The Death and Rebirth of the Martyrs’ Capital
For three centuries after the holocaust Ste. Marie lay buried and almost forgotten. It had been a Jesuit mission — and key to the French dream of North American empire. Today million-dollar detective saga is rebuilding the community into a top attraction for a whole new breed of sophisticated tourists
Two MILES EAST of the Great Lakes grain port of Midland, Ont., a picturesque river called the Wye empties into Georgian Bay. It is a small and little-known stream, but on a marshsurrounded ribbon of bank a mile above its mouth, a century-old dream to reconstruct one of Canada's most storied and revered historic sites is at last becoming fact.
The site is that of Ste.-Marieamong - the - Hurons. headquarters from 1639 to 1649 ot the ill-fated Jesuit mission to the Huron Indians. Ste. Marie existed only ten years, but it left a deep and indelible mark on the continent's story, for here, where the axes and hammers are ringing again after a 3 1 5-year silence, history is written in bold and ironic s.rokes. This land of Huronia. with Ste. Marie its hub. was focal point in the story of Champlain's historic blunder that turned the Iroquois against the French, cost France an empire and molded North America into the English-speaking continent it is today.
Here, a thousand canoe-route miles from the sea, was eastern North
America's first inland settlement when the only others were still hugging the shores of the outer St. Lawrence. New England and Virginia. Here, the black-robed Jesuits, seeking souls instead of furs, built their palisaded mission fort, using tools either fashioned on the spot or laboriously
hauled up the eight-hundred-mile, lifts-portage canoe route from Quebec. Here men of culture and education lived among savages with the mvsteries of an unknown continent around them, and from here eight of them went out to violent deaths, most in the Iroquois torture fires. No other spot in North America has
more martyred saints identified with
Here were forged the first whiteJndian alliances that were to be a
potent Unce in the shaping of North America's modern political form. For with the abandonment of the Jesuits' Ste.-Marie-among-the-Hurons to the Iroquois in 1649. Champlain's dream of continental empire had already begun to founder, although more than a century would pass before the Plains of Abraham witnessed the final eclipse.
Now history is being made again at this hallowed site of the Jesuit martyrdoms. On a continent suddenly imbued with a zeal for restoring its historic places, the Ste. Marie project will be one of the most ambitious and painstaking restorations yet attempted. although some others are costlier and larger. And behind the restoration is one of the continent's most intensive historical and archaeological sleuthing efforts, a story with all the elements of a mystery thriller: for the modern story of the research that is
A—Dwelling B—Chapel C—Carpenter shop D—Blacksmith shop
1, 2, 3—Locks
4— Loading basin
5— Landing basin
6— East-west water channel
E—Cookhouse F—Dwelling G—Dwelling H—Barracks
7— North-south water
8— Drinking water aqueduct
K—Indian Church L—Huron longhouse
N—Algonquin dwelling P—Huron longhouse
12— Ditchworks for defense
13— Christian cemetery
bringing an authentic replica of Ste. Marie back to life is one that rivals in drama and suspense the historic story of the original Ste. Marie itself.
When the Iroquois overran Huronia. the Jesuits burned Ste. Marie to make certain that nothing would be left to be desecrated by the pagan invaders. Thus, unlike the continent's other outstanding historical restorations, there were no existing structures, no plans nor maps, barely even ruins, to provide clues to what the original was like. When the Ste. Marie sleuthing began, it was only "a ruin of a ruin"—a few mounds of earth and rocks, a few puzzling hollows, all of it overgrown with a three-century growth of forest and pilfered by three generations of curio-seekers. Yet underground, the record was still there, in the form of charred and carbonized timbers, in crumbling stone foundations and fireplaces, in relics of glass and metal that time could not erase. And it is from this meager and piecemeal record that the stone ramparts, timber palisades and log buildings of Ste. Marie are rising again.
Ironically, it took a mundane, brazenly commercial, twentieth-century development to get this project of seventeenth-century reconstruction launched. Past efforts to have Ste. Marie rebuilt had bogged down because there was no source for the funds needed (current estimate: a million dollars). A year or two ago. however, surveys conducted by Ontario's Department of Tourism and Information began turning up a startling fact. The educational level of U. S. tourists entering Ontario is rising sharply; one limited survey showed that sixty percent of the visitors checked had attended college. They are interested in attractions that offer some intellectual appeal. The old tourist-bait image that Canada has been projecting abroad — the land of virgin hunting and fishing and wide-open spaces —• was missing the boat. The typical new tourist has more sophisticated interests.
People in the tourist industry, estimated to be worth a billion dollars a year to Ontario's economy, took a new look at the Ste. Marie restoration idea. Last spring Premier John Robarts announced that the restoration was to be done as a government project. Responsibility for its authenticity has been assigned to historians and archaeologists of the University of Western Ontario, in London, headed by the dean of Ontario archaeologists. Dr. Wilfred Jury, who has been studying Huronia historic sites for a quarter century. But the cost. Premier Robarts announced, would be assumed by the province as an investment in its tourist industry.
It's a blue-chip investment if there ever was one. A self-sustaining admission fee is contemplated. and the customers are assured, because the Jesuit Martyrs' Shrine — a magnificent twin-spired church erected by the Jesuits in 1 *926 on a hill overlooking the fort ruins — is attracting a quarter of a million devout and curious a year, even though the restored fort
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Iroquois swept through Huronia. For Ste. Marie the end had come
is not yet completed and in business.
The first Jesuits came to Huronia in 1626 and for thirteen years they lived in the Indian villages. In 1639 they decided they needed a residence of their own to which they could retire periodically to meditate, study and rest from the hardships of Indian life. They chose the site on the River Wye because of its central location in Huronia, its water transportation and the natural marshy defenses that surrounded it.
The Jesuits reported annually to their Father Provincial in Paris and these accounts are preserved as the voluminous Jesuit Relations, an edited version of which runs to seventy-three volumes. But the busy Fathers put little description of Ste. Marie in their writings. They revealed only that it was protected by stone bastions and log palisades, that it included dwellings, church, chapel, hospital, and “a place apart (for) the infidels.” The Relations record that at one time the fort held sixty-four persons, twentytwo of them French soldiers, which would require a fairly extensive community of buildings, but it was not until archaeologists completed their sleuthing three hundred years later that the full extent and craftsmanship of Ste. Marie was revealed.
The Jesuit Christianizing effort backfired cruelly on the Hurons, and in time on the French, too. First, the great Huron nation was reduced from forty thousand to twelve thousand by epidemics of smallpox and influenza that the Jesuits brought. Then they became tragic scapegoats of the bitter French-Iroquois enmity.
The Iroquois, despised by the Jesuits because they resisted Christianity, their fur trade diverted by the French and Hurons, finally went on the warpath. In 1648 they swept through Huronia, isolated and destroyed village after village, killing or scattering thousands of Hurons. On March 16, 1649, in a Huron village just three miles from Ste. Marie, they captured and tortured to death Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant, who were to become the best known of the eight Jesuit martyrs.
Ste. Marie itself was never attacked, but the Huron nation was reduced to a few hundred terrorized refugees. Ste. Marie stood alone in a ravaged Huronia.
Even if the Jesuits could have withstood the Iroquois attack they feared was coming, there was no longer any reason for staying at Ste. Marie, be-
cause their flock was gone. They burned Ste. Marie and with a band of surviving Hurons retreated to an island in Georgian Bay. The following spring they returned to Quebec. With them went three hundred Hurons, the only intact surviving group of the forty thousand there had been when the Jesuit mission began twenty-four years before. Many more joined other Indian tribes and lost their Huron identity. The only survivors recognizable as Hurons today are a few hundred at Loretteville, Que., descendants of those who fled with the Jesuits.
Back in Huronia, the victorious Iroquois barred French expansion in-
land. Had Champlain and the Jesuits not tied French fortunes so irrevocably to the Hurons, or had they given the Hurons muskets instead of crucifixes as the Dutch and English were doing for the Iroquois, New France might have expanded from the St. Lawrence down the Mississippi to Louisiana, as indeed it almost did, hemming the English colonies into a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast. Modern North America would probably be French.
This is the place in history that belongs to Ste. Marie. For one hundred and fifty years its charred ruins lay unrecorded beside the River Wye. Forest grew over them, the stone
walls and bastions crumbled. History moved on along the course that Ste. Marie had helped to shape, the French dream of empire collapsed, Canada became a British possession.
But the location and identity of Ste. Marie was never totally lost. The first maps and surveys, around 1800, show it as “French ruins.” After 1820 settlers used the fallen hewn stones to build homes. Parts of the site were plowed and cropped, obliterating many of its surface signs.
The ruins were first definitely identified as the Jesuit fort in 1844, and fittingly, by a Jesuit, Father Pierre Chazzelle. A decade later the Jesuit historian, Father Félix Martin, did some excavating and left sketches and maps which have been of great value to later historians.
The Jesuit Order acquired a nearby hill in 1920 and built the Martyrs’ Shrine, but efforts to obtain the fort site itself were not successful until 1940. The Jesuits invited the Royal Ontario Museum to provide a plan for the reconstruction, and in 1941 the first large-scale archaeological excavation of Ste. Marie began under the direction of archaeologist Kenneth Kidd, who, though now with Trent University, in Peterborough, Ont., is a member of the University of Western Ontario research team.
There was tantalizingly little exposed above ground for Kidd and his diggers to work on. Hidden in a jungle of growth, the stone foundations of what the earlier maps described as the fort’s four corner bastions still protruded a couple of feet above ground. Trenchlike depressions, thought to be remains of protective moats, were still visible. A tedious but rewarding process of archaeological detective work began. Literally, no grain of sand was left unturned. In most places, shovels were too crude for the delicate searching that had to be done, and earth was removed a spoonful at a time. In tracing the remains of timber structures, the archaeologists were not limited to clues still recognizable as wood. A dark stain could indicate where wood had rotted away.
The work presently began to turn up evidences of Jesuit occupation— nails, hinges, staples, axes; more intricate items such as scissors, tweezers, keys and padlocks, threaded screws and spectacles, which didn’t surprise the archaeologists but did surprise the kibitzing spectators who had not associated such articles with times
of more than three hundred years ago.
In three summers the museum diggers uncovered and mapped a pattern of stonework and charred timber that outlined two buildings and indicated probably a residence, a chapel and a workshop. But the study left a number of puzzles. There was evidence of strong stone-and-timber defensive walls along the east and north sides, for example, but no signs of defenses except a shallow moat along the other sides. Why would the Jesuits defend only two sides? The single dwelling uncovered seemed small for the number of Fathers and French soldiers known from the Jesuit Relations to have resided there. And the site of the probable chapel had a puzzling lack of religious objects.
It required another exciting chapter of archaeological research to solve these mysteries of Ste. Marie. In the following years the Jesuits did some reconstructing of Ste. Marie the museum excavators had revealed. Then came a startling new discovery: a series of charred timber molds extending far beyond what had previously been considered the fort boundaries — the remains of a hitherto undiscovered building.
Historical jigsaw puzzle
The Jesuits reported the find to Dr. Wilfred Jury, archaeologist of the University of Western Ontario, who had been working on other Huron sites in the area. Jury took one look at the new timber mold and urged more excavation. The Jesuits invited Jury to do it.
Jury and his crew soon discovered that all earlier investigators, from Father Chazzelle in 1844 to the archaeologists of the 1940s, had missed the full extent of Ste. Marie. What had been assumed to be the whole fort now was revealed as only a small, heavily defended corner of it, an inner stronghold into which the defenders could retreat if the rest of the fort fell. In fact, Ste. Marie was almost seven times as large as previously believed, and contained seventeen buildings.
Jury found why there had been no religious objects to clinch the identity of what the museum archaeologists had assumed to be the chapel. In the buried charcoal and ash of another building he unearthed a stone altar, fragments of wine bottles, leading for a glass window, prayer beads, and a carbonized piece of cloth with hook and eye from the neck band of a Jesuit’s cassock. This, Jury deduced, was the chapel.
In the outline of another building was a packed clay floor into which chips, shavings and sawdust had been trampled and thus saved from the flames. This was apparently the shop of carpenter Charles Boivin, frequently mentioned in the Relations. The only tools found here were a broken plane blade and a battered hammerhead, but Boivin, good craftsman that he was, probably took his tools with him on the retreat.
The building earlier called a workshop now turned up scraps of metal and slag around its stone forge. It was the blacksmith shop, a busy place in the heyday of Ste. Marie, for here
were fashioned most of the square, hand-wrought nails, hundreds of which have been found in the excavations. Here, too, were made hinges, locks, latches, hammers, chisels and wedges. Ste. Marie, eight hundred miles from its base of supplies, had to be self-sufficient.
Jury next concentrated on the trenchlike “moat” which the new conception of Ste. Marie's size placed within the fort. This investigation led to one of the most exciting Ste. Marie discoveries; what was thought to be a moat turned out to be an elaborate, 460-foot canal system, apparently used by the Jesuits and their builders for moving the hundreds of tons of stone and logs to building sites within the fort. Jury even found a system of three locks with lock gates, one of them at the canal’s outlet under the palisade, which could open to let canoes directly into the fort from the river.
This intricate piece of engineering, deep in the wilderness of North America, had been built at a time when the first canals with locks were only beginning to appear in Europe. Jury calls its complicated deciphering, which took all of one summer, his greatest reward of a lifetime of excavating Canada’s past.
Before Jury finally ended his underground hunt, his diggers had excavated a space two hundred by seven hundred feet. The northern half of it was enclosed within its own stockade and was obviously the European compound, the private preserve of the Jesuits, their lay workers and soldiers. The other half, along the river to the south, was an Indian compound for visiting Hurons — the “place apart for the infidels.”
Another intriguing discovery was a blackened line just inside the palisade wall. Five feet down it broadened into a rotted, yard-square cribwork of timber. The Jesuit Relations say nothing about such a tunnel, but Jury is sure that the collapsed underground cribbing can be explained only as a hidden passage for dispatching and receiving runners during siege.
More discoveries were to come. An oblong section of loose soil that was thought at first to be a filled-in cellar produced a skull and turned out to be a grave. It led to the discovery of the cemetery, containing twenty - one graves, all of them Indian except one. The Relations speak of the church as being near the cemetery, so the finding of the graves soon led to the uncovering of timber remains that proved to be the biggest building at Ste. Marie, the church for public worship — the chapel previously found was for the Jesuits only.
The next major find was the hospital. The Relations describe the hospital as well removed from the Jesuits’ own dwellings, “so that not only men and children, but even women, can be admitted to it.” There was no place in the austere life of the Jesuits for the presence of women.
To round out the Ste. Marie picture, lines of post molds were traced which outlined at least two Indian longhouses and a five-sided log bastion at the fort’s southernmost point.
As the digging progressed, Jury had been watching closely for clues that would throw light on construction
methods and make possible an authentic restoration.
One key question concerned the type of wall construction. Were upright logs set in the ground, or were they horizontal logs? Or was the material hewn lumber? Most wall remains were little more than foot-wide stains in the sand. But as more and more were uncovered a distinctive pattern emerged, and the architecture of the walls finally became clear. They were double walls of axe-hewn, two-inch planks with the space between filled with an insulation of clay and stone.
Their height remained a puzzle for a long time. The charcoal remains of one intact wall finally turned up. It was thirteen feet high. A line of nails showed there had been a ceiling at its eight-foot level. Thus, allowing for ceiling joists and flooring, there must have been about four and a half feet of upper-story wall before it met the sloping roof.
But it was the excavating of the canal that turned up the most valuable details of construction, because many parts of adjoining buildings apparently collapsed into the water during the fire and were saved from being totally burned. After three hundred years of decay and settling, however, it took careful work to distinguish between canal walls, lock gates and building remnants.
The canal yielded slabs of bark identifiable as elm, indicating that the Jesuits copied the Indian practice of shingling their roofs with bark, instead of using the scooped-log technique of the later pioneers. Boards excavated here had gable ends cut at an angle, and thus the difficult question of roof pitch was answered — it was thirty degrees. Here also were two well-preserved palisade posts, the only seventeenth - century palisade posts known in North America.
Many other clues turned up in unexpected ways. Where wall planks had burned or rotted completely away, the imprint of their grain remained on the fire-baked clay that had formed the insulation within the walls, revealing not only width of the planks but the kind of wood (pine, cedar and oak). What’s more, the best score marks revealing size and type of tools used appear in these clay imprints.
Even the number of nails found at each building site was a clue to how sturdily and carefully each was built. Nails were most numerous in the chapel area, and there were other signs of careful workmanship here; it was the only building, for example, that showed evidence of glass windows. No nails were found around the stable or along the hundreds of feet of palisade, indicating that only wooden pegs were used in their construction.
But the thoroughness of Jury’s work became, in itself, an obstacle to the long-dreamed restoration of Ste. Marie. The Jesuits had intended originally to finance and superintend the reconstruction themselves, but the larger and more complex Ste. Marie, as now revealed by Jury, convinced the Jesuits that the job was costlier and more technical than they could cope with. So they were glad to cooperate when the provincial govern-
ment offered to pick up the bill and experts of the University of Western Ontario, with Jesuit historians advising, agreed to assume responsibility for technical direction. The province was granted a ninety-nine-year lease, renewable for a second ninety - nine years. The fee, duly approved in Rome, was one dollar.
Last June, Dr. Jury came back to Ste. Marie to begin at last the realization of a dream he had had since he first began excavating Huronia sites a quarter century ago. The skilled help he needed was available among the large number of French Canadians who live in the Midland area. Jury hired a score of them and conducted classes in which he explained the purpose of the work, described seventeenth-century tools and construction methods, and told his workers to forget they were twentieth-century carpenters and axemen because he wanted them to do everything the seventeenth-century way. Jury soon discovered that these French Canadians still retained building practices and traditions of French origin that have made it easy for them to think and work as the original French builders of Ste. Marie had done.
“Too good — tear it down”
No detail of authenticity is being overlooked if Jury can help it. The hinges and door latches, for example, are store-bought to permit locking up the buildings during construction, but before the restoration is completed they will be replaced with handmade copies of the rusted, three-hundredyear-old hardware that was dug up on the site.
Authenticity is producing some strange demands. When workers began erecting the Indian section of the palisade, Jury inspected the work and promptly ordered, “It’s too good. Tear it down and do a sloppier job.” Workmanship in the Indian compound is deliberately being left in a crude state because the excavations suggest strongly this was how it was originally: the French apparently required the unskilled Indians do their own work. Stakes of the Indian palisade, therefore, are haphazardly barked, not cleanly peeled like those of the European compound; they are of uneven lengths, some of the cross-pieces have been allowed to tilt clumsily off the horizontal, and the ends are being fire-blackened because the Indians often didn’t chop a log when there was time to do it effortlessly by letting a fire burn it in two.
So Ste. Marie is rising again from its ruins and ashes of three hundred years ago. It is hoped that the restoration, with the exception possibly of a museum and interpretive centre which will come last, will be completed in time for a Centennial Year opening in 1967.
And no one is worried that it took a silent revolution of sophistication in Canada’s tourist industry to make possible this rebirth of a romantic stage-setting to the North American story. The friends of Ste. Marie have waited a long time for their dream to come true. No one is looking the gift horse in the mouth for the sullying tarnish of tourist dollar signs writ heavily there. ★