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The story of ‘Burial 8’: One of Ottawa’s forgotten emerges from the mist of history

Paula McCooey, Ottawa Citizen
September 21, 2017

In the early 1800s there was a rugged thirty-something labourer who walked the dusty streets of Bytown with a tobacco pipe clenched between his teeth.

His days were long, breaking a sweat, possibly in the lumber trade or constructing the Rideau Canal. And, at times, he found himself in violent scuffles that left him with serious injury and pain.

The man, who was five foot seven inches tall, right-handed and of European descent, was raised poor, and relatively new to the Bytown area. With no dental care, he suffered a mouthful of cavities. And given labourers often went without proper medical care, like many at that time, he succumbed, it seems, to a bout of tuberculosis.

The man’s name is not known. He’s simply referred to as “Burial 8”, according to an anthropologist who studied his remains at the Canadian Museum of History over the past couple of years. He was one of the hundreds buried in Ottawa’s first cemetery, Barrack Hill, now bounded by Elgin and Metcalfe streets and Sparks and Queen streets before it was closed in 1845.

Due to a new road plan, hundreds of remains were relocated to a cemetery in Sandy Hill, but at least 79 souls were left behind, either because entire families were wiped out by disease, or their relatives could not afford to move them.

Sections of the two-acre plot of land were unceremoniously paved to make way for new streets in the growing town. Life went on, horse-drawn streetcars soon rolled through, followed by electric cars and eventually OC Transpo buses in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the light rail preparation work began on Queen Street in 2013, that the man with the pipe — and all those left behind — were discovered. While more than 3,000 bones were unearthed, Burial 8’s was the only adult skeleton discovered intact.

“His skeleton was very interesting,” said Janet Young, an anthropologist with the Canadian Museum of History, who worked with an archeological crew to exhume and analyze the human remains.

“It showed a healed knock on the head, he had a depression fracture on his frontal bone and it showed a healed broken arm bone — and the way the bone was broken indicates that it was a defensive wound, where he had his arm up to defend himself and ended up breaking the bone that was exposed. So this tells me this person had gone through some sort of interpersonal violence, which we know was not uncommon in early Bytown and fighting, well, it happened.”

He, like many of the men who were exhumed at the burial site, had worn joints and wore a gap in his teeth on one side of their jaw — a result of clenching on a kaolin tobacco pipe, day in and day out.

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