The Reconstructed Longhouse and Environmental History

Reconstructed longhouse at Crawford Lake Conservation Area

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

CHESS field schooling this year drove home an important consideration in my work in environmental history: whether to replicate or instead interpret past environments when I’m considering humans, historical climate, topography, hydrography, soil, vegetation and ecologies which I cannot possibly know.

These challenges were highlighted by archaeologist Ronald F. Williamson in an essay on Iroquoian longhouse reconstructions in Ontario. [1] His reflections were especially relevant when our group found ourselves standing in front of the Turtle Clan Longhouse at Crawford Lake Conservation Area. Its 16-foot-high bark-covered walls towered above us to a scale I had scarcely imagined in written descriptions. Around us, in amazing clarity, was an Iroquoian settlement about 600 years old.

As rich as its appearance, the Crawford Lake village does more than simply reconstruct longhouses. It interprets a complex story of science, history and environment. The dominant narrative arc at Crawford Lake begins with its own origin story as an environmental-heritage conservation site. A park guide related it to our group at the lake. It is repeated in almost every blog, Instagram, and travel/tourism information post of Crawford Lake on the net.


The story begins in the depths of nearby Crawford Lake. Its meromictic waters, deprived of oxygen, preserve each year varve layers of leaf and other organic materials on the lake bottom. Core sampling in the 1970s revealed layers thousands of years old, some of which, containing grass and corn (Zea mays) pollen, suggested that humans were cultivating soils nearby from 635 to 610 years ago.[2] From these microscopic-sized echoes, archaeologists, especially with the initial work of Roger Byrne and then W.D. Finlayson, moved up on the bench from the lake to search for and discover the outlines of longhouse structures. They eventually uncovered a village where perhaps as many as 450 people lived beside vast cornfields.[3]

At best, longhouses from this age leave only dark stains in the subsoil, suggesting the decayed remains of posts. By studying their diameter and depth, archaeological science gave life to the longhouses now reconstructed. However, the very act of reconstructing the village further animated complex narratives at the site. By rebuilding them, the site’s builders valorized Crawford longhouses among the myriad of other villages not yet and likely never to be revealed in the larger Iroquoian world now obliterated in farmscapes and development. As Williamson suggested in his own reflections on the challenge of longhouse reconstructions/ interpretations, issues arise from the very choice of such sites, drawn from the “thousands of multifunctional longhouses that were erected over the course of half a millennium by various northern Iroquoian populations across a vast landscape.”[4]

As well, despite the best efforts of interpreters, visitors to these raised structures cannot help but transfer a sense of permanency to the village. The longhouse interiors arranging bedding bunks, corn lofts, supports and hearths suspend in stasis a largely imagined moment of time. What ends up being displayed, then, can run strongly at odds with the reality of Iroquoian engagement in landscape: on the move and dynamic.

Conrad Heidenreich’s classic study of Huronia argued that limited available female labour and environmental realities kept villages moving. Inevitably, soil exhaustion, despite the balance offered in triad (corn-bean-squash mixed) cultivation, and, especially, the time-distance problem faced by female labourers dispersed over ever expanding fields (reaching perhaps an outer limit of 1.5 miles), forced these villagers’ hands. There were, besides, the villagers’ enormous need for wood for fuel and construction upkeep, especially in bark, and very likely an increasing problem of vermin feasting on store-housed grains. These villages, then, moved after ten to fifteen years.[5]

Colpitts longhouse

Quite ironically, some of the first Crawford Lake Longhouses built in the early 1980s — and wowing visitors ever since — have existed longer than the village they actually represent. With the 2014 opening of the impressive Deer Clan Longhouse and plans for more construction, the site clearly has a life and life expectancy of its own making. Moreover, one only wonders about the villages just beyond this location in Halton County. The Wendat moved away from their core agri-landscape towards edge areas, new sources of water supply and secondary growth groves offering timber and bark, and especially ideal berry shrubs and fruit/nut trees. [6] They also didn’t just abandon a region. These people moved throughout the larger Carolinian forest region to build yet other villages and very different configurations and designs of houses. This does not even account for the return of Wendat to Crawford Lake to reclaim soils and build new houses differently above the posts abandoned centuries before. Pollen evidence suggests the site was reoccupied between 595 to 500 years ago, and again from 395 to 365 years ago.[7]

Dynamic, strategic and communally-grounded decision making prompted Wendat movement in a larger landscape both before and after the great dispersion from Huronia. This isn’t to dismiss the site’s important role in re-engaging the public with the Indigenous past and present in southern Ontario. Similar to other reconstruction sites, our guide at Crawford Lake makes it clear that Indigenous consultation will be key in the site’s future changes. As this site grows older Crawford Lake conservationists are already moving from a goal of simply using ever-improving technology to capture an accurate snapshot of what existed at a certain point in time, to communicating a larger, more complex reality. This process involved pulling down the air conditioning from the surrounding structures. We reached there to descry workers stripping down the air conditioning and renovating parts of the structures. Speaking of air conditioning, I had a faulty AC system back home, and had to order some filter to resume its normal funtioning. You can order your size online, too.

As Williamson has pointed out, from the 1980s “a holistic and analytical attempt to understand the fundamental values of historic places and to recognize the multiple layers of meaning reflected in their inherent values” have shaped heritage reconstruction efforts, pursuing what is termed “commemorative integrity.”[8] The objective, then, isn’t to “get it right” by correctly identifying a single roof design (longhouse roof reconstructions elsewhere in Ontario and New York State are in fact very different from those at Crawford). As Williamson points out, it isn’t to “present an accurate reflection of what we cannot possibly know, in other words, what went on at the 16-foot level above the ground and beyond the gaze of most tourists.” The goal is to engage visitors with a larger and complex understanding of the past.

Wendat history, traditionally told as a post-1649 tragic dispersion, is now appreciated to be one of decision-making engagement in a much larger region. Ecological constraints, social dynamics and political decisions, as Kathryn Labelle underlined in her own work, informed the history of these people early in their dispersal.[9] Thomas Peace and Labelle, launching their anthology during our visit, are offering histories of Wendat beyond 1649 to better account for their migration, integration into other Iroquoian territories and shared use of land with the Five Nations Iroquois and Anishinabek.[10]

Within this new perspective, environmental history seems central, especially to appreciate the “multiple layers of meaning” at these sites. Georges E. Sioui, drawing on his Huron-Wendat heritage, suggested that longhouse village builders, at least in Huronia, took as a model the sedentary beaver. The Wendat saw beaver colonies “building and defending villages, at the same time creating spaces where almost all other animal species can foregather.”[11] Their own villages transformed the landscape, turned soils over to cultivation and created edge environments to attract wildlife. Their lifeway, including movement and raising of new villages, was part of a larger social and spiritual practice that resonated from outside to inside the village, and within the longhouses themselves. Indeed, Sioui suggests the Wendat ability to survive – which they did after 1649 – was related to a social “vision” that gave them “a miraculous ability to regroup, literally and spiritually, each time they were dealt a crushing blow.”[12]

The work at Crawford Lake, then, is aimed at accurately replicating but also creatively interpreting the past. Hopefully, the structures will stand permanently. However, they can hint at a broader question in environmental history, whether to reconstruct historical ecologies and human interactions with nature at a single moment in time, or to offer interpretations of dynamic and ongoing human engagements in landscape.

[1] Ronald F. Williamson, “The Search for the Iroquoian Longhouse: Replication or Interpretation,” in The Reconstructed Past: The Role of Reconstructions in the Public Interpretation of Archaeology and History, ed. John H. Jameson, Jr (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2003), 148.

[2] Peter N. Peregrine and Melvine Ember, eds, “Crawford Lake,” Encyclopedia of Prehistory, vol. 6 (New York: Kluwer Academic/ Plenum Publishers, 2000), 352.

[3] William d. Finlayson and Roger Byrne, “Investigations of Iroquoian Settlement and Subsistence Patters at Crawford Lake, Ontario – A Preliminary Report,” Ontario Archaeology, 1975, 31.

[4] Ronald F. Williamson, “The Search for the Iroquoian Longhouse: Replication or Interpretation,” in The Reconstructed Past: The Role of Reconstructions in the Public Interpretation of Archaeology and History, ed. John H. Jameson, Jr (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2003), 148.

[5] Conrad Heidenreich, Huronia: A History and Geography of the Huron Indians, 1600-1650 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), 213-215.

[6] Stephen G. Monckton, “Huron Paleoethnobotany,” Ontario Archaeological Reports 1 (Toronto: Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1992), 92-93.

[7]John Laurence Creese, “Deyughnyonkwarakda – ‘At the Wood’s Edge’: The development of the Iroquoian Village in Southern Ontario, AD 900-1500,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, 2011, 101.

[8] Williamson, “The Search for the Iroquoian Longhouse,” 148.

[9] Kathryn Magee Labelle, Dispersed but Not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth-Century Wendat People (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013), 58.

[10] Thomas Peace, Katheryn Labelle, From Huronia to Wendakes: Adversity, Migration, and Resilience, 1650-1900 (

[11] Georges E. Siioui, Huron Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle, trans. Jane Brierley, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999) 94.

[12]Williamson, “The Search for the Iroquoian Longhouse,” 113.

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George Colpitts teaches environmental history at the University of Calgary. His publications include Pemmican Empire: Food, Trade, and the Last Bison Hunts in the North American Plains, 1780-1882 (Cambridge University Press, 2015); North America’s Indian Trade in European Commerce and Imagination, 1580-1850 (Brill, 2014), and Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940 (UBC Press, 2002).

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