East York Historical Society members listened intently to “Pain, Suffering, and Death at Snake Hill” on Nov. 27, a presentation about the excavation of a cemetery for militia casualties from the War of 1812 in Fort Erie.
“My goal tonight is to give a not-so-gentle reminder that we’re not celebrating the bicentennial (of the war), but we’re commemorating it,” guest speaker and archeologist Dr. Ronald Williamson said. “This was a horrible war.”
In the summer of 1987, Williamson and his firm, Archaeological Services, undertook the first and only excavation of a War of 1812 cemetery in Canada.
Workers were re-modeling a home in Fort Erie when they stumbled upon human remains in the ground underneath. A neighbour called a reporter from the St. Catherine’s Standard to investigate the scene. The reporter took some of the bones to the regional coroner, who deemed them to be “very old and not of recent forensic interest.”
That’s when Williamson and his crew were contacted, to find out exactly where the bones had come from. It didn’t take them long to discover that they were the remains of soldiers who had died during the occupation of Fort Erie 173 years before.
Thirty-one bodies were uncovered during the excavation, 28 of which have been confidently deemed to be American because of military buttons and artifacts like flint or uniforms that were in the graves alongside them.
“There were only two actual coffins,” Williamson said. “The rest were hastily buried right into narrow grave shafts… some were in groups in one pit.”
The state of the remains taught the archeologist about the grotesque injuries and barbaric medical practices that took place during the war. Many of the bodies showed wounds sustained by cannon balls and injuries that were treated with amputation.
“The doctors really didn’t have much to work with, in terms of tools,” Williamson said. “The soldiers would hold a musket ball between their teeth and would be given a dram of whiskey to ease the pain. Then their limb would be sawed off, and sometimes snapped to save time.”
No British or Canadian militia personnel were recognized among the dead, however, there were British limbs found in medical waste pits suggesting American doctors treated some British soldiers.
“If a Brit died after treatment they would be tossed in the river. Only parts were buried,” said Williamson.
After the excavation, Fort Erie Main High School became a morgue, and the remains of the soldiers were placed into flag-draped coffins for the U.S. Army to take back over the border to bury in American soil. Each coffin was driven in its own hearse, one by one, to New York where they were reinterred at the Bath National Cemetery.
“At the ceremony no one had a dry eye,” Williamson said. “All of the pain, suffering, and death…. We knew what was going on in that horrible land. This was the time we realized that they were getting to go home.”