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There may be a misconception today that the Indigenous lived in teepees across Canada, were nomadic and did not live in large communities. This, to put it simply, is quite false. From what would be British Columbia all the way to the Maritimes, larger communities had popped up and existed around the time that the Europeans began to arrive at the shores of what would one day be Canada.
Today on the podcast, I am looking at two of the biggest and most important; Stadacona and Hochelaga.
First, Stadacona, an Iroquois village.
It is not known what year that the community first sprang up but it likely existed for at least a century by the time that Jacques Cartier arrived. At the time he arrived, its population was believed to be around 500 Indigenous.
Located along the St. Charles River, its location would be well-known to many Canadians today because it is right near where Quebec City would be built. At the time of the arrival of Cartier, Donnacona was the chief of the village. Cartier would set the stage for centuries of mistreatment of the Indigenous during that first visit to the community when he seized Donnacona and several inhabitants. After he placed a cross near the village, Cartier signaled to Donnacona he wanted to trade with him on the ship. When Donnacona went aboard with his two sons, Cartier and his men seized them. Donnacona was able to negotiate with Cartier, allowing his sons to go with the explorer back to France for a year in exchange for not taking other inhabitants. Cartier agreed to this.
Cartier returned the next year, arriving on Sept. 7, with the sons and he would record a word that would forever alter the history of Canada. During the visit, he recorded a word that the sons had used to refer to their home, calling it Kanata. That word, which he believed to mean the entire land, would morph over time and become Canada.
Cartier would stay over the winter at Stadacona, and even though he had attempted to steal people, the people there still showed kindness. As Cartier’s men were starting to die from scurvy, the Iroquois people provided them with a vitamin-rich broth that helped cure the scurvy.
Cartier would write, “for some lost all their strength, their legs became swollen and inflamed and all had their mouths so tainted that the gums rotted away down to the roots of the teeth which nearly fell out. The disease spread among the three ships to such an extent that in the middle of February, of the 110 men forming our company, there were not 10 in good health.”
The broth made by the Indigenous was made from cedar leaves that were boiled. When offered the drink, Cartier’s men refused to drink it at first but were eventually convinced and after two or three cups, were already feeling much better.
Cartier, who had been praying and ordered all his men to pray for a cure, and who had a figure of the Virgin Mary carried across the snow and placed against a tree. When his men were cured, he didn’t think it was the Indigenous, he believed it was God. He would write.
“Must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes. God in his infinite goodness and mercy had pity upon us.”
While European scientists would figure out what scurvy was and how to cure it, the Indigenous of Stadacona had a cure in the 1500s, thanks to the cedar broth being loaded with Vitamin C.
Sadly, that same winter, 50 residents of Stadacona would die from diseases carried in by the Europeans. Cartier, as soon as spring came, repaid the kindness of the people of the village by capturing Donnacona, both of his sons and seven other residents of the village and took them back to France. Nine of the ten captured Iroquois would die in France and the last surviving captured resident would never return home.
Cartier returned to Stadacona five years later and found that the village was a shell of its former self. It is likely that as the residents began to die from European diseases, and with their chief and his sons now kidnapped, the residents were left to the mercy of their enemies. He would tell the residents that Donnacona had passed away but all the others who were kidnapped were rich and happy, all lies of course. It didn’t matter, the residents didn’t believe him and the relationship soon soured.
Jean-Francois Roberval arrived at the village shortly after Cartier and traded with the village despite the hostile feelings towards the French by the residents. By 1603, when the French returned to the site, the village was gone completely.
On the site of the village, Samuel de Champlain would choose to establish l’Habitation, which would eventually become Quebec City.
As for Hochelaga, it is not known when the community was founded but is believed to be around 1200 AD. Also, the name may not be the actual name used by the Indigenous. It is possible the name comes from the French corruption of the Iroquois name osekare which means beaver dam, or osheaga, which means big rapids. This is likely since the village was located near the Lachine Rapids.
The community was no small community either. It was surrounded by a large wooden palisade, and had 50 houses made of wood and bark and the population was estimated to be over 1,000 people, with some claiming it had as many as 3,000.
Cartier would arrive at this village by boat on Oct. 2, 1535. He had learned of the village from Donnacona but Donnacona had discouraged Cartier from travelling to the west and shamans warned him of devils in the west, but Cartier did not listen. According to Cartier, the chief and his men attempted to keep the French from journeying up the river in a unique way. Cartier would write, “they dress up three men as devils, arraying them in black and white dog skins, with horns as long as one’s arm and their faces coloured black as coal and unknown to us put them into a canoe.” Cartier was warned that the god Cudouagny, as well as three Christian deities, had announced at Hochelaga that, in the words of Cartier, “there would be so much ice and snow that all would perish.”
With Donnacona’s sons as guides, and with Cartier leaving men in the village in return, he had set out to find Hochelaga.
Upon his arrival, he would write, “And on reaching Hochelaga, there came to meet us more than 1,000 persons, men, women and children, who gave us a good a welcome as ever father gave to his son, making great signs of joy for the men danced in one ring, the women in another and the children also apart by themselves.”
The Indigenous threw cornbread and fish into the boats of Cartier, with Cartier writing “throwing so much of it into our longboats that it seemed to rain bread.”
He and his men had arrived about 11 kilometres up river and the next day walked a well-worn path towards the community. Upon arriving, he saw the community was surrounded by hills and fields of corn.
Feeling that the community was more impressive than Stadacona, he would write, “And here within the countryside is situated and sits the said town of Hochelaga, near and joining a mountain that is, around it, ploughed and very fertile, from on top of which one can see very far.
He would name that mountain Mount Royal in honour of King Francis I of France. During his visit in the community, he would also write, “the said town is all in a circle, enclosed in wood, in three ranks, in the manner of a pyramid, crossed at the top, having a row perpendicular to it all. And this town there is only one door and entrance. There are within this town roughly fifty houses.”
The palisade that protected the community had a middle row that was upright, while the inner and outer rows inclined towards it, braced with horizontal beams.
According to Cartier, the houses were 15 metres in length and 3.5 to 4.5 metres in width, made of wood and were covered in bark that was sewn together. The palisade was made up of three rows of wooden stakes that were driven into the ground, each 15 metres high and intertwined using sections of bark and large trees.
Within the village were many long houses, which Cartier described as such, “in each one of them, there are several hearths and several rooms.”
Cartier described the upper floor of these longhouses being used for storing food and smoked fish.
The people of the village were very welcoming to Cartier, and marveled at him and his men and their strange appearance. He would write, “They showed their joy, danced and performed various antics.”
After a tour of the village, he was then taken up to the top of Mount Royal, writing in his description that the mountain was “distant from the village by about a quarter-league…We can see the said river, other than where we left our boats, where there is rapid, the most impetuous is given to see, one which is not possible for us to pass.”
Unlike with Stadacona, Cartier did not try to kidnap anyone and would leave the area, writing later, “we withdrew to our boats, not without a great number of the said people, a part of which, that when they saw our people tired, took them upon themselves, as on a horse, and carried them.”
He was unable to go any farther because of the rapids, ending his hopes of seeing if the St. Lawrence River led to the Pacific Ocean. Spoiler, it did not.
When Cartier returned to the island in 1541, he does not mention the town and it is believed that it had been conquered and destroyed through war, although there are several theories for its disappearance. One is the aforementioned war, another is migration westward toward the shores of the Great Lakes, but another theory put forward that is likely s that the village was abandoned after a cycle of land exhaustion.
On the location of Hochelaga, a small village called Ville-Marie would be founded in 1642 but over time the residents began to use the name of the island for the colony name. The name of the island was the Island of Montreal, and so the two most important cities in Quebec, and in Canada, are built on the former communities of the Iroquois who lived there when Europeans arrived.
One interesting aspect of the village is that some believe that it may be a myth because no physical evidence of the village exists, which I personally feel is unlikely and pushes a European centric view that the Indigenous could not have had such a complex settlement. The fact is that Cartier wrote about the village following his second trip and presented it to the King of France. A detailed plan of the village was also drawn up years later by Giacomo Gastaldi and was titled Of Navigation and Travel.
It is likely, based on archeological studies, that Hochelaga ceased to exist between 1541 and 1603, when Samuel de Champlain arrived. Most likely, it saw its last resident around 1580.
That’s not to say that the story of Hochelaga was lost for those centuries. French settlers met with Indigenous people in 1642 and were given a grand tour following a religious festival in the area. Father Barthelemy Vimont would write, “we visited the great forest which covers this island and when we had been led to the mountain from which it takes its name, two of the chief savages of the band stopped on its summit and told us they belonged to the nation of those who had formerly dwelt on the island. Then, stretching out their hands towards the hills that lie to the east and south of the mountain, there said they are the places where stood villages filled with great numbers of savages. The Hurons, who then were our enemies, drove our Forefathers from this country. Some went towards the country of the Algonquin, others towards the country of the Iroquois, some to the Hurons themselves and joined them. And that is how this island became deserted.”
In 1860, construction at McGill University in the area of Sherbrooke Street would result in many Indigenous objects being found including pottery and tools. These items were found to date from the Cartier era and Sir John Dawson, the principal of McGill, stated that Hochelaga had been found. Others would theorize that Hochelaga was located elsewhere in the area, near a flat area between Mount Royal Cemetery and Maplewood Avenue.
Whatever the real story is, both of these communities served as important meeting places and habitations for likely several generation of Indigenous of that area, and upon their ruins two of Canada’s most important cities would be built.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, ThisisCanadiana, Canada’s History, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, and The Journal Of American Folklore Society 1894.