General Articles


500 Huron skeletons are being disinterred from a macabre "pit of the dead” in a pleasant Ontario pasture

J. HERBERT CRANSTON October 15 1947
General Articles


500 Huron skeletons are being disinterred from a macabre "pit of the dead” in a pleasant Ontario pasture

J. HERBERT CRANSTON October 15 1947


500 Huron skeletons are being disinterred from a macabre "pit of the dead” in a pleasant Ontario pasture


ON A black night in June, 1636, in what is now a flat treeless pasture in Simcoe county, Ont., the bones and rotting cadavers of 500 Huron Indians were buried in a deep pit by their kin after more than a week of weirdly elaborate pagan ceremonies.

It was t he Feast of the Dead— the most macabre of all Huron rituals.

The banshee wail of 2,000 sorrowing relatives floated across the clearing as the bodies or bags of bones were tossed into an immense grave and covered ovei with beaver robes. There they rested for 311 years.

Then, in the hot month of July, 1947, a little group of eager archaeologists unceremoniously dug the corpses up again.

By the end of the month the diggers were burned as black as the Indians themselves and

were knee-deep in skulls, femurs, fibulae, vertebrae, teeth and all the other odds and ends of bony structure that make up the human frame. It was an archaeological treasure trove.

The digging, which will continue next summer, is in the hands of Kenneth E. Kidd, deputy director of the Royal Ontario Museum’s ethnological collection. Mr. Kidd is no stranger to the neighborhood. His brilliant and careful three years of excavation of the ruins of the ancient Fort Ste. Marie, near Midland, Ont., is now being followed by the restoration of that “Abode of Peace” where the Jesuit missionaries to the Huron dwelt for 10 years while Iroquois warriors made constant death raids on nearby villages.

The finding of the giant graveyard near the site of the old Huron village of Ossossane is a triumph of detective work on the part of Frank Ridley, builder and contractor from Islington, Ont., and amateur archaeologist. His main clue was the narrative of Father Jean de Brébeuf, Jesuit martyr, who wrote an exciting on-the-spot account of the grisly Huron burial service just three centuries ago, when the Indians were just a step removed from the stone age.

Ridley’s deductions led him to a field in the Daoust farm in Tiny Township. Today it is a bare commonplace field. But in Brébeuf’s time it was a glade drenched in mystery the most hallowed spot of the Bear Nation of the Huron tribe, the meeting place for the Feast of the Dead.

This feast, also called the Feast of the Souls,

was held by each of the four Huron nations every 10 or 12 years. The people of each tribe gathered up the remains of their relatives who had died in the interim and took them across country to the principal town, where they buried them, with fantastic ritual, in a common grave.

Ossossane was the chief village of the Bear Nation. It was also the headquarters of the Jesuits in their ill-fated attempt to Christianize the savages in the years between 1625 and 1650. Here were played the first great scenes in the religious tragedy which ended with the martyrdom of the five black-robed priests and the destruction of the Huron tribe by their implacable enemies, the Iroquois.

The year 1636 was a feast year for the Bears, the first in 10 years. The barbarian ceremony greatly impressed Father Brébeuf, and he left a vivid and full account.

Each family saw to its own dead with great care and affection. If they had dead relatives in any part of the country they spared no trouble to go for them. They took them from the cemeteries where the bodies had either been placed on elevated platforms safe from ravenous dogs or wolves, or else in shallow graves. In each village a F’air Day was proclaimed for this ceremony. The corpses were covered with the finest fur robes obtainable. Placing the dead on their shoulders, the men of the family marched back to the villages where they had lived, the others following with loud cries of grief. Continued on page 27

Continued on page 27

The Lost Souls of Ossossane

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Father Brébeuf thought the practice commendable. He wrote: “After

having opened the grave they display before you all those corpses on the spot, and leave them thus exposed long enough for the spectators to learn at their leisure, and once for all, what they will be some day.”

“The flesh of some is quite gone,” he continued. “There is only parchment on their bones. In other cases the bodies look as if they had been dried and smoked, and show scarcely any signs of putrefaction. In still other cases they are swarming with worms. When the friends have gazed upon the bodies to their satisfaction they cover them with handsome beaver robes quite new. Finally after some time they strip them of their skin and flesh which they throw into the fire along with the robes and mats in which the bodies were wrapped. As regards the bodies of those recently dead, they leave them in the state in which they are, and content themselves by simply covering them with new robes.”

Bodies Ilung On Poles

The bones when well cleaned were put partly into bags, partly into fur robes, loaded on the shoulders of the men and covered with another beautiful hanging robe. The whole bodies were placed on a litter and carried with all the others, each to his cabin, where the families made feast to their dead.

The bones of the dead were called Atisken. The Hurons believed that men had two souls, “both of them being divisible and material, and yet both reasonable.” One of them separated itself from the body at death, yet remained in the cemetery until the Feast of the Dead, after which it either changed into a turtledove or went away at once to the Village of Souls. The other was bound to the body and remained in the pit of the dead, unless someone bore it again as a little child. The perfect resemblance of the living to the dead was accounted as proof, and is the reason why the bones of the dead were called Atisken, “the souls.”

A day or two before setting out for the feast at the chief village, all of Ihe souls were carried into one of the largest cabins of the village, where one portion was hung to the poles of the cabin and the other spread out through it. The captain of the village gave a magnificent feast in honor of a deceased captain whose name he bore.

Four peculiar things were noticed by Father Brébeuf at this feast. The presents which the relatives made, and which consisted of robes, porcelain collars and kettles, were strung on poles along both sides of the cabin. The captain sang the song of the deceased captain in accordance with the latter’s wish, expressed before his death. All the guests had the liberty of sharing with one another all the good things which they had, and even of taking these home with them, contrary to the usual custom of feasts. And at the end of the feast, by way of compliment to him who had entertained them, they imitated the cry of souls, and went out of the cabin crying “haee, hae.”

The Feast of Souls at the main village, Ossossane, was to take place on the Saturday of Pentecost, but it was postponed until Monday. Seven or eight days were spent in assembling the souls from the outlying villages

and from morning until night the living made presents to the youth in honor of the dead and held contests of skill.

Monday noon Brébeuf and his fellow priests were warned that the ceremony was about to begin. The packages of souls were taken down and the relatives again unfolded them to say their last adieus. The tears flowed afresh. The 1 daughter of a renowned chief who had recently died combed his hair and handled his bones with great affection. She put beside him his package of ■ council sticks, i.e., the books and papers of the country. On the bones of her dead children she placed bracelets of porcelain and glass beads and washed them with her tears. The procession to the pit was led by a man carrying the body of the oíd chief. The men and then the women followed, , each with a soul package.

Brébeuf described the bone pit and ¡ the surrounding arena as being about ! the size of the Place Royale in Paris and half a league from Ossossane. The pit in the centre was 10 feet deep and 1 about 26 feet in diameter. Over it . stood a scaffold, a sort of staging very well made, about 36 feet in diameter, i and from nine to 10 feet high. Above I this staging there were a number of ! poles laid across, with croas poles to ¡ which the packages of souls were hung I and bound. Since the whole bodies j were to be put in the bottom of the pit, they had the preceding day been placed under the scaffold, stretched upon bark or mats fastened to stakes about the height of a man on the edge of the pit.

The whole company arrived with their corpses about an hour after midday, and divided themselves into different cantons, according to their j families and villages. Their parcels of ¡ souls were laid on the ground like | earthen pots at a village fair. They ! unfolded also their parcels of robes and all the presents they had brought and hung them upon poles. As many as 1,200 presents remained on exhibition two full hours so that strangers might witness the wealth and magnificence of the country. About 2,000 in all were present. At three o’clock each one put away his articles and folded up his robes.

“The Confusion of the Damned”

Suddenly each captain gave the signal and from all around the great circle men came running with their packages of souls “as if to the assault of a town.” They ascended the stage by means of ladders and hung the souls to the cross poles, each village having its own section. The ladders were then taken away and the rest of the afternoon was spent in listening to the chiefs announcing the presents which were made in the name of the dead to certain specified persons.

Next came the lining of the bottom and sides of the pit with fine, large new robes, each of 10 beaverskins, in such a way that they extended more than a foot out of it. Some climbed down into the pit and brought up handfuls of sand in the belief that this would make them successful at play. Fortyeight robes lined the pit, and each entire body, besides the robe in which it was wrapped, had another and sometimes two more to cover it.

At seven o’clock the whole bodies were let down into the pit. The priests had the greatest difficulty in getting near, and of the scene Brébeuf wrote: “Nothing has ever better pictured for me the confusion there is among the j damned.” On all sides was the confused ; din of voices of people “who spoke and did not listen.” Ten or 12 men were ! down in the pit arranging the bodies, i

They put in the middle of the pit three large copper kettles, which Brébeuf wittily remarked, “could only be of use for souls." One had a hole through it, a second had no handle, and the third was of scarcely more value. That ended the day’s doings.

The Indians passed the night on the spot. They lighted many fires and slung their kettles. Brébeuf and his companions withdrew to the village for the night with the intention to return at dawn when the bones were to be thrown into the pit.

“A Picture of Hell”

They almost missed the final act. Rising while it was still dark, they had just set out from the village when they heard a great outcry. An accident had hastened the program. One of the souls which was not securely tied, or was perhaps too heavy for the cord which fastened it, fell of itself into the pit. The noise awakened the company, who immediately ran and mounted in a crowd upon the scaffold and emptied indiscriminately each package into the pit, keeping, however, the robes in which they were wrapped.

“As we drew near," wrote Brébeuf, “we saw nothing less than a picture of hell. The large space was quite full of fires and flames, and the air resounded in all directions with the confused cries of these barbarians. The noise ceased after some time and they began to sing, but in voices so sorrowful and lugubrious that it represented to us the horrible sadness and the abyss of despair into which these unhappy souls are forever plunged."

By the time the missionaries arrived nearly all of the souls had been thrown into the pit. Everyone had made haste in the fear that there might not be enough room for all the bones. Five or six Indians were in the pit arranging the bones with poles. The pit was filled to within two feet of the top. The robes which bordered the edge of the pit were turned back over the bones, and the remaining space was covered with mats and bark. The pit was then heaped with sand, poles, and wooden stakes, which were thrown in without order. Some women emptied dishes of corn on the pile and the following day several cabins of the village tlirew nets full of corn upon the top.

Fifteen or 20 Christian Indians were interred in the pit along with the pagans. “We said for their souls a de profundis,” wrote Brébeuf, “with a strong hope that if divine goodness does not stop the course of its blessings upon these peoples, this feast will cease, or will only be for Christians, and will take place with ceremonies as sacred as the ones we saw are foolish and useless. They are even now beginning to be a burden to them, on account of the excesses and superfluous expenses connected with them."

The rest of the morning was spent in giving presents. The greater part of the robes in which the souls had been wrapped were cut into pieces and thrown from the height of the stage into the midst of the crowd for anyone who could get them Sometimes it happened that when two or three got hold of a beaver skin, and none would give way, that the skin had to be cut into useless fragments.

Of the balance of the 1,200 presents 20 robes were given the Master of the Feast to thank the nations which had taken part in it. The dead distributed a number of them by the hands of the captains to their living friends. Some served only for show and were taken away by those who had exhibited them The narrative goes on to say that “the old men and the notables

of the country, who had the administration and management of the feast, took possession secretly of a considerable quantity."

Brébeuf concludes his account with an observation that has not lost its point in a century accustomed to motor hearses, elaborate services, expensive coffins and banks of flowers. It was only the rich who lost nothing from the rites, he reported. The middle classes and the poor brought and left behind “whatever they had most valuable,” and suffered much in order not to appear less liberal than the others in the celebration.

Many bone pits have been discovered in the northern half of Simcoe county in the past 150 years. Pioneer farmers uncovered them while clearing tie forest and plowing the field. Amateur scientists of other days, abetted by curiosity seekers, dug into these ossuaries and rifled them of their contents. Skulls were carried off as souvenirs and the other bones were thrown about in the open finally to disintegrate.

Luckily, the bone pit at Ossossane village escaped that fate. Archaeologists had known of its existence for decades from the Brébeuf account, but few knew exactly where it was. It was opened in 1869 and 1883 and a few bones found in it belonging to Indians who must have been of very large stature. William Stott of Wyevale told me that as a boy he had visited the pit and seen skulls lying around. He had seen the owner of the farm, John R. Dubeau, a big man, take an Indian jawbone and place his own jaw completely inside it. It was not known then that this was the pit mentioned in the Brébeuf narrative.

Rediscovering The Bone Pit

In the 1880’s the pit lapsed into obscurity and its site was forgotten until Ridley rediscovered it two years ago.

From his knowledge of Indian building methods, Ridley was able to locate the long-sought-after village of Ossossane. It stood on the L’Esperance farm between the sixth and seventh concessions of Tiny township. It is surrounded on two sides by steep ravines 60 to 70 feet deep. From these sides it was impregnable. At the bottom of one ravine is a rushing lit tle stream which provided Ossossane with its drinking water. Palisades protected the village on all sides.

Father Brébeuf in his description of the Feast of the Dead said that the bone pit where it was held was half a league, or three quarters ofamile,from the old village of Ossossane. What simpler than for Ridley to draw a circle three quarters of a mile in radius, with Ossossane as its centre, and search along the circumference? The pit could only be on a spot where the soil was very light, since the Indians had nothing but the most primitive of digging tools. That eliminated all the clay land. The ravines and the wet forest lands below the cliff were also out. Only a narrow arc remained to prospect. Before long a depression was found on the Daoust farm which looked as if it might be IT.

This hole was about 30 feet across and five feet deep. Quite evidently it had been used by successive farm owners as a dump. It was no surprise when later the archaeologists came across the bones of a horse and a sheep, both unknown to the Hurons.

Ridley got in touch with his friend and tutor in things archaeological, Kenneth Kidd, who journeyed north from Toronto immediately. Securing permission from Farmer Daoust to dig in his pasture field they sank a

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trench from a few feet outside the supposed bone pit and aimed at its centre. A few hours’ work proved that Ridley’s hunch was correct. Here was a genuine bone pit and apparently it had been scarcely disturbed by earlier diggers.

It was an exciting discovery, but it was kept hush-hush. An option was secured on the land surrounding the pit and a 10-acre area was purchased by Sir Ellsworth Fla velle, who presented it to the museum.

Five-foot Squares

First thing done this summer when the diggers arrived was to set up tents to house the bones and other things taken from the pit, and also to provide dressing facilities, lunchrooms and shelter. The field was next surveyed and laid out in five-foot squares with a wooden peg at each corner. The dig commenced at a distance of 50 to 00 feet from the edge of the depression. Kidd was anxious to discover what traces still remained of the scaffolding which originally surrounded the pit, and on which the bones of the dead were hung at the time of the feast.

Removing the dark topsoil, which had been plowed again and again ever since white pioneer days, the archaeologists were soon in light-yellow soil. At that level trowels were used to lift t he sand in thin layers. Near the edge of the pit dark patches, circular in shape, began to show up. These were “post molds,” marking the spots where wood had decayed in the course of three centuries. The pattern of the stakes which had supported the scaffolds was soon definitely located at a distance of 27 feet from the centre of the pit.

Next the dark earth was lifted from above the bone pit. At this level was found the horse previously mentioned, complete with horseshoes. A foot or two farther down human bones began to show. First in sight were two skulls, then suddenly bones of all kinds, shapes and sizes in endless number and confusion. Leg bones stood in perpendicular groups. Soon it was evident there had been many bundle burials.

Armed with trowels with which they scraped away the sand of centuries a half inch or less at a time, and brushes with which they carefully dusted off ancient craniums and other bones as they lifted them from the

tangled mass, Kidd and his helpers kept on with their gruesome chore, day after day.

It was slow, tedious work. Each bone, or fragment of bone, as it was separated from the sand, was carefully placed in a numbered bag indicating the five-foot square in which it had been found. The sand itself was shaken through sieves in hope of discovering beads and other small specimens. It took a worker a whole day to uncover a five-foot square. The day’s work done the bags were placed in a truck and driven to Alidland, where, in a shed behind Huronia House, the new North Simcoe Aluseum of Indian and Pioneer Life, further work was done during long evenings cleaning and classifying the bones, beads and other relics.

One of the first and most interesting discoveries was a big white conch shell, about one foot in length and seven inches in diameter. It was whole, sharp spike and all, except for a hole which had been punched in the bottom to “allow the spirit to escape.” Kidd explained that the shell probably came from somewhere along the southern Atlantic coast. The Hurons were great travellers and traders.

Another exhibit was a piece of beaverskin, three by four inches in size. The leather still had considerable strength, and the hair on the skin was a tawny brown.

There were hundreds of beads of all shapes, sizes and colors. Some of these were Indian-made out of conch shell, the treasured wampum of the aborigines, while others were trade beads brought out from France. The latter ranged from tiny blue glass globes to long red shiny tubes two and a half inches long, and a fifth of an inch in thickness.

The Bones of Children

One of the prizes which came to light in the last week of July was a hard and shiny skull, completely green in color. It had evidently come in contact with sort of copper precipitate which accounted for the green color and the stronger bone. To the side of the head was firmly attached a piece of woven cloth, also deep green in color.

A piece of beaverskin, one foot in length by three or four inches in width, to which was fastened a piece of

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patterned cloth, was also found. To Kidd this indicated that the Huron Indians of Ossossane were weavers.

Kidd was rather surprised to find that most of the bones in the historicpit were those of children and youths. Bones of aged men and women were definitely in the minority. Some bones were so tiny they must have been of prematurely born or newly born infants. A great epidemic of smallpox is thought to account for the children’s bones.

“Most people think the aborigines had far better teeth than we have,” Kidd remarked. “That’s not true of the teeth we have found in this pit. Cavities are the rule rather than the exception. Some of those chaps must have had terrible toothaches.”

On Friday, Aug. 8, the last day of this year’s dig, the most interesting of all the discoveries made in the bone pit occurred. A copper kettle was found, quite probably one of the three mentioned in Brébeuf’s story. The kettle was broken in a score of pieces by the pressure of bones and earth from above. Kidd was delighted to come across this kettle, for it would seem to verify the theory that this was the Ossossane bone pit described by Brébeuf.

On Saturday, Aug. 9, the half of the pit which there had not been time to excavate was carefully covered with timber, and preparations were made to fill in the sand which bad been taken from the pit. In this way the remaining bones will be protected

against weather and will be all ready for next year’s operations.

And what is the value of all this ghoulishness at Ossossane?

Well, Kidd points out, it’s the only way we have of discovering the physical characteristics of the people who inhabited Ontario before the white man came.

The bones of all 500 Indians will be transported to Toronto where a physical anthropologist will seek to determine the height, weight, dimensions of head, length of arms and legs and condition of the teeth of the average Huron man and woman.

“You never know what you’re likely to come across,” Kidd explains. “Modern architects got the principle of building skyscrapers with receding towers from discoveries archaeologists made working among ruins of great structures erected by the South American Indians.”

And what will happen to the wandering souls of the Hurons when science is done with them?

Kidd doesn’t know yet, but if he has his way they will be returned to the bone pit and reburied.

“After all,” he says, “they were human beings like ourselves.”

And so, a summer or two from now, a modern version of the Feast of the Souls may be re-enacted on the pasture land of Simcoe county, and the Atisken of the Bear tribe of the Huron Indians returned to the resting place where, three centuries past, the wailing villagers of Ossossane interred them in the pit of the dead. ★