The Algonquins

Published on December 3, 2012 by Amy

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A Group of Algonquins
A Group of Algonquins

The Algonquins (or Algonkins) are an aboriginal North American people speaking Algonquin, an Algonquian language. Culturally and linguistically, they are closely related to the Odawa and Ojibwe, with whom they form the larger Anicinàpe grouping. The Algonquin peoples call themselves either Omàmiwinini (plural: Omàmiwininiwak) or the more generalised name of Anicinàpe.

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The tribe has also given its name to the much larger, heterogeneous group of Algonquian-speaking peoples who stretch from Virginia to the Rocky Mountains and north to Hudson Bay. Most Algonquins, however, live in Quebec; the nine Algonquian bands in that province and one in Ontario have a combined population of about 11,000.


In the earliest oral history, the Algonquins were from the Atlantic coast. Together with other Anicinàpek, they arrived at the “First Stopping Place” near Montreal. While the other Anicinàpe peoples continued their journey up the St. Lawrence River, the Algonquins settled along the Kitcisìpi (Ottawa River), an important highway for commerce, cultural exchange, and transportation from time immemorial. A distinct Algonquin identity, though, was not fully-realized until after the dividing of the Anicinàpek at the “Third Stopping Place”, estimated at about 5,000 years ago near present day Detroit.

After contact with the Europeans, the Algonkins became one of the key players in the Fur Trade. This lead them to fight against the Iroquois due to their rivalry in the fur trade; and formed an alliance with the Montagnais to the east in 1570.

The first group of Algonquian that the French encountered were the Kitcisìpiriniwak (“Ottawa River Men”; singular: Kitcisìpirini) whose village was located on an island in the Ottawa River; the French called this group “La Nation de l’Isle.” The first recorded meeting between Europeans and Algonquins occurred at Tadoussac in the summer of 1603, when Samuel de Champlain came upon a party of Algonquins, lead by the Kitcisìpirini Chief Tessouat. They were celebrating with the Montagnais and Etechemins (Malecite) a recent victory over the Five Nations Iroquois. Champlain did not understand the strong totem/clan system that socially united the Algonquins rather than the European-styled politically united concept of nationhood. Consequently, there were several Algonquin bands, each with its own chief, needing political approval from each of the band’s clan leaders. So, from 1603 some of the Algonquins allied themselves with the French under Samuel de Champlain.

Champlain made his first exploration of the Ottawa River during May, 1613 and reached the fortified Kitcisìpirini village at Morrison Island. Unlike the other Algonquin communities, Kitcisìpiriniwak did not change location with the seasons. They had chosen a strategic point astride the trade route between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence and had prospered through the collection of beaver pelts from native traders passing through their territory. They pointed with great pride to their corn fields, a skill that they seemed to have acquired just before the arrival of the French. At first, the term “Algonquin” was used only for a second group, the Wàwàckeciriniwak. However, by 1615 the name was applied to all of the Algonquin bands living along the Ottawa River. Because of keen interest to gain control of the lower Ottawa River the Kitcisìpiriniwak and the Wàwàckeciriniwak came under fierce opposition. These two large groups allied together, under the leadership of Sachem Charles Parcharini, maintaining the Omàmiwinini identity and territory.

In 1632, after Sir David Kirke’s occupation of New France had demonstrated French colonial vulnerability, the French began to trade muskets to the Algonquins and their allies. French Jesuits began to actively seek Algonquin conversions to Roman Catholicism, opening up a bitter divide between traditionalists and converts.

Through all of these years, the Iroquois had never dared to attack the Kitcisìpirinik fortress, but in 1642 a surprise winter raid hit the Algonkin while most of their warriors were absent and inflicted severe casualties. On March 6th (Ash Wednesday), 1647, a large Mohawk war party hit the Kitcisìpiriniwak living near Trois-Rivières and almost exterminated them. The Kitcisìpiriniwak were still at Morrison Island in 1650 and inspired respect with their 400 warriors. When the French retreated from the Huron country that year, Tessouat is reported to have had the superior of the Jesuit mission suspended by his armpits because he refused to offer him the customary presents for being allowed to travel through Algonquin territory. Some joined the mission at Sillery and were mostly destroyed by an epidemic by 1676. Others, encouraged by the French, remained at Trois-Rivières and their settlement at nearby Pointe-du-Lac remained until about 1830, when the last 14 families, numbering about 50 moved to Oka. The Sulpician Mission of the Mountain was founded at Montreal in 1677, and some Algonquins settled there together with Iroquois converts. However many did maitain attachment to the traditional territory and the trading traditions. While those that agreed to move to the established reserves or joined other historic bands and were then federally “recognized” many others did not re-locate and were later referred to as “stragglers” in the Ottawa and Pontiac Counties.
Starting in 1721, many Christian Algonquins began to summer at Oka, a Mohawk settlement near Montreal that was then considered one of the Seven Nations of Canada. Algonquin warriors continued to fight in alliance with France until the British conquest of Quebec in 1760. Fighting on behalf of British Crown, the Algonquins took part in the Barry St Leger campaign during the American Revolutionary War.

Loyalist settlers began encroaching on Algonquin lands shortly after the Revolution. Later in the 19th century, the lumber industry began to move up the Ottawa valley, and some Algonquins were relegated to a string of small reserves.

Although the historical Algonquin society was largely hunting- and fishing-based, some Algonquins practiced agriculture and cultivated corn, beans, and squash, the famous “Three Sisters” of indigenous horticulture.
Algonquian-speaking people also practiced large amounts of agriculture, particularly south of the Great Lakes where the climate allows for a larger growing season. Other notable indigenous crops historically farmed by Algonquins are the sunflower and tobacco. Even among groups who mainly hunted, agricultural products were an important source of food and were obtained by trading with or raiding societies that practiced larger amounts of agriculture.
Archeological sites on Morrison Island near Pembroke, within the territory of the Kitcisìpiriniwak, reveal a 5000-year-old culture that manufactured copper tools and weapons. Copper ore was extracted north of Lake Superior and distributed down to today’s northern New York state. Local pottery artifacts from this period show widespread similarities that indicate the continuing use of the river for cultural exchange throughout the Canadian Shield and beyond. Some centuries later the Algonquin tribe moved in and inhabited the islands and shores along the Ottawa, and by the 1600s the first Europeans found them well-established as a hunter-gatherer society in control of the river. The Kitcisìpiriniwak showed entrepreneurial spirit. On Morrison Island, at the location of where 5000-year-old copper artifacts were discovered, the Kitcisìpirini band levied a toll on canoe flotillas descending the river.

Modern events

In recent years, tensions with the lumber industry have flared up again among Algonkin communities, in response to the practice of clear-cutting. In Ontario, an ongoing Algonkin land claim has, since 1983, called into dispute much of the southeastern part of the province, stretching from near North Bay to near Hawkesbury and including Ottawa, Pembroke, and most of Algonquin Provincial Park.

In 2000, Algonkins from Timiskaming First Nation played a significant part in the local popular opposition to the plan to convert Adams Mine into a garbage dump.

In 2007, a part of Liberty City in the game Grand Theft Auto IV will be named Algonquin.

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