An historical discovery on Peel Street

2 minutes

Montreal centre-ville

  • © By Kyle William's art
On two occasions, 157 years apart, the Dawson site, located in downtown Montreal, has revealed remains of the only St. Lawrence Iroquoians village found on the island. It is these historical discoveries that are highlighted with Lights on Peel

A first discovery in 1859

In 1859, the city of Montreal was expanding rapidly outside the original suburbs that surrounded the old town. The territory of the current city center is then subdivided and built.

John William Dawson, geologist and principal of McGill College (later to become McGill University in 1885), examines finds made by workers in a sand pit located in front of the entrance to the establishment, in what is today the quadrangle. bounded by the Sherbrooke, Metcalfe, de Maisonneuve and Mansfield tracks.

Numerous remains are collected there in jumble, mainely pottery, but also bone and stone tools, baked clay pipes, traces of hearths, animal bones and even human burials. Intrigued, Dawson recognizes the remains of a Native American village dating from before French settlers settled in the St. Lawrence Valley.

Unfortunately, archaeological science was only embryonic at the time of Dawson, and no excavation was carried out at the site. No plan, no survey has been made. And since then, the place of the finds has been completely obliterated by the construction of skyscrapers. Consequently, this site is still very little understood, even though it is despite everything the first archaeological site recognized as such and examined under scientific gaze in Quebec.

The advancement of knowledge in archeology during the twentieth century and an analysis of old collections carried out during the 1960s have enabled us to confirm that it is a village occupied shortly before the arrival of the French but , even today, it is still not possible to associate the Dawson site with certainty with Hochelaga. Dawson speculated that it could be Hochelaga, the village of the Iroquoians of the St.Lawrence, visited in the fall of 1535 by Jacques Cartier on his second journey.

Resumption of discoveries in the 21st century

During the summer and fall 2016, construction was carried out on Sherbrooke Street as part of a redevelopment for the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations. At the intersection of Peel Street, archaeologists have found ancient, undisturbed soils only about two feet from the surface of the roadway, and to their delight, they found that they contain contemporary remains of the Dawson site.

Emergency excavations were then undertaken and, for the first time in 150 years, new data was collected on the Dawson site. This is a unique opportunity to take a modern scientific look at this place. For example, radiocarbon dating seems to place this site around the beginning of the 15th century, a little over a century before Cartier moved to Hochelaga, and studies of the charred residues preserved on the pottery show that the inhabitants of the site Dawson ate a lot of fish. 

We will probably not be able to prove that it is Hochelaga, but we will update our knowledge of the ways of life in what remains, to this day, the only village of the St.Lawrence Iroquoians found on the island of Montreal. This is what really motivates archaeologists.

An initiative in collaboration with Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and KORLCC, with the support of the borough of Ville-Marie.

Text source : Roland Tremblay 

Artistic credits : Kyle William’s art