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Monday, January 30, 2023
Urban myth or historical fact? Researcher claims slaves are buried on Centre St. property
James Russell wants the owner of the property under renovation at 240 Centre St. to allow ground penetrating radar to be used on the historic NOTL property. Russell believes the bodies of Black slaves could be buried there. Supplied

Restoration efforts at a historic home at 240 Centre St. are close to complete, but a historical researcher says slaves may be buried on the property and wants permission to investigate.

James Russell, who is leading restoration efforts a few blocks away at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground, is calling for the town and the owner of the house to let him pay for a search of the property using ground penetrating radar.

The house was built in the early 1800s by John Breakenridge and has been deserted since about 1968.

It has had many owners and today it is owned by Lloyd Kelly, a lawyer based in Texas.

Brian Marshall, the lead restoration consultant on Kelly’s property, said he is certain there are no slaves buried on the property.

According to Russell, a barn on property “is where the enslaved ‘servants’ were housed in the early 1800s.”

“This whole thing about slaves being buried in the backyard is just, it’s smoke and mirrors. It’s a non-starter. It’s an urban myth,” said Marshall, who writes the Arch-i-Text column for The Lake Report.

He said Breakenridge couldn’t afford slaves at that time and an archeological assessment had already been completed and found no traces of graves.

Russell dismisses the argument about Breakenridge not being able to afford slaves. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.

Marshall counters that, “At the time this house was built, the average cost of an adult male slave was 500 pounds.”

Another Breakenridge house, the white one on the corner of William and Mississagua streets, sold for 425 pounds in 1824, according to Marshall.

“So there’s no economic viability here for slaves,” he said.

When Breakenridge died, he left a lot of debt to his wife, Mary Breakenridge.

Ground penetrating radar sends radio pulses into the earth “and the reflection of those radio pulses back to the device you’re using is measured,” said Angus Smith, a professor of Greek archeology at Brock University.

It’s a non-invasive and non-destructive technology that detects anomalies underground. That could include graves or other buried items that otherwise might not be visible, he said.

Archeological surveys have been done on the property, but when Russell asked the town for the records, he was sent a link to Ontario’s archeology information website.

“I haven’t been able to get a copy of that. Now, of course, the town has a copy because they wouldn’t have allowed the development to go forward unless they had a copy of the archeology report,” said Russell.

In an email to The Lake Report, town spokesperson Marah Minor said the archeology reports are public record and need to be obtained from the province.

As far as the report goes, it’s “proprietary with my client,” said Marshall.

He also noted that it’s private property and the owner has no interest in allowing a ground penetrating radar search to be done on the site.

Chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie said the town has no authority to force a private land owner to do a search using ground penetrating radar.

And Marshall noted, “The province has seen the report and the province has registered and accepted the report.”

But Russell is undeterred.

“If he’s so confident in the fact that Breakenridge couldn’t afford slaves and he’s confident that the archeology survey was thorough and complete, he has nothing to lose from ground penetrating radar, especially since I volunteered to pay for it,” said Russell.

“Is he afraid that graves will actually be found?” he added.

In order to construct the back porch, the town required Kelly, the owner of the house, to pay for an archeological assessment.

“If you do archeology, you go one step further than doing ground penetrating radar,” said Marshall.

As well, ground penetrating radar is considered inconclusive, said Minor.  

“Archeological assessments are more accurate and conclusive in finding features like graves. Archeological assessments have been undertaken by licensed archeologists retained by the property owner,” she said.

It’s hard for Smith to say which is better, since he doesn’t know exactly what was done on the property.

“There’s just lots of different factors and they’re kind of like two different techniques that are used for different reasons,” he said.

An archeological assessment has four stages.

Stage one and stage two were completed on the entire property, Marshall said.

For stage one, an archeologist researches the land and surrounding area to see if any archeological sites could be on the property.

The property moves into stage two if it’s determined there could be archeological sites on the grounds.

“So, that means what they did was every X number of feet on a grid pattern they dug a pit,  and looked for any signs that the ground had been disturbed,” said Marshall.

The entire property was clear, except for a section beside the house where anglo-colonial items were found. Marshall described them as European settlement artifacts.

Due to those finds, the third stage of the archeological assessment was conducted in that area.

A series of much deeper and larger pits in the side yard were dug. Marshall estimates that there were about 24 pits.

“I think it’s perfectly possible to miss tombs through digging test pits,” said Smith.

He primarily does his work in Greece and said he’s run into situations where he’s dug many test pits and test trenches and still missed tombs by three feet.

“We never would have known it was there unless we had continued to do more investigation, sort of by digging a larger area around there,” he said.

That said, Smith also did a ground penetrating radar search on the property in Greece, which proved inconclusive for various reasons.

“The more different techniques you can throw at a problem, the better,” he said.

The side yard where stage three was conducted on the Centre Street property is now in stage four.

“The province can either make you do stage four excavation or stage four preservation,” said Marshall.

Preservation was the best route to go, so the surrounding trees didn’t need to be cut down, and so the ground didn’t get dug up by following the excavation route.

That part of the property, even if the house is sold, cannot be built on since it is now in stage four preservation.

Both methods of archeology have pros and cons, said Smith.

However, ground penetrating radar would typically be used once you’ve done a survey and determined that there is a site and you’re planning to excavate, he said.

“Then perhaps the ground penetrating radar would come in to give you a better indication of where you might want to excavate in that larger area,” said Smith.

The possibility of slaves being buried on the property is a bit of folklore that developed over  the decades, said Marshall.

Russell argues that employing ground penetrating radar is a win-win because then the slave rumours can finally be put to rest.

He has sent letters to news organizations and authorities, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, hoping to pressure the town into ensuring a ground penetrating radar search is done.

If all else fails, his next step is to try to bring a criminal charge against the owner for improperly interfering with human remains, Russell told The Lake Report.

While he understands Russell’s mission, Marshall said there’s no validity to it.

“There’s no support. And it’s private property,” he said.

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