A History of the Rice Lake Indians by Mary Jane Muskratte Simpson

Mounds of Rice Lake

In the issue of September 5th, 1896, the Peterborough Daily Examiner, a newspaper evidently as active and enterprising then as it is today, had sent a reporter to cover the investigation of an artificial mound found on Rice Lake. Such mounds were piled in various designs and shapes by early man all over the world, and both the Americas contain thousands. We may smile at the somewhat erratic scientific conclusions of these gentlemen, and perhaps a little at the very florid writing of the period; but it is an interesting fact that some of the very first attempts at study of the ancient Amerind peoples in Ontario began right here on Rice Lake and in the valley of the Trent.

The headlines of this article are; "Another Rice Lake Serpent Mound; Asphodel (township) furnishes the Second Great Find;" and the lead, "A futile search for a South shore Mound." Herewith follows the article:

"David Boyle, the Curator of the Archaeological Museum of Toronto, Ontario has an insatiable appetite for aboriginal and prehistoric bones, equaled only by the legendary giant of juvenile lore; 'Be he alive or be he dead; I'll grind his bones to make my bread'; and after the ophidian triumph of last month, the identification of the serpent-and-egg mound at Roach's Point, he longed for more worlds to conquer. Accordingly, accompanied by a callow archaeological acolyte in the person of an Examiner representative and an amateur enthusiast, Mr. A. F. Hunter of Barrie and eke of Toronto University; he boarded Conductor Staunton's train on Wednesday for Keene, the "McIntyrian" medium of access to Gore's Landing, where Mr. Boyle had been advised that the indications of another mound bristled in the happy valley immortalized by Mrs. Traill's prolific pen in the 'Canadian Crusoe', according to local legend. An overland journey, through the medium of a pair of ponies whose sleek condition had not been imperiled by reckless impulses to inordinate speed, brought the trio to Hiawatha, the capital of the Ojibway Indian reserve, with its post office of modest, and its church of towering - and tin-capped at that - proportions. From here Robert Remigius conveyed us in Squire Thompson's trusty shallop to Gore's Landing, by the way, one of the prettiest points on Rice Lake, and the elevated hostelry of mine host Braithwaite, where a meal of the squarest dimensions, susceptible steak, and palatable accessories, rewarded the quest of archaeological and suggested the canonization of the cook. The inner man pleasantly fortified, a stroll was taken westward by way of a green lane, boulder-strewn, bower-roofed, and flanked midway by an Anglican church charged with the major share of religious responsibility of the vicinity, to the 'happy valley'.

A hill-girdled glen of about ten acres area and about a quarter of a mile from the wharf, at the waterfront of which nestled the brown but hospitable gentleman upon whose demesne reposed the suppositious serpent mound. In a word, here was the spot, which Mr. Drayton had informed Mr. Boyle had been reported as the probable site of a serpent mound. But before beginning scientific operations, the graceful and genial hospitality of Mr. Drayton, the host of the expedition, must be acknowledged. The party was made free of his pleasant home, whose drawing-room, in addition to a fine collection of archaeological specimens indigenous to the vicinity, had its walls covered with watercolour sketches and oils of considerable merit, of local scenes and of Stoney Lake scenes, by the host's own hand, intermingled with a stray and rare specimen of the old masters, including a portrait of the spirituelle style of Sir Peter Lely, painted by his own courtly hand, an unexpected presence in this secluded valley, 'far from the madding crowds' ignoble strife', as well as regular postal communication. This valley, which local legend identifies with the "Happy Valley' of Mrs. Catherine Traill's 'Canadian Crusoe' is well-deserving, in scenic beauty and capabilities of quiet enjoyment, its felicitous title. Diagonally through this valley from southwest to northeast stretches a sinuous ridge of such peculiar configuration as to suggest to the archaeological mind a 'serpent mound' analogous to that identified by Mr. Boyle at Roach's Point. It is six hundred feet in length with gracefully sweeping serpentine curves and terminates, as to its head, near a point, where according to theory, the 'egg' represented by the site of Mr. Drayton's residence should be situated. Colour is lent to this inference by the fact that in excavating the foundation of this house a skeleton was unearthed whose skull had been apparently fractured by a blow from a tomahawk. But Mr. Boyle, who has as much interest in disproving as in confirming the theories of sanguine temperaments as to aboriginal remains, made excavations and sections of the mound; with the result that the peculiar mound or embankment was shown to be a reef formation, caused by glacial action, or by alluvial deposit in the form of a reduced shore at a period of previous higher altitude of the waters of the lake.

This experience shows that merely serpentine shape without the corroborative evidence of internal composition and the presence of interment remains, such as characterize the Otonabee serpent-and-egg mound to be mentioned later, may be a reason for regarding the so-called serpent-mound of Adams County, Ohio, as possibly, though perhaps not probably, a phenomenal freak of nature.

Mr. Boyle and his attendants then recrossed the lake to give a little attention to the mounds he had discovered and investigated on the northern shore, which afford most interesting archaeological information.

His researches show that the Rice Lake region to be one of the most, if not the most, interesting in Ontario in relation to archaeological remains. In this sense the district extends, so far as research has been made, from Jubilee Point on the north shore of Rice Lake, and at the debouchment of the Otonabee River on the west, to the mouth of the Trent River on the east. This unique interest arises from the fact that this district is the meeting place of the mound and ossuary systems of aboriginal interment. The former, it is known, extends along the provincial waterfront from the vicinity of Montreal on the east westward to the head of Rice Lake; while the system of ossuaries extends from Rice Lake westerly along the waterfront to Georgian Bay, as well as through many parts of Ontario south of the Georgian Bay and Goderich.

The Rice Lake mound system embraces, so far as explored scientifically about a dozen examples of this aboriginal predilection for elevated burial places. About a dozen have so far been identified and more or less explored by Mr. Boyle, all on the northern shore of Rice Lake. Beginning at the west, and excluding one reputed mound on the west side of the Otonabee at its mouth, there are four mounds situated on the farm of Mr. James Miller of Keene on the Ojibway reserve about a mile and a half west of the church in Hiawatha, the village of this reserve. All these mounds contain human remains, and two strata of these, one prehistoric, and one dating since the later occupation of these mounds, are unique as occupying a low position in a valley at the foot of the slope containing the other mounds; but it is well defined both as to elevation and contour. Peculiar interest attaches to this, which has been named the 'shell mound' of the group, from the fact of a peculiar shell having been found among the osseous and other contents. This was the shell of a mollusk rudely shaped in the form of a turtle, and crudely ornamented with engraved figures, the most significant of which was the central one, consisting of two concentric circles, drawn with evident ignorance or disregard of centric and circumference points as aids to symmetrical results. The other three mounds in this group were similar in character and contents to the valley mound, save the shell incident.

About five miles eastward along the north shore on Roach's Point, near the mouth of the Indian River, a bold point, almost a bluff, contains seven mounds. Six of these are of the normal type, but the seventh, a significant number, is remarkable as one of the only two undoubtedly certain serpent mounds so far discovered on this continent.

The serpent-and-egg mound is one of the most unique and interesting features of archaeological occurrence in this country. These mounds are found commonly in the remains of Europe and the old world and are regarded as evidence of the prevalence of serpent worship, one of the earliest forms of adoration amongst primitive peoples; suggestive of religious reminiscence of the serpent incident of Eden, doubtless the germ idea of this form of worship.

Hence it came about that serpent and egg mounds; the one the symbol in various forms of eternity; and the other, the egg, as it is to this day even among Christian peoples, the symbol of life or reproduction. The serpent as the concrete expression of the idea of an object of worship is also found in the crude sculptures, temples, etc; of archaic peoples. Hence it is a matter of the deepest interest that the presence of a serpent and egg mound such as the Otonabee mound, identified by Mr. Boyle, should prove the truth of Shakespeare's words, that 'one touch of nature makes the whole world kin'; that the oneness of untutored human aspiration after god-like objects of veneration should almost instinctively suggest the same forms, those of the egg and serpent; that, in time, of one blood God created all the nations of the earth.

The serpent and egg mound at Roach's Point is a most interesting monument; it has been an object of popular curiosity for years and was regarded variously as the remains of a fort or a simple burial place. It has been explored for a long time at intervals in a desultory way, for the mere sake of getting bones and no doubt with the expectation of securing some objects of value, possibly of gold or silver. But it is as well, in order to check the vandalism of wanton destruction of these monuments to state Mr. Boyle's assertion that there is nothing of monetary value to be found in any of these mounds, nothing but bones and a few pipes and other remains of only scientific or archaeological value.

Up to the date of Mr. Boyle's visit, there was no idea that the mound had any particular significance. Mr. Boyle first saw it without any preconception as to its true character as a serpent and egg mound. He visited the locality for the purpose of exploring the numerous ordinary mounds that exist all over the neighbourhood, and the fact of its true character was literally forced upon him. The situation of the mound in relation to the vicinity, as well as its tortuous shape, forbade the possibility of its being considered a fortification; it would afford no defence by its position. He was standing on the top of the mound at its western end and studying its length, when its serpentine character suddenly presented itself; and further investigation led him to the important conclusion that the structure, which afforded unmistakable evidence of artificial character, was a veritable serpent and egg mound; the cis-atlantic counterpart of somewhat similar mounds that abound in the old world.

He was further convinced by a simple test. An Indian of the vicinity who had just landed from his canoe came to where Mr. Boyle was standing; and the native was asked what the mound looked like. After a careful survey of the structure from Mr. Boyle's point of view, he replied that it looked like a snake.

To ascertain if its internal character corroborated the evidence of the outside, Mr. Boyle caused excavations to be made in such a way as to disclose the fact that the mound was of artificial formation. A face of a section was carefully smoothed, and the mottled appearance indicated that the mound had been built up of small portions of soil deposited by different workers and procured from different places and consequently of different characters and colours. There was an entire absence of regular stratification, found in mounds of natural formation, and in addition, at the base of the mound the vegetable mould was found continuous with the uncovered mould outside the mound at its base.

This mound is situated about 300 feet, measuring up the slope, above the lake shore, and about 75 feet above its level; and lies in a due east and west direction. The serpent is 190 feet in length from the head to the tip of the tail. In front of the head, and 25 feet distant is the 'egg', 35 by 50 feet. The height of the body is an average of four or five feet, though the surface is somewhat uneven, caused by the uprooting of a tree, several of which grow on the mound. The serpentine shape is very decidedly marked, the sinuosities occur at regular intervals of 40 feet, and the head itself is of the same length.

Explorations disclosed the presence of several skulls, both prehistoric and modern, and similar skeletons were found in a slightly enlarged portion of the mound, about 40 feet from the tip of the tail. The presence of skeletons at this point and the increased size of the body have a most interesting symbolic significance, which will be referred to later. In addition to the double layer of skeletons found in the head and near the tail, there were several found in the egg. These historic or lower skeletons have been buried in a sitting position, and the 'intrusive' skeletons have been placed on the side with the knees drawn upward towards the chin.

Mr. Boyle, after a careful study of the situation, comes to the conclusion that the mound at Roach's Point is a genuine example of the serpent and egg mound, and analogous to similar ones found in the old world. He is most positive in the belief in the absolute genuineness of what he calls the 'OTONABEE' 'Otonabee Serpent and Egg Mound'. He regards it as a discovery of the greatest archaeological importance. Surveys of the mound and its surroundings will at once be made with a view of preparing an exact model of this interesting monument of a prehistoric people on this continent.

In the vicinity of this mound at Roach's Point are found several other mounds of the ordinary character, similar to those on the Miller farm referred to above. In these were found both ancient and modern skeletons, but nothing of special importance, except a skull which had the phenomenon of an extra suture in the occipital bone which defined a portion of it, altogether too large to be considered a Wormian bone.

Important as was the identification of the Otonabee mound, the identification of another of like character at Cameron's Point, Asphodel township, at the mouth of the Trent River is peculiarly important; affording as it does points of resemblance, which are regarded as placing the serpent-and-egg character of both without dispute. This was identified yesterday by Mr. W. G. Long of Toronto, a man of considerable archaeological experience who has been co-operating with Mr. Boyle. The latter sent him to Cameron's Point last Monday. The Asphodel mound is situated in the township of Asphodel and is on a steep slope close to the water, so close that the erosive action of the elements has worn away a portion of the mound near the middle of the body on the waterward side. While differing in the character of the sinuosities from the Otonabee mound, the serpentine character of this mound is clearly defined. It presents all the evidence given by the Otonabee mound of its artificial character in the nature and disposition of the soil, absence of soil, etc. It is 138 feet in length and has fewer sinuosities than the other mound, but it has the same character of head and tail; in both the presence of stones being a conspicuous feature, and in both these points skeletons are found. In the Asphodel head, there were twelve skeletons covered with stones, that is the historic, the more recent being above the stones. In the tail were found five skeletons. The 'egg' was 25 by 75 feet, placed in front of the head, and contained as far as uncovered three skeletons covered with stones.

This mound has not been seen by Mr. Boyle and he is not prepared to give a decided opinion of its character, but there is little doubt but that it is a veritable serpent mound. Its presenting salient character is in common with the Otonabee mound.

These points of resemblance are noted: Both mounds lie due east and west and both are situated at the mouth of a stream. Then both mounds, as well as all the mounds in this district, so far as investigation has progressed, are on the north shores of the lake, and the groups of the series are placed approximately equidistant; the mounds on the Miller farm being near the mouth of the Otonabee and five miles distant from the Otonabee mounds near the mouth of the Indian River; while seven miles distant is the Asphodel serpent and egg mound. But in an article written in the ordinary routine of newspaper work it is impossible to present all the circumstances as they will be presented in the report of Mr. Boyle which he is preparing and which will, in the life of this district, constitute one of the most important contributions to scientific knowledge in the field of Canadian archaeology that has yet been made. We may expect a visit to the Rice Lake region from the members of the British Association on their coming visit, to see for themselves evidence of forms of expression of crude religious ideas, cognate to those found in their own country, though separated by three thousand miles of, then, impassable sea.

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