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Who are the Erie Indians?

By Paul Woods
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Erie Indians were one of many Native American tribes living from the 1400s to 1600s in what is now the Northeastern region of the United States. Unlike many other North American native tribes, which have survived in one form or another, historians believe the Erie were almost completely destroyed in a long war with the Iroquois Confederacy. The Erie Indians, again unlike many other tribes, had limited interaction with Europeans who had come to North America and therefore did not have the firearms that allowed the Iroquois to dominate them.

Lake Erie takes its name from the Erie Indians who lived along its southern shore from Ohio to about where Buffalo, New York, is today. In terms of language, the Erie spoke a dialect of Iroquois called Wyandot, most commonly associated with the Huron Indians. The lifestyle of the Erie encompassed both farming and hunting. Living in fort-like communities within a palisade made of logs, the Erie lived in long, rectangular, multi-family homes. They farmed during the warm months, primarily growing squash, beans and corn, and hunted in the cold months with a diet supplemented by storing parts of their summer harvests.

Information about the history and traditions of the Erie comes mostly from what historians learned from other Indian tribes, as the Erie had almost no direct relations with the Europeans who began to trade in the area in the 1600s. Many of the tribes in the region hunted beaver because the animal’s pelt had high trade value. As the beaver population diminished, competition for prime hunting ground escalated into conflict. With firearms earned in trade with Europeans, the Iroquois Confederacy decimated the Erie Confederacy in a two-year war in the mid-1600s.

Historians differ as to the fate of the Erie Indians. Some believe the tribe was wiped out completely by the Iroquois. Others maintain the Erie were assimilated into Huron tribes with whom they shared a similar language and into the tribes of the victorious Iroquois. Still others maintain the Erie migrated from the area in multiple directions, with survivors settling in Virginia and Canada.

At their peak, historians estimated the Erie numbered about 14,000 people. The name Erie is a shortened version of the word Erielhonan, which translated means long tail and is likely a reference to the mountain lions found in the area. This explains the nickname for the Erie Indians, who also were called the Cat People.

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Discussion Comments

By seag47 — On Oct 11, 2011

@StarJo - I imagine that part of the reason for living in big, multi-family homes was for the extra warmth of all that body heat. It’s likely that they huddled together inside on snowy nights to survive the dipping temperatures.

These Indians were resourceful with the design of their property. The palisades around the homes could have served more than one purpose. They could have acted as a barrier to outsiders, but they also could have served as weapons. All one would have had to do was yank up a sharpened log from the ground and hurl it at an intruder.

By orangey03 — On Oct 10, 2011

I live near Buffalo, and I have heard about the Erie Indians. My schoolteacher told me that they poisoned their arrows to be more effective at hunting.

I am aware that we have mountain lions in this area, and I know that they could easily kill a grown man. I wonder how many of the Erie Indians succumbed to mountain lion attacks. Maybe that’s what the poison arrows were for, as I heard they carried them around on their backs whenever they left their homes.

By StarJo — On Oct 10, 2011

The Erie Indians had some beautiful land. I recently visited Lake Erie, and it looks and behaves just like the ocean. I wonder if the Erie Indians thought they were living by the sea?

The soil in the hills must be great, because even today, numerous trees, lush grass, and beautiful flowers grow in the area without any help from fertilizer. I bet the Erie Indians had plentiful crops back in their day.

The winters are extremely harsh, though. They must have had some thick skin! I visited the area in early October, and the air was already ice cold. The strong, biting wind enhanced the chill. I can’t imagine how the Indians survived in the middle of winter there.

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