In search of historic Iroquoian village, archeologists dig up Montreal parks

When Jacques Cartier arrived in what we now call Montreal nearly 500 years ago, he found a thriving Iroquoian community near the foot of the mountain. Now researchers are digging up city parks to find out what happened to Hochelaga.

Researchers hope to find clues to 16th-century Hochelaga and its inhabitants, who'd disappeared by 1608

Archeology students at Université de Montréal are looking underneath Outremont Park for evidence of the village of Hochelaga. (Navneet Pall/CBC)

Nearly 500 years ago, when Jacques Cartier arrived in what we now call Montreal, he found a thriving Iroquoian community at the foot of the mountain. The French explorer's description of the area offers a window back to that time. 

"And in the middle of these fields is situated and stands the village of Hochelaga, near and adjacent to a mountain, the slopes of which are fertile and are cultivated, and from the top of which one can see for a long distance. We named this mountain Mount Royal," Cartier wrote of his 1535 visit.

"There are some fifty houses in this village and each about fifty or more paces in length, and twelve or fifteen in width, and built completely of wood and covered in and bordered up with large pieces of the bark and rind of trees, as broad as a table, which well and cunningly lashed after their manner."

By the time Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1608, however, there was no evidence of this bustling village nor of its inhabitants, known as the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, in a mystery that has confounded researchers ever since.

For Montreal's 375th anniversary, archeologists from the Université de Montréal and McGill University will be digging up parks in Outremont in the hope of learning more about the village and what happened to its people.

A centuries-old mystery

Researchers believe warfare with the Mohawk nation of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Confederacy, who wanted to control the fur trade in the valley, along with conflicts with Algonquin tribes and exposure to European diseases, may have contributed to the demise of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

Jacques Cartier is depicted here meeting with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians in Hochelaga, in this painting by Lawrence Batchelor, called 'Jacques Cartier à Hochelaga.' (Library and Archives Canada)

While its exact location remains unknown, Hochelaga was designated a national historic site in 1920, and a commemorative rock now sits prominently near the entrance of McGill University.

A 2015 archeological survey in downtown Montreal during the construction of an office tower turned up no evidence of Iroquoian artifacts, but renewed interest in the longstanding quest to determine where Hochelaga once was.

On Wednesday, a team of archeologists led by Michel Plourde, a professor at Université de Montreal, got to work in Outremont Park, at the west end of St-Viateur Street. 

"If Hochelaga was here, we will find it in these test spots," Plourde said. 

"Between the voyage of Jacques Cartier and the arrival of Champlain, these people disappeared. They just vanished from the valley. So, we might have explanations about the reasons why these people were dispersed. Was it about illnesses that were brought by the newcomers from Europe, or was it tribal warfare? We might have some clues about what happened at that time."

Summer-long project

This summer, as part of an initiative dubbed Project Hochelaga, archeologists will conduct searches at 18 sites, including four parks in the borough of Outremont, which spans the eastern slope of Mount Royal.  

This sketch by Giovanni Battista Ramusio is an approximation of the 16th-century village of Hochelaga. (Library and Archives Canada/NMC-1908)

The test sites will be 50 centimetres deep and one metre across. Plourde said his team will be searching for tools, pottery and may even test for DNA.

"There are these clay pots that were burned, that were made on a fire. They are very resistant. They could last for thousands of years."

with files from Navneet Pall