The year is 1923. The old house at 183 Spring Street has been flattened and cleared away. Simple men have but a few immediate ambitions, and William Roach is no exception. With several friends and a likely supply of Prohibition booze, Roach begins digging up the empty lot to create a basement and foundation for his new house. Suddenly, the shovels and picks slam into metal several feet below the surface. Clearing away dust and dirt, the men discover two surprising objects. One is a 5-inch crucifix, made of brass and warped to one side. The other is a life-size cast of a human hand, made of the simplest and most solid iron. They have rested deep in the ground under the city of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario for what must have been many decades.
Even a simple man can recognize when he has become part of something greater than himself. Roach has the good sense to bring these relics to the attention of the Sault Star, and its publisher James Curran, who in turn passes them off to more knowledgeable hands. The cross is sent to the Jesuit College in faraway Montreal, where its origin is traced not to the Jesuits, but to the Jansenists – a highly controversial 17th century Roman Catholic order that Jesuits regarded as heretics. Meanwhile, the iron hand is examined by Algoma Steel experts, who identify it as “sponge iron” forged from ancient ores found in the Sault area. Both hand and cross are given their fifteen minutes of fame in Curran’s Star, but without context or a claimant, they are eventually preserved in the basement of the nearby Sault museum.
Now, nearly a hundred years later, they have been dug up once again to pose their questions of Canadian history. What man would craft an iron hand? What pilgrim would bring a precious metal relic to an unholy land? When did such a land swallow these items, and how long and deep was their sleep?
To answer these questions, one must turn the clock back four centuries. Back to Canada’s first days as a French colony, slowly spreading up the St Lawrence River into a wilderness of tangled trees and glittering eyes. Back to 1665, when the thousand-strong Carignan-Salières Regiment begins its gruelling journey across the ocean to settle this new land and battle the vengeful Iroquois natives stalking and butchering French settlers. Captain Saurel’s company is one of several within the regiment, and Captain Saurel’s trusted ensign is Hugh Randin. Far from a simple man, Randin offers skills in erecting buildings, mapping terrain, and brokering peace between men.
Saurel, Randin, and the rest of their company are immediately put to work repairing fortified posts and building new ones. Forts St Louis, Richelieu, Ste Térèse, St Anne, Assumption, Rivière de Loupe, and St Jean all receive the careful attention of Ensign Randin. However, it soon becomes clear that his skills are needed elsewhere. The winter sees hundreds of French soldiers traipse into the Canadian forest, to neither be seen again nor ever see a single native. Over the centuries back in Europe, war has become a formal affair with rules of engagement. Men march across a field, stop and line up, fire their guns, and march again. In the heartland of Canada and the hearts of those who live here, only one rule is law – survive, and use the land to do it. The Iroquois are wise in the ways of wresting food, shelter, warmth, and medicine from the forest. They watch from the shadows as the French freeze, starve, sicken, and die. If they do emerge, it is often to kill and scalp the wandering survivors.
When a patrol of soldiers is attacked and captured near Fort Ste Anne in July 1666, Saurel’s company seizes their chance to act. Armed with the latest in French musketry, they venture into the wilderness, no doubt aware that stronger men have fallen before them. Halfway up the trail, their path is blocked by Jon Smits, a mixed race Mohawk – Flemish mercenary acting on behalf of the natives. Revered as a war chief (Canaqueese) by his Mohawk people, and reviled as the ‘Flemish Bastard’ by the Jesuits, Smits is a skilled and savvy intermediary. When he offers to give back the captured soldiers in exchange for certain Mohawk trade demands, Ens. Randin steps forward to negotiate. Many versions exist of their conversation that day, but the common thread has both sides parting without bloodshed to savour a modicum of peace. Randin’s effort is the first link in a chain that covers several months of burning villages and flying bullets and arrows, until a treaty is signed between the French and Iroquois in July 1667.
With the war ended and the Regiment dispersed, Randin channels his skills into more civic-minded endeavours. In 1673, he is hired by the Intendant of New France, Count Frontenac, to build yet another fort at the mouth of the Cataraqui River, the site of present-day Kingston. The local Iroquois tribe is resentful, but Randin gently persuades them to allow the construction of Fort Cataraqui, which takes a miraculously short duration of ten days. The wood is new and the post stands strong, but Randin must return three years later to renovate with stone, at which point it is rechristened Fort Frontenac. He is also dispatched down to Niagara to build a smaller post, which takes an even shorter time and impresses all.
However, a greater and more hazardous challenge lies up north at the St Mary’s River, a corner of Canada where the deepest earth is steeped in blood and soot. The land was first claimed by France in 1671, with a ceremonial wooden cross driven into the ground at the Sault Mission on the river’s south side. Commissioner Saint-Lusson acted in the name of the king, but his poor behaviour aroused ill will from the dozen tribes in attendance, aggravated by the Jesuits’ translation of his hollow words. By the following morning, the cross had been wrenched from the ground and thrown into the ceremonial bonfire, and nearby cedar-pole boundary markers soon met the same fate. When the tribes continued to skirmish three years later, Father Druillett ignored this warning of the past and offered to negotiate. He invited them into the Sault Mission to listen and speak, but the proceedings turned violent. Two dozen men were slaughtered, and the sky was painted with smoke as the Mission burned.
In 1676, a mere two years after this devastation, Hugh Randin arrives on the edge of Lake Superior, determined to heed the warning so hopelessly ignored by the Jesuits. His gentle persuasion (and profusion of peace offerings) is enough to secure trade deals and the right to build one more fort, but the Jesuits are left to rest in peace on their side of St Mary’s River. Randin’s eye is on the north side, where spying eyes will not seize on the proliferation of brandy that is pickling all of New France. Randin also continues under the wing of Count Frontenac, who eschews Jesuit beliefs in favour of Jansenism. Finally, a handful of other posts have risen around the shores of Lake Superior, and the riverside will be a useful station for trade goods racing up and down the water routes.
Randin and his company spend six long weeks paddling west to the powerful Sault rapids, where a rogue current or wayward rock could destroy a canoe. A few hundred yards of wild wood on the north riverbank are deep enough to deaden the roar of the rapids, while a nearby hidden spring provides a bounty of fresh water all year long. The only source of human traffic in the area is Whitefish Island a short distance off, where natives congregate every year to engage in trade of their own. Still, remembering the peace treaty reassures Randin’s men that this new building will not need the reinforcement of a military-style fort. They opt instead for a fortified post, just strong enough to repel the occasional thief thirsting for brandy and other goods.
There is one hungry individual who is due to visit the new post in a few years’ time, but his appetite tends toward money and adventure. Henri de Tonti is a young Italian mercenary who has clawed his way up through the French military, unimpeded by the loss of one hand in a battlefield blast. The Frenchmen have heard many things about this Iron Hand – that he has travelled down all the rivers of the New World and back again, that his glove hides a hook forged of silver and copper, that the last thing many opponents have seen is this hook bearing down on their heads. Metal is not infallible, though, and does not survive several months’ travel through the American wilderness. A practical man, Tonti would wish to carry spare prosthetics, and the Frenchmen are ready to point him across the river, where a lonely forge is all that remains of the poor Jesuit mission.
As the years pass into centuries, more people travel back and forth across the Sault region, but several things remain. A crucifix warped by heat lies lost and forgotten in a smouldering mission. An iron hand is left behind by its owner, who sleeps forever in a swamp hundreds of miles to the south. And the hidden spring is gradually depleted and abandoned, not long before an eponymous street is built overhead and a simple man clears away a simple house…