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Human remains from early 1800s to find permanent resting place at Beechwood Cemetery

September 12, 2017
Feature Stories

In 2013 and 2014, a minimum number of 79 individuals and casket materials from Bytown’s earliest cemetery, Barrack Hill, were discovered under Queen Street during O-Train Confederation Line construction. The finding tells a unique story of Bytown and its earliest residents.

Barrack Hill Cemetery was roughly located in a block bounded by Sparks, Elgin, Queen and Metcalfe Streets. Commissioned in ca. 1827 by Lieutenant-Colonel John By, Royal Engineer overseeing the construction of the Rideau Canal, primarily in response to a high death rate among Bytown residents due to outbreaks of diphtheria, malaria and other diseases, the Cemetery was the resting place for people of all levels of society, primarily of Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic religions.

Watercolour of Lowertown from the Barrack Hill near the Rideau Canal Locks and Sappers Bridge by Thomas Burrowes, 1845
Watercolour of Lowertown from the Barrack Hill near the Rideau Canal Locks and Sappers Bridge by Thomas Burrowes, 1845

As Bytown and its population grew, the cemetery was soon in the middle of the city. As reported in a letter to the editor in the Bytown Gazette in 1843, residents complained about “floating vapors” from the cemetery and the overall poor condition of the gravesite. As a result, plans were made to re-inter the human remains at the newly established Sandy Hill Cemetery, now known as the Macdonald Gardens Park.

However, as was recently discovered, not all of the individuals resting at Barrack Hill Cemetery were removed. Following the discovery, archeologists disinterred the remains and moved them to the Canadian Museum of History for analysis, in an attempt to learn more about the individuals that first inhabited Bytown.

Plan of Bytown with its limits shewing the exact situation of every street & lot, by Donald Kennedy, 1842
Plan of Bytown with its limits shewing the exact situation of every street & lot, by Donald Kennedy, 1842

The City of Ottawa, in collaboration with appointed representatives responsible for the discovered individuals, will hold a Public Visitation where 52 caskets containing the remains of the individuals, including men, women and children, will be displayed as part of Canada’s Sesquicentennial Events in 2017.

The Public Visitation will be held in the Resource Room of the Canadian Museum of History on September 24, 2017, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The visitation will allow members of the public to speak with experts about the archeological finds and research discoveries made by Paterson Group and the Canadian Museum of History, to see and learn more about the history of Barrack Hill and life in early Bytown, and most importantly, to pay their respects to these individuals before they find their permanent resting place.

The Resource Room is located on the Lower Level, Canadian Museum of History, adjacent to the Panorama Café. 

Through the generosity of Beechwood Cemetery, the National Cemetery of Canada, these early Bytown residents will finally find a permanent home. They will be reinterred at the cemetery in a private ceremony in early October.

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