A St. Lawrence Iroquois examines an axe shard, from a historical re-enactment featured in the documentary film 'The Curse of the Axe.'

How Did a Spanish Axe Wind Up in Toronto 100 Years Before Europeans?

Wilhelm Murg

Curse of The Axe is a documentary about the archeological discovery of Mantle, the largest Huron First Nations village discovered to date. The site, located in present-day Stouffville, near Toronto, once contained 90 long houses and 3 rows of defensive walls which required chopping down 60,000 trees for their construction. Beyond those walls the Huron cultivated over 2,000 acres of corn that stretched 2 kilometers (slightly less than 1¼ miles) in every direction from the village. The land mass the village and the corn fields covered would have been as large as a contemporary city.

The site also had thousands of Native artifacts on it. However, amid all of these artifacts there was a part of a European axe that could be traced back to Spain. What makes the axe extraordinary is that all evidence points to it being buried 100 years before Europeans were believed to have set foot in that part of the continent. The lead archeologist on the dig, Dr. Ron Williamson, believes the Iroquois traded the piece as they went up the St. Lawrence River. The archeological evidence shows the axe head was not just discarded, but buried in the middle of the village, possibly in the middle of a central long house.

There has been a lot of speculation about the iron’s significance to the people who buried it over half a millennium ago and what it means to the Huron people today. All of these discoveries—the large village, the abundance of artifacts and the metal piece—have convinced Williamson that the history of the Huron needs to be rewritten, literally. “We not only needed to change the textbooks, we needed to write one about it,” Williamson said. He has just submitted such a book for publication. His narrative is the heart of the History Television documentary.

Curse of the Axe

The axe piece is the earliest European iron ever found in the North American interior. “The first thing that needs to happen is to simply recognize that European material was reaching the interior continent at least a half-century or more before people thought, and that’s a profound kind of understanding,” Williamson said. “Mantle was certainly a center of interaction at that time and totally unknown until 2003 when we found it,” Williamson continued. He always believed these small communities could come together into one large site, due to the warring that was going on in the Great Lakes region at that time, but nothing prepared him for the size, complexity, or the sheer volume of artifacts that were found at Mantle. But everything comes back to that axe piece.

“For me, sitting in my office in Toronto and digging a site just North of Toronto and finding a Basque artifact from 1500 or 1520 was absolutely mind blowing,” Williamson said. Once the iron piece was discovered Williamson had one of his team members attempt to date it. She recommended that they x-ray the piece to see how much of the original form was underneath all the corrosion and to determine whether it was wrought iron or cast iron, which would also help date the piece. The idea that there could be a maker’s mark on it never occurred to anyone until the technician spotted it on the x-ray. “Leading researchers with early European objects have said to me directly that this will change the way research is done with iron from this point forward; everybody will be x-raying their iron,” Williamson said. It took a long time to identify, but the maker’s mark was finally traced back to Basque Country in northeastern Spain.

Williamson and his team have even pinpointed the ships that came from the region to what is now Canada, one of which would have brought this particular piece across the ocean. “I could send you textbook pages where it literally says that you won’t find European trade items until the last half of the 16th century,” Williamson laughs. “Who was looking for it? We weren’t looking for it. It was literally just like it shows in the film; when it showed up on my desk it had very good context, it came from the bottom of this pit that had been excavated just to bury it. Why would a farmer do that? And how could it end up in a long house so nicely in the right spot.”

Curse of the Axe

Williamson’s theory is that an axe was brought over from Europe and was traded to the Iroquois, who eventually traded it to the Huron.

The axe head was cut into three pieces and at least one piece was fashioned into an axe that would have resembled a Native American stone axe. Something happened, the documentary makers play up the idea that the Huron saw it as an ominous herald of things to come—European culture. Regardless of what happened, the evidence shows that the piece was purposely buried in the center of the village, and that a long house did stand there at one point, which gives rise to the notion that it could have been buried ceremonially. For all of its historical significance, the piece means much more to the Huron people. “We believe it’s probably a part of the answers we are looking for regarding the Iroquoian on the St. Lawrence,” said Luc Lainé, a member of the Huron Wendat Nation and a Huron ambassador involved with repatriation for the nation.

“There is a big issue in Quebec about who are the Iroquoians of the St. Lawrence and we, the Wendat people, believe we are the descendants of the Iroquoian of the St. Lawrence, but of course we do not have a lot of evidence to support our position,” Lainé continued. “When we deal with other first nations in Quebec, with the government or the provincial or the federal government, they say there are some good chances that we are the descendants, but we don’t have a direct claim or anything to prove this. With this piece of axe we believe we have something solid to support our position and that’s why the axe itself is so important to us. It probably came from Newfoundland, and the Huron traded for it over there and brought it to Mantle. This has been our political position for a very long time; we were in the fur trade, we were in the trades, so we traded this along the St. Lawrence River, up to the Georgian Bay and up to this area.”

The Huron position is not stated in the documentary. “I don’t want to blame [production company] Yap Films, because when you make this kind of documentary you have 50 hours of shooting and you have to cut a lot to make a one-hour or two-hour story,” Lainé said. “I would have liked there to be more [of our viewpoint] because when I was interviewed I spoke a lot about the Iroquoian, the St. Lawrence, and again, it’s the decision of the director to take it or not. But one thing sure for us, the Huron-Wendat, is that this piece of iron is so fundamental, and again, based on the archeology, we have the pottery and artifacts that we believe supports our point of view, but again this piece of iron is another brick in the wall to come and support our position.” Curse of The Axe, produced by Yap Films and narrated by Robbie Robertson of The Band, will premiere on History Television’s “History Presents” on Monday, July 9th at 8PM ET/PT and it will be repeated that night at 12 midnight, Tuesday July 10 at 1 pm, and on Friday, July 13 at 1 pm, 9 pm and 1 am.

Curse of the Axe

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grantmacdonald's picture
Submitted by grantmacdonald on
Sure respect the Hurons!

grantmacdonald's picture
Submitted by grantmacdonald on
There is no scientific evidence to prove any of the cross related bogus elements of christianity and other religions. Our early human ancestors; on this earth … go back more than 6 million years … 5,996,000 years before the Greeks, Romans and the Jews. Christianity is basically a 2012 year old fictional cult. In the year 300 AD when Emperor Constantine, who to some was the first pope; went on to fabricate & market Christianity! It is written; so therefore it shall be? We are the chosen people? Such a wicked fantasy. To see the religious lunatics manipulate government and our lives is shameful. Christianity is a fantasy; which turned out to be one of the most hateful & evil concoctions ever perpetrated on the world. www.HolyFaux.com

larrymoniz's picture
Submitted by larrymoniz on
Like a lot of History Channel presentations, this "documentary" is long on unresearched speculation and short on history. For instance anyone with knowledge of the Wendat of that era knows the people used to bury valuables under the platforms within their share of the longhouses. The program also makes a major mystery out of how the axehead came to be in a Wendat village, totally disregarding that Wendat were prolific traders known far and wide for trading corn, tobacco, furs and other goods. I especially liked the wild speculation: "The axe head was cut into three pieces and at least one piece was fashioned into an axe that would have resembled a Native American stone axe." Would someone explain to me how, in the early 1500s, a people with only stone tools could have cut an iron axe into three pieces? Did they have hacksaws of which we are unaware? Or perhaps acetylene torches? Maybe a blacksmith complete with forge magically appeared then disappeared after severing the axe into three pieces? Granted, I'm only an amateur historian, but one who's aware enough of Wendat history as a result of recent research that I realize the writers, producers and Dr. Williamson seem more intent on turning a profit than adding to Wendat history.

Bora Vukcevic's picture
Bora Vukcevic
Submitted by Bora Vukcevic on
This message is for Andrea Caravale or mr. Williamson. I think I know withn few boats and few months when and from where the axe as well as one or more ships ended up in North America, by mistake. Give me a call at 416 779 6742 or email at bvukcevic@yahoo.com to hear what I may have to say about it. Regards, Bora

arri's picture
Submitted by arri on
They were and we are basque not spaniards. Different culture, different language… We are under Spanish administration, but more than the 60% of basque citizens are in favour of the independence. (And this although the 50% of the population had arrived from Spain in the first part of the 20Th century, basically in the Franco's era) Look at the election results in the last 30 years.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Amazing story, changes history. I am a Mowhawk decendant although the blood stops with my mother. My grandfathers father married a chiefs daughter Mary Pogan. It feels great that this was found and we as a country can see and be educated more of this huron tribe from the 1500's.

vincentnative's picture
Submitted by vincentnative on
Well... I am Huron. And it you do an Autosomal test on me, which we did, you will find, way back, Basque in my DNA. Furthermore, I am O neg. 40% of Basques people of O neg, as are a lot of Native Americans. That the two worlds combined, is not a big surprise to me. That the Hurons were in possession of one of their axes....again....can't really be surprised! The Basques have been fishing off the Canadian coast long before it even was Canada. That some fishermen ventured inland and took up with one of us, and had tools....is a very real possibility. I don't understand why the mystery!

Sofia Champion
Sofia Champion
Submitted by Sofia Champion on
@vincentnative My father also had an autosomal DNA test done that alluded to the same haplogroup as is shared by some Basques -- he is of Southern Celtic (i.e. Cornish) heritage. The ancient Celts once expanded into what is now Basque Country. May be that if not Basque intermarriage. What I find very odd is that I live not far from where the Mantle Site is -- in fact, I live in the same municipality. Just days before reading this same article, I began to make plans to travel to visit my friend in a Labrador Innu community. It all feels kind of foreboding.