Log Cabin Chronicles



manSHERBROOKE, QC | They came at dusk back in 1967, an ambitious priest named René Lévesque and a French historian whom history has forgotten. They came in the name of social science to beg the help of a broadchested Yankee woodsman called Jim Hosking who had a knack for spotting treasures in the dirt.

The priest rolled out maps on the living room floor and proceeded to confess his puzzlement: he had searched the fields and riversides round the city and found no trace of prehistoric settlement, Indian or otherwise. Not a chip or flake of flint, nor a shard of pottery; no charred campfire relics, no bone or stone worked by human hand.

If Indians lived before white men in the basin of the Saint-Francis River, the main artery of the Eastern Townships, where was the proof?

It was a cold, clear Townships night with a big moon out. Hosking listened in earnest. When the priest finished, he spoke, ever keen on a chance to tramp outdoors: "I'll take you out right now and show you some sites," he said, getting up to put on his jacket. The visitor protested lightly, explaining that he was expected to give mass that evening. But he agreed to return when the service was over.

"He came back about nine o'clock," says Hosking with a gentle triumphant air, "and I took him out by the Capelton Bridge on the Massawippi River. There were four of us and we walked up in the dark with flashlights. I showed them all these different sites and they just couldn't believe it."

More than thirty years have passed since that fateful outing on the river between Lennoxville and North Hatley. Lévesque doffed his gowns long ago to sleuth full-time for Samuel de Champlain's bones; he's regarded today as one the deans of Canadian archeology. Jim Hosking still roams the woods and fields, drawn to the land in search of the past and the lost and the wild the way some men thirst for riches.

His kitchen is a base camp for his frequent expeditions: plastic picnic coolers sit at the ready on the floor; a closet door opens to reveal a neat row of old sneakers and gumboots. Today he has covered his small dining table with maps and papers and specimen boxes and photographs and a large magnifying loop with which he lovingly scans the objects of his passion.

Against the wall a wrecking bar, spade and metal detector lean but these belong to another branch of his searching devotions: panning for gold. A nugget the size of a golf ball hangs on his neck, booty rooted from a streambed in the nearby Stoke Mountains. Most folks grub for a living; Jim Hosking lives to grub. He is a modern hunter-gatherer.

"I tell everybody I'm a Yankee, raised with a rifle in one hand and an axe in the other. That's about true, too," he laughs. "Depression time, you know. It was a hard time, but we didn't know it. We never talked about that. Never discussed money or all that stuff. Today, that's all they talk about."

For sixty years Hosking has patiently courted the open countryside, hoarding precious bits of untold past too distant for memory to grasp. A mysterious world in which the human story unfolded on the south flank of a shrinking glacier thousands of years ago.

Orphaned by a broken marriage, he was raised from the age of three weeks by his grandmother in a house without electricity or running water in the mountains of New Jersey. A boyhood friend named Charlie Sheppard first showed Hosking how to find arrowheads on farmland by looking for traces of chipped rock. "You look on plowed land by the river because they lived by the rivers and at the confluence of rivers," he says.

And the land yielded to him. In the five decades he has lived in Quebec, 79-year-old Hosking has found 27 out of the 100 or so major archeological sites in the Townships from the Megantic Mountains in the east to Lake Memphremagog in the west, and from Ayer's Cliff in the south, north to Bromptonville. He has personally amassed a collection of more than 2,000 artifacts, including stone axes, knives, spearpoints, scraping tools, amulets and pottery that date back centuries and, in some cases, even millennia. He managed all this in his spare time, on weekends and evenings when he wasn't at work or needed at home.

"He's a very important figure," says É;ric Graillon, a professor of archeology and director of the Estrie Centre for Archeological Research who spent four months cataloguing the Hosking collection for Sherbrooke's Musée du Séminaire in 1994. "I consider him really to be a forerunner of archeology in the Townships."

During the Second World War the U.S. Army rejected Hosking as a soldier on account of his asthma, so he went to work instead for an electronics firm that supplied American military planes and ships with radios. There he learned how to electro-plate metal and it was this skill that brought him came to Canada in 1950 to head up metal-plating operations at a costume-jewelry plant in Sherbrooke.

To Hosking's delight, his new home proved an outdoorsman's paradise and he quickly learned the lay of the land, hunting for deer and fishing for trout. His Canadian father-in-law once remarked: "You've seen more of the country round here than people who've been here all their life."

Most of all, Jim Hosking was stirred by tales of Indians who hunted and trapped and fished the country long before white settlers from New England pushed north across the border in the years after the American Revolution. At the age of 39 he suffered a heart attack but heeded his doctor's advice to stay active. He hung on every scrap of local lore he could glean. He was especially intrigued by the story of a crew of road builders who in 1922 had dug up seven human skeletons in a field along the Saint-Francis River between Sherbrooke and Bromptonville. The discovery apparently failed to interest researchers, and for more than four decades, the bones had stood as the sole record of prehistoric human occupation in the area.

"Information was nil about Indians," recalls Hosking, who helped found the Sherbrooke Archeological Society. He loosed his boyish curiosity on his adopted country, starting with the Bromptonville road. "I used to go every noonhour from work. I'd take my lunch and drive like mad."

The best time to look for arrowheads is just after rain "because it washes all the stones on the ground," says Hosking. "When it's newly plowed you can't find anything. But when it's washed, it exposes these things, it'll stand out like a sore thumb." Rock chips show where hunters worked to make the tools and weapons and charms that were part of their way of life.

"As soon as you see these chipped trails you say, 'Oh boy' and then you really start looking."

In 1971 Hosking found a 2,300 year-old earthenware jar in a farmer's field in Huntingville, near Lennoxville on the Eaton River. "I knew it was an Indian site prior to this," recalls Hosking "because I would find beautiful chips of flint, always."

In one of those mysterious twists that keep archeologists busy revising the story of human occupation in North America, the jar proved to be of Mexican origin.

Many of the younger arrowheads in Hosking's collection could have belonged to Abenaki, their ancestors or their arch-rivals, the Mohawks. These people were clearly very familiar with the territory in historical times. The Sokoki, for instance, one of several semi-agricultural tribes of Abenaki living in southern New England along the Connecticut River, began to migrate north to New France in the late-1600s seeking relief from the war, disease and famine spread by English colonists.

Traveling by birch-bark canoe up the Connecticut and into the Saint-Francis River by way of Lake Memphremagog, a group of Sokoki eventually established a village at Lake Saint-Pierre on the Saint-Lawrence River in 1670. Other bands of Abenaki the Penacooks and the Mohicans began to settle in small villages in northern Vermont to trade with the French at Chambly.

Records show English-allied Mohawks attacked the Abenaki several times during the 1680s and 1690s and that they typically followed a route that would have taken raiding parties through the Townships, from Lake Champlain along the Mississquoi River to Lake Mempremagog; and from there along the Magog River to the Saint-Francis at present-day Sherbrooke and on downstream to its outlet in the Saint-Lawrence.

Hosking dug up a cache of 38 flint blocks buried nearby in the 1950s. "It was supposed to cure the stone," he says. "It was in the damp and cold of the ground and then when they went to work it, it worked better."

Hosking theorizes that Indians and their forebears had been coming to the Eaton River since time immemorial to spear salmon as they ran upstream to spawn.

"They used the big chips of flint to cut the salmon up with," he says.

The thrill Hosking felt finding a polished and ground slate spearhead at Jacques Cartier Park in Sherbrooke one gusty autumn back in 1973 remains fresh in his mind today.

"The day I found that I almost flipped my lid," he says, taking a smooth black rocket-shaped stone from its case. "I'd been out on the Magog River and I'd been there three and a half hours. It was cold and raining. I thought I was going to freeze to death.

"The wind was blowing, my feet were wet and I almost went home. I had another probably fifty yards to go. I said, 'Well that's stupid. I've come this far, I'm going to go a little bit further: something's there.' I don't know how to explain it. So anyway, I walked about ten feet and here was this thing lying in the sand in the water. And I figured it wasn't anything because it was polished and ground. I'd never seen one like that in my whole life. I picked it up and I almost died right there.

"It's 6,000 years old. Imagine," he says, "That was before the bow and arrow, the canoe or snowshoes had even been thought of yet!"

Persistence paid off again memorably in November, 1976 on a walk through corn stubble in a field beside the same river. He paused to scrape a ball of mud from the sole of his boots and as he stooped he noticed what he thought was a rusty iron bolt sticking out of the ground. He pried it out with a screwdriver, wiped it clean and suddenly realized what he was holding: a polished slate amulet in the shape of a bird. Nearly three inches tall, the so-called "popeye" amulet is thought to be 2,400 years old. Only three like it have ever been found in the province.

"It was a omen of good luck for hunting," he says, fingering the grooves at the base of the carving's neck. Hosking thinks from the grooves that the amulet was probably meant to fit on a spear-throwing device called an atlatl, a sort of wooden lever that increases the accuracy and force of a spear when launched.

Luck smiled on Hosking again in 1978 when he found another slate spearpoint. Graillon has since put at between 6,000 and 7,000 years old. He found it on a patch of farmland beside the Saint-Francis River between Sherbrooke and Bromptonville over which a modern sewage-treatment plant now sprawls.

Hosking's work has been a clarion call to professional archeologists. A team from the Universté de Montréal spent the month of August collecting artifacts at recently discovered sites around Lac de Joncs in the Megantic Mountains, east of Sherbrooke, hoping to shed new light on the origins of Quebec's early human cultures. Objects dating back 10,000 years have been documented at similar sites just across the border in Maine. Could groups of stone-age people in their skin and fur garb have entered Quebec through a tundra corridor exposed by glacial melt at the end of the last Ice Age?

Certainly that's a theory Jim Hosking likes. He's spent decades trying to imagine what life must have been like for these hunter-gatherers as they followed the big game on which they depended northward. "The Indians, who are the indigenous people, deserve much credit for things we don't give them much credit for," he says.

Arthritis in his legs gives Hosking trouble these days and he admits he can't always muster enough energy to get outdoors. But he still walks the land whenever he can. He talks of places nearby where he'd like to dig and plans to pan for gold this summer. Lately he's followed the progress of his old friend Rene Levesque on TV as he narrows the search for Champlain's tomb in Quebec City.

Much to his chagrin, the City of Sherbrooke has so far ignored his plea to erect a cairn with a bronze casting of the 6,000-year-old spearhead he found there in 1973. The city is planning to celebrate its 200th birthday next year. "I think this is so important, you can't imagine how I feel about it," he says. "And nothing gets done."

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Copyright © 2001 Dwane Wilkin/Log Cabin Chronicles/11.01