How Ottawa's history took a wrong turn

The Citizen reveals how an Indian burying ground 'about a half-mile below the mighty cataract of the Chaudière' was discovered and then lost for a century -- all because generations of scholars overlooked a simple newspaper story. It's equal parts tragedy, farce and epic.

Randy Boswell
The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, May 18, 2002

A 1833 watercolour by Henry
Pooley of the entrance of the
Rideau Canal was painted
from a site near today's
Canadian Museum of
Henry Pooley's best known painting, a time capsule in watercolours from 1833, has a new story to tell. It shows, in the foreground, a small Indian encampment outside old Wrightstown, at precisely the place where the Canadian Museum of Civilization stands today in the new city of Gatineau. There's food on the fire, a baby at rest against the teepee, a loyal dog sitting quietly by its master's side.

Across the Ottawa River, there are only faint traces of settlement amid the trees that still dominate Bytown's signature bluffs: Nepean Point, Major's Hill, and the truly spectacular promontory that will become Parliament Hill.

The painter's edges are soft and his hues blend easily. Humanity has so far been unable to overthrow nature, and the white newcomers haven't yet squeezed the land's aboriginal occupants out of the picture. The water is pristine, the sky sublime. There is a momentary harmony at the heart of Canada.

But somewhere below the surface of Pooley's famous scene -- perhaps back where the artist was standing to gain his perspective or some short distance off to the right -- a drama set in sand was waiting to unfold.

The remains of at least 20 native people were buried there. The story of how they were discovered, extracted, transformed, lost, forgotten, remembered and misremembered is equal parts tragedy, farce and epic.

When a workman's shovel first struck bone behind Jean Bédard's hotel in June 1843, a passion for archeology was sparked among the pioneer settlers of Wrightstown and Bytown, but a colossal misunderstanding was also set in motion; meanwhile, for the Algonquin people of the region, a profound sense of place -- and a sand-cloaked sleep that might have been measured in millennia -- was shattered.

Now, 159 years later, the native people whose own ancestors might have been buried once in the sandy slope along the Ottawa River are welcoming new information that could help pinpoint the location of that prehistoric gravesite. They have already performed ceremonies there -- near the property line between the Scott Paper plant and the museum -- to help settle the spirits of those unearthed ancients, whose very bones may be helping to bind the stone blocks of buildings on Parliament Hill.

Jean-Luc Pilon has a special fondness for Pooley's painting of the entrance locks at the Rideau Canal. He spied it in a book once and recognized immediately that it offered an early 19th-century view from the grounds of the museum where he works as an archeologist for the Ontario region.

"Pooley was an engineer so that's as good as you're going to get to a photograph in 1833," says Mr. Pilon.

But there was a problem obtaining a copy of the painting. His descriptions of a teepee on the right side of the picture confused an official at the National Gallery of Canada. The teepee in her version of the Pooley was on the left. "In the book," he recalls, "they reversed it."

Mistakes and history go hand-in-hand, Mr. Pilon says. And this week, after the Citizen located a long-lost newspaper article that shed new light on the location of the 1843 excavation of an Indian burial ground, he and other Ottawa-area archeologists learned that the story they've been telling people for years was off by about half a mile.

"The ossuary that everybody talked about in Ottawa likely wasn't in Ottawa," he says. "This is really important news."

How a mixup about the location of such a key archeological site could have occurred is as much a mystery as the whereabouts of the skulls and bones that Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt actually unearthed half-a-century ago.

Dr. Edward Van Courtlandt
In June 1843, workers were digging sand at a pit along the Ottawa River to make mortar for the construction of the Union Bridge over the Chaudière Falls. When they began digging up bones, the well-known antiquarian Van Cortlandt was called out to the site.

His findings, published in a scientific journal in February 1853, were startling. "The best portion of two whole days was spent by me at the diggings, and the fruits of my research were as follows: One very large, apparently common grave, containing the vestiges of about 20 bodies of various ages, a goodly share of them being children, together with portions of the remains of two dogs' heads," he wrote. "Nothing, however, could be detected on the skulls, to indicate that they fell by the tomahawk, but save sundry long bones, a few pelvi, and six perfect skulls, the remaining crumbled into dust upon exposure to air."

An intriguing feature of the remains was that they were all deeply coloured from the red ochre that certain native groups smeared on the flesh of their dead.

"A few implements and weapons of the very rudest description were discovered," Van Cortlandt added, including "a sandstone boulder weighing about four pounds; it was found lying on the sternum of a chief of gigantic stature, who was buried apart from the others, and who had been walled round with great care."

No one knows how thoroughly Van Cortlandt searched the site in question. But generations of scholars, tantalized by the descriptions found in the doctor's 1853 paper, have been disappointed when they combed the report for solid clues about the precise location of the burial ground.

All it offers is this stunningly unhelpful set of details: the site was "situated on a projecting point of land directly in rear of their encampment, at a carrying place, and about half a mile below the mighty cataract of the Chaudière; it at once demonstrated a fact handed down to us by tradition, that the aborigines were in the habit, when they could, of burying their dead near running waters."

History was about to take a wrong turn. Time and Van Cortlandt passed away, and when a new generation of Ottawa-area relic hunters sought to revisit key archeological sites in the early 1900s, all first-hand knowledge of the Van Cortlandt ossuary had disappeared.

In 1915, historian and archeologist T.W. Edwin Sowter appears to have propelled a host of 20th century scholars in the wrong direction with this inexplicable description of the coordinates of Van Cortlandt's discovery: "Residents of the capital will be surprised to learn that a Feast of the Dead ... was once held at a spot now occupied by the Capital brewery, within the angle formed by the north line of Wellington and west line of Bay streets."

There is no source to explain where Sowter got his strangely precise information. But book after book about Ottawa history would perpetuate the false location -- which today coincides roughly with the site occupied by the National Archives of Canada in downtown Ottawa.

"It's only absolute speculation," says Mr. Pilon, "but I think Sowter asked somebody who might have known Van Cortlandt." The source, whom Sowter must have trusted, probably provided the incorrect information, Mr. Pilon suggests. "He had no reason to lie."

No writer touching on the archeological history of Ottawa has escaped Sowter's snare. "At the northwest angle of Bay and Wellington streets," wrote historian Lucian Brault in his 1946 publication Ottawa Old & New, "numerous human bones and skulls were found in 1843 by workmen engaged in digging sand..."

Van Cortlandt "was maddeningly vague in stating exactly where the bones were found," fumed Phil Jenkins 50 years later in his lyrical history of LeBreton Flats, An Acre of Time. But, following the academic literature on the issue, the author concluded that "the likely site of the ossuary" is "now occupied by the National Library."

Mr. Pilon says that "everybody has since repeated the error, including yours truly."

Full disclosure: A Citizen article published earlier this week declared the discovery of the Van Cortlandt ossuary "easily Ottawa's most important archeological event." Important, yes. Ottawa, no.

Where Van Cortlandt really carried out his grave excavation was revealed after the discovery of a June 15, 1843 news story published about the dig in the little-known pioneer newspaper Bytown Gazette. The story, which explicitly gives a location for the gravesite on the north side of the Ottawa River, matches Van Cortlandt's 1853 description of the dig almost phrase for phrase.

But the key passage is this: "About a fortnight since, whilst some workmen were engaged in digging sand from a pit immediately in the rear of Bédard's Hotel, at Hull, they accidentally came upon human bones."

The story goes on to note that the items taken from the site "are now in the possession of Dr. V. Cortlandt, Bytown, and who will be thankful for any similar relics."

Mr. Pilon, who considers the "fresh" newspaper account from 1843 a highly reliable source of information, said simply: "When I read this, I'm saying to myself, 'Why did we ever think it was in Ottawa?' "

Mysteries beget mysteries.

Bédard's Hotel, archeologist Ken Swayze quickly noted, must have been run by the same Jean Bédard who ran a ferry service in the mid-19th century across the Ottawa River between the entrance locks of the Rideau Canal and the point of land on the opposite shore.

"When the first Union Bridge collapsed in 1836, a scow was immediately pressed into service as a temporary ferry," wrote Robert Legget in Ottawa Waterway. "This was succeeded by one of the most unusual craft ever to sail on the Ottawa -- a one-horsepower ferry boat, actually operated by a horse installed in a special driving cage. It was provided by a John Bédard and gave good service until the opening of the Suspension Bridge on 17 Sept. (1844)."

Michelle Guitard, a historical consultant with considerable experience researching heritage properties in Gatineau, conducted an archival search for the Citizen to try to pin down the location of Bédard's Hotel.

She quickly put together a profile of Jean Bédard -- who in the late 1840s became a member of the inaugural Bytown municipal council and its first French-Canadian member. Mr. Bédard had worked as a clerk for Outaouais pioneer Philemon Wright in the 1830s and later rented the Wright family's tavern -- or hotel -- located at Hull Landing. That stretch of land is today the jutting shoreline on north side of the river occupied by the Scott Paper plant and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

In 1843, Ms. Guitard discovered, Philemon Wright's son, Ruggles, rented the tavern and store to Mr. Bédard. She also found that the tall stone building known as the "digester tower," and situated between the museum playground and the Scott property, was the approximate site of the hotel.

"It can be deduced that the ancient Indian burial ground was probably near the actual digester tower," she concluded. She added that although the Gatineau street grid and shoreline have been altered dramatically over the years, and that although it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the actual location, it was more likely that Bédard's Hotel was on the Scott property than the museum's.

Mr. Pilon points out that whatever archeological artifacts the area around the museum might have once held, such deposits were long ago destroyed or removed through the industrial land uses along that stretch of the Ottawa River shore.

"The ancient history component of that site was apparently destroyed in the 1860s." Roger Marois, a retired archeologist who conducted testing at the future site of the museum in the early 1980s, agreed that the prehistoric potential was long gone generations ago. "I made various tests where it wasn't paved," he said. He and his team pulled out a number of 19th-century relics, including an entire mill stone whose retrieval prompted a Citizen story in 1983.

As for aboriginal artifacts: "I didn't find anything else."

A large area of Gatineau shoreline west of what today is the Alexandra Bridge -- taking in the portions of the footprints of the museum and Scott buildings -- was used as a sand pit in the mid-1800s, several sources told the Citizen. But it is T.W. Edwin Sowter -- the man likely responsible for a century's lost acquaintance with Van Cortlandt's ossuary -- who offers one of the most intriguing descriptions of operations at the sand pit that must have surrounded the site of Bédard's Hotel.

"One may observe, on approaching Hull by the Alexandra bridge, an extensive cut bank of sand and gravel, between the E. B. Eddy Co.'s sulphide Mill and the end of the bridge, and between Laurier Ave., and the river," Sowter wrote. "This is the place from which the late Edward Haycock procured sand for building purposes on the Eastern and Western Blocks of the Departmental buildings, at Ottawa. During the excavation of this bank, a great many Indian relics were discovered, such as womens' knives, arrow-heads, tomahawks and pottery, but no description of this pottery is, obtainable. Here, according to white and red tradition, many bloody encounters took place between parties ascending or descending the river."

Mr. Pilon says similar accounts have emerged from the history of the sites now occupied by the museum, which was formerly known as Laurier Park, and the Scott plant.

"They were coming there to quarry sand to make mortar to build those two buildings," he says. "I would think it's inevitable that small fragments of things, small chips of stone, small bits of tools, small pieces of pottery, would more than likely have been incorporated in small minute quantities. It's interesting that the houses of Parliament contain artifacts from the local people in the area, the local history."

A distinct possibility emerges from stories of the sand extraction at the site shared by Scott and the museum and the new knowledge that human remains were also found there in 1843. In his account of the retrieval of bones behind Bédard's Hotel, Van Cortlandt describes how, except for "sundry long bones, a few pelvi, and six perfect skulls, the remaining crumbled into dust upon exposure to air."

Could the pulverized bones of ancient aboriginals, finally reduced to dust when they are disturbed after countless centuries of burial, be among the materials holding the East Block and West Block office buildings together on Parliament Hill?

Gilbert Whiteduck doesn't like to contemplate such scenarios. The education director of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation near Maniwaki, and a manager of the ongoing Leamy Lake archeological dig in Gatineau, says the issue of whether to disturb human remains of any kind is clearcut for him and most aboriginal people.

"Let it lie," he says, expressing no interest in the idea of searching for the remnants of what non-natives have come know as Van Cortlandt's ossuary and what to the Algonquin people consider sacred ground.

That said, he says discovery of the true whereabouts of the burial site desecrated in 1843 is "of tremendous interest" to the native community around Ottawa.

Meetings have already been scheduled to discuss the development, Mr. Whiteduck said, and to consider whether a group of Algonquin elders will gather in Gatineau to perform ceremonies to settle the spirits of unearthed ancestors.

"We're walking in their footsteps," he says. "If you know there's a burial site, it's our responsibility to protect it. Never for a moment do anything to disturb it."

He says gaining knowledge about where aboriginal people were once buried is important because it allows native groups to better trace their history. Having young people involved in archeological searches for ancient pottery or tools is another way of reinforcing "connections" between the present and the past, he says.

Mr. Whiteduck noted that whether the Van Cortlandt burial site was or was not on the property of the current Canadian Museum of Civilization, the remains of hundreds of other aboriginal people remain within its walls -- "artifacts" of long-forgotten archeological digs similar to the one carried out by Bytown's adventurous physician.

Mr. Pilon points out that the museum has established a process for returning human remains to aboriginal communities, but that each case must be handled according to guidelines to ensure there aren't "competing claims" from other native groups for the same remains.

Yesterday, not far from the apparent site of the Van Cortlandt ossuary, Algonquin elder William Commanda examined a copy of the Henry Pooley painting and its view across the Ottawa River.

As he stood close to the exact spot where Pooley must have poised his brush 169 years ago, Mr. Commanda picked out each of the bluffs across the water and matched them to the dark hills in the painting. He smiled at the sight of the Indians in the foreground, commenting that his ancestors have come to the Ottawa River for thousands of years.

"We were nomads," he said. "We never stayed in the same place for long." Except, of course, after death. Staying in the same place for eternity, says Mr. Commanda, is what bones should do.

Mr. Commanda said men in the age of Edward Van Cortlandt considered the Algonquin people and the members of other native groups "savages" and thought nothing of plundering graves. He spoke several prayers with a raised feather and then spread pinches of tobacco on the grass at the base of the digester tower. Then he closed his eyes and held still.

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen

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