehwae, surnamed St Pierre and St Paul, the principal village of this mission, all imaginable misfortunes happened before the end of the year [1641]. The greater part of the cabins were burned by the enemy…. Many died of hunger, of cold, or of smallpox; others perished in the water, and many were taken by the enemy.”

And to make matters worse, Lalement goes on that this year: “The snow has been extraordinarily deep.”

The Petun fled from this village of Ehwae [“our” Hamilton-Lougheed] to neighbouring villages, but in time it was no longer possible for the Petun to stay in their homeland, and they abandoned their territories in Ontario during the years 1649 to 1651 in what is referred to as the Dispersal. Our Petun journeyed west and south, looking for a safe and healthy environment. Garrad tells us that the Dispersal may have ended only in 1867, when the migrants reached their present locations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and the Detroit Valley. Garrad tells us that some people suppose that the Petun totally disappeared, but we can rejoice that they did not. He has traced them to their more recent descendants. In his Foreword dedication, Garrad pays respect to “all descendants of the Petuns, today to be found among the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, and the Wyandot Nation of Anderdon [Michigan].”

A nice note for us to end on today:
Petun-to-WyandotCharles Garrad who has done so much to bring the story of the Petun to life (and on whose work much ofwhat I have said today is based) visited the Wyandot in 1975, was warmly welcomed, and was made an honorary citizen. In 1999, on the 350thanniversary of the last full year of the Petun here in Ontario, the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, in a special ceremony, adopted Garrad and his wife, Ella, into the Bear Clan.

Authorities: Charles Garrad: Petun to Wyandot: The Ontario Petun from the Sixteenth Century. Canadian Museum of History/University of Ottawa Press, 2014. The Champlain Society edition of The Works of Samuel de Champlain, v. 4. University of Toronto Press, 1971. Reuben Gold Thwaites, Ed: The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791. Burrows Bros., 1896. Gary Warwick: A population History of the Huron-Petun A.D. 500-1650. Cambridge University Press, 2008. C. E. Heidenreich: “A relict Indian Corn Field near Creemore, Ontario. Canadian Geographer, XVIII, 4, 1974. Conrad Heidenreich:  Huronia: A History and Geography of the Huron Indians, 1600-1650. McClelland and Stewart, 1971.  Marit K. Munson and Susan M. Jamieson, Ed: Before Ontario: The Archaeology of a Province. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. John L. Riley: The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.