The First Cemeteries - A Boneyard for Bytown, a Columbarium for Columbia Village
Updated: Mar 23
The grave matters of a government town
FOR DECADES - to their utter horror and shock - construction workers have been turning up human bones when digging up the sidewalks & streets of downtown Ottawa and although most would be aware that thousands of secrets are buried in this town, it likely never had occurred to them - nor to the many civil servants as they walk to work every day - that bodies might actually be buried under the sidewalks as well.
Before Ottawa was even a town, a Burial Ground was created in the far corner of Nicholas Sparks's property, Lot C of Concession C, a property that pretty well covers all of downtown Ottawa today. According to Anson Gard, historian, it was a Methodist cemetery "started on Sparks Street, at rear of Parker's Lye
works - very appropriate location."
The Burial Ground itself was located just west of where the intersection of Queen and Elgin is today. It was certainly the earliest cemetery on the Ottawa side of the river, and probably created around 1826 when work on the Rideau Canal began, but it was not the place where the very first settlers of the National Capital area were committed to the ground.
On the south shore of the Ottawa River, the growth of the settlement was organic and slow, as it was at the beginning of most settlements and death intervened long before there was any real expansion of the community.
The first settler was Jehiel Collins, arriving in 1809, and he was followed by only a few others over the next fifteen years. One was John Burrows (Honey), the engineer who drew the beautifully illustrated maps of the earliest construction projects in both Wright's Town and Bytown. He arrived in 1819. Burrows also had the sorry distinction of being the man who, in 1823, sold his property to Nicholas Sparks for £95. What a disastrous choice that would be, considering that only three years later, with the construction of the Rideau Canal underway, the land would be worth at least ten times that sum. Ironically, twenty-one years later, Burrows would lease part of a town lot from Sparks for the princely sum of £200.
On the opposite, north shore, it was much earlier, in 1800, when Philemon Wright and his associates arrived and by 1826, the Columbia Falls Village (aka, Wright's Town) was well established with a store and tavern, schools, mills, and a foundry. For the settlers on the south shore, the short paddle to Wright's Town was definitely a trip to the big city.
However, things were about to disturb the wilderness of the south shore drastically in the next two years, with the Union Bridge about to span the river, the Rideau Canal project about to be started, and a new town for the workers about to be laid out by Col. By.
Workers flooded in and because of the nature of the work, deaths began to occur almost immediately. So, in rather quick order, a lonely spot in the back part of the settlement was cordoned off to be the Burial Ground. However, with Bytown's quick expansion, it wasn't 20 years later that the Burial Ground would already be known as the Old Burial Ground and it became necessary to move the cemetery's residents to the "city limits", which at that time was the western edge of the Rideau River. Not a pleasant task, I'm sure, as evidenced by the fact that not all were moved.
The first bones from the Old Burial Ground began turning up in the 1970s, and more recently, 23 skeletons were found under Queen Street while doing prep work for the LRT tunnel. Over the years, forensic anthropologists have studied these remains at the Museum Of Canadian History, and it was determined that these were men, women & children who lived during the period of the south shore's earliest settlement. The analysis showed that they had lived a pretty hard life. (click here to see the CBC News video)
The remains of some 79 people in total were found and eventually committed to the ground in a ceremony at Beechwood Cemetery in 2017 - Canada's 150th anniversary year. Prior to this, there was a formal public visitation and an ecumenical service held to honour them.
But was that Old Burial Ground the first cemetery in the National Capital area? Nope! That's because, several years before Bytown was created, the busy settlement across the river, Columbia Falls Village, would have already started using its own Burial Ground.
Wooden crosses, in quiet corners
FROM the first year when the settlers cleared their homesteads in 1800, the first burials of family members took place. Philemon Wright's census report from 1820 states that there were already 703 inhabitants living in the Township of Hull and that 23 deaths had already occurred. Only the burial plots of two men have known locations in separate cemeteries.
The first was Philemon's older brother Thomas Wright who died, sadly, just one year after arriving here, in 1801. Thomas's headstone is at Chelsea's Protestant (Old) Burial Ground, but it is unlikely that is where he was first buried, simply because, in 1801, there were no roads, there was no Chelsea, and Thomas's homestead was on the opposite side of the Gatineau River.
(NOTE - Dec. 2020: The history of this next section has been updated and the new findings have a significant impact on the history of the first burial in the first permanent settlement. To read more, click here)
The second is George Smyth, buried either in 1809 or 1828 in Notre-Dame Cemetery in Hull. The roughly-chiseled limestone marker lies right beside the graves of both my gg-grandfather, Andrew Leamy, and my parents. Its inscription can only be seen when the sun is high, or by shining a flashlight across it. It says:
Here Lies the Boddy of
son to Thomas Smyth esq.
of Elizabeth Town, DE of
Jonstown, Upr. Provence
dround at the three roks
upon the River Reado
the 6 May 1809
Aged 20 years & 6 months
From his article, The Oldest Tombstone in the Ottawa Valley? Dr. Bruce S. Elliott, historian, reads the date as 1809 for his death. That's the first story.
From Carol Martin, Chelsea historian, is the other story: The Evening Citizen (Ottawa: Saturday, August 31, 1929) contains an article on Smyth. According to this source, Andrew Leamy happened to be on the Ottawa River opposite the Rideau Falls when Smyth's body was found and decided to give it a decent burial in a quiet spot on his property. The Leamy family tradition places the date of the burial as 1828, a year after the start of work on the Rideau Canal.
My Leamy family's version of things pegs 1809 as his birthdate: While in the employ of Philemon Wright, a young man aged 19 named George Smyth drowned in the Rideau in 1828. He was the son of Major Thomas Smyth, a United Empire Loyalist of the Johnstown District of Elizabethtown Township. Major Thomas Smyth gave his name to Smyth's Falls on the Rideau River, now known as Smiths Falls. The explanation for the date of 1809 was said to be that it was Smyth's birthdate; just another oddity in an inscription with many spelling and syntax errors. No trace of a monument remains for all of the others who died during the earliest years of the settlement. Their burials must have taken place in the quiet places of the family farms. One can imagine picket fences surrounding small family plots, where wooden crosses stand amid wildflowers, now forever forgotten.
The separation of church and estate
FROM 1806 onward, there were farms and settlers between Wright's Town and what much later would be Aylmer. Philemon's second farm, the Columbia Farm, was cleared by 1811, so, the settlement's two main roads would have been in place, the Columbia Road (today, boul-St. Joseph) and the Britannia Road (later, Turnpike) (today, boul-Taché). The quiet intersection where those two dirt tracks met, was the place where the settlement's leaders chose to locate the church and its burial ground later known as St. James Episcopal (Anglican) Cemetery. So, although 1811 is the earliest time that the burial ground could have begun to receive the dead, another fact tells us that it was likely sometime after 1815.
The earliest known burial in St. James Cemetery was Mary "Polly" Wright who died of consumption in March 1821. The headstone says she was the wife of Ephraim Chamberlin (sic) who died in 1815. Is he also buried there? It seems unlikely, as the date of his death is not inscribed.
The cemetery is situated about a kilometre west of St. James Church. The original wooden church (pictured) was built very near to the village Commons. The stone church that stands today is just a few dozen metres south of where the original church stood.
Now, I'm certain you've seen how, in most small towns, the cemetery is usually right in the churchyard. So, you must be wondering why St. James Cemetery is so far from St. James Church? Of course, you are! The simple explanation can be found in the minutes of the founding meetings of the church that were held in Columbia Village. They tell us something about how the settlement evolved.
On Theodore Davis's 1802 survey of the Township of Hull, the instructions from the Crown are spelled right out on the map: One lot in seven of the Township had to be reserved for the Anglican Clergy (in black) and one lot in seven had to be reserved for the Crown (in red).
St. James Cemetery is on the Clergy Reserve seen at Lot 5 in Range 3. The minutes mention a letter dated November 8, 1820, from the Earl of Dalhousie, Governor-General of British North America, asking Philemon Wright to erect an Episcopal (Anglican) church in Wright's Town.
Bishop Mountain of Montreal put Reverend Charles Stewart in charge of the project but Stewart became ill and shortly afterward, tragedy struck the Wright family with the death of 38-year-old Philemon Jr. in November 1821. Those two events delayed the project for more than a full year. Then, in a letter dated January 17, 1823, Philemon Wright made a formal request to purchase or perpetually lease Lot 5 in Range 3 for the church. Six days later, Reverend Stewart replied that although he personally supported the proposal, it was unlikely that Bishop Mountain would approve of such a precedent. Does anyone else think it odd that the Bishop would poo-poo the idea of using a Clergy Reserve for a Church? But he did. By April 28, 1823, the village committee decided it wasn't going to wait any longer for the Clergy Reserve to be transferred. So, it was decided that the church would be built instead in the heart of Columbia Village, on a parcel of land donated by Philemon Wright & Sons. Construction began soon after. Twelve years after the Church was built, in a letter dated November 13, 1835, permission finally arrived for the reserve to become a cemetery.
... and that is why the cemetery is located so far from the church.
The Who's-Who of the earliest cemetery
(Suggestion: copy & paste this section to bring with you on a walk through the cemetery on a pleasant afternoon - or after dusk if you like talking to old ghosts!)
In the most prominent spot of the oldest part of the cemetery, graced with what were once beautiful, carved limestone steps leading up to it, is the red granite obelisk that marks the graves of Philemon and Abigail (Wyman) Wright.
Abigail died ten years before Philemon and I'd like to believe that she was buried in that spot because, at any moment, Philemon could look out the upstairs window of what he jokingly called his White House and see his beloved wife's grave.
Ruggles, their third son who outlived all of his siblings, and Ruggles's family are buried in his parents' plot, whereas, just below that enclosure are the plots of Tiberius, the second-oldest son, and his family. One step below Tiberius is Tiberius's daughter Nancy Louisa (Wright) Scott and Judge John Scott, her husband and Ottawa's first Mayor.
In the enclosure right next to Philemon's is the solitary, prominent memorial of Nicholas Sparks. Many have speculated why Sparks is buried there, musing that it must have been his wish that made it so, but there is a more plausible explanation why that became his last resting place; especially considering that most of his family are buried elsewhere.
Nicholas married Sarah "Sally" Olmstead-Wright, the widow of Philemon Wright Junior, the eldest son of Philemon Sr. and Abigail.
Philemon Junior, the heir apparent who managed P. Wright & Sons enterprises in the early settlement, died in November 1821, and he has no known grave and no marker. It's hard to imagine that his family would not have buried him in St. James Cemetery, especially considering that his sister Polly was laid to rest there earlier that same year. The likeliest answer to that mystery is that Philemon Jr. was laid to rest in the enclosure next to Philemon and Abigail's, with the expectation that Philemon Jr.'s wife Sally would also join him someday. She eventually did, of course, and so did Nicholas, her second husband.
In the belief that poor Philemon Jr. (my g-g-g-grandfather) should be remembered, I asked the descendants of Ruggles to allow a marker - by inscription or plaque - in his father's plot, and regretfully, they declined. The members of the Sparks family have been far more open to the idea, so, hopefully, I will make it happen someday.
MANY other early pioneers and luminaries of early Bytown were also laid to rest in the shady acres of St. James:
John Burrows (Honey): Although he and his daughter were both interred in St. James Cemetery, his remains were later moved to Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.
Nicholas Sparks: Wealthy landowner of what is downtown Ottawa today; philanthropist; Ottawa city councillor.
Robert Bell: Owner of the Bytown Packet, later renamed the Ottawa Citizen; founder of the Bytown-Prescott Railroad.
Lyman Perkins: The area's first blacksmith; owner of the Bytown Foundry; partner in the Blasdell-Perkins Metal works; original shareholder of the Bytown-Prescott railroad; Ottawa city councillor.
George Rochester: Bytown Mayor, miller & brewer.
George Honey Preston: Bytown Alderman.
Reuben Traveler: He purportedly was a cabin boy, or midshipman, who served with Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Thomas Brigham: Beloved and trusted son-in-law of Philemon Wright; owner of Columbia Farm in Hull; founder of Chelsea Qc.
Tiberius Wright, Ruggles Wright and numerous other members of the Wright family.