The Godés Ville-Marie

by Lanny Marentette

Until recently, historians did not know the actual site of the original Ville-Marie. As happens often in archaeology, the site was uncovered by accident. While digging foundations in a section of older Montreal, they uncovered parts of what looked to be old stone walls and passageways. While breaking up the floor of a warehouse next door, the burial ground for some of the original settlers and converted Algonquin and Huron aboriginals was discovered. Fortunately archaeologists moved in to secure the site and the slow careful work of preservation and reconstruction began. Each year, more and more of Ville-Marie is uncovered.

A remarkable museum of history and archaeology called "Pointe-à-Callière" was built over the site. The main building is a modern triangular construction (Eperon) which reflects the original settlement. Fort Ville-Marie (also called Fort Maisonneuve) was tucked into a "pointe" of land bordered by the St. Lawrence and a small river the habitants named "Petite Rivière Saint-Pierre". That river was turned into a storm sewer in the 1800's and paved over. Across this street are the remaining display buildings of the museum. Beneath the "Ancienne-Douane" and stretching under the street to the Eperon's basement is what is called the "Archaeological Crypt". This complex has been declared a national historic site, "Montreal's Birthplace" and is located between de la Commune St. W. and Place d'Youville in the Old Port of Montreal.

There is an excellent website for "Pointe-à-Callière" which offers a virtual walk-through of the museum. You can visit the "crypt" which contains parts of the cemetary (even a nearly complete male skeleton), as well as a maze of parts of the original stone foundations, walls, cobble pavement and artifact displays. A CBC video and report about the "crypt" is also available on YouTube. This is probably where the Godés lived until 1651, when Nicolas was granted a farm by Maisonneuve outside the fort's walls. A tabletop display model gives you an idea of what Ville-Marie probably looked like. How much of it was supervised or built by the master carpenter and joiner Nicolas? As you walk among the display cases, are you looking at a pipe, button, ring, pin or musket ball that once belonged to Nicolas, or a pottery shard that Françoise used to serve her children breakfast porridge? A small pile of coals in front of what was a baker's oven were probably swept onto the stone floor after having baked bread for the settlers. Did Françoise feed the warm bread to her children? How fascinating and exciting will it be for each of us Marentettes to visit the museum and walk where our ancestors spent their daily lives nearly 370 years ago.

In The Godés and the Founding of Ville-Marie we learned about the ceremony on May 18, 1642 of which our ancestors were a part. Immediately aware of how isolated and dangerously exposed they were to the Iroquois, Maisonneuve ordered a palisade of slender tree trunks and saplings, sunk in the ground and lashed together, to surround the area. A shallow moat was dug around the footings, the dirt ramped up against the walls. Crude temporary shelters were built for the fifty or so settlers, plus one over the altar that Fr. Vimont used in May. Included were quarters for the two priests. I've read that birchbark was used as a roof, which would suggest the initial shelters may have been done in the "longhouse" style (saplings lashed together with layers of birchbark overlapping from top to bottom). These would be the fastest to build and would make use of what was available. Can you visualize a converted Huron teaching Nicolas how to build one of their longhouses?

Surprisingly the Mohawk warriors left the little settlement alone that first fall and winter. They were most likely busy elsewhere. Their campaign to exterminate their Huron and Algonquin competitors was underway. By next spring, the Iroquois would include Ville-Marie in the raids. Each day of peace the settlers used to make things more secure and to prepare for what they knew would be a harsh winter. Using their pinnace and two rowboats, they went back and forth to Quebec City carrying food and supplies. In September a contingent of fifteen soldiers plus a carpenter named Barbier came to the fort. Barbier may have been the carpenter who sailed to New France with Nicolas after they had argued with Mlle Mance about bringing their families. The remaining settlers at Quebec City were brought, including François Godé who made the trip with Mme de la Peltrie.

Also that fall, Maisonneuve learned that their site was exposed to the St. Lawrence flooding. According to legend, he became so alarmed that he went outside the palisade with a large wooden cross and prayed that the flood would stop before swamping the settlement. It did, and to give thanks, on Jan. 6, 1643 (Feast of the Epiphany), a procession of all the settlers including the Godés led Maisonneuve and some helpers to manhandle a huge and heavy wooden cross to be planted atop Mont Royale. Did Nicolas build the cross? Did he help Maisonneuve haul the cross? The Montreal skylight at night is still graced with a lighted cross. The threat of floods convinced the leaders to start looking across the Saint-Pierre to the higher banks and ridges as a better site for their settlement.

In the initial rush to get started, Mlle Mance had been satisfied to begin her hospital using a temporary shelter, probably a "longhouse" or maybe even tent. The funds from Mme. Bullion had bought medical supplies which she was using to nurse the natives and settlers through the sicknesses of the early years. As the Mohawk raids and ambushes increased, the shelter became inadequate. Mance sent word to Mme. Bullion asing for more money. Always sending the funds, a message was included. When would the promised Hotel-Dieu hospital be built? Mme. Bullion suspected the money was being diverted to the needs of the settlement and she was right. Mance even gave from her own funds. Finally by 1645 Mance decided it was time to start building what she believed was her life's mission.

Where to put Hotel-Dieu? Mlle Mance decided the higher ground across the Saint-Pierre would be best, even though it would be exposed to Iroquois raids. She asked that a four acre patch be cleared. She probably gave instructions to her reliable master carpenter and Nicolas saw that her plans were carried out. Caisson singled out Nicolas, describing him as "an excellent carpenter...of fine piety, quick intelligence, as sound in judgment as anyone here" (op. cit.). A large log building sixty by twenty-four feet was divided into four rooms. The smallest one was Mance's spartan living quarters, and a larger one for her assistants. The two largest rooms were used for patients. Each ward had long pine tables and shelves on which drugs, bandages and supplies were kept, along with crude surgical instruments. Although Maisonneuve had lost a surgeon on the Atlantic, he was able to find a replacement at Quebec and this doctor began his duties at Hotel-Dieu. Attached to the main building was a small stone chapel. Two oxen, four cows and twenty sheep were kept nearby, within a palisade of logs and saplings. Maisonneuve's chateau would eventually be built nearby.

With each passing year, the leaders realized the "pointe" site was too exposed to flooding and the fort too small. An attempt was made to expand the walls in 1645 but even this was inadequate. Babies were being born regularly. More Huron and Algonquin converts moved inside the safety of the fort. The population doubled when Maisonneuve returned from a recruiting drive in Normandy with a hundred settlers in 1653. One of them was Marguerite Bourgeoys who would build a school to begin teaching both natives' and settlers' children. By 1660 (three years after Nicolas' death) the population of Ville-Marie was still less than 300. There are several studies that suggest reasons why the population grew so slowly.

Life at Ville-Marie was full of danger and accidents. During the 17th Century, some priests would record causes of death and A. Greer listed some of them. While the numbers apply to all of New France, we can get a general idea about life in the small settlement. For those priests who chanced to list causes of deaths: over 300 by war (Indian raids?); 51 by lightening; 71 crushed by trees or falling objects; 37 froze; 69 by fire; 1,302 drowning; 13 suicide; 15 murders (The People of New France). In Pointe-à-Callière: From Ville-Marie to Montreal, P. Desjardines and G. Duguay provide a fascinating study of the original cemetary at Ville-Marie, which they maintain was abandoned by 1654. The wear on teeth reveal either a regular use of tobacco and clay pipes or that teeth were used frequently as "tools", such as to weave rope. Arthritis and periostitis were evident in bones. A surprising number of the bodies were "Native" or "Huron", several of them infants or children. Eighty-two per cent of deaths resulted from raids by the Iroquois. It was a hard and dangerous life, so each time settlers were added, another settler often disappeared. Also remember so many people just gave up and returned to France. We have just a brief glimpse here of why the population of Ville-Marie was never great, but still was enough to crowd the little settlement.

What did Ville-Marie look like when the Godés wandered inside the walls of the fort? The tabletop model described above was probably in part based on contemporary maps and drawings. Jean Bourdon, a seigneur owning several pieces of land in New France, visited Ville-Marie in 1647 and took a moment to make a quick sketch of the position of buildings within the walls. It was not done to scale. This rather primitive diagram is reprinted in the introducation of P. Simpson, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Montreal, 1640-1665. There is another artist's (Morin) representation of Fort Ville-Marie as it looked sometime between 1645 and 1650 (see Morin included in his sketch Maisonneuve's chateau and Mance's Hotel-Dieu hospital across the Saint-Pierre. Working back and forth between these two pictures, you can get a pretty good picture of Fort Ville-Marie.

By 1645 it had taken on the look of a fortified town, because of the Iroquois raids. The nearly square fort had three fortified gates. The main entry gate was on the wall furthest from the Saint-Pierre. A path from this gate led to a fortified windmill which was used to grind the habitants' grain. Windmills at that time doubled as fortresses, so it probably had slits and shooting platforms inside. There was a rather large guardhouse at this gate which served as barracks for regular soldiers. A second gate on the opposite wall gave access to the Saint-Pierre and the roadway to Hotel-Dieu. This gate was behind the largest building within the walls, the Governor's house, which included large wings for kitchen and forge. Morin showed these attached, while Bourdon showed them as separate buildings. This home was eventually abandoned when Maisonneuve's chateau was built near Hotel-Dieu. On a third wall, a gate was very close to the St. Lawrence. Morin shows three paths leading from here: a short one to a launch; a longer one to the cemetary; a long, looping third path along the St. Lawrence shore and ending up at the windmill. Near this gate was a chapel that included quarters for the two priests. On the fourth wall was a long storeage building that probably included powder and the few weapons and ammunition the settlers had. The large empty middle was used as parade grounds and probably garden plots.

These are probably the foundations of buildings you see when you wander in the basement of the Callière museum. Most buildings would have been wood so are long disintegrated, along with furniture and wooden utensils and tools. We can assume Nicolas spent most of his time working on these projects. Back in Perche, having "Master" attached to his trade title would have given him the right to open a store or workshop, so he may have done that in Ville-Marie, and maybe one day an archaeologist will find the foundation of his shop. This might have also served as a home for his family. Yet to be discovered is the site of the original Mlle Bourgeoy's school. Morin failed to show Pierre Gadois' merchant shop and home, which was the first lot granted by Maisonneuve to a settler in 1648.

Large garden plots both inside and outside the palisade had been the way in which the settlement fed itself. The gardens moved further and further from the fort and expanded to become small farms. As the seigneur representing the Société, Maisonneuve had always intended to grant tenant farms to responsible and hard-working habitants. Only the Iroquois menace had held him back. By 1650, he felt he had devised a successful warning and defense system, so that he could begin granting farms. By 1655, the number of grants reached 123. Both Nicolas Sr. and Jr. were given farms, the former in 1651, the latter in 1654. The conditions attached to the grant were based on the old seigneurial system to which everyone in New France was accustomed. I'll write something about this later. What is significant to our story now is that when making his grants, Maisonneuve used the services of a prominent and popular notary named Jean de Saint-Père. In 1651, Jean married the Godés' youngest daughter Mathurine. Unfortunately he was killed in a Mohawk raid while helping his father-in-law. This will be described in a future article.

By the 1650's, the original settlement was becoming obsolete, used mostly as a safe refuge from Mohawk raids. The focus of activity was shifting across the Saint-Pierre, as first Mlle Mance and then Maisonneuve established their headquarters there. When Maisonneuve left, the chateau became the first Sulpician seminary. Ownership of the Ile de Montreal seigneury had been granted to four Sulpicians in 1657. One of the priests, de Caisson became an important historian of the early days of Ville-Marie. The last burial in the original cemetary was in 1654 and soon it would be forgotten and covered. Settlers moved out to live on their farms. The centre or "common" was still used for gatherings and the chapel was still used and probably Gadois' store. The annual fur fair still used the "pointe" but even that had ended by the mid-1650's as the Iroquois blockade shut off the passageways to Montreal and Three Rivers. Eventually the for was abandoned and fell to ruin. The "pointe" would eventually be cleared, replaced by a large residence and farm built for a governor named Callière. A famous cartographer Gaspard de Léry drew a view of Montreal as it appeared in 1731, and in it shows the large seigneury that was built on what once was Ville-Marie. Over the years the ruins were buried deeper and deeper under Montreal's old port until a modern steamshovel broke into a natural "crypt" to begin to reveal what had once been the birthplace of Montreal. seigneurial system and Nicolas were further shaped by two facts of North American life: the fur trade and the North American aboriginals, namely the Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois. This will be the focus of the next two articles.