Archaeological Mysteries in the Ottawa Area

Notice of an Indian Burying Ground

(originally published in 1853, The Canadian Journal, Vol. I(7): 160-161)

 By Edward Van Courtland (sic), Bytown

In the summer of the year 1843, whilst some workman were engaged in digging sand for the mortar used in the construction of the piers of the wire suspension bridge at Bytown, suddenly came in contact with a number of human bones, and having been apprized of the circumstances, I lost no time in proceeding to the scene of their operations.  A very little investigation served 

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to shew they had discovered an Indian burial-place.  Nothing possibly could have been more happily chosen for sepulture than the spot in question, 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.  The sand where these remains were discovered is of the very purest description, forming a superstratum of many feet thickness at its upper part, and gradually ending in a feathery edge over the fossiliferous limestone which constitutes the bed of the river.  The very oldest settlers, including the Patriarch of the Ottawa, the late Philemon Wright, and who had located near by some thirty years before, had never heard of this being a burial-place, although Indians existed in considerable numbers about the locality when he dwelt in the forest; added to this, the fact of a huge pine tree growing directly over one of the graves, was conclusive evidence of its being used as a place of sepulture long ere the white man in his progressive march had desolated the hearths of the untutored savage.  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 twenty bodies, of various ages, a goodly share of them being children, together with portions of the remains of two dogs heads; the confused state in which the bones were found, shewed that no care whatever had been taken in burying the original owners; and a question presented itself, as to whether they might not have all been thrown indiscriminately in one pit at the same time, having fallen victims to some epidemic, or beneath the hands of some other hostile tribe; 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 on exposure to the air.  In every instance the bones were deeply coloured from the Red Hematite which the aborigines used in painting, or rather bedaubing their bodies, falling in the form of a deposit on them when the flesh had become corrupted.  This material appears to have been very avishly applied from the fact of the sand which filled the crania being entirely coloured by it.  A few implements and weapons of the very rudest description were discovered, to wit:—1st, a piece of Gneiss about two feet long, tapering, and evidently intended as a sort of war club; it is in size and shape not unlike a policeman's staff.  2nd, a stone gouge, very rudely constructed of fossiliferous limestone, it is about ten inches long, and contains a fossil leptena on one of its edges; it was used, as I lately learned from an Iroquois Chief, for skinning the Beaver.  3rd, a stone hatchet of the same material.  4th, 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.  The boulder in question is completely circular, and much in the shape of a large ship biscuit before it is stamped or place in the over; its use was, after being sewed in a skin bag, to serve as a corselet, and protect the wearer against the arrows of an adversary.  In every instance the teeth were perfect, and not one unsound one was to be detected, at the same time they were all well worn down by trituration, it being a well-known fact that in Council the Indians are in the habit of using their lower jaw like a ruminating animal, which fully accounts for the peculiarity.  There were no arrow heads or other weapons discovered. 

Introduction | Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt | A Comparison of Two Articles

The Burden of Proof | In Defence of Bédard's Landing | T.W. Edwin Sowter's Certainty

Final Considerations | 1843 Bytown Gazette Article | 1853 Van Cortlandt Article

References Cited