This site is near and dear to my little heart, perched on the hill west of the historic site of the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland, Newfoundland. It was one of the sites I explored during my MA thesis (see my publications for a link to the thesis, or wait a few months for the book!), and come to think of it I could very easily populate this series with all NL sites from my thesis research. Would anyone want to read that? Maybe?
Exposed to the often harsh and relentless winds of the North Atlantic ocean, anyone visiting graves in Ferryland in the 18th and 19th centuries would have had an unobstructed view of any passing ice bergs or whales!
As you’ve heard my talk about on dozens of occasions at this point, Ferryland is one of the oldest permanently occupied British settlements in North America. While the earliest burial ground dating back to the 17th century has yet to be identified on the landscape (I did my best). The second* oldest burial ground in Ferryland is likely the Old South burial ground, otherwise known as the Old Non-Denominational Burial Ground. I’ve also heard that this site was associated with a nearby Catholic church, but the site itself was established prior to organized religion, or even the presence of clergy in Newfoundland, and thus would not have been consecrated at time of establishment. The site’s oldest headstone dates to 1770, and burials likely pre-date that stone. The site was not consecrated until July 1827 by John Inglis, Bishop of Nova Scotia, as a Protestant burial ground, however the site contains the remains of Catholic people as well (Canada’s Historic Places 2009).
The burial ground is located west of the Pool, on the west side of Highway 10. Sloping steeply east towards the harbour, climbing high up the hill behind the houses along the highway. Gently bounded by a simple fence of wood posts and a single chain, the site is easy to miss. There are only a few gravestones left standing between the grass, and many more broken and buried. While you might not notice the graves as you’re driving the up the Shore, a portion of the famous East Coast Trail follows the south boundary of the burial ground up the hill, giving visitors an excellent view of the site and out across the harbour.
There are several periods of interment, and indeed the evolution of burial markers visible within this burial site. I would like to first draw your attention to the topography of the landform itself. As with much of the coastline in Ferryland, there are no trees left within the site, due to hundreds of years of fishers constructing temporary shelters, and fish flakes on the shores of the harbour. The burial site consists of several terraces, natural or otherwise, which have a gentle slope towards the ocean and were clearly truncated by the construction of the modern road, as can be seen in this image, where the fence line crosses the landform. There are not many written records about many early settlements in Newfoundland, and unfortunately archaeological laws protecting sites like this one did not exist when the road was cut through. As the landform itself continues on the other side of the road, it is very possible that some of the earliest burials were lost.
Why do I say earliest burials? Well, when we look at the site as a whole and consider the history of stone markers in British colonial settlements during the 17th – 19th centuries, we know that generally burial markers such as the stereotypical gravestones are not frequently found dating before the mid-1600s. We already know that there are two confirmed early 17th-century gravestones that were found at Ferryland in the 1990s, but they are currently an anomaly. After Sir. George Calvert left the settlement and David Kirke arrived in the 1630s, Ferryland is known to have expanded substantially outside of the original walled settlement. There is the potential for this burial ground to have been utilized in the late 17th century, or by the early 18th century.
When we look at the southeast side of the site, closest to the road, there are few gravestones and the majority of the ones present are low shaped and uninscribed markers made from local shales. Such stones are often seen in populations where people couldn’t afford a more ornate carved monument, but also in areas where trade or an economy to support gravestone carving had not yet emerged. As you move farther up the slope to the northeast, upright gravestones and ledgers are seen with 19th-century dates. There is even one grave which is still surrounded by metal rails. Dates are more recent with relative height on the hill, suggesting that the older graves are likely closer to the bottom.
Gravestones visible within vary in material from local stone to imported limestone from the British Isles and marbles from the USA. Most significantly of all, one gravestone dated to the 18th century survives within the Ferryland Museum north of the site. I have mentioned it in a previous post, and this stone in particular was carved in the Boston area in imported for a member of the Carter family, who resided in Ferryland from the mid-18th century onwards. Unfortunately the Carter stone is no longer in situ and so I cannot comment on the burial’s location on the hill.
The site has been active until the 20th century, with the most recent stone dating to 1942. This stone is the memorial to N.C. Bennet, a crew member of the sinking of the Royal Navy submarine HMS P514, and the only body recovered from the wreck. He was interred at the site with a full military ceremony (Canada’s Historic Places 2009).
I’ll leave you today with this section from the Edmund Hylton map of Ferryland from 1752. While the earliest gravestone dates to 1770, there are almost certainly earlier burials, and it is also likely that by the time this map was published that the site had been established within the community (if not even earlier…we have no evidence to rule out a late 17th-century site!). And yet, here we have a map that does not mark the site, nor does it indicate the second known 18th-century burial ground at Ferryland. Curiously, it does indicate a church (can you see the ‘d’ by the building at the narrow part of the spit?), although no known documentary or archaeological evidence for this church has yet been identified. The structure does not indicate burials around this area, and there was no church constructed at Ferryland in the early 17th century, so we know it isn’t associated with that first burial site. The non-denominational burial ground would be located somewhere on the hill, in one of the delineated plots, most likely.
Do you have any stories or information about this site? Drop a comment below!
Canada’s Historic Places
2009. South Side Burial Ground Municipal Heritage Site. Canada’s Historic Places. Available online: https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=12908