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Remains Believed to Be Sir John Johnson's

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--July 3, 2003

On Jan. 8, 1830, mourners carried the body of Sir John Johnson, former Superintendent General of Indian Affairs and last Baronet of New York, to his estate on the flanks of Mount Johnson (present-day Mont St-Gregoire) for burial. Few then could have guessed what lay in store for Sir John and the family members who were laid to rest with him in the Johnson burial vault.

medium_johnson.grave_.jpgVAULT BULLDOZED
In the 1950s, the vault and its contents were bulldozed, buried and all but forgotten. More than a half-century later, efforts to locate and restore the vault of one of Canada's most important Loyalists have taken a step forward with the release of a provincial archeological report on the site. The report, which concludes a second, comprehensive archeological survey of the site, identified what may be the partial remains of Sir John and wife Polly.

On June 14, Dick Eldridge, speaking during the annual general meeting of the United Empire Loyalists (Sir John Johnson Centennial Branch) in Philipsburg, presented the findings of the recently completed provincial report to branch members. The report summary, prepared by provincial osteo-archeologist Gérard Gagné and dated May, 2003, confirms the presence of the remains of at least seven adults and three to five children. The report suggests that the skeletal remains of one elderly man with extensive arthritis and ossification may be the remains of Sir John himself.

Eldridge, the former president of the U.E.L. branch, called the excavation and results, "the highlight of my three-year term." This is but the latest twist in a saga that began in the early days of Quebec history. Sir John Johnson was son of Sir William Johnson. His father, Sir William, held the title of first Baronet of New York, and was distinguished as one of the largest landowners in pre-Revolutionary times.

Upon Sir William's death in 1774, Sir John succeeded his father as the second Baronet of New York, inheriting the family estate and vast holdings of New York's Mohawk Valley. Sir John, a devout Loyalist and soldier of the King, was forced to abandon his vast ancestral and head north to Canada with thousands of others who fought for the Crown. He lived in Montreal, but acquired several seignueries, including an estate near Mont Sainte-Thérèse, which he renamed Mount Johnson. Burial records, dating from 1812 until 1841, indicate seven individuals were buried in the vault of Sir John's estate: Sir John, wife Lady Mary (Polly) Watts and five other adults. Over time, the estate passed out of the Johnson family hands. and the burial vault of one of Canada's most illustrious Loyalists fell into disrepair.

Located on a slope that later became a working apple orchard, the vault was purportedly looted during World War I, and finally, during the 1950s, bulldozed into a pit. The solitary remnant of the burial site was a stone, found by property owner Romuald Meunier and given to the U.E.L. Sir John Johnson Centennial Branch. The stone, which bears the barely-legible inscription, "Sacred to the memory of the Honourable Sir John Johnson who departed this life on the 4th Jan. 1830, aged 88 years" was repaired and installed in an outside wall of Stanbridge East's Missisquoi Museum, the former Cornell Mill, where it remains today.

The indignities suffered by one of Canada's most illustrious Loyalists might have gone unnoticed were it not for an act of conscience. Jean-Paul Lasnier, the man who claims to have bulldozed the site on order of the landowner, reported to have seen what he believed were human bones as he pushed the vault off its base into a pit. Later, he set about trying to correct the wrong that he had inadvertently committed.

His story came to the attention of the Haut-Richelieu Historical Society, within whose jurisdiction the burial site rests, and the United Empire Loyalists of Canada, a group committed to the preservation of Canada's Loyalist history. Eldridge said that UEL members researching the facts surrounding the vault became convinced of the veracity of Lasnier's report. A contradictory account, that all Johnson family remains had been removed for reburial at St. Stephen's Anglican in Chambly, was subsequently dismissed when the former Anglican priest from that parish could not recall such removal.

The growing concern that a legitimate historical site had been despoiled resulted in the creation of la Société de restauration du patrimoine Sir John Johnson, whose membership includes Lasnier and representatives of the UEL and the Haut-Richelieu Historical Society. Members of la Société de restauration du patrimoine Sir John Johnson brought the issue before Lin Beauchamps, Minister of Cultural and Communications in Quebec, who issued permits for an archeological examination of the site to provide conclusive evidence on the presence or absence of human remains.

The first study, conducted in the fall of 1999, verified the presence of vault stones and skeletal remains. Archeologists located the vault chamber and human bones, which were subsequently determined to belong to at least six individuals, including two children, a surprise since no burial records of children were known to exist.

A more comprehensive (phase two) study followed, the results of which were issued in the May, 2003 report. Based upon the collection and analysis of over 800 human bones and fragments, the author concluded the presence of seven adults (six males and one female) and between three to five immature adults (aged under 18 years), including one infant. The report re-confirmed that the remains of one elderly individual were consistent with those of Sir John Johnson, and added that a second male adult with an estimated age of between 30 and 40 years, could be his son William.

Remains of a third individual, estimated to be no older than 45 years of age, could be the remains of either of his sons William or Adam. The age at death of Sir John's son-in-law, Edward Mcdonnel, was unknown and thus, precluded identification. The report also re-affirmed that the bones of a lone female adult might be those of Sir John's wife, Polly.