What happened to the cemeteries each time Ste. Anne’s relocated (Part 2)

 Detroit’s Ste. Anne’s Cemetery

(Part 2 of 3)

Part 1

by guest blogger

Liam Collins

Ste. Anne’s Cemetery PT II 

Much of the yard trash tossed in Ste. Anne’s Cemetery I was collected and cataloged by student archaeologists through Wayne State University’s Gordon Grosscup Museum of Anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s. The collection is still in storage.1

Much of the debris found was household items; broken pottery, animal bones and cracked musket flints, and wood. Organic rubbish rotted quickly with no trace. The site became known when standing buildings were demolished and excavation work by contractors on their slab foundations exposed the debris field of the original cemetery site. No human remains were noted.

This re-use of the land coincided with a general trend that is noted in American archaeology 2, prior to around 1820 most household refuse was simply tossed into yards or vacant spaces to lay on the surface. Then, around 1820 for whatever reason, most people started collecting refuse and burying it in shallow pits on the property or tossing it into outhouse privies or into dried up wells. By 1880, trash was collected in Detroit and removed to trash dump sites. Ste. Anne’s Cemetery I clearly shows this earlier usage with many layers of household rubbish debris tossed on top of the original graveyard soil horizon and sealed under more modern soil layers. 

In 1817, with the church moving to the current location at Howard and 19th Streets, the need to open Ste. Anne’s street for businesses caused a bitter fight in the Catholic community over “what to do” with the original cemetery. Only with the intercession of Bishop Flaget, of Bardstown Kentucky, did the Catholic community finally, on May 5, 1817 exhume the ‘old’ cemetery and clear the land for development, leaving the trash and theoretically many of the internments as they were not marked.

The modern idea of clearly laid out cemeteries was not in vogue during Ste. Anne’s (I) usage. “1817 The first day of the month of May and the fifth day of the same month, we undersigned priest pastor of Ste. Anne have moved a certain quantity of bones lifted from the middle of the Grande rue that was formerly the old (ancien) cemetery of the old (ancienne) Church of Ste. Anne; with the usual ceremonies and in the presence of Etienne dubois undersigned and a large assembly of people. The bones [Ossements] were placed in two large fosses quarries [square ditches] near the middle of the actual cemetery [the one in use since [at least] 1798] [signed] Etienne Dubois G Richard ptr cure 3 (Translation by author)

It should be worth noting that a large part of the objections to this exhumation centered on the fact that many of the older graves had no markers and later internments in Ste. Anne’s I frequently had to displace previous graves. Upon moving the remains to Ste. Anne’s Cemetery II, it was remarked upon in several places that some internments had been ‘left behind’ and subsequent road and building projects in this area have turned up human remains in this area as late as the 1960s. 4 

Photo by Gail Moreau-DesHarnais on 309th anniversary of Detroit's founding
Photo by Gail Moreau-DesHarnais on 309th anniversary of Detroit’s founding

This ‘new’ St. Anne’s (Ste. Anne’s II) cemetery at Congress and Bates seemed to operate as the sole burial place for the Catholics in Detroit until 1827, at which time Antoine Beaubien sold a parcel of land from his family farm along what is today St. Antoine street near Gratiot Avenue and Clinton Street to the City for use as a burial ground. This City Cemetery was to be divided down the middle by a fence, separating Catholic and Protestant internments.

This cemetery quickly filled during the cholera epidemics of 1832-1834 and the ‘new’ St Anne’s cemetery recorded no burials during those years. The St Anne’s cemetery II was closed in 1837 when Congress Street was being straightened and graded and all marked burials were again disinterred and removed to the City Cemetery. Record keeping was much better and the sextons assured the general public that no burials were left behind. 

City Cemetery closed to internments in 1849 due to lack of space and again pressure to build on the land caused the removal of all internments there in 1869. The Catholic section was moved to a mass grave in Mt. Elliot cemetery (Section A) in that year, where the current c.2010 marker paid for by the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan indicates that 1,490 souls are buried in their fourth resting spot. Some of those bones are no doubt those of the original settlers, but since only marked graves made the first voyage, and no monuments or records were transferred in any of the following moves, their identities remain unknown. 

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1 http://clasweb.clas.wayne.edu/anthromuseum# accessed 10/1/2013

2 Deetz, James (1976) “In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life” 1996 revised edition; New York; Anchor Books

3 Early U.S. French Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1695-1954 > D > Détroit, Ste.-Anne; Autres

Registres > 1701-1800: image 50 of 94.

4 Unpublished documents: Wayne State University, Gordon Grosscup Museum Archives, Department of Anthropology

About the author

Guest blogger Liam Collins and son
Guest blogger Liam Collins and son

Liam Collins is a life-long, seventh generation Detroiter. He graduated from Wayne State with concurrent degrees in anthropology and history.  While at WSU, Liam participated in the Corktown Archaeology Survey and worked as a research assistant in the Center for Urban Studies concentrating on neighborhood development. He serves as advisor to the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition and managing director of the Detroit Center for Public Archaeology.  He and his wife are the parents of a three year old who loves his Saturday morning pancakes at Eastern Market.

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