How Old Is Montreal, Really?

Here’s something that might surprise you: Montreal is not 375 years old.

Though it has been three-hundred and seventy-five years since French colonists established a small fortified village called Ville-Marie (near the Pointe à Callière archeological museum), human beings have lived on the island of Montreal for a much longer period of time. Exactly how long is unclear, but knowing the answer could fundamentally change our perception of what Montreal is.

What is known with certainty is that there were definitely people living on the island of Montreal before the arrival of Ville-Marie’s founder, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve in 1642. When Jacques Cartier arrived one-hundred and seven years earlier, he was welcomed by the local Iroquois people and given a tour of their impressively large fortified village. It was called Hochelaga, several thousand people lived there, and what happened to them could very well be the single greatest unsolved mystery in Canadian history. By the early 1600s, some seventy years or so after Cartier’s visit, Montreal was uninhabited.

An east view of Montreal, 1762 | Archives de Montéal

What Cartier described was an exceptionally welcoming experience: he estimated that a thousand Hochelagans met him by the river’s edge, near where the Jacques Cartier Bridge stands today and escorted him and his crew to the village for a tour of the longhouses. Later, they journeyed to the top of Mount Royal, from which Cartier observed great forests of oak, vast fields of grain, and the Saint Lawrence River snaking its way back towards the Atlantic. Canada’s moment of contact concluded with a feast and trading; Montreal’s hospitality industry was born.

Where exactly Hochelaga was is a mystery in and of itself: one McGill University may have unwittingly made much harder to solve. Just last year a monument indicating the presumed location of Hochelaga was moved by the university to a different location on McGill’s Lower Field in an effort to better recognize local Indigenous history and improve the visibility of Indigenous culture on campus.

The problem isn’t just that a historical marker was moved, but that it wasn’t close to where Hochelaga was thought to have been in the first place.

McGill University Campus, 1851 | McGill University Archives

McGill’s claim to being located either at, or near, the location of Hochelaga dates back to about 1860 when some labourers digging up a sandy knoll near what’s today the corner of Metcalfe and Maisonneuve began finding odd artifacts, including human and animal bones, ash and burned wood, clay pipes and shards of pottery. If Montreal had been uninhabited for many years before the era of French colonization, perhaps these artifacts were clues to the location of the ancient village Cartier had written of. Or at least that’s what Sir John William Dawson, McGill’s then principle and noted geologist, began to suspect. Though the study of archaeology was in its infancy, Dawson nonetheless applied a certain scientific rigour and catalogued his findings. The Dawson Site and the artifacts found there constitute one of the earliest attempts at an organized archeological dig in Canadian history.

That aside, what Dawson found has not been conclusively proven to be Hochelaga. The distribution of artifacts also covered a relatively small area compared to the village of thousands described by Cartier. Furthermore, Cartier described a settlement much closer to Mount Royal, possibly even on Mount Royal. So even though the Dawson Site provided exceptional evidence of a pre-contact Indigenous society living on Montreal Island, it didn’t bring us the conclusive proof of Hochelaga.

Pont Jacques Cartier, 1928 | Archives de Montréal

Regardless, a kind of myth was kickstarted in the 1860s that McGill was at or near the location of Hochelaga, and Dawson was instrumental in turning a small and struggling institution into a major university. Claiming to be at or near the oldest known inhabited place on Montreal Island certainly gave McGill some important institutional credibility, even though the claim was dubious to begin with.

So if Dawson didn’t find Hochelaga, what did he find? Some scholars believe the site was a much older village, while others believe that it was simply a smaller satellite village and that Hochelaga may have been a reference to the whole island, or all the people who lived on it in the mid-1530s.

Though the 375th anniversary of Ville Marie’s founding has been criticized for an apparent lack of historical content (to that point, the city will host a rodeo despite the fact that rodeos are not part of our history) there is nonetheless some important work going on right now to better understand the pre-contact history of Montreal. Currently, archeologists are digging around in an Outremont park to see if they can find traces of Hochelaga, part of a three-year project attempting to find definitive proof of the ancient Iroquoian settlement. Though it’s long been assumed the Dawson Site was Hochelaga, a competing idea is that Cartier sailed up the Rivière des Prairies instead of the Saint Lawrence, and that the village of Hochelaga was located on the northern slopes of Mount Royal. Human skeletons were found in Outremont’s Pratt Park back in the 1920s and these are thought to have been of Indigenous people. In total, archaeologists will explore eighteen different sites around Montreal, hoping to find the legendary lost village and maybe, along the way, a better understanding of who the very first Montrealers really were.