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Building canoes and becoming part of history at Sainte-Marie

During Del Taylor’s long career at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, his work has helped maintain the integrity of the buildings and the history of the place itself

Building a birchbark canoe from scratch is no easy feat, and Del Taylor has perfected his craft during his time at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons to the point that he can build one in a matter of days.

“If I’m in my backyard at home, I can build a canoe in four to five days,” says Taylor. “If I’m building on site, it could take anywhere from five to six weeks, because I’m consistently answering questions about the process.”

For Taylor, answering questions is just one of the things he loves about his work at the historic site. In educating the public about the significance of the first contact site, Taylor says he sees people having an “Aha” moment, and he knows they’re walking away with new knowledge.

If you’ve ever visited Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in the summer months, then you’ve probably met Taylor as he built a traditional canoe on-site.

His enthusiasm for canoe-making and 17th-century carpentry is palpable.

“We’re building a canoe in the museum this winter where it’s climate-controlled, which is going to be totally awesome,” says Taylor, a program coordinator at the historic site.

As Taylor lists his many responsibilities that include training staff, ensuring the buildings are maintained according to 17th-century carpentry and developing programs, you get the sense that the historic site might not be the same without him.

Taylor truly has become a part of the history of the historic site.

In fact, without his work restoring and maintaining the buildings, cookery, buckets, and more over the years, it truly wouldn’t be the same.

“Back in the day, this place only existed for 10 years,” says Taylor, “we’ve more than tripled that length of time,” he explains, commending his colleagues over the years for their maintenance and restoration work.

When asked why the settlement’s existence was so short-lived, Taylor corrects a common misconception that exists.

“A lot of people think the Wendat burned it down, but the Jesuits did it themselves,” he says, noting that the scorched-earth military tactic was common — destroying anything that might be helpful to the enemy before they attack.

The Iroquois were set to attack in 1649, and the missionaries took it upon themselves to burn the settlement to the ground.

“They had built churches, and people were buried here. It was a holy site for them. They didn’t want it ransacked, so they burned it,” says Taylor.

This was not the end for the site. In 1844, initial site excavations started with Jesuit priest Fr. Pierre Chazelle exploring the area looking for remnants of the settlement.

Almost 100 years later, the first scientific excavations began with Kenneth Kidd of the Royal Ontario Museum, and later expanded by W.J. Wintemberg, Wilfrid and Elsie Jury from the University of Western Ontario.

Taylor seems wistful while talking about archeological practices in the 1940 and 1950s. If they didn’t find anything in the test pit (an area about five-feet square) they would move onto another section 20 feet away, meaning much was missed.

“The archeologists worked to find where the buildings had to be. After that, they had to find out what it may have looked like. Obviously, there were no blueprints, no drawings, no paintings, no written descriptions of what the place would have looked like at the time,” explains Taylor.

The people responsible for rebuilding the site had to look at buildings from other places in France and Europe as templates, Taylor notes.

Based on that work, the Ontario Government provided funding to create the historic site at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. The construction of the 17th-century buildings that make up the Jesuit settlement began in 1963-64, and the site opened to the public in 1967.

For Taylor, the fascination with Sainte-Marie among the Hurons is its significance as a study of people.

“When you’re looking at various aspects of Canadian history, one of the most interesting things is contact among very different people,” says Taylor.

The Jesuits are known to be one of the greatest societies to undertake anthropological studies.

“They not only tried to Christianize, but they made great descriptions of how the Indigenous people walked, talked, what they ate,” explains Taylor.

Some of that is on display inside the museum.

The museum was originally referred to as the museum project, because many of the artefacts on display are representative of the time period to help visitors understand the cultural differences among various societies from Europe to China and beyond.

Some artefacts have been on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum since the museum opened in 1971.

Other artefacts discovered on-site pre-date Sainte-Marie by 600 to 700 years. Taylor explains there are fish and animal bones that have been cooked. Many artefacts found are left in-situ rather than risk damaging the items.

As an illustration of the less advanced archeological practices from the past, the museum itself was built on top of artefacts that have been discovered as the building has undergone upgrades. Taylor notes that Indigenous pottery that had been found under the museum.

Fast forward to 1985, and as Taylor puts it, he came along about half way through the life of the place as it stands today.

When asked how you become trained in 17th-century carpentry, Taylor candidly replies that it involved personal interest in the job itself and a lot of personal study.

“I was interested in the building techniques, any kind of woodworking, making cookery, buckets, barrels,” says Taylor. “The upkeep is almost on a yearly basis. In some cases, we conserve historic stonework from the time period,” says Taylor.

“The buildings are substantially older than they would have been at the time,” notes Taylor referring to the fact that the buildings only stood from 1639 to 1649.

With only one and half years left before retirement Taylor is hard at work training staff in all of his many areas of knowledge.

One of his favourite things about training the next generation is when the history becomes more real.

“Historical interpretation can be cold,” says Taylor.

Once staff are comfortable with the history, they engage in conversations.

“It becomes comforting to have a conversation. It changes when that connection is being made,” says Taylor.

If you’re interested in having a conversation with anyone at Saint-Marie among the Hurons, or seeing some of Taylor’s handmade birchbark canoes, visit the historic site.