The name Birchtown is often associated with the community just outside of Shelburne that was was the largest settlement of Black Loyalists in North America. But another community named Birchtown, this one in Guysborough County, has a historical society there looking up stories of its past and with a goal of restoring its now grown over cemetery.
Chris Cook is the president of the Guysborough Historical Society, which runs the Old Court House Museum and visitor information in Guysborough. With the work of Steve Wright, and current society members Jennifer Desmond and Shane Sceles, the society is researching the history of the former community that was once located in a remote part of Guysborough County.
Cook said they are in very early days to say what exactly will happen with the site where the group has been discovering gravesites.
“We’re working to bring some attention back to the site and with the historical society we’re going to come up with the plan of what we’d like to see become of it,” Cook said. “Obviously, we want to work with other community partners, what have you. The interest is there from all parties that I can see.”
Cook said there’s very little known about Birchtown, which was located not far from Manchester. Besides the cemetery, there are some old cellars, wells, and foundations in the area. Cook said Birchtown shows up on an 1876 provincial map as a settled “coloured” community. That map shows a number of buildings. The community shows up again in a geological survey map from 1884. Cook said they know by 1890 the community had a Baptist church. And according to 1890-91 census, there were about 90 to 100 people living in the area.
“I can say with pretty good certainty they were all African Nova Scotians,” Cook said. “We can say for certainty the community was there in 1875 and it was probably there a couple decades before that.”
Cook said Birchtown was likely abandoned between 1950 and 1960 as the populations of rural Guysborough County declined.
“Guysborough County has its highest population around 1900,” Cook said. “But that being said, even prior to that, if you did some research from the census, you could notice the outlying areas from the bigger communities was dwindling in size. By 1950, subsistence farming and labour work was becoming greatly declined. I think it was just a matter of an aging, declining population and a lack of work and changing times.”
Cook said the society’s records show there are about 40 burials, including many for children, in the cemetery starting in 1900. The last grave in the cemetery dates from 1950.
“You won’t see anything clearly identifiable as a cemetery at this time,” Cook said. “The bush has grown up around after the trees were harvested 20 years ago. It’s gone through a lot of transformations in its physical status.”
The Halifax Examiner reached out to the Nova Scotia Archives, which found a few references to Birchtown in its records, including that geographical map from 1884. Birchtown is also mentioned in the archives’ 1967 publication Places and Placenames of Nova Scotia. Here’s the entry:
It’s not the first time people in the community rallied to work on the Birchtown cemetery project. Cook said about 15 years ago, Wright, who was working as a teacher in the high school in Guysborough, teamed up Wendy Campbell and the African Canadian Friendship Centre at the school. The group gathered as much information as they could about Birchtown and discussed what to do about acknowledging the cemetery. Then sadly, Campbell passed away and the project was set aside.
Desmond, who is an member of the African Nova Scotia community and an educator in Guysborough, recently got involved and wanted to learn more about Birchtown. Cook said they’re now working to find out who owns the property and what would they like to do with the site.
Cook said Desmond doesn’t want to see the community forgotten about.
“She’s made attempts to take students to Birchtown, Shelburne County to learn about African Nova Scotia Black Loyalist history,” Cook said. “She said to us the other day, ‘Well, we got that right here. We just don’t have much physical evidence about the place.’”
The society has experience restoring cemeteries in the community. A number of years ago, they worked on a project for the Pioneer Cemetery of Christchurch, an Anglican cemetery and the first cemetery in Guysborough after the English settlement of 1784. They identified all the burials in that cemetery and developed information panels, which are on display now.
“We’ve been down this road before, so we’re interested in seeing something come to fruition with this cemetery now,” Cook said.
“We want to do something appropriate. We just have to determine what that will look like. These people were part of our cultural history and part of our community’s history. Regardless of who we are today and who they were then, it doesn’t matter because these folks toiled, lived, prayed, raised families, and nobody, regardless of who they are, should be forgotten. They’re part of our collective community heritage and that’s why [the cemetery] should be preserved.”