Historicist: The Tabor Hill Ossuary
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Historicist: The Tabor Hill Ossuary

The bones of 500 First Nations people are found in a centuries-old Scarborough burial pit.

Discovery of the bones at Tabor Hill. Toronto Telegram, August 18, 1956.

On August 17, 1956, while levelling land to make way for a new subdivision, a power shovel ripped into the side of Tabor Hill, northeast of the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Bellamy Road. According to the next day’s Globe and Mail, “about 100 feet of earth were sliced from the hill before the shovel gouged out a pocket about four feet below the surface. The hole, about seven feet wide and one foot deep, was crammed with bones.” The shovel had uncovered a centuries-old burial pit, one of the earliest ossuary sites in Ontario.

It was immediately apparent that the site contained bones from many burials; initial reports suggested there were at least 50. Gus Harris, then the reeve of Scarborough Township, initially dismissed suggestions that the site might be a First Nations burial ground on the basis that no corresponding artifacts were present. One theory he suggested to the press was that the bones belonged to victims of a late 19th-century cholera epidemic. The Star printed a further theory of Harris’s: that the site at Tabor Hill “might be a disposal spot for some medical school, where they could put human remains after students were through with using them in the laboratories.”

“We should have charged admission,” one workman told reporters as Scarborough residents were crowding the site to see the unexpected discovery. Local children reportedly began digging in the surrounding area, finding additional bones buried only a few inches below the surface.

The next day, archaeological experts visited the site and identified it as a First Nations burial pit, likely several centuries old. James Lovekin, a graduate student and history teacher at R. H. King Collegiate Institute, told the Globe and Mail that he thought it was an Iroquois site from the 17th or 18th century, and suggested it was likely linked to a specific ceremony, wherein “bodies were allowed to decompose for seven years on platforms, scraped clean, and then buried during a Feast of the Dead ritual.”

Scarborough reeve Gus Harris, receiving tobacco from Joe Logan of the Brantford of the Brantford Six Nations reserve. Toronto Star, October 20, 1956.

Over the next few days, Walter A. Kenyon, an archaeologist and assistant curator of ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum, conducted a preliminary examination of Tabor Hill, in the process discovering a second burial pit at the site that was somewhat smaller than the first. Noting the large number of total burials at the site and the excellent condition of the bones, Kenyon wrote a letter to Gus Harris, suggesting action to preserve the ossuary and to have Tabor Hill declared a historic site. Harris took on this project with considerable enthusiasm, immediately announcing plans to form a committee with representatives from the provincial and federal governments, telling the Star, “We need financial help and we need it fast. Otherwise we could lose a national historical site.”

Harris moved quickly. On August 28, just 11 days after the ossuary was discovered, the Globe and Mail reported plans for a large event to be held in October, described as the “ancient Iroquois burial ceremony, the Feast of the Dead.” Harris, the Globe continued, had met with several representatives from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, and together they initiated plans for the October event. The intention, according to the press, was to rebury the bones at Tabor Hill according to the traditional Feast of the Dead ceremony, in accordance with a ritual which, reportedly, was not known to have been performed in Ontario for several hundred years.

Harris, it soon emerged, had even grander hopes for the site. In a September letter to Metro Council, Harris wrote that “the Chiefs have also arranged to invite all the hereditary Chiefs of North America to the re-burial. Naturally such a spectacle will attract attention all over the continent.” Hoping for political and financial support, he expressed concern that keeping Tabor Hill a small site might render it “just another historic site that may or may not attract many visitors.” Harris hoped that, if money could be found to buy some of the surrounding land, “an original, completely Iroquois Indian Village could be developed as one of the greatest tourist attractions in North America.”

“Sprinkling sacred tobacco” prior to the 1956 reburial. The Globe and Mail, October 20, 1956.

Over the next few weeks, representatives from the Iroquois worked on planning the event, with support from Scarborough Township. In addition to costs covered by the Township, close to 20 local motel owners reportedly donated some of their rooms free of charge, or offered discounted rates for any Iroquois attending. The resulting event was staged from October 19–21, and accounts suggest that it was attended by more than 200 Iroquois, with several thousand outsiders observing the ceremony, including journalists and various government officials.

In a 1958 anthropology paper describing the 1956 reburial ceremony at Tabor Hill, Robert William Dunning writes that “the township officials did everything in their power to insure the authenticity of the ceremony.” This proved impossible, however, and “almost from beginning to end the ceremony was organized for the particular occasion,” as opposed to being purely traditional. The Iroquois Feast of the Dead, Dunning notes, is a sacred ceremony which is not open to outsiders; the public nature of this event meant that some Iroquois representatives were reluctant or unwilling to participate, and decisions needed to be made by the organizers as to which parts of the ceremony could be conducted publicly. Allowances also had to be made for translating or explaining certain aspects of the ceremony to the English-speaking public, and for the opportunity for speeches by non-Iroquois officials.

On October 19, a small group conducted a preliminary ceremony at Tabor Hill. The Star wrote that “sacred tobacco was burned and the smoke, according to Iroquois custom, carries a message to the Great Spirit.” The same group then reportedly visited a nearby archeological site that had only recently been discovered a few kilometres to the west, near where Highland Creek meets Brimley Road. University of Toronto students had just begun digging at this site, and eventually found more than 1,000 artifacts including pottery fragments, tools, and projectile points.

U of T students working on the site located just west of Tabor Hill. Toronto Star, October 20, 1956.

While corn and beef soup was prepared in two large cauldrons over a fire, a new hole was dug for the re-internment of the bones. According to Dunning, the digging was initiated by six of the chiefs. “Workers changed often. It was difficult digging in the hard packed loam and clay. When the pit neared five feet in depth, the members of the press stepped in and volunteered to finish the job.” When the new pit was ready, the spectators were moved back, and the Iroquois representatives reburied the bones, laying wolf pelts flat on top.

Following the reburial, a banquet was held by the Township at the Scarborough Golf Club. Despite a sense of goodwill and friendship apparently dominating the ceremony, the speeches ended on a low note when Jack Pickersgill, then the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, attempted to improvise a speech. According to the Telegram, Pickersgill “plunged in up to his hips Saturday night when he attempted to tell a banquet attended by 260 Indian chiefs and their families that they should change their ways. He suggested they should be more like White men and take jobs that would make them independent of Government support.” Several Iroquois attendees reportedly asked for an opportunity to respond to Pickersgill’s remarks, “but they were informed that there was no time.”

The reburial of the bones at Tabor Hill. The man in the centre is identified as David Thomas, an Onandaga chief who spoke at the ceremony. Life, November 26, 1956.

Archaeological investigation of the Tabor Hill site continued over the subsequent months. The autumn 1956 issue of Ontario History featured companion pieces by Walter Kenyon describing the Tabor Hill ossuary, and J. Norman Emerson, of the University of Toronto, describing his findings at the nearby village site to the west. The two pieces were preceded by an editorial comment suggesting that archaeological research was still considered a novelty within the Ontario history community: “The historian and the layman are growing increasingly aware of the activity of a relatively new type of historian in Ontario, the archaeologist,” it begins. “Whatever the relationship between archaeology and history may be, most of us enjoy the historical chronicle which the spade and trowel is unfolding and are often amazed at the historical time depth which is being added to our Ontario scene.”

Kenyon estimated the total number of burials at Tabor Hill to be 472, and suggested the date of the initial burial as being around 1250 A.D.; subsequent research later revised those to 523 burials and the 14th century, respectively. Kenyon’s brief article also notes that the initial burials at Tabor Hill were not intact, but “disarticulated skeletons.”

In 1958, Robert William Dunning published his detailed description of the 1956 Feast of the Dead ceremony at Tabor Hill, apparently drawing on numerous interviews, observations, and published documents. He claims that the site is not actually an Iroquois site at all, given that “the large ossuary type burial was not known to the Iroquois Nations, but was practised by some outside tribes including the Hurons.” Dunning takes it as given that the Tabor Hill site is, in fact, Huron-Wendat. The Tabor Hill is accepted today as a Wendat site.

Photos from the first Feast of the Dead ceremony at Tabor Hill. Gus Harris is seen at left. Toronto Telegram, October 22, 1956.

Some of the historical confusion about Tabor Hill may be connected with use of the word “Iroquois.” While “Iroquois” is often used to refer to the group also known as the Six Nations or the Haudenosaunee, it has also been used in an archaeological context to refer to a larger group of First Nations peoples whose languages and culture shared some common characteristics, but who were clearly different peoples; this larger group includes the Haudenosaunee, but also the Wendat and other peoples. For this latter meaning, the term “Iroquoian” is now preferred, but earlier sources sometimes used “Iroquois” in both contexts.

The Haudenosaunee and the Wendat were, in fact, historical enemies for many years. Dunning notes that “these two were regarded by early [European] explorers and missionaries as two ethnic groups separated by dialect and by cultural idiom—namely burial rites.” For Dunning, then, one particularly interesting aspect of the 1956 Feast of the Dead ceremony at Tabor Hill was that it was “an unsuspecting group of Iroquois gathered with full contemporary regalia carrying out the Iroquois [Haudenosaunee] Feast of the Dead ceremony in the foreign context of a Huron [Wendat] ossuary.”

Further complicating matter for historians and other writers is that both the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat traditions have ceremonies known as the “Feast of the Dead.” Writing in 2013, anthropologist Susan Jamieson describes the Wendat ceremony as a mass burial held around every 10 years, as compared to the “semi-annual” Haudenosaunee event, which Dunning refers to. According to Jamieson, the Wendat Feast of the Dead was “intended for all those who had died since the last such feast.” Neighbouring allies were invited to attend, and “all were welcomed and feasted for 10 days. In addition there was dancing, competitions of skill, and much gift-giving.”

Photos from the annual Feast of the Dead ceremony at Tabor Hill. Toronto Star, September 22, 1958.

Despite the indication that Tabor Hill was recognized as a Wendat site only a few months after its discovery, it continued to be associated with the Haudenosaunee through the 1960s. A smaller Feast of the Dead ceremony was held by the Haudenosaunee at Tabor Hill in October of 1957, and it became close to an annual occurrence, being held as late as 1966. In that year, a preview of the event in the Scarborough Mirror notes that “it is essentially an Indian affair. While white people are welcomed, they are kept at a distance from the top of the hill ceremony, usually with the help of Scarborough’s Bendale boy scout troop.”

Gus Harris’s vision of a full Iroquois village at Tabor Hill never came to fruition, as other politicians wanted the surrounding land secured for development. In 1961, a boulder was placed at the top of the hill. On one side is a plaque, erected by the Township, identifying the site as “an ancient Indian ossuary of the Iroquois nation.” On the other side is a poem, indicated as an “Iroquois Prayer,” credited to White Cloud. According to the Globe and Mail, the Haudenosaunee “asked that the east face of the stone containing the [Iroquois Prayer] be flattened so that the rising sun may shine upon it.”

As late as 1981, Harris—then the mayor of Scarborough—gave an interview with the Toronto Star, expressing regret that there was still no First Nations museum in Scarborough. Once the area around Tabor Hill filled in with houses, Harris claims he suggested the idea of a museum to the Metro Toronto Zoo, but was rebuffed. Still, he hoped he might be able to pursue the project after he left office. “At least,” he told the Star, “we have kept our promise to the Indians and the sacred burial ground when we said the bones would never be disturbed again.”

Additional material from: Robert R. Bonis, A History of Scarborough (Scarborough Public Library, 1968); R. Wm. Dunning, “Iroquois Feast of the Dead: New Style,” in Anthropologica, No. 6 (1958); J. Norman Emerson, “The Village and the Cemetery” in Ontario History, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn 1956); The Globe and Mail (August 18, August 20, August 22, August 28, September 12, September 25, October 15, October 19, October 20, October 22, December 1, 1956; February 9, October 26, 1957; May 9, July 1, 1958; April 5, 1960; March 22, July 18, September 6, 1961; October 28, 1963); History of the Tabor Hill Ossuaries in Scarborough and a Proposal for an Authentic Iroquois Indian Village (ca. 1960: Scarborough); Walter A. Kenyon, “A Prehistoric Cemetery” in Ontario History, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn 1956); Life (November 26, 1956); T. F. McIlwraith, “The Feast of the Dead: Historical Background,” in Anthropologica, No. 6 (1958); The (Scarborough) Mirror (November 2, November 9, 1966); Marit K. Munson and Susan M. Jamieson, ed., Before Ontario: The Archaeology of a Province (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013: Montreal & Kingston); Barbara Myrvold, The People of Scarborough: A History (The City of Scarborough Public Library Board, 1997); The Toronto Star (August 18, August 22, August 28, September 24, October 3, October 19, October 20, 1956; February 9, 1957; September 22, 1958; January 5, April 5, September 17, 1960; September 12, 1961; November 4, 1966; November 3, 1981; May 27, 1998); The Star Weekly (November 17, 1956); The Telegram (August 18, October 22, 1956); Ronald F. Williamson, “The Archaeological History of the Wendat to AD 1651: An Overview,” in Ontario Archaeology, Vol. 94; Ronald F. Williamson and Debbie A. Steiss, “A History of Ontario Iroquoian Multiple Burial Practice,” in Bones of the Ancestors: The Archaeology and Osteobiography of the Moatfield Ossuary (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2003).

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