Diggin’ the past: archaeologically, that is

A few weeks ago, this column notified you of the new permanent exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization entitled Kitchi-Sibi. On display are artifacts such as an earthen pot, remnants of a clay pipe, and arrowheads found near Luskville and Quyon.

But the fact of the matter is that the Ottawa River connects us to many villages and sites, all of which share our Pontiac history. For First Nations peoples, the river represents an ancient trade route, used for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans.

And, from the 1600s on, as French and British explorers, then fur traders, then settlers used it as a transportation route, the river connected a string of stopping places, homes, grist mills and other sites of human habitation.

Particularly important along its embankments were the portages around rapids. We have our share of them here in the Pontiac, yet they are by no means exclusive to our region.

Today, many of the mighty rapids such as the Chats are tamed by dams. We can only imagine the scene that Champlain writes about in his 1613 journal of his voyage up the Ottawa with his Algonquin guides. When they portaged around the Chaudière, his companions first burned an offering of tobacco, then gave it to the river to honour the god of the river, a capricious spirit who was well-known to flip a person’s canoe..

Rapids. They inspire fear. They inspire excitement, as today’s kayakers and whitewater canoeists can attest.

But they also inspire archaeologists. Why? Because rapids meant portages. And portages mean people transporting canoes and goods over a trail, to bypass whitewater danger.

So what? People forget things at portages. People drop things. And, in bygone days, portages represented excellent stopping places. They were good spots to pause in the journey, to meet up with fellow travellers, to trade goods and services.

This was true for native bands. This was true for Europeans who settled our shores.

So it was that in 1796 at the Chats Falls, Joseph Mondian cleared a farm, settling in with his family… and establishing a trading place for passers-by. But historians suggest that by 1800 he had left, for reasons unknown but well-imagined, for surely life was hard.

Further downstream, near what used to be the twelve-mile-long Long Sault Rapids, another portage lured folks to set up business. Long-used as a native stopover on either side of the Ottawa River, by 1682 the north side was designated as the Seigneury of Argenteuil, named for a region in France.

And “on July 23, 1788 a survey of 1,000 acres of land on the Ottawa River was completed by King George III in the name of William Fortune; the original Crown Grant to Colonel William Fortune and his heirs was dated March 10, 1797 at the Township of Hawkesbury, County of Glengarry. … The village of Pointe-Fortune, which was originally part of the Seigneurie de Rigaud, was named after Colonel William Fortune.” (p. 10, Valerie Verity’s The Macdonell-Williamson House National Historic Site, ISBN 0-9695824-2-0)

Irish-born Fortune knew a good thing when he saw it, and by 1797 he had erected a distillery, a house, and an enclosed garden connecting both buildings. Located right on the border between Upper and Lower Canada, the site still has a stone marking the old boundary.

In 1813 his son Joseph Fortune sold 1,000 acres to Scottish-born John Macdonell and his Métis wife, Magdeleine Poitras. Macdonell’s story is interesting: born in 1768 he emigrated with his highland Catholic parents to the Mohawk Valley, New York State, in 1773. After the American Revolution the Loyalist family came north to Saint Andrew’s West, and John became a fur trader with the North West Company.

And this occupation meant that he had to paddle up the Ottawa from Sainte-Anne-de-Belleview, portage the Long Sault Rapids, and from there make his way upstream paddling through the Pontiac region and through the great network of rivers and lakes west, to Manitoba’s Red River colony.

It’s there that he fell in love with Magdeleine Poitras and with her as his partner, fathered twelve children. For twenty years, he worked in the Company, first as clerk, then as a wintering partner as of 1796. In 1808 he became part of the prestigious Beaver Club of Montreal (ibid, p. 13). And then, in 1812 at 43 years of age, he retired.

Where did he retire? To the banks of the Long Sault Rapids, which he’d paddled past so frequently in canoes laden with furs.

And he brought Magdeleine and his children with him. Author Verity writes, “On April 24, 1813 John and Magdeleine legally formalized a marriage contract between them, then five days later Macdonell bought the land at Point Fortune and set out to build his empire into which he invested thousands of pounds.” (p. 14)

It was unusual in those times for Europeans to formally marry their First Nations or Métis partners. But it was not unusual for wealthy settlers of Loyalist descent to build stately Georgian homes, which is precisely what Macdonell did.

Today his mills are gone. But his mansion still stands, now a designated National Historic Site, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and historians who felt compelled to see the unique home saved.

And this weekend, you can participate in an on-site dig. Artifacts unearthed in previous years include glass beads used as trade for furs, a china tea bowl, and fragments of old clay pipes. When my godson Dan Citynski carefully used the trowel offered to him, with the site’s CEO Elizabeth Muir supervising, he found an old nail plus very thin, glass dating from the early 1800s. This Vancouver visitor to this old stopping place thought it was all “way cool.” High praise from a thirteen-year-old.

What will you and your kids find at this ancient trading site and stopping place? Who knows.

Why not find out? Head to this fascinating, elaborate Georgian mansion which is slowly being restored, via Highway 148 east. Continue beyond Hull, Gatineau and Montebello to Carillon, where you’ll find the Argenteuill Museum. Take the ferry across to Pointe Fortune, still in Québec but on the south shore of the Ottawa River. Then travel roughly .5 km west. On your right you cannot miss the Macdonell-Williamson (named after the second family who owned it) House. At 2:00 archaeologist Dena Doroszenko who is with the Ontario Heritage Foundation will give a lecture on the home, then direct an excavation team until August 13.

Go. Enjoy your dig, a tea at the home, and then explore the house (don’t miss the jail in the basement). There is also a small gift shop selling souvenirs, local produce plus antiques. Check the website found at www.mwhouse.ca for more historical events in August, else call 613-632-6662, fax 613-632-6699 for more information. Open from noon until 5:00 p.m.; admission $2.00 adults, free for kids 12 & under.

… And just imagine how much fun it would be to have a dig near Chats Falls, near Quyon, sometime in the future..


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based north of Quyon. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com