Principal Investigator Ben Ford
The Lake Ontario Maritime Cultural
Landscape Project
23 August 2009
By Ben Ford

It’s been a year since my last post - entirely too long. In the intervening 12 months I’ve finished the Lake Ontario landscape project, written and defended a dissertation, and taken a job in Pennsylvania; all worthwhile and time-consuming activities, but not reasonable excuses for leaving this journal dangling. First, I want to apologize to the MUA and to any reader that was following this journal, and second, I want to wrap things up with two journals. The first entry, this one, is a final summary of project findings, and the second will talk a little about what comes next.

Keyes Wreck, Wolfe Island, Ontario.

Keyes Wreck, Wolfe Island, Ontario(Large View).

Over the course of the two field seasons, totaling approximately 15 weeks, we surveyed seven square kilometers of shoreline, and identified 27 sites and twice as many isolated finds representing dispersed but important activities along the lake shore. We also collected a plethora of primary and secondary historical data and informant interviews. These data elucidated several broad patterns in Lake Ontario archaeology, including the historic permeability of the international boundary, differences between how Native Americans and European Americans perceived danger on the lake, the importance of ice roads and other features of limited archaeological visibility to lake culture, how change through time was perceived by lake residents, and how the transition from ships to cars has changed the perception of the lake shore.

In a nutshell, several sites pointed towards the easy movement of people and materials across the international border, both legally and illegally, throughout the 19th century. During the first half of the century, this ease of communication appears to have caused some Lake Ontario residents to identify more strongly with their international neighbors than their more distant countrymen on the East Coast. These connections began to erode during the mid-19th century as locomotives and telegraph lines pulled Lake Ontario into the eastern heartlands and have continued to decline during the modern era with the realignment of shore transportation along shore roads rather than coastal sailing routes. Shore roads are interrupted by the waterways and associated border crossings that separate the two nations, making national distinctions more clear. These roads help to connect communities along the shore but lessen the bonds with communities across the water. Historic ice roads, conversely, helped to connect communities around and across the lake margin. These seasonal transportation networks linked otherwise isolated towns during the winter months and had a profound effect on how people viewed distance, time, and their community. Like much of culture, however, these roads are almost invisible archaeologically and are a strong argument for the importance of historic research and informant interviews to bolster archaeological investigations.

Drawing heavily on the historic and ethnographic accounts, it became clear that Native Americans and European Americans both saw danger in the Great Lakes, but positioned that danger in different contexts. Western Europeans tended to see the lake as benign except for when it was affected by an outside force such as a storm, while Iroquoians and other Late Woodland Period (circa A.D. 600 to 1500) Native Americans associated the lake itself with malignant forces, often personified by a horned serpent. I argue that these different views are associated with the historical development of the two cultures and the weaknesses of their types of water transportation; essentially the capabilities and routes of canoes versus those of sailing vessels. Bark canoes were stalwart craft, often up to 11 m long and capable of carrying more than 900 kg (nearly a ton). They provided a stable and safe platform for fishing, shipping, and travel. Their low gunnels, however, made them susceptible to swamping and occasionally capsizing, and they were easily damaged, often requiring repairs at the end of every day. As a result, waves, semi-submerged logs, and other lake-bound dangers presented the greatest threats to these vessels. Canoes were almost always worked close to shore, within an easy run to safety in the event that a storm should develop. The lee shore that vexed sailing vessels on Lake Ontario was the ally of the canoe. European ships, conversely, were not generally affected by the lake itself unless it was greatly agitated by a storm. Even in these circumstances it was wind and shore that caused the greatest concern. Traveling across the lake and requiring a harbor, rather than simply the shore, for safety, these ships were far more susceptible to storms than were bark canoes.  

The survey crew was constantly reminded that one of the defining features of life along the shore is that the lake is constantly in flux: the water rises and falls, specific resources are available at certain times, transportation options open and close, etc. These regular annual changes pale in comparison to some of the more drastic, changes that have taken place during the past, including a 60 meter (197 ft) rise in the lake level during the Middle Archaic Period (7500 to 4500 years ago). The 1840s were another period of major change as the telegraph and locomotive were introduced to the lake at the same time that steamboats and urban industrial centers were flourishing. These changes are clearly written on the landscape and evident to archaeologists, but the 1840s was not apparently perceived as a watershed decade by the people who lived at that time, rather it was seen as one increment in the progressive growth and stabilization of the region. This example was an important lesson for the archaeologists, reminding us that it is the perceptions of the people in the culture that drive their decisions and ultimately influence cultural change. Our outside perspective is useful for identifying broad trends but for understanding culture we need to understand the perceptions of past peoples too.

Finally, for those with a nautical leaning, I’ll also summarize the results of the coal barge mentioned in the 25 June 2008 entry. It turns out that the barge was originally a schooner or steamer barge built to fit through the Welland Canal. The hull shapes of either of these vessel types are consistent with the wreck remains, more so than a purpose-built barge. Additionally, there are two patches in the keelson consistent with the locations of centerboard trunks on either vessel. The aft portion of the wreck included several bolts and large timbers that likely supported a steam engine suggesting that that it was a steamer barge for part of its career. Canal schooners were often transformed into steamer barges so an original build as a schooner can not be ruled out. Eventually, the vessel was further modified and the engines removed to make it into a towed barge. At that time other modifications may have taken place, such as cutting holes in the upper parts of the hull, just below the deck level, possibly to install through-beams with the goal of strengthening the aging hull. When the vessel sank it was at one of the town’s major docks and still partially loaded with coal. The fact that there was no attempt to salvage or move the vessel suggests that the ship was no longer viable, was carrying a cargo of declining value, and was docked at a port of limited importance. Both the dock and the ship had been left behind by changes in technology and transportation. Similar landscapes are likely repeated in several locations throughout the Great Lakes and are indicative of the same modern era that brought vacationing industrialists to Carleton Island (see 25 June 2008 entry) but are an under-studied aspect of the Great Lakes maritime culture.



Please feel free to contact Ben at with any comments, questions, or suggestions during the weeks to come.

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