N.L. cemetery may be oldest English burial ground in Canada

11 Nov 2010

Archeologists in Newfoundland have discovered a gravesite at what they believe is the oldest English cemetery in Canada — a 400-year-old burial ground used by the original settlers at the historic Conception Bay village of Cupids.

The cemetery plot was exposed last week as part of an ongoing excavation of the 17th-century settlement that marked the beginning of a permanent British presence in the future Canada.

No human remains have been unearthed at the site so far, though experts may one day conduct DNA tests and perform other analysis on bones to shed more light on the conditions endured by the intrepid colonists, who — under the authority of King James I and the direction of plantation leader John Guy — gave England its first foothold in the New World north of Virginia.

Cupids, visited last year by Prince Charles and the focus of 400th anniversary celebrations this year, was originally known as Cuper's Cove when it was established in 1610.

At the time, the Newfoundland outpost was part of a struggle in which England and France — which had founded a colony at Quebec City in 1608 under the leadership of famed explorer Samuel de Champlain — were vying for control of a potential new fishing and fur trade empire in North America.

The burial ground at Cupids has yielded other gravesites, though some already have been identified as dating from the 18th century.

But the latest find and several other gravesites located close to the remnants of structures from the original 1610 colony suggest they hold some of the oldest European remains in Canada.

"Given its location, just a short distance south of the 1610 enclosure, it seems highly likely that this is the cemetery first established by the colonists in that year," lead archeologist Bill Gilbert said in announcing the discovery of the new gravesite.

"Measuring 190 cm long and 48 cm wide at its widest point, this is one of the larger grave pits uncovered to date and suggests that more graves may await discovery in this area."

In September, Gilbert's research team at Cupids unearthed the stone remains of a cannon site believed to have been used in defending the colony from pirates and potential French rivals.

The remnants of the gun battery appeared to match references in archival records describing fortification improvements to protect Cupids from hostile forces.

A letter written on Sept. 3, 1612, by John Slany, the treasurer of the colony, explained how the upgrade of defence works would make Cupids "impregnable" against an attack "if the pirotts return" to menace settlers.

While fishing fleets from several European nations had been sailing seasonally to Newfoundland for decades to catch cod or whales before the founding of Cupids, the East Coast remained a dangerous frontier where English settlers faced not only foreign foes and pirates but also First Nations wary of European newcomers.

Last November, Prince Charles toured the archeological site at Cupids and hailed the courage of Guy and his colonists for blazing a trail for all of Britain's future New World settlers.

"The story of Cupids is the story of Canada," he said. "It is emblematic of the resilience and determination of those who came later to these shores in different times and in different circumstances."

The earliest Newfoundland graves would have been dug a few years after French colonists at St. Croix Island — an ill-fated settlement site near the mouth of the St. Croix River between Maine and New Brunswick — were forced to bury about 35 members of their party who died of scurvy during their harrowing first winter of 1604-05.

In 2003, U.S. and Canadian archeologists excavating graves at that site found the earliest known evidence of an autopsy in the New World — a skull sawed open by Champlain's barber-surgeon in an apparent attempt to understand the disease that was killing the colonists.