The area of Constance Bay located twenty five kilometers north of downtown Ottawa is no stranger to dramatic historical events. Previously OttawaRewind.com uncovered archeological documents revealing an ancient settlement from 500BC on its sandy shores and more recently that it was the site of a gruesome Fur Trade battle in the 17th century. From ancient times when the Ottawa River was an aqua-highway conduit used to transport copper ore from mines on Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean to its more modern role as a colonial outpost, the shoreline of the Ottawa River is if full of history waiting to be uncovered. That being said, it was not unusual to be contacted by a reader in Constance Bay who had unearthed a rusty sword in her garden two years ago. After contacting the War Museum without answer and knowing the area is largely unrecognized for its historical importance, I grabbed my own gear and headed to Constance Bay in search for answers to this Mystery of the Buried Blade.
Kim and Steve Fagan of Constance Bay live a stone’s throw from the sandy beach edge of the Ottawa River, an area of significant historical action, much of it not known to the public who have been building homes and cottages along its shoreline. Two years ago while doing some gardening, Kim was shoveling a garden plot and hit something metallic. “We were digging out a garden in the front yard and we found it about 12 inches below the surface.” said Kim Fagan, who has kept the blade in her closet, unsure of what it was. Pulling out of the sandy soil a relic from another time, Fagan had no idea how or why a sword ended up in her garden. It was only after reading the article in OttawaRewind that she thought it might be something of historical importance.
Driving the short distance to Constance Bay I examined the blade in person and noted details about its construction, noting that its shape seemed less like a sword but more like a knife blade. The hilt reminded me of old bayonets I had seen in museums. Asking Fagan to study the blade further I measured the sword to be about a half metre long with an obviously modified hilt where cloth had replaced either a leather or wooden handle that had long since disintegrated. The hilt had been broken on one side, and the blade had a curved, almost scimitar shape to it like sword blades of the Middle East.
Comparing the photographs to various resource sites on weapon blades, it seemed more and more likely not to be a sword but rather some kind of bayonet. I narrowed my search down to antique bayonet websites that provided more of a match to the relic’s shape than any sword.
I contacted Derek Complin of bayonetsplus.com, and a member of The Society of American Bayonet Collectors for his thoughts on this buried blade. Complin, an avid collector and obvious expert on all things bayonet concurred the blade was that of a bayonet, more specifically “A British Pattern 1860 sword bayonet”. Complin explained that these were issued to troops in Canada to be used with the Snider Short Rifle. The buried blade had at one time been subjected to a shortening of its blade and “the removal of the muzzle ring, and the grips, which appear to have been replaced with a cloth binding.”
Complin speculates the buried bayonet was “sold out of service at some point, or perhaps left service along with a retired soldier, and was modified or adapted for less warlike use.”
Researching more about this idea of it being a bayonet, I found that the unearthed blade matches almost perfectly the size and shape of the British Victorian Volunteer P1860 Short Rifle/Snider Sword Bayonet just as Complin theorized. Using photos of the original and superimposing them overtop the rusted old blade, the match was undeniable perfect. It was a modified bayonet blade from the 1860’s, once paired to a Snider/Enfield short rifle first issued to Canadian forces in 1867. A shipment of 30,000 of these rifles arrived from Great Britain in August of that year.
This bayonet was based on the North African and Middle Eastern Yataghan swords, with their distinctive curved blades. Why that odd shape was chosen is unclear but some think the curve ensured that the blade was out of the bullet trajectory when it was attached to the end of the rifle. The bayonet was only issued for the Snider SHORT rifle, which in turn, was issued only to Sergeant’s and higher ranking officers in the Canadian Militia of that time.
How the bayonet became buried in the sands of Constance Bay is open to conjecture, but a study of an 1880 map shows the land of the current Constance Bay village was once property belonging to the Canada Company. The Canada Company was a large private chartered British land development company, to aid in the colonization of Upper Canada. The Canada Company helped emigrants by providing safe ships, low fares, implements and tools, and inexpensive land. The company surveyed and subdivided crown land areas, built roads, mills, and schools and advertised it to buyers in Europe. The company then brought new settlers to these area by means of a boat, which the company also owned.
Perhaps the buried bayonet was part of a settler’s tools in a new land, or maybe it was a lost relic of a military operation in that area that was forgotten and buried over time. The Fagans have no plans for the 150 year old weapon but said they’d be “happy to donate it to a museum if they want it.”
The possibilities of how a modified 19th century bayonet became buried on the Fagan’s property remains open to the imagination, but we can be sure that this was once a military bayonet yataghan sword used by a higher ranking member of the Canadian Militia. Perhaps it was modified and used as a tool for carving out a new life in the unsettled wilderness north of the newly formed Nation’s Capital, or part of some other more nefarious business. Whatever the case may be, the area of Constance Bay continues to provide significant relics of our past that lie buried in the sands of time.
Andrew King, OttawaRewind.com 2016
Special thanks to Kim & Steve Fagan of Constance Bay and Derek Complin who graciously offered their time and information for this post.
McGill Digital Atlas Project.