The Archaeologist David Boyle on Rice Lake in 1897
Hundreds of acres of its surface are covered with wild rice, and it has thus been always a favorite resort for water-fowl. Fish, too. were formerly abundant, and no doubt deer and other large game were plentiful. As the Indians also used (and still use) the rice, it will be seen that all the conditions of primitive life in the neighborhood were extremely favorable. Add to this the fact that the lake formed an important link in one of the two great canoe routes between the upper lakes and the St. Lawrence, and more especially between the Huron country and Lake Ontario, and we have another reason for this having been a desirable Indian resort.
Halfway between Toronto and Kingston above the north shore of Lake Ontario sits Rice Lake, a 30-kilometre long and narrow lake that, as the quote above notes, was part of a thousands-year-old water highway used by Indigenous Peoples to travel from Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario via the Kawarthas and the Otonabee and Trent Rivers.
These days Rice Lake is a section of the Trent-Severn Waterway, a 386-kilometre canal whose final lock was completed in 1920.
During the period from 1650 to 1700, it was one of five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (thought to be Cayuga), who had a village on the north shore of Rice Lake. Before that, as the map below indicates, it was the Wendat, another Iroquoian people better known as the Huron, who lived on the north shore of Lake Ontario and included Rice Lake as part of their territory.
Further back in time, other Indigenous cultural groups would have been familiar with the Rice Lake area and made use of it at least on a seasonal basis. Going back 2000 years, those peoples may have included those from the Algonkian (i.e.Anishinaabe) cultural family which we associate with the Canadian Shield.
Hiawatha First Nation:
These days it is the Hiawatha First Nation that can be found on the shores of Rice Lake. The map below indicates their territory – about 2145 acres in all – on the north side of the lake, across from the Alderville First Nation. The members of this First Nation are Mississauga Ojibwe and belong to the Algonkian/Anishinaabe family.
This recorded testimony (The Story of Paudash) would date their settling in the Rice Lake area around the year 1700 at the end of the Algonkian/Iroquois World War. The Mississaugas took over land abandoned by the Iroquois who retreated across Lake Ontario to their Haudenosaunee heartland.
A map showing the extent of the original reserve set aside for them would undoubtedly show how much their territory has shrunk over the past 200 years.
Given that Hiawatha was a legendary/historical Onondaga chief and an Iroquoian hero, it is puzzling that this Anishinaabe First Nation is named after him. Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha is the cause of the confusion; he used the name Hiawatha for his clearly Ojibwe hero, whom he had initially wanted to name Manabozho (his spelling of Nanabush or Nenebuc, the mythic Anishinaabe hero). Mistakenly thinking that the two names were synonymous, Longfellow named him Hiawatha instead! See here for a full explanation. In spite of Longfellow’s mistake, the First Nation perpetuates it by hanging on to the name.
Hiawatha First Nation territory includes an area on the north shore above Roach Point (some old maps name it Roche’s Point) which is significant as the location of what is said to be the only serpent effigy mound in Canada. In a statement from 1904, the then-chief Robert Paudash said this about the burial mound site –
At Rochis Point there was a Mohawk village in front of the former site of this is a mound in the shape of a serpent, having four smaller mounds about its head and body in the form of turtles. These mounds are a pictorial representation of the Mississaugas in memory of the occurrence, and of the Mohawks. It has been supposed by some to mean more than this, but my father has so stated it. [See here for the source.]
The serpent would presumably represent the Iroquois, known by the uncomplimentary name Nadoways (the big snakes) to the Anishinaabe; the smaller mounds would represent the Mississauga and their clan totem. If Chief Paudash is right, the mounds date around 1700 C.E. and were built by his not-too-distant ancestors to commemorate their recent defeat of the “big snake”. However, the archaeological evidence indicates the mounds are much older, i.e. older by at least 1400 years.
David Boyle, the first archaeologist to examine the site, drew this conclusion in his 1897 report on the site:
… for the construction of the mounds cannot be attributed to any people with whom Europeans have come into contact. It is not recorded that the Huron-Iroquois were mound-builders, and we must therefore regard the earthworks in question as the product of a people who preceded them.
While their ancestors were not the builders of the burial mounds, the current members of the Hiawatha First Nation have become caretakers of the site.
The Rice Lake Serpent Mound Site:
The Canadian Encyclopedia summarizes the site’s significance this way –
Serpent Mounds, situated on a bluff overlooking Rice Lake near Peterborough, Ont, is the only known effigy mound in Canada. It is a sinuous earthen structure composed of six separate burial locations and measuring about 60 m long, 8 m wide and 1.5-1.8 m high. Excavation indicated that the mounds forming the effigy were gradually built up between 50 BCE and 300 CE. This would suggest that Serpent Mounds was a sacred place, visited periodically for religious ceremonies. Although pieces of grave furniture were not plentiful, their distribution shows they were restricted largely to individuals of higher status within the community. Those individuals were buried either at the base of the mounds or in shallow, submound pits. The commoners were randomly scattered throughout the mounds’ fill. See here for the source.
While the site is referred to as Serpent Mounds, there is only one mound said to be in the shape of a serpent (Mound E on the David Boyle sketch of the site). The other eight mounds are oval or circular in appearance; they are also smaller than Mound E. All nine were burial mounds as indicated by the skeletal remains uncovered by various archaeological teams.
Here is Boyle’s account of his realization that what he was examining was a serpent mound:
At frequent intervals during the excavation of the oval mound, I travelled backwards, forwards, and around the long zig-zag embankment, now that I began to feel certain as to its origin, puzzled to account for its configuration, and its relation, if any, to the more easterly structure on which we were at work. On one of those occasions, when standing on top of the ridge some fifty feet from the westerly extremity, it struck me as being strange that this end of the bank should taper so gradually that its terminating point could not be distinguished accurately within a foot or more. This suggested the idea of a mere beginning, or of failure on the part of the builders to complete their work, and the next thought was to examine the other end. Here, however, there was a very marked dissimilarity, for the bank rose at a sharp angle to a height of four feet and was much more expanded than any other portion of the mound. In the course of another walk along the earthwork I was struck with the thought that this was a serpent mound, but the idea seemed absurd to one who, on account of frequent disappointments, is prone to cast doubt on fanciful resemblances of every kind.
Still, there was the broad, abrupt head – there was the tapering tail, and between these were three well-marked convolutions – the zig-zags hitherto without meaning – not so prominent as those of the Adams County mound in Ohio, but, as I now think, much more natural.
Given Boyle’s account of his “discovery”, it does not sound like someone else told him it was a serpent. Many locals, both Indigenous and non-, thought the mounds were built for defensive purposes during the Algonkian-Iroquois War of the late-1600s. Some, like Robert Paudash quoted above, saw the mounds as a memorial to victory over the upstate New York Iroquois in the great war.
Like the tale of Archimedes in his bathtub shouting “Eureka”, we have Boyle standing on the mound…hesitant at first, but soon surrendering to the idea of the serpent! And even more – seeing the egg some forty feet away!
Key Dates in the Serpent Mound/Rice Lake Story:
300 B.C.E. -700 C.E. Point Penisula culture (a version of Hopewell Culture) dominant in the eastern Lake Ontario area’ period labelled Middle Woodland in the archaeological literature
50 B.C.E. -300 C.E. approximate timespan when the Serpent Mound and other burial mounds were constructed and enlarged during nearby seasonal (spring/summer) occupation by a hunting/gathering culture.
900-1400 the estimated time period when the nearby Stony Lake petroglyphs were created by an Algonkian (i.e. Anishinaabe) people
1000 – 1550 Iroquoian Wendat settlement of the area
1647-1649 Iroquois completely destroy Wendat (i.e.Huron) communities; Huronia is no more (see here)
1600s Iroquoian Cayuga villages in Rice Lake/Otonobee River area after the defeat of the Wendat in 1649.
1700 (circa) Mississaugas take over the lands on the north shore of Lake Ontario after their decisive victory in a drawn-out all-out war against the Iroquois, who retreat south to their Haudenosaunee homeland.
1818 Treaty 20. The Rice Lake Treaty signed at Port Hope by six Mississauga chiefs on behalf of 240 Mississaugas. See here for a map of lands surrendered for £740 annually
1820 land set aside on the north shore of Rice Lake as an Indian reserve
1848 the Adams Country Ohio Serpent Mound site first reported
1855 the publication of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”
1886-1890 Frederic Ward Putnam conducts extensive archaeological work on the Ohio Serpent Mound site, whose purchase for the Peabody Museum he had arranged in 1885.
1896 David Boyle, considered Canada’s pre-eminent archaeologist at the time, visits the Rice Lake site and conducts the first “professional” examination of the site
1897 Boyle’s report on the Serpent Mounds published by Ontario Government’s Ministry of Education
1904 Robert Paudash, chief of the Mississaugas in the Rice Lake area, attributes the building of the mounds to his ancestors after their defeat of the Mohawk in the great Anishinaabe-Iroquois War. He describes the collection of mounds in terms of a snake and turtles.
1910 Henry Montgomery’s Recent Archaeological Investigations in Ontario, a report on his previous summer’s archaeological work on the Serpent Mounds appears in the Transactions of the Canadian Institute Vol. IX, Part 1, June
1923 Williams Treaties signed by (imposed by would be more accurate) the governments of Canada and Ontario and by seven First Nations of the Chippewa of Lake Simcoe (Beausoleil, Georgina Island and Rama) and the Mississauga of the north shore of Lake Ontario (Alderville, Curve Lake, Hiawatha and Scugog Island).
1957 Serpent Mounts Provincial Park opens with the Ontario Government leasing the land from the Hiawatha First Nation
1955-60 Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto conduct a five-year archaeological examination of the Serpent Mounds under the direction of Richard B. Johnson.
1968 Royal Ontario Museum publishes Johnson’s The Archaeology of the Serpent Mounds Site, an edited version of his 1961 Ph.D. thesis.
1982 The serpent mounds designated a National Historic Site along with other nearby mounds including the Alderville Site, Island Centre Site, East Sugar Island Site, and the Corral Site
1985 Serpent Mounds Provincial Park Management Plan released by the Ontario Government’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
1986 Mounds of Sacred Earth: Burial Mounds of Ontario published by the Royal Ontario Museum. Its author, Walter Kenyon, dies that same year.
1987 The Mississauga Ojibwe lands on Rice Lake becomes officially known as Hiawatha First Nation
1995 Hiawatha First Nation takes over the management of Serpent Mounds Park
2009 Hiawatha First Nation closes the park due to lack of visitors and decaying tourist infrastructure
2011 Census count – Hiawatha First Nation population of 362, down from 483 in 2006
2018 Williams Treaties revisited and revised – First Nations and the Governments of Ontario and Canada came to a final agreement, settling litigation about land surrenders and harvesting rights. The Seven affected First Nations receive $1.1 billion. Hiawatha First Nation’s share was $154 million (see here)
2021 Serpent Mounds site remains closed to visitors.
Hiawatha First Nation population – 235
Is It Even A Serpent?
It was David Boyle who came up with the notion that what he was looking at was an effigy mound depicting a serpent and an egg. His drawing shows a somewhat serpentine figure with the “egg” just to the left of the mouth of the snake. The “serpent with egg” effigy is exactly what had been found in Ohio a few years before and Boyle would have been aware of it. It may have influenced how he interpreted what he saw at this burial mound site above Rice Lake. In turn, his serpent/egg interpretation has also determined what most people ever since are conditioned to see when they visit the Rice Lake site or read articles about it. To paraphrase St. Augustine – “Believing is seeing”!
Note: Boyle’s sketch is deceiving. The head of the “serpent” actually points in a northeasterly direction and not west as it appears to in the sketch above. Here is another sketch of the site and some of the other mounds showing their correct orientation:
While the sketch above presents the correct orientation, it also copies the exaggerated zigzag shape of Boyle’s serpent, as well as the overly narrow profile and the extended tail.
In 1909 Henry Montgomery (see here for a brief bio) and a team of diggers did some archaeological work on the “serpent mound”. The next year his report Recent Archaeological Investigations in Ontario appeared in the journal Transactions of the Canadian Institute (Vol. IX, Part 1, June ). In it, he expressed doubt about Boyle’s serpent interpretation and offers a plausible alternative explanation:
This is the earthwork to which the name “serpent” was given by Mr. Boyle. That it was intended by its builders to represent a serpent in shape is somewhat doubtful, there being little evidence in support of the view. There are but two convolutions in it ; whereas there are seven convolutions in the Adams County serpent mound of Ohio which latter is also more uniform and natural in form. It is possible that this Peterboro County mound may be an aggregation of ordinary burial mounds erected in this way at different times for convenience’ sake.
A page later he does seem to equivocate when he writes this –
Although irregular, and in length relatively short, its shape is such that it might be regarded as the beginning of an unfinished serpent.
Among the measurements he provides is of a 40-foot stretch of the mound which he states is 37 feet wide, that is, about one-fifth of the length. These are not the proportions that come to mind with a serpent!
To appreciate a truly serpentine effigy mound, we turn to Adams Country.
The Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio
The Ohio serpent mound stretches 411 meters (1348′) from its coiled tail to its open jaws, which hold an oval shape thought to be an egg. The mound is from 30 to 100 cm. high and from 6 to 6.5 meters (20 to 25′) wide. Unlike the Rice Lake site, it was not a burial mound and served some other ritual purpose.
The Rice Lake serpent is just as wide (an average of 6.5 meters) yet is 1/7th as long. The proportions are quite different; what we have at Rice Lake would be a short and very wide serpent!
When you compare the two mounds, it seems fair to question Boyle’s interpretation. While one clearly and undeniably looks like a serpent, the other could well be a tadpole! And while one definitely has an oval shape within what is easy to interpret as its jaw, it is certainly a stretch to interpret the mound that Boyle examined as another rendition of a serpent with egg.
Richard Johnson – ROM/U of T 1955-1960
The most thorough examination of the Serpent Mounds site was done from 1955 to 1960 by a Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto team led by Richard Johnson, whose report became his Ph.D. thesis a year later. The shortened version was published by U of Toronto Press as a ROM book in 1968. It is the essential source of information on the mounds.
The following sketch from the book provides a detailed view of the site and its various mounds. In their fieldwork, the ROM/U of T team noted two mounds (G and H) not recorded by previous visitors.
Look at the shape of the Mound E in the late 1950s/early 60s sketch and, without having been told that the shape you are looking at is a snake, you would not likely have offered that up as an answer.
Noteworthy is that on the very first page of Johnson’s study of the site, he twice states that it is not a given that Burial Mound E is a serpent and that “the name of the mound and site is regarded as entirely speculative”. However, the name “Serpent Mound” was so ingrained by the mid-1960s that Johnson felt he had to stick with it in spite of his severe reservations about its validity!
Here is the first page of the Johnson study of the site – the entire book can be accessed via a link below.
The ROM team conducted carbon dating at various points along the length of the burial mound. The dates ranged from 128 to 300 A.D. and, as Johnson wrote, “favour the assumption that construction continued intermittently over a number of years”. This is hardly a situation you would expect of a 194-foot-long effigy mound that could be created in a summer or two if that was the actual intent.
Walter Kenyon Still Sees a Serpent!
Walter Kenyon’s excellent summary Mounds of Sacred Earth: Burial Mounds of Ontario, was published by the Royal Ontario Museum in 1986. In it, Kenyon provides a history of the sites, as well as a history of the archaeological work that went into uncovering them. Over half the report is spent on the burial mounds of southern Ontario; Rice Lake and its outlet, the Trent River, is where most of them are found, including the ones at Roach Point.
The brief booklet might be the best introduction to the specifics of the burial mounds on the north shore of Lake Ontario. [The second half of the report deals with the Rainy River area mounds.] Two decades after Johnson and his reluctance to call Mound E a serpent – without even bringing in Mound F as the Egg! – Kenyon begins with this –
Kenyon unexpectedly begins by reinforcing Boyle’s burial mound as a serpent effigy! The site sketch he chose to use in his book is Boyle’s with its exaggerated serpentine look and a slimmed-down width. The work of his ROM colleagues seems to have escaped his view.
He had started work at the ROM in 1956 just as Museum began its fieldwork on the Rice Lake Site at Roach Point. You’d think that over a thirty-year period the specific nature of the largest of the Rice Lake mounds would have come up in the staff lunchroom in the ROM basement during winters spent examining artifacts from the various mounds and middens!
More recently, J.V. Wright in his comprehensive A History Of The Native People of Canada [Volume II (1,000 BC – AD. 500)] summed up what I assume is the consensus view this way –
The Serpent Mounds site (Boyle 1897; Johnson 1968) consists of nine earth burial mounds, the most striking of which is the so-called Serpent Mound. The Serpent Mound appears to be more of a crooked linear mound that actually being intended to represent the form of a serpent….the mound represents a series of construction events that took place between AD 200 and 250. (Wright 675)
Some Sources on the “Serpent Mounds”:
The first trained archaeologist to examine the site and make public his findings was David Boyle in 1897 his report of the previous summer’s visit. Boyle was at the time perhaps Canada’s top archaeologist and had spent years focussing on the Indigenous cultures of Ontario. From 1896 to his death in 1911 he was also the director of the Ontario Provincial Museum, which morphed into the Royal Ontario Museum the following year.
Click on the cover image or on the title above to access the full report. [It is a 22 Mb pdf file.] The section covering the Serpent Mounds can be found from pages 19 to 26. See here for the entire Ontario Government Report from which I extracted the Boyle archaeological report.
I should note that before a visit to the Diamond Lake pictograph site in Temagami, I read his brief comments contained in a report about the pictographs submitted by W. Phillips, a “temporary assistant” working for Boyle and the Museum. (See here for Phillips’s report and Boyle’s comments.)
Boyle’s analysis proved to be mostly off-the-mark and showed little understanding of the purpose of pictographs in the culture of the Anishinaabe of the Canadian Shield. Instead, he proposed an interpretation that is at variance with the facts. For a more in-depth consideration, see the following post –
Boyle was one of the first to grapple with the pictograph tradition and I should probably cut him some slack!
Henry Montgomery’s report on his work on the Serpent Mound Recent Archaeological Investigations in Ontario in Transactions of the Canadian Institute Vol. IX, Part 1, June 1910 [Click on the title or the cover image to access the 3.1 Mb pdf file.]
Richard B. Johnson/Royal Ontario Museum.The Archaeology of the Serpent Mounds Site. 1968. (Click on the title to access the text.)
The Internet Archive site has a copy of the thorough and detailed examination of the Serpent Mounds sites conducted over a five-year period in the late 1950s by a Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto team led by Richard Johnson. In 2012 the ROM funded the inclusion of the digital version of the text in the Archives. The 150-page book includes at least 100 photos of stone, bone, and metal artifacts dug up, as well as of the skeletal remains of some sixty humans interred at what was essentially a burial site. Such an excavation would likely not happen in these more sensitive times.
Serpent Mounds Provincial Park Management Plan. a document released by the Ontario Government’s Ministry of Natural Resources in 1985. Click on the title to access the report. It provides some background to the history of the site and includes some useful sketches.
Walter Kenyon. Mounds of Sacred Earth: Burial Mounds of Ontario. [Click on the book cover to access a pdf copy of the book.]
Kenyon summarizes the archaeological work done by Boyle (1896), Montgomery (1909), and the Johnson team (1955-1960). The 8 Mb pdf file of the book can also be downloaded here.
J.V. Wright. A History of the Native People of Canada.
- Volume I (10,000 – 1000 B.C.)
- Volume II (1,000 B.C. – A.D. 500)
- Volume III (A.D.500 – European Contact)
A three-volume set that sifts through and synthesizes the massive amount of details from the archaeological record to unfold the history and the various cultures of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples before European contact. While it is detailed and comprehensive in its approach, Wright clearly has the non-archaeologist in mind and explains key terms and concepts clearly. While certainly not light reading, it is essential for anyone wanting to get a deeper understanding of how archaeologists have contributed to a better understanding of Canada’s Native People.
Wright took on the writing after his retirement from The Natural Museum of Canada in 1991, after thirty years of archaeological fieldwork and research for the institution. Of his summary of 12,000 years of archaeological evidence in his bid to tell the story of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, he wrote –
it is unacceptable that the 12,000 years of native human history in Canada prior to the arrival of the Europeans has been largely ignored simply because there are no pre-European written records. History based upon archaeological evidence has severe limitations but that is no reason for the record of past human behaviour to be ignored or rejected as irrelevant. (See here for the source)
Volume II‘s chapter 23 (pp. 607-702) Late Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Culture provides the necessary background and context for the site at Rice Lake.
Serpentine. Andrew King.
Andrew King provides some speculative alt-history à la History Channel for those who like some fantasy with their dates and facts. See here for what seems to be a digital copy of the above book. His WordPress site can be accessed here. It is also where I found the coloured site image I made use of above.
In the first few pages, I read this –
…right here in Ontario, just a few hundreds kilometres west of Ottawa, there is another massive ancient serpent structure, but it remains closed off to the public. It is the only one of its kind in Canada but has been studied without current technical advances in archaeological resources.
This large snake effigy on Rice Lake, south of the village of Keene in Peterborough County, was constructed thousands of years ago, yet its greater purpose remains unknown. (bold face is mine)
The brief passage raises a number of obvious objections –
- “Massive ancient serpent” is certainly hyperbole for a 60 m x 6 m mostly linear earth structure,
- “but it remains closed off to the public” without explaining that it was the choice of the First Nation to do so suggests an attempt to keep us from finding out some deeper truth about the mounds.
- more hyperbole in the statement that the archaeological work that has been done on it is somehow very dated.
- “Thousands of years ago” puts an unnecessarily distant past spin on what archaeologists agree is an Adena/Hopewell culture like the Point Peninsula culture of 1800 years ago in the eastern Lake Ontario region.
- As for its greater purpose remaining unknown, is its importance as a site where one of the four key lifecycle rituals was conducted not enough? [the others being birth, puberty, and marriage…]
Visiting The Serpent Mounds in 2021?
For a look at what the Serpent Mounds site looks like these days, this Youtube video from 2018 (the only clip I found about the site) will give you an idea. The commentary is from two guys who show a pretty fuzzy understanding of the site’s significance. Their choice of title for the video says it all! A trailer park!
As I watched it, I thought – How could Ontario Parks have thought it was okay to set up a campground and children’s play area on a burial ground? Still unclear to me is if this was the idea of the leadership at Hiawatha First Nation or of the Ontario Parks people.
The Historic Site was taken over by the Hiawatha First Nation in 1995. By 2009 it was decided to close the park to visitors. It has remained closed ever since. Perhaps private visits can be arranged via a visit to or communication with the nearby First Nation. The author of Serpentine got permission to visit the site when he was researching material for his book.
Trip Advisor Forums and Comments:
Doing a search for “Serpent Mounds” and “Serpent Mounds Park” in the Tripadvisor Forum’s Ontario section turned up nothing… not one question or recommendation or comment. Given the site has been closed for 12 years, it seems to have slipped out of any discussion of southern Ontario Indigenous historic sites.
Tripadvisor has a few comments about Serpent Mounds Park, most sad because of the closing and the deteriorating condition of the site.