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Plundered graves lie under Orillia


Lying forgotten under seven city blocks is a vast burial ground where the bodies of men, women and children rested for centuries, each one buried in a sitting position, facing east toward the rising sun.

The graves, believed to contain the remains of Algonquin people, were discovered along the Mount Slaven Creek between O'Brien Street and Westmount Drive in the 1870s, when the area was still a wooded expanse outside the city limits.

Orillia judge J. Hugh Hammond wrote more than a century ago about digging up bodies and artifacts along the creek as a youngster.

"In the early seventies (1870s) as a schoolboy I spent the greater part of some Saturdays and holidays with my playmates in excavating Indian graves on the lots north of the extension of Mississaga Street, on Mount Slaven, near Orillia Town. Our schoolmaster (Samuel McIlvaine) urged us to make available collections of any objects such as beads, wampum and the like."

Hammond, whose account is quoted by historian Andrew Hunter in his 1903 study of 32 Indian villages in the Orillia area, gave a detailed description of the site.

"The graves were single and extended in long lines from the bank of the creek toward the hillside at the Coldwater Road, in a northwesterly direction. All of the bodies were buried in a sitting position, facing the east or morning sun."

The lines of graves were about 20 feet apart, said Hammond, who drew a map in a notebook, showing more than 100 Xs where graves had been found running in lines from Mississaga Street northwest across Mary and John streets. The map also indicates the locations of ashpits and notes the character of the soil.

Digging around the bodies, Hammond found bugle-shaped beads, arrowheads, spear points and wampum -- coin-shaped discs with holes drilled in the centre. In one grave, a black, bird-shaped amulet was found around the neck of a skeleton of a very large man.

"The lower jaw bone of this body was in place and I tried it over my own head and face and it passed clear of my face without touching it at any place."

French iron axes from the 1600s indicate the site was inhabited after Samuel de Champlain and French priests arrived in the area, beginning in 1615. Copper kettles and knife blades and hatchets were also unearthed.

Hunter concluded the site, roughly 68 acres in size, was an Algonquin settlement, probably used in the winter when the community migrated south from hunting grounds north of the Severn River.

The creek would have provided plentiful fresh water and the hill rising to the northwest protection from the wind.

Most of the 500 native settlements identified between Orillia and Midland are Huron, but the Algonquin territory to the north and east merged with the Huron lands in the Orillia area.

The Hurons grew crops such as corn and beans and tended to be more sedentary than the Algonquins.

Hurons typically placed their dead on scaffolds and later buried the bones following Feasts of the Dead in large pits called ossuaries.

Algonquins, a more nomadic people, were more likely to bury their dead in individual graves. Two bone pits were also uncovered on the site. The first was

found in 1870 at the base of a pine tree and the other, containing 10 skeletons, was exposed in 1902 when a lot on Mary Street was being levelled.

The combination of individual graves and bone pits could mean Hurons and

Algonquins occupied the same site at different times or the burial customs were blending through the association of the two allied nations.

"There would have been cross-cultural influences," says John Raynor, an avocational archaeologist from Midland.

"Just like we eat Chinese food and enjoy pizza today."

Raynor agrees with Hunter the site would have been more typical of the Algonquin people who lived in low areas closer to lakeshores while the Huron preferred high plateaux for their settlements.

The Algonquin built small altars on top of each grave containing a carved figure of the deceased.

While archaeologists and historians are aware of the Mount Slaven site, it was largely forgotten as the city grew out over the site, block by block. There are no markers or plaques and the burial ground is not identified in the city's official plan or defined on municipal maps. In fact, none of 32 sites inhabited by the Huron and Algonquin in Orillia and the immediate area have been located on municipal maps or marked with historical plaques.

Since digging up graves and making off with the artifacts was common practice for decades through the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s and no effort was made to preserve the integrity of each site, it's impossible to know how many burials escaped the predations of curiosity seekers.

What became of most of the pottery, pipes, jewelry, stone and metal weaponry, kettles, axe heads and other artifacts unearthed over the years is also unknown. There were no local museums and no one to place private collections into any kind of historical context.

Marcel Rousseau, a local history buff, wonders if the Mount Slaven site was the lost village of Contarea.

This native community somewhere near present day Orillia repelled the Jesuits in the early 1600s, spurning Christianity as the work of the devil. It was attacked by the Iroquois in 1641 and disappeared from the historical record, said Raynor.

Fraser Irvine, whose Mary Street home backs onto the creek, was astonished to learn the Algonquins had a settlement literally in his backyard and buried their dead where lawns and gardens now slope down to the water course.

"That's amazing. Just amazing," said Irvine, looking at Hammond's hand-drawn map from 1904.

"I'm right smack dab in the middle of it. Nobody said anything about it."

For most of its length, the creek now travels in buried pipes, but in the centre of the block bounded by Mississaga, Douglas, Mary and O'Brien streets, it emerges into the open air, trickling through a small ravine before entering another pipe and disappearing.

"It runs clear all year round," said Irvine, who works in the city's parks and recreation department.

In the four years he's lived beside the creek, Irvine has never dug down very far anywhere in the yard.

"I'd like to get a team in here and root around," he says.

"That stuff fascinates me. You never know what you'd find."

The urge to satisfy curiosity is a double- edged sword, says Gloria Taylor, curator of the Orillia Museum of Art and History.

While the careful and respectful exploration of historic native settlements can yield valuable historical information, there is a risk sites can be ransacked by novelty seekers.

And often it has been the wish of First Nations that burial grounds be left undisturbed.

So the location of many archaeological sites has been kept under wraps somewhat, said Taylor.

"The province didn't want places identified too closely for fear of grave-robbing."

But the protective secrecy can result in communities such as those in the old west ward of Orillia living in total ignorance of the history literally lying under their feet.

There needs to be better communication between the province where archaeological finds are registered and municipalities where many of these sites are found, says Taylor.

Craig Metcalf, director of the city's culture and recreation department, was not aware of the Mount Slaven site, but knows the area is dotted with the sites of former aboriginal villages, primarily along creeks.

"Where there's water, there's generally a hot spot."

Recently attention has been focused on Orchard Point, where a developer wanting to build condominiums is being required to conduct an archaeological assessment of the property.

"Orchard Point is an area rich in archaeology," said Metcalf.

In light of the limited information on file at the city, the Municipal Heritage Committee is recommending the city undertake an archaeological master plan, said Metcalf.

Such a plan, cataloguing sites of archaeological interest, would be a valuable planning tool in both established neighborhoods and areas of new development, alerting prospective developers of new projects and homeowners planning extensions or other work that might disturb the soil, said Metcalf.

"The Mount Slaven site could make sense as part of the overall mapping."

Council will discuss undertaking an archaeological master plan at the city's pre-budget meetings next month.

Taylor thinks further research into the Mount Slaven site and others within city limits could provide the material for historic plaques and a walking tour.

"People love historic signs. It makes them think about the history of the land. It helps kids understand where they belong."

The Packet & Times was unable to get comment from Chippewas of Rama First Nation for these stories.

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