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.