Archaeological Mysteries in the Ottawa Area

A Comparison of Two Articles

For years, archaeologists (Keatly and Desjardins 1991:14-17; Swayze 2002: 9-12), including the present writer (Pilon and Marois 2001:22), have repeated T.W.E. Sowter's very clear and unambiguous assertion that an ossuary burial had been located in the northwest angle of Bay and Wellington Streets, in the city of Ottawa.  It must be pointed out that the northwest angle of this intersection lies somewhere within Lebreton Flats (see Figure 3)

In spite of Sowter's unequivocal statements about the location of Van Cortlandt's Ottawa Ossuary burial, many archaeologists had nonetheless expressed discomfort with the poor fit of the Lebreton Flats area with Van Cortlandt's (see Table 1) physical description of the location (Swayzepers.comm. 2000).  It was tacitly accepted, however, that the shore area below the Library and Archives of Canada on Wellington Street had been so changed by modern activities as to have probably obliterated the original features of the landscape that Van Cortlandt had lived and worked in.

The recently rediscovered Bytown Gazette article brings new data to the fore concerning the exact location of the ossuary.  It is thus appropriate to review in detail the information contained in both the short 1843 account and somewhat more complete 1853 statement, in order to attempt to identify similarities and differences. 

A careful comparison of the two articles, presented in Table 1, suggests that there is perfect agreement on only a small number of points.  Moreover, there are disturbing discordances between the articles.  Ultimately, divergences must be analyzed and understood as they impact very directly the credence that should ultimately be accorded these accounts and thus the manner in which the history of the area surrounding the Chaudière Falls is recounted.

In both accounts, it is clear that the ossuary was initially discovered by workmen extracting sand, but only the 1853 article provides the ultimate purpose of the sand, namely for the construction of a bridge over the Ottawa River.  Another point where the two accounts coincide perfectly is the number of individuals represented, about 20.  However, even then, the actual words used in the 1843 article (see Table 1) could be read to suggest that the remains of children (no number given) were in addition to the roughly 20 adults, and thus there could well have been more than 20 individuals represented. 

Of the remaining individual points brought out in the articles, there is partial or fair agreement for 4 of these and complete disagreement on 7 of these.  In some cases, these can be easily disregarded, but in most they serve as a basis for significant questions to be asked about the authorship of the 1843 article.

The Chaudière Falls; photo: Library and Archives Canada
Two views of the Chaudiere Falls (Asticou): top image taken in 1887 (part of the Ottawa Field Naturalists' Club photo collection, Library and Archives Canada PA210789); bottom image taken in 1999 by Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization.

For example, when the dentition of the individuals is discussed, both articles indicate that the teeth were in good condition.  However, the later article adds that they were worn from use ("trituration").  It could easily be accepted that such a detail was not essential to the main point that there were no caries in these teeth.  Similarly, in 1853 it was noted that the remains of two dogs heads were included in the burial while earlier a precise number was not given.  Clearly, the number is not important.  In 1843, a guess was advanced about the cause of death of the individuals found in the burial (smallpox).  While the theory of disease is again put forth in 1853, the possibility of violent death in armed conflict was not entirely dismissed. 

This last point regarding cause of death is even more curious when we consider that in 1853 Van Cortlandt states quite emphatically that there was nothing to suggest "that they fell by the tomahawk", seemingly contracting the earlier suggestion of possible violence.  Similarly, the 1843 article interprets damage to one skull as indicative of violence, yet elsewhere in the same article, the unknown author only gives "pestilence" as a possible cause of death. 

Major points not raised in the 1843 article involve elements that would at first seem like striking characteristics that should have warranted some kind of mention.  or example, the 1843 article fails to mention that in addition to 20 or so individuals, there was also a single individual buried "apart from the others".  This individual also stands out for having had a large sandstone boulder placed on his chest, surely an unusual and noteworthy feature. 

In 1853, Van Cortlandt informs us that, with the exception of the skulls, the other skeletal elements "crumbled into dust on exposure to the air".  This must have been very disturbing for the excavator hoping to recover these mute witnesses to an ancient burial pattern.  Yet, no mention is made of this fact in 1843.  Similarly, in 1853 we are informed that the bones were covered in red ochre, but no such mention in found in the 1843 article.

Even more fundamental traits of this burial are not found in both accounts.  For example, in 1843 we are told that the burial was in a small “barrow” or mound.  This is not an insignificant feature, yet in the more elaborate and signed 1853 article, no mention whatsoever is made of it.

Finding the remains of 20 or more people together in a large burial feature must be quite unusual, especially if the remains are all mixed together and possibly fractured in addition to being disarticulated.  This is in fact mentioned by Van Cortlandt in 1853, but not even hinted at in 1843.

Two last points must be described before considering the whole question of the location of the site.  The first is the mention of "Dr. V. Cortlandt" (sic) in the 1843 article.  As mentioned above, this article is unsigned and this reference to Dr. Van Cortlandt is in the third person.  Could this be a literary device? Possibly. 

Van Cortlandt, as we know, was an avid student of natural history.  When comparing the list of artifacts included with the human remains (lists which generally compare well), a significant difference relates to the long club-like item.  In 1843, it is suggested that this is made of wood that has since petrified, while in 1853, it is indicated that the elongated piece of gneiss was "intended" to be used as a war club.  In addition to the question of whether it was intentionally shaped or simply a convenient natural form, the incorrect identification of the raw material is quite remarkable (of course, we cannot be certain which is correct!).

Finally, regarding the location of the mass burial, Van Cortlandt only provides a general description of the physical location and a vague indication of the distance from the Chaudière Falls, about a half mile.  The 1843 article, however, gives very precise information about the location, namely behind Bedard's Hotel in Hull, which was actually situated between ¾ and a full mile from the falls (see Figure 3).  Why would this precise location not have been included by Van Cortlandt in his 1853 article, especially when writing for a scientific audience where precision and detail are paramount?  Moreover, how do we account for the significant difference in the estimation of the distance between the site, if it were at Bédard's Landing, and the falls?

Taken together, there are many points that suggest that the original sources of information for the two articles were not the same.  Significant points were either omitted from one or the other that cannot be explained by space restrictions in the newspaper, alone.  These points were sensational and one would presume that they would have been worthy of inclusion in an article whose purpose was to attract attention as well as inform the readers.

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