The Neutral Confederacy or Neutral Nation or Neutral people were an Iroquoian-speaking North American indigenous people who lived near the northern shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, on the west side of the Niagara River, west of the Tabacco Nation. They were related to the Iroquois Confederation to their southeast, the Huron peoples also living around Lake Ontario, the Erie people of the south shore of Lake Erie, the Tabacco people situated east of Lake Erie, and the Susquehannocks of Central Pennsylvania. Like the others of Iroquoian culture, the tribes would raid and feud with fellow Iroquoian tribes when they weren't gaming and engaging in friendly competitions. They were generally wary of rival Algonquian peoples, such as those that inhabited Canada to the East, along the Saint Lawrence valley drainage catchment. Iroquoian tribes were later known to historians for the fierce ways in which they waged war. Some tribes were highly inclined to competitive games. A largely agrarian society, Neutral farmsteads were admired and marveled over by European leaders writing reports home.
The Neutrals were primarily engaged in hunting, and traded with others using animal skins. The largest group referred to themselves as Chonnonton ("Keepers of The Deer") — partly due to their practice of herding deer into pens, a strategy used while hunting. Another group, the Onguiaahra ("Near the big waters" or possibly "The Strait"), populated the more southern Niagara Peninsula, and account for the origin of the word, "Niagara." The Chonnonton territory contained large deposits of flint, which was a valuable resource for sharp tools, fire-starting and, eventually, firearms, which, as a primary resource, allowed them to trade simultaneously with oft-warring Huron and Iroquois tribes.
Since they were not at war with the Huron or Iroquois in 1600, Jesuits traveling in the area of what is now Hamilton, the lower Grand Valley and Niagara, called them the Neutrals. However, the confederacy did have feuds with the Algonkian people who were believed to live in what is now Michigan. In 1616, the Neutral Nation was estimated to have 40 villages and 4,000 warriors. In 1641, after a serious epidemic, the Jesuits counted 40 Neutral villages with about 12,000 people.
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the territory of the Attawandaron, as they were called by the Huron Nation, was mostly within the limits of present-day southern Ontario. The Museum of Ontario Archaeology summarizes that territory as follows: they "inhabited dozens of villages in Southwestern Ontario stretching along the north shore of Lake Erie from the Niagara Peninsula to the Detroit River, perhaps as far north as Toronto in the east and Goderich in the west".
In addition to the main territory above, there was a single population cluster to the east, across the Niagara River near modern-day Buffalo, New York. The western boundary of this territory was the valley of the Grand River, with population concentrations existing on the Niagara Peninsula and in the vicinity of the present-day communities of Hamilton and Milton, Ontario.
Souharissen was the warrior chief who lived in a village called Ounontisatan that was visited by the French in 1625-1626 who reached a trade agreement with the Neutral people who then received protection from Souharissen. This "principal headman" took on and defeated the "Fire" Nation in the present state of Michigan. The Recollect priest Joseph Roche Daillon resided with him for five months in the winter of 1626–27. In his sojourn, Daillon visited 28 Neutral villages, including the capital which came to be called Notre Dame de Angels. The fertile flats of the various oxbows that Big Creek, three miles from its mouth at Grand River make, are ideal for a long term settlement pattern. Noble even uses the term "Neutralia" to designate this concentration of Iroquoian-speaking natives.
F. Douglas Reville's The History of the County of Brant (1920) stated that the hunting grounds of the Attawandaron ranged from Genesee Falls and Sarnia, and south of a line drawn from Toronto to Goderich.
Étienne Brûlé passed through the Attawandaron territory in 1615, but left no documentation of his presence. Joseph de La Roche Daillon conducted a missionary journey in Neutral territory in 1626. St. Jean de Brébeuf and Chaumonot visited eighteen villages of the Neutrals in 1640–1641, and gave each a Christian name. The only ones mentioned in their writings were Kandoucho, or All Saints, the nearest to the Huron Nation; Onguioaahra, on the Niagara River; Teotongniaton or St. William, in the centre of their country; and Khioetoa, or St. Michel (near the present Windsor, ON).
F. Douglas Reville described their territory as having been heavily forested and full of "wild fruit trees of vast variety", with nut trees, berry bushes, and wild grape vines. "Elk, caribou, and black bear; deer, wolves, foxes, martens and wild cats filled the woods."
The Neutrals were called Attawandaron by the Huron, meaning "people whose speech is awry," or "a little different". The Iroquois called them Atirhagenrat (Atirhaguenrek) and Rhagenratka; some of the tribes of the Neutral confederacy included the Aondironon, the Wenrehronon, and the Ongniaahraronon. They spoke Iroquoian languages but were culturally distinct from the Iroquois and competed with them for the same resources.
The French called the people "Neutral" (French: la Nation neutre) because they tried to remain neutral between the on-again-off-again warring between the confederacy of the Huron tribes and nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Neutral territory contained flint grounds near the eastern end of Lake Erie. This important resource was used to make spearheads and arrowheads, and its importance gave the Neutral power to maintain their neutrality. Once the neighboring countries began receiving firearms through trade with the Europeans, however, the possession of the flint grounds served much lesser advantage. Flints were still used in trade for the flintlocks on guns. The Neutral continued to trade commodities such as maize, tobacco, and black squirrel and other high-grade furs for steel axes, glass beads, cloaks, conch shells, gourd containers and firearms.
The Neutral Confederacy had much in common with the Petun Nation and may have had shared ancestry. Jesuit Relations (chronicles) of 1652 describes tattooing among the Petun (also called the Tobacco Nation) as well as the Neutrals: "And this (tattooing) in some nations is so common that in the one which we called the Tobacco, and ... the Neutral. I know not whether a single individual was found, who was not painted in this manner, on some part of the body."
The chief of 28 villages, villas, and towns in the last years of the Neutral confederacy was named Tsouharissen or Souharissen ("Child of the Sun") who led several raids against the Mascouten (aka "The Fire Nation"), who lived in territory in present-day Michigan and Ohio. A 1627 report called him the chief of all his nation (Neutrals). Tsouharissen died around 1646. Within a generation (by the early 1670s) all the nearby first nations, the Erie, the Huron, Neutrals, Tobacco tribes, and even the fierce Susquehannocks would all fall between rampaging epidemic diseases or in the bloody Beaver Wars between themselves and/or to the last tribe standing with any significant military power, the Iroquois.
Records left by Jesuit priests in the 1600s indicate that the Neutral language was similar to Huron, so it was a dialect of Iroquoian. They believed that all three groups had once been a part of a single group. Their neighbours, the Wendat (Wyandot, or Huron) Nation referred to the Neutrals (Chonnonton) impolitely as "Attawandaron" meaning "Those whose speech is awry", because their dialect was different. (Apparently, the Chonnonton referred to The Wendat with the same term.) Because the language of the Neutral Nation has been extinct for over three centuries, like many of the original northern Iroquoian based languages, nothing more is known about the Neutrals' dialect.
The Neutrals had an alliance with the Wenrohronon, also Iroquoian-language people, to defend against the powerful Iroquois Nations, who were also Iroquoian speakers. This dissolved in 1639, with devastating effects, particularly to the Wenrohronon. The Wenrohronon made an alliance with the Huron, who were located further away, and could not offer much support.
In further detail, after destroying the Hurons, the Iroquois attacked the Neutrals. Around 1650, during a period now loosely referred to as the Beaver Wars, referring to the theft of furs, the Iroquois Confederacy declared war on the Attawandaron. Some historians state that the Iroquois destroyed the Neutral society which ended as a separate entity in 1651. However, the Neutral population had already been reduced by diseases such as smallpox and measles carried by Europeans. By 1652, the Iroquois had also destroyed the Huron, Petun and Erie Nations. Some of the Neutrals were incorporated into Seneca villages in upstate New York, and others were absorbed into various other societies. The Kenjockety family, one of the last known families to trace their ethnicity to the Neutrals, still lives among the Senecas.
Jesuits wintered with the Neutral people in 1652-1653; the last reference to the Neutrals as an independent society was made in the fall of 1653. A historical mention in 1864 refers to the "Huron de la nation neuter" and "Hurons neutres" (neutral Hurons).
The Southwold Earthworks near St. Thomas, Ontario, contains the remains of a pre-contact Neutral village and is a National Historic Site of Canada. It is known for conspicuous earthworks which were rare in southern Ontario; they are well preserved.
The Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario, is located adjacent to the site of another 500-year-old Neutral village. This village, designated as the Lawson Prehistoric Iroquoian Village, has been under study since the early 1900s. An Ontario historical plaque commemorates site which had been occupied by Neutrals in the 1500s. About 1000 to 2000 people lived in longhouses in this fortified community. Scientific excavation was first completed in 1921-1923 at a time when the site was owned by the Lawson family. The searches have recovered 30,000 artifacts and the remains of 19 longhouses. Some of the longhouses and the pallisade have been reconstructed.
McMaster University professor William Noble has excavated and documented the existence of many villages south west of Hamilton comprising a Neutral Confederacy which he believes was centered at the "Walker" site and was presided over by chief Souharissen. Noble was instrumental in excavating and documenting other Neutral sites in Thorold, Grimsby, and Binbrook. Reports from these and other Southern Ontario sites near Milton (Crawford Lake) and Oakville indicated that the Neutral confederacy hunted not only deer, but also elk, moose, beaver, raccoons, squirrels, black bear, fox and muskrat; the remains of catfish, whitefish, salmon and trout were also common at many of the sites.
In 1983-1985, another site was excavated. One of the largest Attawandaron villages, this location covered 13 acres of the Badenoch section of Puslinch, on the east side of Morriston, Ontario. The estimated population of the so-called Ivan Elliot site was 4,000; the Neutrals lived in longhouses and used this village for about 20 years. Another nearby site, on the McPhee farm owned by Raymond Reid, was excavated in 1983. This village had a population of about 1,000 circa 1500-1530.
The Neutral Nation's decline and eventual end can be attributed to genocide, the final catastrophe that led to the death of the confederacy by the early 1650s was investigated by Archaeologist Mary Jackes. The demise of the Neutral Nation occurred in spite of reports by the French who first met them "in 1610 as strong, healthy and numerous. They lived in the most fertile and warmest part of Ontario. They were determined to remain neutral in the conflicts between the Iroquois from south of the Great Lakes and the Ontario Iroquoians who lived to the north of the Neutral. They throve on trade, rather than war." Jackes re-examined French reports including the Jesuit Relations and the artifacts found in the Grimsby site.
When grounds were prepared for a new housing development in Grimsby, Ontario, in 1976, a Neutral Nation burial site was uncovered in sheltered embayment of the Niagara Escarpment. The excavation by Kenyon was closed after only two months in 1977 and the skeletons were reburied near the original site. It was estimated over a hundred bodies were recovered at the time. "Natural disruption, disease, famine and years of severe weather would have been sufficient to begin population decline. Intensifying war, with many killed, taken captive or forced to become refugees, led to almost complete population collapse." Jackes suggested that this burial site "had significance and that it was a place of refuge...especially for women and children".