Digging up history in local cemetery sites

The City of New Westminster was founded in early 1859, and the process of clearing land, making the river's edge into useable moorage for vessels, building houses and other buildings, laying out trails and roads, and many other items on the pioneers' and Royal Engineers' massive "to-do list," all were leading to the establishment of the new capital.

All new towns spent considerable time and effort seeing to their community's basic needs connected to life and death.

For 'life' there had to be medical attention, cooperation among new citizens and with those in authority, assistance to those in need, supplies of food and water, and sometimes law and order.

In death the matter of law, order and authority was evident along with care, compassion, spiritual needs and finally, an appropriate burial with some form of ceremony and respect for the deceased.

A graveyard was prepared for use in the new city in 1859, but even before it was ready, there were deaths.

While research is ongoing on these earliest deaths in the area, we know of at least one, and possibly two references to burials in another location as yet unconfirmed.

Before turning to the first official burial ground in this city, we must remember that the First Nations of this area, also dealing regularly with life and death, buried their dead with due ceremony and respect in sites on this local landscape.

Over the decades, examples of these burials have been recorded, and we will talk more of this at a later date in this column and elsewhere. For now, back to this early burial ground in New Westminster.

While the Royal Engineers had a camp apart from the city, the first cemetery in the city was also referred to at times as being for soldiers and others or as a military site, and it is this burial ground, now referred to as the Dufferin Street Cemetery, that we are referring to.

This site was on land set aside for Church of England use at the corner, in modern terms, of Agnes Street at Dufferin Street.

This cemetery had relatively few burials before being closed to official use in the early 1860s when the new, much larger cemetery was begun far up the hill along Douglas Road in the area of today's high school.

The story of the Dufferin Street site is intriguing. It includes a number of curious accounts of the site's use, closing and reuse after the removal of the markers and remains.

It is an interesting tale of the early city and its growth, as is the account of a number of decades of research. Hear the story of New Westminster's first cemetery at the historical society evening on Aug. 17, starting at 7: 30 p.m. in the auditorium of the New Westminster Public Library.

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