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Back Roads Bill takes us to the oldest graves in Ontario

This week we wander among the silent markers of people long gone in Northern Ontario with Back Roads Bill

“Ontario” comes from the Ongweh'onweh, (Iroquois confederacy) meaning "original people" - the word “kanadario”, translating to “sparkling” water. Traditional, territorial lands, often based on watersheds have been inhabited for thousands of Indigenous communities and have spiritual customs and beliefs for entering the afterlife.

In the early 20th century, Northern Ontario was often called "New Ontario" although that name has fallen into disuse because of its colonial connotations. It represented that vast landscape in the early days of “settlement.” The north has nine cities: Greater Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Kenora, Elliot Lake, Timmins, Temiskaming Shores and Dryden. All in essence have community histories of less than approximately 150 years. Most are connected to the evolution of the transcontinental railways – which spurred settlement - mining and forestry.

But earlier there was the first interactions between Indigenous peoples and explorers and then settlers via the fur trade. This created outposts of the Hudson Bay and Northwest fur trading companies.

Then came the Industrial Revolution and the search for surficial minerals, like copper, which began along the shores of the upper Great Lakes. Small settlements evolved. It was during these times the first European immigrants arrived and died. So far, the oldest markers found on the landscape stem from this history.

Settlement Graves

A gravestone is defined as any stone marker that is used to identify and commemorate the burial site of an individual or individuals. These stones are also sometimes referred to as headstones, tombstones, or markers.

The Michipicoten fur trading outpost has a history spanning 1725 to 1904. Michipicoten (Wawa – shore of Lake Superior) was the ideal location for a post to trade with local Ojibway as well as a rest and re-supply stop for traders and adventurers travelling across North America.

Its location was ideal, it was a mere three-day trip by canoe from Sault Ste. Marie; four days more to Fort William (Thunder Bay) on the west shore of Superior; and 16 days up the mighty Michipicoten, Missinaibi and Moose Rivers to Moose Factory on James Bay.

Independent traders, like Alexander Henry, set up headquarters at Michipicoten between 1767 and 1783. It was in this year that the newly created Northwest Company took over the Michipicoten Post and thus began an aggressive rivalry with its competitor, the Hudson's Bay Company; the two companies merged in 1821. This post at the mouth of the Michipicoten River was the administration and supply for the entire Lake Superior District of the HBC.

There is a commemorative plot on the way to Sandy Beach on the shoreline of Lake Superior called the Mackenzie-Bethune Cemetery.

Johanna Rowe has authored many local history books in the Wawa area.

“Louisa Mackenzie (on the headstone) is at the top of my list for people I want to chat with when that time-machine finally gets invented! I have not confirmed this but I feel like it is certainly a contender as one of the oldest headstones in northern Ontario. You would be the expert on that with all your wanderings to fascinating places over the years.”

“I talk about Louisa in my book Wawa's Heritage Doors - Portals to our Past. The cemetery was vandalized in the '80s but municipal employees managed to put all the pieces back together and now lies within a frame near the original gravesite.”

Johanna has spearheaded a submission to the National Historic Sites and Monuments Branch and a request for Heritage Designation of the Cemetery under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Learn more about the history and culture of the area through the Wawa Heritage Doors, portals to Wawa's past that share the stories of colourful characters woven into the fabric of the community's history. It is one of the best signage projects anywhere.

One of the points of interest in this cemetery is a resting place for frontier settlers, including Louisa Mackenzie - great-grandmother of Dr. Norman Bethune and cousin of explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie as well as some well-known surnames within Canadian history.

Louisa is the daughter of Roderick Mackenzie and a Chipewyan woman. Roderick was the first cousin of the explorer Alexander Mackenzie, the first European to cross North America. Louisa was the wife of Angus Bethune, factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company at the Michipicoten Post. Their son Norman Bethune founded the Upper Canada College of Medicine in Toronto. Their grandson Dr. Henry Norman Bethune is a national hero in China.

On this headstone, it states: Sacred to the Memory of Louisa MacKenzie, Wife of Angus Bethune, who departed this life, on the 20th April 1833, Aged 40 Years.

This makes it, most likely, one of the oldest remaining headstones in northern Ontario.

Silver Islet

Another old headstone is located at Silver Islet, east of Thunder Bay, on the Sibley Peninsula within Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. It is worth a visit. At one time home to the world’s largest and most valuable silver mine, the small town was a bustling hub of industry in the mid-1870s.

The mine was built on a spit of land in the waters of Lake Superior and the risk of flooding was a constant threat. The mine finally flooded in 1884.

The cemetery was opened from 1870 - 1885 and has 79 graves according to a reference at the Thunder Bay Public Library. One of the oldest is: “McLean, Ketty Ann Died Feb 10, 1872. Age 10 days.” Propped up on its side against a tree the rectangle stone has the initials K. A. M. Most of the markers here are hard to discern as the foliage is creeping in and the once-picket fences have long since collapsed. There is a commemorative plaque indicating people once looked after the plots. There are no signs directing visitors to the cemetery, so ask or look at the map.

Scott Cheadle is with the Silver Islet Campers Association (SICA).

“The cemetery is actually within the boundaries of the provincial park so is outside the jurisdiction of the Silver Islet Campers Association," he said. "We were incorporated in 1968 but were an active community organization for decades before that and I am happy to say that our membership includes the vast majority of property owners at Silver Islet.

"We are not, however, the local government, Silver Islet is an unorganized municipality, so while SICA has acted as an advocate on behalf of campers' interests we have no authority beyond the limits of our Association property.

"The cemetery does deserve some consideration from the Province as it is slowly being reabsorbed by the surrounding forest. Apart from the few remaining headstones, the old grave sites typically had picket fences surrounding them but almost all are now collapsed and disappearing which seems a shame.

"However, any development or alterations would need to be undertaken by the Park and would need to be handled with appropriate delicacy and respect.”

New Post Falls

Another HBC outpost is New Post Falls on the Abitibi River.

The almost abandoned graveyard at the former Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) outpost is situated in a wilderness setting but it wasn’t always this way. Through the tall grass and dense new growth, there it is – a cemetery holding clues to the past.

Unlike much of the land in Northeastern Ontario, someone once lived here and planted these things. You walk through the clearing of what was a small HBC trading post and an Indigenous community, the meandering trail leads you to the cemetery.

Overgrown all around the border, it has seen maintenance and there is a drooping chain between more contemporary posts that are starting to teeter. It is a cemetery not forgotten, particularly by one family.

The New Post site was operational from 1857 until 1924, halfway between Moose Factory and Abitibi Lake.

There are a number of compelling headstones and unmarked graves at the New Post site, but there is one – and only one iron fence and iron marker at the site; it is a headstone with the following: “Sacred to the memory of Alexander McLeod - a native of Caithness Scotland - who died at New Post Hudson’s Bay – 3rd September 1885 –aged 60 years- and Jane Turnor – his wife – who this life at New Post Hudson’s Bay – 19th January 1886 – aged 50 years – blessed by the name of the Lord – erected by their surviving children – who deeply deplore their loss.”

There is more to the site in this story.

Because of the extensive fur trading network, there may be older headstones at the commemorative Moose Factory HBC Cemetery. There was a continuously operating fort there since the mid-1600s; therefore, this may be the oldest cemetery in the north. I have been there but did not record the oldest marker.

Bruce Mines

For this final reference, you will have to go inside the Bruce Mines & District Museum, located east of Sault Ste. Marie.

Bruce Mines was one of the first operating mines on the Great Lakes. Copper deposits at Bruce Mines came to the attention of non-native settlers in 1846, and mining began that year. The area was named after James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin Governor General of Canada appointed in 1846. In and around 1876 the mines were closed due to floods, cave-ins, and declining profits, leading to a shift to agricultural development in the area.

Sylvia Stobie is a member of the Bruce Mines Historical Society and presently works with others establishing the archive's digitized data base.

“As to a connection with Bruce Mines, the lure of copper brought my family to this area. My great-grandfather was 'Miner Jim' Stobie who had several mining claims from Wawa to Sudbury.

“When mining slowed at Bruce, the Cornish miners moved on to where the work was - some to the Silver Islet mine and some to Michigan. There are stories where some remained and took up land grants. One story recorded is of those early farmers (once miners) who sent potatoes from nearby Rydal Bank to the mining camp at Silver Islet.”

There is an older grave marker from 1850 that has been saved and is the first artifact of the Bruce Mines & District Museum - as recorded below on the information card It is dated October 6th, 1850 and March 20th, 1851 to represent two victims of the cholera epidemic that struck Bruce Mines in 1849. She said it is made from pine, and the letters are raised instead of carved.

“In the 1950’s, the new water and sewage system had called for the demolition of the Taylor Street cemetery, causing this tombstone and many others to be left in the ditches.

“In 1958, Reuben Beilhartz and Arthur Henderson, both former curators, decided that it would be fitting for this unique tombstone to be their first artifact of the Bruce Mines Museum instead of being left in the ditch to rot.”

The grave marker reads: In Memory of Cathy Osborne - Who Died - October 5th, 1850 - Aged 65 years - Celia Trelease - Who Died - March 20, 1851 - Aged 5 Months - “Weep not for me my children dear which do beset me round for in the grave I now must lie until the trumpet sound.”

There are many older cemeteries in communities throughout the north, interesting and abandoned ones too.

Aging headstones may very well deserve tender loving care with some level of protection. Visiting old cemeteries and learning about the lives of people there is one of those unique activities on the back roads; see the map.