Montreal Gazette

Just where is Hochelaga? Archeologi­sts digging for the truth beneath the city

Pre-colonial Iroquois settlement ruled out as too old


Encouraged by the discovery of a 13th-century Iroquois village beneath busy downtown streets, archeologi­sts plan to continue their search for evidence of the elusive Hochelaga settlement on the island of Montreal.

In 2016, when constructi­on work was set to begin on Sherbrooke St. near McGill University, private archeologi­cal firm Ethnoscop was called in to search the ground beneath the site.

They found the remains of a pre-colonial Iroquois settlement that showed some signs of being the remains of Hochelaga village: the thriving, fortified farming hub encountere­d by Jacques Cartier when he first sailed down the St. Lawrence in 1535. Among the artifacts uncovered at the site were thousands of pieces of pottery, ceramic pipes, stone tools and a beluga tooth. The discovery was made public only recently.

But the village, while large, isn’t Hochelaga. The artifacts are too old, according to Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archeologi­st at the Université de Montréal: they date back to the 13th century or earlier, at least 100 years before Cartier’s voyage.

Gates St-Pierre is excited about the discovery nonetheles­s. He said it’s significan­t because it provides a rare glimpse into the history of the people who lived in the St. Lawrence Valley before it was colonized.

“We don’t have that many precolonia­l sites in Montreal, let alone sites associated with the Iroquois,” he said. “It gives us insight into their technology, their way of life, their diet.”

We don’t have that many pre-colonial sites in Montreal, let alone sites associated with the Iroquois.

Gates St-Pierre said the beluga tooth was especially significan­t because it provided informatio­n on the relationsh­ip between the Iroquois and other First Nations peoples.

“It shows that these people were in contact with groups from farther up the estuary because normally belugas wouldn’t make their way to Montreal,” he said.

The exact size of the Sherbrooke site is not known because the archeologi­sts weren’t able to search a large area due to surroundin­g buildings. However, more excavation­s are set to begin around Peel St. as early as next week.

“If it correspond­s to a village, it’s likely very large. An Iroquois village is usually composed of several structures,” Gates St-Pierre said. “It’s likely that the site continues underneath other properties.”

While not directly involved with the discovery of the Sherbrooke site, Gates St-Pierre is still trying to find traces of the elusive Hochelaga settlement.

He’s the lead researcher of a team that has been looking for traces of the village across the island of Montreal.

According to Cartier’s descriptio­n, Hochelaga was composed of about 50 longhouses inhabited by 1,000 to 2,000 people. It was protected by an 18-foot-high triple palisade. Outside, the Iroquoians farmed corn, squash and beans, as well as sunflowers.

When Cartier returned on his second voyage to the region in 1541, the settlement had disappeare­d. Locating the site has been the cause of archeologi­cal debate for years, but Gates St-Pierre hasn’t given up hope of finding it.

“It’s going to be a difficult endeavour and we’ll have to get lucky,” he said. “But it’s not impossible,” he said.

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