Website Editor Note: While this
particular story focuses on Montreal, its message is the same no matter what
place name gets attatched to the subject matter. It could just as
easily be Bartlett, New Hampshire.
What life was like 1,000 years ago
In an article published in 2000, Doug Sweet looks back at life 1,000 years ago in Montreal. The story gives some historical context to the an exhibition at Pointe-à-Callière Museum, St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Corn People.
By Montreal GazetteNovember 17, 2006
Begin with quiet. No noise from jostling traffic or an onrushing metro train. No hum from the computer fan. No jumble of voices bouncing off the walls of a frenzied shopping centre. No television, no radio, cinema, CDs, MP3s or other instruments of the late-20th-century cacophony in which we are immersed every blessed day of our brief lives.
Listen, now, for the sounds that 1,000 years ago - a millennium ago - would be heard in this place we call home. Tall and ancient trees moaning in the clean wind. Water rattling through rocks and rapids and lapping quietly at the pebbled shore. A bird's stabbing cry. The quick rustle of unseen wildlife in thickets of underbrush. The echoing rumble of thunder or splatter of falling rain.
A primeval atmosphere.
Add to this the murmur of human voices gathered together - an infant's wail, the shrieks of children playing, sharp words between a husband and wife, the drone of mystical singing. There's the strike of stone on stone, the thud of a rock axe against thick wood, a fire's crackle.
These would be about the only sounds anyone would hear if they visited what is now Montreal.
The only sounds.
That was to change, of course. But in the vast sweep of time, what was wrought by later immigrants to this land was relatively recent.
In our collective arrogance, we often overlook the human life that existed in this place for millennia before the first Europeans ventured up a great river in search of a quick route to the treasures of China and the East.
The history of the island now called Montreal does not begin with Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, who founded Ville Marie in 1642. It doesn't begin with Samuel de Champlain's visit of 1611 or with Jacques Cartier's day-and-a-half stopover at the Iroquoian village Hochelaga in 1535.
People had lived in this region long before that. Thousands of them.
After the last of the great ice sheets melted away and the resulting inland sea began to dry up about 10,000 years ago, people drifted into this land, discovering its abundant rivers and their rich flood plains. With lower-lying land still flooded by the Champlain Sea, the earliest possible residents lived on higher ground to the west of Montreal, near what is now called Lac St. Francois, a widening of the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall, Ont. They are referred to as Paleoindians and were succeeded, the archaeologists tell us, by Archaic people about 5,000 years ago. These were the ancestors of the people who, about 1,000 years ago, began to develop rudimentary agriculture here.
By about 1200 to 1300 AD, those whom anthropologists and archaeologists call
St. Lawrence Iroquoians had developed their agriculture to the point that their crops of beans, squash and corn had supplanted hunting as the community's primary source of food. Farming brought an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the St. Lawrence Iroquoians settled down, shifting their longhouse villages about every 20 years in search of more fertile farmland.
On his 1535 voyage up the St. Lawrence, Cartier visited a village, which he called Hochelaga, with between 1,000 and 2,000 inhabitants. He stayed only briefly, but described the community in some detail.
Less than 50 years later, the people who lived on Montreal Island and in the vicinity began to disperse. Where they went is fairly easy to determine by studying far-flung fragments of pottery - the St. Lawrence Iroquoians employed a distinctive pottery style - into eastern Ontario, farther down the St. Lawrence River, even
into northeastern New England and the Lac St-Jean region.
But why they left remains a mystery. Could diseases, such as influenza and smallpox, have been introduced by Cartier (or other lesser-known explorers), leaving the people of Hochelaga vulnerable to more frequent and sustained attack from neighbouring Algonquin, Iroquois or Huron tribes? Was there a small but significant shift in climate patterns rendering their rudimentary agriculture impossible? Did they just get tired of the same old river and the same old mountain?
A definitive answer is probably impossible, but what is certain is that by the time Champlain explored this area in 1611 there was no trace of Hochelaga.
Gone. And never to return.
Although Algonquins from the Ottawa River region settled the island sporadically between the time of Cartier's visit and the permanent French encampment established by Maisonneuve in 1642, the last substantial aboriginal community on the island simply evaporated.
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So the white-faced men and women returned, and this time they stayed for good, bringing different customs, different values, different goals, a different god.
They also brought different sounds: their languages, as well as the sound of hammering and sawing, the thwack of sharper steel axes against the same tree trunks, then the rumble of wheeled carts, the mooing and grunting of domesticated animals.
The sound of gunfire.
And, through treaties, trade, cheating, warfare and wave upon wave of unending immigration, they took control of this island and they built, stone by stone, log by log, a small town nestled under the protective shadow of a stunted mountain, hard against the endlessly flowing river that would shape the city's destiny for centuries to come. How appropriate that Montreal, a city that has borne witness to so many profound changes in its makeup and character, should lie next to the endless flow of a river rather than the static body of a lake.
History is the story of change, and Montreal has enjoyed more of it than most cities on this continent in its 357 years of existence.The French settlers, in addition to devoting themselves and their energies to converting the ``heathen'' aboriginals to Christianity and specifically Roman Catholicism, quickly realized the potential of the region's rivers as superhighways leading inland to the heart of a lucrative fur trade. That industry, more than any other, propelled the young city into a position of economic expansion and prominence in the New World.
The British conquest of the mid-18th century brought the tones of yet another language to Montreal, although the fur trade continued to be the economic staple of an expanding and diversifying economy.
Gradually, into the next century,
industrialization crept in and with it new sounds, new energies. Smokestacks and coal fires brought soot and smoke along with jobs for immigrants. Machinery, sugar, tobacco, dry goods were refined or produced here for consumption elsewhere. That meant a transportation industry, and again the river was of vital importance.
For a time in the middle of the 19th century, most of the people living within the city of Montreal proper spoke English, but that soon changed with massive immigration of French-speaking Quebecers from the hinterland, providing Montreal with the unique sound and image it offers to the world to this day: a mixture of languages and cultures that sometimes collide but more often embrace each other; a face and a voice that are replicated nowhere else on the planet.
Added to the principal ingredients of this cultural bouillabaisse is the spice of multi-ethnicity made possible by successive bursts of immigration: the Irish in the early to middle part of the 19th century; Russian Jews at the turn of the 20th century; Italians, Portuguese, Greeks and other Europeans in smaller numbers in the first decades of the 1900s and then in great waves that date from the 1950s on; more recently Africans and Middle Easterners, those from the Caribbean and southern Asia, as well as people from Central and South America.
All have contributed to the local culture; all have helped change the sounds of Montreal, from the bustle of Chinatown to the summertime tam-tams at the foot of Mount Royal.
With the different cultural currents have come changing economic fortunes.
The early industrialization of the mid-1800s gave way to larger and more numerous factories, from the sugar refineries of the Lachine Canal to the heavy machine shops of the sprawling Angus yards where Canadian Pacific built and maintained locomotives. But just as political eddies and whirlpools were becoming stronger and more tumultuous, so, too, was there continued turbulence in the city's economic underpinnings. Smokestacks and enormous electric motors gave way to computer chips and microscopes. The heavy machine shops closed and the pharmaceutical industry exploded. Sugar refineries became film studios; instead of locomotives, Montrealers were building jet airplanes.
The river flowed on.
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Most of us who live at the close of the 20th century can be pretty full of ourselves.
We sit in hermetically sealed houses and office towers, shops and factories, the vast majority of us perfectly safe from numbing cold or blistering heat. Look, we say, look at all we have accomplished and created, how we have shaped this place, conquered the wilderness and erected great temples to our commerce, our technology and our genius.
In this pride and comfort, it is so easy to overlook who and what went before us -
what it took to live here, what humans endured merely to survive until the next dawn, what drove men and women to live in this terrible land, to feel it, explore it and test it. We forget the courage it took to stare at the worst of nature's elements and prevail. We forget how primitive were the conditions that existed before anyone had even imagined the word ``lifestyle.''
Stripped of human comforts,
this is a rugged, forbidding, unfriendly place. It is hot and infested with insects. It is soggy with rain. It is bitter with cold and snow and wind. It is ice.
That those who came before us, either by land bridge or by the hand of the Creator or by way of creaking little wooden ships, managed to carve out a lasting existence is evidence of an astonishing spirit.
Could we summon such spirit today?
There are those who have doubts about human society's lurching ``progress'' which is, but for some important aesthetic touches, little different in modern Montreal than in modern Berlin or Baton Rouge.
, one of the great minds of the recent past, put it this way:
``Modern man can all but leap out beyond the confines of his being; through the eyes of television he is present throughout the whole planet all at the same time. Yet it turns out that from this spasmodic pace of technocentric Progress, from the oceans of superficial information and cheap spectacles,
the human soul does not grow, but instead grows more shallow, and spiritual life is only reduced.
``Our culture, accordingly, grows poorer and dimmer,
no matter how it tries to drown out its decline by the din of empty novelties. As creature comforts continue to improve for the average person, so spiritual development grows stagnant. Surfeit brings with it a nagging sadness of the heart, as we sense that the whirlpool of pleasures does not bring satisfaction, and that before long, it may suffocate us. . . .
The victory of technological civilization has also instilled a spiritual insecurity in us. Its gifts enrich, but enslave us as well. All is interests - we must not neglect our interests - all is a struggle for material things;
but an inner voice tells us that we have lost something pure,
elevated, and fragile. We have ceased to see the purpose.''
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Has the human condition improved since our ancestors inhabited this place? Undoubtedly. Even in the eyeblink of the last century, to use but one example, the infant-mortality rate in Montreal that ran to well over 300 deaths per thousand in the middle of the 1880s has been reduced to only 6.6 per thousand today. Human life expectancy in prosperous countries such as ours has virtually doubled since the Industrial Revolution. And people who have lived and worked here in Montreal in the last two centuries have contributed in no small measure to those improvements.
We can take pride in work done here that has helped ease suffering and cured disease. How life has been enriched by poets and writers and artists who flourished and found in this place their muse.
How thousands upon thousands of us have found a better life than the one our ancestors knew, with opportunities more vast and a future brighter than anything that could have been imagined while huddled in the stinking hold of a rat-ridden ship.
How entrepreneurship and ingenuity have contributed to learning and to life at institutions and industries founded here and nurtured by citizens who cared about the progress of human society.
The change of a millennium, as artificial as it may seem - and as false a turning point as it is to countless others who follow, at least for religious purposes, a different calendar - is a good time to put those accomplishments into perspective.
Today, January 1, 2000, is just another day. Apart from the rather important fact that the modern calendar is woefully imprecise when it comes to measuring the time since Christ was born about 2,000 years ago, it is not even the official turning of the century or the millennium. That will come in a year's time - although, one expects, without the hoopla or the Y2K bug that tried to seize the world's attention now.
Regardless of which date one chooses to celebrate the turnover of the world's most common odometer, the change of century and of millennium
provides an ideal time for reflection - of what has gone before, of what is, and of what might be in the years to come.
We cannot predict the future any more than we can change the past, but we can ponder the kind of society we think we should strive to achieve, and reflect upon what it might take to get us there.
It is, as Solzhenitsyn suggests, a time to rediscover the purpose.
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