Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dem bones

Less than a week ago I started transcribing the 1917 directory of the then-town of Weston, the part of Toronto in which I have resided now for more than fifty years. Proofreading the information (to the extent possible) has led me to look for some streets that are no longer there, which has led me to a remarkable photograph (of which the above is a crop). I'm prepared to believe that putting the boy in there with a shovel was done as a joke. One has to wonder what explanation was given at the time for the presence of these bones.

Glenn Turner (The Toronto Carrying Place, 2015) writes: "So, for some of its distance at least, Weston Road actually may be the Carrying Place. Archaeologist Dr. Shaun Austin believes that the stretch from Wilby Crescent ... to Rectory Road does in fact follow the route of the trail. He bases this on newspaper reports from 1911 of skulls and skeletons being found 'on an old Indian trail'. The burials were part of an ossuary (literally a boneyard, typical of Iroquoian nations like the Wendat and Onondowahgah) located on the site of today's Weston Park Baptist Church, ..." Alas, Weston Park Baptist Church (back then, Alexander Memorial Baptist Church, a small building at the back of today's church) is on the other side of Weston Road from the then-to-be-built (Presbyterian) Westminster Church School (later Westminster United Church, photo 1953; a parking lot, 1957-1970; by 1971, this high-rise), near where these bones were actually found.

An explanation for the (supposedly "men's") bones provided by Barb Shiells, a director of the Weston Historical Society: "Archaeologists advised that the bones were part of a native burial ground and likely dated back to 1425-1450. It was the aboriginal custom, when they were moving on to establish a new village, to hold a sacred ceremony to show respect for their dead. They would gather the previously buried remains and re-inter them in one large pit."

I'm largely unconvinced. For a little perspective, here's what happened on a more recent Toronto "ossuary" find. I've also dug up two newspaper accounts of the 1911 find and one follow-up. I've highlighted the skeletal remains' layout assessments (in blue) contradicted by a supposed expert's assessment (in red) just a few days later. Unbelievable!

The Toronto Daily Star: Friday, 28 April 1911, page 1

Workmen commencing excavations for the erection of the new Presbyterian Sunday school at the corner of Main and Mill streets, Weston, to-day, came upon over thirty skulls and skeletons at a depth of only two feet from the surface.

The property upon which the interesting relics were found is situated a short distance from the bank of the Humber River, on the old Indian trail running from Lake Simcoe to the place where Toronto now stands, and it is thought by those citizens of Weston who have seen the bones, that they probably indicate the results of an Indian battle fought many years ago.

At any rate, the oldest residents of the town are authority for the statement that the land upon which the shallowly interred remains were discovered, was never used as a white man's burying ground. More bones were turned up hourly as the work went on, and a large crowd of interested spectators lined the street. No decision has as yet been reached as to the disposition of the relics, but it is probable that they will be donated to various museums.

"The general impression in the town seems to be that these are the bones of Indians, thrown in a haphazard way into shallowly dug trenches over half a century ago, and probably long before that," said Rev. Dr. McGillivray, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, for which the Sunday school is being built. "People who have lived here for as long as 50 years can recollect no occurrence which would account for the burial of so many people in such a way."

The bones and skulls are all in a fair state of preservation and were first encountered about fifty feet from the bank of the river. No weapons or other articles that might have explained the matter have been found as yet.

The house which stands on the adjoining lot is 65 years old. The strange thing is that the bones, buried so near the surface, were not discovered long ago. Latterly, the land covering them had been cultivated as a household garden. The property was purchased by the church from a Mr. Hunter of Toronto.

A further examination of the bones and the ground in which they were found may serve to reveal some valuable historic information.

The Globe, Saturday, 29 April 1911, page 9

Bones and skulls comprising fourteen skeletons, possibly of Indians, were dug up by a road-scraper at Weston about 9 o'clock yesterday morning, shortly after excavation had been commenced for the foundation of a new Presbyterian Sunday school hall on the property at the corner of Mill and Main streets. A remarkable fact in connection with the accidental discovery of the skeletons is that they were only eighteen inches below the surface.

The reasons for the conclusion that the bones were those of Indians are many. The Weston road, which runs along beside the scene of the find, was, according to history, formerly an Indian trail. It is also close to the east bank of the Humber River, which in earlier days was navigable for flat-bottomed boats and canoes. An examination of the skulls themselves reveals unmistakable aboriginal anatomical features. Two years ago a skeleton with Indian beads was unearthed just off the main street of Weston, and four or five years ago the skeleton of an Indian chief was found wrapped in a blanket.

Mr. Hector Hart, contractor for the excavation work, told the Globe that while a scraper was at work on a drain being run through the property just acquired by the Presbyterian Church, he noticed some bones in the earth disturbed. The next turn of the scraper unearthed more bones and skulls, and before the ditch was finished fourteen skulls were found. That there is a big trench running parallel with the bank of the river and that the excavation cut at right angles was only a short section of it, and that there are probably scores of skeletons still uncovered, were the views of Mr. Hart and of Rev. A. H. MacGillivray, pastor of the Presbyterian Church.

The spot at which the skeletons were discovered is a few feet back of the church lot and lies in the property of Mr. A. T. Hunter of Hunter & Hunter, barristers, so that Mr. Hunter is the real owner of the aboriginal specimens, although a few curio seekers in town have carried off some of the more complete skulls.

Two splendid skulls, however, were rescued from the depredations of the innocent pillagers by Mrs. Frank Munshaw, whose husband is the tenant of the property in which the skeletons were found.

A large number of persons, mostly curious children, were gathered about the drain throughout the day, and the discovery was the topic of conversation over the entire town.

One resident told a Globe reporter the skeletons was not those of Indians, but the bones of gallant Canadians who fought in the rebellion of 1837 or the war of 1812. He said many lost their lives at Weston during the former trouble and that there were so many fatalities that, instead of burying the bodies in separate graves, the people dug a trench and threw them all in together.

"But," The Globe reporter remonstrated, "Canadians were too highly civilized then to be guilty of such barbarous practices as communal burials."

"Not by any means," retorted the Westonian. "They were not so highly civilized then as you might imagine. And there's a big pile of Canadians to-day no higher up in the ladder of civilization."

The bones and skulls are pretty well preserved and look as if their age should be measured, not by centuries, but by decades or years. An examination of the teeth in some of the jaw-bones shows them to be in a state of perfect preservation. They look sounder than a lot of the teeth being used in 1911 for purposes of mastication.

The skeletons, as an examination of their relative position before being taken from the ground showed, indicated that the bodies at the time of interment were thrown into the trench together without any orderly arrangement, and that the interment probably took place during or just subsequent to hostilities between Indian tribes.

Mr. Hart, who has studied Parkman carefully, stated the Huron Indians originally occupied the vicinity of Weston, but that later the tribes of the eastern States, who were more powerful, drove the Hurons back to Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, and that the skeltons found were probably those of the Iroquois or Mohawk Indians.

The Globe, Tuesday, 2 May 1911, page 8

Dr. Rowland B. Orr, Superintendent of the Provincial Museum, yesterday afternoon paid a visit to the scene of the unearthing of fourteen skeletons, supposed to be those of Indians, in Weston.

He told The Globe last night after his return that there was no question about their being the skeletons of Indians. The very arrangement of the bones, he says, when they were unearthed was sufficient ground for such a conclusion. He stated that the skulls were close together and that the bones forming the rest of the skeletons lay in such a manner as to form a sort of cart-wheel, with the skulls at the hub. He added that this was the customary mode of burial among the Indians centuries ago and that not only were these Indian skeletons, but they had been there for probably three hundred or more years.

Dr. Orr secured two skulls to take measurements of their various dimensions and also to preserve as curios.

Dem dry bones!

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