Construction Project Halted at Possible Site of Lost Indian Village of Hochelaga
MONTREAL, QUEBEC, CANADA—-In mid-February, 2015, preliminary excavation work was abruptly halted on a new, 27-storey, $200-million-dollar office complex, located in the heart of downtown Montreal. This followed media reports of concerns by historians and archaeologists that some of the last vestiges of the lost indian village of Hochelaga could lie below the parking lot that covers the site.
Hochelaga was first visited and described by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535. Cartier, known as the ‘Founder of Canada,’ was the first European to venture that far west into the New World (while mapping the Gulf of St Lawrence and the St Lawrence River), a massive frontier that would eventually give birth to the nation of Canada.
The controversy started on January 30, when the half-acre parking lot, surrounded by a forest of towering new skyscrapers, was fenced-off as excavating machinery began digging deep under the lot to lay a sewer system. In 1860, near this same spot, two workers, digging for sand to be used as landfill, uncovered 20 indian skeletons and numerous stunning artefacts from the famous village.
Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899), then principal of neighbouring McGill University, was alerted to the finds and investigated the site. From his observations, he speculated that there may have been as many as 300 additional gravesites in close proximity to where the 20 graves were found, near the corners of de Maisonneuve Boulevard and Metcalfe Street, in the heart of this city of 3-million people.
Then, on February 14th, after extensive media coverage concerning the possible loss of history enraged Canadians, the project was voluntarily put on hold by the promoter, while they (Ivanhoe-Cambridge) and a team of archaeologists and city and provincial officials discussed a strategy for the excavation and construction, while protecting any valuable cultural objects, (including human remains) that may be uncovered. (The date has not been publicly announced for the start of new excavations as of yet).
According to explorer Cartier’s diary, on the afternoon of his October 3nd visit, he noted that the extensive palisade fortress held 50 longhouses and about 1500 residents. Corn fields covered the surrounding land for as far as the eye could see; evidence that the culture of this native group was largely based on agriculture.
The next European to visit Montreal, after Cartier, was explorer and cartographer Samuel de Champlain in 1603. When Champlain went looking for Hochelaga there was no trace left of the village or the Hochelagan people.
What happened to this most famous of Canadian Indian villages and its people has been a huge mystery ever since Champlain’s visit, over 400-years ago.
Even with Dawson’s observations, (a geologist with an inquisitive interest in archaeology) and the collection of artefacts and sampling of human remains retrieved, there was not enough evidence, or exploration of the size of the site, to give an accurate dimension or exact location of the village, as it was buried under farmers’ fields. In fact, the workers, on that very same and only day that Dawson helped gather evidence from the sand, reburied most of the human remains near where they were found, except for a very small sampling of bones. Dawson did, however, retrieve and keep hundreds of ceramic pottery shards, clay pipes, miscellaneous tools and stone and bone hunting implements.
Dawson was not an archaeologist, although his observation and collection is known as Canada’s first archaeological excavation, as rudimentary as it may seem. He (a devout Christian) obviously had a great respect and compassion for the dead that were uncovered, and feared the remains could be abused or placed on someone’s mantelpiece as some sort of morbid decoration, as was common at the time; hence the immediate re-burial of the remains.
DNA analysis would not become a valid science until some 120-years after these discoveries and any human remains tested now, from the Dawson period, would not be reliable due to cross-contamination. But should other undisturbed remains be found, as would be hoped for below this parking lot, then many of the questions could be answered by modern scientific procedure.
The age-old questions still remain. Were the Hochelagan people amalgamated into other tribes due to inter-tribal warfare? Or, did the exhaustion of the local soil (used to produce their food staple, corn) become unproductive, forcing them to move? Or, perhaps did they fall victim to disease brought by Cartier and his entourage, or from other sources? And what was their race – Iroquois or St Lawrence Iroquoian? (These people are 2 distinct peoples and are not to be confused with one another).
Researchers know very little, and as time passes and new buildings are raised, the few potential sites (such as the Metcalfe site and perhaps two other much smaller nearby locations) which may hold the answer to these age-old secrets, are threatened by new development themselves. In fact, one under the site of another parking lot is also being excavated and developed at this time.
It is interesting to note that the remains of former British king, King Richard the III, were discovered in Britain in 2012 under a Leicester parking lot, of all places.
We have no answers to the fascinating questions concerning the mystery of Hochelaga. This is why it is imperative to glean as much information from this time period as possible, before it is destroyed and lost to the bulldozers and expediency, if it is not already too late. And it should not be left up to the developer or sometimes ill-informed heritage groups to decide if or how a site is to be explored; particularly heritage groups that garner a major proportion of their funding from developers who solicit projects in heritage-sensitive areas. This raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. This just makes common sense and begs for reflection.
With modern scientific procedure, especially if human remains are found, we may be able to finally unlock (through DNA analysis) the great mystery of Hochelaga and its people, who were the first Canadians.
To uncover the mystery of Hochelaga, (which, by the way, was, with surrounding area, declared a National Historic Site in 1920) we have to decide whether development takes priority over extremely important and sensitive archaeological sites, or whether the knowledge of who we are and where we came from is more important than another hurriedly pushed-through development. It should be a matter of practice that those seeking a development permit near or on a potentially sensitive archaeological site are obliged to have a neutral archaeologist on site for the initial excavation period. This just makes common sense, unless there is something the developer is hoping to conceal, which they feel may delay a project or add to the developer’s bottom line.
In 2035, Montreal will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the city by Cartier. Meanwhile, this ‘dig-destroy-dump’ attitude that Montreal and Quebec officials appear to have embraced continues largely unabated. Certainly one would think that this attitude must be reconsidered and re-addressed and policy changed if needed.
Both development and the uncovering of our past can succeed and co-exist. We already know this from great cities such as Rome, London and New York. But what will it take to make those who dictate the course of our future to realize that ‘knowledge can bring the dead back to life,’ even as we move forward into the future? We still have that remote chance of discovery and realization within our grasp, concerning this amazing period of our nation’s birth, though fleeting as it may be.
In summation; there will never be another Hochelaga; however, office complexes and skyscrapers are here to stay – and prospering.
Robert J. Galbraith/journalist/amateur historian.
February 22, 2015.