Dig turns up no findings

Duane Hicks

Archaeological site work at a plot of land located just east of the Fort Frances Courthouse turned up nothing of any real interest.
While on-site Thursday afternoon for the final day of the dig last week, archaeologist Holly Martelle of Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc. said the testing did not result in any findings, such as artifacts or remains.
“We’ve done testing of the property to find native artifacts and historic artifacts, and we haven’t found anything,” she said.
Martelle explained that her firm was hired by the Ontario Realty Corp. to conduct testing at the site and, as part of the provincial environmental assessment process, determine whether or not there would have to be any further archaeological considerations should the site ever be developed in the future.
“If they want to do any changes to the property down the road, and it could be next year, it could 20 years down the road, they want to make sure there are no archaeological resources on the property,” noted Martelle, adding she is not aware of any plans for future work at the site.
Martelle and her team, which has been aided by Doug Berry of Star Group International and heavy equipment operator Randy Carmody, started testing at the site at the beginning of the week, but actually started researching its background in February.
“There are criteria that we consider based on where other known sites are, what kind of factors would have encouraged early native settlements, campsites, village sites, other kinds of resource use sites . . . Things like proximity to potable water are a big one; the river’s not very far away which would mean this area might have potential for archaeological sites,” she noted.
“As well, it’s an early historic municipal settlement area, you’ve got a historically designated building on the property, and also a jail on the property, so that raises other concerns about historic features, archaeological sites, jail-related sites,” added Martelle.
While this week’s site work did not result in any findings, Martelle explained that if there had been, there would a provincial process to then go through to evaluate whether or not they would have to do additional follow-up work and evaluate its heritage significance.
“So if we found something, we might have to do excavation or testing, that kind of thing,” she said.
While some local residents who were aware of the digging speculated that Martelle and company may find the remains of criminals who were executed and buried near the courthouse in the early part of the last century, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
“In the first half of the 1900s and earlier, there was legislation that stated anyone executed in a jail was to be buried on that property. So anytime you have an early historic jail yard, there is always potential for inmates, or people who were hanged or executed in one way or another, to found on that property, which is one of the reasons why we’re doing more digging here,” said Martelle. “We never anticipated there would be any on this side of the courthouse, but we always have to make sure everything is looked after—due diligence.
“In other places, they’ve already found burial places of people who were executed and moved them, but the records are always so poor for that time period; some of them are even lost. There’s a similar situation for jailhouses all over the province. The City of London was the same way. There’s recent recovery of bodies related to the Don Jail (in Toronto). So, it’s always an extra or added concern for these kinds of properties,” she added.
Martelle noted that all the local reports she’s aware of indicate any jail-related burials which occurred may or may not be located west of the courthouse (possibly under the town hall or the municipal parking lot). It’s also possible these bodies were moved and reburied with no record.
“What we tend to do is check with all the local funeral homes, check with the cemeteries, the municipalities, check with the jail records, anybody that has any information, the provincial archives or any other local archives. But it’s not something that’s well-recorded, unless you get lucky and have newspaper articles or construction has hit those burials previously and there’s modern record of that having been moved, you just don’t know,” she said.
Martelle noted the property next to the courthouse was the only site they would be testing while here in Fort Frances.