After a day packed with explorations and a lovely dinner at the Garrison House I was ready for my final discovery of the day: the famous Annapolis Royal Graveyard Tour. Punctually at 9:15 pm I showed up across the road from the my bed and breakfast at the south entrance of Fort Anne where local historian and expert guide Alan Melanson was ready to give his performance. About 15 people, hailing from places such as North Carolina, California and Saskatchewan, were equipped with candle-lit lanterns and after a brief introduction we were ready to head out.
Alan enlightened us that his outfit was an authentic funeral suit, the black sash and the black scarf tied around the hat were symbols of mourning. We learned that when children died the scarf on the hat would be white. Alan told the group that he has been doing this tour four nights a week, every week from June to October for 15 years and he has only missed one evening. The $7 donation for the tour goes to the Historical Society of Annapolis Royal, and over the years Alan has collected about $60,000 for this non-profit organization. Alan has been a park ranger and guide at the Fort Anne National Historic Site for about 27 years now and in addition to historical interpretation he also does outreach to bring history into local classrooms.
We started walking towards the cemetery, up and down through Fort Anne’s “earthworks”, fortifications constructed from mounds of earth which were intended to protect Annapolis Royal from potential intruders. The cemetery is just a few steps away from Fort Anne, and Alan collected the group at the largest gravestone, an obelisk and started the official tour.
Our first stop was the oldest gravestone in the cemetery, dating back to 1720, which belonged to a 37 year old woman. Alan explained that gravestones feature a lot of symbolism: death was represented for example by a winged skull, young children and babies who passed away would be symbolized by pictures of flowers, lambs or rose buds. Weeping willows were often used to represent death and mourning. Alan also educated us that different types of stone were used as gravestones over the centuries: slate, sandstone, granite and marble were all used to immortalize the dead.
Many of the residents of the graveyard had interesting stories: an 83-year old woman got cheated out of her fortune by a bad husband. Some soldiers were also buried here and Alan shed light on life in the army in the 18th century: out of 100 soldiers only six were allowed to bring their wives with them during deployments from England in the colonies. The wives and children who were allowed to come did not fare well either as they had to share bunk beds with their husbands. Conditions for soldiers only changed during the Crimean War when press coverage made the general public aware of the poor living conditions of soldiers, resulting in general outrage. The power of the press was already in evidence in the 1850s…
We also learned that large groups of volunteers regularly clean the gravestones, carefully using wooden tools and soap to scrape off the moss and then finishing the job with a solution made of vinegar and water. Alan reported that very little vandalism happens here in this historic graveyard since the local residents are extremely proud of their heritage. As a ninth generation Acadian, as a historic interpreter at Fort Anne and as the President of the Annapolis Royal Historical Society, Alan Melanson can personally attest to the importance and appreciation of history that characterizes this area. Annapolis Royal has the biggest National Heritage District consisting of 135 heritage buildings, it features the oldest gravestone and the oldest National Historic Site in Canada.
The pride in local history also includes reenactments of historic events and lifestyles. Alan told us about various historical reenactments which served moose nose soup and smoked beaver tail, dishes very similar to those that would have been savoured in the early 1600s by the settlers of the Port-Royal Habitation, incidentally the place where Wayne Melanson, Alan’s identical twin brother, introduced me to early French history this afternoon.
Annapolis Royal is one of the most historic towns on the east coast and the oldest house in town, just east of the Historic Gardens, dates back to 1708. Alan explained the town’s history was based around shipbuilding and of 13 wharfs only one is still in existence. The Garrison Graveyard houses 234 gravestones and more than 2000 people are buried here. Early Acadian settlers are also interred here, but their graves did not have gravestones – their wooden crosses have long since rotted away.
Our local expert also informed us that a soldier dating back to the 1780s was found buried in the riverbed. Based on historical accounts and the burial technique, this person must have been a criminal which is the reason why he was buried in the river. Alan Melanson, himself a ninth generation Acadian who can trace his own lineage back to a certain Charles Melanson who arrived in this area in 1664, certainly has a passion for history and it shows. His theatrical voice conveys enthusiasm for the history of this town and he injects his presentation with humour and wittiness. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin also enjoyed his Garrison Graveyard Tour with Alan Melanson.
After the tour was over I returned the lantern and received a certificate attesting that I had attended the Annapolis Royal Graveyard Tour. I came back to the Garrison House B&B and peeked out into the dark cemetery, wondering what life must have been like in this town in the 1700 and 1800s. I laid down to rest up for another full day of explorations tomorrow which would include the Tidal Power Generating Plant, the Bear River Heritage and Cultural Centre and a coastal drive down to Yarmouth on the western tip of this province. Nova Scotia sure has a lot of history, interesting personalities and many fascinating human stories…
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