The 17th Century Fur Trade On The Ottawa River was just as gory as The Revenant…
The recently Oscar nominated film “The Revenant” follows the exploits of colonial fur traders in the American mid-west and the ensuing conflicts with native people whose land they encroach upon. The film explicitly conveys the harrowing battles between the fur traders and native warriors through gruesome tactics and fights to the death. It may seem like a distant part of the past that occurred in a distant part of the United States wilderness but in fact, equally gruesome fur trade battles happened right here in Ottawa on the banks of the mighty Ottawa River, the superhighway of fur trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. One such battle happened just a few kilometres north of the city in Constance Bay.
Originally published in a 1909 edition of The Ottawa Naturalist (Vol. XXIII, No. 4: 61-68 & Vol. XXIII, No. 5:92-104) author and early local historian T. W. Edwin Sowter heard a story one night while camping at Chats Falls near Fitzroy Harbour on the Ottawa river, and, though far in the past for him in 1909, the tales of the “Indians” and the bloody battles that occurred on the sands of the Ottawa prompted him to record and publish a gruesome verbal tale of the Fur Trade from the latter part of the 1600’s at Constance Bay.
Constance Bay is a body of water about half an hour’s drive north along the Ottawa River, a quaint community of cottages and monster waterfront homes, but unbeknownst to many is the fact the area was the scene of a bloody battle as depicted in The Revenant film. A spit of land known as Big Sand Point, a sandy beach area now lined with cottages, was once scattered with the bones of “Indian warriors” as the author Sowter describes, and who actually uncovered skeletal remains and associated battle relics within the sands. Sowter tells of a war-party of Iroquois warriors who, having taken possession of big Sand Point at Constance Bay, defended themselves to the death against a force of French and Algonquins, “who surprised them in a night-attack and butchered them all.”
The Iroquois and Algonquin/Huron tribes were enemies at the time, “a time when fierce conflict was bred from a desire to mercilessly destroy the other in a campaign of extermination.” Sowter describes how the Ottawa River portage areas were dangerous, full of war-parties of natives who held these places with a “toll with the tomahawk and harvested with the scalping-knife the fatal souvenirs of conquest.”
The area of Sand Bay, at the outlet of Constance Creek, has two opposing points of land across the bay, Big Sand Point to the NorthWest and a place called Pointe à la Bataille, now called Horseshoe Bay off Armitage Drive. The two points are about a mile apart with the outlet of Constance Creek almost in the middle.
According to the story told by Sowter, a party of French fur-traders, together with a number of friendly natives set up a camp on Pointe à la Bataille. They lit their fires, cooked their meals and rested after a long journey along the Ottawa River in their canoes. The night was not to be restful however, as the campers noticed a glimmer of fire across the bay. A reconnaissance party was sent out and it was determined a large war-party of Iroquois were in a barricaded encampment at Big Sand Point. The French and Algonquins knew they would probably also soon be discovered and realized that the Iroquois camp, with its fierce warriors, would soon inflict a horrific attack on their own camp.
The French/Algonquins knew it was either “us or them” so they devised a plan to attack them first. The French were outnumbered and decided not to enter into diplomatic relations with the enemy who would surely torture and kill them. It was decided they would attack them in their sleep under the cover of darkness. Sowter recounts how the French and their allies knew very well that “if their plans miscarried and the attack failed, the penalty would be death to most of their party, and that, in the event of capture, they would receive as fiery and painful an introduction to the world of shadows as the leisure or limited means of their captors might warrant.”
It was near midnight, the French attacking party left their camp at Pointe à la Bataille and quietly paddled their canoes over to Constance Creek where they ditched them and headed into the surrounding forest. I have personally visited this site and it is still quite a forested wilderness with the distinct possibility relics from this battle are still to be found, hidden for centuries under the cloak of time.
Taking a long detour through the forest now known as Torbolton Forest, owned by the City Of Ottawa, the attack proceeded to reach behind the enemy enabling the French and their allies to rush the enemy barricades from the rear while sentries and guards were positioned on the shore of the river.
The French and their allies then swept upon the unsuspecting Iroquois with devastating effect as Sowter explains, “Many of the Iroquois died in their sleep, while the rest of the party perished to a man, in the wild confusion of a midnight massacre.” A grim attack that shed the blood of men onto the sands of what is now a peaceful cottage community.
Sowter later visited the site of this gruesome attack and uncovered “the bones that are found in the drifting sands at that place” and discovered “the remains of friend and foe who fell in that isolated and unrecorded struggle.”
So, if you happen to visit that area or live there, keep an eye out for the lost relics of a bloody attack on the shores of Constance Bay, a part of our Ottawa River fur trade history that rivals that of any Hollywood movie.
McGill Digital Atlas