Aylmer Island was an Indian burial ground

T.W.E. Sowter published an article in 1909 in The Ottawa Naturalist, Algonkin and Huron occupation of the Ottawa Valley. Some years before 1909, when the foundation for the new lighthouse was being dug, a large quantity of human bones were unearthed. The light-keeper, Mr. Frank Boucher informed Sowter that the skeletons were all piled together. It was difficult to estimate the number of bodies interred in this grave, but it yielded about a wagon load of bones. These were thought to be a “small Huron ossuary”. The Hurons buried their dead in a communal grave, every ten years or so.

There are written records of the Huron Feast of the Dead, describing this important ceremony. In 1636, Brébeuf described how the dead of the previous decade were collected from far and near and removed from their temporary resting places, usually scaffolds. Skeletons were tied up in bundles, wrapped in skins and clothed with robes of costly furs. The more recent dead remained whole and were also clothed in furs. These bundles were hung on the cross-poles of the principal long-house in the villages and during a funeral feast, the chiefs discussed the virtues of the deceased. Then they were carried along woodland paths, while the mourners uttered dismal wailing cries, supposed to resemble the disembodied spirits making their way to the land of souls.

When the nation’s dead had all been assembled close to the chosen spot, the packages were opened. Brébeuf described one woman’s grief over the bones of her father and her children. She combed her father’s hair and fondled his bones. She made bead bracelets for the arms of her children, and bathed their bones with her tears. Finally the processions re-formed and proceeded to a spot in the forest where a large clearing had been made. In the centre a huge pit had been dug, ten feet in depth and thirty feet in diameter. After more feasting, the dead were hung from a scaffold over the pit, along with funeral gifts. The next dawn, the bones were hurled into the pit while huge fires blazed about the clearing. Then the pit was covered with logs and earth and the ceremony concluded with a funeral chant.

Other traces of Indians found close to the Ottawa River between the Deschênes Rapids and Chats Falls include an Algonquin camping ground at Queen’s Park and more human bones at Sand Point, west of Constance Bay. A number of single graves thought to be Algonquin have also been found on Aylmer Island. Flint arrowheads have been found on the shores of the river.

Many questions remain. What has been discovered since Sowter’s article was published? Did the lighthouse builders re-bury the wagon-load of bones on Aylmer Island?

Originally appeared in Telltale, Nepean Sailing Club newsletter, Sept/Oct 1994, p 11, by Mo Laidlaw. (Thanks to Diane Aldred).