Researchers Rewrite History of the Nation’s Capital

Prof. Randy Boswell discovered evidence of the Indigenous burial ground while searching through Ottawa's newspaper archives. (Justin Tang Photo)

Carleton University Journalism Prof. Randy Boswell and Canadian Museum of History Curator, Jean-Luc Pilon, have released groundbreaking research that sheds important new light on the national capital’s archaeological history.

Two co-authored studies in the latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (CJA) cite new evidence of an extensive Indigenous burial ground from as early as 4,900 years ago at “Hull Landing,” the present site of the Canadian Museum of History, directly across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill.

While this site was first investigated in 1843 by the Bytown antiquarian Edward Van Cortlandt, knowledge of the burial ground’s true location was lost for more than a century until a recent series of discoveries by Boswell in 19th-century Ottawa newspaper archives — which also revealed a second major excavation by Van Cortlandt in 1860.

Those findings were shared with Pilon, who is also an adjunct Anthropology professor at Carleton, and led to a broad reassessment of the way pre-contact Aboriginal people would have encountered the place that became Canada’s capital, located at the confluence of three major rivers just below a spectacular waterfall with great spiritual significance: the Chaudière Falls.

The researchers also discovered an 1852 article in the Ottawa Citizen that solved another longstanding archaeological mystery from 19th-century Ottawa and identified what appears to be an otherwise unrecorded discovery in the future capital. These findings, which appeared recently in the Ontario Archaeological Society publication Arch Notes, identified the downtown location of this site as the corner of Wellington and Bay streets, at or near the present-day Library and Archives Canada building.

“These rediscoveries have prompted a major reinterpretation and recalibration of the significance of the Ottawa-Gatineau area in the Indigenous history of Central Canada,” said Boswell. “Thanks to the old newspaper finds and Jean-Luc Pilon’s deep knowledge of the ancient history of this region, we now have a new understanding of the enduring importance of the Chaudière Falls and the nearby burial place in relation to various shoreline archaeological sites around the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau rivers.”

The two CJA articles, entitled “The Archaeological Legacy of Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt” and “Below the Falls: An Ancient Cultural Landscape in the Centre of (Canada’s National Capital Region) Gatineau,”reveal a much-enhanced picture of ancient Ottawa-Gatineau as an important economic and spiritual centre for Indigenous peoples — a “cultural landscape” — for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European explorers.

“This region was a seasonal hub for Indigenous peoples for millennia, long before it was settled by Euro-Canadians in the 19th century and became Canada’s political capital,” said Boswell.

Pilon is scheduled to discuss some of the findings from the two CJA studies at a National Capital Commission-sponsored archaeology lecture today in Ottawa. “Archaeology in the Capital Region: Discovering Our Past,” will also feature presentations from NCC archaeologist Ian Badgley, Chief Kirby Whiteduck of the Algonquin First Nation of Pikwàkanagàn and Quebec archaeologist Daniel Chevrier.

“Archaeological facts are really pretty scarce, and when something new comes along it can change our understanding of the past,” said Pilon. “In this case, we’ve moved a little bit closer to seeing the land the way the people who lived here must have seen and understood it.”

Pilon added: “From what we now know, it seems pretty clear that the landscape between the mouth of the Gatineau River and the Chaudière Falls was a special place. People came from near and far to meet, exchange and trade. They also paid their respects to their ancestors and to the power of the place.”

The CJA studies highlight the use of long-overlooked newspaper archives to uncover new research paths. Boswell’s probing of old Ottawa newspapers in new digital databases is linked to a planned biography of Van Cortlandt, a prolific newspaper contributor and frequent subject of press coverage who contributed to the early development of several Canadian fields of science, including archaeology, geology and zoology.

“These discoveries,” said Boswell, “demonstrate that there’s a largely untapped or under-exploited research resource from Canadian journalism history that can illuminate aspects of Canadian scientific history.”

This entry was written by Dan Rubinstein and posted in the issue. Bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media: http://carletonnow.carleton.ca/?p=13406

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