Archaeological Mysteries in the Ottawa Area


Beginning in the spring of 2002, a number of articles dealing with the archaeology in and around the city of Ottawa appeared in local newspapers (Boswell 2002a,b,c).  Indeed, there has not been so much attention drawn to the ancient history of the area surrounding the Chaudière Falls since nearly a century ago when T.W. Edwin Sowter was actively researching and publishing his discoveries as a member of the Ottawa Field Naturalists' Club (Jamieson 1999; Pilon 2004; Sowter 1895, 1900, 1901, 1909, 1915, 1917).

Work begins at the site of the new Canadian War Museum; photo: Jean-Luc Pilon

The current round of interest in archaeology stems from a much different source, however.  In the spring of 2002, work finally began on the construction of a new Canadian War Museum building, to be located within Lebreton Flats just beside the Chaudière Falls on the south side of the Ottawa River.  The museum construction project in particular, and the overall redevelopment plans proposed by the National Capital Commission in general, elicited much public attention to this hilly, park-like area at the end of Wellington Street, overlooked by the Library and Archives of Canada.  This area had been the stage for important chapters in the history of Bytown/Ottawa, including the first settlers landing there in the early 1800s, the first tavern, vast lumber yards, lumber barons, senators, etc. (Jenkins 1997; MacAdam 2002). 


View of the site of the Canadian War Museum in April of 2002 as construction was just beginning. In the foreground are the remains of the home of James Skead, a XIXth century lumberman, member of parliament and later senator.

Continuous human occupation of the Flats came to an abrupt end in the mid-1960s when the National Capital Commission expropriated and demolished an entire community and covered it over with landfill, some of it toxic.  Much is at stake with the redevelopment of Lebreton Flats and many elements combine to make it a volatile subject to discuss in some quarters, especially in the media (MacAdam 2002).

A number of newspaper articles, as well as radio and television reports have discussed the potential threats posed to the heritage resources of the Flats that any construction there could represent.  In particular, some of these identified, among other concerns, issues dealing with the potential of discovering Native archaeological remains (see Boswell 2002c).  The latter possibility was put forward based, in large part, on very clear and unambiguous statements made by the avocational archaeologist T.W. Edwin Sowter in articles he published in 1909 and in 1915, and again in a 1917 map of site distributions in the general Ottawa area.  In all instances, Sowter was very adamant that the ossuary discovered by Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt in 1843 and reported in 1853, was "in Ottawa, on the spot that now occupies the north-west angle formed by the intersection of Wellington and Bay Streets" (Sowter 1909:98).  In his 1915 article, he further added that the location was "on the spot now occupied by the Capital brewery" (1915:50).  In both accounts, Sowter cited Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt's (Figure 1) 1853 publication to substantiate his own statements. 

This strong assertion was repeated by Lucien Brault (1946:37-38), a much respected authority on the history of Ottawa who appeared to be citing Dr. Van Cortland (sic), but who obviously was familiar with Sowter's writings as he referred to the existence of other archaeological discoveries in the Ottawa region only presented by Sowter, although he did not cite him directly.

More recent investigative work by Randy Boswell, a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, led to the discovery of a brief note published in the Bytown Gazette of June 15, 1843 (Anonymous 1843).  This note is unsigned and its content, while much abridged, bears some interesting resemblances to the article published by Dr. Van Cortlandt 10 years later (Van Cortlandt 1853).  Boswell appears to have accepted all of the information contained in that 1843 story at face value; in fact he chides scholars for not having discovered this valuable record before him.  At least, this is a conclusion that might be gathered from the following headline: “How Ottawa's history took a wrong turn. The Citizen reveals how an Indian burying ground 'about a half-mile below 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” (Boswell 2002a). 

In the present article I will attempt to compare the two published statements relating to the Ottawa Ossuary in order to assess the degree of confidence that can be placed in one or the other, especially as this bears on the location of this ancient burial ground.  Further, the implications of the uncritical acceptance of the 1843 note in the whole discussion of the Ottawa region's archaeological past will be reviewed.

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