The Algonquian Family adapted its name from the Algonkin tribe. This is a linguistic stock which formerly occupied a more extended area than any other language in North America . Their territory reached from the Eastern shore of Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains.
Early movement of the Algonquian Tribes
The Cheyenne and Arapaho moved from the main body and drifted out into the plains. Although there is a general agreement as to the peoples which should be included in this family, information in regard to the numerous dialects is too limited to justify an attempt to give a strict linguistic classification.
In many instances, it is uncertain which bodies were confederacies, tribes, bands, or clans, especially bodies which have become extinct or cannot be identified, since early writers have frequently designated settlements or bands of the same tribe as distinct tribes.
Europeans, observing part of a tribe settled at one place and part at another, have frequently taken them for different peoples, and have dignified single villages, settlements, or bands with the title “tribe” or “nation,” named from the locality or the chief.
It is generally impossible to discriminate between tribes and villages throughout the greater part of New England and along the Atlantic coast, for the Indians there seem to have been grouped into small communities, each taking its name from the principal village of the group or from a neighbouring stream or other natural feature.
Whether these were subordinate to some real tribal authority or of equal rank and interdependent, although still allied, it is impossible in many instances to determine. Since true tribal organization is found among the better known branches and can be traced in several instances in the eastern division, it is presumed that it was general.
Classification of the Algonquian tribes
Western division – Dwelling along the Eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.
- Blackfoot confederacy, (composed of the Siksika, Kainah, and Piegan)
Northern division– From the extreme Northwest of the Algonquian area to the extreme Eastern area North of the St. Lawrence and the Great lakes.
- Chippewa group
- Algonkin group
Northeastern division – the tribes inhabiting Eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and Eastern Maine.
- Montagnais group
Central division– Groups that resided in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.
- Atchaterakangouen – An Algonquian tribe or band living in the interior of Wisconsin in 1672, near the Mascouten and Kickapoo.
- Sauk group
- Illinois branch of the Miami group
- Miami branch
Eastern division– All the Algonquian tribes that lived along the Atlantic coast South of the Abnaki and including several confederacies and groups.
Contact with Europeans
As the early settlements of the French, Dutch, and English were all within the territory of the eastern members of the Algonquian, they were the first indigenous peoples North of the Gulf of Mexico to feel the blighting effect of contact with Europeans. As a rule the relations of the French with the Algonquian tribes were friendly, the Foxes being the only tribe against whom they waged war.
The English settlements were often engaged in border wars with their Algonquian neighbours, who were continually pressed farther toward the interior by the advancing white immigration.
The eastern tribes, from Maine to Carolina , were defeated and their tribal organization was broken up. Some withdrew to Canada , others crossed the mountains into the Ohio valley, while a few bands were located on reservations by the whites, only to dwindle and ultimately become extinct.
Of many of the smaller tribes of New England , Virginia , and other eastern states there are no living representatives today. Even the languages of some are known only by a few words mentioned by early historians, while some tribes are known only by name.
The Abnaki and others who fled into Canada settled along the St. Lawrence under the protection of the French, whose active allies they became in all the subsequent wars with the English down to the fall of the French power in Canada .
Those who crossed the Allegheny into the Ohio valley, together with the Wyandot and the native Algonquian tribes of that region, formed themselves into a loose confederacy, allied first with the French and afterward with the English against the advancing settlements with the declared purpose of preserving the Ohio River as the Indian boundary. Wayne’s victory in 1794 put an end to the struggle, and at the treaty of Greenville in 1795 the Indians acknowledged their defeat and made the first cession of land West of the Ohio.
Tecumseh and his brotber, Ellskwatawa, aroused the western tribes against the United States a few years later, but the disastrous defeat at Tippecanoe in 1811 and the death of their leader broke the spirit of the Indians.
In 1815 those who had taken part against the United States during the War of 1812 made peace with the Government; then began the series of treaties by which, within thirty years, most of the Indians of this region ceded their lands and removed West of the Mississippi River.
A factor which contributed greatly to the decline of the Algonquian ascendancy was the power of the Iroquoian confederacy, which by the beginning of the 17th century had developed a power destined to make them the scourge of the other Indian populations from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and from the Ottawa River in Canada to the Tennessee .
After destroying the Huron and the Erie, they turned their power chiefly against the Algonquian tribes, and before long Ohio and Indiana were nearly deserted, only a few villages of Miami remaining here and there in the northern portion.
The region South and West they made a desert, clearing the native inhabitants from the whole country within 500 miles of their seats. The Algonquian tribes fled before them to the region of the upper lakes and the banks of the Mississippi, and only when the French had guaranteed them protection against their deadly foes did they venture to turn back toward the East.
Early Algonquian Physical Characteristics
The central Algonquians averaged about 5ft 7inches (173 cm.), which was tall for the time period when they first met Europeans. According to early historians, they had the typical Indian nose, heavy and prominent, somewhat hooked in men, flatter in women; with heavy cheek bones. The head among the tribes of the Great lakes was very large and almost brachycephalic, but showing considerable variation; and the face was quite broad.
The type of the Atlantic coast Algonquians can hardly be determined from living individuals, as no full-bloods survive, but skulls found in old burial grounds show that they were tall, their faces not quite so broad, the heads much more elongate and remarkably high, resembling in this respect the [Inuit] and suggesting the possibility that on the New England coast there may have been some mixture with that type.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho are even taller than the central Algonquians; their faces are larger, their heads more elongate. It is worthy of remark that in the region in which the mound builders’ remains are found, rounded heads prevailed, and the present population of the region are also more round-headed, perhaps suggesting fusion of blood (Boas, inf’n , 1905).
Algonquian Religious Beliefs
The religious beliefs of the eastern Algonquian tribes were similar in their leading features. Their myths are numerous. Their deities, or manitus, including objects animate and inanimate, were many, but the chief culture hero, he to whom the creation and control of the world were ascribed, was substantially the same in character, although known by various names, among different tribes.
As Manibozho, or Michabo, among the Chippewa and other like tribes, he was usually identified as a fabulous great rabbit, bearing some relation to the sun; and this identification with the great rabbit appears to have prevailed among other tribes, being found as far South as Maryland .
Brinton ( Hero Myths , 1882) believes this mythological animal to have been merely a symbol of light, adopted because of the similarity between the Algonquian words for rabbit and light.
Among the Siksika this chief beneficent deity was known as Napiw, among the Abnaki as Ketchiniwesk, among the New England tribes as Kiehtan, Woonand, Cautantowit, etc. He created the world by magic power, peopled it with game and the other animals, taught his favorite people the arts of the chase, and gave them corn and beans.
But, this deity was distinguished more for his magical powers and his ability to overcome opposition by trickery, deception, and falsehood than for benevolent qualities. The objects of nature were deities to them, as the sun, the moon, fire, trees, lakes, and the various animals. Respect was also paid to the four cardinal points.
There was a general belief in a soul, shade, or immortal spiritual nature not only in man but in animals and all other things, and in a spiritual abode to which this soul went after the death of the body, and in which the occupations and enjoyments were supposed to be similar to those of this life.
Priests or conjurers, called by the whites medicine-men, played an important part in their social, political, and religious systems. They were supposed to possess influence with spirits or other agencies, which they could bring to their aid in looking into the future, inflicting or curing disease, etc.
Both matriarchial and patriarchial societies existed
Among the tribes from Southern New England to Carolina, including especially the Mohegan, Delawares, the people of the Powhatan confederacy, and the Chippewa, descent was reckoned in the female line.
Among the Potawatomi, Abnaki, Blackfeet, and probably most of the northern tribes, descent was traced in the male line.Within recent times descent has been paternal also among the Menominee, Sauk and Fox, Illinois, Kickapoo, and Shawnee, and, although it has been stated that it was anciently maternal, there is no satisfactory proof of this.
Clans and Gens and Political Organization
The Cree, Arapaho, and Cheyenne are without clans or gentes.
The gens or clan was usually governed by a chief, who in some cases was installed by the heads of other clans or gentes.
The tribe also had its chief, usually selected from a particular clan or gens, though the manner of choosing a chief and the authority vested in him varied somewhat in the different tribes.
There was the peace chief, whose authority was not absolute, and who had no part in the declaration of war or in carrying it on, the leader in the campaign being one who had acquired a right to the position by noted deeds and skill.
In some tribes the title of chief was hereditary, and the distinction between a peace chief and a war chief was not observed. The chief’s power among some tribes, such as the Miami, were greater than in others.
The government was directed in weighty matters by a council, consisting of the chiefs of the clans or gentes of the tribe. It was by their authority that tribal war was undertaken, peace concluded, territory sold, etc.
Algonquian Subsistance was primarily sedentary
The Algonquian tribes were mainly sedentary and agricultural, probably the only exceptions being those of the cold regions of Canada and the Siksika of the plains.
The Chippewa did not formerly cultivate the soil.
Maize was the staple Indian food product, but the tribes in the region of the Great lakes, particularly the Menominee, made extensive use of wild rice.
The Powhatan tribes raised enough maize to supply not only their own wants but those of the Virginia colonists for some years after the founding of Jamestown, and the New England colonists were more than once relieved from hunger by corn raised by the natives.
In 1792 Wayne’s army found a continuous plantation along the entire length of the Maumee from Ft. Wayne to Lake Erie.
Although depending chiefly on hunting and fishing for subsistence, the New England tribes cultivated large quantities of maize, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco. It is said they understood the advantage of fertilizing, using fish, shells, and ashes for this purpose.
The tools they used in preparing the ground and in cultivation were usually wooden spades or hoes, the latter being made by fastening to a stick, as a handle, a shell, the shoulder blade of an animal, or a tortoise shell. It was from the Algonquian tribes that the whites first learned to make hominy, succotash, samp, maple sugar, johnnycake, etc.
Gookin, in 1874, thus describes the method of preparing food among the Indians of Massachusetts:
“Their food is generally boiled maize, or Indian corn, mixed with kidney beans, or sometimes without. Also, they frequently boil in this pottage fish and flesh of all sorts, either new taken or dried, as shad, eels, alewives, or a kind of herring, or any other sort of fish. But they dry mostly those sorts before mentioned.
These they cut in pieces, bones and all, and boil them in the aforesaid pottage. I have wondered many times that they were not in danger of being choked with fish bones; but they are so dexterous in separating the bones from the fish in their eating thereof that they are in no hazard.
Also, they boil in this frumenty all sorts of flesh they take in hunting, as venison, beaver, bear’s flesh, moose, otters, raccoons, etc., cutting this flesh in small pieces and boiling it as aforesaid.
Also, they mix with the said pottage several sorts of roots, as Jerusalem artichokes, and groundnuts, and other roots, and pompions, and squashes, and also several sorts of nuts or masts, as oak acorns, chestnuts, and walnuts; these husked and dried and powdered, they thicken their pottage therewith.
Also, sometimes, they beat their maize into meal and sift it through a basket made for that purpose. With this meal they make bread, baking it in the ashes, covering the dough with leaves. Sometimes they make of their meal a small sort of cakes and boil them. They make also a certain sort of meal of parched maize. This meal they call “nokake.”
Their pots were made of clay, somewhat egg-shaped; their dishes, spoons, and ladles of wood; their water pails of birch bark, doubled up so as to make them four-cornered, with a handle. They also had baskets of various sizes in which they placed their provisions; these were made of rushes, stalks, corn husks, grass, and bark, often ornamented with coloured figures of animals.
Mats woven of bark and rushes, dressed deerskins, feather garments, and utensils of wood, stone, and horn are mentioned by explorers.
Fish were taken with hooks, spears, and nets, in canoes and along the shore, on the sea and in the ponds and rivers. They captured without much trouble all the smaller kinds of fish, and, in their canoes, often dragged sturgeon with nets stoutly made of Canada hemp” (De Forest, His. Inds. Conn . 1853).
Algonquin Clothing and Hair Styles
Their clothing was composed chiefly of the skins of animals, tanned until soft and pliable, and was sometimes ornamented with paint and beads made from shells. Occasionally they decked themselves with mantles made of feathers overlapping each other as on the back of the fowl.
The dress of the women consisted usually of two articles, a leather shirt, or undergarment, ornamented with fringe, and a skirt of the same material fastened round the waist with a belt and reaching nearly to the feet.
The legs were protected, especially in the winter, with leggings, and the feet with moccasins of soft dressed leather, often embroidered with wampun.
The men usually covered the lower part of the body with a breech-cloth, and often wore a skin mantle thrown over one shoulder.
The women dressed their hair in a thick heavy plait which fell down the neck, and sometimes ornamented their heads with bands decorated with wampum or with a small cap.
Higginson ( New England’s Plantation , 1829) says: “Their hair is usually cut before, leaving one lock longer than the rest.” The men went bareheaded, with their hair fantastically trimmed, each according to his own fancy. One would shave it on one side and leave it long on the other; another left an unshaved strip, 2 or 3 in. wide, running from the forehead to the nape of the neck.
The typical Algonquian lodge of the woods and lakes was oval, and the conical lodge, made of sheets of birch-bark, also occurred.
The Mohegan, and to some extent the Virginia Indians, constructed long communal houses which accommodated a number of families. The dwellings in the North were sometimes built of logs, while those in the South and parts of the Wwest were constructed of saplings fixed in the ground, bent over at the top, and covered with movable matting, thus forming a long, round-roofed house.
The Delawares and some other eastern tribes who preferred to live separately built smaller dwellings. The manner of construction among the Delawares is thus described by Zeisberger:
“They peel trees, abounding with sap, such as lime trees, etc., then cutting the bark into pieces of 2 or 3 yards in length, they lay heavy stones upon them, that they may become flat and even in drying. The frame of the hut is made by driving poles into the ground and strengthening them by cross beams. This framework is covered, both within and without, with the above-mentioned pieces of bark, fastened very tight with bast or twigs of hickory, which are remarkably tough.
The roof runs up to a ridge, and is covered in the same manner. These huts have one opening in the roof to let out the smoke and one in the side for an entrance. The door is made of a large piece of bark without either bolt or lock, a stick leaning against the outside being a sign that nobody is at home. The light enters by small openings furnished with sliding shutters.”
The covering was sometimes rushes or long reed grass. The houses of the Illinois are described by Hennepin as being “made with long arbors” and covered with double mats of flat flags.
Those of the Chippewa and the Plains tribes were circular or conical, a framework covered with bark among the former, a frame of movable poles covered with dressed skins among the latter.
The villages, especially along the Atlantic coast, were frequently surrounded with stockades of tall, stout stakes firmly set in the ground. A number of the western Algonquian towns are described by early explorers as fortified or as surrounded with palisades.
Algonquian Picture Writing
In no other tribes North of Mexico was picture writing developed to the advanced stage that it reached among the Delawares and the Chippewa. The figures were scratched or painted on pieces of bark or on slabs of wood. Some of the tribes, especially the Ottawa, were great traders, acting as chief middlemen between the more distant Indians and the early French settlements.
Canoes used for fishing were of two kinds – one of birch bark, very light, but liable to overact; the other made from the trunk of a large tree.
Some of the interior tribes of Illinois and Wisconsin made but little use of the canoe, travelling almost always afoot; while others who lived along the upper lakes and the Atlantic coast were expert canoemen.
The canoes of the upper lakes were of birch-bark, strengthened on the inside with ribs or knees. The more solid and substantial boat of Virginia and the western rivers was the dugout, made from the trunk of a large tree.
The manufacture of pottery, though the product was small, except in one or two tribes, was widespread. Judged by the number of vessels found in the graves of the regions occupied by the Shawnee, this tribe carried on the manufacture to a greater extent than any other.
Algonquian Funeral Practices
The usual method of burial was in graves, each clan or gens having its own cemetery.
The mortuary ceremonies among the eastern and central tribes were substantially as described by Zeisberger. Immediately after death the corpse was arrayed in the deceased’s best clothing and decked with the chief ornaments worn in life, sometimes having the face and shirt painted red, then laid on a mat or skin in the middle of the hut, and the arms and personal effects were placed about it. After sunset, and also before daybreak, the female relations and friends assembled around the body to mourn over it.
The grave was dug generally by old women; inside it was lined with bark, and when the corpse was placed in it 4 sticks were laid across and a covering of bark was placed over these; then the grave was filled with earth.
An earlier custom was to place in the grave the personal effects or those indicative of the character and occupation of the deceased, as well as food, cooking utensils, etc. Usually the body was placed horizontally, though among some of the western tribes, as the Foxes, it was sometimes buried in a sitting posture.
It was the custom of probably most of the tribes to light fires on the grave for four nights after burial.
The Illinois, Chippewa, and some of the extreme western tribes frequently practised tree or scaffold burial.
The bodies of the chiefs of the Powhatan confederacy were stripped of the flesh and the skeletons were placed on scaffolds in a charnel house.
The Ottawa usually placed the body for a short time on a scaffold near the grave previous to burial.
The Shawnee, and possibly one or more of the southern Illinois tribes, were accustomed to bury their dead in box-shaped sepulchres made of undressed stone slabs.
The Nanticoke, and some of the western tribes, after temporary burial in the ground or exposure on scaffolds, removed the flesh and reinterred the skeletons.
Alliances between tribes was generally temporary
The eastern Algonquian tribes probably equalled the Iroquois in bravery, intelligence, and physical powers, but lacked their constancy, solidity of character, and capability of organization, and do not appear to have appreciated the power and influence they might have wielded by combination.
The alliances between tribes were generally temporary and without real cohesion. There seems, indeed, to have been some element in their character which rendered them incapable of combining in large bodies, even against a common enemy.
Some of their great chieftains, such as Philip, Pontiac, and Tecumseh, attempted at different periods to unite the kindred tribes in an effort to resist the advance of the white race; but each in turn found that a single great defeat disheartened his followers and rendered all his efforts fruitless, and the former two fell by the hands of deserters from their own ranks.
The Virginia tribes, under the able guidance of Powhatan and Opechancanough, formed an exception to the general rule. They presented a united front to the whites, and resisted for years every step of their advance until the Indians were practically exterminated.
From the close of the Revolution to the treaty of Greenville (1795) the tribes of the Ohio valley also made a desperate stand against the Americans. In individual character many of the Algonquian chiefs rank high, and Tecumseh stands out prominently as one of the noblest figures in Indian history.
The present number of the Algonquian family is about 90,000, of whom about 40,000 are in the United States and 50,000 in Canada. The largest tribes are the Chippewa and the Cree.