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
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March 10, 2021 at 2:02 pm
Hi just wondering if there has been any work completed on potential grave site or cemetery Near Frenchman’s Cove between Chance Cove PP and Portugal Cove South. I worked on the ECT back in 1995 and came across an old Tree near Frenchmans cove that had a Cross in graves in it. No big deal except the tree look exactly like the tree in the cemetery in Mobile on the SS.
I always thought that there was a connection there with respect to a burial site or cemetery near Frenchmens cove.
March 10, 2021 at 4:46 pm
Hi Trevor, I’m not sure about any work down in that area! I haven’t done it, at least 🙂
My advice would be to contact Steve Hull at the PAO to see if there has been any archaeological investigation into that site. He would have the records if there has been.
August 31, 2022 at 8:27 pm
The earliest reference that I could find to the old South Burying Ground at Ferryland verifies that it was in use before 1749. (This cemetery was dubbed Ferryland Non-Denominational Cemetery by Don Tate, the webmaster of the Newfoundland’s Grand Banks website). The reference for the old land grant says:
“White John near Burrying (sic) Ground and path to Gays”(sic) 1749 08-Sep Ferryland Court
This was the common graveyard used for burials by all religions, even after a new Church of England Cemetery (St. Luke’s) was established on the north side of Ferryland. I’m guessing that this new cemetery was opened up sometime in the second decade of the 1800s. It was initially just known as the South Burying Ground but later referred to as Fox Hill and presently as Forge Hill Cemetery. It was associated primarily with the congregation of St. Luke’s Anglican Church, however, there is one burial plot for the captain and crew of a Danish ship that was wrecked on Ferryland Head in 1903.
At present I am part of a group who is trying to clean up this cemetery, which is severely overgrown by rose bushes, ribbon grass, blueberry shrubs , small trees , etc.
August 31, 2022 at 9:28 pm
Hi Kevin, yes that’s correct! It’s an amazing site, and we suspect that is may have been used as early as the start of the 1700s, if not earlier. Unfortunately the road cuts through part of the landform, making it difficult to tell.
Based on the documentary and archaeological evidence, we know that the Fox Hill burying ground was established in the later C18th based on surviving maps showing land division in the town.
I am co-director of Black Cat Cemetery Preservation, and will be involved with the assessment and restoration of the site.
September 2, 2022 at 11:41 am
I didn’t realize until I got your reply that you were the same person involved in the Fox Hill/Forge Hill project at Ferryland. Chris Morry and I have been try to determine when this cemetery was first used. So far the headstones that have been identified are all in the 1800s/1900s. Just this week while clearing rose bushes, etc. , I located a headstone that he and I are still trying to decipher. Chris believes that this headstone is pre-1800 – maybe 177? The surname and date are obscured and I really can’t make a call one way or the other. I have gone back over all prior documents, including the work that Dr. Gerald Pocius did in the 1970s. The only reference I found was on Stonepics, however, the surname listed there was a guess, which so far has not panned out. What documents, references, etc. indicate to you that this cemetery may be pre-1800?
December 2, 2022 at 2:06 pm
Hi Kevin, sorry I’m just getting back to you now! It is very common for burial grounds to have gravestones that are decades younger than the original site was, as early grave markers were either lost or made of something biodegradable like wood, or weren’t marked at all. We know this site is from at least the 18th century because it is depicted on C18th maps, labeled as a burial ground. Ferryland has been continuously occupied since the early 1600s so the community would have needed several burial spaces over the years to serve them.