PEI

Archeological dig at Glenaladale reveals lives of P.E.I.'s early Scottish settlers

An archeological dig at the Glenaladale estate near Tracadie Bay, P.E.I., is unearthing thousands of artifacts from a house owned by Capt. John MacDonald, who arrived with the early Scottish settlers.
Archeologist Erin Montgomery holds two of the 5,000 artifacts that they have found so far at the site of Capt. John's house. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

An archeological dig at the Glenaladale estate near Tracadie Bay, P.E.I., is unearthing thousands of artifacts from a house owned by Capt. John MacDonald.

MacDonald brought the first Scottish Catholic settlers to Tracadie in 1772, and 250th anniversary celebrations are planned for the site in 2022.  

The house is believed to have been as large as the existing house, but was destroyed by fire in 1865.

The fieldwork at Glenaladale began in 2018, after a team of provincial archaeologists surveyed a treed area on the property near Tracadie Bay. 

The extensive collection of letters between Capt. John and his sister, Nelly, who cared for the estate when he was away, give the archeological team valuable clues to help with the dig. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

They were able to identify several depressions, which are often an indicator of past human activity. 

They did five shovel tests at various locations within the largest depression, and discovered artifacts dating to the 19th century.

"As soon as we started digging here, we started finding pieces of pottery, and glass, and nails, which gave us a clue that there might have been some sort of site here," said Erin Montgomery, P.E.I. staff archeologist.

The artifacts include an inkwell, bottles, pottery, nails, hinges, everything associated with a home. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"When we started digging through the soil, we actually found a layer of burned, blackened soil that looks like a fire," Montgomery said.

"In addition to that, the artifacts that were in that layer were all melted and burned and molten.

"That kind of gives us an idea that this is probably Capt. John's mansion, in addition to the size of it, and the artifacts that we found, the date of them, it corresponds to that time period." 

Smell of smoke

Montgomery said, adding to the excitement of the find, was the smell of smoke as they excavated.

"In the layer of blackened soil, it's just like soot, and it smelled like a fire that had been burning yesterday," Montgomery said.

"It's black. It gets all over you. It's a thick layer and it's throughout the entire site here."

Montgomery said they found layer of blackened soil, like soot, and they could actually smell smoke. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Montgomery said there are newspaper reports about the fire at Capt. John's house, but they're not sure how much of the house was destroyed by the fire. 

"We do know, looking at the historical documents, that it was a chimney spark that caught fire, and that people from the surrounding area came to help," Montgomery said.

"We're not sure of the full extent. But we have found it in every unit so far, so we're still trying to patch that together." 

Thousands of artifacts

Montgomery said they have found a wide range of artifacts, from structural items, such as part of the fireplace, and a brick and stone floor, to personal items.

"We've found an inkwell, bottles, carpenter's ruler, their pottery, the things that they would have been eating on," Montgomery said. 

"A doorknob, everything and anything that would be in a house. We've found over 5,000 artifacts so far. It's just a great collection of day-to-day life."

The 5,000 artifacts include many common household items, including this cheese grater. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Montgomery said there is an extensive collection of letters between Capt. John and his sister, Nelly, who cared for the estate when he was away, giving the archeological team valuable clues to help with the dig. 

She said the letters also add special meaning to every discovery. 

Montgomery describes the site, and the artifacts they have found as a portal to the past. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"It provides such a connection, like a portal to the past, and it's a really surreal, powerful feeling to touch something that meant something to someone hundreds, and even thousands of years ago, for other sites, " Montgomery said.  

"To have that connection, it's just a remarkable feeling, and you really want to do them justice by telling their story."

The archeologists estimate that Capt. John's house that they are now excavating was roughly the same size as the existing house. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Scottish connections

Several members of the archeological team also have personal connections to the Scottish story. 

"My dad is from Glasgow, Scotland, so my family is from there, so I feel a particular connection to the Scottish settlers that came here," Montgomery said.

"There's also a connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Jacobites. So it adds another layer of complexity to it, to the time period. And I'm just really, really patriotic for Scotland."

Montgomery's father is from Glasgow, Scotland, so she feels a particular connection to the Scottish settlers that came to the Tracadie site. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Calum Brydon is from Cornwall, P.E.I., a third-year archeology student at Memorial University working at Glenaladale for the summer.

"I do have some Scottish heritage, so some sort of a connection there as well," Brydon said.

"It's just a really cool site. There's so much here, and so much history on the property."

Brydon has found some artifacts since starting to help with the excavation, including some nails and a few pieces of glass. 

Calum Brydon is from Cornwall, P.E.I., a third-year archeology student at Memorial University working at Glenaladale for the summer. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

P.E.I.'s director of Indigenous relations and archeology said that connection to the site makes the experience at Glenaladale special. 

"I think I can speak for all of the crew, including myself, when I say we've fallen in love with the characters," said Helen Kristmanson.

"Because it's very unusual in the work that we do on archeological sites that we can connect directly to the characters through their letters, and hear their voice directly like that.

Archeologist Helen Kristmanson says she and the crew have 'fallen in love' with the characters associated with the dig at Glenaladale. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"I think that we all feel a personal connection now to to the people who settled this place." 

Kristmanson said there is lots of work still to be done at Capt. John's mansion, but also around the property where the Highlanders would have lived. 

"We'll just continue to kind of expand our gaze here over the years. So I see this as a long-term project as long as they'll have us here."

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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