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SPECIAL FEATURE: Grave Matters at Fortress Louisbourg

This summer, Cape Breton commemorates the 250th anniversary of General Jeffrey Amherst’s triumph at the second siege of Louisbourg. Less well known and less celebrated is Louisbourg’s first siege — which earned its conquerors not instant wealth and glory, but long, cold months of misery and tragedy.

History is written by the victors, so the saying goes. 

But in Cape Breton that’s not always the case. Though the British are credited as the victors of the first siege of Louisbourg in 1745, it was in fact New England militia, backed by the Royal Navy, who conquered and occupied the French fortress — and these men left scant record of their passing. 

Now Dr. Joseph Parish, a physical anthropologist at Cape Breton University in Sydney, hopes to fill in some blanks from this obscure chapter of Maritime history. He is studying human remains that promise new evidence of how these soldiers lived — and how many of them died. 

It should all have been such a sweet deal for the Yankee volunteers: having won the siege, they imagined they would return home after the battle, their boots stuffed full of louis d’or. But then the departing British ordered them into a winter of garrison duty, until regular soldiers could relieve them. Worse: once the French had been deported, Louisbourg’s new occupants found little opportunity for plunder, and even less for gathering food. 

“This was probably the first time away from home for a lot of them; it was not a happy event,” says Dr. Parish. Many were very young men; all were unprepared and ill-equipped for a lengthy stay at the fortress. 

Abandoned to the Cape Breton winter, the men quickly succumbed to the cold, damp, malnourishment, and the fever and flux (dysentery) that scourged the camps. Soon, the dead were being buried in their hundreds in anonymous, improvised graves: “The reports that we have is that they were taking them out by the cartloads, there were so many people dying per day. They went through the wringer,” says Parish.

We pick up the story in May 2006, when CBU archaeology students discover human remains while assisting in the rescue excavation of an eroding 18th-century structure at Rochefort Point, the eastern tip of the National Historic Site. Later that year, Rebecca Duggan, Senior Archaeologist at the fortress, resumes excavation with an experienced team including Joe Parish, who has been brought in to examine the arrangement and condition of the human remains. By happy coincidence, the CBU assistant professor is not only close at hand, he has just the right skill set for the job, being particularly interested in the health and living conditions of generations past: he completed his PhD dissertation on a Cape Breton scarlet fever epidemic in the late 1800s. He is also a consultant in forensic anthropology for the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service and the Cape Breton Regional Police Service, responsible for confirming discoveries of human remains.

The excavation team waste little time establishing an initial investigation of the Louisbourg site. The task is long; the field season short. By the end of a painstaking excavation spread over two years, they have discovered a total of 43 human skeletons, carefully laid out in two layers — one oriented east to west, the other north to south — and buried under large rocks, probably to keep scavengers at bay. The bodies are buried in the root cellar of a fisherman’s house that had been put to the torch by the French defenders early on in the siege, to give their artillerymen a clearer shot at the invaders.

In North America, to find human remains from the 18th century is a rarity in itself, but the Louisbourg site has what Parish calls an additional “Pompeii factor.” When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it killed an entire population going about its daily business. “It’s similar in Louisbourg in that we have 43 people who probably died within days of each other,” he says. “You go to any other burial site and you’re not going to find that: you find a constant usage over anywhere between 15 to 100 years. So we’ve got a very narrow window of people who probably all knew each other.”

Although historical records suggest that the remains belong for the most part to militiamen who succumbed during the winter of 1745–46, it is unlikely that their identities will ever be known, since no uniforms or other means of identification have been found. This could be a sign that clothing had become too precious a commodity to waste on the deceased.

“We don’t know if they are military or civilians, British or colonists, or a mixture of the two. It’s going to be really difficult to determine, because they come from the same genetic stock. There is a possibility that some of them were leftover French from the fortress who didn’t make it onto the ships home.”

A number of women and children were also included in the burial — and they present even more of a riddle: were they accompanying husbands or fathers in the militia? Parish hopes to commission chemical and DNA analyses that may answer this and many other questions. 

With the preliminary analysis of the human remains now complete, Parish and his student research assistant Brittany Ellerbrok are conducting rather more in-depth studies of the remains, paying particular attention to teeth, whose structure and chemistry may chronicle bouts of serious illness during the owners’ childhood.

But even before some of the skeletons were disinterred, they told grim truths about Louisbourg: one in situ photograph reveals the leg of an 18-year-old man with fibula and tibia cut clean through. We do not yet know the reason for the amputation (a gangrenous war wound is a possibility) but the cut was fresh when the patient died — strongly suggesting that the surgery proved unsuccessful, if not fatal. 

There may well be more improvised charnel houses scattered around Rochefort Point, but researchers are loath to search for them, preferring to leave them respectfully undisturbed. Nevertheless, Rochefort Point has already lost over 15 metres to the sea since the 18th century, and staff will likely be compelled to excavate, study and relocate more such finds in the future.

In the meantime, Parish is doing the type of research he relishes the most. These young men were not part of an epoch-defining military aristocracy; they were just the average folk of the day. “This stuff never gets recorded in history. It’s much ‘bigger’ individuals that get recorded. And so there’s this focus in anthropology to look at the regular human being, notice their everyday behaviour and how it determines all kinds of things.”

To reconstruct the events of the terrible winter of 1745–46, Louisbourg archaeologists put themselves in the shoes of those who were too cold, too hungry, and too sick to dig graves in the frozen earth. Once you get to thinking in that way, it is easy to imagine using any convenient, ready-made void to lodge the dead. And all too poignant to find yourself imagining devoted mothers back in Connecticut, New Hampshire or Massachusetts, waiting patiently for news from beyond the Gulf of Maine. Waiting through a long and bitter winter for sons who would never return.

Maybe history doesn’t get written by the common man, but the ramifications of his “everyday behaviour” can be far-reaching. Less than three years after the New Englanders’ ordeal, Britain added insult to their injury by handing Louisbourg back to the French under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The survivors were disgusted: they felt that their sacrifice had been for naught. Added to the growing list of colonial grievances, their ire would find its expression in the American Revolution.

Dr. Joseph Parish runs a five-and-a-half-week summer field school course at the Fortress of Louisbourg. He hopes to use the research opportunities offered by the site as the basis for a CBU course in forensic anthropology.
For more information contact:

Dr. Joseph Parish
Cape Breton University
1250 Grand Lake Road
Nova Scotia
Canada B1P 6L2
Tel: (902) 563-1256
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Official research site for the Fortress of Louisbourg:

[Posted on 18 Jul, 2008]
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Dr. Joseph Parish at work at the Rochefort Point dig during the summer of 2007. (Photograph: Rebecca Duggan, Parks Canada)

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