In the Nature of Things: Integrating the History and Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Canada and Australia

By Mayne, Alan | Urban History Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

In the Nature of Things: Integrating the History and Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Canada and Australia


Mayne, Alan, Urban History Review


This special issue of Urban History Review resulted from three conversations I had recently, in Quebec City, Vancouver, and Hamilton. I am an Australian, a visitor to Canada, and my hosts were making me welcome.

William Moss, Principal Archaeologist for the City of Quebec, stood with me on Place-Royale, in the heart of the Lower Town below the Citadel. Animated, he contrasted the archaeological and historical attention that has been lavished there on the material survivals of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New France,(1) with the hesitant engagement to date (excepting Moss's own collaborative work with CELAT at Universite Laval) with the eroding nineteenth-century cityscape.

In Vancouver, I spoke with John Atkin(2) and Jeannette Hlavach, a Heritage Planner at the City of Vancouver. They led me a stone's throw away from Gastown, the central-city district where History is protected by city statute and marketed by tourist promoters, and showed me Canton Alley -- hedged all around by new construction projects -- where pioneering archaeological excavations in 1996 had stirred media and community interest.(3) These underlayers of Vancouver's past, they worried, were being obliterated by the deep-delving foundations of new office blocks and condominium towers.

In Hamilton, as I waited in the bus station at the end of my visit, Richard Harris reflected upon what I had said to students and staff at McMaster University about the integration of historical archaeology and urban history. Richard's questions were coloured by his involvement with Urban History Review: his intervention to set research agendas in urban history, his attention to regional and township history as well as that of the metropole, his interest in locating Canadian experience in comparative perspectives. He threw me a challenge: write me an article on historical archaeology, he said, or pull together a special issue. I've done both.

The issue begins with a study of nineteenth-century township formation. It ends by working backwards in time from the disintegration of a big-city neighbourhood during the mid twentieth century. In the first paper Phil Hobler tells the story of Old Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk township on the central coast of British Columbia. Bella Bella sprang up under the shadow of Fort McLoughlin, a fur-trading post that the Hudson's Bay Company built in 1833.(4) The fort was abandoned in 1843, but Bella Bella persisted. It was relocated to a nearby townsite at the end of the nineteenth century.

Hobler's narrative, written engagingly albeit quirkily in the present tense, takes us to the fascinating margins of early township formation in western Canada. His interpretation of the interplay between fort and urban "take off" is not dissimilar to that observable at Fort Langley, in British Columbia's Lower Mainland. Fort Langley is now a well-known National Historic Site within the Greater Vancouver region. The sites of Fort McLoughlin and Old Bella Bella are forgotten (although for Heiltsuk people, the sense of place still runs deep).

On one level -- methodology -- Hobler's analysis is a useful case study in changing vernacular housing styles: from the large traditional plank homes of early nineteenth-century Native settlements such as Bella Bella to the small milled-lumber houses of late-century Bella Bella. On another level -- conceptually exciting -- Hobler's narrative extends and confirms arguments made by Cole Harris, and by Peter Ennals and Deryck Holdsworth, that fur-trade forts were crucial waypoints in a two-way process of cultural exchange between European intruders and First-Nation peoples.(5) As waypoints, Hobler argues, "trading forts serve[d] as focal points for a process of Native settlement nucleation."

Such interpretations contradict colonisers' representations -- widespread in European settler societies -- of indigenous peoples as quintessentially pre-urban, and of urban development as a key measure of the colonisers' modernity. …

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