Quebec Premier François Legault speaks at the November press conference announcing the find. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec City reveals archeological secrets

“Every time we dig a hole in Quebec City, people ask if we’re searching for Champlain”

In the knee-deep mud of a future Quebec City condominium project, it was a spot of dark soil that led archeologists to uncover the edge of an axe-hewn wooden stake, preserved in wet clay far below the surface.

What eventually emerged last fall was hailed as a major find: a 20-metre segment of a wood palisade, built in 1693 by French troops and settlers to protect against attacks from British and Indigenous groups.

“For the history of Quebec City, it’s extremely important, because these were the first ramparts,” said Jean-Yves Pintal, who led the dig on behalf of archeological firm Ruralys. “There were small forts before that,” he said, but nothing like the defence these palisades offered.

But for some, the discovery of part of the 325-year-old Beaucours palisade was a reminder that North America’s best-preserved fortified city still has secrets to reveal, including a major mystery that has stumped archeologists for over a century.

“The palisade was one of a few secrets that remained to be cleared up or understood,” Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume said at a November press conference announcing the find. “There’s one left, and that’s Champlain’s tomb.”

Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City in 1608, has been dubbed “the father of New France.” His name graces streets, bridges, and a major lake on the Canada-U.S. border, but his final resting place remains unknown. Despite intense public interest and multiple efforts, archeologists say they’re no closer to finding his tomb.

While Labeaume’s remark was made jokingly, the search for the grave has become a minor sore spot for archeologists, said Pintal. Even the announcement of one of Quebec City’s earliest fortifications was overshadowed by remarks about the search for the founder.

“Every time we dig a hole in Quebec City, people ask if we’re searching for Champlain,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a never-ending story.”

For independent archeologist Carl Lavoie, who has taken an interest in Champlain, the subject is no joking matter. Lavoie says past failed attempts to find the founder have somewhat “discredited” the subject and led to Champlain fatigue among some of his peers. But he sees no reason why the search should not be treated seriously.

“Every nation, every country would like to know where their founders, their great figures can be found,” he said. “The mayor may have said that with a smile, but I think that he’d also like to find him.”

Even Lavoie acknowledges the search is an uphill battle. Records suggest Champlain died on Christmas Day in 1635, and his remains were moved to a chapel that was later burned to the ground. A Jesuit text from 1642 refers to a priest who was buried alongside the founder and another friend, but there is no record of where that burial took place.

“It is likely the remains were moved, but nobody knows when or where,” Lavoie said.

Serious efforts to find the tomb began in the mid-1800s. Scientists began “digging left and right” to find Champlain, he said, but without success. More recently, an archeologist who shared the name of former Quebec premier Rene Levesque led a series of digs in the 1980s and 1990s that proved equally fruitless.

Lavoie believes the location of the original “Champlain chapel” to which his remains were moved has been found in the old city. Lavoie believes there’s a good chance Champlain could be lying somewhere beneath Quebec City’s basilica, either on his own or in a common grave.

But the search for the founder’s remains are at a standstill, and even if found, they would not be easy to identify. Champlain fathered no children and left no descendants, which eliminates the possibility of DNA matching. To confirm the identity, researchers would have to match up remains with what little that is known about Champlain physically — for example traces of the arrow wounds he suffered during a 1613 conflict with the Iroquois.

While it’s a long shot, Lavoie points to the case of English King Richard III — whose remains were found under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 — as a reason to not give up. “We can still dream a little,” he said.

Pintal agrees it would be wonderful to finally find Champlain — if only so people can stop asking him about it. But for now, his focus remains firmly on learning more about the newly discovered palisade, which he says has great symbolic importance for the city.

He’s hoping the discovery will shed light on the construction techniques of the day and teach researchers about the role both civilians and the military played in shoring up the city’s defences. “The fact that France recognized that Quebec deserved to be protected by ramparts, it’s a bit like a consecration,” he said. “France recognized Quebec as the colonial capital of North America.”

He said the centuries-old wood risked rapid deterioration once exposed to air. It has since been moved to a temperature-controlled warehouse where it can be preserved to ensure that its secrets, at least, won’t be among those to disappear.

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health-care worker prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal North, Sunday, May 10, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)
Interior Health records 21 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Thirty-six cases remain active; two people are in the hospital, one of whom is in intensive care

Leather Apron Revival will live stream on October 24, 2020 through Studio 64 concert series. FaceBook image
Live-streamed concerts at Studio 64 continue

Blues Rock with a Molten Metal Motif

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry to the U.S., still placed in Canadian quarantine

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Nicole Cherlet for the BC NDP, Samson Boyer for the BC Greens and Doug Clovechok for the BC Liberals will be your choices on the ballot in the upcoming provincial election. (Submitted/Revelstoke Review)
Columbia River – Revelstoke candidates adapt to pandemic

COVID-19 protocols make for unique campaign

Kimberley Minor Hockey players scrimmage with the Dynamiters last year. KMH file
Kimberley and Cranbrook Minor Hockey relationship grows the game for local players

Players can now play to their skill level regardless of city of origin

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry answers questions during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. sees record-breaking daily COVID infections with 499 new cases over weekend

Two people, both in the Lower Mainland, died due to the virus over the weekend

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Police confirm human remains were found in a recycling bin in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Human remains found in recycling bin floating near Vancouver beach

Police asking nearby residents to see if their recycling bin has gone missing

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson visits a North Vancouver daycare to announce his party’s election promises for child care, Oct. 9, 2020. (B.C. Liberal Party video)
B.C. parties pitch costly child care programs in pandemic

B.C. Liberals say they’ll deliver on NDP’s $10-a-day promise for lower-income families

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A B.C. man decided to create a website to help people find family doctors accepting patients. Because Victoria is considered high-demand, clinic openings can’t be posted publicly. (Unsplash)
Vancouver Island man starts website that connects B.C. residents with doctors

Nanaimo man started project to help people find family physicians accepting patients

Voting station at Tzeachten Hall in the riding of Chilliwack-Kent on the first day of advance voting in the provincial election on Oct. 15, 2020. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. VOTES 2020: 380,000 British Columbians head to polls in first 4 days of advance voting

Some of highest voter turnout so far has been seen on Vancouver Island and in Shuswap

Fort St. John councillor Trevor Bolin (B.C. Conservative Party)
BC Conservatives leader fights back after BC Liberals leak 2018 workplace harassment case

Sexual harassment case was connected to employee being terminated, WorkSafeBC found

Most Read