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Aylmer Island - A Secret Revealed

Updated: Apr 4

Image by Patrick Murphy, 2023. © All rights reserved

AYLMER ISLAND has recently earned its place in what I call the Capital's curious history for having been featured the last few weeks on social media - NOT for what so many knew the island to be: an island in the middle of the Ottawa River where kayakers and boaters could stop for a picnic or an afternoon of fun-in-the-sun.

No, suddenly the island has been exposed for what most people never knew, and that is that it's the location of an ANCIENT BURIAL GROUND.

Many people living in Aylmer would say this is the island's worst-kept secret, but I'm certain that most people in the wider Capital Area would have never heard that. Many Aylmerites have kept it quiet because the island lies unprotected from artefact hunters.

As we have all come to know, social media can be a great platform when used to educate and inform, but it can also be perfect for the dissemination of misinformation.

In the recent social media posts, some have replied emphatically - with no knowledge of the matter whatsoever - that the remains are long gone. Others have written (anonymously, of course) that they can't wait to visit the island to investigate for themselves.

So, what's the truth? What's its curious history?

Lighthouse Island

Lighthouse Island, Aylmer - Henri Marc Ami, 1900 - LAC PA210788

THE island was first known as Lighthouse Island because a lighthouse was erected on the island in 1883 by the Marine Department [1].

Curiously, even though it lies well within the Ontario provincial border, the island has mostly been known by the name Aylmer Island because it was visible & prominent from the old Town of Aylmer, whereas there was barely a soul living on the Ontario shore who had a clear, unobstructed view [2]. 

Settler knowledge of the island's history as an ancient burial ground begins in 1895 with the publishing of archaeological reports by Thomas Walter Edwin Sowter (1860-1932) [3], who is recognized by the Canadian Museum of History as the Ottawa Valley's First Archaeologist. T.W. Edwin Sowter lived in Aylmer.

Sowter's discovery came very serendipitously as a direct result of the lighthouse installation on the island. A large cache of bones and artefacts was found. Upon learning of them, Sowter began to compile data for what are arguably, the most significant archaeological reports of our local history. In his report entitled Archaeology of Lake Deschênes [4], Sowter wrote:

"A most important burial place, however, and the only one I have so far examined, is that of the Lighthouse Island above Aylmer and opposite the Queen's Park at Pointe aux Pins. At this place I have assisted at the exhumation of several skeletons, which has given me a fairly accurate insight into the mode of sepulture which obtained among the aboriginal people of Lake Deschênes [5].

There is abundant evidence to show that the island has been used as a burial place from very early times down to a period so comparatively recent as to come within the memory of those of the generation that is now passing away."


Sowter's drawings of the artefacts found at Aylmer Island, Archaeology of Lake Deschênes.

A youngster's visit to Aylmer Island

I HAVE been to the island many times since I was an 8-yr-old boy, and that first time was my introduction to the island's hidden history.

I was boating with my family on the Ottawa River from our cottage at Black Bay, as we did on most summer weekends. My Dad, an avid boater and a keen explorer of Lake Deschênes, knew quite a bit about the lake's history, being a descendant of Philemon Wright. He had been the family historian for stuff passed down for generations: the timbering camps, the burial grounds, the battle grounds, and the portages.

Aylmer Island with lighthouse

On this day, accompanied on the river by powerboats in motion, were my dad's best friend and our family doctor, Bob Bisson, and great friend, local CBC Producer Pierre Normandin, who was going to show us "where the Indian bones are buried". I remember that I was shaking with anticipation.

Mr. Normandin led our flotilla to Aylmer Island. Only after consuming our sandwiches and bottles of Pure Spring soft drinks on the beach, a rare treat in those days - my favourite being Spruce Beer - were we led to where he had found the bones and reburied them on a previous visit. I was completely enthralled. There was nothing to see but a sandy berm but that seemed oh so tantalizing to an 8-yr-old, nonetheless. Since that time, long ago, I have heard many others tell stories about similar discoveries.

Bones discovered on Aylmer Island in 2020

About 4 years ago, I was called by a friend whose 14-year-old son and friends had discovered a large cache of bones on the island during his birthday party picnic. The boys must have been both horrified and fascinated, but the dutiful son immediately brought his mother to see them. As a knowing Aylmerite, she imagined they were likely ancient, but she was not at all sure how to deal with it. So she gave me a call.

Firstly, I told her to report it to the OPP, and then while she did that, I would report the find to the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Cultural Centre and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan Council.

The OPP went to the island with an expert and determined that the ochre-covered bones were indeed ancient and re-interred them. My contacts at the reserves thanked me for the information. I was not informed of any action that they might take as a result.

What's to be done?

THAT the island's burial ground needs protection, should be of no surprise to anyone reading this. The burial ground, as Sowter describes in his report, could be anywhere and everywhere on the island where the ground rises. Bones have been found in several areas of the high ground. As for the beach, there is no evidence that the beach is a part of the burial ground and as to my knowledge, no artefacts have ever been reported as being found there.

The Island in Springtime, by Patrick Murphy, 2024. © All rights reserved

The aerial image, here, shows the lighthouse's foundation and an excavation on the western side of the island but that is not an excavation, it is actually the result of erosion. In the summertime, the high ground of the island is largely covered in poison ivy, which certainly offers some protection but people venture there nonetheless for the purpose of relieving themselves.

Some have suggested that fencing around the high ground would be a solution. but given the isolation of the island and the nature of the Ottawa River's spring freshet, there is little doubt that the fences would not last long.

The island in Summertime

Visitors who picnic on the beach and leave no trace when they depart are not the problem. Those who leave the garbage and broken glass are the problem.

Ideally, fixed garbage cans could be installed but that could only work if regular pick-ups were scheduled by some agency. Frankly, there isn't much else to be done about the garbage, people being people and all. Several people regularly bring bags and clean the island of the refuse.

Burial Mound Marker by Mark Hilton

Where the burial ground is concerned, many visitors don't even know that it's there and perhaps if they knew, they may be persuaded to be more respectful. So, an easy fix would be to erect signs around the perimeter of the high ground asking visitors to keep to the beach because of the presence of a sacred burial ground. Heritage information signs, like the one pictured here, could be installed for education purposes. All the signs should include information in English, French and Algonquin.

Conclusion

The Ottawa Valley's settler burial grounds are well-maintained and frequently visited. Many are maintained by squads of volunteers, some of whom don't even have have ancestors buried there.

Few could ever imagine picnicking in a cemetery, less would ever think of camping, but few, if any, would ever resort to treasure-hunting there. So, one wonders why these ancient pre-colonial burial grounds should ever be treated that way?

Now that Aylmer Island's "little secret" is no longer a secret, maybe we should ask why it was ever thus. Perhaps greater respect would have been afforded the burial ground if everyone knew it was.

Nonetheless, we must now recognize that it is time for the community to honour our most ancient Canadian ancestors, just as we do our most recent ones.


Image by Patrick Murphy, 2024. © All rights reserved
 

[1] Report of the Department of Marine 1898:

"The rough, cheap, temporary building, from which a light was shown, was blown down last spring, and has been replaced by a substantial building from which a light was first shown on the 10th October last. The lighthouse stands on the summit of the small island, near its north-west extremity, and is 1 ½ miles above Aylmer village wharf. It is a square, enclosed, wooden tower, with sloping sides, surmounted by a square wooden lantern, and is painted white throughout. It is 34 feet high, from the ground to the vane on the lantern. The light is a fixed white light, elevated 52 feet above the summer level of the lake, and should be visible 10 miles all around the horizon. The illuminating apparatus is dioptric, of small size. The work was done in a very satisfactory manner by Mr. F. Bourgeau of Aylmer, whose contract price was $485. Francis Boucher took over responsibility of Aylmer Island Lighthouse in the spring of 1907. He looked after the light until 1922, when E. Sowter was made its keeper. In 1908, a 360°, fifth-order, French lens was placed in the lantern room of the lighthouse. In 2021, a white, cylindrical tower with a green upper portion was displaying a flashing green light on Aylmer Island."

]2] In the past, the island has also been given a third, slightly vulgar name by Aylmer's youth, evoking secret visits by canoe and rowboat for uninterrupted skinny-dipping. It's called Bum Island or Île aux Fesses.

[3] For more on T. W. Edwin Sowter, click here and here.

[4] Archaeology of Lake Deschênes, The Ottawa Naturalist, Vol. XIII, No. 10, 1900, by T. W. Edwin Sowter; pgs. 225-238. The full report can be read by clicking here.

[5] Sowter writes about the lake's name :

"To those who are unacquainted with local topography it may be said that Lake Deschênes is an expansion of the Ottawa River, extending from the Chats Falls, in a south-easterly direction, as far as Deschênes Rapids, a distance of about thirty miles, and averaging from less than one to upwards of three miles in width.  This beautiful expanse of water was known to the old 'voyageurs' as 'Lac Chaudière,' and was so designated at a time as comparatively recent as that in which the late John Egan was mayor of Aylmer, as there is an old by-law, bearing his signature, in the municipal archives, in which the westerly limit of the Aylmer Road is described as Chaudière Lake.

A similar confusion of place-names, in this connection, is a source of annoyance to the student of natural or ethnic history in dealing with matters of local reference.  For instance : Chats Island is now known to many as Moore's Island (ed. note, it's actually Mohr's Island) ; Pointe à la Bataille has become Lapottie's Point, and Pointe aux Pins, the site of the Queen's Park, is known to summer visitors as One-Tree Point.

It seems a pity that names given to these places by the pioneers of civilization should be thus lightly set aside for the prosaic nomenclature of modern times."

From Archaeology of Lake Deschênes, The Ottawa Naturalist, Vol. XIII, No. 10, 1900; by T. W. Edwin Sowter, page 225

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4 Comments


Very interesting! Certainly the article will help promote the respect that the sight deserves!

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Thanks, Peter. That's the hope!

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Excellent writeup Rick with great imagery....it sure needs protecting now! Bryan

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Thanks, Bryan. I think it was inevitable. Fingers crossed.

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