Words & photography: Mehanaz Yakub

It has been a mystery for centuries.

Somewhere on the island of Montreal, underneath layers of concrete and dirt lies the remains of the long-lost Iroquoian village of Hochelaga.

Historians know of its existence through a single journal entry dated from 1535 by French explorer Jacque Cartier. However, Cartier’s description is minimal. What did Hochelaga look like? Where might it have been? Who were the village’s inhabitants? These questions have all been left unanswered.

Historians think that Cartier would have only spent a few hours at the village, exchanging gifts before departing. It was not until 1603 when the next European explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived near the region again.

Champlain makes no mention of the village. To historians, it’s like Hochelaga just disappeared.

“[The Hochelaga Village] almost has a mythical status,” says Christian Gates St-Pierre, archaeologist and Professor from the University of Montreal.

One thing that makes the village so special is the sheer possibility of its size.

“There were at least 50 longhouses in that village – probably meaning 1500-2000 people. From archaeological and historical data [we know] that it was probably one of the largest Iroquoian villages in the North East, including in Ontario and New York State,” said St-Pierre.

Academics also believe it was the first official point of contact made between Indigenous and Europeans on the island.

A depiction of the Hochelaga village based on Jacque Cartier’s description. (Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

Where could it be?

Not to be confused with the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood located in the eastern part of the island, the Hochelaga village was not located anywhere near there, or at least that’s what archaeologists think — for now.

Some archaeologists refer to the village as their Holy Grail, because there are dozens of theories about where the site might be located, ranging from the probable (near Mount Royal) to the possible (Outremont area, Westmount Summit, Jeanne Mance Park, Park LaFontaine) to the unlikely (Laval).

“I think the Hochelaga village is somewhere near the mountain because Cartier clearly said the village is close to the mountain and one day he even says that they left the village and went up the mountain and [they] could see the village from the top of Mount Royal, [and they] could see their boats,” said St-Pierre.

Many of the location hypotheses depend on whether you think Cartier arrived in Montreal via the St. Lawrence River or the Rivière des Prairies. If he navigated through the St. Lawrence River, then he would have seen the village from the south side of Mount Royal, but if he came by the Rivière des Prairies he would have had to walk a longer distance and would have probably seen the village from the north side, said St-Pierre.

For a long time, many people thought the Hochelaga village was the Dawson site, which was the first archeological discovery made in Montreal in 1859, in front of McGill University.

The site was found on the corner of Metcalfe Street and Boulevard de Maisonneuve by accident by construction workers.

William Dawson, a geologist and the principal of McGill College (known now as McGill University), examined the site and determined that it was Hochelaga, but with some uncertainty.

In 1925, a monument recognizing the area as Hochelaga was erected on the front lawn of McGill University, with a plaque reading, “Near here was the site of the fortified town of Hochelaga visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535, abandoned before 1600.”

“[Eventually researchers] came to the conclusion that [the Dawson site] probably wasn’t the site of the Hochelaga village for some reasons. It was either older or smaller than the village and there weren’t enough European artefacts on the site,” said St-Pierre.

The “Hochelaga Rock,” more formally named the Hochelaga National Historic Site of Canada, commemorating the village can still be found near the main gates of McGill University, across from James McGill statue.

Today, St-Pierre is working on the Hochelaga Project at the University of Montreal.

He says the main goal of the project is really to try to discover where the Iroquoians lived on the island of Montreal. “In other words, whatever Iroquoian site we find will be interesting for us to document because there are so few of them,” said St-Pierre. “But if by chance we also discover Hochelaga then that’s the cherry on top of the sundae. But if we don’t, it’s okay too.”

The project has identified 19 possible locations where the site might be. St-Pierre and his team started excavating parks in the Outremont area in 2017, hoping to find something. At Oakwood Park there is a hidden stream that was once a river that ran across the island.

“We know Iroquoians used to establish their villages close to such areas because those were sources of clean, fresh water to drink. So that was a nice place to investigate, but we haven’t found anything yet,” said St- Pierre.“There haven’t been very serious efforts to locate the site because most people think it may be gone, so it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Regardless of whether the Hochelaga village is ever found through organized excavations or by accident, St-Pierre says: “We will be very lucky if we ever find it.”