- Who are the North Peace Cemetery Seekers Committee?
Darlene Heal, Barbara Godberson, Judy Hawthorne, Tamara Secrist
Charlotte Trueman (1957-2009)
“The Cemetery Seekers”
By Judy Hawthorne
The founding members of the Cemetery Seeker’s Committee were Barbara Godberson, Judy Hawthorne, Darlene Heal, and Tamara Secrist. The common denominator that brought us together was genealogy. We were all engaged in learning more about our ancestors, and sifting through records via microfilm and microfiche in the Family History Centre in Fort St. John, British Columbia. In the fall of 2004 Barb was presented with a box of data collected by a group from the Montney BC area who called themselves the Tree Tracers. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, these ladies had been both documenting the local cemeteries and collecting histories from the early homesteaders and their families. Due to a variety of factors including illness, and relocation, the project had been put on hold for several years. Their findings were passed on to us in the hopes that this endeavour would be completed. Winnis Baker had also been mapping and collecting information on the North Peace Cemeteries. She shared her material as well.
Needless to say we were feeling a little overwhelmed. On December 14, 2004 our committee held a goal setting meeting. We agreed to use the excel computer program to record the previously documented information onto spread sheets. We also decided to visit, record headstone inscriptions, and map each of the Cemeteries in the North Peace region. The data gathered would be cross referenced with the BC Archives, and other reliable sources. We divided up the material amongst ourselves and set to work. Our ultimate goal was to record this information as accurately as humanly possible, in a consistent, user friendly format.
The master copy of the cemetery index, spreadsheets, and maps, would be housed in the North Peace Museum, so that those seeking information about deceased ancestors would have easy access to the records. We also planned to send a digital copy of the index to the BC Cemetery Finding Aid Website. These were early days of a very ambitious undertaking.
Darlene brought the expertise of having previously recorded a cemetery, and presented great ideas on formatting spreadsheets and plot maps. She invited Charlotte Trueman on board to do hours of computer work, and later to photograph headstones and tirelessly enter hundreds of scanned obituaries. Terminal illness prevented Charlotte from continuing her work with the Cemetery Seekers.
February 26, 2005
Our next task was to contact the Cemetery Caretakers and invite them to a meeting to discuss our project. The North East News featured an article about our purposes, and extended a general invitation to the community as well. Two Scouts had been recording the Taylor and the Woodlawn Cemetery, and presented their findings at our meeting. The attendees were a combination of Cemetery Care Takers and Tree Tracers. We poured over maps, discussed goals, and obtained information on others in the area who were also looking after cemeteries. It was a good beginning!
Around this time we met Mrs. Ila Shelkie who had been featured in a news article where she recalled her memories of the Old Fort St. John Cemetery. We were able to scan bookfuls of obituaries that she had saved over the years. Barb also shared the Obits she had been collecting from the newspapers. She obtained permission from the North Peace Historical Society to photocopy and scan their collection of Obits. We plan to have a DVD of these 2,800+ obits available with our Master Index at the Museum.
We began early in 2005 to enter all the material we had from the Tree tracers and Win Baker. Next we physically visited the 18 or so cemeteries, collected the necessary information, and entered it onto our spreadsheets. We obtained many death certificates from BC Archives to validate and clarify our findings. We consulted many of the Cemetery Caretakers, comparing our records to theirs, to authenticate them. The Cemetery Seekers were often able to help them, and they us. Many communities had compiled History Books which proved to be a valuable source of information as well.
As we persevered, we discovered many obscure cemetery sites, and received tips from interested citizens about remote burials scattered through both town and countryside. From the start we continually ran into references about the Old Fort St John Cemetery located in the Old Fort Subdivision just north of the mighty Peace River. The “Old Fort” was the area of conception of present-day Fort St. John. A dedicated historian and genealogist, Faith Fell, had done extensive research on this subject. She dubbed it the Hudson Bay Company Cemetery, sending in her compilations to the Cemetery Division of the BC Government in Victoria, and became the contact person. A token portion of this cemetery is all that has escaped development. As we worked, we always kept this information in the back of our minds, and added to it as new discoveries came to light.
We found that living in the North as we do, quite often proved to be a challenge to the orderly burial of its residents. The Cemetery Seekers learned that when the countryside was covered with several feet of snow it was often difficult to bury the deceased in straight lines, or possibly even in the right row! When it came to mapping the cemeteries and numbering sections, rows, and plots, things were quite often out of whack. It became a little like detective work to line everything up. Our committee members were not to be defeated and spent tireless hours fulfilling our motto: A place for everyone, and everyone in its place. The bigger cemeteries at least, were visited and puzzled over, many times.
As time proceeded to the summer of 2006, Barb who volunteers at the Museum, was starting to receive requests regarding burials. Our project was beginning to be recognized and many people had questions. To date we have been able to help several individuals discover the location of deceased loved ones.
In October of 2006 The Cemetery Seekers were invited to do a presentation at a Family History Conference in Grand Prairie AB. Darlene set up quite an elaborate display of fur trade artefacts and pictures, and presented a workshop on Aboriginal and Metis research. Our Cemetery Seeker’s booth was well attended and we were able to field questions from other communities who were involved in the same undertaking.
Besides visiting cemeteries hither, thither, and yon, we also went on fact finding missions to Donnelly AB – The Smokey River Historical Society, and Dawson Creek – Peace Country Roots Group. Meanwhile, life went on with our committee, and in spite of setbacks we managed to keep pushing forward. About this time The Cemetery Seekers were invited to a series of Discover Our Heritage workshops in Fort St. John. This brought people in the community together who were working on various areas of North Peace History. We could see what others were doing to preserve the uniqueness of this area.
In April 2007 we were almost finished scanning all the obituaries. Tamara, Barb, and I attended services at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Taylor and learned more about the tragic deaths of the Hoffstrom daughters who were drown in the Peace River. As well as the main, larger cemeteries we had indexed, our file of tiny rural cemeteries was growing larger. It seemed like we were constantly combing the area for burial sites.
Darlene approached the North Peace First Nations Community to see if they had any interest in our ongoing Cemetery Project. We were invited to the Halfway to give them a presentation of what we were all about. The reception committee was small, but attentive. They would pass on the information to the elders and let us know. We were invited back to the Halfway First Nations Cemetery the following year to index, map and photograph their cemetery. Thank you to the members and elders of Halfway for their guidance in recording the burials. Also to Beth Ritchie for taking the day to volunteer with the recording of this cemetery. We have left the mapping of the other aboriginal cemeteries to a time when we are invited to do so. While in the vicinity we explored the Maccabee Cemetery, and visited with Susan Smith at Graham River.
On one of our many visits to the Clayhurst Cemetery we encountered an albino moose and her two calves. We Cemetery Seekers had targeted spring for an end to our burgeoning project, and all too soon 2008 arrived. We began to work at a feverish pace. Another area of research was brought to our attention by Darlene. She had been to the BC Archives in Victoria researching the Journals of Frank W. Beatton, HBC factor at Fort St. John. His daily diary entries contain a factual history of the Old Fort area, and include many of the early burials. The records are safely housed in the Archives, but we feel that a copy should be on site at our Museum as well. Our committee plans to travel to Victoria to photograph these journals, so that a digital copy will be readily available to the residents of Fort St. John. Our motto: Bring Them Home! After our present project is finished we will look for funding. As for the past three years, we’ve been working out of pocket!
In January the Rotary Club approached The Cemetery Seekers to speak to them about “A Grave Subject”, in other words, cemeteries. We declined the slogan, Secrets of the Dead Revealed, but accepted the invitation! We had already selected March 11, 2008 for our windup presentation to the community and we scheduled our address to the Rotarians for March 6. Now we had six weeks to come up with something to present!! We decided to create a Power Point Presentation outlining how we came into being, our purposes, and of course, featuring all the cemeteries we had visited, and documented. This involved a lot of scanning, the creation of several audio and video clips, and of course an appropriate dialogue. The whole thing developed into an entertaining, 35 minute Documentary.
The borrowed projector and screen worked out well. The Rotarians munched on popcorn, and seemed to enjoy their noon hour movie.
Rhyason Oilfield Services donated a welcome $500.00. It was well spent getting ready for our Community Presentation. Barb rented the Senior’s Hall for us, and we spent the next few days burning the midnight oil and going over each cemetery’s spreadsheet and plot-map with a fine tooth comb. After this step was completed to our satisfaction, we bound the individual booklets, and also created a digital copy. They looked very neat and concise, and were as up to date and accurate as possible. A draft copy was made of Fort John Protestant, Woodlawn, and the Hudson Hope Cemeteries. We are still in the process of finishing them. The final step was to create a copy of the entire index. The printer was humming up until 4pm on March 11th, and our presentation was scheduled for 7pm. It was close, but we made it. After a briefing with Sue Popesku, our master of ceremonies, we proceeded to get our equipment set up, and take a few breaths.
People began to trickle in, and the place was abuzz with conversation. It was wonderful to welcome the well represented group of cemetery custodians. Our DVD Documentary was well received, and after some great questions we presented the Cemetery Reps with their books. They were very surprised and I think quite delighted. Several Tree Tracers attended and were recognized for all their work. The press took some photos, refreshments were made available, and that was it. Whew!!
Now the cemetery Seekers are concentrating on getting the three larger cemeteries completed, and preparing a funding presentation to the North Peace Credit Union so that we can travel to Victoria, to photograph the Frank W. Beaton Journals.
The Old Fort
As of April 2008, The Cemetery Seekers have been invited to be representatives for the Old Fort St John Cemetery. This token bit of land has nearly slipped through the cracks, despite efforts to preserve it over the years. It really is an endangered species. Land development in the area has certainly taken its toll. We foresee this small grassy knoll south of the sentenilled Old Fort Hills, being properly fenced in, and commemorated by a suitable monument. This is our goal, and the paperwork is in progress.
We remain, the Cemetery Seekers.
April 21, 2008
Post Script: January 2010
Summary for the past couple of years:
As of today, the 12th of January 2010 we the Cemetery Seekers have completed our burgeoning project. The North Peace Cemetery Index, both digital and hard copies, are now housed in the North Peace Museum. An index will eventually be available on the Museum’s website. This index includes listings and documentation of over 4340 burials. Available also are the Index and scanned pdfs for over 3,400 obituaries. The North Peace Cemetery Index has been sent to the BC Cemetery Finding Aid Website, and will be shared with the BC Genealogy Society. A copy as well, has been presented to the City of Fort St John. To find out more detailed information searchers will have to contact the Museum.
Now to fill in some of the missing blanks from the past two years. October 2008, thanks to a welcome donation from the North Peace Credit Union, we did indeed travel to the Archives in Victoria and were able to photograph the Beatton Journals. We also copied many death certificates. It was a week of intense, but very valuable work. These Journals are now all digitized and available for viewing at the Museum. In another way of sharing them with the public we have been been publishing Journal extractions in the Northeast Newspaper. Last year, the 1909 Beatton entries were featured, and this month we began with January 1910 Journals. We have heard there is a good following for these factual articles.
With this task completed it was back to finalizing all the cemeteries. This was a tedious, painstaking, but rewarding process. While doing this we continued searching for burials in the Old Fort St John Cemetery located at the Old Fort. While in Victoria, we met with Mr. James Pike, Archaeologist, who shared with us invaluable materials from previous Old Fort digs. He was very pleased that we were interested in this historical area. Since then, the Old Fort St John (registered) cemetery has been deemed an official Heritage Site. In a Public meeting held November 2009 a committee of Old Fort Residents, concerned for the preservation of this cemetery, was struck. Many ideas from erecting a monument, creating a green space, to fencing and suitable road access were discussed. We as the Cemetery Seekers are very glad to pass on our findings to this committee, and wish them well. We look forward to the fulfillment of the dream of many residents of the North Peace, that this place where Fort St John began, be at last commemorated. Although we are disbanding as a group, we can be found volunteering at the local Museum, and ever ready to share the information we have gleaned over the past five years with those searching for information on the North Peace Cemeteries.
Barbara Godberson, Darlene Heal, Tamara Secrist, & Judy Hawthorne.
City of Fort St. John Community Award (2011)
Copyright © Fort St. John North Peace Museum 2010