How Did a Spanish Axe Wind Up in Toronto 100 Years Before Europeans?

Curse of The Axe is a documentary about the archeological discovery of Mantle, the largest Huron First Nations village discovered to date. The site, located in present-day Stouffville, near Toronto, once contained 90 long houses and 3 rows of defensive walls which required chopping down 60,000 trees for their construction. Beyond those walls the Huron cultivated over 2,000 acres of corn that stretched 2 kilometers (slightly less than 1¼ miles) in every direction from the village. The land mass the village and the corn fields covered would have been as large as a contemporary city.

The site also had thousands of Native artifacts on it. However, amid all of these artifacts there was a part of a European axe that could be traced back to Spain. What makes the axe extraordinary is that all evidence points to it being buried 100 years before Europeans were believed to have set foot in that part of the continent. The lead archeologist on the dig, Dr. Ron Williamson, believes the Iroquois traded the piece as they went up the St. Lawrence River. The archeological evidence shows the axe head was not just discarded, but buried in the middle of the village, possibly in the middle of a central long house.

There has been a lot of speculation about the iron’s significance to the people who buried it over half a millennium ago and what it means to the Huron people today. All of these discoveries—the large village, the abundance of artifacts and the metal piece—have convinced Williamson that the history of the Huron needs to be rewritten, literally. “We not only needed to change the textbooks, we needed to write one about it,” Williamson said. He has just submitted such a book for publication. His narrative is the heart of the History Television documentary.

The axe piece is the earliest European iron ever found in the North American interior. “The first thing that needs to happen is to simply recognize that European material was reaching the interior continent at least a half-century or more before people thought, and that’s a profound kind of understanding,” Williamson said. “Mantle was certainly a center of interaction at that time and totally unknown until 2003 when we found it,” Williamson continued. He always believed these small communities could come together into one large site, due to the warring that was going on in the Great Lakes region at that time, but nothing prepared him for the size, complexity, or the sheer volume of artifacts that were found at Mantle. But everything comes back to that axe piece.

“For me, sitting in my office in Toronto and digging a site just North of Toronto and finding a Basque artifact from 1500 or 1520 was absolutely mind blowing,” Williamson said. Once the iron piece was discovered Williamson had one of his team members attempt to date it. She recommended that they x-ray the piece to see how much of the original form was underneath all the corrosion and to determine whether it was wrought iron or cast iron, which would also help date the piece. The idea that there could be a maker’s mark on it never occurred to anyone until the technician spotted it on the x-ray. “Leading researchers with early European objects have said to me directly that this will change the way research is done with iron from this point forward; everybody will be x-raying their iron,” Williamson said. It took a long time to identify, but the maker’s mark was finally traced back to Basque Country in northeastern Spain.

Williamson and his team have even pinpointed the ships that came from the region to what is now Canada, one of which would have brought this particular piece across the ocean. “I could send you textbook pages where it literally says that you won’t find European trade items until the last half of the 16th century,” Williamson laughs. “Who was looking for it? We weren’t looking for it. It was literally just like it shows in the film; when it showed up on my desk it had very good context, it came from the bottom of this pit that had been excavated just to bury it. Why would a farmer do that? And how could it end up in a long house so nicely in the right spot.”

Williamson’s theory is that an axe was brought over from Europe and was traded to the Iroquois, who eventually traded it to the Huron.

The axe head was cut into three pieces and at least one piece was fashioned into an axe that would have resembled a Native American stone axe. Something happened, the documentary makers play up the idea that the Huron saw it as an ominous herald of things to come—European culture. Regardless of what happened, the evidence shows that the piece was purposely buried in the center of the village, and that a long house did stand there at one point, which gives rise to the notion that it could have been buried ceremonially. For all of its historical significance, the piece means much more to the Huron people. “We believe it’s probably a part of the answers we are looking for regarding the Iroquoian on the St. Lawrence,” said Luc Lainé, a member of the Huron Wendat Nation and a Huron ambassador involved with repatriation for the nation.

“There is a big issue in Quebec about who are the Iroquoians of the St. Lawrence and we, the Wendat people, believe we are the descendants of the Iroquoian of the St. Lawrence, but of course we do not have a lot of evidence to support our position,” Lainé continued. “When we deal with other first nations in Quebec, with the government or the provincial or the federal government, they say there are some good chances that we are the descendants, but we don’t have a direct claim or anything to prove this. With this piece of axe we believe we have something solid to support our position and that’s why the axe itself is so important to us. It probably came from Newfoundland, and the Huron traded for it over there and brought it to Mantle. This has been our political position for a very long time; we were in the fur trade, we were in the trades, so we traded this along the St. Lawrence River, up to the Georgian Bay and up to this area.”

The Huron position is not stated in the documentary. “I don’t want to blame [production company] Yap Films, because when you make this kind of documentary you have 50 hours of shooting and you have to cut a lot to make a one-hour or two-hour story,” Lainé said. “I would have liked there to be more [of our viewpoint] because when I was interviewed I spoke a lot about the Iroquoian, the St. Lawrence, and again, it’s the decision of the director to take it or not. But one thing sure for us, the Huron-Wendat, is that this piece of iron is so fundamental, and again, based on the archeology, we have the pottery and artifacts that we believe supports our point of view, but again this piece of iron is another brick in the wall to come and support our position.” Curse of The Axe, produced by Yap Films and narrated by Robbie Robertson of The Band, will premiere on History Television’s “History Presents” on Monday, July 9th at 8PM ET/PT and it will be repeated that night at 12 midnight, Tuesday July 10 at 1 pm, and on Friday, July 13 at 1 pm, 9 pm and 1 am.

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