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'Discovery' of remains on former Newmarket cemetery site unearthed storm of controversy

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls the 1989 incident that raised questions about the sanctity of heritage cemeteries and burials plots  

Let’s return to a story I touched on recently, the Methodist cemetery known as God’s Acre on Garbitt Hill, now Prospect Street, at the former site of Alexander Muir school and now Chartwell Alexander Muir Retirement Residence.

I must admit the story invokes a bit of bewilderment within me as it involves, if you can remember, the 1989 “discovery” of remains in the yard of the former school during the building of the retirement home, which caused a commotion both in the local and national media.

I will tell the story chronologically and discuss how a “fact” that apparently everyone should have known prompted a huge mystery in 1989, as well as touch on the question of what should become of old cemeteries if they are unearthed in the future, which they undoubtedly will.

Let me set the stage for you. The land in question was adjacent to the original Methodist Church located on the site from approximately 1824 and named God’s Acre. Local historians and the elders of the town knew very well the providence of the cemetery.  

I remember my grandfather and Mom referring to the tiny cemetery on numerous occasions when I was a child. The number of graves was only estimated and never really confirmed, as they were all unmarked.

An article from the local newspaper, The Era, dated Aug. 4, 1882, indicates the cemetery was part of the property purchased by the Newmarket Public School Board. There is a published plea that residents make arrangements to have their relatives’ remains moved with due dignity to the new Newmarket Cemetery on Main Street North. It was believed that most of the remains had been removed, but not all.

In 1940 and again in 1952, workers had uncovered graves on the site of the Alexander Muir property while doing maintenance work.Town reports and news articles appeared at the time about the finds. It was apparent all the remains had not been removed to the Newmarket Cemetery some 50 years earlier.

In 1952, the Era published excerpts from the journal of Peter Jones, a local Indigenous preacher who documented the building of the church and establishment of the adjacent cemetery, clearly indicating the existence of the bodies and the role the local Indigenous Peoples had played in the establishment of both the burial site and church.

Hence it seems logical to assume the existence of graves on the site — knowledge available to everyone, government and public alike, so why was that fact “lost to memory” time after time?  It was out of a prevailing fear that our history was being lost that the Town of Newmarket was prompted to ask Ethel Trewhella to write her History of Newmarket, which was to become the bible of our local history.

The saga began with the discovery of a child’s skeleton by a worker during construction of the Alexander Muir Retirement Residence in July 1989. Initially, the discovery was treated as a complete surprise, the developer and town saying, “Wow, who knew?”  It became clear over the next three to four months that a lot of people did know and that those involved had been forewarned.

Elman Campbell, a member of the Newmarket Cemetery Board, revealed in an interview that the town had been advised that the cemetery was there during the planning procedure that had taken place during the early stages of the developer’s application. He said the evidence was conveniently ignored until they found the remains and were forced to act.

Guards were posted at the site and the authorities were brought in to fully investigate the find. There was a feeling of intrigue around town as to exactly what was taking place on the site, as I recall. The heritage community was concerned about whether the remains would be treated with proper dignity and I suspect that there was also a little excitement about this opportunity that had arisen to learn more about our past. There is little doubt this incident prompted several moves by local groups to seize the moment.

In August 1989, mayor Ray Twinney wrote an open letter in the local newspaper stating his view of the controversy that had arisen. He questioned the motives of those who were concerned about what was going on at the site, he did not understand what all the fuss was about. We have discovered an exciting archeological find and rather than just going ahead with the business at hand, documenting and celebrating an historical event, people seem to want to turn it into a “witch hunt,” he wrote.

The mayor went on to point out that the remains were found on private property that the owners had every right to develop as they saw fit and that all cemeteries fall under provincial jurisdiction and are not the responsibility of the town. The town’s only responsibility, according to Twinney, was to inform historical authorities of the find. He held that if there was any blame to be allotted, it would have to include the school board that he stated always knew the cemetery was there.

He did put forward a question that had been on my mind at the time, why was the discovery of the bones left to chance rather than being anticipated and a plan developed in advance by the various interested parties? It was clear Twinney saw the whole thing as much to do about nothing.

There was considerable back and forth on the issue in the Era for several months over the points the mayor had raised. Many interpreted his remarks as the town trying to shrug off its duty to preserve our heritage. Some people felt Twinney had called those who were concerned about the find “exploiters of the facts”, causing several parties to respond to his letter forcefully.

In response, the local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC), now renamed Heritage Newmarket, began to investigate the possibility of creating a master plan documenting our archeological history for future generations, during the height of the commotion.

Other communities, it was argued, had created archeological surveys to locate sites deeded of historical importance so that developers in the future would have knowledge of what lay under their land. A survey was indeed begun, and we now have some idea of where another 13 burial sites are located.

I am often asked what happened to the skeletons found there. According to a statement issued in an October 1989 edition of the Era, 90 grave sites were unearthed, 56 skeletons were found and re-interred on the building site under legislation by the cemeteries branch of the provincial government. 

In the late 1990s, I spoke with one of the men entrusted with the reburial and he indicated that the remains were placed in a vault on the property.  I have no reason to doubt his account, but I have met people over the years who have put forward their own alternative theories. 

In a statement, Dr. Ron Williamson of the Provincial Archaeological Services Branch indicated that the site would now be officially registered as a cemetery and in the future, no one would be stumbling over graves by chance.   

It was also stated a few of the skeletons had been shipped to the University of Guelph for future study where it was determined that it would be impossible to identify the remains.  A marker was placed at the site in commemoration.

A second ‘lost burial site’ was also in the news at approximately the same time when Gary Gatti brought forward the possibility of an Indigenous burial area to the town’s attention in 1986 on a piece of land where an industrial subdivision was being planned. 

It was Gatti’s belief that while the remains of the white settlers had been moved to Newmarket Cemetery, the Indigenous remains had been left behind. I will examine this story in a future article.

In looking back on this event for this article, so many questions resurfaced in my mind. How could they not know that the bodies were there since they had stumbled across them several times in the past? Did resulting excitement from the discovery result in mismanagement? It seemed clear that there was a changing view toward the sanctity of cemeteries and burials plots.  

We knew there were many more burial plots scattered around Newmarket and with the rapid expansion that we were and continue to experience, it is inevitable that we will continue to find these lost burial sites and just what will we do about them? Will we see new buildings and developments on old cemeteries in the future? How do we get out in front of these issues and prevent another incident like that of 1989 reoccurring?

Be sure to send me your comments and memories about this or any other article in my series. Be well everyone and I will see you back here next Saturday.

Sources: Articles from the Newmarket Era; Oral Histories Conducted by Richard MacLeod; Articles from the Toronto Star


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.


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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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