I feel like a broken record lately, always talking about the snow. But it’s finally melting! We have been having some consistent warm weather so the snow has been disappearing quickly. I have been getting ready for the warmer weather by planning and mapping some upcoming cemetery walks. It’s exciting that the weather is finally warming up. I have some great future road trips planned and am looking forward to some fun cemetery adventures. All this planning has got me thinking about some of last year’s trips.
My mother and I did some exploring of St. Jospeh’s Island last year, home to Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site and bird sanctuary. We spent the night at a quaint little motel on the island and explored everything the island had to offer. I wrote a little about our adventure and finding a pet cemetery, but there are many more stories to tell from that trip.
So today, I wanted to share another experience from that cemetery road trip and talk about our visit to Fort St. Joseph, and the Historic Fort St. Joseph Cemetery.
I first learned about Fort St. Joseph when I stumbled onto a trail map while going down an internet rabbit hole. The cemetery trail piqued my interest and I redirected my Google search to learn more. Fort St. Joseph is a National Historic Site of Canada that features the ruins of an archaeological site and is filled with history about the War of 1812. “History that saw a powerful alliance struck between the British and the First Nations People of the western Great Lakes region.”1
The historic site has an interactive visitor center with a walk-through exhibit as well as an educational short film that tells you more about the history and discovery of the site. There is also a trail system that takes you through and around the ruins and includes the Cemetery Trail, Rains Point Trail, and the Lapointe Point Trail. Visiting cemeteries and hiking are two of my favorite things and often go hand in hand. I thought they would be a perfect destination for a summer road trip. My mother was on board right away when I asked her if she wanted to come. She is an avid bird watcher and was excited to visit the bird sanctuary. More than 200 species have been spotted in the area.1
After taking our time exploring the interactive exhibits and watching the film my mother and I headed outside to explore the ruins. Fort St. Joseph was once the most westerly fort in Upper Canada.1 All that is left today are the foundations, ruins, and surviving artifacts. It was very windy the day we went to explore the ruins, and rain was on the way. We took a chance and tried to beat the rain by going as soon as the site opened. We toured the ruins, reading the plaques and taking in the history laid out before us. I found it a little hard to imagine these small foundations housing a community, but the helpful diagrams and maps of the area helped visualize what the layout of the fort would have looked like in its time. Because we got there so early we had the place to ourselves and took our time exploring. Even with the strong winds, we spent some time at the shoreline, examining the horizon. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any birds or wildlife while we were there. I think we can blame the stormy weather on that.
Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site, St. Joseph Island ON ©2022
As we were finishing up at the ruins, the rain started to come down and visitors started to trickle in. When the rain started to pour down harder we took shelter in the visitor center and gift shop and tried to wait out the storm. They have a cozy little gift shop filled with most of the typical things you would expect from a historic site; postcards, magnets, pins, sweatshirts. One of the more interesting items they had was chocolate, more specifically heritage chocolate. Using a recipe and ingredients authentic to the colonial era, you can try a chocolatey treat that was commonly consumed at the time. They had chocolate sticks and hot chocolate mix at the time of our visit, and I regret not picking up the hot chocolate mix along with the couple of chocolate sticks I did purchase.
After the rain finally eased up, we made our way to the car. There was one more stop to make. The Cemetery Trail turns off the main road to and from the historic site. A small green sign with a hiking symbol and the word “Cemetery” mark the turnoff. My mother was a bit tired at that point and didn’t want to walk the trail. I didn’t have any idea where the cemetery was on this trail loop so I wasn’t sure how far I would need to walk to find it. She decided to stay in the car and wait.
At the trailhead, there is a trail map, along with a description of the cemetery. It reads “The cemetery at Fort St. Joseph contains graves established between 1796 and 1812. While there were only 10 recorded deaths during the occupancy of the fort, such as those of Jessie Crawford’s twins who died in 1807 shortly after birth, there are probably others who rest here eternally, their identities unknown. Those that died at Fort St. Joseph usually suffered from illness or their deaths were as a result of tragic events or accidents like that of Private Antoine Gazzinel who was killed May 9, 1803 when a loaded musket went off as he was placing it into a bateau. A cairn was erected in 1954 to recognize the final resting place of these individuals and stands today as a reminder of the community that once existed at Fort St. Joseph.”
The Cemetery is located right at the beginning of the trail, with a clearing opening up on the right side of the trail. The rain held out for me as I examined the large cairn and took photographs. The cairn reads, in English and French, ”This cairn marks the site of Fort St. Joseph cemetery in which are the graves of soldiers and fur traders who died here between the years 1796 and 1812.” There are about a dozen white crosses here, with no names. One grave looks to also be marked with stones surrounding it. It’s a peaceful spot, surrounded by the lush green forest, but it is also a place of sorrow. I was very sad to see the blank white crosses, marking lives that are now unknown, and who knows how many more lie there unmarked.
Fort St. Joseph Cemetery, St. Joseph Island ON ©2022
My mother and I really enjoyed our time visiting Fort. St. Joseph, even though the weather wasn’t ideal. Exploring the historic ruins and cemetery was an interesting look at the past, even when at times it was a somber one. It was my first time exploring a ruin site, and I look forward to the chance to visit more.
Have you visited Fort St. Joseph? Will you be adding it to your travel plans? I would love to read your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
- Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site | Parks Canada