What’s This? There’s NOTHING Here!

Heading to the Clearing
Heading to the Clearing
Om the Earthworks
Om the Earthworks
Iroquois Longhouses
Iroquois Longhouses
"These trees are old, very old."
“These trees are old, very old.”
The Clearing
The Clearing

Two summers ago, just novices at the National Historic Site “game,” Louis and I headed Brantford way. The area is a Historic Site hot spot, with no less than 6 designated properties. First on our agenda this day was St. Paul’s, Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, (of which I’ve blogged earlier) the first Protestant Church in Ontario.

Then on to Chiefswood, Indian Princess Pauline Johnson’s childhood home. Both sites are lovingly-preserved and open the door to the First Nation’s contribution to Ontario’s history.

Finally, off to discover Brantford’s ancient history. There are a number of archeological sites in Ontario—evidences of  civilizations that flourished before the arrival of Europeans.

 Both the Walker and Middleport Sites,which were inhabited by the Iroquois and Iroquois Neutrals are located on Six Nation Land, near the city of Brantford.

Iroquois Lore

My previous research has prepared us for a bit of Iroquois history. A war-like people, the Iroquois were a matrilineal society with clan mothers having considerable power. Women decided who would serve as band chief.

The Iroquois often took prisoners too, both native and  European. Usually, captured children were adopted and raised as their own. Researchers have determined that this practice kept the bloodlines strong, avoiding in-breeding.

 After European settlement in the 15th and 16th centuries, and for the next 200 years the Iroquois remained a powerful factor in Ontario. European policy-making was often enacted with the “natives” in mind. The fact that the Iroquois were uniformly feared by the European settlers helped their lot considerably.

The Walker Site

The website “Digging Ontario” gives some illumination on the Walker Site to where we are headed. Called a “fortified Iroquois tribe village,” it was occupied between 1630 and 1640. During this time, the tribe had their first European contact– with the Jesuit priests, Brebeuf and Chaumont.

Modern day archeological digging has reinforced this. Both native artifacts – clay bowls and crude utensils, and European artifacts – rugs, copper kettles and glass beads of the period provide certain evidence of trading between the two cultures.

So with “I know where I’m going” Louis at the wheel, Amber the elderly Golden as co-pilot in the front seat, and Nancy in her usual back seat lookout, supervising young dog Hailey, we head toward the Grand River along whose banks the Walker Site is located–somewhere. 

As for directions, we have no more to guide us than the scanty Parks Canada information. It locates the Site at 43 degrees 7’0’N by 80 degrees 7’0’W. “What on earth does this mumbo-jumbo mean?” I ask my more geographically-literate spouse. He understands his directions perfectly!

To make matters more clouded, Walker ranks only one scant sentence on the Parks Canada website, naming it: “a large Iroquoian archeological site, pertaining to the Historic Attiwandarok tribe.”

Arriving At the Site

Louis stops the van on a vista overlooking the slow-flowing Grand River. We leash the dogs and set off to explore. Come along on the voyage of discovery to learn what we didn’t find.

“There’s absolutely nothing here,” I note to Louis as we trudge along the banks of the Grand. “There’s no plaque, no designation, no nothing. What kind of a National Historic Site is this with absolutely no marker?”

He counters: “It’s almost like they don’t want people like us—outsiders– to find it.” Given the lack of readily-accessible information on the internet and the absence of signage, I have to agree. “The Site is probably considered sacred by the Six Nation people. Maybe we should leave,” I suggest.

We trundle back through waist-high goldenrod to the van, unsatisfied and unrewarded. We hope to have better luck at the nearby Middleport Site.

On to Middleport

I’ve been stymied in my attempts to find research on Middleport so I hope we’ll at least find a plaque with some scant information. But again we are disappointed. We ask residents in the vicinity of the geographical coordinates what they know, and we’re given blank stares.  

It appears we have met our second National Historic Ninja-Site and so we head home. 

Having Better Luck

It will take another 8 months for us to hit the archeological site jackpot. We’re scheduling a visit to the Southwold Earth Works, south of the village of Iona in Elgin County, west of St. Thomas. Given our previous experiences with archeological sites our expectations are not high.

It’s so rewarding to be wrong!  

as we approach the Site, a  highly-visible road sign invites us to stop and connect with Ontario’s distant past. We park the van, unload the dogs and set off across a carefully tended and fenced green ‘avenue’ toward the “Earthworks. ” It’s the remains of a ceremonial Neutral Tribe site.

 “Look at the trees, Louis,” I suggest as we walk towards the clearing. “They’re the largest I’ve ever seen in this part of Ontario.” “Beech and Chestnut,” he offers.  Of a literary, rather than botanical mindset, I’m immediately transported to Middle Earth, channelling Legolas the Elf’s observation as the Fellowship enters Fangorn Forest. “These trees are old, very old,” the photogenic, but astute Elf observes.

The Earthworks Themselves

We’re now at the clearing, and with no one around, we let the dogs have a run. Before us lies a double oval ring of raised “earthworks.” The humps are the remains of a wooden palisade which rose up to 20 feet high.  Built around 1400, at one time the fortifications surrounded up to 24 longhouses.

Archeologists believe these wooden barriers provided more privacy than protection. It’s thought that the Neutrals used the site as a holy place rather than a year-round residence. The entire community would pick up stakes and move to “the Earthworks” on a religious pilgrimage. Inside the palisades healing and purification took place. 

We leave Southwold feeling satisfied and refreshed. And once again, we are awed by our province’s history and heritage.