Archaeologists search for lost graves at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site

Archaeologists from The University of Western Ontario and the Ontario Heritage Trust will search for unmarked graves at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ont., next week.

The site is home to two historic cemeteries belonging to the British American Institute and the Henson family. Although many tombstones are visible at the two cemeteries, their positions do not always precisely mark the location of the underlying graves.

“Historic cemeteries are notorious for having many more burials than are marked by gravestones or recorded in the cemetery records,” says Edward Eastaugh, who will lead Western’s survey team.

Dena Doroszenko, archaeologist for the Ontario Heritage Trust, which owns and operates the historic site, says, “This work will be extremely helpful. Because the Henson family cemetery is still in use today, it’s important to know the exact location of all the graves in the cemetery.”

The team will use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) equipment obtained by Neal Ferris, Lawson Chair of Canadian Archaeology at Western. This equipment is part of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Research Fund Sustainable Archaeology project.

“GPR sends radar waves into the ground that are reflected back off buried features and objects allowing archaeologists to map their position. This is extremely useful in archaeology, particularly in situations where it is important to avoid disturbing the site as much as possible,” says Ferris.

Josiah Henson (1789-1883) was born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland. He escaped to Canada in 1830 after 41 years working as a slave, and was one of the founders of a settlement and laborer’s school for other fugitive slaves in Dresden, Ont., called the Dawn Settlement in 1842. Through his leadership, the British American Institute, one of Canada’s first industrial schools, was founded. The school was intended for the advancement of fugitive slaves. Josiah Henson’s name became synonymous with the central character “Uncle Tom” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).