Searching for lost souls: Eastaugh unearths history of Henson family cemetery

Staring at what looks like an abstract painting, Ed Eastaugh excitedly points to red rectangles illuminating from a blue background. The flashes of red reveal eight gravesites hidden six feet or more below the surface.

“If this is any indication, there could be 300 burials,” Eastaugh says.

Flashes of red on ground penetrating radar reveal gravesites hidden six feet or more below the surface at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ont. Eastaugh and his team walk in a 10-by-10 metre grid, below, strapped to a computer-like device and pull a piece of equipment resembling a car-door opener attached to a bicycle tire.

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An anthropology lab manager at The University of Western Ontario, Eastaugh led a survey team of archeologists from Western and the Ontario Heritage Trust to find unmarked graves at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ont. The survey team’s first expedition was in August; they will return this fall to complete the mapping.

Born into slavery in Charles County, Md., Josiah Henson (1789-1883) escaped to Canada in 1830 after 41 years working as a slave. He was one of the founders of the Dawn Settlement and the British American Institute, a labourer’s school for other fugitive slaves, at Dresden. Henson’s name became synonymous with the central character ‘Uncle Tom’ in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

The Henson family cemetery located at the historic site is currently still used for interment of descendants. While 20 tombstones are visible, including the marker for Henson, whose life and homestead is the focal point of the site, many have sunken into the ground and some graves were never marked.

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In order to put questions to rest about the cemetery, Eastaugh used the recently acquired ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment, obtained by Neal Ferris, Lawson Chair of Canadian Archeology at Western. This non-invasive equipment is part of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Research Fund Sustainable Archaeology project.

“We were interested in establishing the degree to which they will pick up the graves,” Eastaugh says. “We are not trying to see the coffin, but the cut and backfill of the hole; it will never be the same.

“This is the perfect situation where we could test the utility of these types of instruments.”

Eastaugh walks in a 10-by-10 metre grid, strapped to a computer-like device and pulls a piece of equipment resembling a car-door opener attached to a bicycle tire. The benefit of using the GPR, rather than probing the ground for burial sites, means the historic cemetery and the graves remain undisturbed.

The survey revealed what many already suspected – there are many more graves than tombstones. For example, in a single grid at least 12 graves appeared in red on a computer screen – the same area only has four marked burials. Eastaugh thinks there might be between 200-300 graves in the cemetery.

Barb Carter knows where her parents and three siblings are buried in the family cemetery. But many of the graves, including one marked “Mother” and many more without tombstones, remain a mystery.

Carter is the great-great-granddaughter of Henson and until recent years was involved in the management of the historic site.

“I am keenly interested in the results,” Carter says. “Working at the cabin for almost 20 years and the amount of questions I would get about my genealogy, which I could not fill in, those are the reasons why I gave them permission to go ahead and do that radar.”

Carter hopes the survey will fill in gaps of her family history, which can be passed along to future generations.

While she always knew there were more graves in the cemetery than headstones based on information shared amongst the family, when she heard about the preliminary survey results she was surprised and excited.

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“I am waiting with anticipation for the results and the findings,” she says. “The cemetery was left in disarray for quite a while, nothing done to it, and any little markers that ever were there were long gone.

“This helps to make the history a little more accurate and in telling what the settlement was and how many people actually were in the vicinity of Henson setting up the institute,” she adds.

This is not the first time Eastaugh has been searching for lost graves at Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 2008, he conducted two close interval magnetic gradiometer surveys on the Henson and British American Institute cemeteries, with the help of Western graduate students and Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants. While the magnometer was able to locate some hidden anomalies, the results were ambiguous.

Dena Doroszenko, archaeologist for the Ontario Heritage Trust, which owns and operates the historic site, says the survey will provide clarity to the previous survey.

“Now we know the readings were ambiguous because there were so many people buried here,” she says. “It furthers the information that is directly related to Josiah Henson’s descendants.

“There are more burials here than people knew or assumed,” she adds, noting family genealogy research hopefully will determine who is interred in the cemetery. “We don’t want to disturb them and we want to make sure they are not disturbed in the future.”

Overall, the goal is to produce a map of where family members are buried, which could be displayed at the site’s visitor’s centre.

“What I hope to get out of this is to fill in the gaps and get a firmer grasp on how extensive it was used,” says site manager Steven Cook. “My hope is Henson’s descendants will hear of this and get involved in the genealogy. Who knows who could be here?”

Last month, Eastaugh returned to Chatham-Kent to conduct a ground penetrating radar survey at Tecumseh Park in Chatham to locate the graves of four soldiers from the War of 1812 believed to be buried in the park.