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Watercolor, Jacques Cartier visiting Hochelaga, October 1535

Hochelaga, Montreal: Was It A Myth Or Did Cartier Really Discover The Village Which Is Now Lost?

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Canada recognizes the contribution made by those who inhabited the country before the arrival of the Europeans. One of the most important First Nations is the Iroquois. Hochelaga village was an Iroquoian village that is regarded by the Canadian government as a national historical site. This is despite the fact that the village no longer exists, there are no remains’, and no one is sure where it was even located.

The village of Hochelaga is believed to be located somewhere under the streets of the vast and sprawling metropolis of Montreal in Canada. It is believed to have been located within sight of Mount Royal, a well-known landmark on the Montreal skyline.

The History of Hochelaga

The village belonged to a group known as the St Lawrence Iroquois, who were part of the large and powerful Iroquois federation. They were farmers who dominated the area around St Lawrence for almost four hundred years, from approximately 1200-1600 AD. The name Hochelaga is believed to come from the word for ‘beaver path’; another interpretation of the name is that it derives from the Iroquois name for ‘large rapids’. It is believed that the name Hochelaga was not the actual name of the village but the Iroquois name for the locality.

While there are no physical remains, there is a great deal of documentary evidence with regard to the village. The Iroquois settlement was situated on the island of Montreal in the vicinity of Mount Royal. At the time it was approximately 6 and a quarter miles (8 kilometers) inland. The village is described as being set in rich farmland. The first Europeans who visited the village reported that it was circular and had approximately 50 houses. These longhouses had been made from wood and roofed by large slabs of bark that had been ingeniously sewn together. They were quite large, and one was 45 feet (15 meters) in length. The village was fortified, and it was surrounded by a wooden palisade made up of tightly packed long, sharpened stakes that had been driven deep into the ground. The palisade was some 45 feet (15 meters) high. It was also reported that there were some galleries or platforms above the entrance and the palisade. Here the inhabitants could fire upon any attackers and they were piles of stones and rocks at the ready in case of a surprise attack.

Our only knowledge comes from Cartier’s description

The first Europeans to visit Hochelaga village was the legendary French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) and his men, who visited it in 1535. His ship and crew landed near the present-day port of Montreal. After moving inland, Cartier and his men, including some armed marines, encountered the village where they were treated very hospitably by the Iroquois. Cartier left us a detailed description of the village and he was clearly impressed by what he saw.

Engraving of map and Cartier being welcomed at the entrance (Public Domain)

Engraving of map and Cartier being welcomed at the entrance (Public Domain )

Intriguingly, on his third expedition to what is now modern Canada, he visited the area once more. He did not mention the village of Hochelaga but he did refer to another village in the same general area. This discrepancy and others have led many to believe that Hochelaga was not real or even a myth. However, most experts believe that this was not the case and that a village did exist in the area of modern Montreal, and it truly was visited by Cartier.

Jaques Cartier by Théophile-Abraham Hamel (Public Domain)

Jaques Cartier by Théophile-Abraham Hamel ( Public Domain )

No more was heard about a village by the name of Hochelaga after 1535 and by the time another great French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited the island in 1603, Hochelaga had disappeared. It has been speculated that the fortified village had been destroyed by a neighboring tribe, or more likely as with so many other First Nation peoples, they were devastated by a disease introduced by the Europeans such as smallpox. Today, the village is still remembered in Montreal. There was a plaque erected to its memory in 1920 where it was believed to have been located and a suburb of the French-Canadian city is named in its honor (Hochelaga-Maisonneuve). A small archipelago of islands has also been named after the long-vanished village, and even a Municipal Park.

The Legacy left by Hochelaga

The village, despite the exact location being lost to history, was very important in the history of Canada. It is widely seen as a critical stage in the foundation of Montreal. The visit by Cartier and his later description of Hochelaga, drew other French explorers and settlers to the area. In many ways, the village of Hochelaga can be considered to be the precursor of the modern city of Montreal.  

Model of Hochelaga (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Model of Hochelaga ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The description of the longhouses and the village is important to archaeologists as it has provided them with a better understanding of the lives and settlements of the First Nation People of Canada. Hochelaga was one of the settlements that led Cartier to name the land he explored ‘Canada’, after the Iroquois name for ‘settlement’.

Top image: Watercolor, Jacques Cartier visiting Hochelaga, October 1535          Source: ( Public Domain )

By Ed Whelan

References

Bosworth, N. (Ed.). (2006). Hochelaga depicta . Applewood Books. Available from

Cartier, J. and Biggar, H.P., 1993. Voyages of Jacques . University of Toronto Press.

Shoemaker, N. (1993) The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization . The American Indian Quarterly, 17(3), pp.439-441..

James F. Pendergast. (1998). "The Confusing Identities Attributed to Stadacona and Hochelaga", Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 32

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