First Nations’ tree grave in the mid-1880s. At one time, there were a number of this type of grave around what is now the city of Red Deer, often on hills and/or along streams. (Glenbow Archives photo)

Michael Dawe: Old tragedies and graveyards conjured up every Halloween

Thursday is Halloween. It is a time of year when people love to tell stories of ghosts and inexplicable occurrences, in addition to dressing up in costume, collecting treats and maybe playing pranks, or “tricks,” on friends and neighbours.

In many parts of the world, there is a tradition of stories about the supernatural. In places such as England, Scotland and Wales, it seems that virtually every old building has a ghost story or unsettling mystery attached to it. There are myriad forgotten cemeteries and burial sites.

Central Alberta is a much newer place. Our buildings are barely decades old, not centuries old. Consequently, we do not have the same rich folklore about ghosts, spirits and supernatural happenings.

That is not to say, however, that there aren’t any ghost stories to be told. There are also old cemeteries and burial sites that have not been properly documented.

The oldest stories come from the First Peoples. As hunters and gatherers, they generally lived harsh, often tragic lives. There was a continual struggle to survive – finding enough to eat and dealing with brutal weather conditions, particularly life-threatening cold.

Accidents, exposure and illness frequently claimed lives. Other lives were lost due to intertribal conflicts.

One gruesome story involves a massacre that took place on the north shore of Pine Lake about 150 years ago. The Blackfoot war party wiped out a camp of Crees.

One of the Crees had been away hunting. When he found out what had happened, he sought his revenge. He was so successful in his ambushes and guerilla attacks that the killers thought they were experiencing the vengeance of the dead.

Consequently, many considered the lake to be haunted. For many years, it was called Ghost Pine or Devil’s Pine Lake. The massacre site on the hillside was left undisturbed. As late as the turn of the last century, bone and skulls were still visible.

Another gruesome story was told by Saukamappee, a First Nations elder, to the explorer David Thompson. A Blackfoot war party attacked an encampment of Shoshoni, or Snake First Nations, along the Red Deer River.

They were surprised by a lack of resistance. When they looked inside the tents, they found them full of dead and dying people, all covered in smallpox pustules.

The Blackfoot quickly retreated. However, within a couple of days, they also came down with the dreaded disease. More than one half died. Others drowned when they threw themselves into the Red Deer River to try and get some relief from the very high fevers and excruciating pain.

Not surprisingly, ever afterward, the sites of the death camps were considered to be haunted.

Over a couple of centuries, a number of great epidemics devastated the First Nations as they had very little immunity to the illnesses that were brought by the explorers and traders from eastern North America and Europe.

In the smallpox epidemic of 1869-1870, an estimated one-half of the First Nations in Alberta perished, as did several hundred Metis. A largely forgotten graveyard on the west side of the QEII Highway, just south of where it crosses the Red Deer River, contains graves of some of the local people who died in that epidemic.

There are other old burial sites and forgotten graveyards in and around Red Deer. There is a graveyard on the shoulder of the North Hill that dates back to the 19th century.

Another was along Piper Creek, in the valley connecting Rotary Park and Kin Kanyon. In the 1930s, there was a stir in the community when a skull from one of those old graves was found in the creek at the foot of Piper’s Mountain.

The skull had likely been eroded out of the bank and then swept downstream into the park.

There was an old First Nations burial ground on the west side of Waskasoo Creek, south of 43rd Street. In the early 1890s, the first Village of Red Deer cemetery was created adjacent to the old burial ground.

Unfortunately, over the years, these sites were largely forgotten and largely obliterated when the former Red Deer (Carlings) Brewery was constructed in the early 1950s.

During the construction of the brewery, the grave of Ole Mickelson was accidentally disinterred. There is no record of any other graves at the time being identified, protected or moved to another spot.

When Taylor Drive was constructed in the early 1990s, there again was no attempt to identify the location of any of the old graves. Consequently, it is entirely possible that when motorists are travelling along Taylor Drive, just south of the 43rd Street intersection, they are driving over at least part of the old village cemetery and First Nations burial ground.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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