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Month: February 2022

It’s a Mystery — The Intended “John Hamilton” Headstone

It’s a Mystery — The Intended “John Hamilton” Headstone

Now resting quietly in the front garden of the O’Reilly House museum, an aura of mystery imbues the intended headstone of John Hamilton. But just who was John Hamilton?

Discovering the Headstone

Like every headstone, it no doubt harbours the memory of the person whose name has been inscribed on its front. The date and year he departed this life—18th January, 1826— and maybe a few poignant words about his life and past offer but a hint of who he was to his family, friends and the people who knew him. Below is the only writing that could be determined from the headstone (Source: Barry Gaulton).

Here lieth

John Hamilton

January 18th 1826 Aoc ____

________ and liberal for

_______________life but

____ mons of death he ___

interested ___ generous piety worth

________ For he made Jesus ____

heir in the persons of the suffering

of Placentia Bay without distinction

Creed or Country

May Mercy from his God be he____

act to truly Christian and _____


SMYTH Waterford

Although the headstone was intended for a John Hamilton, the identity of this person remains a mystery. Of course, there are a few hints regarding his identity. Barry Gaulton and Matthew Carter, the two archaeologists who did an archaeological survey where the headstone was initially found, offered a suggestion or two of John Hamilton’s identity.

Trying to Put It all Together

As the story goes, the stone was made in Waterford Ireland by a Smyth. This was inscribed into the corners of the headstone. I was informed that “Andrew and Thomas Smyth” once ran “Stonemason Waterside” in Waterford, Ireland and this was found in the Pigot Directory. At the time, the Pigot Directory listed information regarding all major professions, nobility, gentry, clergy, trades and occupations including taverns and public houses. Now long gone, this was likely where the headstone was made.

Apparently, the headstone was sent from Ireland to Placentia as ballast on one of the ships owned by Roger F. Sweetman, a fish merchant who was part of a long-standing firm in Placentia.

Something occurred along the way and instead of being used as the headstone for the said John Hamilton, it found a lasting place of rest as the doorstep for Blenheim House, the home of Roger F. Sweetman.

Who Was John Hamilton?

If we’re wondering who was this John Hamilton, there are a few worthy avenues to follow. For instance, there was a Captain John Hamilton of the 40th Regiment whose name appears in the Placentia area history. Of course, on its own, this path leads to its own set of questions.

This John Hamilton appears to have been the son of Otho Hamilton, the Lieutenant Governor of Placentia from 1744 to 1764 (the latter date is uncertain) and brother to another Otho Hamilton who was also of the 40th Regiment and sister Grizel Hamilton.

Although the year of death that appears on the headstone would not correspond with this particular individual, there is reference to yet another John Hamilton in the military. He may be the person who is remembered on the headstone.

His name was discovered in a letter from a “Lieutenant John Hamilton.” Who was this John Hamilton? We learn that Captain John Hamilton was actually married three times. His first wife, Martha Shirreff Hamilton, died before bearing children. However, his second and third wives, Mary Handfield and Ann Moore, did give birth to children. With Mary Handfield, he had three children, their names being Otho, William and Thomas (see page 16 of Lt.-Col. Otho Hamilton of Olivestob). With Ann Moore, his third wife, he apparently had a John. And it’s a John Hamilton’s letter I discovered at The Rooms in St. John’s. He signs his name as John Hamilton Junior and also refers to his Uncle Richard Dawson. This was in fact the husband of Captain John Hamilton’s sister, Grizel.

Lieutenant John Hamilton

Moreover, he refers to “succeeding to the Lieutenancy vacant by Lieut Hudson’s removal.” For what it’s worth, in Lt.-Col. Otho Hamilton of Olivestob), there is reference to another John Hamilton, “who received his Ensign’s commission in the 40th, on the 28th of June, 1755, and his Lieutenancy, the 28th of February, 1 761, and who also disappears from the army list as an officer of the 40th in 1766. Whether he was a son of the John Hamilton, naval officer, or who he was we cannot now tell.”

Taking this into account together with the letter I discovered, this lieutenant does appear to be the son of Captain John Hamilton. Unfortunately, the dates do not match with the Wikipedia article. It stated that John was only born in 1779 which would be twenty years prior to the letter I found at The Rooms. The letter was clearly written when he was already an adult. However, there’s no reference given by the Wikipedia article to allow verification of the information. Is it therefore correct?

As well, his year of lieutenancy stated in the Olivestob document (1761) does not correspond to the letter (1759). Although, in the letter, he does note how they “have heard nothing of it neither have we heard who is our present Lieut. Col. Nor nothing regarding our Regiment.” So, it is entirely possibly it took a couple of years to finalise.

Any Other John Hamiltons?

Needless to say, there are a lot of unanswered questions, particularly, whether this John Hamilton could even be the intended owner of the headstone. While exploring these John Hamiltons from Scotland, at the same time, there are Hamiltons right here in Newfoundland.

Many of these Hamiltons settled on islands such as Isle Valen and Oderin in Placentia Bay. Plus, it is known that many from around the region found work with the Sweetmans, thus allowing the family to have the means to purchase a headstone from Ireland. Undoubtedly, there are no shortage of avenues to investigate.

While the memories that bring life to John Hamilton are still faint, in time and with additional research, they will become more audible and the words carved on the stone, will equally grow in meaning.

The Beothuk — A People Remembered

The Beothuk — A People Remembered

Portrait of Demasduit (Mary March) 1819 watercolour on ivory USE/REPRODUCTION: Copyright: Expired Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1977-14-1

Hundred’s of years ago, their boats quietly landed on the beach, the water gently lapping onshore. They would’ve then solemnly disembarked and located the site that had been chosen for the burial. These were the Beothuk.

It is believed members of the Beothuk tribe arrived on Hangman’s Island, one of the islands of the Ragged Islands in western Placentia Bay. There, they carefully buried a member of their tribe who’s body had been meticulously prepared. It had been covered with a shield made from strips of birch bark. These had been painstakingly sewn together.

No one knows why members of the Beothuk had chosen these islands as a burial ground. It had certainly not been the first time they had visited the region. A host of artefacts—end-scrapers, blades, flakes, and bifaces—had been located archaeologically in various places such as Long Island, Merasheen Island, and at Tack’s Beach.

The area where these artefacts had been found was likely being used for both the manufacture of the tools of hunting and hunting itself. Closing our eyes, one can imagine the men and women sitting around a campsite, chatting every now and then, but busily working the pieces of rock into the tools they required. While these artefacts were regarded as belonging to earlier First Nations, those from Tack’s Beach, in particular, were attributed to the Beothuk.

As far as we know, these artefacts have not been dated. Nonetheless, it is safe to say the beothuk were no doubt accustomed to spending some of their time around the islands of Placentia Bay. In and around 1610 when John Guy landed and established a colony in Cupids, they actually met and traded with the Beothuk. In all likelihood, the Beothuk would’ve also spent time fishing for salmon in the Come-By-Chance River.

On the mainland of the Avalon, archaeological work has identified their presence in Ferryland. Up until that time, most believed the Beothuk did not spend much time on the Avalon. So, it was a promising find. Because having found evidence of their presence in Ferryland, it is highly likely, before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Beothuk may have also followed paths through the southwest Avalon.

When the European fishery was predominantly migratory, once the Europeans left, the Beothuk could take advantage of the metal tools that had been left behind. However, with the coming of the seventeenth century, things were changing and more and more Europeans were actually settling in Newfoundland. By the mid-18th century European presence restricted the Beothuk largely to the Exploits Valley and adjacent coast in central Newfoundland.

Tragically, the Beothuk were trapped in a world that had transformed. They turned down any opportunity to trade with the Europeans and they even refused to adopt guns as a part of their culture. With the settlement of Europeans, a diminishing amount of land was available for the Beothuk to pursue their livelihoods as they once did. The places where they once hunted, established their camps, or buried their people were no longer accessible. The islands of Placentia Bay, not the Avalon where they may once have traverse, was no longer available for the Beothuk. Plus, adding to their difficulties was the old enemy—disease. Like many before them, the Beothuk were reduced by measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis.

In April 1823, a group of trappers captured a Beothuk woman by the name of Shanawdithit (the niece of Mary March) with her mother and sister, both of whom shortly died from tuberculosis. Shanawdithit survived and lived at Exploits Island. There, she worked as a servant in the household of the magistrate and merchant John Peyton Jr.

She spent a portion of her time translating English words into her own language, a variant of the Algonkian family of languages. Shanawdithit also dedicated some of her time to drawing pictures that could relay an element of the Beothuk way of life—Beothuk tools, food, their homes and mythological figures.

It was inevitable however. On the 6th June, 1829, Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis. There are no doubt some surviving element of the Beothuk who likely exist to this day. However, as a distinct cultural entity, they are no more.


The Placentia Area — A Changing Mosaic

Risky Business

Risky Business

Safe. Predictable. That’s what we always want. For much of the time, most of us live well-guided lives, ones in which risk is rarely a part of the equation. And yet, every now and then, we are presented with a significant decision, often potentially life-changing. We feel like we’re on the edge of a precipice. Now we must choose. Do we take a step back into the arms of safety or do we close our eyes and fall. It’s a risk.

Taking the First Step

That’s how it often feels. Like we’d be falling into an abyss, no hands to clasp, ones that can pull us away from a most certain demise. But we wonder. If we were to possess a sound belief and an unwavering faith in ourselves, perhaps we won’t fall? When we open our eyes again, what we’ve merely achieved is only that first step—always the hardest—towards what we are seeking.


In order to risk taking that first step, we must also be ready to work. Whenever we’re taking a risk, having confronted our fears and had faith in ourselves to get to that point, other things fall into place. One of the key ingredients to our eventual success is our willingness to really work. Oh, but we are determined then. The fact is we had to truly believe in ourselves and our ability to do something, whatever that something happens to be. But this belief spurs us along to constantly work and re-work what we’re doing, until we meet with success. Such determination is always despite our fears.

This is another hurdle we must be ready to confront—our fears. Primary among them is failure or atychiphobia, the fear of failure. For those who suffer from this phobia, it can be frustratingly debilitating, a persistent fear of failing that can sometimes graduate into anxiety and depression. While for most, it does not develop into such an intense condition, the fear of failure is a reality that can hobble many of us.

However, failure is a complex entity. When we take a closer look, we realise it is neither our foe nor our longstanding nemesis. Ironically, it is a friend from which we can actually learn many a truth. It seems nonsensical. Although, to fail gives us several valuable lessons we could only receive after failing. First of all, having fallen, we only have two choices. We can stay where we are, never to try again. Or, we can get back up and try. We learn persistence and resilience. These are vital qualities that will always serve us well. Secondly, we also know something else invaluable. We now know what doesn’t work and that makes our way forward a little easier. Even if we have to try and fail several more times, each time we gain further insight.

The Uncertainties of Life

To take a risk and step off that precipice requires that we are, in addition, willing to confront uncertainty. For many individuals, we are now living in considerably uncertain and difficult times, a reality that leads to stress and other complications. For instance, our use of antidepressants is one indication of intense uncertainty. Since the 1990s, the use of antidepressants has increased substantially and more importantly, people are using these medications more and more for ailments other than depression.

Another critical measure is our mental health. Like our use of antidepressants, between 2003 and 2019, the percentage of Canadians who have judged their mental health as fair to poor has almost doubled. Uncertainty is only one very small component to these larger issues. However, it gives us an idea of the fragility of our minds and the reluctance to take risks.

Ironically, there are benefits in taking that risk. It builds our resolve, develops our persistence, and fortifies our confidence and determination. Together, these are all qualities that can work to strengthen our mental health. There’s even something known as Therapeutic risk-taking. It is meant to be empowering and allow individuals to realise that risk-taking is a necessary step towards developing coping strategies. Under the guidance of a mental health therapist, individuals can be allowed to take healthy risks that can enhance their growth as a person.

Many of us have been taught to avoid risk. “It’s too risky,” we’re told. So we don’t. However, we are often tempted to just try. So long as failure does not impede our ability to try again, why not steel our nerves and try what seems impossible and seemingly preposterous? Take the risk. It just might work. And if it doesn’t, then make a few changes and try again. As the author James A. Michener explained, “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”