HALIFAX — The Stars and Stripes snapped stiffly in a cold north wind Monday as a handful of U.S. military and consular officials gathered on a small peninsula in Halifax to remember their fallen from the War of 1812.
Sailors, soldiers, privateers, and prisoners of war who died on nearby Melville Island lay forgotten for almost 200 years until a land development battle in the late 1990s brought them back to mind.
Anton Smith, the U.S. consul general for the Atlantic provinces, recounted what life would have been like at the time for those who were held on the island.
“Disease was often a problem and sanitation was poor. An outpost like this one, even on a late spring day like today, could be pretty cold and not very well protected,” he said.
“A number of those who were imprisoned here succumbed during this time.”
Typhus and smallpox would have claimed many and their immediate burial on Deadman’s Island, then called Target Hill, was considered necessary to prevent further contamination. It’s estimated that between 1812 and 1815 as many as 8,000 captured Americans were held at the Melville Island Prison, now home to a yacht club that’s a stone’s throw from Deadman’s Island.
A number of black loyalists, persuaded by the British to move to Nova Scotia from the U.S., succumbed to disease while in the isolation of the prison and are also buried there.
Except for the occasional femur or skull coughed up by shifting earth, the dead might have remained in obscurity if there hadn’t been a development battle in the late 1990s over a proposed condominium complex on the site.
Neighbours who objected, fearing loss of green space and their view of the water, enlisted local history buffs to help their cause. Acting on meticulous records kept by the British Admiralty, they contacted American historical societies, local municipal officials and the Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs.
“One of the residents who lives here on the cove came forward and said ‘I hope you know there are bodies buried there,’ ” said Smith. “That’s how the story came out and we began working with Canadian authorities to do the research looking at the British archives to understand what had happened here.”
The developer withdrew his application after learning of the burial site and in 2000, the city bought the land and turned it into a memorial park.
It’s estimated that 188 American prisoners of war are buried in unmarked graves on Deadman’s Island, a tiny tree-covered spit that juts out into the Northwest Arm.
American historical groups such as The Society of the War in 1812 in the State of Ohio have done a lot of work trying to help uncover the story of the POWs. Their research turned up personal accounts of some of those held at Melville Island Prison.
The Ohio group’s website outlines the story of young privateer Benjamin Franklin Palmer of Stonington, Conn., who was captured in December 1813 off Long Island, N.Y.
He kept a daily diary of his time as a prisoner in Nova Scotia and in an entry dated June 4, 1814, he wrote: “Four prisoners carried to Target Hill this morning, a place where they bury the dead. I’m fearful a number of us will visit that place this summer if not shortly released.”
Smith said it may have been the confusing and hectic tenor of war that caused everyone to forget the dead, but he’s grateful that they are now remembered.
“We do a little bit every year to keep the park clean in anticipation of Memorial Day and are very grateful to municipal and Canadian officials who have helped make this park possible.”