Aboriginal History: the Bruce Peninsula has a long indigenous heritage not just for the native nation living there today, but for other native groups as well.
Today we consider our region to be one of the most peaceful and beautiful areas of the world. But two centuries ago the Grey/Bruce and Georgian Bay territory was the site of two horrific events.
For centuries several different Native nations tried to co-exist in the southern Georgian Bay/ Bruce Peninsula region. Tensions between the tribes heightened with the arrival of European priests, explorers and ultimately fur traders.
During the mid-1600s the Bruce Peninsula became Iroquois territory. Each year the Ojibway would send couriers to Montreal or Quebec City with that season’s harvest of furs. This trip was dangerous as they had to journey near or through territory which was controlled by the Iroquois.
Sometime in the late 1690s or early 1700s, a party of Ojibwa on their way to Montreal were attacked and killed by the Iroquois. Threats of reprisals were met with scorn by the Iroquois. When a second trading party met a similar fate, a meeting between the Iroquois and Ojibwa was held at Saugeen. An uneasy truce was called, and the Iroquois agreed to pay a bale of furs for each slain Ojibway and safe passage to Quebec was guaranteed for the Ojibway and their allies. But the aboriginal history of the Bruce Peninsula would detail more violence in the near future.
This agreement held for three years and then in one year the Iroquois attacked several trading parties. The Ojibwa immediately called together all their allies and plans were made for reprisals which would be made the following spring.
The Iroquois were attacked on two fronts, the Ottawa Valley region and at the mouth of the Saugeen River. The battle at Saugeen was intense and fierce, and ultimately the Iroquois were forced to flee. The Iroquois who had been killed or captured had their heads cut off and piled in a pyramid. This battle thus became known as the Battle of Skull Mound.
Peter Schmalz recounts in his book, The History of the Saugeen Indians, that when artist Paul Kane visited the area, almost a century and one-half later, in 1845 he wrote about visiting Skull Mound:
“It is the site of a former battle-ground between the Ojibwa ....and the Mohawks. Of this, the mounds erected over the slain afford abundant evidence in the protrusion of the bones through the surface of the ground.”
This defeat did not mean the end of conflict between the Ojibwa and the Iroquois. Word was received that the Iroquois were headed back to the area to avenge their defeat. The Ojibwa and their allies gathered on the southern shore of Georgian Bay to await the return of the Iroquois. (Historians differ on the location. Some suggest that it was near Penetanguishene while others maintain that it occurred near Collingwood.)
When the Iroquois arrived their opponents lay in hiding. The unsuspecting Iroquois posted a few guards and turned in for the night. With the first rays of sunlight the following morning the Ojibwa and their allies swooped down from the mountain side, overpowered the sentries and quickly dispatched many of the Iroquois warriors to another world before they had time to arm themselves and mount a defense.
Before all of the Iroquois could be killed, Sahgimah, an Ottawa Chief, ordered an end to the slaughter. He told his followers that a message needed to be sent to the rest of the Iroquois nation that would deter further warfare between the two groups.
Sahgimah’s message was simple, but effective. He had his men cut off the heads of all of the slain Iroquois and mounted on stakes. When this gruesome task was complete, the remaining Iroquois were shown the remains of their friends. As they paddled home the vision of, some suggest, four hundred or more heads on stakes, must have remained vivid in their minds as the Iroquois never returned. These two battles returned the region to Ojibwa and their allies and for the next century life in the region was relatively peaceful. The next threat to their territory would come from another force, that of white settlement!
The next time someone complains about this region by saying “NOTHING EXCITING EVER HAPPENS HERE! Tell them about the Battles of Skull Mound, and the Blue Mountains!
There are many books written about this topic but I found The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario and The History of the Saugeen Indians, by Peter Schmalz and James Barry’s Georgian Bay: The Sixth Great Lake to be extremely helpful and recommend them to anyone who wishes to read further about the aboriginal history of this region.
A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.