The Star, donated by Peter Carruthers to the Museum of Ontario Archaeology
ANCIENT FORTS ARE NOW TO BE EXCAVATED
Department of the Interior Takes Charge of Ruins Near Midland on Christian Island. Will be Re-Erected as They Stood in Old Huronia, Three Centuries Ago.
Special to the Star by Staff Reporter
Penetang, July 23.- It is three centuries since the first white man ventured into Ontario. Today a few scattered stones in an obscure thicket near Midland, and another crumbling pile on an infrequented island at the top of Notawassaga Bay are the only tangible evidences of the matchless martyrdom which marked his coming.
These long neglected ruins were once two forts where brave men died. The thicket near Midland was Ste. Marie-on-the-Wye, and the island walls were Ste. Marie II. of Christian Island, and they were built in 1639 and 1649 by a little handful of jesuits and their Huron allies as refuges from a merciless Iroquois foe.
They are to be neglected no longer. In the near future their sites are to be appropriated by an aroused department of the interior, and the ancient forts carefully excavated and rebuilt. In fact, operations are already underway on Christian Island and only an uncertain land title is postponing activities at St. Marie I. It is hoped that before winter comes these two forts may be seen again as they stood 300 years ago.
It is fitting that this should be. With the exception of the wonderfully preserved Fort Marion of St. Augustine Florida, the Ste. Marie forts are probably the oldest fortifications on the North American continent. Moreover, their history is the history of a period in Canada’s past which has never been excelled for courage, fortitude and all those qualities which men hold dear- a period which has been too long forgotten, or never known.
The Star representative was able to visit Ste. Marie-on-the-Wye a day or so ago. Approaching down a narrow lane, through a sagging gate (which may be seen in the accompanying photograph), one comes upon a clump of pines and tangled underbrush. It is a bit disappointing if one has been expecting massive walls, shattered cannon and dead men’s bones. Climbing a straggling fence, investigation of the spot reveals a series of rocky mounds in the shape of a rough oblong. At each corner more distinct stonework marks what was once a thick bastion and along one side a shallow ditch remains from the canal which led to the River Wye some fifty yards away. this is the monument to those who first spelled “Canada” in letters of blood.
Ste. Marie II on Christian Island is somewhat better preserved. The walls still stand in a few places four or six feet high, and in the centre the ancient well is clearly discernible. But since its abandonment centuries ago, it has served merely as a playground for the Indians of the island, lying in long obscurity, “unhonoured and unsung.”
The contemplated excavation of these neglected sites will probably reveal some remarkable relics. From both these forts, the stricken defenders departed in haste and despair and it is almost certain that, inter the six feet of earth which has accumulated and which conceals these ancient walls, lie many tokens of heroic days- messages from the martyred dead, valedictory of a vanished race.
An example of what may be expected is the ancient cannon accidentally discovered on the island two years ago and now lying in the library here despite all the forms of archaeological cunning employed in efforts to remove it to the Provincial Museum at Toronto.
The Star man was given an opportunity of examining the cannon when he secured the above photograph. It is about three feet long, one foot of which is a heavy octagonal bronze butt. The barrel is apparently made of a sheet of iron rolled into a circle and secured by twelve iron rings, half an inch thick and two inches wide. On the upper surface of the bronze butt is the ancient French crown with its fleur de lis, the date, 1630, and the initials “Le G. C.” the meaning of which is unknown though it has been translated as “Le Grand Cardinal” and “Le Grand Chartreuse.”
Canada has other famous relics. There is the Louisbourge bell in the Chateau Ramsay at Montreal, and the “chien d’or” of Quebec- a bronze dog gnawing a bone and for long years the guardian of Quebec’s post office. It bears the enigmatic legend in French: “I am a dog who gnaws a bone, and while I gnaw I dream of him who bit me.” Surpassing these, however, in wealth of historical association, must be reckoned this ancient cannon of the first white men, and because its romantic career is also the story of the two Ste. Marie forts, it is perhaps relevant here.
Francis Parkman, eminent historian of North America relates (in “Jesuits of North America”) how the great Cardinal Richelieu, early in the 17th century, secured for the Jesuit adventurers in the wilderness of Huronia, a small piece of ordnance made by hand by the Sulpician monks of southern France. It was a far cry from the Riviera to the River Wye, but that is the journey the cannon took- a perilous sailing voyage of weeks across the Atlantic, an equally dangerous journey from Quebec up the Ottawa and Mattawa, across the Nipissing, down the roaring rapids of French river by portage and paddle, until finally it was mounted behind the stone walls of the little stronghold which the Jesuits and their Huron allies had built in 1639- Fort Sainte Marie I.
For some ten years this was its home. But in 1649, the relentless Iroquois, grown weary of waylaying his victims outside their domain, invaded Huronia itself- torturing, burning, murdering- sowing desolation. As a last resort, the fort on the Wye was destroyed by its defenders, the remaining Huron villages sacrificed to the flames, and the little band of white men and 8,000 Hurons who remained of a once mighty nation, fled to Christian Island. With them went the cannon of the cardinal. Here a stronger fort was built with heavy walls fourteen feet high. It was the last stand of desperate men and a dying race- the Jesuit and the Huron at bay.
The unutterable horror of winter spent behind the walls of this island refuge is worthy of the pen of a Dante. The stone walls and deep waters turned back the Iroquois, but they were not proof against disease and famine. When spring came, the ground was white with the bones of the dead. Three Hundred Hurons remained of the 8000 who had migrated- the last remnant of a people who once ruled all Huronia. In despair the white men resolved to abandon forever this fiendish country, and early in 1650 they left the island with their handful of Hurons, to seek shelter underneath the walls of old Quebec. On the journey they met a rescuing expedition, but so deep was their horror that both parties turned their backs on Huronia forever, after long years of patient sacrifice and unparalleled suffering.
This time the cannon did not accompany its French masters. It lay deserted on the sands where the last despairing refugee has cast it from his heavily laden canoe, until a clumsy Indian of the year of our Lord, 1919, recalled it from oblivion by a bruised big toe. It is to occupy a prominent place in the extensive tercentenhary celebrations here occurring the week of August 1st- when it will be mounted on a special carriage for the inspection of visitors from all over the continent.
The plans of the two Ste. Marie forts as they existed are roughly outlined above. It was interesting to note that the peculiar bastion construction at each corner of both forts is the work of Vauban, the famous strategist who designed the defences at Verdun, parts of which stand today, and whose design was followed in these small outposts of civilisation in the heart of old Huronia.