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Archaeology and Black Heritage at Wilberforce Settlement

For our last post of Black History Month 2021, we are highlighting an upcoming project planned by Dr. Charles Orser, with Western University Anthropology department and Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants, Inc.  The project, entitled “Landscapes of Freedom: Tangible African Canadian Heritage in Southern Ontario,” is explicitly aimed at identifying and examining Ontario’s Black heritage. 

The pilot project will focus on the Wilberforce Settlement in what is now Lucan, Ontario, Northwest of London, Ontario.  In addition to archaeological excavation, the project will use documentary research, interviews with residents, cartographic research, and other sources that may reveal information about the settlers’ daily lives.

Lucan, Ontario, from Google Maps.

The Wilberforce settlement was founded in 1829 by six free Black families who had left the United States and wanted to live in a society of their own making where they could experience greater social equality and civil rights, away from systemic oppression and violence.  A number of factors contributed to the decline of the settlement by the end of its first decade, including the difficulty of making a life in the area, changing values and concepts of freedom, and internal conflicts. By the 1840s, most settlers had dispersed, and the local area became dominated by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine of 1845-1849.  In some cases, the new settlers even directly occupied the homes left behind by the original Black occupants.

Salome (Quacum) Butler, 1806-1873, one of Wilberforce’s settlers and a major landowner along with her husband, Peter. Read more about her family history here. Image courtesy of Western University Archives.

Short and well-defined occupations are ideal of archaeological investigations of daily life.  This makes the Wilberforce colony an excellent opportunity to investigate the experiences of these early Black settlers. Also, the introduction of Irish immigrants into the area as the Black population was dispersing provides an equally excellent opportunity to compare these two communities and to observe how they interacted.

While the pilot for the project is focused on the Wilberforce settlement, longer term plans involve identifying and investigating sites of Black heritage in Middlesex, Elgin, Oxford, Kent, and Essex counties.  Community engagement is very important, and the project plans include several platforms for disseminating information about the project and its findings, and to encourage discussion and other forms of participation.  The project will provide material for honours projects, theses and dissertations, but will also engage younger public school students and community volunteers.  Work on the Landscapes of Freedom project had been planned for 2020, but like many things, plans were delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


This blog was prepared from materials shared by Dr. Charles Orser. 

Archaeological Imaging at Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a heritage site operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust.  It takes its name from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel.  The cabin once belonged to Reverend Josiah Henson, on whose life Beecher Stowe loosely based the events of her novel.  It stands on land that was once the Dawn Settlement – a self-sufficient Black community in part founded and financed by Henson that was intended to give Blacks who escaped to Canada a new life with opportunities to prosper. You can learn more on the OHT’s site.

Part of the settlement included the Henson Family cemetery, which includes a memorial stone to Josiah Henson, and which is still in use for family members. As part of its site management, the OHT wanted to investigate the possibility that there were unmarked graves on the cemetery lot.  In 2011, they approached the University of Western Ontario to come and survey the lot with the ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment acquired for the Sustainable Archaeology: Western facility. This was a follow up to a survey performed in 2008 by UWO using a different kind of geophysical imaging technique called Magnetic Gradiometry.  This survey, conducted through a partnership between the OHT and Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants (TMHC), was inconclusive, and it was hoped that the radar would prove more effective.

GPR in Use – courtesy of Ed Eastaugh, UWO Anthropology

GPR works by sending radar waves from an antenna into the ground.  These reflect off of buried objects, but also changes in the soil distribution. This can detect areas that have been disturbed – for example by digging a grave.  These reflections are captured by software, which indicates areas where the waves have reflected.  In order to cover an area, the machine is wheeled in parallel lines inside a predetermined grid. Trained operators can interpret these data and images and get a sense of what the reflections mean throughout the survey area.

Composite map of radar reflections – Red indicates probable disturbances.

In the above image, we can see the original radar image superimposed on a map of the cemetery. Below, we see the ‘translation’ of that radar image into the location of unmarked graves.  The survey uncovered upwards of 300 unmarked graves on the site, and one clear area in the north that could be used for future internments.

Graphical representation of the likely location and density of graves at the Henson Family Cemetery

Cedar Park Farm

Lisa Small is a student of Black history and heritage. She believes that they can help us identify areas of interest for archaeological investigation – in fact, this kind of background research is key to understanding and interpreting archaeological finds. Here she examines the background of Cedar Park Farm in a comic book she co-authored with Matthew Wilkinson and Daniel Wong as part of a series, The Grange, presented by Heritage Mississauga. The book takes researched Black history, presenting it in a relatable and accessible format. It is available on Heritage Mississauga’s website: https://heritagemississauga.com/comic-books/


Peel County Map, 1937

     Following the abolishment of slavery in the United States, many emancipated Blacks made northerly migrations into Canada in search of land, opportunities and a new life. Many of those who came to Canada bringing significant means with them to secure citizenship, purchase land, homes and even the freedoms of other Blacks, including family and loved ones. Some Blacks travelled by boat across the Great Lakes and some people/families landed in areas like Oakville, Bronte and Mississauga, formerly Toronto Township.

     Mississauga had a relatively small Black population. Census records indicate there were approximately 60-70 recorded Blacks that settled in the Region of Peel throughout the 19th century and consisted of a diverse demographic of freed Blacks and fugitives who were landowners, farmers, labourers, schoolteachers, barbers and servants.

The Grange, Vol. 8 – Legend of Cedar Park – click to open in a new tab

     “The Legend of Cedar Park” is Mississauga’s first illustrative comic book exploring the City’s early Black history during the 19th century. The comic features one of the best-documented early Black families in historic Peel about the story of the Ross Family and their home at Cedar Park Farm.

     In the story, you are introduced to Didamia (nee Paul) whose father Benjamin Paul had been a prominent abolitionist and minister at the Wilberforce Settlement, near Lucan, Ontario. Didamia herself had been a schoolteacher before getting married, and the couple would go on to have 11 children here in what is now Mississauga. George Woodford Ross, Didamia’s husband, had been born enslaved in Urbanna, Virginia. After being emancipated, George came to Canada in 1834, and in 1836 purchased a 200-acre farm on Concession 2, Lot 12 near the modern intersection of Burnhamthorpe Road and Cawthra Road. George built the family home circa 1836 and added bricked veneer in the 1870s.

Henry Cook then purchased the Ross home in 1919 and by circa 1975 it was demolished. Since then, much of the Ross-Cook property including the farm has been converted into residential streets and neighbourhoods. What remains today is Rayfield Park, located on part of what was the Ross’ Cedar Park Farm.

1954 aerial map of Ross Farm

     The comic also gives a glimpse into the local story of Solomon Northup, a fugitive slave who was born free, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup’s life was portrayed in the novel and film “12 Years a Slave”. According to the “Streetsville Review”, one of Mississauga’s surviving newspapers, Solomon was last reported giving a lecture in Streetsville in 1857 but was chased out by an irate crowd outside the Town Hall never to be seen again after that day.   

     While the comic mentions notable Blacks like Northup and the Ross family, there remains room for discoveries and to further unpack what does exist of early Black settler life in Peel.

– Lisa Small


Credit: Heritage Mississauga, Modern Mississauga Media, Erin Brubacher, Region of Peel Archives


For More Information:

Brubacher, Erin. “A Fugitive Past: Black History in Mississauga” for Heritage Mississauga. Heritage News, Fall 2006.

Government of Canada, 1865, 1871, 1881, 1901, 1911 census, Peel Region: York West.

Henry, Natasha L. Emancipation Day. Celebrating Freedom in Canada. Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2010.

The Streetsville Review. Proquest Historical Newspaper: The Globe and Mail (1844-2011), The Globe, August 19, 1857, page 2.

Conservation and Agents of Deterioration

In some of our recent social media posts, we have discussed the importance of safe and stable storage conditions for the artifacts in our Collections Repository. But what exactly are safe and stable storage conditions?

A cardboard box of new archaeological materials, prior to being repackaged. This style of packaging is not ideal for providing safe and stable storage conditions.

We have many types of artifacts in our repository. Predominately we have stone objects (such as grinding stones and projectile points), glass (beads), metal (copper beads, pots), bone fragments (food remains, beaver teeth, and other tools and jewelry made of animal bones), and clay pottery. All of these objects are susceptible to Agents of Deterioration.

Agents of Deterioration are forces that can harm artifacts in our collection. They include light, improper temperature and humidity, water, and pests. Our Collections Repository has been designed to help stop these problems from occurring. The temperature is moderated and the humidity is monitored in the repository. All the objects are repackaged into archival plastic bags in archival plastic boxes to help prevent water damage and keep pests out. The repository has no windows to avoid light damage. And the boxes are properly closed when not in use to protect against possible dust or pests. All of these things are done by our collections staff to ensure the artifacts are kept in the best conditions possible.

The repackaging materials volunteers and collections staff use to safely repackage artifacts for storage.

The boxes are made of polypropylene, a strong water, acid, and base resistant plastic.  Our bags are made of polyethylene, which has great flexibility in addition to these other properties. Polypropylene and polyethylene do not off-gas, a process in which plastic emits a gas that can harm the artifacts. This provides strong and durable support for the artifacts they house and help protect against water and pest damage.

Now you know what materials we use to store these artifacts and what the materials protect against, but why does it matter? Well, we hope that these conservation techniques will protect the artifacts for years to come. Conservation is an important part of archaeology and museum work in general. Ensuring objects survive for our descendants is a crucial part of the everyday work we do here at MOA.

Boxes of repackaged artifacts safely in their forever homes in the Collections Repository.

Hopefully, this blog post has taught you a little more about the work we do to ensure the safety of the artifacts in our collections. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to keep up to date with our current projects and learn more about the behind-the-scenes work here at MOA!

Written by Katie Gaskin.

African Methodist Episcopal Church of London

In 2013, Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants was contracted to manage excavations at 275 Thames Street in London after the local community rallied to prevent the destruction of this very special building.  It was the home of the city’s first Black church, and was at the heart of London’s Black community from around 1850 to 1869. 

You can read about the church on the TMHC project blog: https://tmhc.ca/fugitive-slave-chapel

Or you can view the MOALiveTalks video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XvYNQu6C0s

The project relied largely on volunteer labour from TMHC employees and interested members of the public.  Artifact processing took place, also by volunteers, at the public lab of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology. The community involvement for the project was one of the  most  significant aspects – the MOA interviewed people who were involved with the project at the time, including participants and one of the project managers, Darryl Dann, from the local branch of the Ontario Archaeological Society:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Su_gKirUbY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dW7ZKl3YMu8

All About the Repository and Contracting Storage

If you follow us on our social media platforms (Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram) you may have seen some of our recent behind the scenes posts. We’ve been taking our followers inside the Collections and Research Wing of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology (MOA) and showing them a little more about how repackaging is done, the history of the space, and its current uses.

The Collections and Research Wing.

We recently received a new delivery of artifacts and I was inspired to tell you a little more about the facility, how it works, and why it’s important. The Museum of Ontario Archaeology is home to the Collections Repository in the Collections and Research Wing. Here over 54,000 boxes of millions of archaeological items can be stored in safe and secure conditions. The collections staff at MOA works tirelessly to maintain this space so researchers, descendant communities, and others can have access to these objects. It is also important as these objects are given proper storage conditions to ensure they last over time.

You may be wondering where these artifacts come from, who they were recovered by, and how they end up here at the museum.

The recent delivery included dozens of boxes of archaeological materials.

These artifacts come from across Ontario. Our current feature exhibition, Who Cares About the Past, and our online video series, Behind the Glass, have both explained how artifacts are recovered in Ontario. Most of the archaeological work in Ontario is done by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms. CRM companies are contracted by developers to investigate sites earmarked for development. Before any construction can happen, the CRM company must survey the site and conduct an analysis to evaluate if the site needs to be excavated. To hear more about this, check out our Google Arts and Culture page or the Behind the Glass Series.

So, these objects are recovered by licensed archaeologists working for CRM companies contracted by developers all across Ontario, but how do they end up here at MOA? The short answer is we are contracted to store the objects by CRM firms!  They reach out to us about housing the objects in these safe and stable conditions and we draft a contract for them. If you are an archaeologist or from a CRM firm interested in this program, please see the collections page on our website.

Moving the boxes from the delivery van into the Collections Repository.

All the objects are packaged into safe storage conditions and labelled using a complex system that allows our collections staff to easily locate them. If you’re interested in hearing more about what safe storage conditions are, what it means, and how conservation is done—check out our posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and keep your eye out for a blog post right here.

We receive the artifacts in shipments and store them on our shelves. If specified in the contract, we repackage the artifacts to ensure that all materials entering the repository are in the safest storage conditions possible! If you are an archaeologist or someone from a CRM company who is interested in this service alongside our storage service, please let our collections manager know when reaching out to negotiate a contract.

Storing the boxes in their temporary location on the shelves until they can be repackaged.

As part of the agreement for this deposit, our collections staff will repackage the artifacts. That’s why you see the staff moving cardboard boxes in, don’t worry, soon they will be in conservation safe plastic! Interested in what repackaging looks like? Check out the time lapse video we posted on our social media!

Once the objects are repackaged, they are entered into our database. The boxes are labelled by site location or project name, recorded into our database, and placed in the appropriate area in the repository.

Now, these artifacts are available to researchers, descendant communities, and others, like you, who are interested in archaeology! Follow us on social media or check out our Google Arts and Culture pages to see more about the artifacts we house and hear their stories!

Written by Katie Gaskin