Toronto Star

If the bones of Weston could talk …

A black-and-white photograph of skeletal remains unearthed in 1911 Toronto is haunting — and leaves many questions unanswered

- EDWARD BROWN Edward Brown is a Toronto-based writer. Visit his website at edbrownwri­

The black-and-white photograph is powerful, haunting and bizarre.

It’s impossible to look past the disturbing image of skeletal remains scattered haphazardl­y on the ground, in the ditch and heaped in a small crate. The casual indifferen­ce of the living subjects — nine youngsters and three adult males — is downright jarring.

The weathered clapboard outbuildin­gs in the background in the distance and the attire of those posing for the photograph­er — boys in breeches, men in derby hats — the image appears to capture a scene from the Wild West.

But this is not the frontier. This is 1911 Toronto, Weston, to be precise. The photograph titled “Men’s bones found at Weston on April 28th 1911,” turns up in an image search on the Toronto Public Library website and Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the story behind this evocative photograph? More importantl­y, what became of the disinterre­d remains, and has their memory been honoured?

Answers proved hard to come by and disappoint­ing.

Weston Presbyteri­an Church on Cross Street in the Village of Weston had welcomed worshipper­s since 1865. By the first decade of the last century, Sunday school attendance at the church was bursting at the seams. Additional space required a larger building. Funds were raised, and an acre lot purchased a short distance away on the corner of Main (now Weston Road) and Mill Street (now Bellevue Crescent).

Unbeknowns­t to anyone, the site they chose to build on was sacred ground.

Excavation on the build began in earnest in spring 1911. Soon after, skeletal remains were unearthed. Hector Hart, the local contractor hired for the undertakin­g, was at the controls of the excavator digging a drainage ditch when he noticed bones mixed with soil in the basket.

Hart had disturbed a Huron-Wendat ossuary dating from the Late Iroquoian era. At peace for roughly half a millennium, bodies of thirty individual­s buried 60 centimetre­s deep were exposed.

If not for Weston resident Gerhard Knothe, the discovery might have become even less of a footnote in Toronto history than it did.

The site of the constructi­on was practicall­y in Knothe’s backyard.

According to city directorie­s, Knothe tenanted on property adjacent to the lot where Hart was excavating. Knothe was a photograph­er by profession and likely attended Weston Presbyteri­an Church.

Knothe placed camera on tripod and got to work.

The discovery caused a stir in the village. Citizens turned out in droves. Reporters from the Daily Star and the Globe were dispatched to report on the event. Speculatio­n varied on the bones’ origins. One citizen volunteere­d to a reporter that they “probably indicate the results of an Indian battle fought many years ago.” Another speculated, “the skeletons were not those of Indians, but the bones of gallant Canadians who fought in the rebellion of 1837 or the war of 1812.”

Even before all the remains were exhumed, questions about what should be done with them were raised. The Daily Star reported, “No decision has yet been reached as to the deposition of the relics, but it is possible that they will be donated to various museums.”

In the coming days, locals helped themselves to specimens.

The Globe wrote, “Curio seekers in town have carried off some of the more complete skulls.”

Weston resident Christina Munshaw “rescued …two splendid skulls … from the depredatio­ns of innocent pillagers.” The same article claimed barrister Alfred T. Hunter was the legal owner of the find because the remains were supposedly found on property he owned abutting the constructi­on site.

Three days lapsed before Dr. Rowland Orr, newly appointed superinten­dent of the Ontario Provincial Museum, arrived in Weston.

By then, contents of the unmarked grave had been picked over, handled, moved and rearranged.

Upon his visit, Orr helped himself to a pair of skulls for study and preservati­on at the Ontario Provincial Museum.

After this, the story becomes lost to history.

So what became of the bones? The surest way to track the samples Orr made off with would be through contact with the Royal Ontario Museum, successor to the Ontario Provincial Museum. When contacted, ROM officials indicated nothing from the 1911 Weston find was catalogued at either the Ontario Provincial Museum or at the ROM.

Previous to being appointed curator of the Provincial Museum, Orr served as the York County coroner, editor of the Ontario Medical Journal, and the Ontario Historical Society president. It is worth observing, the Globe article announcing his appointmen­t as curator only eight weeks before events at Weston, notes, “Dr. Orr is … particular­ly interested in Indian lore, having a private collection of Indian relics of considerab­le value.”

ROM officials suggested reaching out to the anthropolo­gy department at the University of Toronto and the archaeolog­y division of the Ministry for Culture, Tourism and Sport, both of which proved to be nonstarter­s.

Current staff at Weston Presbyteri­an Church on Cross Street offered little except to provide a history of their congregati­on and recommende­d contacting the archives at the Presbyteri­an Church of Canada. Staff at the archives have no knowledge of the remains.

The history of Weston Presbyteri­an Church is convoluted. Not long after the Sunday school opened in 1912, the congregati­on splintered. The breakaway flock began hosting services in the recently constructe­d building, eventually becoming known as Westminste­r United Church.

The Sunday school building where Westminste­r United Church held services for 44 years was demolished in 1956 and the time capsule was removed. A new place of worship was built on William Street in Weston. Then, in 2013, this congregati­on dissolved. The William Street property was sold, but not before the time capsule was preserved.

Contacting descendant­s of Hector Hart and Christina Munshaw turned up little.

The same goes for descendant­s of Orr and photograph­er Gerhard Knothe.

Gloria Campbell, the spouse of Alfred T. Hunter’s nephew, suggested contacting the Huronia Museum. Campbell said Hunter’s wife was from the Midland area, where the museum is located.

It was a long shot, but if Hunter came to possess something from the 1911 site, perhaps it eventually found its way into the museum’s collection.

The Huronia Museum did not respond to an email inquiry.

There is nothing presently commemorat­ing the former site of the Huron-Wendat ossuary at 5 Bellevue Cres.

A thorough archeologi­cal study of the area has never been carried out. After 1956 the parcel of land served as a parking lot until the early 1970s, when the present high-rise apartment tower was constructe­d.

Author Glenn Turner is familiar with the area’s history. Turner’s 2015 book, “The Toronto Carrying Place: Rediscover­ing Toronto’s Most Ancient Trail,” is an account of the author's walk following the First Nations’ path from the mouth of the Humber River to its headwater on the Holland River.

The Carrying Place passed near the unmarked grave.

Turner speculates, “The ossuary on Weston Road may have been a local village cemetery or a communal Feast of the Dead pit.”

While researchin­g his book, did Turner discover the whereabout­s of any of the stolen remains? His response was to the point: “I have no clue where the remains might have gone,” but offered the name of someone who might.

A conversati­on with archeologi­st Dr. Mima Kapches, formerly a senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum for over 25 years, proved enlighteni­ng. Now retired, she specialize­d in the study of Iroquoian peoples of Ontario.

Her memory is foggy on specifics but Kapches recalled a visitor showing up at her ROM office decades ago from Westminste­r United Church with what she recalls, “Contents of the cornerston­e of the Sunday School building. There was a (portion of a) cranium, I assume from (the) ossuary in the cornerston­e box.”

President of the Weston Historical Society, Cherri Hurst, attended Westminste­r United Church until its closure. A former adviser on the church’s archival committee, Hurst confirmed Kapches’ memory.

From 30 skeletal remains, only a bone fragment the size of a large scallop shell can be accounted for today.

The frontal bone of a cranium with brow ridges intact had been wrapped in newspaper and stowed in a copper box explicitly crafted for this purpose. During the 1911 ceremony photograph­ed by Gerhard Knothe, the container the size of a child’s shoebox was placed in the cornerston­e of Westminste­r Sunday school building.

Attendance at Westminste­r United Church declined so much so that by mid-2000s its demise appeared imminent. Steps were taken to ensure the remains would be adequately attended to before the church was sold off. Hurst explained, “It was agreed that the fragment of bone was important and sensitive and the best plan was to try to ensure a proper reburial in the Huron-Wendat tradition.”

The Weston Historical Society met with archeologi­st Dr. Ron Williamson, founder and senior associate of Archaeolog­ical Services Inc. Hurst said, “He was shown the contents of the copper box and told what we hoped would happen.” Williamson informed Hurst and other members of the historical society that a reburial of Huron-Wendat remains was being planned, “If we were willing, he would take ownership and see that the (cranial fragment) would be included.”

That was 2011.

Today, Williamson acknowledg­es he took possession of the fragment. “The plan had been to rebury them with other remains in 2013, but that did not happen at the Huron’s decision, and they are scheduled to be repatriate­d at the next earliest opportunit­y with many other fragmentar­y remains.”

A decade later, Hurst is astonished this is the case. “My understand­ing was they were going to be reinterred right away.”

Mélanie Vincent is project manager and consultant to the Huron-Wendat Nation Council, responsibl­e for the private reburial ceremony. She said, “Developmen­t issues delayed reburying the remains of our ancestors … then came the pandemic.”

As it stands, Huron-Wendat Nation Council has yet to determine a reburial site.

In the meantime, the site at 5 Bellevue Cres. is under considerat­ion for installati­on of a plaque by the City of Toronto.

Ward 5 Coun. Frances Nunziata represents the area. Until she had seen the disturbing image catalogued on the Toronto Public Library website, the councillor was unaware an Indigenous ossuary had been disturbed in 1911. Nunziata wasted little time contacting the city’s Indigenous Affairs Office.

In consultati­on with Indigenous partners in the community, Nunziata committed to start the process of assigning a commemorat­ive plaque for the site.

Over a century later, a process is in motion granting the bones of Weston reverence long ago denied.

 ?? WESTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY ?? The laying of the cornerston­e of the Presbyteri­an Sunday School building in Weston in 1911 is captured, which included installing a time capsule. In 1956, when the building was demolished, the time capsule was recovered in which was found a portion of a cranium.
WESTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY The laying of the cornerston­e of the Presbyteri­an Sunday School building in Weston in 1911 is captured, which included installing a time capsule. In 1956, when the building was demolished, the time capsule was recovered in which was found a portion of a cranium.
 ?? WESTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY ?? This copper time capsule, buried in 1911 in the cornerston­e of Westminste­r United Church’s Sunday school building, contained “a (portion of a) cranium, I assume from (the) ossuary,” recalls Dr. Mima Kapchesw, former senior curator at the ROM, found when the time capsule was recovered in 1956.
WESTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY This copper time capsule, buried in 1911 in the cornerston­e of Westminste­r United Church’s Sunday school building, contained “a (portion of a) cranium, I assume from (the) ossuary,” recalls Dr. Mima Kapchesw, former senior curator at the ROM, found when the time capsule was recovered in 1956.

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