Exploring one Indigenous Village on the Escarpment – by John Mark Rowe

We can travel back to the Halton Hills part of Turtle Island about 460 years, thanks to a number of archeological digs.  One site on the Niagara Escarpment has been located within Scotsdale Farm, an Ontario Heritage Trust property. The six studies from 1984 to 2004 were carried out by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, University of Toronto and Laurentian University.  They revealed a village perched on a promontory overlooking Owl Creek, a tributary of the Credit River.

Dating the site was greatly helped by reference to the 1973-74 work at Crawford Lake in Milton.  The archeological digs that led to the reconstructed longhouses at Crawford Lake, along with pollen deposits, placed villages there in the 1370s, 1400s and finally 1622-1652. The site at Scotsdale, labelled Emmerson Springs by William Fox, is estimated to range from 1550-1580.

The suggestion has been that these residents may have been Neutral peoples correctly known as Attiwonderonk.  If so, this is about the farthest east they have been located.  The Neutral lived in the Hamilton-Niagara region and western New York, controlling the flint (chert) to make arrowheads for war and trading it with the Wendat and Haudenosaunee who were at war with each other.

The 2004 Laurentian University report incorporates findings from previous studies to deliver a detailed report on the escarpment’s local inhabitants 460 years ago. The village of longhouses sat on a terraced plateau, surrounded by a defensive palisade. South of the wall, the ground drops steeply

to Owl Creek below, providing further defense.  This area is in a transition zone from the Carolinian forest of maples, oak, hickory, beech and black walnut to the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Forest of red pine, eastern white pine, eastern hemlock, yellow birch, maple and oak. The site has a maple and beech dominant uplands to the north with an oak dominant forest to the south and a cedar swamp at the base of the slope. Cedar swamps provide winter yarding habitats for white-tailed deer.

White-tailed deer were the most common bones found at this site, being the principal source of food.  But meals were varied with proteins like black bear, wapiti, raccoon, and grey squirrel. The ubiquitous passenger pigeon (now extinct), turkey, and box turtle were common meals along with whitefish, salmon, trout and suckers.

Smoking tobacco was a common pastime among these people evidenced by the large number of ceramic pipe fragments discovered.

A few small flat or tubular pieces of copper suggest these were decorative items traded with northern tribes. Quite a number of worked bone beads also point to decorative items worn by the inhabitants. Worked and drilled deer phalanges also suggest a type of wind chime.

The Neutral, Wendat and Petun peoples, all being Iroquoian-speaking also hunted, fished and grew the three sisters – beans, corn and squash throughout this area.  The Petun may have supplied the tobacco.

All these archeological findings paint a picture of a thriving village of Attiwonderonk peoples living in community on the edge of the escarpment.  They obviously travelled and traded with the neighbouring villages and nations. This site at Scotsdale Farm in Halton Hills gives a satisfactory glimpse of daily life before European contact.

Salmon and trout are once again plentiful in the Credit River.  The forest cover protects an increasing population of animals, rodents, birds and the odd Ursus americanus along the escarpment in Halton Hills. While a vast amount of history separates us from the people who once lived above Owl Creek, we are still able to get a sense of their world hiking along the Niagara Escarpment today.

-excerpts from “Tracing People of the Past, John Mark Rowe, Niagara Escarpment Views, Autumn 2023. Courtesy of Mark John Rowe