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Huronia Museum aims to map out Champlain's route and create series of walking tours


The Huronia Museum in Midland is seeking $1.25 million in provincial funding to locate a dozen aboriginal villages visited by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in preparation for the 400th anniversary of his historic journey through Huronia in 1615.

Ideally, the sites could be pinpointed, identified with historical plaques and linked into a series of walking tours, says John Raynor, vice-chair of the museum board and an avocational archaeologist.

"It would give people a real sense of history if they were able to follow Champlain's footsteps."

Guided by the Huron or Wendat, Champlain canoed to southern Georgian Bay by way of the Ottawa and French rivers, intending to extend alliances with First Nations, establish trade connections and inculcate Christianity.

In his extensive journals he writes about a dozen villages he visited, including Cahiague, a major settlement of 200 long houses inside a protective wooden palisade that was home to as many as 5,000 people.

It was here that Champlain and the Wendat planned to launch a surprise attack on the stronghold of their Iroquois enemies in what is now upstate New York.

And it was to Cahiague that Champlain, wounded in one leg during the ill-fated assault, returned to recover his strength during the winter of 1615-16.


A site near Warminster, where archaeologists found the remains of a large village in 1947, has been considered in some quarters to be Cahiague and a provincial historical plaque, erected in the 1960s, bestowed that identity on the site.

But there are counter arguments suggesting the main Huron village was closer to Bass Lake, said Raynor.

"Cahiague is one I'd really like to nail down."

There are remnants of close to 600 native settlements in the sweep of rolling hills, streams and woodlands between Lake Couchiching and southern Georgian Bay, said Raynor.

"The villages moved every number of years as they exhausted the soil and stripped the wood,"

The dozen villages that Champlain visited were perhaps half the number that existed at any one time, Raynor believes, but locating any one with certainty will be a challenge.

Although Champlain was a cartographer and keen observer, he was somewhat casual in mapping his overland journey in this area. And his measurement of distance was very inexact, since the unit used -- the league -- was imprecise, having two or three different values in the neighbourhood of three miles.

"A league may have just been the distance walked in an hour," said Raynor.

A century ago, historian Andrew Hunter identified the sites of 32 aboriginal villages in the Orillia area alone.


The largest of these, known as the Mount Slaven site, lies unacknowledged under a neighbourhood northwest of the hospital, stretching from O'Brien Street along Mary and John streets as far as Westmount Drive. For decades in the late 1800s, before lots were laid out and homes built, it was a popular weekend activity to root through a large Algonquin burial ground along Mount Slaven Creek for native artifacts.

But there were many other locations where settlers digging holes for foundations or cisterns or even trenches for celery uncovered fragments of pottery, clay pipes, arrow heads and spear points and objects such as kettles, metal axe heads and crosses after the arrival of Europeans in the early 1600s.

Other sites where artifacts -- and in some cases, burials -- were discovered include the Peter Street North area, Couchiching Beach Park, Orchard Point, Smith's Bay, Old Barrie Road along Brough's Creek west of Scout Valley, Bass Lake and Chief's Island. There are many other sites to the north and west of Orillia in what is now Severn and Oro-Medonte townships.

The most significant archaeological site in the Orillia area, and perhaps the whole extent of the Huron and Algonquin territories, is the fish fence at the Atherley Narrows, where stakes dating back 4,500 years have been found imbedded in the muddy bottom of the channel. "The fish weirs are one anchoring point," said Raynor.


The fish fence, once a solid line of stakes driven into the channel to steer fish to openings where they could be easily netted, was still being used by native people in 1615 when Champlain and his Huron and Algonquin war party gathered before launching their disastrous attack on the Iroquois.

He describes the structure and its productive use in his journals.

The party set out from Cahiague, he writes, and arrived at "the shore of a small lake (Couchiching) distant from the said village three leagues (14 kilometres), where they make great catches of fish which they preserve for the winter. There is another lake immediately adjoining (Simcoe), which is 26 leagues in circumference, draining into the small one by a strait, where the great catch of fish takes place by means of a number of weirs which almost close the strait, leaving only small openings where they set their nets and in which the fish are caught..."

The fish weirs are a National Historic Site, but other than a well-hidden historical plaque and a story board on the Millennium Trail, there is little to mark the location.

As part of the Champlain Trail initiative, it would make sense to lobby the federal and provincial governments to fund a proper interpretive centre at or close to The Narrows, said Raynor.

Recently, Parks Canada opened a $6-million museum at the junction of Highway 169 and the French River, focusing to a large extent on Champlain, the fur trade and the intricate relationship that European explorers and settlers developed with First Nation people.

Ironically, its doubtful Champlain set foot anywhere near at the location of the museum, or if so only briefly, said Raynor.

When he canoed down the river in the summer of 1615, Champlain was in rapid pursuit of the Recollet priests who had set out before him on their way to the Huron territory at the base of the great freshwater sea, now called Georgian Bay.

"He was chasing (Joseph) LeCaron's tail."


But The Narrows, where he first observed an ancient method of fishing practised for millennia as he assembled his war party, figures prominently in his journey through Huronia, said Raynor.

Gloria Taylor, the new curator of the Orillia Museum of Art and History, is excited by the Champlain initiative and agrees more must be done to recognize the rich history of this land.

In Hong Kong, visitors can view

an underwater archaeological site by following a transparent plastic walkway over the water, Taylor said.

"You could look down and 'Wow!'"

At the recommendation of the Municipal Heritage Committee, the city is considering undertaking an archaeological master plan to identify native sites, an initiative Taylor would welcome.

"It's something that would have to be co-ordinated with the province, the county, the city planning department and the museum."

In addition to a historical walk following Champlain's footsteps, the City of Orillia could develop a local walk to the locations where villages stood and burials and artifacts were brought to light.

And every effort must be made to trace artifacts that can still be identified with specific sites, said Raynor.

Since little care was taken at the

time, most artifacts are now scattered, many heaped into boxes and fruit baskets in attics and basements.

But some important pieces unearthed in the Orillia area did go to the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto and other institutions, said Raynor.

"We'd like to pull together a collection of materials."

By identifying villages seen by Champlain and assembling whatever artifacts can be reasonably associated with those locations, a clearer picture can be drawn for local residents and tourists passing through this historic land, said Raynor.

"What I'm proposing is to begin with a strategic plan to research and confirm what's already been done and use that to identify the missing pieces of the puzzle," he said.

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