Archive Awareness: A look back in history – Nodwell Park then and now

In keeping with Archive Awareness week and the history of Bruce County, this is the story of what is now a park in Port Elgin (Saugeen Shores).

Known as Nodwell Park on Market Street, it was once the location of a First Nation’s village that became a thriving community.

It was surmised that a small band arrived and constructed eleven bark-covered structures, known as long-houses, that were then surrounded by a double stockade in anticipation of the rest of the band’s arrival the following Spring.

When the band’s people arrived, they began to clear small fields where they would grow corn, tobacco, pumpkins and sunflowers.ย  The men hunted small game and fished the lake below the hill (Lake Huron) where whitefish and sturgeon were bountiful.

While the men were out gathering food, the women stayed home making the long-houses comfortable, tilling the fields, gathering berries and native wild plants, smoking and drying meat and preparing for the long winter ahead.

The people of the village were part of the Iroguoian culture that inhabited south-western Ontario and were ancestral to the Hurons and Petuns.ย  It was thought that they may have arrived from the eastern counties of Grey and Simcoe and that the location gave them a convenient space to carry on trade with the northern Algonkian people.

As time ticked on, the village thrived for almost 50 years until there were close to five hundred residents but, almost as quickly, the village was abandoned.ย  There have been several reasons considered that included a simple return to their ‘homeland’ in the east or the possibility that early settlers pressured them to leave.

Almost five centuries after the demise of the village, French voyaguers and traders began to move westward in the early 1600s and Jesuit missionaries arrived in the late 1630s.ย  The native Hurons and Petuns continued however, to roam through the area on fishing and trading expeditions.

By the close of the mid-seventeenth century however, the Iroquois were driven out by the Ojibway, and tribes who had become allies, in a bitter fight over trading rights with the French.

It wasn’t until centuries later in 1969, that Dr. James V. Wright of the National Museum of Man carried out a preliminary survey of the site and revealed an entire village, where previously, it was thought to be a simple camp site.ย  His radio-carbon dating of fragments confirmed that the village had existed as early as 1340 to 1375 and intensive excavation in 1972 brought forward evidence that a prosperous culture had once lived at the site for many years.

Dr. Wright and Fritz Knechtel had a vision – to reconstruct the village and recreate a tangible reminder of the country’s and region’s early heritage.ย  ย The vision never came to fruition however and, today, the site is an oval paved track and playground with the history of an early culture now buried.

A replicated mini-model of the village is now housed in the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre in Southampton (Saugeen Shores) in the Anishinaabe Gallery.

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An abridged story from ‘Reminiscences Port Elgin 1874-1974
by Sandy Lindsay