The SaultStream Serials … ‘A Brass Cross, and an Iron Hand’

Henri de Tonti (1649(?) -1704)

We are very pleased to introduce our second SaultStream Serial (and forthcoming UFE Tagona Press publication), ‘A Brass Cross, and an Iron Hand’. This compelling story is rooted in late 17th century New France, when what is now Sault Ste. Marie and the Algoma region became part of a fast-moving, complex geopolitical dynamic. You can find Chapter 1 in the Sault Online Serials section.

The often heard criticism that ‘Canadian history is pretty dull’ takes a serious beating here. The remarkable French explorers, missionaries, and traders who made first contact with ancient, well-established First Nations communities in the St. Mary’s River region set in motion a series of events that still resonate today.

For many years, local amateur historian Peter Hupfl has been intrigued by the ‘French Sault’ history. Peter took a long-forgotten occurrence as his starting point. In 1923, William Roach was digging out a basement for the new house he had under construction at Wellington and Spring Streets. Roach made an intriguing discovery. His shovel struck two objects buried deep in the earth – a strange iron hand that looked like a crude prosthetic device, and a brass cross, warped but plainly recognizable as a Christian crucifix.

Peter makes a straightforward case. He asserts that this former Roach property is the location of the first French trading post built on the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River. Further, the iron hand belonged to Henri de Tonti, the famed, colourful Italian mercenary working in the service of French colonial leaders LaSalle and Frontenac. As a young soldier, De Tonti had lost his left hand to a battlefield grenade.

‘A Brass Cross and an Iron Hand’ takes our readers through the history portal that Roach inadvertently opened with his 1923 Spring Street excavation, building on the excellent detective work that Peter has pursued for many years. This book is based entirely on Peter’s work, but we tell the story through different voices, and from different perspectives in each ‘Brass Cross’ installment. Helen Dow, a terrific young Toronto writer with strong Sault family roots provides an overview of the entire project in Chapter One.

Helen’s elegant, flowing narrative style will be complemented by Peter’s more matter of fact, fast paced accounts of the French adventurers who sought riches in what was a wild, fascinating, and often intimidating wilderness. I will contribute a series of stories that link ‘A Brass Cross’ to a larger Sault project being co-developed by UFE Tagona Press, Northern Stream Media, and the Tonal Group – ‘Stories from the Sault’, our multi-dimensional, multimedia indigenous peoples, Canadian, and broader North American history project.

If you might think all of this is too ambitious, and that the Sault is just not that important to justify taking history’s centre stage – I offer the following food for thought.

Just before his death in 2017, famed Canadian historian Michael Bliss (University of Toronto; Order of Canada), and I were discussing what city, or region was ‘the single best place’ for telling, and explaining Canada’s entire history. Michael gave me this unequivocal answer:

‘Bryan, I believe that the Sault is the winner …. because from its original First Nations peoples onward to today, every single important event, from European exploration, colonial settlements, natural resource extraction, railways, heavy industry, technology, immigration, war, Canadian economic cycles, Canada – First Nations treaty conflicts ad land claims, US border relations, environmental impacts, you name it! … either passed directly through the Sault, and the St. Mary’s River, or they could be easily observed from a Sault vantage point…’

As always, we shall welcome your ‘A Brass Cross and an Iron Hand’ comments. We do hope that you enjoy Chapter One. In coming weeks, as the next chapters are published, we will be exploring other dimensions of this story, including precisely how Peter Hupfl makes his French trading post location case.