Point Pelee's first inhabitants were quick to exploit the rich food resources of its shore and marshes.
Exactly how long humans have lived on Point Pelee is unknown, but it is possible that pre-European human occupation began several thousand years ago.
Native settlements from AD 600 have been found near the marsh. Evidence from these sites suggests they were occupied during the summer season by small, mobile groups that relied on the marsh for much of their food. Muskrats, fish and turtles made up a large portion of their diet.
The largest of these archaeological sites found so far at Point Pelee was occupied between AD 700 and 900 and represents the most intensive use by Natives during the entire pre-contact period.
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-71
They also built their encampment close to the marsh which suggest that they relied heavily on aquatic plants and animals for food, as had their predecessors. However, unlike earlier groups, they also hunted larger mammals such as deer. Judging from the large number of shells found around the site, terrestrial snails were also a much eaten delicacy.
As with the previous group, there is no indication that these people practised any cultivation. But evidence shows they gathered wild plants such as nuts from both the black walnut and butternut trees. The extensive stands of wild rice that once flourished in Point Pelee's marsh may have been another source of food.
The last phase of the pre-contact period ran from AD 900 to 1600 and is set apart from the others by a significant cultural change. Near the end of the 10th century there was a marked increase in the number of seasonal habitation sites. Although the inhabitants of these sites still used the traditional food sources exploited by previous groups, now for the first time, there is evidence of limited agriculture. It is possible, however, that corn found at these sites was not actually grown at Point Pelee. Rather, it may have been brought here from areas with better soil further inland.
Based on the archaeological record there seems to have been only limited use of Point Pelee from 1100 to the historic period. Only two small seasonal hunting encampments are known from this time. Archaeologists speculate that Point Pelee may have been avoided during this period because it served as a buffer zone between groups at war. By the time Europeans arrived on the scene in the 17th century, the southern Great Lakes Basin was occupied by groups that favoured more permanent villages and for whom agriculture was as important as hunting in their day-to-day lives.
The first written reference noting the presence of native inhabitants on Point Pelee was provided by the surveyor Abraham Iradell in 1799. He reported that the land was home to a number of Aboriginal families who lived in wooden cabins and cultivated corn.
During the early 19th century, a traveller noted that there was a settlement on Point Pelee with approximately 100 Chippewa Indians. He added that these residents grew a small quantity of corn and oats, but spent most of their time hunting and fishing.
© Parks Canada/CD-4263-5
The Interaction with these Native People proved beneficial in many ways for the Europeans. It was from Aboriginals that early traders learned of the "Carrying Place" portage route through the marsh, avoiding the dangerous currents at the tip of the peninsula. French explorers using this route named the peninsula "pointe pelée," meaning "bald point." Historical descriptions and recent geological studies show that in the days of these early travellers, the tip was much longer than it is now. Also, the last few miles were apparently, at best, only sparsely covered in vegetation.
But relations between Native and Europeans here were not always harmonious. During the Pontiac War in 1763, a detachment of Royal Americans and Queen's Rangers, under Lieutenant Abraham Cuyler, camped at Point Pelee on the east side of the peninsula while en route to Detroit from Niagara.
During the night they were attacked by a group of Pontiac braves who, in a short but violent skirmish, inflicted severe losses on the Europeans.
Overall though, the attack did nothing to help Point Pelee's few Natives and during the 19th century the population dwindled. The Canadian census of 1861 listed only five Native families in the Point Pelee area. By the 1871 census there were none.
Reproduced with permission of The Friends of Point Pelee, from "Where Canada Begins," by James Robertson Graham.