The Erie Indians

The Erie Indians tribe was an indigenous people of North America of the Iroquoian branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock.

Iroquois Language

  • The Erie spoke a version of the Iroquois language which was apparently similar to that of the Huron.
  • In the Iroquoian language, the name Erie is a shortened form of Erielhonan, a word which means `long tail.' This is in reference to the mountain lion which roamed the domain of these people.
  • The word Erie means "cat" as well as "long tail", and the Erie were referred to as the Cat Nation.

Location & Economy

  • The Erie Indian nation lived around the southern shores of Lake Erie. This is in the vicinity of present day Buffalo, New York, ranging west to Sandusky, Ohio. Around 1600, they numbered about 14,000 people.
  • Although they were sedentary farmers of the Eastern Woodlands area, they showed some Southeastern cultural traits, such as the use of poisoned arrows and the building of palisaded villages.


  • They were traditional enemies of the Iroquois League, and in 1656, after one of the most relentless and destructive Indian wars, the Erie were almost exterminated by the Iroquois. The surviving captives were either adopted or enslaved.
  • The Erie managed to elude contact with the white man. Apart from one brief encounter, the French were not able to reach them. Neither were the Dutch or the Swedish, although they did hear about them from other tribes.
  • Information about their culture and living conditions has, therefore been passed on to historians through second hand accounts from members of other tribes, most notably the Huron. From them we learn that the Erie lived in scattered villages which were stockaded for protection.

Home & Harvest

  • Their homes were the traditional long house that could house several families. They were, like most of the surrounding tribes, farmers and hunters. The main crops were corn, beans and squash.
  • Following the harvest they would embark on the winter hunt. During this time they would live in winter camps.


  • Although the Erie did not have contact with the Europeans, they did obtain trade goods from the Susquehannock. The Susquehannock were, however, careful to make sure that the Erie were not able to get their hands on the prize European possession, the firearm.
  • In order to satisfy their growing demand for European trade goods the Erie soon exhausted their local supplies of beaver, which they used to trade with other tribes for the white man's wares. This led them to encroach on other tribes hunting areas and this, inevitably, led to warfare.


  • In the winter of 1648-49, the Huron Confederacy was overrun by the Iroquois League. About 1651, the Erie were joined by a number of Huron refugees, fleeing from the destruction of their Confederation by the Iroquois. The Iroquois demanded that the Erie give these Huron over to them.
  • With hundreds of new warriors, the Erie refused. The western Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga) continued to view the refugees as a threat and were not willing to let the matter drop. A tense standoff lasted for nearly two years.
  • In 1651 the Mohawk and Oneida had begun a long war against the Susquehannock isolating the Erie from their only possible ally.
  • In 1653, an Erie raid into the Seneca homeland killed the Seneca sachem Annencraos. In an attempt to avoid open warfare, both sides agreed to a peace conference. However, in the course of a heated argument, one of the Erie warriors killed an Onondaga. The enraged Iroquois killed all 30 of the Erie representatives.
  • The Iroquois considered the Erie as dangerous opponents, so they first offered peace to the French before beginning the war. With their Huron allies either dead or scattered by the Iroquois, the French did not need much encouragement to agree.
  • The Erie inflicted heavy losses on the Iroquois but, without the benefit of firearms, they were destined to failure. The strength of these people is shown by the fact that it took the Iroquois two years to overcome the Erie.

Divisions & Descendants

  • By 1656 the Erie were a defeated people. Those that were not already dead were assimilated into the victorious tribes, most notably the Seneca.
  • The Erie ceased to exist at this time as a separate people. However small groups of Erie were to survive for another twenty five years.
  • In 1662 the Susquehannock told the Dutch they expected 800 Honniasont warriors to join them in their war with the Iroquois. Honniasont is a Iroquian word meaning "wearing something around the neck" and refers to the Black Mingua practice of wearing a black badge on their chests. The Black Mingua are believed to have been a division of the Erie that lived around the upper Ohio River in western Pennsylvania.
  • The last group of Erie surrendered to the Iroquois in 1680. Although there are stories of large groups of Indians who fled west to escape the Iroquois, it cannot be verified that these were remnants of the Erie.
  • Once they were adopted into other tribes, the Erie as a people lost their identity. Many Indians of the Iroquois, Susquehannock, and Huron tribes today can trace their origins back to the Erie people.
  • Many of the descendants of the Erie who were adopted by the Seneca began leaving the Iroquois homeland during the 1720's and returned to Ohio. Known as the Mingo (Ohio Iroquois), they were removed to the Indian Territory during the 1840's. It is probable that many of the Seneca in Oklahoma today have Erie ancestors.