If you’ve ever undertaken a major renovation to your home, you know that an unscheduled noon call from your contractor rarely brings good news.
Often times, this means that they have discovered something unexpected and possibly expensive.
For the Sigouin family of Ottawa, the unexpected discovery proved invaluable, at least to them.
In April 2020, contractors were digging in the backyard of the family home in Ottawa’s central Glebe neighborhood while building a new patio. As the excavator prepared to backfill the ground, workers noticed the characteristic shape of a sword.
They quickly called Brad Sigouin to come take a look.
“They said, ‘We have found a sword.’ I’m going, ‘What?’ They say, ‘Yes, we think we know how to pay for your renovations,’ said Sigouin, who moved into the house in 2016 with his wife Renée and their two daughters.
The weapon’s ornate handguard was heavily corroded, and any leather that once bound the hilt had long since fallen off, leaving a spiral of wire. The scabbard had rotted in places, revealing glimpses of the steel blade below. It seemed so fragile that the Sigouin dared not try to tear it off.
The sword looked like it had been there for a century, but it was more or less intact.
“The mud kind of preserved it,” Sigouin said.
Look for answers
The digging didn’t stop there. The Sigouins now had a mystery in their hands and quickly began to dig into the provenance of the sword.
Because she had already been dug up when she was spotted, there was no way of knowing exactly how deep the sword was buried. No other object was found by his side either.
“There was no bone, there was nothing else,” said Renée Sigouin. “Thank God.”
With the help of an archaeologist friend and some online research, she first determined that the model was a 19th century British infantry sword used during the Crimean War, the Boer War, and various colonial conflicts. It was also coveted by Confederate officers during the Civil War in the 1860s.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Renée Sigouin was unable to show the sword in person to local experts, slowing the search for confirmation.
Based on photos sent by email, an expert at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec reduced it to a rifle regiment weapon with a straight thrust blade introduced in the 1890s and used in the 20th century.
Eric Fernberg, collections specialist at the Canadian War Museum, clarified the age of the sword until after 1897, when some revealing changes were made to the handguard.
The engravings on the hidden blade could help reduce the age of the sword and even the regiment of its original owner – Fernberg believes it may have belonged to an officer of the 43rd Ottawa and Carleton Rifles, later the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa – but confirming that would involve removing the scabbard, a risk Fernberg warned against taking.
“This thing is so fused together that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he told CBC News.
House first occupied in 1914
None of this explains, however, how the sword was buried in the court of the Sigouin.
Brad Sigouin believes he may have been left behind by a passing British officer in what was then the undeveloped outskirts of the capital.
“Maybe someone forgot it or it was lost or something,” he dared.
But Fernberg said he wasn’t so sure, especially as officers paid for their swords out of their own pockets.
“I can’t imagine an officer losing it. I mean, those things [were] expensive, ”he said.
Fernberg said he thought it was more likely that the sword somehow ended up on the property after the house was built – a forgotten relic that sank into the ground with a decaying addiction, maybe.
A search of the former occupants of the house dating back to the first in 1914 offers a few possibilities, including two who worked for the Department of Militia and Defense in the early 20th century.
Then there was Andrew Imlach, who owned the house at 48 Powell Ave. from 1920 until his death in 1937. Imlach was president of the Victoria Foundry in Ottawa, but there is evidence that as a young man he also served in a local militia unit.
Upon Imlach’s death, his funeral was held at home and many of Ottawa’s most prominent citizens attended. Would the sword have been buried as part of a funeral rite for a former soldier?
CBC News contacted living relatives of several former owners of the property, but none of those who responded knew anything about the mystery.
The Sigouin know they may never have all the answers, but they have the sword – and they intend to keep it.
Online research has found that despite their entrepreneur’s initial reaction, such an artifact is worth “a few thousand dollars” at best, even in perfect condition, Renée Sigouin said. Most sell for much less.
“It doesn’t really have any value. It has more sentimental value, more importance to the house than it would have as an item to sell,” she said.
With the gradual lifting of pandemic restrictions, the Sigouin are hoping to find a professional capable of cleaning up the object, although Fernberg said it was probably too far away for a full restoration.
“You can’t go back, the damage is done. It can be cleaned up a bit… but yeah, it’s hard,” he said.
Eventually, the Sigouin plan to mount the sword behind glass, possibly on old planks that were also salvaged during the renovation, and display it in their home.
At the same time, they are prepared for the slight possibility of someone showing up and making a complaint.
“It makes sense to us because it was found at the house as part of our whole experience with the renovation and everything, but obviously if it’s someone’s great-grandfather, I don’t not going to say no, you can’t have it, “said Renée Sigouin.
“I’d be okay with that, as long as they could prove it,” agreed Brad Sigouin.