There are many great institutions around the world telling the story of cities, but the main history museum in Montreal is particularly special. Musee d’Archeolgie et d’Histoire Pointe-a-Calliere is housed in a network of interconnected underground archaeological sites, and above ground modern structures, at the very spot where Canada’s second most populous municipality was born.
On May 17th 1642 Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, leading a group of 50 French pioneers, arrived here to establish a mission on an island in the Saint Lawrence River and covert the local indigenous people to the Catholic faith. Following in the footsteps of French explorer Jacques Cartier who had visited this area a century earlier, they had ambitions to create a society where everyone lived in peace and harmony.
“What you see here is but a grain of mustard seed, but I have no doubt that this seed will grow into a great tree and spread in all directions,” Jesuit priest Barthelemy Vimont is reported to have said in the sermon during the Mass celebrating the settlement’s foundation.
Remains of the Fort Ville-Marie (the original name for Montreal) that the first settlers erected have been preserved as part of the museum. The Montrealistes set up tents when they first arrived and quickly started work on a common building, where they were to sleep, eat and pray, which was completed by March 1643. In September 1643 work began on improving the fort’s defences.
The extra protection was needed given a spate of attacks on the settlers by indigenous people. Montreal’s first Catholic cemetery – another underground archaeological site that can be visited as part of the museum – was where some 38 French people and their allies were buried in the years leading up to 1654.
Dollier de Casson described life in the fort around 1650: “One saw nothing but enemies every day, no one dared open his door at night, and in the daytime no one dared to go more than four steps from the house without being armed with musket, sword and pistol.”
But there were some success with convert people to the Catholic faith. Between 1642 and 1647 there were 124 baptisms, and between 1649 and 1651 another 52.
By 1651 there were only some 50 people left in Montreal and so two years late La Grande Recrue (the “great recruitment”) was launched to bring over more settlers. It subsequently prospered as a French colony and was no longer a religious settlement.
The square in front of the main museum building became a marketplace in 1676. Initially it was predominantly furs (important to merchants until the early 19th century) that were traded here, but over time the goods exchanged here became more diverse. You can see scorch marks in the archaeological remains from where there was a fire here.
It wasn’t until 1701 – by which time Montreal had a population of 1,300 – that a peace treaty was signed with the indigenous people and the French colony’s future was finally secured. Some 1,300 delegates representing about 40 First Nations groups arrived in the summer of that year to agree terms for the deal and the occasion ended with a feast. Various artefacts from the time, including a ceremonial pipe, have been discovered at the museum site and are on display.
As things became more peaceful, Fort Marie-Ville was no longer required for defence purposes and it was replaced by a governor’s residence. The estate became known as Calliere’s Point, hence the name of the museum. In 1765 the property was destroyed by fire.
After Montreal fell to Britain in 1760, settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland moved here – particularly from 1815. By the 19th century Montreal was a bustling harbour city and in the area of the museum a number of new commercial buildings were built. One of these was the Royal Insurance Building, underneath which the remains of the Catholic cemetery were found when the structure was pulled down in the 20th century. Another was the new Custom House, built in 1838 in a prominent position in the marketplace, is also preserved as part of the museum.
Montreal grew to be the financial capital of Canada, with Rue St-Jacques once considered to be the equivalent of New York’s Wall Street. Banks later moved their head offices to Toronto, particularly around the time of a 1980 independence referendum in Quebec (the eventual result was 59.9% voting to remain, but many institutions had already moved by their headquarters by then). Royal Bank of Canada building, Montreal’s tallest structure when it opened in 1928, is one of the grandest and is now a coffee shop and business centre. Other former banks are now boutique hotels.
In 1825 the Lachine Canal opened and, partly thanks to its success, Montreal became the world’s largest grain exporting port. Goods and commodities were brought along the canal and stored in vast warehouses and hangars – original structures survive but await renovation – before being shipped out by sea. The canal closed to commercial traffic in the 1970s, but in recent years it has been cleaned up and the land alongside it is now being re-developed for housing.
The city is today a wonderful place to visit. The streets of Old Montreal and port ooze with charm. Basilique Notre-Dame, built 1829 on the site of a smaller church, boasts spectacular interiors. And a climb up the city’s Mont Royal mountain allows for wonderful views over the surrounding area. The 40-metre high Cross of Montreal on the top marks the spot where Maisonneuve carried a wooden cross in January 1643 to thank God that the settlement was spared from flooding.
Visiting Pointe-a-Calliere museum starts with multimedia show that whittles through the city’s history in a little over 15 minutes and is the perfect introduction. But being able to see the very spot where those early settlers established Montreal almost four centuries ago is very special.