Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Of Cemeteries and Settlement: How a Battlefield Burial Ground Creates Retroactive Canadians


Note from Andrea: As promised, here is the first of two special guest posts while I’m recovering from surgery (which went great!). First up is a post by the fabulous Dr. Adam Barker, who is not only one of my favourite humans, but also such an awesome academic that if I didn’t like him so much, I’d have to kill him (jk). 🙂 Born and raised in Hamilton, Dr. Barker is an expert in the history of colonialism in North America. In his academic work, he studies historical and contemporary relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canadian Settlers, while also working to provide the tools and frameworks that are needed to forge new and better ones. He, and his super-smart wife, Dr. Emma Battell Lowman were the ones who introduced me to the idea of settler colonialism back when we were all in graduate school (in the dark ages). He spends much of his spare time with Xena, pictured to the left,   and just generally kicking butt on Twitter. If you like this post, I would highly recommend picking up the latest book from Drs. Barker and Battell Lowman, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada.


Expert Tip: Dr. Barker refers several times to a concept called Settler Colonialism, as well as the use of the term “Setter” with a capitol S. Settler Colonialism is a term that is used to describe the history and ongoing processes/structures whereby one group of people (Settlers) are brought in to replace an existing Indigenous population, usually as part of imperial projects. Settler colonialism is a type of colonialism, and you can read a great definition and more detailed explanation here. One of the main principles of Settler Colonialism is that it is always unfinished, and that non-Indigenous peoples (usually called Settlers) and their descendants continue to benefit from these older, as well as new structures, while Indigenous peoples continue to be marginalized (like this, though really, this happens all-the-time in a thousand different ways).



Adam Barker[i]

Research Associate, Carceral Archipelago Project, University of Leicester

In 1889, in the town of Saltfleet – a hamlet on the shores of Lake Ontario, Canada, later renamed Stoney Creek – a local farmer ploughing his field turned up a number of long-dead bodies. Identified by fragments of buttons, tools, and badges, these bodies were found to be those of several soldiers – war dead from the relatively minor and often forgotten British-American War of 1812. The spot where the famer found these bodies – a low, flat hill called Smith’s Knoll – had clearly been used as a battlefield burial site, though no official records of this existed. Local authorities, alerted to the discovery of the battlefield graves, consecrated Smith’s Knoll as a cemetery and, in 1908, installed a stone monument topped with a British Lion and emblazoned with a Union Jack. The landscape thus marked, the site again faded into obscurity for a century, little more than a park-like piece of the landscape in a sleepy Ontario suburb, until a re-dedication ceremony in 2000:

On June 4, 2000… the battlefield cemetery was reopened as a national historic site during a special rededication memorial service. American military pallbearers from the Third United States Infantry, Fort Meyers, Virginia, took part in the re interment ceremony for soldiers killed in the battle. At the rededication ceremony, the remains of approximately twenty-three soldiers killed were placed into a wooden crate and then reinterred into the locally made new crypt.[ii]

Stoney Creek, a sleepy community just east of Hamilton, has a unique history that lead to these unusual burials (and reburials). It is, among other things, the location of one of the final battles of the American invasion of Upper Canada during the War of 1812. The Battle of Stoney Creek was not the decisive battle in the War of 1812 – the war ended in 1814 without a truly decisive moment of any kind – but it was among the last major engagements of the war, and also marked the farthest that American forces penetrated into British territory.

Adam Cairn

Smith’s Knoll, Stoney Creek, Ontario. The monument (on left) dates to the original dedication of the cemetery, and was updated in 1956. The crypt (on right) was added in 2000. The canon, Union Jack, and British Lion are conspicuous symbols of imperial militarism and conquest. (Photo by author, 11 May 2014.)

Every school child from the area will inevitably tour the battlefield site and museum, and for decades they have all learned the same story: On the evening of 5 June 1813, the American column – having crossed into the Niagara Peninsula from Buffalo in New York State – reached a cluster of farms half way to their objective of Burlington Heights, the British stronghold at the western end of the lake. As night fell, the American forces set up camp at Gage Farm, adjacent to the road on which they had been marching, locking the Gage family in their cellar. They set up their canons on what is now Smith’s Knoll, but did not expect any threat from the British, whose forces had been previously routed and fled in disarray. However, a local man by the name of Billy Green, saw the Americans’ advance and scrambled to warn the British command. Seeing an opportunity to catch the Americans unaware, a small British force accompanied by an even smaller group of Mohawk (Haudenosaunee) warriors, attacked the American encampment during the night – the darkness caused chaos, and American soldiers shot and bayoneted some of their own men in the confusion. The British also suffered heavy losses, though, and were on the edge of faltering and falling back, when by luck a small group of British soldiers stumbled on the knoll where the cannon had been placed, capturing the valuable artillery pieces, as well as two American generals, and causing the remaining American forces to flee. The rest, as they say, “is history”: the knoll where the American cannons had been placed was turned into a battlefield burial ground[iii] and then forgotten for decades until the fateful discovery at the beginning of this article.

By chance, I was there at the rededication in 2000. Smith’s Knoll is located no more than a 10 minute walk from my childhood family home, even closer to my elementary school, and as a university undergraduate, my summers were spent doing maintenance and landscaping for the municipality at Smith’s Knoll and nearby Battlefield Park – an enormous greenspace built around the still-standing Gage family farmhouse (now a museum) and a massive faux-Gothic castle, an early 20th century addition commemorating British military victories. This towering structure, officially named Battlefield Monument, is impossible to miss and each summer it overlooks a re-enactment of the Battle of Stoney Creek – which I also served each summer, clearing trash and cleaning bathrooms – that draws historical re-enactors as well as thousands of tourists from across Ontario and the United States. The monument has been modified over the years to include plaques honouring local dead from the World Wars, and just to drive the military narrative home, is fronted by two enormous cannons – representing the cannons captured from the American forces by the British during their decisive night-time raid – reminding visitors that people both died and killed for this land.

After the 2000 rededication ceremony, I swept up abandoned coffee cups and dropped bits of paper, and went about my day. I did not think about that moment again for many years – not until I returned to Stoney Creek in 2014, having learned about Settler colonialism and begun deeply questioning my own attachment to that place, my claim to calling it ‘home.’ In that time, I had learned a great deal about the place I was raised that I had never been taught in schools, that the rest of my family and friends had never learned – histories that colonial authorities and generations of Settlers afterwards wanted forgotten. I learned that the lands discussed here were part of the overlapping territories of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Anishnaabe nations, whose roots in the area are far deeper and thicker. Far from the terra nullius imagined by imperialists and early Settlers, this region was thickly layered with political agreements and arrangements, overlapping systems of law and governance, markers of cultural production, and material bases of incredibly resilient and flexible Indigenous economies. When early Settlers arrived to the area, they would not have found an area of ‘pristine’ wilderness, but rather an area crisscrossed by boundary lines, transportation routes (both over land and water), and – crucially given the cultural superiority of many Europeans who compared themselves favourably with ‘hunter gatherer’ societies – extensive cultivation.

Predictably, Settler societies rapidly grew and soon interfered with all of this, most prominently through the forced ‘removal’ or ‘displacement’ of Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous communities. At times this constituted physical removal, including a mass forced migration of Haudenosaunee communities displaced and dispossessed from their lands in what is now upstate New York following the American Revolution for having allied with the British.[iv] These displacements only increased in frequency following the War of 1812, as the settling of differences between Britain and America (agreeing on the 49th parallel as the border, lifting mutual naval blockades and encouraging rather than restricting trade) meant that neither colonial power had the impetus to continue respecting Indigenous autonomy. The War of 1812, fought on land from Kentucky and Michigan in the southwest, to Montreal and the St. Lawrence River in the northeast, and featuring naval engagements around the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, has been described by historian Alan Taylor as a ‘civil war,’ in which Settler people – largely related to each other in disposition and culture, and often through family and shared history – were pulled into a power struggle between established and emerging imperial powers.[v] As Taylor pointedly says, while neither Britain nor America decisively won the War of 1812, Indigenous people most definitely lost.

That statement obviously requires a caveat: I do not mean that Indigenous communities lost their claims to land or sovereignty. Rather, the end of the war foreclosed the ability of Indigenous nations to play American and British officials off of each other, and turned one of their greatest assets into an excuse for colonial officials to restrict and displace Indigenous people – the terror that Haudenosaunee warriors inspired in British AND American soldiers grew in the minds of English and other Settlers, who desired unfettered claim to the land, a claim frustrated by ongoing Haudenosaunee presence. I do not intend here, though, to detail all of the myriad ways that Settler anti-Indigenous racism was expressed or the acts of violence used to push Indigenous people on reserves, but instead to consider something very important: what is the significance of a cemetery in claiming land?

To answer, let us return to the site where we opened and consider: when is a cemetery not a cemetery, and when is it something ‘more’? Here, the work of Julie Rugg in classifying different kinds of burial grounds and memorials is indespensible – Rugg differentiates between a number of different kinds of burial sites, including cemeteries, mass graves, and ‘pantheons’. Smith’s Knoll is now classified as a cemetery, even if originally it would have been properly defined as a mass grave, with “the boundaries of the site… hastily erected, incomplete or even totally absent.”[vi] However, following the official designation as a cemetery in 1908 and subsequent installation of the monument and boundaries, Smith’s Knoll is definitively no longer simply a mass grave. This is significant because mass graves are often “a means of remembering catastrophe… rather than as a place to commemorate individuals.”[vii] In none of the markers on Smith’s Knoll, at Battlefield Park or Battlefield Monument, or in fact in any of the literature on the Battle of Stoney Creek, is the event remembered as a ‘catastrophe’ – not even for the defeated Americans. In fact, during my time working at Battlefield, I always remember the event being portrayed in an almost festive manner, as a relatively insignificant battle with few casualities was re-enacted by a jovial community in which most folks were friends, as if this were somehow representational of the actual experience.

More than a regular municipal cemetery, however, Smith’s Knoll appears to fit the definition of a “pantheon”:

Defined as ‘a monument or building commemorating a nation’s dead heroes’, the pantheon carries strong political purpose as a celebration of nationhood. It is not always the case that the pantheon contains actual interments…

…the pantheon transcends the local context, and is usually owned and maintained by the state. The site can often have political significance. Generally, the site is sacred because of the presence of the illustrious dead… Visits to the site tend to be dominated more by an element of pilgrimage and even sightseeing than by grief at the loss of a loved one.[viii]

Nearby Battlefield Monument also very clearly fills this purpose. Surrounded by a large park, and clearly billed by municipal authorities as a tourist site (official signs directing travellers towards Battlefield Park dot the local highways), the monument was purpose-built to celebrate the War of 1812 and the Battle of Stoney Creek as significant moments in the evolution of the Canadian nation, and also its connection to Victorian imperial ideals. Therefore, we can say this these two spaces taken together create a “deathscape,” a material landscape with a particular history of military violence and valour. What is the effect of creating this concentrated space of imperial memory?

The Battlefield Monument, a 33-meter faux-Gothic castle, was begun in 1909 and unveiled in 1913 on the 100th anniversary of the battle.

The Battlefield Monument, a 33-meter faux-Gothic castle, was begun in 1909 and unveiled in 1913 on the 100th anniversary of the battle.

Cemeteries and burial sites of all sorts root people in places. This passage from the Hamilton Heritage guide explains why people might be interested in cemeteries, and in so doing, exposes the role that cemeteries play in creating the kind of ‘historical narrative’ (or ‘mythistory’ to use Paulette Regan’s term[ix]) that Settler societies use to claim lands:

Part of the interest that cemetery markers possess comes from the documentation incorporated on the stone itself. Cemeteries provide resource materials that are an important component of Canadian Social History.

Markers often contain inscriptions and motifs reflecting the views and faith of early citizens of the town and countryside.[x]

So cemeteries exist in some sense so that contemporary people can use them to build particular kinds of memories, particular historical narratives. Further, the creation of a cemetery is the creation of a theoretically inviolable space, both because of cultural and social protocols and prohibitions around cemeteries, and through the formal regimes that delineate and govern cemetery spaces.[xi] Both these formal and informal protections serve to frame spaces to endlessly celebrate the Settler nation and also pin the War of 1812 and the Battle of Stoney Creek as pivotal and – this is key – originary historical events. As the Battle of Stoney Creek as a historical event becomes portrayed as the ‘birth’ of a place in the Settler colonial imaginary, the origin story for the region helps to support the erasure of the thriving Indigenous landscape that early Settlers would have encountered. The story of Stoney Creek, in the mind of most Settlers, does not start with Indigenous presence, or even with colonial encounter, but with a bloody battle between already existing Settler societies – and therefore, in the social memory of Settler Canadians, Indigenous people are erased while violence and English culture are glorified and emphasized.

Smith’s Knoll is one of only three cemeteries in Hamilton designated for protection under the Ontario Heritage Act “solely on their merit as cemeteries.”[xii] The burials are significant because they honour war dead, and because the bodies are old – they predate Canada itself as an entity. This is a feature Smith’s Knoll shares in common with Stoney Creek Municipal Cemetery (adjacent to Battlefield Park on its western side). Stoney Creek Municipal Cemetery is cited as particularly noteworthy in the Hamilton Heritage guide for its 1812 connections, as it contains the body of Billy Green, the hero scout who warned of the American advance.[xiii] At Smith’s Knoll, the imperial lion that tops the stone monument and the replica cannons installed at the site link an overt militarism and imperialism to a solemn, respectful space (see Figure 1). Sites like Smith’s Knoll and Battlefield Monument, through their clear use of symbols of imperial military valour, and Stoney Creek Muncipial Cemetery, as the ‘eternal resting place’ of local war heroes, evoke a past that Settler people in the present can look on with pride and patriotism. As Johnston and Ripmeester write, monuments to war dead – whether ‘pantheons’ or individual headstones – resonate with “patriotism, courage and duty” to “evoke tales of valour.”[xiv]

The effect of this is that Settler societies begin to assert claims to land through valorous heritage and history soaked in the blood of young patriots, claims that cannot be questioned without also treading on the sanctified memories of the glorious war dead buried in those lands. Even as nearby Stoney Creek Municipal Cemetery has ceased to serve as a place to put new bodies (it has been full and closed for some time), it is still carefully maintained. It is unthinkable that the cemetery would be discontinued from serving the function of honouring the bodies already intered there – war dead from the Battle of 1812 and other early civic figures are buried there. Thus these cemeteries, Stoney Creek and Smith’s Knoll, have reached a critical mass, becoming an inert space, a Settler colonial ballast.

Located within sight of both Stoney Creek Municipal Cemetery and Smith’s Knoll, the sign at the entrance of Battlefield Park invites visitors to participate in military-themed family fun.

Located within sight of both Stoney Creek Municipal Cemetery and Smith’s Knoll, the sign at the entrance of Battlefield Park invites visitors to participate in military-themed family fun.

The mixture of the bodies of soldiers with the soil makes places like Smith’s Knoll and Battlefield Park ‘special.’ So special, in fact, that Settler people will go to great lengths, twisting history and logic, to protect their ‘sacred’ relationship to these key sites of nationalism. By way of an example, consider the series of events kicked off in 2010, when a new host of bodies, also soldiers killed in the Battle of Stoney Creek, were found on and adjacent to a private property connected to Battlefield Park. An article in The Toronto Star newspaper, stumping for public funds to rebury the remains with honour alongside those at Smith’s Knoll, quoted a local politician who reinforced the nationalist narrative of the Settler deathscape. Paul Miller, NDP MPP, paradoxically asserted that “If the British hadn’t won that battle — it was the pivotal battle of the war — if we hadn’t won it, we would probably be flying the American flag in Ontario right now”.[xv] The article goes on to assert that “the young men of 1812 were the first Canadians,” and deserving of “proper respect.”[xvi]

This is why it is so important to pay attention to the minutia of history. These bodies were not of brave Canadian patriots because such a thing did not exist at that time. We actually know very little about these soldiers. The distinct lack of names of the dead at Smith’s Knoll – or attempts to ascertain them, to construct biographies, to know anything about them other than which uniform that they wore – allows for a blurring of the boundary between settlement colony and imperial core, and so contemporary Settler Canadians can claim these long dead soldiers as their own people, regardless of whether or not the dead would have agreed. They certainly did not think of themselves as ‘Canadian’: they were professional British soldiers, a few ‘Loyalist’ militiamen, and some American invaders. They did not ‘defend Canada’ – some fought for the British Crown, while others fought for an American identity still emerging from the Revolutionary War. Yet by emphasizing this event – the Battle of Stoney Creek – in all its military glory as the point at which Canada, or at least this part of it, was created and defended, bought and paid for in the blood of young patriots, we obscure a much longer history. Where did the Indigenous nations and governments go that not only pre-dated Canada and America, but which also played key roles in the War of 1812 itself? They remain marginalised in history, their disappearance made to seem normal by the overwhelming sense that Canada was always already here, just waiting for someone to die (and be buried) for it.


[i] This article is based on research conducted in support of a forthcoming publication in the journal Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

[ii] Carstens, Patrick Richard & Timothy, L. Sanford, Searching for the Forgotten War – 1812, Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Books, 2012: 82

[iii] City of Hamilton, Hamilton’s Heritage, Volume 6: Inventory of Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, Hamilton: Planning and Economic Development Department, 2005: 119.

[iv] Monture, Rick, We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015: 35-38. Despite this upheaval, Indigenous communities generally and the Confederacy specifically remained dominant political and military forces in the region into the early 19th century.

[v] For details, see: Taylor, Alan, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

[vi] Rugg, Julie, “Defining the place of burial: What makes a cemetery a cemetery?”, Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 5, 3 (2002), 259-275: 268.

[vii] “Defining the Place of Burial,” 2002: 268.

[viii] “Defining the Place of Burial,” 2002: 271.

[ix] Regan, Paulette, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

[x] Hamilton’s Heritage, 2005: 16.

[xi] Maddrell, Avril & James Sidaway, “Introduction: Bringing a Spatial Lens to Death, Dying, Mourning and Rememberance,” in Deathscapes: Spaces for Death, Dying, Mourning and Remembrance, eds. Avril Maddrell & James Sidaway, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, 1-16: 9.

[xii] Hamilton’s Heritage, 2005: 3.

[xiii] Hamilton’s Heritage, 2005: 96.

[xiv] Johnston, Russell & Michael Ripmeester, “Awake anon the tales of valour: the career of a war memorial in St. Catharines, Ontario,” The Canadian Geographer 59, 4 (2009), 404-426: 422.

[xv] Coyle, Jim, “Let’s show proper respect to heroes of War of 1812,” Toronto Star, 23 May 2010; emphasis added.

[xvi] The property was eventually purchased, the house demolished, and a comprehensive archaeological dig undertaken in order to properly rebury the bodies, funded by public budgets.


A big thank you goes out to Dr. Barker for such an awesome blog post! He’s a super busy guy, but I hope to convince him to come back and write some more stuff for us!. Fingers crossed. 😉

We’re still in wait-and-see regarding the roundup. I don’t want to promise you guys something, and then not delivery. I’m seeing the doctor as we speak (funny how that keeps happening), and I’ll keep you updated! Otherwise, don’t forget to check back next Tuesday for another special guest post. And if you liked this post, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you do your social media-ing!

Liked this post? Please take a second to support Unwritten Histories on Patreon!


  1. Thanks Andi! It was an honour to be asked to share some thoughts through your blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


© 2018 Unwritten Histories

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑