The unveiling of a plaque in Bayshore Park a few weeks ago marked 400 years of Francophone presence in Ontario.
It also brought to mind one of Sarnia-Lambton’s most enduring and perplexing mysteries.
In the year 1828, a fur trader named Edourd Petit had crossed the lake from Port Huron to hunt in The Pinery when he came across the ruins of an ancient building.
Shocked by the discovery, Petit paced off the structure’s dimensions and measured the fireplace, parts of which had sunk in the sand.
But what really impressed him was an oak tree growing inside the walls. Three feet thick and rising 60 feet to the first branch, Petit estimated its age at 150-plus years, placing the origin of the building in the mid-1600s.
According to the legend, Edourd Petit had stumbled across the remains of the ancient Jesuit mission of St. Francis, an outpost of the famous Ste. Marie among the Hurons, near Georgian Bay.
The evidence for a Jesuit mission in Lambton County is sketchy, at best.
Two maps of New France, as this part of North American was then known, each appear to show a settlement called St. Francois (St. Francis) near the Ausable River.
We also know two Jesuit fathers left the palisaded compound of St. Marie among the Hurons with the goal of converting members of the Neutral Confederacy, in what is now southwestern Ontario.
The Neutrals, so named because they stayed neutral between the warring Huron and Iroquois, were gifted traders with villages set in the middle of cultivated fields of corn, beans, pumpkin and tobacco.
In the winter of 1640-41, Jean de Brébeuf and Joseph Marie Chaumonot travelled inland on forest trails to visit 18 Neutral villages, giving each of them a Christian name.
Some of these missions have since been identified, but St. Francis continues to bedevil archeologists and historians. Despite the maps, nothing of a 17th century Jesuit mission has ever been found in Sarnia-Lambton.
Petit, whose account appears in the History of Middlesex, Canada, 1889, said an 84-year-old native chief told him the The Pinery house had been used by white men in the time of his great, great, great, great grandfather.
While conceivable such a building could be lost among the waves and wind-blown dune sand near Lake Huron, Petit maintained he found it on the Ausable River, inland from the lake.
The lost mission of St. Francis may forever remain a legend, but the fate of the Neutrals and Brébeuf are well documented.
Within a decade, the Iroquois had all but wiped out the Huron. And after being fastened to a stake, scalped, flayed and burned, Brébeuf was proclaimed the patron saint of Canada in 1940.