Prepared by Brenda Kennett, Past Recovery Archaeological Services, Maberly, Ontario
"Living by the Seashore, Watching a Lake Emerge"
Indigenous Settlement around Big Rideau Lake
The first article in this series, Nature Carves the Big Rideau, chronicled the long geological evolution that transformed the ancient Grenville Mountains into the modern “blue gem” that is Big Rideau Lake. This article will interrupt that geological story at the point when momentous environmental changes led to the arrival of the first Indigenous peoples.
Beginning 12,000 years ago, the last of the Wisconsinan glaciers, which had covered most of northern North American for millennia, began melting. The massive weight of the ice sheets had depressed the land and, as the glaciers retreated northward, sea water flooded down the St. Lawrence Valley covering much of eastern Ontario with a vast body of water known as the Champlain Sea. The western limit of this sea cut through the Rideau Lakes area.
The retreat of the ice also allowed Indigenous peoples to move northward. Referred to by archaeologists as Palaeo-Indians, these first peoples to settle this region would have established their campsites on the shorelines and islands of the Champlain Sea. Most of the objects made and used by Palaeo-Indians would have been manufactured from bone, ivory, wood, bark, animal skins, and sinew - materials that rarely survive over time. As such, we are left almost exclusively with their stone tools and have only a few tantalizing clues as to their presence and lifestyle. Remarkably, several important Palaeo-Indian finds come from the Rideau Lakes.
Ten thousand years ago, this high rock outcrop within Murphys Point Provincial Park would have been an ideal outlook, not across Big Rideau Lake as it is today, but across a large arm of the Champlain Sea. With a little imagination, we can place ourselves in the post-glacial tundra-like environment watching for seals and whales or scouting for herds of caribou. Long, thin beautifully made projectile points (an archaeological term for spear, arrow or harpoon heads) are distinctive of the Palaeo-Indian period.
Long, thin beautifully made projectile points (an archaeological term for spear, arrow or harpoon heads) are distinctive of the Palaeo-Indian period.
The example illustrated here (it is c. 10 cm long) is one of several from somewhere in the Rideau Lakes.
While we don’t know exactly where – it was found over 100 years ago and the records are poor – most evidence suggests it was from a Champlain Sea shoreline on what is now Big Rideau Lake.
Gradually the land began to rebound, causing the Champlain Sea to drain back down the St. Lawrence Valley; the lakes and rivers of the Rideau region were formed and the mixed forest landscape was established. The Palaeo-Indians adapted to these changes, and new tools appear in the archaeological record such as ground stone axes and adzes for heavy woodworking – think of cutting trees for shelters or making dug out canoes. As a matter of convenience, archaeologists called this next period (from c. 10,000 to c. 3,000 years ago) the Archaic.
Again, we have hints of these changes on Big Rideau Lake where a number of Archaic sites have been identified. In addition to the tools indicating an adaptation to the forest environment, exotic items appear in this period providing clear evidence of long distance trade networks spanning much of North America.
The small (6 cm long) triangular projectile point at left was found on Rideau Lake but is made of distinctive “Ramah Chert”, a type of stone that only outcrops in far northern Labrador. A fishing gaff (hook) – found a little to the west on Bob’s Lake – made of copper came from the north shore of Lake Superior. It is quite likely that mica – also an exotic trade item – from the shores of Big Rideau Lake made its way to distant places as part of this exchange. As one would expect, however, many of the stone tools from the Archaic sites on Big Rideau Lake are made of local materials including a common red quartzite and soapstone from Adam’s Lake.
It is quite likely that mica – also an exotic trade item – from the shores of Big Rideau Lake made its way to distant places as part of this exchange. As one would expect, however, many of the stone tools from the Archaic sites on Big Rideau Lake are made of local materials including a common red quartzite and soapstone from Adam’s Lake.
The next distinct change in the archaeological record is the appearance of pottery about 3,000 years ago. Pottery provides the archaeologist with another convenient identifier for a new period, the Woodland (c. 3,000 to c. 350 years ago). The decorated rim sherd shown here was found on Big Rideau Lake in 1895 and is from the top of a cooking pot. While Woodland peoples continued to hunt, fish and gather their food from the diverse Rideau Lakes environment, limited horticulture was introduced into this region about 1,000 years ago.
Just as today, attempting to grow domesticates such as corn, beans and squash on the rugged north shore of Big Rideau Lake would have been extremely difficult, but some plants may have been tended on the more tillable south shore soils. We also know that Woodland peoples actively managed their environment through the use of fire, selective forest thinning and tree planting, creating and maintaining maple sugar bushes, as well as clearings for deer yards, open habitat for blueberries, etc., to help ensure adequate food resources. Nuts and acorns were important given their high caloric value and ease of storage, with the sweet shagbark hickory nut being particularly favoured. Shagbark hickory trees found in Murphys Point, beyond the normal northern limit of their range, may well be there thanks to an early Indigenous arborist.
Gordon Watson, an archaeologist who studied the Rideau Lakes in the 1970s and 1980s, is responsible for much of what we know about the archaeological sites of Big Rideau Lake. He recorded over 20 sites on Big and Lower Rideau lakes but only undertook detailed excavation at a couple. He noted that these lakes were “at the crossroads of the waterways in all directions” and speculated that this was a location of significance for Indigenous peoples.
Gordon Watson prepared this plan (reproduced in Wyght 1982) of his excavations at the Wyght Site on Lower Rideau Lake. If you zoom in, you will see the locations where specific types of tools were found and different activity areas. There are also dates associated with features (usually hearths or pits) where Watson recovered charcoal samples that could be used for Carbon-14 dating. These dates show that the site was occupied repeatedly between about 7,600 and 800 years ago.
The archaeological sites of Big Rideau Lake provide amazing glimpses into the 12,000 year history of Indigenous settlement. Unfortunately, many sites were flooded when completion of the Rideau Canal raised lake levels by up to six feet. Other sites continue to be lost as development occurs around the lake. (Many of Gordon Watson’s sites were associated with small cottage properties in the 1970s but these properties now contain large year-round homes with septic systems and outbuildings.) Each archaeological site is unique, created by specific peoples at certain times and when a site is destroyed, the information it contained is lost forever – archaeological sites are truly non-renewable resources. In addition, many of the artifacts we have from Big Rideau Lake are isolated finds – we have little to no information where exactly they were found or what they were found with. “An archaeological find out of context is like a clue removed from the scene of the crime: it becomes a silent witness. To learn the truth, the archaeologist has to carefully study its position, the soil it was conserved in, the artifacts around it…Only by cross-checking all this information can we deduce what this item did ‘on the night of…’” (Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum).
As archaeologists, we must also be cognizant that, even with careful excavation, the archaeological record never captures the social and spiritual intricacies of the lives of the peoples who made and used the items left behind. The oral histories and world view of the Algonquin and other Indigenous peoples who continue to reside around Big Rideau Lake are essential to understanding this rich history of local human settlement.
References and other suggested resources:
Pilon, Jean-Luc, editor 1999 Ottawa Valley Prehistory. Outaouais No. 6. Hull: Outaouais Historical Society.
Watson, Gordon 1990 “Palaeo-Indian and Archaic Occupations of the Rideau Lakes.” In Ontario Archaeology No. 50:5-26. (Publication of the Ontario Archaeological Society)
Wyght, F.C.L., editor 1982 Archaeological Historical Symposium, October 2-3,1982, Rideau Ferry, Ontario Lombardy: F.C.L. Wyght.
Indigenous artifacts from the Rideau Lakes area are on display at the Rideau District Museum in Westport and at the Perth Museum. For the remainder of 2017, there is also a small display in the Tay Valley Township Municipal Office at 217 Harper Road just west of Perth. We at Past Recovery Archaeological Services Inc. are always interested to know about local finds. If you have found artifacts on Big Rideau Lake, please give us a call at 613-267-7028.
This article, like all of the How the Lake Works series, is presented in a blog format. We welcome and encourage your comments - if you would like to engage in the discussion, just click on the article title then scroll back to the bottom to make your comments.