02 February 2015

The Johnson Burial Vault

Last August, a longstanding, worthy project came to completion in the Eastern Townships (l'Estrie) of Quebec. Interested parties gathered to re-consecrate the last resting place of a Canadian hero, Sir John Johnson, Bt, UE. The Société de restauration du patrimoine Johnson had every right to feel proud of their accomplishment. Formed by members of the Sir John Johnson Centennial Branch of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada (UELAC) and Société d'histoire du Haut-Richelieu, with the cooperation of Quebec's Ministère de la Culture et des Communications (MCCQ) and archaeologists, the Société had restored the long derelict burial place.

Why was this necessary?
 Sir John died in 1830; he and other family members were buried at Mount Johnson (now known as Mont Saint-Grégoire) near the rural residence he favoured in his last years. The location is east of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. This 1940s photo taken by the 6th Baronet shows how the stone vault became forgotten and deteriorated as the Johnson property changed hands; nature and local farming took its course. Vandalism ensured that the inscribed stones were scattered. It seems bizarre, but the site was so rundown in the 1950s it was bulldozed into a pit in the belief that it was no more than a pile of old rubble.

Years later it was difficult to identify the original site but bones were recovered among the stones, thanks to the dedicated persistence of the Société, a team of archaeologists, and many individuals. The nineteenth-century painting likely helped in the reconstruction process. Details of the restoration story can be seen on the Sir John Johnson Centennial Branch website. 
Painting of the vault by Henry Richard Bunnett, 1885; McCord Museum, Montreal
Among the surviving inscriptions were:
Sir John Johnson, second baronet, born in 1742 at Fort Johnson, New York, died in Montreal on January 4, 1830 in his 88th year;
Lady Mary "Polly" Johnson nee Watts, wife of Sir John Johnson, died on August 7, 1815.
Sir John's gravestone had been found earlier and is mounted at the Mississquoi Museum, Stanbridge East, Quebec. Researchers used newspaper notices among other records to estimate there were at least a half-dozen burials in the old vault.
Sir John Johnson in the 1790s,
McCord Museum, Montreal

Briefly, John Johnson was born in 1741, son of Mohawk Valley entrepreneur and colonial Superintendent of Northern Indians William Johnson (later Sir William, 1st Baronet of New York) and Catherine Weissenberg. Sir John was knighted by King George III during an extended visit to the British Isles 1765-1767, then succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's death.  
Gavin Watt's 2006 edition is
available from Global Genealogy

He is best known as the Loyalist leader who, as the American Revolutionary War began, escaped to Quebec to form the King's Royal Regiment of New York in 1776. The KRRNY (aka Royal Yorkers) was the foremost Loyalist Corps in the Northern Command throughout the conflict. 

Sir John was also esteemed for his commitment to native allies as Inspector General of the Six Nations and later, as head of the Indian Department. Post-war, Sir John acquired extensive real estate in Lower and Upper Canada with several homes finer than that at Mount Johnson ― including his Montreal residence and manor homes at St. Andrews, Quebec, and Williamstown, Ontario (the former burned; the latter is preserved as a museum). Much more detail is in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

In a solemn service the excavated remains were carried in two funeral urns to their restored resting place accompanied by members of the recreated King's Royal Yorkers among other dignitaries. It's unfortunate that media coverage of the event is hard to come by; see the Sir John Johnson Centennial Branch Fall 2014 Newsletter for photographs and more of the re-consecration.

An important figure in eighteenth-century Canadian history gets some overdue respect.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman 

1 comment:

Frederick H Hayward UE said...

Great article. Tks, Brenda. For other details of the struggle to restore and the family history, look to the website of the SJJC Branch UELAC (http://www.uelac.org/SirJohnJohnson/index.php)