James Russell’s quest to identify the names of those buried at the Mississauga Road Negro Burial Ground is a little closer to reality.
Early last Wednesday morning, the Toronto-based owner of film, television and New Media company Manks Productions was standing in the rain anxiously awaiting the arrival of Steve Watson on site. Watson is the proprietor of Global GPR, a Brampton company that offers ground-penetrating radar services to its clients.
Russell could barely hold back his excitement that his efforts to recognize the early members of Niagara’s Black community buried on the former church grounds could soon bear fruit.
He had just recently attended an announcement in Toronto to learn the name of the cemetery has been changed by the Ontario Heritage Trust, with a new plaque expected in the coming weeks to designate the historic space the Niagara Baptist Burial Ground. Russell wasn’t sure where the church sat on the property, but hoped to find out.
Only two headstones remain standing on the site, which dates back to the 1800s, while some historical records say there are as many as 15 burials there. A recent visit by local resident Howard Bogusat with his dowsing rods suggested there could be as many as 61 (14 in the back, 47 in the front closer to the sidewalk) possible.
“I was a little sceptical,” Russell, who walked the site with Bogusat, told The Local. “It took about two hours and it was fascinating. He had the coat hangers in straws, so he wasn’t touching them. And they moved.”
Watson and his assistant Don Johnston arrived shortly after Russell. They awaited the cessation of the steady morning rain shower before pulling their rig out of Watson’s vehicle.
Watson talked of offering his services at hundreds of cemeteries across North America.
“It’s primarily church groups who are managing cemeteries who contact me,” he said. “Sometimes it’s real estate companies when they are selling the sites, but mostly churches. In a couple of weeks we are heading to Ohio to do a pioneer cemetery.” He also does forensic work for police, he says, for developers when subdivisions are planned, for gravel pits to see how deep they are, and in the Arctic, to test the ice roads.
As Watson explained, using his equipment in a cemetery is probably the easiest part of his work, though he says radar does not actually find and confirm actual burials.
“What we look for are anomalies underground,” he told The Local. “If I find an anomaly that is roughly three to four feet wide by seven to eight feet long, chances are it’s a burial. If it’s in a cemetery, it’s pretty safe to say it’s a burial. If I’m in a field and I find an anomaly, I need to do an archaeological dig to verify what it is.”
“A cemetery will be laid out in an orderly fashion,” continued Watson. “Depending on the religion, bodies are laid out in a certain way. The Catholic and Anglican way is to bury the bodies east-west. The idea is to put the head to the east, and as the sun rises, the spirit follows the sun and then goes to the holy land.”
Watson expected the Baptist burial ground would follow the east-west layout.
Watson’s radar rig looks a bit like a fancy lawnmower, with a yellow box dragging along the lawn as he and Johnston push it. It transmits an electromagnetic wave into the ground, and the signal reflects back on changes in the electrical properties underground.
Those changes show up as wavy lines on a receiver that the pair hold up near the handles of the rig.
“In a new cemetery, we’re going to see the caskets,” Watson explained. “In one of this age we’re going to look for signs where the soil from different strata has mixed. The caskets would have decayed here. Bones absorb minerals from the ground and will have the same electric properties as the soil.”
He and Johnston laid out survey tape on each side of the cemetery. Because the cart holding the GPR equipment is 50 centimetres wide, they worked tape-to-tape in 50 centimetre swaths to cover the entire ground.
Throughout the day, curious passersby stopped to check out the proceedings, while retired Parks Canada superintendent Ron Dale dropped by with a list of 10 definite names and 14 more possible ones from the local Baptist Church records to give to Russell.
By mid-afternoon, Johnston and Watson had laid out markers to designate 14 spots where their equipment had found anomalies. Most of those markers were on the front half of the burial ground, and Watson confirmed he found no large anomalies in the back.
At about 2 p.m., Russell walked through the former cemetery with two handfuls of small Canadian flags, dropping one at each of the 14 markers left behind by Watson and Johnston.
Russell was hoping that Watson would return sometime this week to use 3-D imaging equipment to more definitively reveal where the actual graves may be.
As both Russell and Watson explained, the hard work is still to come. After Watson’s approximately three hours on site last Wednesday, he planned to take the data back to his Brampton office and run software to more closely examine the anomalies. The process could take as much as a year to come to any definite conclusions.
Russell, of course, is praying that things can happen faster than that. Though it has been closed since the pandemic began, he hopes to gain access soon to the Baptist Church of Canada archives that are currently housed in McMaster University’s Divinity College Library in Hamilton.
“There’s gotta be a map somewhere of where people were buried in this cemetery,” Russell said. “You don’t just dig a hole and drop people in.”
As a group of Parks Canada archeologists who checked out the proceedings gathered around Russell, he summed up his reasons for Wednesday’s visit.
“This is not respect,” he said of the condition of the site. “These people buried here had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. They deserve to know where their families are buried. This should have been done 100 years ago.”