Sir John Johnson

Family vault

Historic Researches Results Conclusion


This report describes the results of the archaeological investigation conducted during fall 1999 at the supposed Sir John Johnson's family funerary vault, at Mont Saint-Grégoire (also known as Mount Johnson).

Sir John Johnson is an important figure of the British history in Canada. His father, Sir William Johnson lived in New York State during the 18th century. He was the first baronet of New York. After he died, in 1774, his son John succeeded him as the second baronet of New York.

Sir John Johnson fought against the American revolutionaries. After the United States declaration of Independence, he was compelled to flee to Canada. Thousands of Loyalists followed him to settle in Canada. Before 1812, a family vault was built for the members of the Sir John Johnson's family. From 1812 until 1841, at least seven individuals, including Sir John Johnson and his wife Lady Mary (Polly) Watts, were buried in the family vault.

Sir John Johnson

During the 20th century, the vault was neglected and even looted during World War 1. Finally, in the 1950s, the vault was completely destroyed by a bulldozer. Although some historians considered that there were no more remains of the vault, members of the Société d'histoire du Haut-Richelieu and of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada believed otherwise since 1950s. Mr. Jean-Paul Lasnier, was on the site at the time the vault was destroyed during the 1950s and he was convinced that remains of the structure should still be found beneath the soil surface. Members of these two organizations created a new Society, the Société de restauration du patrimoine Johnson.

Within this context, the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec (MCCQ) was contacted. After meetings and discussions beween MCCQ and the Société de restauration du patrimoine Johnson, it was agreed that an archaeological field research should help resolve the issue.

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Richard St-Pierre, agent for MCCQ

Marcel Gauthier, historian

Anne-Marie Balac, archaeologist for MCCQ

In October 1999, we obtained an archaeological research permit from the MCCQ to perform a field research. The mandate was twofold. First, the mandate was to verify, through test pits, that the vault remains were still there and, then, to verify the presence of human burials. Should the vault remains be found, its size and state of preservation were to be assessed through the excavation of its outline. In case of human burial discovery, test pits were to be performed to test if burials were in place. Furthermore, the mandate specified that only human bones found with no archaeological context (e.g. in disturbed soil layers) should be collected. These bones could be of use to assess the degree of burial destruction and could help identify the number of individuals that were buried in the vault (by determining their age, sex and the minimum number of individuals).

Tests pits were first conducted in the area where Mr. Lasnier dug pits in 1998. We used these pits as a starting point of excavation. It became clear very soon that this area was actually the refuse pit dug by Mr. Lasnier during the 1950s when the vault was destroyed. The discovery of this disturbed area proved on the other hand that we were close to the location of the vault. In another test pit done south of this area, we found part of the fondation of the vault in place and in good state of preservation. From that point, it was easy to excavate the outline of the building (e.g. its foundation).

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Family vault 

of Sir John Johnson

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family vault 

The vault is oriented north-south with the front door facing south. It is a rectangular structure measuring 7,10 m deep (N-S axis) by 5,30 m wide (W-E axis). It has two chambers divided by a wall with an entrance. Each chamber is 3,05 wide (W-E axis) by 2,40 m deep (N-S axis). Foundations are massive piece of construction. The walls measure 1,06 m wide and are essentially made of limestone. In general, the foundations are in good state of preservation but the west wall is lower than the east wall.

Human bones were found in both chambers with no particular concentration (62 bones in the north chamber and 67 in the south chamber). The presence of human bones interfered with the excavation. Bones were not in place and were mixed with different kinds of debris from the destruction of the vault. No human burials were found in place. To test whether human burials could still be in place, a one square meter test pit was conducted in the north-east corner, inside the vault. At about 40 cm deep we found what could be the cement floor of the vault. We dug another 30 cm under that floor and no burials were found and the soil under the floor did not seem disturbed.

In total, we collected 129 humans bones (including fragments). They were all analyzed in order to identify the number of individuals that were buried in the vault. Human bone analysis is also helpful in identifying individuals when a list of names of those buried exists. We have the name of seven adults who were buried in the vault. The age of six of them is known whereas the sex of all of them is known. The first step of bone analysis was to identify the minimum number of individuals. Based on the identification of each and every bone, its side, the age of the individual to which it belongs, we conclude that there were at least 6 individuals represented by these bones.

An important discovery was that 3 of these 6 individuals were children (less than 18 of age). It means that 3 individuals are not specified in the list and that the list is certainly incomplete. We were able to determinate the age of 3 young individuals : one is a child approximately 1 or 2 years old; another between 4 and 5 years old and a third one between 11 and 12 years old. It should be emphasize here that no complete skeletons were found and that the age determination is based on fragmentary bones. Age determination is thus not as precise as it could but it is certain that these 3 individuals were not adults. The specific age at death of three adults was impossible to identify. The most we can do is to assert that one seems very old, because he shows a strong case of diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (a kind of severe spinal arthritis with three vertebrae fused), a second seems quite young while the third individual is probably between the two because he had a mild case of arthritis.

The distribution and the degree of bone preservation show that human actions were responsible of burial displacement. There is also evidence of animal disturbance as beef and domestic cat bones were found inside the vault. It is quite likely that the bone identified as beef was intrusive to the structure, probably mixed with other remains when the vault was destroyed by the bulldozer during the 1950s. Remains of the domestic cat could best be explained by the fact that this animal took refuge inside the vault when the front door was removed. The absence of human skull attests also human actions in the conservation of the remains. It is well known that human skulls are a major target to burial looters.

Artifacts are few in number and not diversified. They mainly consist of nails and screws. Some of the nails were fold at 90o degree and were probably used for some sort of support for coffins. There is no evidence, judged by the nature of these nails, that some of them could be associated with coffins. There too big for that purpose. Among artifacts, we also found the front door of the vault and metal bars whose functions are unknown. May be they were used as coffin support. Finally we found fragments of a coffin plate and 3 coffin handles. The coffin plate probably belongs to the young child identified from bones as individual aged between 1 and 2 years of age. Even if the coffin plate is incomplete, we can see "son of…, died…, July…, …1 year…6 months…".

From all these observations it could be concluded that the remains of at least 6 individuals are still present inside the structure. Of these individuals, 3 are young and immature individuals of whom we have absolutely no biographic information based on historic document. Judging by age determination of adults it is possible that the oldest individual is Sir John Johnson himself. The youngest adult could either be his son William who died at 37 years of age or his son Robert Thomas who died at 25 years of age. The invidual aged between these two could either be his son John who died at age 59, his other son Adam Gordon who died at 62 years of age or even his wife, Mary Polly who also died at 62 years of age. Should more complete skeletons had been found, the individual identification could have been more precise.

The archaeological field research met its two stated objectives. First, there is now material proof that vault remains (e.g. its foundations) are still in place and, second, that human remains are still buried inside the structure. However, there is no more human burial in place and all human bones were disturbed by human actions (looters).

The archaeological discovery of vault remains is the first step toward the restoration of sir John Johnson's vault and for that matters justifies the following recommendations :

  1. The west wall of the vault should be examined by an expert in restoration because it shows some degree of destruction at both extremities and in general the west wall is lower than the east wall.

  2. It is recommended that an archaeological field research be completed before the beginning of the restoration. This research should be aimed at systematically remove each and every human bone. This will help identify with more precision the number of individuals who were buried in the vault. It will further help identify these individuals based on age and sex determination.

  3. Finally, it is important to extend historic research to identify young individuals that were buried in the vault whom we have no historic documents concerning their biographies.