Paul Kane: French River Rapids

Finding the “French River Rapids” Site

Paul Kane is a treasured Canadian artist and his works are considered to be among the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) most prized collections. Kane is celebrated for his artistic renderings of First Nations groups in Canada and northern portions of the United States in the 19th century, and many of his paintings and sketches are on regular rotation in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples on the main level of the museum. ROM Assistant Curator Kenneth R. Lister explains in the Summer 2013 issue of ROM Magazine (31) that Kane was a truly insightful individual, as he “held to the prevalent view that Native cultures were destined to expire due to assimilation and the expanding agenda of the Canadian government.” The artist hoped he would leave a record of (in his mind) a disappearing people and, with the support of the Hudson’s Bay Company, he travelled from Toronto to Vancouver Island and back to capture the traditions of North America’s First Nations in his works and notes.

Lister is the man behind the ROM’s newest Paul Kane exhibition, which also features the work of ASI. Several years ago, ASI was approached by Lister and asked to help excavate the exact spot where Kane, in 1846, sketched the beginnings of what would become one of his most famous oil paintings – French River Rapids. The original sketch was done just west of the Kaministiquia River Valley at a place called the “French Portage” by the fur traders and was part of the Kaministiquia River-Dog Lake fur-trade route, connecting the French River to the French Lake in what is now Quetico Provincial Park (Lister 2013:34). According to the historical research in ASI’s February 2009 full report, the French Portage was regularly used during the fur trade-era, first by the North West Company and then by the Hudson’s Bay Company, after the 1821 merger.

During a field project to discover the sites that Paul Kane sketched, Lister located the site of Kane’s French River Rapids sketch some 830 km northwest of where it was originally thought to be located. Kane’s own writings in his field journal and his published narrative, Wanderings of an Artist, led Lister to French River on the northeastern boundary of Quetico Provincial Park. The site was found to be the original landing of the eastern end of the French Portage that had been abandoned since the 1870s. Thus, the site presented an idea opportunity for excavation to corroborate Kane’s scene.

ASI’s initial test excavations revealed 3 positive test pits, which together produced three diagnostic items. One small, hand-painted ceramic fragment (pre-1850s), one white clay pipe fragment, and a rusted metal pot hook. After the site location was determined, further excavations yielded more ceramic fragments, glass trade beads and the distal end of a perfectly preserved wooden stake, which could have been a surviving piece of one of the wooden poles used to hang pots over an open fire.

The fieldwork conducted showed that the site predated 1850 and therefore was occupied, albeit briefly, in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, a number of lithics were also recovered indicating that the portage likely followed a Native route established prior to the fur-trade era. The low frequency of artifacts confirms the temporary nature of the site. The presence of glass trade beads indicate that the site was used by Indigenous peoples or voyageurs and the presence of a pot hook and stake attest to the use of the site for the purpose of cooking. These dates confirm the details illustrated in Kane’s notes, his sketches and his final painting.

The importance of the archaeological investigation of the French River Rapids site has been demonstrated by its contribution to art history, and the excavation of the site has produced physical evidence that Paul Kane’s sketch was accurate and not embellished. Kane’s sketches can confidently be thought of as historical documents, and the project demonstrates the contribution that art can also make to archaeology and cultural landscape reconstruction.

The excavation details, the actual artifacts and Kane’s sketches, notes and paintings are currently on display in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples until Spring 2014 when the public will be able to see the next big Kane exhibition by Lister – a display of Kane’s paintings and their corresponding Infared Reflectography (IRR) images to reveal the artistic thought process through his drawings and underpaintings in his studio art

The project was sponsored by Ontario Parks-Quetico and the Royal Ontario Museum. Special thanks to Kenneth Lister for his help during the research and preparation of this article.


Lister, Kenneth R.
2010 Paul Kane /the Artist/: Wilderness to Studio. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum Press (see Chapter 6).
2013 “Abandoned Landings: A Journey in Search of Paul Kane’s Inspiration.” ROM Magazine, September 2013, p. 30-35. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.