Remember This? 100 Years of discovering historic human remains in downtown Dartmouth

By David Jones

Beautiful and historic St. James United Church sits on a hill at the corner of Prince Albert Road and Portland Street in downtown Dartmouth. While the congregation dates to 1827, the current church building dates to 1871.

Adjacent to St. James on Portland Street is the Church Hall, built in 1954. The Church Manse, built in 1894, is located on Prince Albert Road, behind St. James.

The hill upon which St. James Church and associated buildings are located is a burial ground of uncertain origin, having produced human remain throughout over a century of construction-related disturbances.

Dr. John P. Martin, late town historian of Dartmouth, on pages 276-277 of his The Story of Dartmouth, states that the earliest known record of the burials in the vicinity of St. James Church “is contained in the Chronicle of July 1844. At that time Foster's 'MicMac Tobacco Manufactory' was in full operation on the lot now occupied by the Dartmouth Medical Centre. The newspaper said: 'A quantity of human bones comprising the remains of seven or eight persons were discovered last week buried in a hill in Dartmouth near the residence of William Foster, Esq. Considerable quantities of bones have been dug up on the same spot on several precious occasions. They are in an advanced state of decay, and must have been buried one or two centuries ago. . . . Whether these remains were interred then, or at a more ancient period, is a question worthy the attention of those versed in historical reminiscences.''' 

The Dartmouth Medical Centre was located across Portland Street from St. James Church.

According to pages 381-382 of The Story of Dartmouth; “In the spring of 1870 work was commenced on the building of St. James' Church situated on a commanding knoll at the junction of the Eastern Passage and Preston Roads, where there was once an old graveyard. Earth from this excavation was at first hauled to the foot of Portland Street and used as fill in the hollow near the present railway tracks. This procedure was halted when it was noticed that the debris contained numerous pieces of human bones . . . Some specimens of these bones, one of which was an adult skull, were presented to the Provincial Museum. They are now in the Museum at Halifax Citadel.”

Harry Piers, the well-known Haligonian and late curator of the Provincial Museum (precursor to the Nova Scotia Museum), collected a pre-contact 'grooved stone hammer' from the site of the St. James Church Manse in 1894. 

According to Piers, in 'Relics of the Stone Age in Nova Scotia' from the 1896 Volume 9 of “Proceedings and Transactions of the Nova Scotia Institute of Science”; “My specimen was found in July, 1894, while the  foundation was being dug for a manse, two or three rods to the northward of St. James's Presbyterian Church at Dartmouth. A great number of human skeletons have been unearthed at that spot, but after careful inquiry and personal search for anything which might serve to identify those who are there buried, I have only succeeded in obtaining this hammer and a linear-shaped piece of iron, 9.50 inches long, which I think must have been a dagger-shaped implement, or possibly a spear-point. . . . The bones were from one foot to two and a half or three feet below the surface of the ground. In one instance I succeeded in finding the remains of a nailed wooden box or rough coffin. It was almost entirely disintegrated and chiefly appeared as a dark-coloured line in the soul. The grooved-hammer was found close to one of the skulls.”

Both Harry Piers and John Martin raised the question of the ethnic origins of those interred (and subsequently disturbed) on the hill.

Piers, although acknowledging the Mi'kmaq origins of the stone hammer, was inclined to associate the human remains with crew members from the Duc d'Anville's failed 1746 French invasion fleet who sought refuge in Halifax Harbour. 

John Martin, in addition to the Duc d'Anville crew or early Dartmouth settler possibilities (St. James is located just outside the edge of the 1750s and 1780s Dartmouth town plots), also explored First Nations origins, especially considering the proximity of the hill to Mi'kmaw campsites known to him (the closest being on Pleasant Street near Erskine Street, roughly a block away from St. James Church).

“More of these bones were dug up when excavating for St. James' Church Hall in 1954. Specimens gathered at random were taken to Prof. Saunders' Dept., of Anatomy at Dalhousie University where Dr. F. W. Fyfe, the Associate Professor, made a very minute examination of the collection. His conclusions were that the specimens were portions of four separate persons. One definitely was a man five feet nine inches in height. All were over 25 years of age. The several teeth showed no evidence of caries and the enamel was of good quality. Dr. Fyfe intends to exhume more specimens (which were re-interred in 1954) of skull and tibia bones in an endeavor to ascertain whether the remains are those of Micmac Indians or of white men” (Dr. John P. Martin, The Story of Dartmouth, page 382). 

The Story of Dartmouth includes language no longer acceptable. It is not clear if Dr. Fyfe exhumed more human remains from the site.

Downtown Dartmouth has a rich human history that spans thousands of years, far earlier than the 1750 landing of 350 European settlers on the Eastern shore of Halifax Harbour. 

Given the lengthy record of the discovery of human remains on the St. James Church hill (from 1844 and potentially earlier to 1954) and the 1894 discovery of a stone hammer at the site of the Church Manse, it is highly recommended that the Nova Scotia Museum, Special Places and the Mi'kmaq be contacted ahead of any potential further ground disturbances in the area of the hill. 

Recently, ground has been disturbed in a construction project on the lot next door to the St. James Church Hall.

David Jones is an archaeologist and historian from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Thursdays at Noon, David Jones has a weekly thirty minute history segment on The Rick Howe Show, NEWS 95.7.

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